If You Love a Customer, Let Them Go (With a Great Experience)

When you have a customer, you do everything in your power to treat them right. You provide service. You make good if something goes bad with your product. You do whatever it takes to keep them satisfied and, in turn, a customer. It’s all part of the all-important ongoing customer experience — making someone feel special and appreciated long after the purchase has been made.

But then that day comes along that you dread — the day when a customer decides to move on. You feel bad. You wish you could change their mind. But like a child that is off to college, you have to let them go. You have no choice. It’s the natural order of things. While there’s that deep-seated hope that all customers will remain loyal for life, it’s just not possible. They see something new and shiny and they just can’t resist.

Equally hard to resist is the temptation for you to try and prevent them from leaving. Don’t go there. It won’t work. And if you do, it won’t end well. Don’t believe it? Listen to the exchange between a customer wanting to leave Comcast and the deranged customer service rep that circulated online last summer.

A much kinder and gentler way to handle a departing customer is to follow the example of ancestry.com. They’re sorry to see you go and prove it by giving you continued access to the site as a registered guest. And if you’ve created a Member Family Tree, it remains on the site after your subscription has run out. What’s more, they allow you to edit it or add to it.

Okay, now that you’ve seen examples of positive and negative ways to treat customers who seek greener pastures, there’s another very important point to consider. And that is — just because a customer goes away, it doesn’t mean the customer experience goes away with it. What’s more, it doesn’t mean you can’t win them back. There are many ways you can communicate with them in an attempt to stoke the embers of fond memories when they were using your product or service.

Sending emails or placing ads on Facebook to entice ex-customers to return to your site are certainly viable ways to go. But according to an article by Julie Knudson on smallbusinesscomputing.com, you can go a heck of a lot deeper to reach out to lapsed customers. These include:

  • Offering discounts to tempt them to buy again
  • Creating communications to address reasons why they left
  • Advertising products your competitors don’t have

There’s also the silver lining theory proposed by Scott Flood in an article on SiteProNews.com: “Paying attention to ex-customers can help you hold on to current ones, too.” He says this can easily be accomplished by asking them directly why they went somewhere else and then using the data to make improvements.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s no guarantee that after providing a positive experience to ex-customers that said ex-customers will have a change of heart. But one thing’s for certain — if you treat them like the customer service rep from Comcast did, you can be 100% positive that you won’t be hearing from them again. Ever.

Walt Disney: The Master of the Ultimate Customer Experience

DesigningDisneyI recently picked up a copy of “Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show” by John Hench, one of Walt Disney’s top Imagineers. What started out as a pleasure read turned into an “Aha Moment.” It happened on page two when I discovered how Disney came up with an idea that is at the heart of what all product manufacturers should strive for—creating the ultimate customer experience—one that goes far beyond the product experience.

The father of Mickey Mouse had taken his daughters to an amusement park one afternoon and while they were having a grand old time on the rides, he was bored out of his skull sitting on a bench. It occurred to him that there could be a theme park that catered to both kids and adults. He envisioned a place where people would be treated to a theatrical experience from the moment they arrived to the moment they left. And that meant every element, large and small, had to work in unison to tell a story, one that would make people feel better for having visited.

Here are a few examples of how Disney accomplished that:

1. Guests Know Best

To Disney, it all started with the customer. Or, rather the guest, as he preferred to call them. He genuinely liked people and wanted them to feel respected and appreciated. He would often walk through Disneyland listening for reactions to things. If something wasn’t right, he would hear it from the horse’s mouth and change it. One time, a gardener came up to him and said they needed to put a fence around a flower bed because people were walking through it. Disney replied that people must want to go that way and insisted a path be put in. In short, the customer…er…guest wasn’t just right, they were everything.

2. Long Lines = Long Faces

Waiting in a long line for an attraction or a ride was anathema to Disney and his Imagineers (not to mention their guests). One solution was to lose the single-file line and give it a switchback approach. That way, people would face each other, which allowed for conversation and a pleasing way to pass the time. For the “Indiana Jones Adventure” at Disneyland, they took the static standing in line situation and added in story elements from the ride to create a sense of anticipation. To go from merely having guests queue up to giving them an uplifting experience was nothing short of brilliant.

