The KISS Approach to Customer Experience: Moving from Process-Oriented Production to Creating Sales

March 4, 2013

In light of recent advancements in technology, it would seem that communicating with our customers should be getting easier. Unfortunately, many Marketing departments have shown a penchant for using unnecessarily complicated language that either damages or ruins the customer experience. There is a way out of this quagmire—using the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) approach to customer experience.

I am a mentor for a local technology-startup business accelerator called Hatch. I am having a wonderful time working with a bunch of bright, young people. In fact, every time I interact with them, I walk away refreshed. The energy is almost palpable.

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These young entrepreneurs have created some innovative products that are technically sound. Within each company, I have found a high level of technical skills. (That seems natural.) In addition, they understand and use many of the latest social-media platforms to communicate: they tweet, set up Facebook pages and LinkedIn Accounts. They Skype and send mass email messages. They’re familiar with the latest iPhone apps, understand much of wireframing, and know how to use Dropbox.

However, as I worked with them, it struck me that—though they have specialized, process-oriented skills in particular disciplines—they have a nearly complete lack of understanding of the communication skills that lead to successful customer journeys. In other words, even though they’ve created products that could sell, most lack the key to sales, repeat business, and long-term success: the ability to describe why anyone would want to purchase their products.

In this article, I’ll show you how you need to think to create customer experiences that lead to sales. None of these outcomes happens until you make sales. Lots of sales!

Motivating Sales: Customers Are People, Not Things

Technological advances are in large part to blame for much of the trouble. Many established companies—not just startups—have lost sight of the basic reality that their market is made of people, not gadgets. To get buyers to make a purchase, we must motivate them to take action. Therefore, to create effective sales systems and marketing materials, we should rely on positive reinforcement. All of us who shop using search-engine queries understand that we, as customers, are one click away from rejecting one site and landing on another. To be successful, we need to make customers want to stay.

I believe that the lack of a few basic skills relating to effective communication causes more business failures than any other factor. Many consultants who I have spoken with recently agree. Often, business owners wrongly assume that, because their process-oriented approach has gotten their product to market, they can apply the same approach to creatively selling their products. But communicating with people effectively is the key to success in making sales. This is true of any marketing medium, but it is especially critical in meeting business expectations for Web sites.

Asking the Right Question: A Surprising Discovery

When preparing to write this article, I became aware of a subtle, yet simple theme running through much of my research—in many of the scholarly articles and recent industry blog posts that I’ve read. This theme relates materially to one important skill that I learned my first day on the job with Scott Paper Company many years ago—a skill that is also relevant to creating a successful customer experience: how to create a basic benefit / feature statement. Selling any product or service, regardless of its simplicity or complexity, starts with the ability to ask and answer this question: how do you take a set of facts about an existing or planned product and craft a statement about it that will motivate customers to take action? At the very least, taking action means getting customers to call or email you in search of whatever further information they need to make a purchase decision. So, how can we create a very simple benefit / feature statement that will motivate a purchase? I’ll get to that shortly.

Note—To avoid unnecessary confusion, some brief definitions are in order:

  • features—The features of a product or service include its characteristics and functionality. These are facts about what a product is.
  • benefits—A product’s benefits are what its combined features enable a customer to accomplish. Benefits are personal. They answer the customer’s question: why would I want to use this product or participate in this service?

Avoiding Customer Confusion by Communicating Clearly

Leading psychologists tell us that human beings avoid overly complicated situations that they have trouble understanding. Most of the time, people simply don’t like to think very hard. We would rather be spoon fed. Empirical data from studies evaluating the effectiveness of Web site content tell the same story. Recent cognitive studies have suggested that our inattention to detail relates to an inherent survival mechanism in the most primitive, reptilian part of our brain. This is also where unconscious thought begins. Combine those findings with that fact that the marketing world—I include myself in this—has developed a penchant for flowery words that mean very little, and we can begin to recognize the problems we have caused.

Here is an example of marketing speak, along with my comments: “We are an innovative firm”—who doesn’t claim this?—“with a proven track record”—everyone has a proven track record—“as a solid service provider”— if you fulfill any need, you have provided a service and this is no big deal. “We offer a dynamic approach”—what the heck does that mean?—“to delivering world-class service—as defined by whom?—“through a collaborative approach”—you wouldn’t just do it without me, would you?”—“that delivers outstanding customer experiences to our clients”—they had better be outstanding, or you are out. Any company that has such marketing speak on their Web site or in any of their marketing materials has likely created a customer experience problem.

