I’m going to start this month with an apology. I’m late in writing this, late submitting it to RW Connect, and therefore late in it being published. To those of you who have been anxiously checking for my latest ramblings and spending sleepless nights worrying that I may have been taken offline by dark forces, I am truly sorry.

The reason I didn’t get this written is because I spent most of last week in Barcelona at a conference listening to a fantastic series of speakers from in and outside the research industry discuss consumers and what makes them tick. Now, I know I’m biased, but I found it one of the most thought-provoking and refreshing events I’ve ever been to. Instead of endlessly dressing up old ideas as new, and debating the  (underwhelming) discovery of a new type of regression that moves the R2 up from 0.34 to 0.36, we heard engaging, enlightening and thought-provoking presentations that challenge many of the assumptions that people make about human behaviour and how we measure and understand it.

One of the key takeouts for me was the power of a brand in influencing our decisions and emotions, and even our physical environment. If any of you doubt that a brand can affect your physical sensations I recommend you check out the excellent 2011 series of documentaries on ‘Secrets of the Superbrands’ that appeared on the BBC in the UK – especially the unbranded baked beans test.

So, how often do we think about the brand when we look at the customer experience
Two or three years ago, I’d have said never. In fact, researchers often acted as if they were chalk and cheese. At best we’d throw a few brand-esque statements into an attribute list and then, after they came out low in the key drivers analysis, we’d comment on how the actual experience was more important than ethereal ideas like ‘brand’.

The good news is that I’m seeing encouraging signs that this is changing. As an industry we seem to be waking up to the fact that brand and experience are inextricably linked – you simply cannot have one without the other. Yet that poses an interesting challenge – how exactly do we bring these two sides together, and what does it mean for customer experience research if we do so?

Bringing the two sides together
Well, here’s my attempt to answer that little conundrum!

Firstly, I’m going to declare my position: I think the absence of ‘brand’ has been one of the bigger mistakes we’ve made in how we handle customer experience research – with the result that it has skewed our entire thinking behind what we mean when we talk about a ‘customer experience’.

Remember … consumers buy products and services with an expectation in mind already.
That expectation is based on the brand image and a brand promise.  How a customer feels about the service provided depends on whether that experience matches what they were promised.  If the experience exceeds expectation, they feel pleased – possibly even delighted. If it matches the expectation, they feel satisfied. But if the experience is below expectation, you’ll have a series of unhappy customers and a problem on your hands.

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

Here’s an example of it in action. When you fly with a budget airline, you know what you’re getting.  The service will be basic, there’ll be no free food but you’ll pay less.  But, fly with a premium airline and get budget service, you will find yourself aggrieved.

What does this mean for the way we treat customer experience measurement?
Well, take a look at the internet and the many managed providers who promise to help companies with their customer experience.  So many of them talk about ‘excellent customer experiences’, yet how many of them actually define what that means in any form of hard or measurable term?  A few will advocate some metric or other, but beneath that there’s often a lack of real thinking behind why an experience has been rated as it has.

Fundamentally, this means we need to rethink what we’re trying to achieve when we look at the customer experience.  We need to accept that all activities a brand undertakes are intended to build that brand’s image in people’s minds, whether through advertising and promotion, word of mouth or the experiences they deliver. A truly successful customer experience is therefore one which reflects on the brand promise – whatever that may be.  It’s fine to deliver a low quality experience, if that is all you promised, but if you promise more, you must deliver more.

Adopting a holistic approach to measurement
For those of you still reading, this means we need to take a more holistic view when measuring customer experiences.  It’s not good enough to come up with a score based on performance ratings and look at where the gaps are largest; directing our clients  to perfect performance in an attempt to create some form of customer nirvana where all their wildest dreams are met.

If we’re to give our clients meaningful analysis, we still need to assess whether the experience is generating satisfied and loyal customers who will give your brand positive word of mouth, but we also need to look at how well the experience matches the brand promise – is it supporting or undermining it, and therefore driving or damaging the brand?

Inevitably, we will find some examples of perfectly balanced brands where the service and promises are in lock-step but the customers are unhappy.  In that situation we have to accept it and guide our clients that it’s not the experience that is being poorly delivered, it’s that there is a dis-connect with the brand promise and what their customer desires.

This is going to require us to think about the whole experience arena in a different way – the goal posts have moved and we need to stop focusing on the delivery of ‘excellence’ and move on to the delivery  of ‘Authenticity’.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s ramble – and that it was worth the wait!

Simon Wood is Head of Stakeholder Management Research at TNS UK.

The views expressed in this blog posting are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TNS, nor of its associated companies.