3. Post-Show Perfection

Early on, the one part of the guest experience that hadn’t been considered was the one at the end of an attraction. For example, when the “It’s A Small World” boat ride concluded at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, there was a message from Bank of America, its sponsor. Deemed too commercial, the Disney team created a scene featuring kids saying good-bye in several different languages. This served two purposes. One, it allowed the exiting guests to adjust their eyes from the ride to daylight. And two, the guests waiting in line got to see the smiling faces of those leaving, which reassured them that the time spent waiting was definitely going to be worth it.

Good customer experiences are not new and never go out of style. Walt Disney knew this and that’s why his theme park design went beyond the rides and attractions. It included everything, from the shops and restaurants to the rest rooms and even the trash cans. They all were an integral part of the story and the experience. What’s more, he knew that if any of those details were missing or incorrect, the guests would be able to tell and, in turn, no longer believe in the story.

If the notion of seeing this experience up-close-and-personal appeals to you, I invite you to tour a Disney theme park with me—looking at it through the lens of customer experience. Or, if these ideas resonate and you’re curious to know how they might be applied to your product or service, let’s schedule a time to chat.

Making the Most Magical Moment Even More Magical

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While I’m heavy into tech gadgets, once in a while a non-tech product comes along that catches my attention and reminds me that as an industry we can take great inspiration from the consumer world. Many of my 50 Principles for Great Customer Experiences come from that sector so it’s no surprise when I see products, like the one below, reinforce those principles.

Personally, it’s frustrating when I get a product that I’ve been excited to own and the event of opening the box turns out to be as meaningful as tearing into a piece of junk mail. It’s as if the company said, “Hey, our product’s great but we don’t care about the customer experience.”

Well, I care. When I open a box, I want to feel the same exuberance I felt when I first saw the product. It’s like a kid opening up a huge wrapped package for their birthday and finding a tiny comb inside (a plastic one at that). When expectations are high and those expectations are not met, disappointment reigns supreme.

And that brings me to one of my 50 Principles for Great Customer Experiences: “Turn unpacking the product into a magical moment.” We buy products because we’re dazzled by them. Don’t let the dazzle fizzle by putting together a weak out-of-the-box experience.

Card 8 Front

The product that exemplifies this concept to the nth degree is Clifton, a slim-line engagement ring box that you can slide into your pocket easier than your wallet. But wait…there’s more. When you open the box, the ring doesn’t just sit there passively. A pop-up mechanism presents the ring in a most dramatic fashion—as if it were a blooming flower.

And it’s blooming brilliant. But it’s not cheap. The price tag is $90. Then again, as Fast Company wrote: Now, $90 might seem like a lot for a ring box, since most jewelers will just toss in that cheap, fake-velvet-covered cube for free. But given that the average engagement ring goes for $2,300, the Clifton adds just 4% onto the expense. To anyone spending $5,000, $10,000, or more, the added cost is completely negligible for a significant, once-in-a-lifetime event.

For lack of a better phrase, Clifton is the perfect marriage of a great product and a great out-of-the-box experience. And while unpacking a tech product will never rise to that level of memorable, our goal should always be to give consumers a little bit of magic. If you want help getting from “We only care about the product” to “We care about the customer experience,” give me a ring.

Lipstick on the Pig

I thought you might enjoy these thoughts from a guest blogger!  Enjoy, Josh.

Lipstick

Lipstick on the Pig
By Peter H. Lewis

As a freelance writer I’m always grateful to hear from potential clients. Telling a company’s story in a fresh and compelling way is more than just a job; it’s a fun, creative challenge. There’s great satisfaction in helping a busy executive share her or his thoughts cogently and entertainingly to an audience, or to help a start-up company define and deliver its message to the world.

Sometimes, however, the assignments are doomed.

Here’s a recent case study:

Company X is a well-established, closely held multinational maker of … let’s say widgets. It sells an estimated $200 million worth of widgets a year. Although some of its widgets can be bought from Amazon and Wal-Mart, most of Company X’s revenue comes from selling widgets to other companies. You might have a Company X widget in your house, even if it doesn’t have Company X’s brand on it.

