In digital business, customer experience is all that matters

Delivering customer service excellence has always been difficult – making sure that not only the end product or service is top-notch but that the experience of getting there is just as good.

shutterstock_246112579Think of how Disney theme parks strive from consistent excellence from the way you are greeted at the gate to the entertainment they provide while you are waiting in line for a popular ride. In the digital world, not only do we lack in-person contact, but so much is out of our direct control. We’re at the mercy of variations between browsers and hiccups in networks and cloud services.

Some online businesses succeed anyway. Zappos figured out how to sell shoes online, overcoming the fact that customers can’t try the shoes on first. Often, digital services make a promise that requires real-world follow through, whether it’s the Zappos box arriving at your doorstep or the Uber car pulling up to the curb. But the digital experience comes first, and if that doesn’t work there is no second step.

Nearly one-third of CEOs expect to attribute at least half of their sales to digital channels within five years, according to a 2015 Gartner survey. McKinsey reports nearly 50% of all business-to-business purchases were expected to come through digital platforms by the end of 2015 and $2 trillion in retail sales will be influenced by digital by 2016.

So how good is your digital experience, and how do you know if it is good enough?

I’m not talking about a visually pleasing user interface. A beautiful design makes a strong impression, but it fades fast if the user clicks a button and nothing happens. The glitch might not be your fault – most digital experiences today rely on a complex supply chain of cloud services – but the user only cares about their own experience.

Surveys, focus groups and other traditional “voice of the customer” research methods don’t tell us all we need to know because technology stands in the middle of every online customer interaction. Restaurant guests contacted for a survey would have no trouble telling you that the waiters were rude and the food was cold, but customers of an online pizza ordering app can’t tell you what web service glitched as they were trying to check out. All they would know is they found it buggy and frustrating. Human users do not have the language to describe the digital experience quality or why it is not working.

What does a good digital experience look like? The company I work for, Actual Experience, recently measured the performance of the websites of 108 brands in the U.S. and U.K. These include retail, travel, supermarkets, entertainment, airlines, banking and online gambling companies. Instead of just measuring bandwidth, which can be misleading, we look for consistency and reliability.

On a scale of 0 to 100 for quality, which includes elements of speed, consistency, reliability and other factors, sites that are noticeably awful score in the 60s or below. This is where web pages take forever to load, images or scripts are missing, video pixelates, and audio is garbled. We employ “Digital User” software agents that simulate routine transactions and detect when any element of the experience is slow or broken – from the user’s perspective. This helps answer the ‘why’ questions on digital experience quality.

In our Actual Quality study, the two sites that got consistent, perfect scores were not big Silicon Valley names but a couple of U.K. businesses: the online bank Smile and the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. While we only captured a sort of digital first impression of their public websites, this is the first, and possibly the most important, step in the customer experience. For our customers, we can go further and deeper. For example, we analyse the experience of logging in and transacting business, over a longer period of time.

First impressions are important, but your goal must be to deliver a consistently good digital experience. The fact that consistently excellent digital experiences are still rare is one more reason they are worth the effort. The business benefits are clear: attracting more customers and making them more loyal. When the customer experience is good, transactions result in fewer complaints and less friction, making them more profitable. Businesses that build digital quality into employee experiences see better productivity.

Like any quality improvement program, digital experience quality begins by understanding the experience you are delivering today – then focusing intensively on how to improve it.

By Rachel Fairley, chief marketing officer at Actual Experience