The morality of customer experience

How many times have you used the words ‘morality’ and ‘profitability’ in the same sentence? I think I’ve done so several times in the past and not necessarily in the most positive of terms. ‘That’s just the way the world works’, my father would often tell me as a teenager.

There was an important ingredient missing, yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Ten years on and those two words can now co-exist in my vocabulary more peacefully than ever.

So, what does it mean, anyway?

Morality is defined as ‘a particular system of values and principles of conduct’. It sounds rather ambiguous. That’s because it is. It depends entirely on context, interpretation and intention.

From an individual’s perspective, morality takes its familiar meaning of doing right by yourself and others. For a business, profitability becomes their defining driver for ‘doing right’.

Whichever way you look at it, at its core, morality is a strategy for preservation. Without it, businesses and brands risk not doing right by the people they serve and losing the vital relationships that guarantee profitability and long term success.

Something in common

Both people and brands have values and vision. How we see ourselves, how we want to be treated – these are important things that can bind or divide us. The relationship we have with brands goes beyond image or style association – there is also service quality, principles and ethics to consider.

A lot of very successful brands fulfil a universal need that transcends all boundaries and reach out to a big portion of us. Android typify this in their “Be together. Not the same” campaign. Brands work tirelessly to connect with their customers, but what happens when things break? What happens when brands make mistakes and all we see is smoke and mirrors?

Whichever way you look at it, at its core, morality is a strategy for preservation.

A shared responsibility

Our dependency as customers leaves us excusing bad practices; responding with anything between a slap on the wrist to just plain ignoring it. Tobacco is a great example. Anyone who has seen the movie ‘Thank You For Smoking’ will understand that irrespective of all arguments for or against the habit, it won’t stem the demand. So long as companies are working within the law, morality and ethics don’t play a big part in business besides damage control.

I believe that human experience follows the path of least resistance and greatest benefit. We have a shared responsibility to voice and live out our moral beliefs, but at the end of the day, brands will give us exactly what we want. So there are degrees to which we forgive mistakes.

In August 2015, Nestle found itself in the middle of a damage control situation. They were accused of supporting slave labour and human trafficking through their supplier Costco Wholesale Corp by selling farmed shrimp from Thailand in their luxury cat food brand Fancy Feast. A perfect example of the old adage, ‘you’re only as strong as the weakest link in your supply chain’.

The question here is now that there has been a public apology and a promise to rectify the issue, will this scandal have really affected their sales? Are customers ready to forgive when the mistakes haven’t affected them directly? Inevitably, brands like Nestle will make mistakes like this; as long as they take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again, customers will happily continue to purchase their products.

Our dependency as customers leaves us excusing bad practices; responding with anything between a slap on the wrist to just plain ignoring it.

When it impacts the bottom line

Falling short of customer expectations can damage sales. Ultimately, the customer experience will suffer if a brand’s marketing proposition does not stack up against its brand promise.

Back in November we found out that Volkswagen were cheating on emissions tests in both the US and the EU. The gap between VW’s brand values and reality could not be greater in terms of trustworthiness and ecological sustainability. It was made worse by the nature of the scandal – this was a deliberate intention to evade tests and lie to customers about the product proposition. As serious as this was, many believe that VW customers don’t necessarily care about the scandal and would only care if it ended up costing them in extra road tax.

A big concern for brands is when bad customer experiences are not addressed and are allowed to repeat over the years. This is the case with npower – who, according to Ofgem, received the most complaints of any of the major energy firms in 2014. Due to a mounting number of complaints and a mass customer migration, npower has been left with declining profits and a bad reputation which will impact the business for a while to come.

By not addressing and fixing bad customer experiences, brands are shooting themselves in the foot and not working towards a successful preservation strategy. Whilst 88% of businesses think they deliver “excellent” customer experience, a meagre 8% of their customers agree (according to this WDS report). When brands have such poor understanding of their customers and their expectations, it can have a significant impact of their bottom line and future success.

Learning and adaptation

So long as brands have the ability to record, analyse and learn from their customers and operations, they should be on a path towards building and preserving successful relationships. When brands fail to do this, it can cost them dearly. The brands who have improved their customer experience over the last five years were rewarded with a cumulative return of 22%, whilst those who consistently provided bad customer experiences suffered -46% return. In an age where word travels fast through the collective consciousness of the internet, it is wise to boost up your morality factor and do right by the people you serve.

Ryanair lead the way in U-turning customers’ perceptions, formerly ranked as one of the worst customer experience brands in 2013. Their focus in reducing bad customer experiences, overhauling their digital presence and improving their brand voice and loyalty schemes saw a titanic uplift in traffic and revenue.

In order to harmonise moral integrity and financial success, it is vital to create great value for the customer whilst getting a fair reward for doing so. The problem becomes apparent when big profits are being made and little value is felt by the customer – this is how many brands can be truly branded as ‘immoral’.

Boosting your morality factor

If preservation and cohesion is the purpose of morality, it should be an imperative ingredient for brands. Brands need customers and customers need brands, the partnership works both ways.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you know the people that you serve? (customers, employees and stakeholders)
  • Can you anticipate their needs?
  • Do you know what expectations they have from your brand?
  • Are you capable of matching (or exceeding) these expectations?
  • Are your brand promise and values consistent throughout the business and supply chain?
  • Do you take a fair reward for your efforts and investments?

These are the questions brands should continuously ask themselves if they want to be on a path to higher customer satisfaction, loyalty and retention.

Finally, the question of why? Why do you do what you do? Profit is not the right answer – that is a result, not the reason why. Why should people believe in and stand by your brand? It should start with a good cause or a good intention. A desire to design for people and not for profit is morally correct and commercially rewarding in the long term. This is why I believe that morality is a fundamental ingredient for financial success.

To conclude, I leave you with a wise quote from the same man who rolled his eyes at his teenage daughter; with a smile he said, ’where there’s a will, there’s a way’.