March 2011 | 

Selling the Customer Experience

sell customer experience

The hotel bedding revolution, which replaced ugly bedspreads and lumpy pillows with white sheet-encased comforters and goose down, began with a breakthrough marketing insight. While plotting its growth strategy, Westin Hotels and Resorts thought beyond the amenities and in-room entertainment it had been promoting. Instead, Westin realized it is in the business of providing an experience — the experience of a good night's sleep.

With that insight and a target market of business travelers in mind, the goal became not offering better movies or faster Internet access, but improving the experience. Westin began by understanding that experience in its current form. What were they doing that prevented consumers from getting a good night's sleep? That question caused the company to re-evaluate its linens, mattresses, and pillows. Bedding went from a cost-management concern to a cornerstone of their customer experience.

Wharton marketing associate professor Patti Williams, who teaches in Wharton's Essentials of Marketing program, notes, “Westin understood in a way they hadn't before the goal consumers want met when they purchase their brand. For them, it was as simple as a good night's sleep. For other companies, it might be being able to engage in behaviors more quickly or more efficiently so that the consumer can move on to bigger and better things in their lives.”

What Do Your Customers Really Want?

"Most marketers haven't thought much about the consumer experience," Williams continues. "Typically, they're concerned with identifying and selling the best features and attributes of a product for a particular target market. But don't stop at features. Instead, think about the experience those features will deliver to consumers. And think about features that you might not have considered very important before. Go beyond the competitive advantages associated with various attributes. Think about how you are relevant to customers — what do customers really want, what are the goals and the needs that they really have? In Westin's case, customers wanted a good night's sleep. So instead of thinking that customers wanted a room with a bed and a desk and Internet access, they realized they wanted something different, and they adapted their product to yield that experiential outcome."

Williams leads a session on The Customer Relationship in the Essentials of Marketing  program. "Most of the program's participants aren't in the hotel industry. But the takeaway is clear, and it's not fluffier pillows. It's focusing on your brand through the lens of customer experience. Whatever your industry, determine the equivalent of having a scratchy, uncomfortable, potentially germy bedspread on the bed. What are you doing that prevents consumers from getting what they actually want from you? Maybe you're doing it for good reasons (such as managing costs), and that's the way it has always been done in your industry. But what if you could rethink it in a way that provides new value to customers? You want to determine and then improve on the true value your customers are looking to get from you."

Developing a Different Mindset

"But the consumer experience isn't limited to the moment of consumption or purpose," Williams notes. "In Essentials of Marketing  we explore that experience more broadly, and participants understand how many opportunities exist in which they can improve experiential value throughout the consumer decision-making process: search, purchase, usage, disposal, and repurchase. How can you provide experiential value at each of those moments?"

Williams adds that traditional market research methods won't yield the kind of information you'll need to move from a focus on product features to the consumer experience. "It takes a different mindset, and often observational research. Create opportunities to see what the customer experiences, or try to live it yourself. Ultimately you want to identify, as Westin did, an area in which you can improve and promote that experience."