For many years, I’ve been been a customer, nay, an advocate of a company out of San Francisco, called Waterfield Designs. They sell things like cases and messenger bags and vertical messenger bags a.k.a. man purses. They are super-stylish, incredibly utilitarian and definitely expensive. But Waterfield’s entire business model and customer approach has me wild about them as a customer and has me admiring them greatly as a professional CRM dude.
The other day, I had the first glitch ever in our “relationship” but how they handled it is not only an instructive business case in doing things right – but also something I think merits some dissecting from the standpoint of how to view
Waterfield Designs sells first rate products – for example, I have a messenger bag for a laptop from them, a case for a PSP, a Nintendo DS, a couple of laptop sleeves, and now a smart case for my iPad and a portable 10″ vertical messenger bag a.k.a. a man purse….sorta. Here’s the iPad stuff.
Nice, huh? Not cheap – but nice. For example, the vertical messenger bag is a soft leather thing and about $190.00. But it fits my metrosexual image so well. It does. I’m a New Yorker…that explains it…really. Sensitive male. Sniff.
Their business model is based on mass customization as seen by Joe Pine II, author of the seminal “The Experience Economy”. You can piece together the item you want in the way that you want – with you picking the color, the attachable accessories, the size of the item, etc. While you don’t exactly design the specific item, you can pick out the components in a way that is satisfying to you as a customer. There are a wide variety of components that can be somewhat mixed and matched.
But they don’t stop with this highly configurable – and incredibly stylish and satisfying approach. – They even handle shipping exceptionally well. First, they put a personal note that indicates they know at least your customer history if not personal details – sometimes as simple as “glad to have you with us again” signed by the owner of Waterfield Designs, Gary Waterfield (duh) with his first name. They even follow up with thanks – and then often ask for your customer feedback on their entire process. In other words, a company that gets the customer, engages the customer and provides the kind of feeling of good will that comes after a really great meal. The “yep, this is the way that you companies are SUPPOSED TO be dealing with me – and you do.”
The other side of the process is that they have always been timely – if they say they are going to ship on April 16, then they ship April 16. Interestingly, at least in my experience, they don’t ship early – April 14 or 15 let’s say – but they don’t ship late.
At least they didn’t ’til this last go round.
I actually had a problem with Waterfield Designs. Given my level of expectations from multiple interactions in the past – this wasn’t exactly expected. Nor was how they handled it initially – but then again….you’ll see.
I ordered both the smartcase and portable ten inch vertical messenger bag henceforth known as MP for man-purse, within a couple of days of getting my spiffy new iPad on April 3. On the Waterfield Designs website it indicated that the smartcase would be shipped on April 16. There was no particular indication of a problem or even potential one – in fact, no indication of anything but an ordinary shipping calendar for the MP or the smartcase. An ordinary shipping calendar meant usually a couple of days for preparation would do the trick and out into the post it would go. Which in this case meant roughly April 5 or 6.
Imagine my shock and dismay when I got a note from Waterfield Designs the next day apologizing for “overpromising and underperforming” and indicating that the shipping date for each item would be sometime in mid-May. Which to me was unacceptable because I was ordering them to use them for my rather extensive traveling. I wrote a note back to them talking about my disappointment in this what felt to be somewhat deceptive bit of news. The reason for that word “deceptive” was that I thought – and this was in the note – that the revised due dates should have been up on the SFbags.com site so that I could have made an intelligent decision on whether or not I wanted to proceed with the purchase. Beside my personal disappointment, professionally, the first rule of transparency in SCRM is that the customer is given enough information to make an intelligent decision on how they are going to interact with the company. This wasn’t that.
Imagine my delight when the next day, the new information was up on the site. They had responded to me and I imagine others who had suggested that the appropriate information needed to be put up for perusal. Even better, two days after that I got an email for each product telling me they are shipping each of them on the 16th – that would be April 16th – a full month before their initial estimate – which meant that they had put production into overtime to solve this issue and make customers happy. And they did so – at least with me.
