Selling services has always been about relationships, but the challenges of building relationships with services clients have exploded. Customers today extrapolate their relationships not only from personal contact but from every aspect of their interface with your company, including web site and social media interactions, access to peer reviews, as well as the actual services experience.
In addition, as every business becomes instantly global via the Internet, it’s virtually impossible for you to touch every customer personally. Thus service experiences and relationships tend to be based more and more on new media and technology. Customers today may actually feel a personal relationship, or an unsatisfying one, without ever interacting with you or your team.
I saw these modern challenges and some positive guidance summarized in the classic book, “Service Excellence,” by Ruth N. Bolton, a distinguished Marketing Educator Award winner at the W.P. Carey School of Business. I agree with her focus on six challenging characteristics, both old and new, of every services business:
- The intangibility of customer experience with services. Customer service experiences can’t be seen, felt, tasted, or touched in the same way that people interact with tangible goods. Services experiences are different for each client, so it’s important to customize experiences and timing per customer. If your business doesn’t offer personalized services, don’t expect good relationships.
- Relationships are a function of customer culture. For consistency and efficiency, services companies have traditionally minimized personalization. Yet today, people of every culture worldwide expect every relationship to relate to their unique perspective. Companies need service strategies that increase spontaneity to enhance experiences.
- Experiences are more visible to other customers. In some cases, such as in a hair salon, services are delivered in view of other customers who may be impacted by your experience. In all cases, experience details are quickly and easily communicated to others via Facebook or Yelp, meaning a relationship will impact many others very quickly.
- Services experiences cannot be inventoried. Service organizations must find effective ways to manage capacity and thereby match the supply and timeliness of services with customers’ usage of them. It is very important for service companies to use and market peak-load pricing, seasonal, and customer scheduling without impacting relationships.
- Infusing technology within the customer experience. Customers now expect services to be more technology-enabled, such as online banking, parcel tracking, transportation on demand, and smart home security. The overall experience and relationship derived are more and more set by the technology interaction, rather than personal interaction.
- New media shapes and reflects the customer experience. Unlike traditional media, which is not interactive, social media provides for and customers expect targeted, personalized, and socially responsible communications. These become a key part of your engagement and relationship, and also define community and demographic associations.
The rise of the “sharing economy” has sparked intense interest in services that allow people to co-produce the service in new ways, such as Airbnb for accommodation and Uber for transportation services. Thus your relationship needs to consider ways that customers can participate through spontaneous and discretionary contributions to your services, with variations for each market segment.
It’s time for all services organizations to take a future-oriented view of customer experience and relationships, rather than the traditional retrospective view. Services are no longer a simple people-to-people business. Relationships and experiences are now driven more and more by interactive media and smart technology. If your services business isn’t innovating with the market, it’s falling behind.