Proactive versus Reactive Customer Experience Management

The data-based business model was customer-centric long before this idea became a buzz phrase.  When you have detailed data on your customers and your operations, you understand a lot more about how the customer experience directly affects profits.  This means you can quantify the value of reducing process defects before they impact the customer.

For example, in catalog (and a few great web retailers) you know what it costs to process a return on both the business side and the customer side (customer value / LifeCycle issues) and you do everything you can to prevent that return from happening – up front.  This means before you launch a new product:

* Fulfillment reviews it to make sure it is shippable and the packaging is going to protect the product in transit

* Customer service reviews the product to make sure the packaging and any instructions are clear to the customer and won’t generate costly calls to customer service or usability problems.  If the packing is incomplete, it is either rejected, modified with an insert, or at the very least, discovering this defect generates a training class for the reps who are going to take the calls.

* Marketing reviews it to make sure that the item and usage fits the brand image of the company, and that the purchase history of customers purchasing similar items / categories does not raise red flags (defection rate, LifeCycle).

This is what I would call a Proactive stance on customer service and experience management.  The Proactive stance understands “value” is a two-sided equation and that to maximize customer value to the company, you must maximize company value to the customer – including the removal of process errors that whack people off (you don’t want to make people Cranky).  It strikes me that most offline retailers and many online retailers are Reactive; they wait for crap to hit the fan and then they do something.  That doesn’t mean that some or even many don’t provide great service when stuff hits the fan.

But it seems to me many of these folks don’t work nearly as hard to prevent it from hitting the fan in the first place as the folks who really know the costs / customer value destruction surrounding defective product selection.  Or for that matter, any defective operational process directly affecting the customer.  Responding to complaints is much more expensive than preventing them, and the folks who feed on customer data know this.  The data enables a proactive analytical culture that can support the additional care / expense required up front before a product is even available for sale, because the downstream negative affects are quantifiable.

Top flight customer service / experience management would mean that there is significant effort to prevent problems from happening in the first place, not responding to them after they happen, no matter how good the response is.  How much effort would it take to make sure packaging, instructions, fulfillment, web site copy, and so forth don’t create problems that would have to be solved later?  That’s a base requirement, in my opinion.  Better, how about taking the same touchpoints and actually making them work harder to deliver a positive experience?

I suspect most so-called “empathy” for the customer / experience takes place on a generic level; it’s a “standards” kind of thing for treating customers.  Listen to the complaint.  Empathize with the customer.  Respond in a calm voice.  Etc.  This is reactive empathy and in today’s world, the baseline expectation of the customer.  If you really want to make it to “surprise and delight“, you need to engage in Proactive Empathy.

There is a great deal of difference between a culture of reactive customer empathy and a culture of proactive customer empathy; and there is a big financial difference between “I’m sorry” and no complaint in the first place.

Marketers interested in direct contribution to profitability and increasing Marketing Productivity will seek out their peers in the operational silos and start creating and managing proactive empathy for the customer through each process of the business.  And the smartest of them will be able to actually prove how much incremental profit embracing a proactive empathy for the customer culture generates for the company.

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