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As You Like It

As You Like It

The Buying Experience

Availability of resources will ultimately decree how much can be invested in anything. But the customer interface is not a place for parsimony. A cheap interactive voice response system that creates hurdles for customers will ultimately lose customers and that makes it a very expensive interactive voice system. Far better to invest in superior interface technology that customers enjoy using and continue using.

Francis Buttle is professor of marketing and CRM at Macquarie Graduate School of Management and he believes that as companies get larger and more remote from the markets they serve then the role of technology at all the touch points becomes much more important. "Technology is a function of size and remoteness," he says. Yet Buttle says not many traditional company marketing departments understand these things. "The notion of customer experience has only been around for four or five years."

Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore wrote their book The Experience Economy in 2000. It suggested that in a competitive world, consumers would make purchasing decisions based on not just what they were buying, but also the experience of buying it. The authors have now gone a step further and are promoting the notion of a new breed of C-level executive the so called CXO or Chief eXperience Officer.

Supporting the CXO will be the CIO, who will be called upon to create the infrastructure and manage the data. And the CIO will need to deliver not just sectoral best practice but cross-industry best practice, as Buttle believes that consumers will demand industry sectors to match one another. "Customers will begin to compare the experience in one industry to that in another," he says. "If I give a package to DHL I can then use the technology to find out where it is. Why can't other service providers do that? How come bags get lost on aeroplanes?"

The challenge will be compounded as companies expand the number of touch points. For example, a retailer might have a home shopping channel, with a call centre, and it might have an online presence and stores. Buttle confirms that, "consistency of the experience is phenomenally difficult to achieve, but if you create a good experience, which is consistent, then word of that will spread". In Australia, he says, there are some organizations that are cottoning on to the power of the experience. He nominates airline Virgin Blue with its "fun" approach and hardware chain Bunnings as the two obvious pioneers.

Virgin Blue declined to be interviewed for this article, and Bunnings's general manager of IT, Rodney Boys, while "flattered" that Buttle had selected the company, felt it was a bit premature to speak about the company's efforts. "We do have some initiatives and know where we'd like to end up." However, with those developments expected over the coming three years, Boys said he was not prepared to go into detail for another 18 months.

Nevertheless, Boys did say that the Bunnings culture of having a very customer-centric focus would be core to the new plans. It is not hard to imagine what might be on Bunnings's blueprint: it already hires tradespeople as salespeople in its stores. You can buy your products from someone who has used them professionally. What if they were supported with handheld computers that acted as a wireless catalogue detailing every product available, prices and stock levels? What if these computers could also be used to generate a printout about how to use the product while the customer was standing there?

What if customers were provided a handheld device when they entered the store that allowed them to find items they wanted, and calculate how much they needed for their job, and even provided a list of all the tools and equipment they might need for a specific task? Bunnings's Web site is presently non-transactional, although it is loaded with information such as an index of local stores, DIY guidelines and a paint calculator that lets you work out how much paint you need for your rooms. What if customers were able to order online, or on the phone?

Bunnings is not alone in keeping its cards close to its chest. Retail giant Myer, which has been struggling to rebrand itself and ramp up sales, also has initiatives planned over the coming few months but is not prepared to announce them yet. In February, CIO Peter Mahler said that Myer, and parent Coles Myer, would be looking to better exploit its marketing database and the data from seven data warehouses that feeds it. But a spokesperson for the company was not prepared to go into more detail about its plans or the way the company would use technology to support service.

If Bunnings and Myer are not yet ready to talk, Taxis Combined will not ever talk. It runs the largest fleet of taxis in the southern hemisphere. It offers a range of customer touch points, from the online site to the call centre and in-cab, all of which are underpinned by interrelated information systems. The company says the information systems that it uses to support all its customer interactions are "pretty much the competitive edge, so we don't want to talk about them".

If Rayport and Jaworski, Buttle, and Pine and Gilmore are correct, such reticence may be wise. This could well be the new frontier of technology's ability to deliver competitive advantage.

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