What makes a customer's experience with a brand great? What makes it awful?

Think back to your own experiences. When were you wowed with an experience or, conversely, deeply disappointed?

I had a "wow" customer experience when the bulb in my car's brake light burned out. I dreaded having to take my car into the shop, and on a whim stopped at the nearby Shell station to see if they could replace it.

The no-nonsense mechanic, with a bushy mustache and grease-smeared uniform, took a look. Quietly and efficiently, he replaced the bulb in just minutes. I had neglected to ask him how much this service would cost. To my surprise, he charged me only $11 and change.

My reaction? Wow! I will definitely consider this Shell station for car tune-ups, and now buy my gasoline there as well.

At the other extreme, I had a miserable experience at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I received a notice in the mail that I had to go in person to the DMV office to renew my license. Fortunately, I was able to make an appointment ahead of time.

When I arrived at the DMV on a Saturday morning, I couldn't believe the crowds of irritable people waiting there. One woman in line in front of me started swearing at the hapless and weary customer service representative, who had clearly seen and heard it all before. Even though I had an appointment, I still had to wait 30 minutes to be served.

Once I met face-to-face with a service rep, the process went smoothly. But while waiting, I heard numerous people complain about how long they had been there, some for more than four hours.

To make matters worse, since licenses expire on birthdays, many people were forced to come in right before or even on their birthdays. What a sour way to celebrate your special day!

All of us have our own examples of great and terrible experiences as customers. These delightful and dreadful stories show that a brand stands for much more than a name, logo or image.

And a brand means much more even than its product and service features. Brands are built from nothing less than the sum of a customer's experiences with a product, service or company. Customers' total brand experience will determine whether they will buy anything more from the company and, just as importantly, whether they'll spread awesome or awful word-of-mouth to friends and family.

To create excellent customer experiences, it's essential to gain deep insight into customer needs and wants. Just as imperative is developing a core set of customer metrics that (1) accurately measure where your brand stands in areas most important to customers and (2) best reflect the health of your business.

The following metaphor is one way of thinking about a brand's multifaceted nature: you're house-hunting, and a brand is a house you're considering for purchase.

Certainly, you want the house to have a solid foundation. (The foundation of a strong brand is customer insight and metrics.) Naturally, you also want a house with high-quality construction. Without strong building blocks, a house will eventually fall down. (The building blocks of a brand are its product and service quality.)

If house hunters know about the house for sale and its location, they can consider buying it. (This knowledge represents a brand's awareness levels.) They may already have an opinion of the house based on the quality of the neighborhood and its proximity to good schools, restaurants and shops. (These preconceptions represent a brand's image.)

When you first see a house from the outside, its curb appeal makes an important impression. (Similarly, the outer appearance of a brand, such as a logo or symbol, communicates something to its prospects.) When a prospective buyer enters a house, he or she receives a strong first impression, positive or negative. (Likewise for brands; the first-time user experience is a critical customer experience touchpoint.)

Finally, a house buyer must decide whether he or she wants to live in that house for the long-term. Of course, this requires living with the house's quirks and improving or personalizing it to make it a home. (For brands, this long-term commitment and experience over time represents customer loyalty.)

In other words, brands are multifaceted and complex—certainly much more than a name or image. If you aren't aware of a brand, you'll never consider it even though it may be just what you want or need. First impressions and appearance are very important, and so is the quality of the foundation and building blocks, especially over the long term. Brands, like houses, have unique personalities. Customers develop relationships with brands that change over time as their needs and expectations evolve.

As you think about how your customers' experiences add up to create their overall brand experience, it's helpful to focus on the three most essential marketing objectives and the metrics that reveal how well you're meeting those objectives:

  1. The first key objective for marketers is customer acquisition, with a goal of acquiring the right customers in a cost-effective way. Three critical customer experiences in the acquisition process are awareness, learning and persuasion.

  2. Next, marketers must focus on product "wow" in delivering a "wow" customer experience that exceeds expectations. Three critical customer experiences required for product "wow" are great first-time usage, usability and benefit delivery.

  3. Finally, marketers must focus on customer retention—retaining and nurturing loyal customers, and turning them into advocates. Three critical customer experience elements in the retention process are long-term usage and satisfaction, the purchase of more products and services, and positive word-of-mouth.

Evaluating these essential business-building drivers within the customer experience framework will help you focus on the most important levers for achieving marketing results.

What critical few drivers of customer acquisition, product "wow" and customer retention are most important for building your brand? What are the most vital customer experience strategies for you to focus on?

What metrics do you need to use to know how well you're doing and where you want to go? How will you ensure that your customers' experiences increase their loyalty so they will not only buy more from you but will also spread great word of mouth?

Brands are so much more than a name, logo or image. They represent nothing less than a customer's complete experience with your product, service or company. Kevin Keller, Professor or Marketing at the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration, says, "The power of a brand lies in the minds of consumers and what they have experienced and learned about the brand over time."

What will you do today to build your brand?

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Suzanne Taylor is a marketing strategy consultant. Contact her via staylor@serrano.com or visit www.suzannetaylor.com