A great customer experience is superior customer service; the experience is the service.
A service firm’s key step toward managing the total customer experience is recognising service clues. Service clues can include the service itself, the layout of the service environment (servicescape), and the appearance of the service employees. Organisations that orchestrate the sum total of all the service clues can create an optimal experience for their customers. Customers frequently behave like detectives in the way they process the “clues” embedded in the customer experience when deciding on their evaluation of the service. The more important, high-touch, and personalised the service is, the more detective work customers are likely to do as they sense service clues.
Three Types of Service Clues
By customer experience, we mean the “takeaway” impression formed by customer’s encounters with the service i.e. perceptions formed when customers consolidate sensory information. Customers constantly filter a barrage of clues, organising them into a set of rational and emotional impressions. Collectively, they become an experience. Customers form perceptions based on the performance of the service (functional clues), the tangibles associated with the service (mechanic clues), and the appearance and behaviour of service employees (humanic clues).
Experience clues termed as functional clues may be either performance or context-based. Functional clues relate to the function of the product or service e.g. the bank did or did not dispense the right amount of cash or the hotel did or did not honour the room reservation. Yet, over and above the performance of the service, functional clues are telegraphed by the appearance of the ATM, legibility of the print on the receipt, the décor at the branch, cleanliness, the demeanor of the service staff, and by a host of other signals. Unmanaged, these clues may cancel each other out and leave no net positive impression on the customer, or worse, induce a strong net negative perception.
There are two types of context clues. “Mechanic Clues” are the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and textures gene-rated by things. For example: facility design, graphics, scents, and music. Take for instance, everything on a restaurant table potentially communicates a clue to customers, including the layout of the menu; pictures of the food items; the table covering and its texture used; the cleanliness of the table; and the presentation of the food. Specific clues carry messages. The clues and messages converge to create the customer’s total service experience.
Humanic clues are engineered by defining and choreographing the desired behaviour of employees involved in the customer encounter. The service staff’s attire, demeanor, and language, as well as how they position themselves, are experience clues. Humanic clues determine the interpersonal relationships in a customer experience i.e. how service employees make their potential and regular customers feel. Empowering service personnel to deal with customer problems “on the spot” is unlikely to have consistent success unless employees are selected for, and trained in the service micro-skills needed to sense customer reactions to service encounter clues and respond appropriately.
Humanic clues are most effective when they are integrated with mechanic clues. For example, in a retail space, the payment experience will have a higher positive impact on the perceptions of departing customers when the service employee looks them in the eye. Some hotels make it a practice to sculpt a copy of their logo in the sand when they clean their floor standing ash trays. This simple mechanics clue accomplishes two things. First, it allows management to monitor the activities of hourly employees, ensuring that they take care of important details and leave behind tangible evidence that they have done so. The logo in the sand also communicates to guests that the company takes pride in paying attention to detail, that management is dedicated to keeping the property clean.
Orchestrating Customer Experience with Service Clues
Clues tell a service story in the most powerful of ways. It is strategic to tell a consistent, cohesive, and compelling story than an inconsistent, disjointed, and uninteresting one. Successful organisations noted for excellent service, such as Mayo Clinic, The Ritz-Carlton, Singapore Airlines, Federal Express, and Starbucks tell their stories through purposeful and systematic clue management. Engineering an experience begins with the deliberate setting of a targeted customer perception and results in the successful registration of that perception in the customer’s mind. Systematically designing and orchestrating the signals generated by products, services, and the environment is the means to that end. Several paths can lead to customer preference, namely through functional, mechanic, and humanic clues management.
McDonald’s founder Mr Ray Kroc has successfully institutionalised his personal dedication to providing customers a uniform dining experience in a spotlessly clean environment. Mr Kroc’s view that McDonald’s was in the business of selling experiences, not hamburgers, led him to orchestrate the specific experience he wanted his customers to have. He made the kitchen visible to customers to show off its cleanliness and positioned french fries, beverages, and hamburger stations to choreograph employee movement and suggest speed i.e. “fast” food. This design was replicated in every one of his restaurants, in effect, mass-producing the McDonald’s experience.
The late Mr Walt Disney is an exemplar of a visionary with exceptional perceptiveness who consciously embedded clues in his cartoons and theme parks to create the unique Disney experience. The estimated wait times posted at each attraction set expectation levels that are regularly improved upon in actuality. Trash containers are always in view, sending a message that littering is not okay here. These are small samples of the tens of thousands of service experience clues carefully planted in the Walt Disney theme parks.
Mr Kroc and Mr Disney created and managed service clues to engineer what their customers expect from, and feel about, their companies. Service clue management promises to become a new frontier in services marketing. Functional, mechanic, and humanic clues play specific roles in creating the customer’s service experience, influencing both rational and emotional perceptions of service quality. If systematically crafted into a positive net impression, the service clues promote customer preference, which the service firm can leverage to differentiate otherwise commodity-like products and services. A great customer experience is superior customer service; the experience is the service.
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