The CEO’s guide to surviving a customer experience catastrophe

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A recent Harris Poll finds 43 percent of US consumers would willingly select an inferior product, as long as it was from a brand they enjoy interacting with. But that same poll finds 65 percent of consumers would no longer use your brand if they receive bad service, even if they love the product. This plays out time and time again when I talk to customers, regardless of industry. You can have the best products and services but it won’t matter. Fail on customer experience, you fail as a business.

Customers and shareholders may be willing to forgive you but even if they are, the repercussions of a damaged reputation linger indefinitely in the digital age. Think of it as digital residue that clings to and follows your brand, tough to ever completely shake off. As leaders, how can we ensure we have the right strategies in place to help prevent and survive customer experience catastrophes?

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Begin with leadership. If social has done nothing else, it’s stripped away the divide that once separated brands and people. Brands ARE people these days, at least in the minds of consumers, and as such they are held to the same standards as a work colleague or a friend – they must show personality, and behave appropriately. In light of this, leadership matters now more than ever. Choosing leaders who have empathy, a sense of responsibility, and personal courage makes it easier to instill the right values across the organization, and ensure customers are treated with respect.

Pay closer attention to the reality of your culture. It’s easy to assume we’re living out the culture we’ve defined on paper, but is that how people really experience it? As leaders, we need to get closer to the real pulse of our company culture, and make sure we are eliciting feedback from people across the organization to ensure we stay true to those values. Ask people at every level, “If you were to run this company, what would you change?” and humbly listen.

Make social a CEO problem. Leadership and culture feed into social media strategy – which is huge in shaping the way customers experience your brand. Social enables direct customer interaction, which presents both opportunities and threats. We have one chance to get it right on social after a customer experience catastrophe, and whatever our response is it has to be sincere. Customers respect unconditional apologies, followed by a move towards meaningful change. Arrogance, pride and defensiveness will only harm you further.

Ensure a seamless customer experience across channels. The norms of digital culture dictate our customers’ expectations for how they access and experience our brands. We’re gaining headway through technology to meet these expectations. Bridging the gap between the various parts of your business that interface directly with customers – social customer service teams, marketing organizations, sales teams – is the way to ensure customers get a consistent experience of your brand. It also ensures that if a customer communicates a concern to one particular department, the rest of the organization is made aware.

Use digital channels to get a handle on what your customers want. Pepsi recently removed the entire ill-conceived “Live for Now Moments” campaign with Kendall Jenner in less than 24 hours due to consumer backlash. That was the right response, but would they have been able to avoid it entirely by listening more closely to their customers in advance of the campaign? Maybe by tapping their social channels to get closer to their customers? Just like having the pulse on our company culture, we need to do a better job of having our finger on the pulse of customer desires and experience.

Let’s be clear. We are human, so we’re going to make mistakes. But with the right values, choices, strategies, training and responses in place, we can ensure mistakes don’t turn into catastrophes and create a customer-first culture. At the end of the day, we must remember people love us for how we make them feel. That’s customer experience in a nutshell.