Customer experience. Can market researchers define customer experience? Or is it just something we know when we see it -- or, rather, when we experience it? As market researchers, and as customers ourselves, we've grown used to see the reference to customer experience. We cut our teeth on the Starbucks Experience" which evolved into "the Third Place Experience" Today, Starbucks tells us that it is their "unwavering commitment to excellence and [their]...guiding principles" that "bring the unique Starbucks Experience to life for every customer through every cup." Starbucks invites us to visit and "share in the experience."
Why Is the Concept of Customer Experience So Elusive?
The evolution of customer experience research has progressed through the following quasi-stages in recent market research history:
- Customer attitudes about brand, overall customer satisfaction, and brand loyalty -- ultimately, as measured by market share.
- Consumer perceptions about brand quality, brand performance, and brand imagery -- as measured by the econometric / psychometric construct known as brand equity, especially as tied to consumer purchase behavior.
- Customer loyalty characterized by both emotional and rational consumer responses -- as measured by brand attachment and the duration of customer-brand engagement.
After that brief review, try to picture the many terms in the cloud popularity display with which we have all become familiar. You know the one where the search words are different sizes to reflect the frequency with which Internet users have used the words to search online. Here is how they line up in Google AdWords in the current vernacular:
- Brand equity = 40,500 global monthly searches
- Brand loyalty = 40,500 global monthly searches
- Customer satisfaction = 368,000 global monthly searches
- Customer experience = 110,000 global monthly searches
How Can the Customer Experience Be Tracked and Measured?
All this goes to say that the market research industry is still expending considerable energy on ways to track, measure, and systematically manipulate customer experience dynamics. In 1997, Steven Pinker of Harvard University published a book titled How the Mind Works that pointed to different mental "modules" that help humans organize and integrate their interactions with their environment.
In 2009, Brakus, Schmit, and Zarantonello published an article titled Brand Experience: What Is It? How Is It Measured? Does It Affect Loyalty? in the Journal of Marketing. Through a series of studies employing factor analysis and structural equation modeling, Brakus, et al. further refined the work of Pinker, modifying the customer experience dimensions to the following four factors: Sensory, affective, behavioral, and intellectual.
Decades of research experiments have fairly confirmed these five dynamic mental dimensions, but the debate continues about how discrete the dimensions are -- and whether they are, in fact, modules at all. Regardless of where science takes us -- or where your own particular views of science limit or expand your thinking about how the human mind processes information, it is useful to consider that people tend to categorize their own behavior. And if they, don't market researchers do.
Customer Experience Factors: Discrete & Composite
Pinker's modules are fundamentally considered to be: Social, intellectual, sensory, emotional, and behavioral. Using the Starbucks Experience as an example, it is readily apparent that the sensory dimension is fundamental. The taste and aroma of coffee are at the core of a coffee-based experience. But there is more in this dimension that may not be as frequently perceived.
Sensory. Just as technology experts talk about how a new cell phone feels in the hand -- whether it is judged to be a good size and heft, whether the shell of the phone feels fragile or durable -- coffee aficionados discriminate between the way different cups of coffee feel in their hand, whether the cup is too hot or just warm enough to be experienced as comforting.
Affective. Considering this dimension -- emotional -- it is easier to see how the dimensions, or factors, are linked in the human mind. The discrete categorization -- the encapsulation -- of experience can only go so far. As the sensory dimensions are pleasantly engaged and as social recognition occurs in the Starbucks "fold," the customer may experience a shift in mood. If all goes according to the customer's expectations which -- for a regular Starbucks customer -- are positively charged, so too will the customer's mood be changed in a positive direction.
Behavioral. There is a hearty social aspect to ordering coffee at a Starbucks. The barista knows your name or knows your coffee. When she or he "calls" your coffee as you walk in the door, you know you have become part of a "tribe." You belong. If you join a queue of other customers snaking to the cashier, you also recognize that you belong to a group of people with particular, collective attributes. These social factors influence customer behavior. If you meet up with others at the Starbucks, or get down to work on your laptop, you continue a social experience through your behavior. There is a reason that you stay at the Starbucks instead of heading right out to the street, or going back to your cubicle. You have experienced the Starbucks Third Place Experience.
Customer-Brand Engagement: Let Me Count the Touchpoints
Research based on the five-factor and four-factor customer experience constructs continues the dialogue through additions to the conceptual architecture. GfK Custom Research in New York is looking at the relationship between those customer experience factors and customer touchpoints. In a recent article in Quirk's Marketing Research Review, Danica Allen, Global Director of Customer Satisfaction and Experience at GfK, distinguishes between vicarious touchpoints and direct touchpoints.
Vicarious touchpoints consist primarily of advertisements and presumably social media references and recommendations about a particular brand, product, service, or relayed customer experience. Direct touchpoints require some level of involvement with the actual brand, product, or service. Allen's work is particularly interesting because it employed a quadrant response system that allowed consumers to show their customer experience with icons (talk, think, sense, feel, and act).
Typically, quadrants are used to analyze the responses of consumers, but in this research, consumers used the quadrant format to rate their own customer experience. This idea is similar to the use of a control slider that lets survey respondents engage with an interactive device that records their preferences or experiences. Both devices are appealing alternatives to endless Likert scale use in a survey that can quickly lead to disengagement, or what is known by market researchers as "straightlining."
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