Company X competes in a ferocious market with larger and better-known rivals, but it sees great opportunities ahead. The company’s public relations firm has been tasked to raise Company X’s public awareness by doing several things:

  • Establish a blog “to educate consumers, increase our search ranking, and develop thought leadership in the [widget] category, ” and
  • Build a vertical website to summarize current events in the widget industry and to provide Company X’s perspective on trends and events.

Good ideas. Very doable. So why is this assignment doomed?

It is doomed because Company X’s executives don’t really care about consumers.

How do I know this?

I know because Company X’s existing website — a collection of web pages already on line for the world to see — is embarrassingly bad, and has been allowed to be bad for a long time. If anybody really cared, it never would have been allowed to go live, or at least it would have been fixed long ago.

Even worse, Company X’s social media experiments (Facebook and Twitter, especially) are effectively billboards that tell the world, “We are doing this only because someone told us we have to do it, and we don’t want to waste resources to do it the right way. ”

Before going into the details, here’s are the main lessons for any company, whether it’s a start-up or a Fortune 5oo giant:

the-jerk
  • If you want to make a good impression on consumers and be taken seriously by potential business customers, don’t go out in public with your pants down.
  • If you want consumers to believe that your products are superbly engineered, meticulously constructed, completely reliable and thoroughly supported, don’t open a junkyard on the company’s front lawn.
  • If you want to be a thought leader, you have to put some thought into it.
  • If you want people to think that you care about your consumers, it helps if you actually care about consumers.

Or, to get to the heart of the matter, if the C-suite executives don’t care enough about how consumers view the company to even bother to look at their own company website or social media feeds, they should not be on the Internet at all.

Which would be embarrassing, because Company X’s widgets are designed to help people use the Internet.

But that’s less embarrassing than having a company website that includes these gems:

Widget
and
MinSysReq

If Company X is willing to publish WordPress, Facebook pages that are so glaringly neglected and unfinished, why would I believe that its products are any better constructed? Why would I think that Company X’s customer service would be anything other than dismal?

It seems that whoever was responsible for maintaining Company X’s website, Facebook page and Twitter feed was abducted by aliens at least six months ago, and no one in any position of authority at Company X has noticed. The company’s most recent Twitter stream (last updated in February) consists of nothing but fortune-cookie aphorisms, clichés that have nothing to do with Company X’s business, and the occasional “Can you see the angry bunny face?”

The company’s online Press Center consists mainly of broken links to moldy press releases.

MoreMoney

Here’s what I told Company X: Stop, drop, and roll. There is absolutely no benefit to having a website that advertises your incompetence and apathy. Be grateful that you have only a handful of Facebook and Twitter followers. Thank your lucky stars that Google’s search algorithms are engineered to ignore crappy websites, because otherwise consumers might actually find you and see how little you care.

Okay, so that’s not what I actually told them. But I did suggest that Company X pull down its online presence temporarily until the most glaring embarrassments are fixed. And then, before forging ahead, make sure the C-suite executives are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their communications goals.

One of the companies with whom Company X wants to go mano-a-mano is Apple. Can you imagine what Tim Cook or Phil Schiller would say if they saw Apple’s website in similar disrepair? Can you imagine what Steve Jobs would do?

I can, and believe me, it would not be pretty.

Jobs was obsessed with making the consumer experience as perfect as possible, down to the choice of fonts on the website, the music in the TV commercials, the design of the screws inside the iPhone where no one would even see them, the choice of wood for the tables in the Apple Stores, the meticulous design of the packaging that customers would hold in their hands. It was that passion and attention to detail that helped propel Apple to the pinnacle of consumer admiration and loyalty. Other successful consumer companies understand this.

No amount of lipstick is going to transform Company X into a consumer company. There has to be a commitment from the top.

Peter H. Lewis is a former Senior Writer for The New York Times and Senior Editor at Fortune magazine. He blogs at www.peterlewis.com.

Learning from the Well Planned EverDock Kickstarter Project

everdock_colorsUsually when I blog about great customer experiences, the company I’m writing about actually has a product on the market. But I’m making an exception today because the guys at FŪZ Designs got it right even before they launched the wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that wraps up in five days.

In getting ready to debut their first product, the universal device docking station called EverDock, David Gengler and Cameron Gibbs have behaved as if they took to heart Card #5 in the Digital Life Group’s Product Success Deck : “The entire customer experience is as important as the product itself.” The same can be said for Card #6: “Great customer experiences don’t just happen. They are carefully designed.”

