Ten years ago, we started to realize that Internet-based businesses could be devastating competitors to traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Since then, individual record stores have almost entirely been replaced with big boxes and online sales, and even the big bookstores, such as now-bankrupt Borders, are in serious trouble.

An interesting thing happened on our voyage to the digital future, though. I’ve been talking with more and more people who are fed up with the customer experience of working with online retailers and huge stores. They’re getting tired of customer service personnel who are barely intelligible or are clueless about the products they’re selling.

It’s especially interesting that this is happening now, because all of us are stretched to get the most from our dollar. Why wouldn’t efficiency and low cost outweigh most of the other product and service attributes?

The priority of consumers is progressively shifting toward relationships and personal attention. The quality of personalized service, of caring about the customer, is on a resurgence. Not that there are many markets in which this can command much of a price premium, mind you, but customer service is definitely tipping the scales.

In your business, what are you doing to make your customer experience substantially better than your low-cost competition? I’m not talking about your intentions, the fancy words posted on the wall, or even the training you’re giving your employees.

I’m asking about what your customers actually experience.

No easy answers

You’d think this would be easy to answer, but it’s not. First, a business owner looks at a business through different eyes than customers. Customers don’t really care what’s hard or easy for you. They don’t care if the employee is having an off day. They don’t see why you created that policy which made it tremendously frustrating to get a problem fixed.

Second, typical customer satisfaction measures are a bit too broad to help you make well-informed decisions. If you’re on top of things, you might know that 28 percent of your revenue last quarter was from repeat business. Do you know why those customers made those decisions? Do you know why the other 72 percent were attracted to you? And do you know why a large number of anonymous customers chose not to return?

And third, the customer experience is created through multiple contacts and impressions. People talk to their friends, they see information in the newspaper, they form impressions from what they see on your website and contacts with your employees. If you focus exclusively on employee contact as the way to build satisfied customers, you’ve already given away a lot of control of other key elements of the customer experience.

This is a complex situation.

The way out of this difficulty is to intentionally design your desired customer experience, to control all of the key factors as an integrated whole, and to monitor every piece of the puzzle. The idea is simple, but it affects every aspect of your business.

The payoff for this work is that you’ll develop unusual loyalty in your customer base. That revenue stream becomes the primary engine of your company’s success, sustained and growing over time.

The great news is that local small businesses have much more control over most elements of customer satisfaction, and having a great experience weighs more heavily than it did just a few years ago.

It depends on what industry you’re in, though. If I have a problem purchasing music online, I’ll simply go to another online store. I don’t feel particularly compelled to go to a local big-box store, because I don’t have confidence that I’ll get any better service, and it’s an inexpensive product.

If I buy a car, though, the customer experience is very high on my list. I’ve created my list of dealerships up and down the Front Range with which I’ll never again do business, and others which I refer my friends to.

This highlights the real benefit in creating wonderful customer relationships. When you have a bunch of raving fans out there, they’re doing your hard marketing work for you. For free. And in a way that has much greater credibility than anything you might say, because those referred know they’re getting a more honest picture.

That’s absolutely priceless.

Carl Dierschow is a Small Fish Business Coach based in Fort Collins. His website is www.smallfish.us.

Copyright © 2011 Northern Colorado Business Report by Biz West Media.