Thanks in large part to the internet, we've reached a turning point in human history.
The constant connectedness. The steadfast march of technology. The "know everything" environment. It's all changing the way you, me, and your customer construct our perception of a brand.
In some cases, our perception is influenced by word of mouth -- recommendations from friends, online reviews, tweets, and Facebook rants. In other cases, it's our own experiences -- both online and off -- that shape the way we think about a brand.
If you're in a customer success role, you have a say in the conversation surrounding your product or service. You have the ability to shift these discussions and assessments to work for you, not against you. Because at the end of the day, positive customer perception, while highly subjective, is largely influenced by the quality of service you deliver.
What Is Customer Perception?
Before we go any further, let's start with a straightforward explanation ...
Customer perception refers to an individual's opinion or view of your business by evaluating their experience with your company -- from your offerings, to your branding, to your service.
Why Customer Perception Matters
According to a report by Walker Information, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by 2020. In other words, we're not far from a world where your customers' perception of both your brand and quality of service could take precedence over traditional competitive advantages like pricing, features, or usability.
And if you're not currently investing in improving your customers' experience and perception, you're at risk of falling behind. Many businesses are already taking stock of their support and services efforts, with 50% of survey customer-care leaders rating investing in new technologies as one of their top priorities over the next five years, according to McKinsey.
5 Ways to Improve Customer Perception
1) Look inward.
Are you putting process over people?
One of the biggest obstacles businesses often have to overcome on their way to improved customer perception is themselves and their approach to customer success. While it's valuable to have direction, too much process and protocol can get in the way of real, human interactions.
To ensure your business isn't getting in its own way, take the time to evaluate your existing approach. Ask yourself:
Are you being proactive or reactive in your communications with customers?
Are you getting to them before a problem arises, or scrambling to collect all the necessary information you need as the problem escalates?
2) Strike an emotional chord with your customers.
"Our research across hundreds of brands in dozens of categories shows that the most effective way to maximize customer value is to move beyond mere customer satisfaction and connect with customers at an emotional level -- tapping into their fundamental motivations and fulfilling their deep, often unspoken emotional needs," explains Alan Zorfas and Daniel Leemon.
Think about it: Actions and words carry a lot of weight with customers. To build strong bonds and promote a positive experience, you must actively demonstrate a long-term interest and commitment to the relationship through every touch point.
This task requires you to dig beyond the surface and actively listen to a customer's needs and goals, while also tuning in to the details they are leaving out.
This "process of extraction" forces you to listen with intent, while also granting the customer permission to speak openly and freely about their concerns, issues, or complaints. The more they reveal, the more opportunity you have to tap into their motivations and intentions to effectively guide them towards the desired outcome in a human and empathic way.
3) Lean on positive language.
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher on the study of positivity, suggests that positive emotions have the power to open us. In other words, these feelings allow us to see more -- they change our perspective and our understanding of possibilities.
Trouble is, people are often hesitant to introduce these types of positive emotions in the business world, operating under the notion that it's not appropriate or should be minimized. However, according to University of Haifa Professor Dana Yagil's research, suppressing interpersonal emotions of employees for customers could lead to a decline in customer satisfaction.
“People providing services in the capacity of their work with daily interactions with customers sometimes develop feelings for them. The expectation from these employees to suppress natural emotions, positive and negative alike, is a mistake, " Yagil explains.
"The expression of natural positive emotions is well received by the other party and is likely to contribute to customer satisfaction and customer loyalty."
4) Commit to consistency.
When evaluating consistency, it's important to take step back and consider its role in your customer onboarding process.
To tee up a positive customer perception from the start, you'll want to ensure that the hand off from sales to support or customer success is fluid and reflective of how you want folks to view your brand. To achieve this type of harmonious experience, it's helpful to establish core operating values -- things like respect, integrity, and customer focus -- to serve as a framework for all of your brand interactions.
For example, Zappos -- an online shoe and clothing shop that has set the standard for customer experience and service -- asks that its employees live by the following 10 values:
In doing so, there are no questions around how to act, what to think, or how to approach a customer problem. You just do it. And if the operating values are enforced consistently, customers will begin to expect that level of quality over and over again.
Of course, there is -- and should be -- flexibility around how you adopt and apply these values to specific customer interactions to avoid communications coming off as canned or impersonal.
5) Fill skill gaps before they become evident.
A modern customer success or customer service professional knows how to treat a customer like a human -- not just a ticket number. They know when to be proactive, when to ask clarifying questions, and what to do when they don't have the answer right away. These are all skills that help to comprise a positive customer perception.
But this skillful approach to service and customer relationship building doesn't come without proper training and a commitment to continuous learning. And as the industry standard continues to shift to meet the demands of the empowered, informed customer, folks in customer-facing roles need to keep pace.
To maximize your competitive advantage, it's important that both you as an individual -- as well as your larger organization -- are aware of the skills and service areas that need improvement, and are also willing to invest in software and training to help bridge the skills gap.
The bar for customer expectations is rising. They want to eliminate the complexity involved in arriving at a solution to their problem and they want you to know when it's appropriate to balance automation vs. human outreach.
If you fail to acknowledge this shift, you can expect your brand perception to take a hit. But if you get the wheels turning back in the right direction, placing an emphasis on the importance of that perceived experience with your brand, well, we think you'll enjoy the outcome.