How to create an Apple-grade customer experience

Apple prides itself on giving customers a satisfying experience when they enter one of its stores.

Clients can be high maintenance, but it’s all about keeping them coming back for more. For market leaders like Apple, technology has changed customer service so that every phase of a customer’s experience is carefully planned and makes them feel valued.

By Rachael McKinney

This customer service story began outside the Apple store, even before it opened. Customers were lined up, exchanging stories of their tech disasters, as an Apple employee wandered among them discussing the reason for their visit. He tapped an iPad, adding the customers’ names to waiting lists for various troubleshooting points inside and apprised them of the next steps.

Once the doors opened, the customers  walked from one jeans-and-T-shirt clad Apple employee to the next, being directed to the person who could fix their issue. There’s a wait? No problem, they’ll text you, twice – first to let you know you’re up soon, second to let you know you’re up next, so head on over. 

When your turn comes to talk to a staff member, they ooze knowledge and solutions, and you wonder why you ever panicked. Welcome to customer service, 2017 style.

Power to the people

Simply having a useful product is no longer enough. There are hundreds of other companies with that same, useful product. To stay competitive, organisations need to enrich the lives of customers, to provide them with an experience they won’t forget and which they want repeated. That means every interaction on every stage of their journey should promote satisfaction. Reach the delight level, and you’re kicking with the wind.

Dr Alexis Mavrommatis, director of the EADA Centre for Retail Leadership in Barcelona, says the customer experience has become an end-to-end deal breaker.

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“It’s the interaction the brand has with the customer through the different touchpoints on the entire customer journey,” he says. 

That means before they buy, while they’re buying, and once they’ve made the purchase. He adds that organisations which effectively manage the customer journey from end-to-end are the ones creating a great customer experience.

The growth of shopping channels from bricks-and-mortar stores to websites, apps, personalised emails and social media means there are more customer touchpoints, and more customer experiences to manage.

The Uniqlo experience

Enhancing the in-store customer experience is the top focus of Australian retailers, according to the 2016 CommBank Retail Insights Edition 2 report, and training staff is how they plan to achieve that. A leading example they could look to is Japanese clothing company, Uniqlo.

“Uniqlo is a great example of an organisation that invests in people,” says Dr Steve Nuttall, director of research with Sydney-based customer experience consultancy Fifth Quadrant CX. 

“It is ultra-focused on customer service. Everyone is put through an intensive training program; it also invests in the best grads for management training.”

Nuttall says that people and processes are central to how Uniqlo succeeds, and it constantly reinforces its core values. Sales staff are referred to as “advisers” and they gather daily to recite “the behaviours” – a series of customer service mantras that underpin all customer interaction.

These simple phrases make up the Uniqlo behaviours:

  • “Hello, my name is [insert name], how are you today?”
  • “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
  • “Let me know if you need anything. My name is [insert name].”
  • “Thank you for waiting.”
  • “Goodbye, we hope to see you again soon.”
Every staff member must use a minimum of four of these lines – including “Did you find what you were looking for?” twice – or their service is regarded as not up to scratch.

However, Uniqlo’s success is about more than just great customer service, says Nuttall; it has an overarching customer experience strategy it can deploy across all its channels.

“UNIQLO has a sharper, more agile pricing strategy, it really understands how to use loyalty programs, and it’s consistent across all the customer channels for the whole journey,” he says.

Uniqlo also gives its brand a familiar face through global ambassadors such as tennis champion Novak Djokovic, sailor and Young Australian of the Year Jessica Watson, and Japanese paralympian Shingo Kunieda.

Professional Development: Customer-focused interaction: Gain insight into the role of social media and mobile technologies in supporting customer-focused service cultures.

Looking outside the box

A new strategy being used in the banking sector to improve customer service is to look beyond the traditional talent pool when hiring staff. Nuttall says that banks are recognising the benefits of putting staff motivated by service and people into customer-facing roles, so they are increasingly recruiting employees from service-oriented industries such as travel, retail and hospitality. They then teach their new recruits about banking, rather than the other way round.  

National Australia Bank (NAB) chief executive Andrew Thorburn took it one step further when the bank implemented the Net Promoter Score (NPS) – a management tool used to test customer loyalty – into the bonus calculations of the bank’s senior team.

“Banks are also stepping up to the challenge of fintech disruption and seeing it as an opportunity to collaborate,” says Nuttall. 

In 2016, NAB rolled out a series of customer-led innovations hatched in its digital hub, NAB Labs, designed to meet the increasing demand for convenience through technology.

This includes a cloud-based digital solution for small business called NAB Business in One that synchronises data in real time across applications, making it easier to do business in one place.

On the ground, banks have joined the likes of Apple, Telstra retail stores and government service agencies in providing a kiosk and concierge service as soon as you walk in. The kiosk at the bank puts you in the right queue for the right service, and if the screen doesn’t give you the information you need, the concierge is there to help.

Government agencies in Australia such as Medicare and Service NSW now allow you to perform many transactions at computer terminals – no more waiting in (the wrong!) line to renew your car registration, apply for a marriage certificate or pay for a fishing licence.

