Amanda Stevens

Horror story looms for big brands

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Businesses that don’t hop on the customer experience train are doomed to fail, says speaker and author Amanda Stevens.

Large corporations have many advantages over small ones. After all, they have more resources, numerous qualified staff and bigger marketing budgets. But they have a clear disadvantage in a critical business area – delivering superb customer experiences. And the reason for this, says customer experience adviser and keynote speaker Amanda Stevens, is brand storytelling.

“If you’re a big brand, how do you talk to your customers on a personal level?” Stevens asks. “What do you do with all the data you have to create personalised experiences? I think it comes back to putting more power in the hands of the consumer, giving them the ability to custom-make their brand experience. Ultimately it’s about the story the brand is telling.”

After running her own agency that specialised in marketing to women, Stevens talks a lot these days about customer experience and digital transformation. She has written books and done a lot of research around buying behaviours, and consults with large and small businesses to help them reach and retain customers. One of her main messages is that companies should always strive to turn their customers into brand advocates by giving them superior online and offline experiences.

While delighting and satisfying customers might sound like an obvious goal for any business, it’s a message that still fails to resonate. And the larger the businesses are, the harder it appears for them to succeed in finding ways to do it. This is a problem, Stevens says, because good customer experience is vital to corporate success.

“For a long time, I’ve been studying the intrinsic link between customer experience and brand profitability,” she says. “There are some exceptions, like Telstra, but big brands that are not renowned for great customer experience are not as profitable.”

Stevens says this is particularly the case in the retail sector. “Consumers have so much choice now. They can go and purchase a product for the same or less money online and have it delivered the next day, so if you’re not delivering a great customer experience you might as well shut up shop.”

Fundamental customer behaviours have shifted dramatically in recent years, Stevens says. “We’re seeing an extension of the role customer experience plays. Our relationship with the brand used to be confined to a transactional aspect; now we’re seeing customer experience start with the stories the brand is telling – how it’s making consumers and potential customers feel before they try and interact with the brand transactionally. I think storytelling is becoming an integral part of the customer experience.”

Stevens says companies wanting to cut through the content noise need a strong brand story, especially one that promotes a human “personality”. This might be the founders’ story, or how the product is made, or telling case studies of customers who have had a great experience with the brand. This is how brand advocacy is built, and sometimes it happens even before a consumer becomes a customer.

“The pressure’s never been greater on brands to connect with customers online and offline … the brands that will win are those that get the high tech and the high touch right.”

“I think we see that really play out a lot in fashion,” Stevens says. “We see a lot of big fashion brands lose the battle for relevance to small indie brands that are at the forefront of what consumers are wanting. They’re giving them content to consume and share. They’re giving them stories worthy of a Friday night dinner party conversation.

“There are many layers to the brand story – it’s not just a product on a shelf in a retail store. In the fashion sector, I think we’re going to continue to see some really big brands simply fail to connect with consumers.

“Customers are much more aware of what they’re purchasing. I think the whole concept of customisation is another interesting trend, and consumers are going to be speaking out.” She says customers will not only expect their products and services to be customised, but their brand experiences, too. Successful brands will constantly be looking for ways to improve their connection with consumers, trying to get them “involved” in the brand.

“They will be almost making them the ‘co-parent’, making the experience a very much customer-centric proposition. They are the brands that will win in the next three to five years.”

Technology has been the primary catalyst for change, with customers now expecting faster response and delivery times, and a seamless sales experience. “The challenge for brands is staying ahead of the curve and being really close to their customers. They can’t just respond to customer needs; they need to anticipate customer needs and move on them before they even ask.”

Social media has also been a big challenge for large corporations, Stevens says. “I don’t think many of them seem to understand it,” she says. “The pressure’s never been greater on these brands to connect with their customers online and offline, and I think the brands that will win are those that get the high tech and the high touch right. It’s all very well to have a great social media strategy and a great visual strategy to reach customers, but if your physical customer experience is below standard then that disconnect is damaging to a brand.”

Stevens says a great example of modern retail success is Spell and the Gypsy Collective, a bohemian Byron Bay boutique that won the 2016 Telstra Business of the Year. Sisters Isabella Pennefather and Elizabeth Abegg started by selling their goods at the local markets. They also created a blog, posting magazine-styled photos of their designs.

“Of course we wanted to see our pieces in fashion magazines, but magazines weren’t interested in a tiny, silly, little Byron Bay label like us,” Abegg told ABC News after Spell and the Gypsy Collective won its national business award. “So we just decided to create our own shoots and rather than just doing a studio shoot and showcase one product, we wanted to create a visual feast as you see in magazines. The imagery we were creating was this real fantasyland for us, and then it all ended up on Pinterest and Tumblr.”

The sisters and their fashion label now have an international audience. “It’s a global juggernaut in a pretty tough retail environment,” Stevens says. “Every range they launch, they produce a mini-movie.

“They have mapped out their customer touch points and deliver on an omnichannel promise in a way that creates such a beautiful experience for their customers. It’s an indie brand that’s been able to overtake some of the biggest, long-standing fashion brands in the country because they have something customers aspire to.

“It’s a brand relationship I can share with my girlfriends. It’s not just about a new jacket I bought; I’m becoming part of the brand, rather than interacting with the brand. Marketers are going to have to start making that distinction very quickly or their brand will just not be around in three to five years.”

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