How to Bake a Superior Customer Experience into Your Business

To crush the competition, design the experience you want your customers to have.
Create outstanding customer service by recognizing your niche and catering to a target market. (Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

While most businesses treat most customers reasonably well, they deserve a B or B minus grade when it comes to the customer experience, argue the authors of the new book “Woo, Wow and Win.”

“That is not good enough. We think grade-A service experiences should be the norm, and we believe they can be,” write Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O’Connell.

The nature of consumers’ experience with a company is a deciding factor in whether they spend their money there, they note. Yet they say businesses fail to consistently match or exceed expectations in a way that satisfies both the business and the customer.

One reason: They haven’t designed the customer experience from the ground up.

“We believe that excellence in service, like quality in manufactured goods, needs to be built in, not painted on at the end.” -Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O’Connell

The authors dubbed their solution “service design.”

“Companies need to analyze, design, and deliver at every stage of the journey, and at every point of contact — every touchpoint — because every moment is an opportunity to engage or alienate your customer.”

NCR Silver talked to the authors to find out how small business owners can apply the principles of service design to deliver superior customer service every time.

Related: 5 Ways to Improve the Customer Experience


“Service design is everything a company, a business, a service provider does to give their intended and desired customer the experience that they want the customer to have and that they customer has a right to expect.” -Patricia O’Connell (Photo:

What is service design?

“Service design is everything a company, a business, a service provider does to give their intended and desired customer the experience that they want the customer to have and that they customer has a right to expect,” said O’Connell.

It’s experiential, added Stewart. “Is there a bell on the door? What’s the sound? What kind of people greet you?” Does your website convey the same feeling your shop does?

“That’s part of how you set the expectation for customers,” said O’Connell.

At Starbucks, noted Stewart, the customer experience includes everything from how fast or slow the line moves to the fact that you can see your cappuccino being made and sit with your laptop while you drink it. “All of that is orchestrated in a thoughtful way to give you an experience that makes you willing to pay four bucks for a cup of joe.”

“Part of the idea of service design,” said O’Connell, “is you can design services just as much as you can design products. The Apple store is designed just as much as the iPhone is designed.”

For retailers, the choice of products you put on your shelves is also part of your service design, the authors noted.


“We think grade-A service experiences should be the norm, and we believe they can be.” -Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O’Connell (Photo: Xanthe Elbrick)

Name one thing small businesses often get wrong when it comes to customer service.

“Thinking about customer service vs. the entire customer experience is the number one thing businesses get wrong,” said O’Connell. “They’re thinking too much about customer service from the point of view of ‘how do I fix it if something goes wrong?” Sure, a good return policy is important — but so is the experience the customer has while she’s still in the store.

Businesses also are failing to leverage advantages that can help them beat out larger competitors, O’Connell added.

“Part of the advantage that smaller businesses have is the ability to create some relationship and almost a sense of intimacy with their customers.”

For example, “Instead of trying to compete with big box stores, they should capitalize on the fact that they’re offering an experience that’s probably easier for the shopper to navigate, that they can probably have more informed personnel.”

How should you decide what kind of service experience to create?

“You as a business owner need to make some important strategic decisions about what you’re trying to do and who you’re trying to do it for,” said O’Connell.

In other words, know your niche. Let your value proposition and target market drive the experience you choose to provide.

Stewart explained there are many types of service design archetypes — the trendsetter, the classic, the old shoe, etc. Each provides a different value. Take the old shoe archetype. At an old shoe diner, he said, “The meatloaf is bready and the coffee’s weak, but the waitress calls you ‘hon.’”

He compared Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts and the different strategies and appeals of each. “Do you want to move people in and out or quickly — and do they want to move in and out quickly? Or do you want them to stay?”

What do you mean by “the customer is always right — provided the customer is right for you”?

“Don’t make yourself crazy trying to service a customer who doesn’t get what you’re about,” said O’Connell. If you’re a fast-casual restaurant and a customer walks in and wants white tablecloths, he’s in the wrong establishment.


“Step one is to listen to your customers and then sit down and say, ‘what do we think we know about why people come to us?’” -Thomas A. Stewart (Photo: Tyler Olson/Shutterstock)

The customer journey has many touchpoints. How do you know where to start when making improvements?

In the book, the authors suggest asking yourself, “What are the half a dozen things you do (or must do) better than anyone else so as to do something for customers that rivals cannot match?”

“Step one,” said Stewart, “is to listen to your customers and then sit down and say, ‘what do we think we know about why people come to us?’ Step two is to double-check that against the data. Frankly, one of the things small businesses have is more perceptions than data. And those perceptions may be wrong.”

“It’s quick and easy to assemble staff once every two weeks and say, ‘what are you hearing from customers?’” advised O’Connell. “Listen to the front-line employees because they’re the ones who are listening to customers.”

Also, use empathy to put yourself in your customers’ shoes.

“Think about the experience from the customers’ perspective and the emotions that the customer is likely going into your store with.” -Patricia O’Connell

“If I’m going into [an upscale baby store], I’m likely going in with very different needs than I am when I’m running in to grab a newspaper or bottle of water from the magazine store. I’m not just looking for different things, I’m looking for a different type of experience.”

Stewart advised looking at your “ah” moments — those that make customers relax — and your “ow” moments — customer pain points, or moments when customers draw away from the possibility of commitment. “You might want to start by getting rid of your ‘ows.’”

If you’re a small bakery and you misspelled the name on a birthday cake, “That’s a make or break moment,” said O’Connell. Added Stewart, “That’s the kind of thing that goes on Facebook if you get it wrong.”

Understanding your “ah” and “ow” moments can lead to the “aha” moment — “when you understand what you’ve got to do — every time — to capture and keep your customer’s business,” the authors write.

Does good customer service have to cost you money?

“Customer service is not necessarily a loss leader,” said Stewart.

He said he recently called L.L. Bean to make a return and had such a good experience he ended up buying three more things. “That’s classic, that happens all the time, which is why they actually don’t want you to return on the web, they want you to return by phone so you can talk to somebody with a nice Maine accent” who will help you one-on-one.

“Some companies have designed something so that the better the service, the more the service, the more the sales.”

For these companies, the customer service is so good “it turns out to be great marketing for them.”

In the book the authors note, “Well-designed service pays for itself and then some, by saving you and your customers time and money, including the cost of making up for errors.”

To make sure your customer service is indeed producing a return on investment, look at metrics. “Measure the results of it as best you can,” said O’Connell. “Are you seeing return business from the person to whom you’re especially nice or the person who gets the free cookie? Are you selling three times as much when you make it easy for someone to return?”

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