On Customer Experience and Branding in Tech
Imagine that it is sometime around August 1997. You are in the room with Larry Page and Sergei Brin as they prepare to launch the Google.com website later that year having successfully piloted Backrub, the precursor to Google. Let us assume that they have figured out all the technical details around how the search engine will work (algorithm etc). But then there is that small but important piece of the puzzle that remains. What should the actual end to end experience be like? From the time you land on the page to when you run a search query and get sent to a resulting website ? Especially important given that theirs is not the first ever search engine. Imagine that they turned to you for a few words of advice. What would you have told them? Be honest.
Now imagine it is five years from now and you are part of a 3 person team that has successfully tested a new technology that makes it possible to transfer 1 Gigabyte of data across the world in 10 seconds through a mobile phone without using an internet connection of any kind (don’t ask me how, you should know since you are part of the team that built it) . Your team is looking to bring this technology to market through an innovative product / service and you are saddled with the responsibility of figuring out how the prospective customers/users would discover and experience your product/service. From discovery to transaction and beyond. What would you propose?
Those were the thoughts on my mind earlier in the year when I was asked by the indefatigable Judith Okonkwo, to deliver a 30 minute talk on “Branding and customer experience in tech” to an audience consisting of a number of African innovators in the field of extended reality (XR) as part of the Imisi 3d AR/VR Africa initiative. Considering that the subject is indeed a vast one and that I am nothing even close to an expert on the topic, I did what I am sure anyone reading this article would have done. I said: “Yes of course!”
This article is inspired by that short talk but be warned that it probably poses more questions than answers as I seek to gain more understanding in this area.
The first thing that I noticed as I poked around the internet looking for information and data points for my talk was that while there is a ton of material out there about customer experience and branding for businesses , it was tough to find anything that really spoke to the persona of an early stage technical founder or cofounder looking to bring their cutting edge technology innovation to the market for the first time.
Or to put it another way, what did Dean Kamen for example wish someone had told him about customer experience and branding as he prepared to launch the Segway in 2001 that he ended up having to learn the hard way?
Let us start with a few definitions to set the stage. What is customer experience and how does it relate to branding?
According to hotjar
Customer experience, also known as CX, is your customers’ holistic perception of their experience with your business or brand. CX is the result of every interaction a customer has with your business, from navigating the website to talking to customer service and receiving the product/service they bought from you.
While this page on Oberlo tells us that
Branding is the process of creating a strong, positive perception of a company, its products or services in the customer’s mind
I like the way that the people at mcorpcx summarized the relationship between two as follows:
In summary, brand sets customer expectations for experience. Customer experience is how well you deliver on those expectations.
Customer experience and branding is important because according to hotjar, if your customers / users have a great experience with your product / service, they are likely to come back and even better say good things about you to other people, especially those who trust them. This is the dream of every product or business owner.
In the context of technology startups / products , there is the tendency to mistake customer experience with user experience (UX) i.e what the user experiences when they interact with your product or service (e.g website or app) but from the definitions above you can see that customer experience is a way more holistic view of the interaction between your business / service and the user/customer.
To better grasp this , let us look at 3 key elements of customer experience:
Product / Service Experience
The product or service is the actual thing you are selling or how you create value. In this area you want to be thinking about how easy and seamless you make it for people to use/consume your product/service. A lot of people think that this is the end all and be all of the customer experience. While this is not exactly the case, it is certainly the central piece and where most innovation starts.
Most times people create the product and then think about how the customer will interact with it, but Steve Jobs said:
“You’ve got to start with the Customer Experience and work back toward the Technology, not the other way around”
This of course is easier said than done because doing this requires a thorough understanding of the desired customer experience. This is tough except in the case where the developers or builders of the product are of the same persona as the customer. A typical example of this in the tech space is software developer tools where developers are builders and developers are the users/customers. This also happens a lot in the world of open source as Eric Raymond showed us in his great write up about the cathedral and the bazaar.
I believe product experience is the area most familiar to many early stage tech innovators as it is directly connected to their comfort zone i.e the product/ technology aspects of new product / service development which probably explains why this area has the most content and knowledge openly available online even down to building great product experiences for specific product niches in tech. (e.g. see the google search results for building a great eCommerce website)
Sales Experience refers to what people experience and feel when transacting with you for access to your product / service. Transaction here refers to way more than just the exchange of cash for the desired product/service.
Depending on the nature of your product or service, some of the questions that you will be looking to answer would include everything from what happens when the customer discovers your product to when they transact , everything in between and even after. This of course assumes that you have already figured out your business model (bluntly put: how you will operate the business sustainably and make money)
For the likes of Amazon it means everything from when you search for goods on their website to the unboxing experience when you receive an order. For Apple, it includes the entire experience at the Apple store. For SAAS providers it would include things like the billing experience (e.g. the implementation of resource based pricing where customers are billed based only on the resources used or deployed on their behalf). For an enterprise based business , it includes the way your sales team engages potential customers and upsells existing ones.
So for your innovation , you want to really think about what you want the sales experience to be.
While there is some educational content out there around sales experience best practices, I could not find much of anything around how to think about building the ultimate sales experience for new early stage technology products and services given a broad business model (with the exception of standard e-commerce)
Here we are concerned about what users or customers do when things do not go according to plan or when they have questions about how to use your product or service.
I like to break the Support Experience into two broad components. First there is the category we are all used to which is the reactive support. This is concerned with what happens when the customer needs help while interacting with your product or service. This has to do with your standard support channels e.g phone, email, ticketing system and the works. There is the second component which is proactive support. This has to do with everything you do to prevent the customer or user from needing reactive support in the first place. Examples include product documentation of all types (user manuals , product documentation, developer API/ SDK documentation., step by step developer guides etc). Also in this category are all manner of community/customer programs/initiatives carried out with the aim of educating the community and creating a peer support network. This component of the support experience is in my opinion the most crucial because as Bill Watson the VP of customer support at Okta once said:
“The best kind of support issue is the one that you never have to have”.
The support experience is probably the most overlooked aspect of the customer experience when it comes to new product development in tech or launching new technologies. This is not without good reason as usually the priority is first on building the product or service, then on selling it (revenue) before you even start thinking about how to support it. However, those who know will tell you that things go a lot easier and customers are a lot happier when the support experience is taken into consideration at the product or service design stage instead of being bolted on as an afterthought.
There is an entire body of knowledge dedicated to this called supportability which looks at how you take customer support into consideration when you design a product or service. However, from my limited research it appears that this body of knowledge has been dedicated to mostly traditional product development / engineering environments or the bigger companies and not enough has been done around best practices for more agile or early stage environments. Personally I would like to know things like what happened on the day that the Collison Brothers launched Stripe. What plan did they have for the first developers who would run into issues using their service? If they were to do it all over again would they do it the same way?
If there is anything I learned as I briefly dug into this area, it is that customer experience is a very mature body of knowledge in the classical sense with a lot of content covering traditional products and businesses. However when you look for information relevant to business and product models in tech, specifically the new and high growth tech (i.e tech startups) , I found that it was harder and harder to find. Even worse when you are looking for information relevant to startups or innovators in emerging market regions (Africa, Middle East, South / South East Asia, LATAM).
This is especially interesting given that a number of individuals and companies have done this successfully several times. Would be great to learn more about how they did it.
If you know of any resources out there that would enable me or others to learn more about this area, please share.