Our senses take in vastly more information than our conscious minds. Successful companies get this: they know that our experience of a company or product or service is about so much more than just the point of sale. Customer experience is increasingly the source of competitive advantage. Yet most businesses ignore sensory information along the buying journey.

Something in the air

If you had been watching from a distance, you would have seen a bunch of men in grey suits talking business strategy. But in the room, we could sense something much more interesting. Although everyone looked perfectly normal and was behaving in an entirely civilised way, there was a powerful tension in the air.

It was a board meeting that I had been invited to attend along with my colleague Helen. About half of the executives favoured holding on to business as usual, which, after all, had sustained the company for the past 40 years. The others were modernisers, wanting big changes to meet the powerful market forces they felt threatened the business’s very survival.

Had we merely read the minutes of the meeting, or heard about it second-hand, we might have got a vague sense of uncertainty about where the business was going. But by being there, in the moment, we were left in no doubt that this was absolutely a company at a crossroads. Until the board resolved this existential debate about future strategy, they wouldn’t be able to move on.

The realm of the senses

Why is it so much more powerful to experience things directly rather than mediated through, say, a document or a set of customer statistics? Ultimately, it’s about our senses [i]. It’s estimated that in conscious activities like reading, the human brain can process approximately 50 bits of information per second. Contrast that with the astounding bandwidth of your senses, which process around 11 million bits of information every second, whether you’re aware they’re doing so or not [ii]. It was once said of former US president Gerald Ford that he couldn’t walk down the street and chew gum at the same time. But if we had to think about the simple actions of everyday life using the feeble bandwidth of our conscious mind, we’d have trouble breathing, let alone walking to the water-cooler. Most of what we do happens without conscious control.

Experience – doing, seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, tasting – is more powerful, more immediate and more likely to stay in our memories.

It’s why Helen and I knew we’d been at a pivotal, do-or-die board meeting rather than a routine discussion. We could sense, pinpoint and name the palpable anxiety in the room between those who wanted to stay as business-as-usual and those advocating radical change. Because we’re attuned to sensing (we are all trained in interpretative phenomenological analysis and in psychology using transactional analysis) we could identify what our senses and emotions were telling us and use this to break through the impasse in the room and find a way forward.

Customer experience: the new competitive edge

Many years ago when I was the ops director for an automotive component factory, I used to shut the factory down for one day a year and take the entire workforce on coaches to spend the day with a customer. This involved several hundred people, from skilled and semi-skilled operators to production and quality engineers and maintenance staff.  Having the factory effectively shut down for the day was expensive. But making it possible for our staff to know, see and sense what it was like for their counterparts in the customer’s OEM business was invaluable. They could actually see and know where and how the parts they made were used, what the difficulties of assembly and test were and how critical the whole operation was. They also built relationships with the customers’ assembly staff and began to see that the impact of their work went way beyond our factory walls. My staff were able to take in and use the information using their ‘whole selves’.

The power of our senses is one of the reasons why there’s something of a revolution under way in the world of customer experience, which we identified as the next competitive battleground in our 2009 book Creating and Delivering your Value Proposition. The basic idea of customer experience is well understood. Today, customers have more choice, more information and more power, so they need more than just attractive pricing and features. They need a positive customer experience at every stage of their buying journey:

Human touch

Customer touchpoints need to be designed and monitored by real people with real senses. This can’t be left to the customer analytics of Big Data, where the sensory elements of what it means to be human have been lost in the technology. This loss of the human element is crucial.

Some companies understand this. Based on “human touch”, the Mercedes approach to customer experience has a surprisingly broad remit, from showrooms that are also restaurants, to service appointments prompted by the car itself, to “product concierges” who help with your day-to-day use of the car.

What’s interesting about the Mercedes model is that like Apple and its highly experience-based retail stores, it covers every stage of the buying process, providing a blueprint for experience throughout the whole customer journey. Contrast this with Sony whose products and retail stores are perfunctory. The stores aim is to sell product, not to let the shopper experience the product-in-use.

Do you know what it’s like to be your customer?

The most important starting point for creating positive customer experience is to understand what your customers are experiencing right now, using all their senses. Few organisations truly have this insight. But unless you know what it’s like to be your customer, you’re setting off on a journey without knowing where you are starting from.

Like my old automotive employer, you could get your people to experience things from your customer’s perspective. Or like Sony, you could ignore this for a downward spiral of profit warnings.

What do you do to sense and understand your customer’s experience? Is your company reliant on technology to manage the customer experience and is this a help or a hindrance?

[i] Thanks to Dave Gray for the inspiration for this article http://www.davegrayinfo.com/ [ii] N.J.A. Sloane and Aaron D. Wyner (eds.), Claude Elwood Shannon: Collected Papers (1993), “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” and “Communication Theory of Secrecy System