Up close and personal

The CommBank Retail Insights research shows that a staggering 80 per cent of customers say they spend more in a store when they feel like a valued customer. 

It’s a strategy Apple has mastered. It says its retail experiences are intended to enrich the lives of its customers, not simply sell products. Its stores are designed as town squares, offering a place where the Apple community can gather, learn about the products from Apple store creatives, or visit the Genius Bar for service and repairs.

Simply shopping in store for an Apple product has become a successful branded marketing experience, defined by Dr Teagan Altschwager as an experience that gives customers an opportunity to “interact with the brand and other actors”.

“Apple says its retail experiences are intended to enrich the lives of its customers, not simply sell products.”

“The common thing for these experiences was it brought the brand to life in a way that left a lasting impression,” says Altschwager, a research fellow at Deakin University and specialist in brand experience and customer engagement.

Go into any Apple store worldwide and they’ll treat you like you bought your iPhone or iPad from them directly the day before. Plus, they get the basics right. 

“They command customer loyalty because they have a very good product and a very good transactional experience,” says Mavrommatis.

Loyal customers are long-term customers

CPA Australia’s recent Asia-Pacific Small Business Survey showed that businesses in the growth stage were keen to improve customer satisfaction while more established businesses were concerned about loyalty.

More than 75 per cent of customers are more likely to return to a retail store that offers loyalty programs and customer offers, the CommBank research shows. A similar proportion of retailers say loyalty schemes have increased sales.

UK retail giant Marks and Spencer’s loyalty program, M&S Sparks, launched in October 2015, offers unique customer rewards across all its touchpoints. “For me, it just totally reinvented the concept of a loyalty program,” says Altschwager.

As well as earning points for purchases, you get points for donating old clothes in store, trying on clothes and tagging them on social media, and writing reviews – even unfavourable ones. You can also use points to donate to charity, and there are events you qualify for only if you have a certain number of points.

“These different interactions are just building an amazing brand for Marks and Spencer,” says Altschwager. “People are really jumping on board.” 

The numbers confirm it: in December 2016, the UK retailer reported growth in its clothing business for the first time in two years.

Knowing who and where you are

Designing great customer experiences relies on understanding customer behaviour, and loyalty schemes are just one of the many rich sources of data that can offer those insights.

The average number of channels by which customers interact is growing. Take retail – there are websites, physical stores, social media and email. While less than 25 per cent of businesses use smartphone and tablet apps, it’s the biggest planned area of growth. This multi-channel environment with its loyalty schemes, online shopping and automated point-of-sales systems gives organisations access to a huge amount of customer data.

After just one online shopping transaction with a supermarket, the retailer knows your food preferences, can estimate how many people are in the household, and knows where you live. That data is then used to push deals your way. One bite, and the cycle continues.

“People want to tell you when they are disappointed, but more than that, they want to know they have been heard.” Teagan Altschwager, Deakin University

Some hotel chains do this particularly well. That’s where concierges truly come into their own; the hotel’s database records everything from pillow preference to dietary requirements and how guests like their shoes shined.

CommBank research shows only 25 per cent of Australian retailers cite data and analytics as important for improving the customer experience, which suggests three quarters of local retailers are missing a huge opportunity.

However, organisations do face a tsunami of data that’s knocking them over rather than building them up, observes Nuttall.

“My concern is that we lose the ability to have serendipitous experiences … to experience things by chance,” he says. He points out that services tailored to our unique preferences can exacerbate social differences and limit the opportunity to grow by chance.

Regardless, every great customer experience has a satisfied customer in the lead role, and satisfaction depends as much on avoiding disappointment as it does on creating delight. 

Customer service in the social space

Multiple touchpoints offer more avenues for unhappy customers to vent, and that’s especially true of social media, where a single voice can go viral. How the organisation reacts is crucial.

“We haven’t learned how to use social media as a customer support mechanism,” says researcher Dr Steve Nuttall. By the time customers complain on social media, they may have exhausted all other avenues, and they’re angry. Many brands react strongly and are defensive, he says.

“People want to tell you when they are disappointed,” says Dr Teagan Altschwager, “but more than that, they want to know they have been heard.”

Finding the right tone on social media can be tricky, but when it works, it really works. Leila Jane Daly posted a glum-faced picture of herself on Facebook holding a Sainsbury’s lettuce in which she found a wriggling worm and wrote a witty report on the ramifications of her discovery.

She said it traumatised her children, made her fat (she ate a burger instead), and she’d developed a fondness for the worm, which she decided to keep as a pet to keep her company while watching movies. 

The social media team at the UK supermarket chain  cleverly played along, sympathising with Daly and her attachment to the worm.

They gave Daly a Sainsbury’s gift card and sent a Netflix gift card for the worm. Sainsbury’s turned a complaint into a great customer experience and got a ton of great publicity.

The online Australian mattress company, Koala Mattresses, is another good example of a business that is transparent about feedback, whether it be good or bad, says Altschwager. 

It acknowledges the complaint, is not overly defensive, and remedies the problem at its own expense.

Since Koala Mattress doesn’t have showrooms, it realises it’s important that customers are confident they can return purchases with the minimum of fuss.

Read next: The Philippines pulls rank in the customer service industry


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