The Customer Experience
For the past four years, you’ve been reading my stuff on the social customer and Social CRM and all the new business models associated with it. But what remains central to all of CRM, be it traditional or social is the customer experience. Ultimately the success of a business is derived from the experience that customers have with it. We can talk about engagement all we want, or co-creation or “the conversation” but what we do it for remains remarkably simple – we want out customers to like us enough to continue to be our customers and do all those things that customer who like companies do – continue to buy and talk our businesses up. We achieve that with a healthy percentage of our customers and we’ll be successful. As narrow-minded as shareholders can be – the value they expect and will get from the company is based on the same thing – whether or not they believe it or like it.
In order for our customers to like us, we have to do things that make them like us – like provide them with tools to control their relationship with us; or with a good deal that works for their particular interests; or with something else that simply makes them feel good. The value of a discount to a customer, for example, is that the discount makes the customer happy – not that they get 20% off. It’s that the 20% off makes them satisfied in some way with their relationship to your company. Believe me, if you gave a customer 20% but insulted them or guilted them each time, they wouldn’t hang around, deal or no deal. “Hey here’s 20% off, valued customer” works far better than “Hey here’s 30% off you thieving schmuck.”
However, what goes into understanding how to provide that great customer experience is not a simple matter. For example, all my past experiences with Waterfield Designs, affects how I think about them, and, most importantly, what I expect of them each interaction. So here’s how my historic expectations map out:
- They will allow me to choose the components of the product I’m ordering
- They will be personal and warm in their approach to me
- They will ship within a day or two of the order
- They will ship on the day that I expect
- They will inform me of what I need to know each time I order something, using informative media such as videos to show me the product before I purchase and timely, useful information about the status of my product from production to delivery
- They will be open to feedback about their products or whatever I care to give them feedback about
What’s particularly cogent to this list is that it’s built around the things that are important to me and even they are nuanced when it comes to level of importance. Also it is a sequence that I expect when I do something with Waterfield Designs. Certain aspects are expected and weigh heavily in my consideration (unconscious and conscious) of the experience and interactions I’m having with them. So, for example, that they treat me warmly and personally is something that is incredibly important – given my metrosexual inclinations. Also very important is that I have the information I need to make an intelligent decision about the purchases that I want to make – though I don’t care as much if its in the form of a video or a picture or text information – though visuals here are nicer than not. How does this map look then when I weigh the importance of each part of my expectations. My human scale is not 1-5 here but
- extremely important to me
- very important to me
- important enough to me
- Either way, no biggie
- don’t care that much – well a tiny bit maybe
- couldn’t care less
- Wish it would go away
So here’s how the list in sequence reflects itself to me as a customer when it comes to the importance of the interaction.
- They will allow me to choose the components of the product I’m ordering – very important to me.
- They will be personal and warm in their approach to me – extremely important to me (hey, so maybe I’m a little insecure, okay?)
- They will ship within a day or two of the order – very important to me
- They will ship on the day that I expect – important enough to me
- They will inform me of what I need to know each time I order something, using informative media such as videos to show me the product before I purchase and timely, useful information about the status of my product from production to delivery – this one is complicated. Having the information I need to make an intelligent decision is extremely important to me but what form its in is either way no biggie.
- They will be open to feedback about their products or whatever I care to give them feedback about – extremely important to me as a professional, but very important to me as a customer
So what we’ve done so far is identify the interaction points and their relative importance to me which is how I weigh them. But there is another piece of when it comes to mapping a customer experience. Especially mine in my own eyes. Which is how well they meet expectations, given the weights that I give each of the interactions. There are three (at a high level) answers to this one: met expectations, exceeded expectations, failed to meet expectations. Each result, based on the interaction, the weight that I as an individual customer give it and my perception of whether or not they met, failed to meet or exceeded expectations, has a consequence in how I will interact with the company as a customer. What makes this interesting is that it might have little to do with whether or not the company met expectations against their own standards or benchmarks. My interactions are solely based on my perception of whether or not they did, not their standard. Again, as a customer, I’m in control of my relationship to this company and in control of the conversation about the company in channels that the company doesn’t own. So perception can trump benchmarks here. Be forewarned.
So how would this look if I take it the next step and see if they met, exceeded or failed to meet expectations. Since this is the sequence of interactions extended over time, this is a map of history.