Now, here is a real-world example of marketing speak in action. While working with a visual designer to prepare for an initial call on a new client, I asked the client what they wanted in a new Web site. Their answer: “We want it to be cutting edge.” Do you see the problem? So I pressed on, asking a series of questions with the intent of uncovering the truth of the matter. I next asked: “What does cutting edge mean?” Their answer: “Modern and up to date.” My follow-up question: “Help me to understand what modern means.” Their answer: “We want customers to feel comfortable.” Now, we were getting close to the heart of the matter, so I said: “Making your clients feel comfortable is important. How do you propose that we make them feel comfortable when they get to your Web site?” Their next answer was finally what I was after: “Make the site simple to navigate and easy to understand.” That was a lot more meaningful than cutting edge.

My use of this series of questions is an example of the laddering technique—a highly successful method for discovering the underlying meaning of ill-defined language. As you can see, the meaning of the client’s original request for something “cutting edge” could have been quite different from what I might have assumed had I not asked these clarifying questions.

Making a Great Start by Answering Three Simple Questions

Dr. Flint McLaughlin, founder of MecLabs—an independent research lab that focuses exclusively on marketing and sales research—has suggested a three-step formula for the creation of effective Web sites and landing pages. When you craft the information that appears on each Web page properly, it will answer three questions that anyone landing on the page would pose:

  1. Where am I?
  2. What can I do here?
  3. Why should I participate?

This simple set of questions relates directly to the basic benefit / feature statement that I learned to create at Scott Paper:

  1. Where am I?—A picture that is presented in the right context might provide a good start. This is enough to let customers know what they’re looking at.
  2. What can I do here?—A simple and very direct description helps—a slogan, tagline, or title that communicates the main idea. Something of substance must quickly follow.
  3. Why should I participate?—This is the place for the substantive answer—right up front. If I keep reading, what’s in it for me? How will I gain ground or prevent a loss?

The answer to this last, vital question is the one I find missing most often, and the one that leads to most failures. There is ample research to support this finding, which is no longer in question. In your own browsing, how many times have you read all the way through a Web site’s home page only to find that you are still not sure what a company is offering? Was it a horrible customer experience? And what did you do when you encountered such a site? Click!

Understanding Three Terms That People Often Confuse

Failure to answer that third question—Why should I participate?—is what renders many Web sites almost 100% ineffective. To state that question in other words: where is my benefit? To answer this question, you must present one of the following:

  • a unique selling proposition (USP)A benefit that is unique to this product or company. Something that no one else has that will have a positive impact upon customers. This gives the product or company a strategic advantage over its competition.
  • a value proposition of some sort—This can be almost anything that customers might perceive as being of value to them: a coupon, a sale, a sample, a free download, an offer to reduce their manufacturing cycle time.

All USPs are value propositions of some sort, but the reverse is not true. Anyone can give out a coupon or offer a download, but not all are unique.

Beware! Misuse of the word unique can be very damaging to an otherwise effective set of value propositions or statements. Because information is so readily available on the Web, the worldwide buying public can quickly check up on your claims. A claim of uniqueness must be believable. It is certainly verifiable. So, if you say something is unique, it had better be unique! If not, click!

Let’s look at another term that is frequently misused: tagline. A tagline is any short saying that communicates a branding idea. Some people call them slogans. For example, Nike’s tagline is: Just Do It. That’s not much of a USP or value proposition. On the other hand, one FedEx tagline is: When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight. The ad agency that created the FedEx tagline entered the realm of the value proposition. That is intelligent development of a customer experience.

Keeping Things Simple

When we look at these terms—unique selling proposition, value proposition, and tagline—separately and without further explanation, their meaning is not obvious—unless you’re immersed in the sales or marketing industries. Furthermore, customer experience professionals have trouble agreeing upon their definitions. That’s why I thought it necessary to define them to ensure the clarity of this article.

Simplicity makes understanding easier. This reminds me of an old sales adage: To get a prospect to make a purchase and become a customer or client, you must answer the WIIFM question: What’s in it for me? Whether you refer to the answer to this question as a USP, a value proposition, a benefit, simply an answer to the WIIFM question, or a directed call to action, people always want to know why they should participate.

Where am I? What can I do here? Why should I participate? There is no marketing speak in the answers to these three simple questions. There is nothing overly complicated to decipher. The creation of good customer experiences has its basis in sound content development. From page to page on a Web site, we must continually answer each of these three questions to ensure the interest of readers, who we can then motivate to act.

Using Reinforcement to Foster the Understanding That Removes Barriers to Action

You should also consider human cognition in creating sound customer experiences. It is necessary to understand that short-term memory is a fleeting thing. For example, cognitive studies show that, if you display a list of items, the limits of short-term memory prevent people from remembering more than the first three or four items, on average. Only through repeated reinforcement of some type can people go beyond this human limitation. Plus, the more complex a list of ideas, the less people are apt to recall them. A more sure-fire method of ensuring that people will remember what you want them to remember is to place the items in the context of a relatable story.

