Def Leppard's “Action! Not Words!,” blasted from the speakers in my car. I had cranked up the volume after leaving from a client's office with my tail between my legs. To my surprise, this song was appropriately cued up. Appropriate, because the purpose of my sales call was to apologize for a botched order. The customer's response was, “It's one thing to say you've got the best service in town. It's another thing entirely to deliver on those words with action.” That's when it occurred to me that the Def Leppard song would make a great motto for an electrical wholesaler.

The customer experience factor

Store décor, staffing, inventory, product selection and timely delivery speak much louder than any worn-out phrases we profess to believe. These elements are visual representations of the actions we take. The sum of these parts equals the customer experience factor — a mental scorecard a customer uses to grade your performance against his expectations. Meet expectations and you'll receive a “5” on a score of 1 to 10. Congratulations. You're average. Disappoint a customer and your score may fall to a 2 or 3. Do it often enough and you might end up on another mental list — the “Never Again As Long As I Live” list. Only by exceeding customers' expectations can you ever hope to raise the score. Raise it often enough and you'll earn their loyalty.

Customer Experience Management (CEM) is a methodology and discipline for improving the customer experience factor. Of course, you're already managing the customer experience to an extent. But, the real power of CEM is only tapped when every channel of customer interaction is carefully, intentionally administered. By every channel, I mean phone, sales counter, warehouse, Web presence, staff appearance and any other impression point between your company and the customer.

Even though intellectually you may accept the idea that CEM is a valid strategy, it's important to understand that it isn't easy to implement. In fact, most businesses fail to deliver a compelling customer experience even after admitting that CEM makes sense. Often, it's just a matter of using the right tools. The following three tools provide the foundation for building an exceptional customer experience unique to your customers.

Tool #1. See through the customer's eyes

John Daniels, manager of Average Electrical Wholesale, walked into the sales counter the morning after a heavy rain and noticed a roof leak had discolored one of the ceiling tiles with a muddy black stain. I'll have to get that changed, he thought. But customers were waiting, the phone was ringing and John was pulled into the busyness of the day. The next morning, John noticed the stain again and made a mental note. And the days turn into weeks. Gradually, the stain becomes invisible to John. He no longer notices it, but “The Customer” still sees it. And, as irrational as it may seem, The Customer makes a connection — a micro-association — between the stain and the service. He begins to think that John doesn't care as much as he once did.

Am I exaggerating? Tom Beebe, former Chairman of Delta Airlines, didn't think so. He told employees, “Coffee stains on the flip down tray may make a passenger wonder if we pay attention to engine maintenance.” For four bucks and 10 minutes, John could have headed this perception off at the pass. Again, this may not be rational or fair, but arguing the point is senseless. The customer's perception of your sales counter, office, warehouse and dozens of other little impression points influence buying decisions. Change the ceiling tile, sweep the floor and wipe off the dust. Pay attention to details. See your business through the eyes of the customer.

Law #2. Listen to the customer

John thinks he's a good listener, but like most people, he filters what he's hearing through his own point of view. This causes John to jump to conclusions before the customer is through speaking. At other times, John is a selective listener. Remember when your parents said to you, “You only hear what you want to hear.” John is like that. One customer says something favorable about the service and it goes straight to his head. But, when another customer walks up and tells him the restroom is dirty, he dismisses him as being OCD. No matter how plain the words, John can never hear exactly what the other person says, because he cannot bring to the moment his undivided and unemotional attention. Active listening requires intense empathy. Act as if the person talking is the only one in the room. Then pretend the information you're about to receive is a matter of life or death. If it were, I guarantee you would suddenly develop listening skills to rival Superman.

Law #3. Empower all employees

The phrase, “You'll have to talk to the manager,” emasculates the employee who has to say it and infuriates the customer who has to hear it. In the language of the consumer, this is known as “the runaround.” The needs and demands of customers vary daily and employees must be empowered to handle any situation. When you empower employees it transfers confidence to them and gives the customer an impression of competence. Richard Kessler, owner of Kesslers Diamonds, tells his employees, “When you're helping a customer, you are the company. If a decision needs to be made, make it. Do whatever you think I would do.”

When asked about employee mistakes, Richard admits, “One time in 10, I'll wish an employee had done something different. But that's a price I'm willing to pay to get the other nine fabulous decisions.” Remember, Richard is selling diamonds. If he can trust his employees to make decisions that carry that kind of price, shouldn't you be able to trust frontline employees to use discernment when helping customers? If you're not comfortable with giving employees total latitude, then set a dollar limit for what they can and can't do. For example, one manager places a $100 ceiling on returns employees can accept at their discretion. Even then, teach employees something else to say besides, “You'll have to speak to the manager.”

Action! Not words

Every business provides a customer experience. Most of the time, it's by default. Most of the time, it's simply a matter of following what others have done before. But the great businesses — the ones that have become household names, like Apple, Starbucks and Nike — design every detail of the customer experience. They understand that any chest-thumping words of self-aggrandizement sound hollow and that a compelling customer experience smacks of action. They sing the song of Def Leppard.

As the final chorus of “Action! Not Words!” fades away, take a minute to think of the many tired phrases those words could replace. “Best service in town.” … “The customer is king.” … “Fast service, friendly staff and fair prices.” As a customer, I know that when I hear these empty clichés I'm reminded of how the adults sound in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, “Wa-wah. Wa, wa, wah.” Show us, don't tell us, our customers silently plead. Customer loyalty isn't earned by the words you say, but by the actions you take.

What Customers Really Want

A 2004 survey taken by the IBM Institute for Business Value revealed that the key drivers of customer loyalty are the person-to-person and in-store experience. In fact, the scoring in these two areas was triple the response to “pricing and value.” (So much for the belief that all customers buy on price.) What customers really want is personal attention. They want to do business with a company who can turn an ordinary transaction into a compelling customer experience.

The author is the founder of High Voltage Performance, a consulting firm that specializes in designing customer experiences for the industrial marketplace. Dandridge has 25 years of experience in electrical wholesale distribution and authored the book, Business Turnaround. He is available for speaking engagements and can be contacted by phone at (254) 624-6299 or by e-mail at md@theperformancepro.com. Read more about his idea for “Customer Experience Architecture” at www.highvoltageperformance.com and check out his blog at www.businessturnaround.blogs.com.