A service firm’s key step toward managing the total customer experience is recognising service clues. Service clues can include the services itself, the layout of a retail outlet, the tone of voice of the service employees, and so on.
Organisations that orchestrate the sum total of all the service clues can create an optimal experience for their customers.
Attention to detail
Customers constantly filter a barrage of clues, organising them into a set of rational and emotional impressions. Collectively, they become an experience.
Customer experience means the “takeaway” impression formed by their encounters with products, services and businesses, that is, the perception formed when customers consolidate sensory information.
They form perceptions based on the performance of the service (functional clues), the tangibles associated with the service (mechanic clues), and the behaviour and appearance of service employees (humanic clues).
Functional clues may be either performance or context-based. Functional clues relate to the product or service, for example, the bank did or did not dispense the right amount of cash or the hotel did or did not honour the room reservation.
Yet, over and above the performance of the service, functional clues are telegraphed by the appearance of the ATM, legibility of the print on the receipt, the décor at the branch, cleanliness, the demeanour of the bank teller, and a host of other signals.
Unmanaged, these clues may cancel each other out and leave no net positive impression on the customer, or worse, induce a strong net negative perception.
There are two types of context clues. “Mechanic Clues” are the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and textures generated by things, for example, facility design, graphics, scents and music.
“Humanic clues” are engineered by defining and choreographing the desired behaviour of employees involved in the customer encounter.
Humanic clues determine the interpersonal relationships in a customer experience, that is, how service employees make their potential and regular customers feel.
Empowering service personnel to deal with customer problems “on the spot” is unlikely to have consistent success unless employees are selected for, and trained in, the service micro-skills needed to sense customer reactions to service encounter clues and respond appropriately.
Humanic clues are most effective when they are integrated with mechanic clues. For example, in a retail space, the payment experience will have a higher positive impact on the perceptions of customers when the employee looks them in the eye.
Some hotels make it a practice to sculpt a copy of their logo in the sand when they clean their floorstanding ash trays.
This simple mechanics clue accomplishes two things. First, it allows management to monitor the activities of hourly employees, ensuring that they take care of important details and leave behind tangible evidence that they have done so.
The logo in the sand also communicates to guests that the company takes pride in paying attention to detail, that management is dedicated to keeping the property clean.
Engineering an experience begins with the deliberate setting of a targeted customer perception and results in the successful registration of that perception in the customer’s mind.
Systematically designing and orchestrating the signals generated by products, services and the environment is the means to that end. Several paths can lead to customer preference, through managing the functional, mechanic and humanic clues.
McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc has successfully institutionalised his personal dedication to providing customers with a uniform dining experience in a spotlessly clean environment.
Kroc’s view that McDonald’s was in the business of selling experiences, not hamburgers, led him to orchestrate the specific experience he wanted his customers to have.
He made the kitchen visible to customers to show off its cleanliness and positioned the French fries, beverage and hamburger stations to choreograph employee movement and suggest speed, that is, “fast” food. This design was replicated in all his restaurants, in effect, mass-producing the McDonald’s experience.
The late Walt Disney is an example of the visionary who consciously embedded clues in his cartoons and theme parks to create the unique Disney experience.
The estimated wait times posted at each attraction set expectation levels that are regularly improved upon in actuality. Trash containers are always in view, sending a message that littering is not okay here. These are a small sample of the tens of thousands of service experience clues carefully planted in Disney theme parks.
Kroc and Disney created and managed service clues to engineer what their customers expect from, and feel about, their companies.
Service clue management promises to become a new frontier in services marketing. Functional, mechanic and humanic clues play specific roles in creating the customer’s service experience, influencing both rational and emotional perceptions of service quality.
If systematically crafted into a positive net impression, the service clues promote customer preference, which the company can leverage to differentiate itself from other companies selling commodity-like products and services.
Article by Seow Bee Leng, principal trainer of Continuum Learning. She focuses on a wide range of customer service competencies including service clues, service values, service climate, EQ @ service and service micro-skills.