And these two gentlemen know a thing or two about design. Gengler, former director of product development at ZAGG and inventor of that company’s hit ZAGGmate iPad keyboard, has four CES Design and Engineering Awards to his credit. Gibbs, a product manager with more than 11 years in the consumer electronics industry, has led the development and delivery of numerous award-winning products.

It’s one thing to have all that experience; it’s another thing to leverage it to attract interest in your product. Proudly, the duo told Kickstarter: “Together, Cameron and David bring together design, engineering, and execution talents that make them uniquely qualified to deliver on projects like this.” They made sure there were machine-tooled products in-hand long before they started talking to Kickstarter. They took boatloads of sharp, clear pictures. They made HD videos galore. They wanted potential backers to feel as if they were being asked to fund a real, quality product.

It worked. FŪZ Designs hit their $50,000 goal within days of starting the campaign, which wraps up Oct. 17. They went on to smash through their $300,000 stretch goal, clocking in at over $330,000 with a week left to go.

“We had working samples made from tooling before we even did the video,” Gengler wrote me in an email. “This allowed us to confidently say – this is the product. We know we can make it. We know what it costs. It looks great.”

In order to give consumers a positive pre-purchase experience (that’s Card #7, by the way), they set up a process to answer all questions immediately, whether they’re asked on blogs, at Kickstarter, or in chat forums wherever they may be. They set up and prominently displayed a phone number; few people have called it, Gengler noted, “but the fact that it is there reassures customers that we care and we will be there if they have a problem.”

Online, the company’s response time to questions averages just a few minutes. “It can be hard work, but it pays off,” he said.

A case in point: A post at the MacRumors site praising the EverDock began to veer off track when doubtful comments began to pop up. Gengler weighed in quickly, explaining up front who he was and how FŪZ Designs already was addressing concerns. “By doing this, the tone of the forum immediately turned positive and we received several orders from this post,” he noted.

But they’re not resting on any laurels. They know that unforeseen difficulties arise, causing dreaded delays. (Card #20 – “Delays: Hope for the best; plan for the worst”) They have promised delivery to backers by December, but with tooling for the quality aluminum product already complete (Card #25: Aesthetics matter), they expect to have production units ready to roll as the Kickstarter campaign draws to a close.

That wasn’t easy, Gengler admits. It “required us to pay for tooling before we received the money, but to create a perfect customer experience, this is essential,” he said. “This will allow us to deliver on time. If you can’t deliver on time, you’ve failed the customer.”

After the Kickstarter campaign wraps up, FŪZ will continue to give backers regular updates and, as they begin shipping – on time or possibly even early – the company will use a shipping method that can be actively tracked. Packaging will match the product’s quality, Gengler said, and planning for FŪZ’s next product will ensue quickly.

While I’m looking forward to getting my hands on an EverDock, I’m also eager to see what these guys come up with next.

Chromecast Tunes Into An Elegant Customer Experience

ChromecastAfter it’s Nexus One phone fiasco back in 2010, it seemed that Google would never understand how to be the consumer products company it was trying so hard to be.

They forced customers to jump through proprietary Google hoops to buy the phone; it wasn’t available at stores, which meant folks were expected to commit to the gadget without even laying hands on a floor sample. On top of that unfriendly purchase process, after-market support was split three ways: Google controlled the operating system, HTC manufactured the gadget, and T-Mobile’s network ran it. You had to be a savvy consumer to know who to contact if something went wrong. Google ended up yanking the phone off the market after just seven months.

Then, of course, there was the Google TV stumble later that same year. Rather than presenting the “it-just-works” experience that had been promised months earlier, the initial Google TV products were painfully slow and had a clunky, unfinished feel. Consumers may have come to accept the need to reboot their computer every now and then, but rebooting their television? That’s just not going to happen.

Then came Chromecast — and Google at long last is behaving like a modern consumer electronics company. For once, Google understands that the product is only part of the experience, and every part of the experience matters, especially when attempting to sell technology to mainstream consumers.

