The first impression – and often the most lasting impression – your business makes on the world is digital.

The hottest young companies lead with digital. Some of the best back it up with real-world delivery – the Uber app wouldn’t be nearly so impressive if it didn’t translate into a car waiting at the curb – but the digital experience comes first. If that doesn’t work, there is no second step.

This is true whether you are the Uber of your industry, determined to disrupt all incumbents, or an incumbent seeking to immunize yourself against disruption with innovations of your own. If a customer’s first experience is disappointing, it is likely to be the last.

A Guest Post byRachel Fairley, Chief Marketing Officer at Actual Experience.

Nearly one-third of CEOs expect to attribute at least half of their sales to digital channels within five years, according to a 2015 Gartner survey. McKinsey reported that nearly 50 percent of all business-to-business purchases were expected to come through digital platforms by the end of 2015, and $2 trillion in retail sales will be influenced by digital by 2016.

Now, you should certainly think in terms of the total customer experience, not just what occurs on the screen of a PC or a mobile device. Still, much of modern business, from the warehouse and shipping through to customer service operations, is mediated by digital interactions with employees and business partners. The quality of all these experiences deserves attention.

Digital Experience: Beyond the Interface

When I talk about digital experience, I’m not talking about a visually pleasing user interface.

A beautiful digital design makes a strong impression, but that impression will fade fast if the user clicks a button and nothing happens. Perhaps a required snippet of JavaScript doesn’t download, or a transaction that was supposed to happen in the background fails. The glitch might not even be your fault – after all, most digital experiences today rely on a complex supply chain of cloud services – but the user only cares about the experience you delivered, not what went wrong or why.

One of the hard parts of designing satisfying digital experiences is that the dissatisfied user of a website or an app typically can’t tell you what is wrong with it. If you were running a hotel, traditional voice of the customer research would reveal that the bell staff were rude or the room service was slow. With that information, you know who is in the wrong job or who needs retraining.

Capturing the digital voice of the customer, however, requires digital instrumentation; mere mortals can’t observe the behavior of the digital supply chain as easily as they can the behavior of the bellhop, and, crucially, they can’t tell you why the experience was variable or went wrong.

Debugging digital experiences has gotten harder in recent years, especially as digital experiences of any complexity have essentially become composites of multiple computer systems and cloud services. Cloud services give you the power and flexibility to create digital experiences, without having to manage every component yourself, but if any one of those services fails to perform, you need to know about it.

In other words, you have to monitor the entire digital supply chain, not just the elements under your direct control.

The Elements of Digital Experience You Must Get Right

For a strong digital experience, every screen must:

  • Load quickly so customers are not kept waiting.
  • Load completely with no missing images or scripts.
  • Function correctly, particularly when it counts (for example, in the middle of checkout on a shopping site).
  • Hand off transactions correctly to whatever back-end operations are required to fulfill the service (for example, routing an ecommerce order to the right warehouse and ensuring the right product gets picked, boxed, and stamped with the right label).

To understand how important this is, all you need to do is remember how frustrated you were the last time a digital experience failed when we needed it most.

In a survey we conducted, 93% of business leaders said digital experience is very or extremely important to their organization’s success, and 89% expect it to be an important determinant of the company’s success over the next two years. Yet only 54% thought their customers’ current digital experience excellent.

Also worth noting: 78% of C-suite executives reported they had switched brands after having a frustrating digital experience, but only 56% thought their customers would do so. I think that’s hilarious – and naïve. No business leader should expect their customers to put up with a poor digital experience when they themselves would not.

Another warning sign is that nearly a third (29%) of all the business leaders surveyed said they had no good way of monitoring the quality of digital experience from the end-user perspective.

The Customer’s Perspective Matters Most

Frankly, the user or customer perspective is the only one that matters. The lights may all be blinking green in the data center, but that’s irrelevant if people can’t do business with you.

By the same token, it’s not all about bandwidth. All the bandwidth in the world will not help customers connect to a server that is down or malfunctioning.

Finally, focusing on maximum speed, rather than consistency, is particularly misleading, given that fluctuations in bandwidth are actually what cause buffering of video streams and other undesirable effects.

Measuring the Quality of Digital Experience

It would be easy enough to point to a company like Amazon.com as an exemplar of consistently good digital performance.

For a more empirical answer, however, my company, Actual Experience, measured the quality of the digital experience, in the U.S. and U.K., for 108 brands in retail, travel, supermarkets, entertainment, airlines, banking, and online gambling.

The formula we used to measure digital quality is the result of 10 years of academic research and more than 15 years total of development and fine-tuning. Using factors such as speed, consistency, reliability and so on, we created a composite score, based on a scale of 0 to 100, for each brand in our study.

Rather than depending on subjective reports of user experience, we employ “digital users” – software agents that simulate routine transactions, from loading a home page to submitting a shopping cart checkout transaction.

Generally speaking, we consider the optimal range to be between 77 and 81. Those who score in the high 80s or in the 90s may actually be over-investing in incremental improvements beyond the range of human perception.

However, the kind of performance associated with anything in the 60s, 50s, or lower is very noticeable. This is where web pages take forever to load, images or scripts are missing, video pixelates, and audio is garbled.

Who Offers the Best Digital Experience?

The point of this process is to capture that instant where a customer would tell you they were frustrated by what they were experiencing but wouldn’t be able to tell you why. The software detects when any element of the digital experience is slow or broken and records the technical details. Doing this provides the proof you would need to report a problem to a third-party provider whose cloud service is failing, for example.

In our Actual Quality study, the two sites that got consistent, perfect scores were not big Silicon Valley names, but a couple of U.K. businesses: the online, customer-focused, challenger bank Smile and the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. We only measured the beginning of the experience, visiting the website rather than the product itself, so we can’t vouch for the quality of Smile’s online banking experience or Sainsbury’s online checkout, for example. But we do know these two businesses deliver a consistent first experience online and that is where the customer journey begins.

Your Goal: Create a Consistently Good Digital Experience

Think of the role of consistency in the businesses you are most loyal to, whether it’s the diner where you are always greeted by name or the hotel that never forgets the turndown service and the chocolate on your pillow. A great digital experience is one that works every time as it was intended, delivering on all of the promises your business makes – and making your customers glad to do business with you.

I repeat: Creating a consistently good experience, not just a good experience, should be the goal.

Do you know what kind of impression your business is making with the digital experiences it presents to the world? How can you afford not to?

Image source (Creative Commons): N i c o l a.

RachelFairley_Actual ExperienceRachel Fairley is the Chief Marketing Officer for Actual Experience. Rachel is a brand strategist and marketer who has served in both in-house and agency roles. She has led complex programs for businesses in a wide range of industries, including Akzo Nobel, BDO, KLM, Business Disability Forum, Colt Telecom, Ebone/GTS/KPNQuest, Ernst & Young, Instruct for University of Oxford, and EU. Rachel spent five years at Landor Associates before starting her own practice, Fairley & Associates, in 2008. Prior to joining Actual, Rachel was Global Director for Brand and Campaigns at Sage. 

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