how to avoid the customer experience gap

How to avoid the customer experience gap

Are your customers actually happy?

Do your products or services match what they were expecting when they purchased or signed up?

It’s very possible you’re engaging in a customer feedback loop of NPS surveys and other success markers — but does that truly tell you if they’re pleased enough to make a repeat purchase or continue their subscription for years to come?

Maybe. But also maybe not. This is where we find customer experience gaps.

The customer experience is not a series of perfectly measured touchpoints. It’s a fluid relationship and one that can go south over time or because of just one bad interaction. 

And if you’re only measuring success at touchpoints YOU deem important, you’re likely leaving gaps in the experience. These gaps can be centered around expectations, assumptions or communication — both internally and externally.

Every time a customer has a less-than-stellar experience with your brand, you’re pushing them closer to being unhappy. So, while they may report a high level of satisfaction within 10 days of purchase, what happens when they talk to their friend about your product 17 days later? 

Let’s explore what happens when a brand pays attention to the entire customer-centric journey and doesn’t consolidate focus and effort only around key touchpoints.

What is a customer experience strategy?

A CX strategy defines how your business uses various channels to create a compelling experience for customers throughout the sales funnel. The funnel includes each interaction from first discovering your brand to making a purchase and beyond. 

In a strong experience strategy, you’ll consider elements such as key messaging, conversion rates and communication channels like chat and email. The ideal state for an organization focusing on the customer experience is being able to easily monitor segments of the journey, make adjustments and deploy new ideas without too much hassle.

What is a customer experience gap?

The customer experience gap is the difference between a customer’s expectations and what your business actually delivers. This can exist for many reasons, including a lack of pre-purchase education, inconsistent customer service or poor internal company communication resulting in a disconnected experience.

When this happens, potential customers may become confused or upset, and can oftentimes cause someone to purchase from a competitor instead. 

The key CX fallacy to avoid

“If customers are happy when we ask them if they’re happy — then they’re always happy.”

While we like to focus on a set of measurable key touchpoints throughout the customer journey, the reality is more of an ongoing experience happening between those times. This fluid, ongoing relationship is where businesses often miss the mark and where experience gaps tend to arise. 

And just because your NPS scores and other customer success metrics are high, doesn’t mean there aren’t areas for improvement. Here are a few different gap types you may find in your own business.

Different types of customer experience gaps

GAP storefront

Photo by lan Deng on Unsplash

What we describe below are common experience gaps that can arise and how you may be able to solve for them. Use these to evaluate the customer experience you deliver.

Where are your blind spots and where might you need to get more in tune with the customer? What’s causing the gaps and which are in your control as a brand?

The expectation gap (customer perceptions)

Many issues in the customer experience arise due to misaligned expectations. On the customer’s side of things, they’re bringing with them a lifetime of experiences, a specific need and any previous communication they’ve received about your product (friends, co-workers, review sites). 

how customers develop their expectations

The difficult part of this gap is that every single customer will have different past experiences, leading to different current expectations. These expectations include everything from the amount of education and support they expect to the quality and warranty behind your products. 

To solve such a problem, businesses must have a fluid, ongoing voice of the customer program in place. 

In short, this would involve regular surveying, polling and one-to-one chatting with existing and former customers. The latter should be included where you can, though this sometimes proves to be very difficult due to the time required. 

The “telephone game” gap (internal communications)

While your customer service or sales teams might be the ones interacting with customers, everything else that happens behind the scenes is what determines the words they use, the policies they depend on and, most importantly, the product or service they’re trying to sell.

In the classic childhood game “telephone”, a short message is relayed through a group of friends, with the final person in the chain trying to guess the original message. Undoubtedly, the message changes when put into different words over time — which is exactly what happens in a corporate setting. 

customer feedback going through internal communication channels

The leadership team’s vision is presented to departmental leaders, who act with their own interests and their team’s interests in mind to create new policies. Then, they share these plans with the team who goes to take action in their area based on their understanding of the new position. Then their work is shared with people from other departments who also got a message from their own department leader.

Without a well-organized line of communication, we end up with corporate chaos.

Even smaller organizations can experience this internal gap without standards and processes in place. And when we get corporate chaos, the customer feels it. They hear inconsistent messaging from the sales team, their product specs are different than the original order or the promised response times don’t hold up. 