- They will allow me to choose the components of the product I’m ordering – very important to me. MET EXPECTATIONS
- They will be personal and warm in their approach to me – extremely important to me (hey, so maybe I’m a little insecure, okay?) MET EXPECTATIONS
- They will ship within a day or two of the order – very important to me MET EXPECTATIONS
- They will ship on the day that I expect – important enough to me MET EXPECTATIONS
- They will inform me of what I need to know each time I order something, using informative media such as videos to show me the product before I purchase and timely, useful information about the status of my product from production to delivery – this one is complicated. Having the information I need to make an intelligent decision is extremely important to me but what form its in is either way no biggie. MET EXPECTATIONS
- They will be open to feedback about their products or whatever I care to give them feedback about – extremely important to me as a professional, but very important to me as a customer MET EXPECTATIONS
Keep in mind since this is an historic map of my interactions, applied weights, and expectations, what level of importance I attributed to each interaction is something that evolved over a continued series of these same interactions which affected my expectations. So, for example, when I first ordered from them, the warmth of their approach and their continuous communications with me to let me know where things stood were an unexpected delight and so exceeded the expectations I had of the company which were mentally benchmarked by my past experiences with companies like them – not them. But after a while, I began to expect that level of treatment which meant I expected to be delighted by their warmth and communications level. So customer delight weirdly enough just meets expectations because of the high standards that Waterfield Designs has – and thus the high level of expectations I have for them. But, if you think this high level of expectations is unfair to Waterfield Designs, think again. I’m paying them premium prices for their products as a result of all of this.
This is a dilemma when it comes to how to think about mapping a customer experience. Esteban Kolsky posted on the dilemma a few months ago when he took a look at whether or not a company should have exceeding customer expectations built into its DNA. His thinking was it should but of course the cost of exceeding those expectations can be high – very high if its “what you do” as a company. Stephen Vargo of co-creation fame, put it well in a comment to Esteban’s post – you should plan on exceeding expectations but don’t assume you should meet all their desires. That distinction is critical to planning how you are going to provide the products, services, tools and consumable experiences that you need to provide to exceed expectations – which of course changes the standard for what “met expectations” are. Whew.
In a way, what you see above is a mental and emotional map of my benchmarks against which I measure the relationship I have with Waterfield Designs. Those benchmarks are set against my considerably lower expectations in a relative context for all companies like them – and those are being measured against my entire history of interactions with all companies throughout all commerce.
So when something breaks, what is it that I think or do and how is a company like Waterfield Designs supposed to respond? Here’s the story in three sections.
You can read this part above. I ordered a smart case and an MP for my iPad with an expectation, given the history that I’ve had with Waterfield Designs ONLY (not other companies like it or other companies in general), that I would be able to order the appropriate (for me) components for the products, it would be shipped a day or two later, with a continuous set of valuable communications on its status and I would be given a feedback opportunity after its successful delivery in the time promised.
That didn’t happen. As you I received an email saying that due to a rare instance of overpromising and underperforming which was due to the unexpected demand for the products that I wouldn’t be getting either of the products until about a month later. I sent them a not saying that this was unacceptable to me – due to my travel needs and it would force me to purchase some interim case at least to protect my iPad. I expressed my disappointment – exactly that – not more, not less and asked them to post the later dates on the site. In return I got a further note – and an apology – with information that a different version of the case was available though no change on the MP. And of course, I could change my order or get a refund if I chose to. Twenty-four hours later I received another email that said, that both items would be shipped in a week – on April 16 (instead of mid-May). When April 16 rolled around, both items were shipped that day and arrived two days later.
My Experience Meter
So how do you break down the customer experience here? Simple. I had a history with them of exceptional customer experience that meant they had to provide a high level of service and be incredibly responsive for them to just meet expectations. Keep in mind this is a course that the business chose when it decided how it needed to respond to customers successfully. No reason to feel sorry for them – or to think that customers have unreasonable expectations for them. They responded with textbook consistency by providing that high level of service in bad circumstances.
How? Here’s how.
- The order is placed based on all the ordering info available on the Sfbags.com at the time of the order
- The email comes fully explaining what happened with an apology and a clear plan of what’s going to happen next
- After I wrote about my disappointment, another personal response quickly with alternative possibilities in the letter
- While mulling the decision on what to do, an email arrives the next day that explains that April 16 is now the date, not mid-May
What they did was deal with the problem at the level of service that I expected based on the history I had with them.
