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Something was different about this hotel experience. It seemed they really wanted to enhance customer performance—which, in this case, was my getting a good night's sleep.

As I stepped off the elevator, an interesting sign came into view. It said I was assigned to a Quiet Floor. It promised that housekeeping and maintenance activities would not start before 10:00 AM and not continue after 9:00 PM. It also promised that families with children, trade groups, marching bands, and circus animals would not be assigned to this floor.

But that wasn't all. The sign also asked for my help in making the floor quiet. It asked that I keep TV and radio volume low, prevent the door from slamming, and not sing too loudly in the shower.

As I opened the door to my room, I quickly noticed some odd things. On the bed were a mesh bag and a cardboard CD package. I picked up the mesh bag and examined its contents—eyeshades, earplugs, and a bottle of lavender sheet spray. The CD package had an audio CD, and the package itself had tips for getting a good night's sleep. For example, I learned that pumpkin and peaches are foods that promote sleep.

The other odd thing was that there was a CD player in the room, and it was open—inviting me to insert the CD. I did. The first two tracks were the calm voice of a sleep therapist who taught me techniques for relaxation. The remaining 60 minutes was some of the most beautiful electronic music I had ever heard.

The experience in my hotel room continued to feel like an Easter egg hunt. By the curtains was a clothespin-like device that enabled me to pin the black-out curtains shut in the middle, so that annoying thin line of light couldn't show through. I thought the room would be completely dark, but a well-designed nightlight cast an even green glow throughout the room. My choice of pillows (feather or foam) waited for me on the bed.

Did I sleep well? You bet! The room was dark, the relaxation exercises removed the day's stress, and the calming music was the lullaby to which I fell asleep the next three nights. Waking up was not a problem, either, since the hotel offered a guaranteed wake-up call.

Customer as Co-Producer

Customer experiences are the foundation for competitive differentiation, value creation, and brand identity. While some companies create emotion-driven customer experiences that leave an impact on shoppers, like those at The Gap or Victoria's Secret, other companies, such as Southwest Airlines, Build-A-Bear Workshops, nikeID.com, and Crowne Plaza Hotels (described in the story here) create experiences in which customers are active co-producers. In other words, customers are the co-creators of the value that results from the experience.

We call these kinds of experiences "co-production experiences." As illustrated in the story above, the hotel provides the physical resources for a good night's sleep. The guest provides the "labor" to activate those resources to make the experience come alive.

Both company and customer contribute toward achieving a desirable and valuable goal. When well designed, such experiences are the foundation for increased levels of customer satisfaction, trust, loyalty, and lifetime value.

In an age of online banking, self-checkout, and other self-service business transactions, companies are asking customers to do more work. In some ways, customers are the surrogate employees of many companies. Like employees, customers who are more efficient and effective with goods and services generate greater value for both themselves and the company. Competitive advantage, therefore, relies on companies' designing co-production experiences that enhance customer performance.

Four Principles

To design great co-production experiences for hotels, airlines, teddy bears, auto insurance, computer networking gear, or in any other B2C or B2B industry, you must integrate into the experience four key design principles: vision, access, incentive, and expertise.

Let's look at how these principles are put into practice by further analyzing the hotel experience described earlier:

  • Vision defines the goals, expectations, plans, and feedback associated with an experience. Clearly communicating the expectations for both the hotel staff and the customers sets the desired conditions for the experience. Customers have a role in delivering the "Quiet Floor" experience and thus must be told what their role and goals are.

  • Access describes the physical environment in which the experience occurs. The hotel room environment has tools and interfaces the support customer performance: eyeshades, earplugs, drape clip, nightlight, and CD player, as well as the enhanced pillows, sheets, and mattress. Nuances such as the audio program and aroma (the lavender spray) help stimulate all the senses.

  • Incentive reflects how the company motivates the customer to perform. Rewards are a key tactic. Offering a guaranteed wake-up call is the incentive for motivating customers to try all the resources that the hotel offers. After all, what's the point of wearing eyeshades and earplugs if you don't wake up in time for your meeting or flight?

  • Expertise specifies the knowledge and skill that customers must possess to perform well. Educational content on the CD package and the relaxation exercises on the CD build customer expertise. These resources provide ideas for eating right, relaxing, and generally getting one's body ready for a good night's sleep.

Are these principles transferable to other industries? Sure they are, with different levels of emphasis for each of the co-production experience principles.

For example, Bank of America, Citibank, and others motivated customers to adopt online banking primarily through incentive: a cash reward for signing up and using the system. Progressive Insurance supports customer expertise when customers use its online quote system with a Talk To Me button. This provides direct voice access to a licensed insurance agent, who can answer questions, provide advice, and assist in the completion of the quote.

In future articles, I'll continue to explore case studies in which co-production experiences form a competitive advantage by differentiate goods and services, reducing costs, and enabling customers to unlock more value.

Like this topic? Learn even more about customer acquisition and retention by joining us in Santa Barbara for "Finders, Keepers: Finding Prospects and Keeping Customers." Get the details about our two-day executive retreat, April 20-21, 2006.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter C. Honebein, Ph.D., is coauthor, with Roy Cammarano, of Creating Do-It-Yourself Customers: How Great Customer Experiences Build Great Companies. He is president of the Customer Performance Group (www.doityourselfcustomers.com) and a faculty member at Indiana University and University of Nevada, Reno.