With the Chromecast’s blockbuster launch, Google hit smack dab on the last card (#50) in the Digital Life Group’s Product Success Deck: “Learn from your own past launches and develop your own best practices.” When Chromecast quickly sold out at the Google Play store, I still found it available at Amazon for the same price. Once it arrived, the plug-and-play design made it a snap to use. Plus, I know exactly which company to turn to for support should something go wrong with this simple little gadget.

Google has done so many things right with Chromecast that more than half the Product Success Deck could be used to tell its story. I’ll spare you that level of detail, however, and just review eight high points:

Card #42: It’s not a launch if people can’t buy it. Google didn’t drop hints for months before Chromecast’s launch. Instead, they told the world about it, made sure that a number of bloggers and journalists could write early reviews about it, and immediately made it available for purchase. Other companies should pay attention. When reviewers first started to buzz about the Belkin Ultimate Keyboard Case for the iPad back in April, Belkin told consumers they’d have to wait six weeks to get their hands on one. Six weeks came and went, and then another six weeks passed before the product began to reach customers. Early buzz loses value faster than a pumpkin the first week in November.

Cards #21 and #23 are opposite sides of the same coin: Products should not try to be all things to all people, and simplicity wins in today’s complex world. Google has learned not to try to be everything to everyone in a single product. Chromecast does one thing, and it does it very well: It plays Internet video streaming from a laptop onto a TV screen. What about playing content from the laptop’s hard drive? Nope. It is simple in both function and design. There are no buttons and no complex configuration.

Which leads into Card #24: Usability matters. Oh, and also Card #43: Be useful on Day One. That’s the Netflix aspect of Chromecast. Rather than making users go browsing around for Internet content they want to see on TV, Chromecast offers up the riches of Netflix from the get-go. Use a Chrome browser on the laptop to find what you want to see, then click a button in the browser that says “Send to Chromecast.” That same button also instantly appeared in the YouTube application on my phone and in the Chrome browser app on my tablet. Click it, and you’re done. Break out the popcorn.

That simplicity also is suggestive of Card #34: Less is more when it comes to the product line. How many models of Chromecast are out there? One. What extras should I purchase to enhance the experience? None. It’s got what you need right in the box.

It’s also nice to see that Google finally – finally! – has given a nod to Card #45: Back off the betas; you only get one chance to make a first impression and betas do not do that well. Until very recently, Google was the King of Betas. Half of Google’s new features spent time in beta whenever the company expected to make changes to the interface after its introduction. A case in point: Google News was in beta for four long years. Consumers don’t like betas, especially when they’re hardware. Google got that message.

Along those same lines, and perhaps more importantly, Google Chromecast applies the wisdom of Card #46: Don’t race a competitor to market; if you can only beat them on time, you won’t beat them at the finish line. Chromecast isn’t the first device to move video from a laptop to a TV. But right now it is the best.

And in the end, that matters most.

The Giants Hit A Consumer Experience Home Run

IMG_0993I took my 4- and 6-year-old boys to their first baseball game a few weeks ago. That important rite of passage in a child’s life drove tech marketing from my mind — until we met the ticket-taker at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

“It’s their first time, right?” observed the man as my sons waited, anxiously, to get through the turnstiles and into the ballpark. “Yep,” I answered, expecting them to be told to enjoy the game; instead he told me, “Go up to Guest Services behind section 119, and they’ll print out first-day certificates for them.”

Bemused, I did as suggested, and, within ten minutes, my boys were the proud owners of fancy-looking celebratory certificates wrapped in presentation folders with the team photos and logo blazing from the front.

It was then that I began gaining several hours’ worth of fresh insights into how consumer companies actually aren’t selling products; they’re selling an entire consumer experience.

The Giants organization had nailed card #11 in the Digital Life Group’s Product Success Deck: “First use happens only once, so make it memorable.” By helping my sons kick off their baseball experience as honored guests, the Giants were creating a first impression more likely to grow into a lifetime of enjoyment.

