Decades into the experience economy, many companies still struggle to transition from a product to a consumer centric focus i.e. one that embraces the wider customer experience. For traditional businesses that pride themselves on the quality of their product, embracing the intangible is particularly difficult. A challenge, which is compounded in locations where companies haven’t had to compete internationally, and instead generate business through local networks. Word of Mouth for these players has been working a long time, and in their favour. The last few years of recession however have impacted somewhat negatively upon a lot of businesses, making regular sales challenging. The Return on Investment (ROI) or the tool that seeks to measure the likely return on money invested in an economic endeavour (primarily used to help decide whether or not to undertake an investment), therefore would seem to be an essential tool for today’s economic climate and competition. And given an impending visit to Ireland, North and South of the border, I thought I’d take a closer look to test practise.
Belfast, a fairly insular city due to historical conflict and a consequent siege mentality, is only 100miles away from Dublin, the Republic’s innovative capital. For the Republic, risk taking is embedded in the culture given the necessity to operate as a financially independent state. Risk is equated with survival, success and adventure. A devil-may-care attitude allows businesses investigate and explore new options, and perceive failing as part of the process. Better do anything than stand perfectly still. In the North however, risk taking is perceived as, well risky.
In my Belfast search I came across S.D. Bells, a tea and coffee merchant (and a cafe in more recent times) established a century ago, in 1887. A business with the kind of backstory to create a unique service encounter, but upon entry to the premises I began to revise my expectation. I approached the counter (separate to the cafe) to find a reception unworthy of the word ‘service’ despite the rows of tea and coffee carefully stacked up in perfect, loving alignment. My regular questions were answered defensively and a few purchase options reluctantly recommended. After considerable effort I purchased a winter redbush tea and ground coffee and made my way to the cafe section, probably best described as a canteen. The only effort to soften this blow was a strip of wallpaper and non-expensive red lamp shades, the kind you might find in a living room about 20 years ago. I ordered a coffee and sat to watch, expecting to find other customers echoing my bewilderment. I for one couldn’t fathom how a business (especially one with a history as theirs) could disregard the potential to create a wider customer experience. But as I sat and tried to make sense of the scene, suddenly I understood; the clientele weren’t here for an experience, they came for a cup of coffee. It didn’t matter that it was served in plain white cups, that the environment was dated or that the only attempt to put the brand forward was a thin paper doily that had the name of the brand. The customer was oblivious. This cohort hadn’t bought into the ‘experience’ as generations in the last few decades in more forward thinking cities had. And the purveyors were happy doing business as they always had. The coffee was good, or good enough – take it or leave it.
I stepped out into the rain and walked the distance to the city and realised that sometimes customers are blind to the concept of experience as much as the purveyor is blind to the customer. An equation that has probably worked OK for a long time, long before the competition businesses faced today. Before the onset of the experience economy. And in societies that have endured years of conflict, businesses may feel protected because customers are unlikely to frequent competition from the ‘opposite’ side, thus guaranteeing livelihoods. Meanwhile 100 miles down the road the Republic busily wrestle to secure business not just from domestic custom but from a global market. 3fe, another coffee purveyor, provides just one example of company with a hunger to understand their next move. In many regards they have had to, because competition is rife and great customer experience means business. Game on. Return of Investment, in whatever form it takes, is a further help on the battlefield to understand more, to invest wisely and ultimately compete harder strategically. All the more necessary given the incessant grooming of customers for decades to seek new-improved experiences and the resultant pressures upon businesses to catch up and deliver. The intangibles in this industry are essential; the difference between survival and failure sometimes. And any tool that can help measure impact to guide and steer strategy and direction is vital to offset the current-day pressure load. Unsure as I may have been at the outset, I discovered that ROI has a valid place in the toolbox of service design. Like every other tool, its application depends heavily upon the context and the culture of each business, and as competition gets increasingly fierce, it may well become a vital tool of survival in the future.