Marathon racer catching a cup of water.
PHOTO: Sura Nualpradid

It’s a fact of life for any company: Give customers delightful experiences, and you get loyal customers. Even if a competitor offers similar products or services at lower cost, people will usually choose the company that provides the most positive and frictionless experience.

But here’s another reality: Customer experience builds over time. It’s the cumulative impression a customer retains after multiple interactions with a company through months or years. In other words, customer experience has a long tail.

Take air travel, for example. The experience of a single traveler is affected by dozens of different activities owned by dozens of different working groups. The passenger may use the app to book or re-book, a kiosk to check in, and talk with a customer service rep at the gate.

They may get emails or text messages updating their flight status or need to use a chat function on the website to confirm itinerary details. Then there’s the in-flight experience.

These many touch points happen in isolation, but they all add up to one overarching experience that customers judge a company on. Thus, once people convert, purchase, sign up, or otherwise indicate that they want to do business with the company, it’s incredibly important to continually hone and refine the customer experience.

Customer Interaction Types

That’s not easy. Because customer experience doesn’t live in a single department team, or division; it is far harder to manage and continually optimize it. Companies should think of customer experience holistically, as a long tail with three interaction types that each need to be considered and put in context:

1. The Initial Experience

First impressions matter, and that certainly is the case when a customer downloads and uses an app for the first time, gives a new retail website a try or stays in a new hotel. This is especially true for B2B models since most of them are tied to successful onboarding to drive continued use. That’s why so many companies get obsessive about their shopping carts, signup forms, checkout processes and app download experiences.

But first experiences with a brand are just that. A great conversion process will never be the one thing that cements loyalty in your buyers. There is so much more that a business needs to nail if they want the customer to stick around.

2. Ongoing Use and Adoption

Most companies know that customer engagement doesn’t stop after that first experience, but surprisingly few of them prioritize those touch points in the customer journey over the long term.

So, naturally, the ones that monitor their customer experience for months or even years after an initial experience or onboarding takes place gain a distinct advantage over competitors. Refining the interactions that make top-notch customer experiences should be as much a part of a business as attaining sales goals and scheduling launches.

3. Customer Support Interaction

The final piece in the puzzle of the experience long tail is the help desk, customer support mechanisms or any other functions that help people troubleshoot. If they’re enthusiastically engaged up to the point they need to seek help, then end up thwarted or confused, good luck keeping that customer.

Related Article: Here Is Where Businesses Are Spending Their Money on Customer Experience

Best Practices for Customer Experience Long Tail

It’s critical for companies to gain insight into each of these facets of the customer experience long tail. A strong approach to that has four best practices:

1. Regular Health Checkups on the Existing Experience

Regular assessments of path to and point of conversion, initial experience, ongoing use and adoption and customer support interaction constitute a proactive approach that the smartest companies embrace. Companies should regularly test how they’re faring with customers at each of these stages.

To make the most of that effort, it is wise to create a standardized approach that can be repeated at regular intervals. This will enable the organization to keep a running record of results and track improvement (or decline) over time. The company might ask users, for example, to walk through the process of setting up a new bank account, have them find and download an app, or register for a service and narrate as they go.

2. Data-Driven Investigation

Health checkups on existing processes are open-ended explorations that may or may not reveal issues at critical conversion points. But when employing data-driven investigation, a company is homing in on something specific.

For example, if one of app’s key features isn’t being used, the data will show that. Then it’s up to the company to figure out questions such as: What’s keeping them from using or interacting with this feature? Is it hidden or hard to use? Or do they just not see its value? If the company doesn’t investigate, they’ll only be able to make educated guesses, which can lead to changing the wrong element and further obscuring the true issue.

3. Competitive and Best-in-Class Assessment

Running competitive analysis on a regular cadence will help reveal how competition is performing. It also can identify opportunities for differentiation and understand how the landscape is changing over time. Similar to health checks, companies should consider running competitive and best-in-class user tests on a regular cadence to keep tabs on competition and best practices, identify opportunities for differentiation, and understand how the landscape is changing over time.

Related Article: No Service Design, No Customer Experience

4. Customer Journey Tracking

When a business runs a user test, they’re likely isolating a single aspect of the customer experience to gather feedback and make improvements. But the customer doesn’t experience anything in isolation in the real world. The challenges that they encounter and the decisions that they make when interacting with your company happen on a continuum and, sometimes, over a long period of time.

So, without taking a step back and assessing the entire customer journey, the business won’t be able to improve the holistic customer experience. By observing customers and prospects — from initial perception to final steps in their decision-making to ongoing engagement — companies can generate ideas on what to change.

By following these four steps and treating customer experience as a long tail instead of a moment in time, companies can gain a powerful market edge over others stuck in siloed thinking.