In today’s competitive small business landscape, it’s more important than ever before to stand out from the crowd. One way to do this is to improve your customer experience and surpass your customers’ initial expectations.
It goes without saying that customers have a choice of who they do business with. By providing an exceptional experience, your business can become their first choice.
Remember that 86% of buyers are willing to pay more for a great customer experience.
Companies that make customer experience a priority can expect to attract and retain more long-term customers. As we know, retaining existing customers is always more cost-effective than attracting new ones––it costs 5 times as much to attract a new customer than to keep a new one.
Plus having a strong base of satisfied customers means you’ll be more likely to receive word-of-mouth recommendations or positive online reviews.
In this article, we’ll explore how expectations surrounding customer experience have changed as a result of the pandemic and what your business can do to surpass customer expectations.
What is customer experience?
Customer experience (CX) is your customers’ perspective on their interactions and experiences with your business throughout the whole customer journey from the first contact to becoming a loyal and regular customer.
Customer experience is vital for building a solid base of loyal satisfied customers.
How do we define the customer experience in 2021?
2020 was a defining year for local businesses. Managers and owners have had to rapidly adapt to new health and safety protocols along with constantly changing government advice.
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, customer experience is increasingly important as businesses must adjust to the new normal and different customer needs.
Not only do customers need to have their commercial needs met, but they need businesses to keep them safe too. Businesses must now prioritize hygiene measures above all else.
These changes in expectations surrounding hygiene and safety protocols have also been reflected by 3rd-party review sites like Google and Yelp who are using COVID-related attributes to evaluate the customer experience.
For this restaurant, Yelp shares key information that helps customers decide between businesses:
Based on information from the business or other Yelp users, Yelp also assesses how well the business is adhering to health and safety measures:
Google also has created a new set of “health and safety” attributes. These attributes help assure potential customers that the right protocols are in place:
Given the pandemic-related restrictions on social interactions, customers may now also rely more on small businesses for providing a sense of community.
Any sticking points in the customer’s journey can lead to them doing business elsewhere with competitors. For instance, if customers feel that a shop isn’t taking enough hygiene measures they’re likely to go to a competitor that is following protocol.
Equally, if purchases or services are non-essential, customers may simply decide not to make the purchase or venture into stores.
As a result of the pandemic, 37% of consumers say that they now prefer to satisfy their core needs while staying indoors.
Customers need to be assured of an exceptional experience before they choose a business.
What are some typical customer experience expectations?
Customers ultimately want to feel valued by businesses. Businesses make customers feel valued by providing experiences that consistently surpass expectations.
On a basic level, customers want to feel that their choice to purchase a product or service matters to the business. Customers don’t want to feel like a number in a system or that the business in question doesn’t care about their experience or satisfaction.
In fact, 71% of customers say if they perceive a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever. Of course, consumer trust is a vital component of ensuring customers don’t go to a competitor.
How has the pandemic changed our expectations?
COVID-19 has impacted all areas of life. As a result of the pandemic, customers’ priorities and expectations have shifted.
There’s a need for local businesses to address these changes and ultimately build consumer confidence as they re-open businesses or change their offerings.
Instead of in-person communication, many customers have needed local businesses to adapt to remote forms of communication.
Here are some ideas for how you could remotely engage with customers:
- Healthcare business – Clients may not want to spend time in waiting rooms or other communal spaces so try offering convenient telemedicine calls.
- Lawyers – Working away from the office gives lawyers the opportunity to offer consultations over Zoom.
- Real estate – Realtors who may not be able to do in-person home showings could set up virtual touring experiences that are either live or recorded.
- Therapists – Therapy that takes place over video calls is more accessible and convenient for those shielding at home.
- Gyms – Despite being stuck at home, regular gym goers may be keen to keep fit. Fitness providers could provide virtual fitness or yoga sessions that are either personal or group-based.
For healthcare businesses, this could mean convenient telemedicine calls. Lawyers who aren’t working in physical offices may have been offering consultations over Zoom.
New government-advised hygiene protocols have shifted the way local businesses operate. Customers may need additional safety measures to feel comfortable in local businesses.
Most customers will expect contactless operations when it comes to making payments. Given the risk of virus transmission, physical cash may feel unsafe to some customers who want to minimize their risk of catching the disease.
Customers may also expect to see additional safety measures like:
- One way routes around shops
- Reduced indoor capacity and more outdoor seating
- Regular disinfection of touch screens and other communal technology
Take a look at how Sweetgreen salad bar has created a graphic to show customers how their stores are prepared to handle social distancing measures:
The pandemic has highlighted a need for more convenient options for customers shielding at home.
