Understanding the Customer Experience

17 August 2006

In the last issue of AdventureTravelNews™, we discussed the corporate imperative for companies – in travel & tourism as well as in other industries – to adopt a customer-centric marketing approach in order to stay relevant and competitive.

This article tackles the equally critical, yet often misunderstood, concept of the customer ‘experience’ and how it is increasingly shaping the face of travel & tourism marketing.

Marketing Evolution

Once upon a time, when the world of travel was a simpler place, the notion of ‘customer experience’ was generally summed up by friends and family asking, “So, how was your trip?” The destination was the experience.

Times have changed and today’s landscape is very different: consumer demand for travel services is increasingly varied and complex; travel distribution is going through significant evolution; there are more providers of travel products and sources of real-time information than ever before; and profit margins continue to be razor thin in many areas of the industry.

In addition to industry-specific changes, new technology, communication channels and media proliferation have all contributed to an increasingly informed and demanding set of consumers. They no longer see their travel experience as being simply the destination, but the collective series of interactions that they have with a travel organization on an ongoing basis. The ‘experience’ has evolved from a point-in-time, one-way transaction to – ideally - an ongoing engagement that begins long before the actual travel starts and extends into perpetuity.

For travel and hospitality service providers, the bottom line is that consumers now expect a direct, relevant relationship, and more importantly, expect their overall experience to be managed to their high expectation levels. Yet the reality is that a chasm continues to exist between consumers’ expectations of what their customer experience should be and travel organizations’ ability to understand these expectations and deliver on them accordingly.

Good News & Bad News

The good news is that the concept of customer experience is no longer foreign to most marketers within the industry. Customer experience has now joined other buzz words like ‘customer engagement’ and ‘relationship management’ in the marketing lexicon, showing up in corporate objectives and marketing plans everywhere. There is also some recognition that the consumers’ travel experience is more complex and comprehensive than it may have been in the past.

The bad news is that relatively few organizations have defined the end-to-end travel experience from the consumers’ perspective, and taken action accordingly. Rather than taking a consumer-centric approach, most organizations continue to take the path of least resistance – that is, the traditional top-down, ‘we know what the customer wants’ strategy.

The disconnect between consumer expectations and suppliers’ actions inevitably has negative repercussions when it comes to managing the experience further down the line. Common examples include messaging or content that is not relevant or of value, timing of communications that is off or intrusive, marketing channels being used to deliver the message are not what the consumer wants, and so on.

This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of marketing inefficiency: consumers, feeling that their needs and expectations are not being met, remain skeptical, inattentive and transitory; and travel organizations, failing to recognize that the experience they are providing is not optimized, continue to use their marketing funds inefficiently and are unable to truly capitalize on critical points of interaction and influence.

Defining The Right Experience

Ask your customer and they will tell you that their travel experience does not start when they arrive at their destination nor end once they leave. The experience begins the moment they are first exposed in any meaningful way to your product or service. As for when it stops, ideally it never should – once they are a customer, your objective should be to provide sufficient value on an ongoing basis that they remain a customer for life (or an evangelist to bring you other customers). Thus, their overall experience is a series of interactions that create engagement, built upon data and insight, earned trust, and an exchange of value.

In as much as every interaction offers the opportunity to increase a consumer’s engagement with an organization, it also represents an opportunity for the consumer to lose faith in the organization’s ability to deliver the right experience. How does a marketer avoid this situation? The answer is to approach marketing as a relationship-building exercise, the binding thread being an ongoing, two-way, value-based conversation.

The Learning Dialogue

As in any relationship, the measure of relationship success between a consumer and a marketing organization is the degree to which each party’s needs is satisfied. If the beneficiary of value is skewed in favor of the organization (as has traditionally been the case in marketing), the consumer typically feels that their needs, wants, and expectations are not met (or at the very least, secondary) and a healthy, long-term relationship is unlikely.

Similarly, if the consumer is reaping a disproportionate amount of value from the relationship, the marketing organization’s business needs are likely not being met and therefore a longer-term relationship is likely not economically viable.

What marketers must strive for is an interactive and mutual value exchange with consumers. By creating a value-based conversation that grows organically over time, each party gets what they need and the foundation is developed for a profitable lifetime relationship.

Achieving this need not be a costly exercise and can be facilitated by answering the following questions:

  • Do we know every point of possible interaction between the consumer and my company? Have we mapped this out along a continuum?
  • Have we assessed our company’s performance to-date for each of these interactions? How does our company perform relative to competitors?
  • Is our company providing an integrated, evolving experience that is providing mutual value to us and our customers?
  • Looking at each interaction point, do we have a clear understanding of why this is of importance to the consumer? Why is this interaction point important to our company?
  • What does the consumer ideally want and expect from this interaction? (note: this should be answered by the consumer, not the marketer assuming that they know what the consumer wants)
  • What can our company reasonably hope to gain from this interaction that will help achieve our marketing/business objectives, help us improve the customer relationship, and deliver on their expectations?
  • Are there any critical points of interaction or ‘moments of truth’ that we are not currently addressing?
  • How can we consistently get our customers input and feedback to gauge our relevance and success in meeting their expectations?
Summary While the concept of customer experience continues to be a moving target within the travel industry, organizations can and must make strides to harness its significance. This process can only begin by actively seeking to understand and define the overall experience through a consumer lens, and then mapping the organization’s business requirements to that experience. More relevant and effective communications – and a more engaged customer – will likely result.

Next Month: Understanding the Customer Experience (Part III)

Knowing when, where and why to engage customers in order to optimize their travel experience is half the battle. Equally important is knowing what to provide them that will keep the relationship and dialogue relevant for the long term, as well as how to do this effectively and efficiently. Relevant industry examples will highlight how a mutual exchange of value can create sustainable, profitable customer relationships.

Evan Wood is the founder and President of JumpWood Marketing Consulting, a professional services agency that develops sustainable, consumer-driven communication programs for organizations in the travel & tourism industry. JumpWood delivers superior customer experiences, builds and strengthens relationships, and provides clients with a better return on their marketing investments. For more information and to subscribe to the complimentary JumpWood Report, visit www.jumpwood.com or send Evan an email [email protected].