Much to be gained by putting yourself in customers' shoes

Customer experience immersion was the topic of a keynote David McQuillen, VP of customer experience and "Voice of the Customer" for Credit Suisse in Zurich, Switzerland, gave at a recent conference on catalog and Internet marketing.

Customer experience immersion was the topic of a keynote David McQuillen, VP of customer experience and "Voice of the Customer" for Credit Suisse in Zurich, Switzerland, gave at a recent conference on catalog and Internet marketing.

It is his job to help senior executives at the traditional and proud financial services giant see how customers actually interact with the bank's staff, forms, Web site, or help desk to better understand the brand experience.

As McQuillen tells it, it is not easy to convince the senior ranks that doing so will be both instructive and constructive, and that walking in the customers' shoes is not just a PR exercise, or an attempt to humiliate and embarrass the participant. The exercises take on many forms, from literally walking into a branch and standing in line, to filling out a form to open a new account.

So how much do in-house PR executives or agency leaders consider the "customer" experience, as opposed to simply looking at the results of individual efforts? Even in the most consultative and senior relationships between communications and other executive management, there is a service function to the PR department as a whole. Every level of the team has an impact on the reputation of the function, and how they interact with others in the company will influence the perception of the discipline, not just the department.

On the agency side, prospective clients may find it hard to reach someone appropriate by navigating a difficult Web site (why, oh why, are phone numbers so buried?) or reading through marketing materials. Existing clients might dread the agency phone call, as it results in more work for them or ideas out of context.

Or the converse may be true - perhaps clients have difficulty getting their account people on the phone? Do they feel like a small fish in a big pond?

It would be hard to diagnose these kinds of problems without a little experiential research of your own, which is a good idea. Even the most loyal "customers" sometimes have a perception of the function that runs sharply counter to the image that PR wants to project.

I recently had a conversation with the CEO of a small company who retains a PR firm, but does not have an in-house communications person. He is thinking about building out his internal capabilities, but is concerned about not having the layer between him and the PR efforts.

I'm paraphrasing, but the upshot of what he said was: "Our PR agency is usually nagging us about something. That's fine when they don't 'live' here, but do I want that kind of annoyance inside the company?" Bear in mind this is not a marketing novice talking.

Find out what your stakeholders experience, beyond the conventional reporting of results. Walk into your office or department, and see who greets you and how. Try calling the department after 5:30, and see who you get and what they can do for you. Look for the phone number for your Mexico City office on your Web site. The only way to truly comprehend the experience of your customers and stakeholders is to have the experience yourself.

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