What does the reinforcement of short-term memory mean in terms of creating a good customer experience? Content creators should avoid introducing a unique selling proposition or value proposition on the home page, then abandoning the idea on the next page of the Web site.

For example, instead of reinforcing the home page’s original idea, the information on About Us pages frequently drifts off message to provide an out-of-context history of the company that no one except the founder cares about. Prospective customers don’t care about the historical difficulties of starting and running the company. Instead, they want to know—you guessed it!—where they are, what they can do there, and why they should participate. All too often, when the content on an About Us page does not relate to the original idea on the home page in any relevant manner, that page turns into a lost opportunity to strengthen a prospect’s attention.

To create a good customer experience, companies should work on communicating ideas that reinforce their USP or value proposition, not abandoning them after just one iteration. People’s minds will not typically recall much after reading something once—especially if it is complex. One excellent reinforcement method is offering what I call the obverse side of the coin. If the opening value proposition suggests that the reason to participate is saving time, the obverse is preventing wasted time. You can make customers happy by doing something positive—or by removing something negative. Emphasize the former, while minimizing the latter. Otherwise, your content can become redundant and unimaginative.

In visual design, one of the best ways to highlight a strong idea visually is to surround an image with empty whitespace. In other words, you should not complicate matters by adding extraneous information that detracts from the image. Less is more.

Ensuring Relevancy: The Context of Understanding

Quoting Dr. Flint McLaughlin again: “Rather than concentrating on optimizing Web sites, we should be concentrating on optimizing thought sequences.” My take on this is to make a Web site simple to understand. Follow the KISS approach to customer experience:

  • Deliver ideas in the proper context. Context is material to understanding. Without the proper context, interested prospects are less likely to relate to or act upon information.
  • Ensure the relevance of content. Relevance means something is connected to a particular subject—however slightly. But when something isĀ materially relevant, it relates directly to that subject in some important manner.

The following exchange illustrates the problem of a lack of material relevance. A company president asked: “How do I choose a CRM strategy?” In response, she received this list:

  • Build your strategy. You must be aware of the challenges your organization needs to solve. You must capture social data.
  • Get technical support. Without it, CRM efforts will fail.
  • Put yourself in your client’s place. Find out who is interacting with you. Answer their questions.
  • Take action. Monitor social media and gather qualitative data.
  • Change your culture. Take the initiative to become a social enterprise. Your employees should have proper guidelines and training.

Note that the five points are both logical and relevant to the question. However, they are not material to the question. The question was: “How do I choose a CRM strategy?” An appropriate answer would have focused on how to choose a CRM strategy. Instead, the answer focused on choosing and implementing a social media software platform. The president asked for a strategy, but he didn’t get one in response.

Whatever ideas you impart to your audience, they must be both relevant and material. If you break the ideas or answers down into their simplest terms, a site visitor will be able to say: “I know where I am. I know what I can do here. And I want to participate. If your site’s visitors can say that, the story is in the proper context for them to act.

Hiring A Customer Experience Specialist: The Best Money a Company May Ever Spend

Many companies waste a great deal of money on their Web sites, social media, and the like because they are not telling the right story. They live in a process-oriented, performance-driven world—as is necessary to invent, manufacture, and get their product ready for the market.

However, to be able to sell any new product or service effectively once it’s on the market, manufacturers and service providers should hire someone who knows how to play by a different set of rules: the rules of human interaction. Left-brained, performance-oriented business people need to hire right-brained, touchy-feely people like us—people who can induce others to take action and purchase their products. Nothing happens until a sale is made. Nothing! Together we make a good team—as long as both sides remember that a good customer experience is all about keeping things simple 

Thanks to Jeff Haden of Blackbird Media for the wonderful example of marketing speak.

President of Accurate Business Communications

Portsmouth, Virginia, USA

Chandler TurnerChandler’s personal passion is deeply understanding how communications drive people to action. He applies this knowledge to marketing communications of many types, including Web site content and marketing collateral. The focus of Chandler’s one-person company, Accurate Business Communications, is supporting other businesses in their sales and marketing efforts by creating communications that enable his clients to meet their business goals. In 1977, when Chandler was starting out as a Sales Representative with Scott Paper Company, their national sales trainers had begun to learn about and adapt Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) to consumer products sales. His journey has taken him from a basic understanding of the Pygmalion Effect to learning about advanced discovery techniques, cognitive psychology, the function of short-term memory, and rationalization of thought and perception. In his work, Chandler calls on 35 years of experience in field sales and training for such organizations as Scott Paper Company, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Northwestern Mutual, and several regional consulting firms. He speaks often and presents seminars on the subject of strategic Web site content.  Read More

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