But the positive consumer experience didn’t end there. The Giants, you see, aren’t selling baseball any more than Volvo is selling automobiles. Consumer brands are about an experience. In our case with AT&T Park and the San Francisco Giants: a family entertainment experience – and, in Volvo’s case: Safety. (See Card #41: Stand for Something). My boys are too young to sit through nine solid innings of baseball; truth is they couldn’t care less about the game (yet). They were there for the cotton candy and the hot dogs — at first — but they were able to go the distance because the Giants understand their brand (Card #40). The diamond at the center of AT&T Park isn’t the only attraction there, and, in many cases, it’s not even the primary attraction. Instead, there is a kids’ area with a massive slide, an old cable car for kids to climb all over, and a small wiffle ball play area that’s actually a scale model of the larger stadium around it.

By looking outside the tech industry for best practices (Card #49), I was seeing a brand designed to attract consumers of the future while providing a first-class experience in the moment.

Some consumer tech companies have begun to learn these lessons. Back in the early days of consumer tech, you’d buy a new VCR, get it home, pry it loose from its protective packaging, plug it in, and watch that doleful 12:00 blink unrelentingly beneath your TV. To set the correct time, you faced a daunting multi-language “User’s Guide” describing a multi-step process you couldn’t hope to repeat after the next power outage brought the blinking 12:00 back to haunt you.

Now first-use experiences are being designed in from the start. A new MacBook recognizes when it’s being booted up for the first time. An introductory movie greets you to whet your appetite. Tutorials are readily available as you wade in as first-use tension dissolves into first-use play and discovery. Because usability has been established from the get-go, subsequent uses are anticipated, rather than dreaded.

Which brings us back to Card #24: “Usability matters. Build it in from the beginning.” The ballparks built during baseball’s early history were testaments to spectacle but not particularly user-friendly. Narrow stairs, long walks for food and endless waits for bathrooms were the norm.

But AT&T Park, opened in 2000, was built, from the start, to handle large crowds with spacious ramps from level to level, restrooms and snack bars where you would expect them to be, and areas where parents can both watch the game and their children playing. Yes, it’s about making that day’s ballpark experience more enjoyable, or in other words: it’s about making that day’s product use smoother.

But perhaps even more importantly, it’s about making sure that everyone — parents and kids — will want to come back, and will want to buy the latest-and-greatest from the brands they’ve learned to love—a lesson all consumer tech companies must learn.

Unpacking a $50,000 Consumer Digital Camera: Why A Good Customer Experience Starts Right Out of the Box

Today let’s not think outside the box. Instead, let’s think about the box.

The box – more specifically, packaging — is a key element of the consumer experience. Done right, packaging can attract the attention of the consumer, help the consumer make a decision, and enhance the anticipation a consumer feels once the decision to buy has been made.

But more than that, thoughtful packaging can help forge an emotional bond between the consumer and the company that made the product. Packaging contributes to the “magic moment” when shoppers are transformed into customers. If the emotional bond is established, loyalty often follows.

Think about it: Do you still have the boxes that your MacBook and iOS products came in? A lot of people do, even if they routinely toss away the boxes for other products.

Why? Because “for Apple, the inexpensive box merits as much attention as the high-margin electronic device inside,” Adam Lashinsky writes in his book “Inside Apple.” Apple even has a special packaging design room in Cupertino that is said to be “so secure that those with access to it need to badge in and out.”

In the room, Lashinsky writes, one packaging designer spent months opening hundreds of prototype iPod boxes, seeking to find the one that provided the best customer experience.

The message sent: Apple really cares about the entire customer experience. Apple cares about me.

In return, customers really care about Apple. They form a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) emotional link to the company – a human connection — and they become loyal customers.

Sure, there’s more to that customer experience than packaging. But we all know that first impressions matter. For consumer products, the first impression often comes from packaging.

How else to explain the wild popularity of “unboxing” videos on the Web? Millions of people log on to watch complete strangers unwrap new gizmos and gadgets.

Typical is this one, showing the unboxing of the then new iPhone.

Not so typical is this one, showing the unboxing of a new camera. No, not a $500 point-and-shoot. Not even a $5,000 professional camera. It’s a $50,000 Leica Edition Hermès Série Limitée Jean-Louis Dumas. For that kind of money, one expects the packaging to convey the value of the device inside. It wouldn’t quite be the same experience if the camera came in a flimsy cardboard box. The luxurious packaging might even help the consumer to forget, for a moment at least, that he or she has paid $50,000 for a camera that is already scheduled for a model upgrade next year.

