Not long ago I visited Zappos’ headquarters in Las Vegas to learn how one of the world’s hottest shoe companies gained its reputation for memorable customer experiences. Like the Ritz-Carlton and other brands associated with enviable CX, I found that Zappos has built a culture around putting the customer first—something I believe home builders aspire to, but struggle to achieve … and for good reason.
At Zappos, I heard story after story of employees going above and beyond to make customers happy. One involved a call center rep who spent more than 10 hours talking to a customer on the phone. While the conversation certainly went beyond clothes and shoes, it ended with a sale.
As more companies move toward chatbots and automated support to reduce costs, Zappos' policy is to make its phone number easy to find, staff call centers 24/7 with real people, and never limit call times. You can even press 5 for the joke of the day. Try it.
What’s the Story Your Buyers Will Tell?
I believe the best definition of customer experience is “the story your buyers will tell a friend.” Stories are powerful and memorable—and now more important than ever because online reviews are the new referrals.
Such “stories” also frequently make it into Google or Yelp ratings, which is often the first place shoppers look to see what kind of customer experience a company (including a home builder) delivers. It's easy to get bogged down in all of the customer data and feedback metrics, so a different approach is to shape the story your customers will tell about you.
- Creating a Culture of Customer Commitment
- How Do You Measure the Customer Experience?
- Messaging That Matters Right Now in the Homebuying Process
A Home Is Not a Pair of Shoes
As home builders, it's easy to dismiss the customer service strategies of a shoe retailer because buying a home is so different from buying a pair of loafers.
For one thing, purchasing shoes is fast and easy. And, of course, they cost far less than a new home. There's also far less emotion involved in shoe shopping because there's not as much at stake. Buy the wrong shoes and you get a blister; buy the wrong home and you could be miserable and broke. Shoes are a product, a commodity. Buying a house is a life-altering experience.
But today, homes are becoming more like a commodity. We use the same suppliers, same architects, and often the same trades to make our products. It's difficult to stand out from the crowd unless we become known for the stories our customers share about us.
Make a Personal Emotional Connection
When buying shoes online, there isn't much of a story to tell … unless you buy from Zappos, that is.
One method the shoe seller uses for shaping the stories its customers tell is called a Personal Emotional Connection (or PEC), a practice builders can use as well. At its simplest, a PEC is an effort by an employee to learn what's important to the customer and use it to make an emotional connection with them.
The best way to illustrate this concept is through an actual “PEC Station” I saw on my Zappos tour. If a rep learns that it's a customers' anniversary, for instance, he or she walks down to the PEC Station and grabs a Zappos branded greeting card to mail (yes, with a stamp) to the customer. There's even a physical mailbox right there, and stamps.
The PEC Station has all kinds of other swag employees are encouraged to send to customers, such as dog bowls and baby rattles, to name a few—whatever is relevant to make that personal connection.
Story Creation and the Mind
In home building, there are so many moving parts to the process, and so much can go wrong. Many builders don't even know where to start shaping customer stories. Because the homebuying journey is so long—from initial inquiry to a sale to construction and move-in—it's best to think about how our minds create stories.
Nobel-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman explains that we actually have two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The former knows only the present as we experience each moment; the latter is the storyteller in us who disregards all of the details that aren't so “memorable” in favor of moments when we're more emotionally engaged.
It’s famously been said, by Carl W. Buehner, Maya Angelou, and others, that people won't remember what you did, they'll remember how you made them feel.
And emotional experiences certainly do make the best stories.
The most practical application of this is the “peak-end rule,” which is grounded in research conducted by Kahneman and Barbara Frederickson. In a 1993 study, they found that the human memory is rarely a perfectly accurate record of events, and a small improvement near the end of an experience can radically shift a person's perception of that event.
So, based on the peak-end rule, it follows that the story we remember from an experience (such as buying and building a home) will be shaped by the significant moments or peaks in the journey and how the experience ended. These are the moments that matter, and the opportunity to design a climax, celebration, or ending to the story can have real impact. It turns out that elements that highlight moments of comfort, convenience, or even delight can transform a pleasant experience into one that's truly memorable.
Key Moments in the Homebuying Journey
To help design the stories we want our customers to tell, there are key moments in the homebuying journey that stand out as opportunities:
- Get the basics of the home right. If the shoe doesn't fit, no one will wear it. That means a clean, complete home. Pay attention to details such as the driveway and vacuum lines on the carpet.
- Design “camera-worthy” moments that will be remembered as “peaks.” The highest peak in the journey is always during the sales process. Other big ones are during design selections and walk-throughs. Walk-throughs tend to be exciting experiences for customers, so find ways to celebrate them and make them memorable.
- Dedicate resources to a better ending; that is, an amazing closing experience. With that, use warranty service requests and visits as an opportunity to further personal emotional connections with customers.
Finally, focus on how you make customers feel. This can be fun when you involve front-line employees. Keep a list of what's most important to each customer. Empower everyone involved in the homebuying journey to use the list to do something meaningful and special. Build a culture of going above and beyond by doing something personal and unexpected for your customers. These will become the stories they will share about building with you.