They already had a modicum of good will in the bank with me – due to their already great history and, up until then, flawless execution. So a first-time problem, however egregious in my customer eyes, was looked at with more kindly then it would be if it were some other company with lesser standards – meaning most other companies. That good will remained even though there were special circumstances that made this a worse problem – meaning I needed this stuff to help me with a busy travel schedule that was imminent.
Particulars of the Event – The Company Response
Even though this issue was created due to an unexpected product demand and production not ready to meet it, they still did everything right – even if it created an initial customer discomfort.
- They honestly responded with the problem created, the cause of that and some specific information on how they were handling it, in a warm and personal fashion. There was nothing more intelligent to do. They met my historic expectations with their honesty.
- Their fast personal response to me was also honest with specific alternatives suggested including a refund. Again, in line with my historic expectations.
- They posted the new delivery (mid-May) information on the website as I had asked them to do at a minimum within hours of the request. Whether or not it was a response due to me or not was irrelevant. From my perspective, they had responded in the way that I asked, meaning treating my feedback seriously – which, given the problem, slightly exceed expectations.
- Based on the obvious difficulties this “overpromising and underperforming” had created for them, they invested in escalating their production, which I imagine was done at a considerable cost – showing that customers were first in their eyes – and sent another communication stating that it was no longer mid-May but April 16. This was a specific date with a specific set of instructions on how they were going to communicate with me (us) when it shipped. This, needless to say, exceeded expectations and I was utterly delighted.
- Finally, on April 16, I received emails saying the products had shipped, etc. and April 18 received the products. Here meeting expectations, given everything else, exceeded expectations.
The Net Net
Waterfield Designs combined an incredible consistency in how they handled communications, and provided a trustworthy and ultimately reliable response in line with my historic expectations. Thus, even with a problem, I’m more committed to this company than ever before. That’s simple. I like them even more so I’ll continue to work with them and buy from them and tout them. But think about all the factors that went into my experience with them in the midst of this problem. How I weighed my interactions against history and the current situation, and the level of expectations I placed on each interaction during this particular event. If they hadn’t responded the way I expected and had delivered below expectations…well, sadly, with most customers, me included, the perception of the company is only as good as the last experience you had – with the background of history. With that in mind, my relationship to the company would have diminished but not ended due to the much longer good history. Instead they remained true to their thinking vis a vis customers and that not only solved the immediate problem in a “delightful” way but also strengthened the historic perception I had and have of the company. A win-win for them-them.
Lessons of The Customer Experience
So what can we glean from this lengthy breakdown – all stemming from my metrosexual inclinations. Sorry about that.
- Would be wise to know and respond to their customers at personal level – not just as a segment or demographic.
- Should not be just consistent but have a consistently authentic and transparent relationship to their customers. Honesty (and visibility into the company) is truly the best policy.
- Should have a repeatable process for customer interactions and a protocol for responding to customers that meets the customers’ expectations – and can be applied on a personal level if need be to a particular customer.
- Should understand that the customer’s responses and interactions are part of a complex but mappable set of perceptions, behaviors, attitudes, and history that the customer has with the company – and its worth mapping them to find out how to build the experience for their customers.
- Should realize that each customer is deciding on the importance to them of each interaction which can vary from event to event – even if the interaction seems the same. So be sensitive to the context around the experience.
- Should be smart enough, when there is a problem – or when there isn’t – to respond to customers with continuous communications about what happened, is happening and what will happen in response. Never forget that customers value the knowledge they need to make intelligent decisions on how they are going to deal with you more than anything else.
- Would be wise to maintain perspective when there is a problem. Deal with the problem with the idea that the result has to be a customer experience that at a minimum meets how the customer perceives it should be handled (note, I didn’t say what the customer perceives they should be getting). If that can’t be done, then be honest about what you will do. Ultimately that will improve the customer’s experience immeasurably if handled well. Which is what counts.
BTW, the smartcase and the man purse are, as my friends Clare Dorrian of Sword-Ciboodle and Cecilie Amundsen of Redpill Linpro say, BRILLIANT.