Compare the Leica video to this unboxing video for one of the Apple iPad competitors, the Google Nexus 7. More than 1.6 million people have watched this video. Ouch. Do you think Google has a secret packaging design room at its headquarters?

But at least it’s not as bad as those infernal plastic clamshell cases that are designed primarily to thwart shoplifters. The message: We assume you are a thief, and we care more about stopping theft than we do about pleasing our paying customers.

A recent survey conducted by a business professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas found that nearly 80 percent of consumers “expressed anger, frustration or outright rage” with plastic packaging materials.

Although the focus here has been on physical products, the same principles also apply to services, Web sites, the retail experience — basically any situation where you want to sell something to someone.

Am I saying every company should give all its products the white-glove packaging treatment? No. But if you’re trying to think outside the box to create and launch a new premium product or experience, don’t forget to think about the box itself.

Strive For Different, Not Better

Grammar fans howled when Apple unveiled its “Think Different” advertising slogan in 1997, arguing that proper usage demanded that it be “Think Differently.” But for a successful product launch, it is indeed wise to think “different.” In a world where a handful of brands dominate their product categories, and where a popular product or service almost immediately spawns dozens or hundreds of better-faster-cheaper competitors, how is your new product going to get noticed? It’s always better to be better, but it’s even better to be different.

Examples abound. The late, lamented Flip video camera was different. While the leading makers of video camcorders slugged it out with such incremental feature improvements as wireless connectivity, bigger color display screens, zoom lenses, and so on, the Flip set itself apart by doing just one thing – taking video — and focusing on ease of use. Within three years of its debut the Flip owned 22 percent of the video camera market in terms of unit sales. Millions of people bought Flips for $100 to $200 each because they wanted something different from the morass of nearly indistinguishable camcorders made by better-known companies. (The Flip was killed in 2011 even though sales were still rising, but that’s another story.)

Another example: MP3 players. Today, Apple owns more than 70 percent of the market, and its devices are seamlessly linked to the world’s largest music store. MP3 players are built into every smartphone. Literally thousands of no-name competitors are flooding the market with cheap players. Who in their right mind would introduce an expensive new single-purpose MP3 player? Someone who thinks different, that’s who.

Instead of trying to do what the market leaders do, let alone trying to do it better, a German company took a different approach. It targeted the market segment catering to children (or, more to the point, to their parents and grandparents). Most kid-friendly MP3 players are garishly colored toys, ruggedized and drool-proofed to withstand a toddler’s wrath. What’s different about hörbert MP3 player? Take a look: hoerbert.com.

hoerbert

The hörbert goes after the design-conscious audiophile parent who is willing to hand over $300 for a simple, rugged, battery-powered MP3 player made of classic, natural, organic wood. It features a built-in loudspeaker along with simple pushbuttons, a toggle switch, a volume knob, and a hidden SD memory card that holds hours of music or audio books.

The hörbert is different. And I bet the profit margins are different too, compared to other MP3 players. It definitely won’t knock Apple out of the music business, but on the other hand it’s unlikely to be another Microsoft Zune or Dell DJ.

The Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen (author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”) puts it this way: Once a company succeeds with a product, it typically tries to keep sustaining that success by adding incrementally better features. And, Christensen says, when it comes to “sustaining innovations,” the incumbents nearly always win. But at the same time, it opens the door to disruptive innovators who take a different path. The innovator who is willing to be different has an edge over the incumbents, Christensen says.

The designers of the hörbert knew that millions of MP3 players are sold each year. They also observed a resurgence of interest among new parents in simple, organic, wooden toys. (Check out the toy section at Whole Foods.) By associating the two, they came up with a completely different take on the category.

Now, contrast this with the recent unveiling of Microsoft’s The Surface tablet. Yes, Microsoft is once again getting into the hardware arena, this time going up against Apple’s iPad. Remember what happened the last few times Microsoft entered the hardware business for a me-too attack on Apple icon? The Microsoft Kin went after the iPhone. Talk about wrong numbers: It was killed in less than two months, $1 billion in development down the drain. Before that there was the Zune, Microsoft’s iPod and iTunes killer. Microsoft officially killed the Zune last week. With both the Kin and the Zune, Microsoft was trying to be incrementally better, not different.