More on fixing this gap in a bit. 

The leadership knowledge gap (holes in the feedback loop)

The person furthest from the customer in a company is usually whoever sits at the top. With several layers of customer service, sales, marketing, technology and financial employees between them and a customer, it’s imperative that top leaders avoid making uninformed assumptions about the reality of the situation.

As a leader, it’s easy to feel like you’re supposed to have all the answers. A more responsible approach, though, is to be consistently investigating and learning more about your customers. To do this, many leadership teams will have regular reports provided by a CX team or will request answers to shared questions from managers of different departments.

While top leaders don’t need to know every time someone adds an item to their shopping cart on a landing page, being plugged-in to the customer’s thoughts and ever-changing needs is crucial.

How to fix customer experience gaps

Female startup employees in meeting

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

We’re sorry to announce that there is no magic bullet to fix customer experience gaps. But that’s okay because you’re never truly “fixing” something in the experience.

When we accept that everything in a customer journey is fluid, we start to see the need for ongoing monitoring and optimization. 

If you’re fortunate enough to have a full-time employee dedicated to developing a great customer experience strategy, this is their role. If not, take note of the practices listed below and think about who on your team may be able to take on this work — and how you’d prioritize this against other current efforts in acquisition and retention.

Customer research

This research can be as simple as running a quarterly poll on your website or as complicated as in-person focus groups and beyond. No matter the research vehicle, the goal is to better understand your customers’ needs throughout the entire conversion funnel to gauge their true level of satisfaction and need for your product. 

Offering a post-purchase survey or a quick poll after a customer service call is a great start. Don’t forget the fallacy mentioned above. Regular, ongoing surveying of customers at various intervals will give a truer level of feedback than a once-per-year questionnaire.

The best path to spotting and fixing customer experience gaps with research is a meta-analysis of all data collected. Aim to judge the cumulative experience over time and over all your marketing campaigns. This is the true feedback a customer is giving you. This is likely a combination of metrics, both subjective and objective.

And because it’s a cumulative experience, this means more than one functional area of your business is likely to have worked with the customer. So, what happens to the knowledge gained from this research? Does it sit inside a survey tool only to be looked at by a customer service manager once a year? 

This is where internal communication comes into focus.

Internal communication

Inside a company, various functional areas come together to create a consistent and compelling customer-facing experience. Oftentimes, there is a disconnect between these teams (and their motivations and guidance from leadership). 

Regularly sharing research results and meaningful one-off feedback (like that provided through social media messages) can be a great way to bring teams together in a united understanding of the customer. Celebrate a product update and include an overview of its benefit for the customer. Regularly re-visit the scripting used by sales and customer service to account for consumer behavior changes. 

More than anything, be intentional about how information flows. Setting up a standing presentation of insights and updates is a good way to cross departmental boundaries. Welcome questions and feedback from the employees interacting with customers and create a culture that celebrates a high level of customer loyalty.

As is with many things, some employees will care more than others about this sort of exercise. It’s key to help people understand how this information benefits them and their ability to do their job.

Education

Content created with the right context in mind and delivered through a channel where your audience spends time can be extremely powerful. Much has been written about content marketing as an educational tool, so we’ll keep it to this — always consider the intent of the person consuming your content.

This means creating content specifically for the different parts of the funnel and with different mediums involved to speak to different learning processes.

One area where smaller businesses can keep up with major players is email. Investing in a set of automated email drips (we use Pardot’s Engagement Studio for this) helps you stay in contact with all segments of your customers over time. Use email to mostly educate and occasionally cross-sell. Respect the customer’s inbox or they’ll unsubscribe very quickly.

Conclusion

Some gaps are more in your control than others. Sometimes culture shifts so rapidly that your product might require a substantial update to fix a gap. In instances where that may be impossible, spend extra time on education and removing barriers to purchase in the short-term.

The model that inspired this post, provided in 1990’s Delivering Quality Service: Balancing Customer Perceptions and Expectations, still rings true in today’s quickly-changing consumer environment. No matter if you’re in the e-commerce world or operate a brick-and-mortar service, closing customer experience gaps can pay massive dividends. 


Cover photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

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