Grocery stores and restaurants that have implemented or continued to offer convenient home delivery services are one example of how to make customers’ lives easier during the pandemic:
Customers who are no longer able to go to their favorite gym class or art workshop may appreciate the convenience of virtual experiences from the comfort of their own home.
Being surprised or delighted
In challenging moments, businesses can brighten a customer’s day with a thoughtful surprise. A well-chosen surprise will bring a smile to your customers’ faces and help them remember your business as one that puts its customers first.
If your business has had to close or is experiencing a drop in footfall as a result of the pandemic, you could give regular customers vouchers for when some normality resumes.
For instance, gym branches could offer their clients a 1-month free pass or discounts for their favorite classes:
The pandemic has challenged many people financially. To encourage people to continue doing business with you, consider lightening your customers’ load by offering generous payment plans.
You could give people more time to pay for products or services. For example, you could send customers a quick message mentioning that you understand that times are tough and that you’re happy to delay the payment by a certain amount of days or months.
What is the bare minimum for customer experience?
Businesses who want to rise above competition should strive for the best possible customer experience––otherwise, it’s too easy for customers to choose other brands.
After having a positive experience with a brand, 77% of customers would recommend it to a friend. Pursuing sky-high customer experience standards is ultimately worth it as customers will remember and recommend outstanding experiences.
Bare minimum customer experiences are those where you provide customers with just enough service to meet their expectations. This could mean providing customer service that answers surface-level questions and is friendly enough not to be rude.
Above and beyond customer experience is the category you should aim for. This is where you over-deliver on customer expectations.
Here are some examples of what average and exceptional customer experience could look like in different industries:
Average customer experience – Regular estate-agents will help both buyers and sellers achieve their respective aims. However, once the deal ends, their efforts may stop too.
Exceptional customer experience – Buyers looking to relocate during the pandemic may require extra support due to travel restrictions. Real-estate agents could set themselves apart by touring houses on their behalf, doing facetime videos of different neighborhoods, and providing as many details as possible for the buyer to assess what it’s like to see, hear, and live in the location.
Take a look at how realtor Dylan Lennon went the extra mile to help a client relocating:
Average customer experience -A bare-minimum beauty salon will offer satisfactory beauty treatments but not much else. They won’t really engage with clients or go the extra mile.
Exceptional customer experience – Personalize each client’s experience by asking about their beauty routines and then engaging with them by offering solutions. For instance, you could recommend quick beauty regimes to clients who are short on time in the morning. Indulge your customers by providing a beverage menu for them to enjoy while waiting or undergoing treatment.
Average customer experience – Bare-minimum law firms may not take the time to personally engage with each inquiry. For example, a client may only ever talk to a receptionist about their case as opposed to the lawyer they’re enquiring about. Average law firms may not prioritize phoning clients back within 24 hours of a call.
Exceptional customer experience – Law firms that prioritize empathy and emotional intelligence will automatically stand out from the competition. Lawyers may see people in the most challenging moments of their lives––when they’re going through divorce, bankruptcy, or illness.
Touching base with clients and providing a professional level of empathy is a great way to help clients feel valued.
Lawyers should also take the time to walk clients through their policies and practices. Many people may feel overwhelmed by legal terminology and practices that seem simple to them.
Lawyers may need to adapt to video conferencing to provide these client services:
5 unique ways to exceed customer experience expectations (with examples)
CX expert Jay Baer speaks about providing such a positive CX experience that customers recommend your business via word of mouth. These unique and thoughtful customer experiences are described as “talk triggers.”
Simply put, these exceptional experiences are about delighting customers and encouraging customers to become loyal promoters of your business. Not only returning time and time again to your business but sharing their positive experience with others.
Prioritize customer service
Customers remember their interactions with team members and the level of service they receive. Their face-to-face interactions with staff can make or break their experience.
A positive interaction will encourage that customer to return while a negative experience will send them straight to a competitor.
Trader Joe’s, the grocery store franchise is a great example of a business that’s known for prioritizing both employees and customers. By keeping their team members happy they’re also able to boost their customers’ experience and perception of the brand.
They’re known to go above and beyond to listen and act on customer preferences. When customers complained that the store used too much plastic packaging, Trader Joe’s announced they would start packaging items in more eco-friendly packaging and stop using single-use plastic bags.
Stores have also changed their products and opening hours based on customer preferences.
Their team is known for being upbeat and for creating a positive atmosphere in each store:
Create customer-centric policies and give customers what they want
Putting your customers front and center of your brand means understanding what they want and taking action to ensure your business can better meet their needs.
Sweetgreen salad bar makes customers’ lives easier by allowing them to order on the go and pick up their orders later in-store. They also provide biodegradable packaging for environmentally conscious customers.