Sustaining innovations? The Surface, Microsoft says, is 0.1 millimeter thinner than the Apple iPad! (Alas, it’s also heavier than the iPad.) And unlike the iPad, The Surface has a full, physical keyboard, hidden on the underside of the clever, innovative click-on magnetic cover. It runs Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and Flash videos.

Will The Surface succeed? It’s too soon to tell. But here’s the key point to remember: In consumer products, particularly when there is a dominant, entrenched market leader, trying to compete with incrementally better features is very difficult. It’s hard to make money, because a price war is inevitable, and it’s hard to capture the consumer’s interest. Apple had the right idea, if not the proper grammar: think different.

The Shopping Experience Matters: From First Impression to Follow-up

Let’s face it: first impressions are big. And when a potential customer first “meets” your product, you want it to be a positive experience. This is why I preach the importance of the shopping experience itself – both online and in a physical bricks-and-mortar storefront location.

It’s quite simple to understand. If the initial experience that a potential customer has with your product isn’t great, you can’t expect that person to actually be converted to a customer. And that’s unfortunate – especially if you put out a quality product that’s probably worth the money, worth the time and worth the effort.

Consider what Bose, the high-end audio company, does with its displays in stores other than its own, such as Target. Bose products could just dangle from peg-board hooks or sit on the same blah-looking shelf as all of the other products in that category. Instead, Bose takes the extra effort to change the look of that shelf, to create a “store on a shelf” sort of experience that includes a customized demo system. Buying that Bose product is different from buying the Sony clock radio that’s sitting alongside everyone else’s clock radio. Bose is trying to send a message to shoppers that when you buy Bose you get a great experience – from the first encounter to the out-of-box experience.

And then there’s Apple, whose fun-to-touch gadgets and Apple Store retail experience could be a case study on how to create positive shopping experiences. Visitors to any Apple store will never see an iPad on display that’s not functioning correctly, or has been messed with by another shopper. Behind the scenes, fresh devices are ready to be swapped at a moments notice if a display model gets damaged or isn’t working correctly. The user experience matters and Apple wants to make sure that everyone who enters the store – whether ready to buy today or just doing homework for a possible purchase another day – leaves with a positive perception of the company and product.

That’s really why this all matters, right? Perception.

Give consumers a positive pre-purchase experience
Give consumers a positive pre-purchase experience

There are some products that leave an impression with us based on a number of experiences. Certainly, I’m not talking about buying a gallon of milk from the grocery store or a box of bandages from the drug store. But when it comes to spending a few hundred dollars or more, consumers need to feel like they’re getting good value for their hard-earned dollars – and a good shopping experience is where that perception starts. That’s also where the online equation comes in.

Let’s face it – people go online to do their research and to do some comparison shopping. If either of those experiences is bad, the consumer will start this potential relationship with your product on a sour note. And that is never good.

Ask yourself if your site is easy to navigate and if the information that customers will want – pricing, specs, reviews, comparisons to other products and even a variety of ways to pay and ship that product – are easily accessible. Look for the site roadblocks, the places where consumers could get stuck while doing some research or shopping.

Think about the methods that different types of companies use to enhance the shopping experiences. Car dealerships, for example, provide things like gourmet coffee, comfortable lobby lounge chairs, and a play area for the kiddies so mom and dad can make a stress-free decision to spend tens of thousands of dollars.

My favorite example these days comes from Everett, Washington, where Boeing is constructing a 180,000-square foot delivery center for customers who spend big bucks on planes. It’s an high-end purchase and, as such, there should be a high-end shopping and delivery experience. It’s not every company that can build an entire building just to deliver a product (nor is it appropriate for every product) but every company should be thinking about what is the best shopping experience they can give their customers.

That’s really what this comes back to – the experience. Companies need to recognize that power of perception and understand that it begins with research, continues with customer service and doesn’t ever end once the customer has taken possession of the product. Packaging, returns and even a follow-up to make sure the customer is enjoying the product sends a message.

It tells that customer that the company values the customer’s business – and hopes that customer will not only come back again soon but will also tell his or her friends about the enjoyable shopping experience.

If it’s a bad experience, you can almost be certain that those unhappy customers will be sharing the stories of their experiences.