Their cashless branches mean staff have more time to interact with customers:
Empower your team to be empathetic
Give your staff regular training sessions to improve their customer service skillset. Take time to educate your customers about your business’s products, services, and target market.
You could also consider setting up an incentive and reward system to motivate employees to provide top-level customer service.
All customer-facing communication and interactions need to be consistent with your brand voice that runs through your business.
Restaurant franchise business Cracker Barrel is an example of a business that nails empathetic and personalized customer service.
You need only need to take a quick look at their online reviews to notice that customers commonly call out kind staff members:
It’s clear that service staff in Cracker Barrel treat customers like family members or friends, taking the time to catch up with them. This helps create a homely atmosphere that their target audience of families feels comfortable in.
Gather feedback on the customer service in each of your franchise locations.
Trust your employees to be generous with customers and create a culture of giving.
Let team members take the reins and give to customers generously. One simple idea for local cafes could be offering free coffees to regular customers.
This should be separate from any loyalty programs you have in place and be simply a kind gesture to your loyal customers who choose your business.
You may just brighten a customer’s day and encourage them to recommend your business to a friend or family member. Remember word of mouth recommendations are always the most powerful.
Doubletree Hotels have the great idea of offering warm cookies to guests at check-in. Whether guests have experienced a long journey or finished a full day of work it’s a great way of welcoming new arrivals.
Personalize the experience
Customers love personalized experiences since it makes them feel special and appreciated.
Personalized customer experiences are also more memorable. Customers are far more likely to remember your business if they can relate it back to a stand-out memory.
When you can, go the extra mile and make each interaction all about the customer’s individual needs.
Small business, footwear store Hu’s Shoes in D.C. is an excellent example of a dedicated employee going above and beyond to help a loyal customer.
One regular customer usually visits the footwear store every Mother’s Day to choose a pair of shoes for his mother. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was unable to do so in 2020.
Following an email to the team, the co-owner Eric didn’t miss a beat and offered to personally go in and pick out a selection of shoes the customer’s mother may like and drive them to the family home
This thoughtful gesture is an example of a business thinking about a customer’s unique needs and going above and beyond to help them.
What to consider before making CX enhancements
Before you dive into a business-wide customer experience overhaul, take a step back to consider a couple of common fallbacks?
Avoid giving into trends
Focus on what your regular customers want and not what every other business is doing. CX trends can be little more than a brief fad and ultimately confuse customers about your offering.
For instance, if your small business is all about offering personalized customer service to a small base of customers, there wouldn’t be much point in implementing chatbots across your website.
Make time to test out new strategies slowly
Avoid implementing all your new customer experience strategies all at once. Instead, implement them slowly, testing one or two strategies at a time.
Give customers a chance to adjust and then evaluate whether they like your new changes by asking for feedback.
Changes should be consistent across the board
Franchise businesses need to consider how they will enhance CX in all their locations and not just one of them.
For instance, if you decide to offer free coffees to customers in one of your cafes you need to do the same in all of your cafes.
Customers need to know that they’ll receive the same great experience at all of your branches.
How to evaluate customer experience
Monitoring the success of your customer experience strategies is key to understanding customers’ expectations and how to exceed them.
To evaluate your business’s customer experience, you should set up a system where you can consistently track and manage customer feedback and online reviews.
This could include:
- Conducting customer surveys -Simple online and offline surveys help you understand customer perceptions.
- Measuring your CSAT score – Find out how satisfied customers are immediately after purchase.
- Identifying your customer churn rate – The percentage of customers who cancel a subscription or stop making regular purchases at your business.
- Calculating your CSET score – How much effort a customer must put in to reach their goals.
- Calculating your NPS score – Understand how likely customers are to recommend your business to friends or family.
But, your first port of call should be to regularly check-in with customers face-to-face (pandemic permitting) on your business’s premises.
See if your new systems are improving customers’ perceptions of your brand and helping them achieve their goals.
You could also try using some reputation management software like GatherUp to help you more accurately monitor and assess customer satisfaction with your CX.
Within GatherUp, you can:
- Quickly identify areas for improvement.
- Request customer feedback and review.
- Create detailed reports.
Take a look at this Reviews Report that helps you see all your customer reviews in one place:
Enhance your CX and make your business memorable
Making customer experience a number 1 priority for your business will ensure it remains a talking point for all the right reasons.
Think about how you could make a few simple changes and delight your customer base.
Take the time to implement a customer experience strategy that enables you to make impactful changes gradually.
Ready to take your customer experience to the next level? Use our reputation management tools to help you evaluate what requires improvement and which experiences customers prefer.