…it’s important to remember that an outstanding customer experience starts with how you make people feel. No matter how big or small your company, the more respected, appreciated and acknowledged you make your customers feel, the more they will love you and the longer they will keep buying from you. I found that this core principle of customer relationship building holds true no matter how many customers you have, whether 1 customer, 10 million customers or more customers. Deep down, we all yearn to be respected, acknowledged and appreciated. When others make us feel this way, we stop and listen. We feel connected, included and loved. If you think about it, the only reason why anybody buys anything is because of how they think they’ll feel as a result of buying or owning that product…I think we’ve reached the point when people don’t want products anymore, they want connection. They want to be seen, respected and appreciated. Products are always replaceable, but the way you make people feel can never be replicated. You can stand out in a saturated economy by making your customers feel loved, by offering them a long-lasting relationship and an authentic connection. In genuine relationships, you don’t give in order to get and you don’t bribe. Instead, you respectfully recognize somebody for the contribution they’ve made to your life and business. I call this the art of lifelong customers. The art of lifelong customers is the timeless art of showing respect, appreciation, and acknowledgment to the people who bought from you in the past.
As part of my series about the five things, a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mihaela Akers. She is a business coach and entrepreneur. She is the founder of Build Up Lab, an online business through which she helps people grow their business and create a fulfilling career. Mihaela’s 14+ years of marketing experience includes working with Gucci, Ralph Lauren, La Redoute, KingSize Direct, MedicAlert Foundation, and others. Prior to starting Build Up Lab, Mihaela was a Director of Global Customer Intelligence and Experience Management at Ralph Lauren. Mihaela is passionate about teaching, writing and sharing her expertise. She’s the creator of the digital workshop Lifelong Customers, where she teaches business owners how to turn their customers into loyal advocates. Mihaela holds an MBA from NYU Stern Business School, an M.S. in Direct Response Marketing from NYU and a B.A. in English from Vassar College.
Thank you so much for joining us Mihaela! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thanks for having me. I started by working for a company called Redcats, which sold its products direct-to-customer. Back then, direct mail and email were the crux of our business. I learned a lot about direct marketing in the early years of my career, and I feel grateful for this because direct marketing is a skill that has helped me incredibly over the years. In my opinion, you have to fully utilize direct marketing and customer relationship marketing in your business in order to make your full profit potential (and to not leave any money on the table).
After Redcats, I worked for Gucci, and then for Ralph Lauren. When my son was two years old, I decided to leave my job at Ralph Lauren, in order to start my own business. I am a business coach and I help people grow their business. My mission is to contribute to a world in which work feels fulfilling and business is easy, abundant and exciting for everyone.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I could write a whole book about all the mistakes I’ve made! The funniest one I can think of happened when I started my first business, which I was running on the side of working full time. I was so over the heels excited to start it and to have my own customers, that I rushed to have everything up and running. When my first order came in, I didn’t notice that my products shipped to the customer’s billing address, not his shipping address. I was so embarrassed! Note to self, double-check all your systems before you launch something, no matter how excited you are.
One other learning experience that’s been on my mind lately is about how terrified I was after I started my coaching business. I had the courage to start, but I didn’t have the courage to follow through. I wasted a lot of time being paralyzed by fear and not doing any of the things I needed to do in order to grow my business. However, everything changed for me when I deliberately adopted a mindset focused on success and growth. As painful as it was, I’m grateful for this experience because I now understand that our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and self-awareness are just as important as our marketing strategies in creating the business we desire.
Mindset is important even when you look to create a great customer experience. It’s hard to create customer loyalty if in your heart of hearts you’re terrified of your customers, if you don’t trust that the people who come to you are loyal, loving individuals (not people who are out to get something from you) or if you don’t believe in collaboration and appreciation of one another.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
One person who’s helped me immensely is a person who was a beta tester for my online course on customer loyalty. She answered all of my questions patiently and gave me a lot of feedback. I remember how she showed up to our meeting prepared with pages of notes. If there is such a thing as a business angel, this person was one.
I learned from her that when we teach, people love our stories. They don’t just want our frameworks and our clever content, they want to know how we’ve experienced the content and the stories that helped us create it. In addition, I also learned from her that a great product is not just about your material, but also about the depth of the connection you establish. It’s about being available, being respectful and flexible with regards to people’s unique business situations, wholeheartedly answering questions, helping people uncover their questions and all in all, offering your help as much as humanly possible. This was an important lesson for me because I was so obsessed with the creative process of creating my content, that I would have easily missed this learning had it not been for this woman.
I am also grateful for every person whose path crossed with mine. I love people and I love learning about their unique personalities in work and business, so even when somebody didn’t work with me directly, they’ve contributed to my experience by allowing me to be around them. I also love reading. I think it takes courage, dedication to humanity and generosity to share what you know through books or articles, so I feel incredibly appreciative of all the authors I’ve read. They are all my mentors too, even though I’ve never met them.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
I see two big, overarching reasons. First, an outstanding customer experience leads to higher profits. According to recent research by Rob Markey, companies with loyal customers grow revenues roughly 2.5 faster than their industry peers.
On one hand, an outstanding customer experience helps create customers who buy again and again, who refer others and who remain loyal through time. On the other hand, outstanding customer experience also attracts high-quality prospects, people who haven’t bought yet but who value themselves enough to buy from companies who respect their customers. These prospects are more likely to become and to remain loyal. Both of these streams of revenue, customer retention, and customer acquisition, lead to higher profit.
Second, planning and delivering a great customer experience makes employees feel more fulfilled in their work, which helps them enjoy better work lives. This also ultimately impacts your profit and the impact you’re making in the world.
When you collaborate internally to come up with ways to create a great customer experience, the conversation becomes one of helping, respecting and showing appreciation to customers. This conversation makes employees understand that their work makes a meaningful difference in someone else’s day. As a result, it fuels their productivity and their emotional fulfillment.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
In some cases, creating a great customer experience requires the complete dismantling of old systems. It’s not just about training front line employees once a year. It’s about continuously training all employees, creating a culture of respect in every corner of the company, building and implementing a new customer-oriented strategy, investing in and using new marketing technology and analytics, creating a new ambiance in physical locations and much more. It takes time to break and replace old, stubborn systems.
Since I’ve been working independently, I’ve seen many business owners who are truly dedicated to integrating a customer experience, loyalty and retention strategy in their company. But the change they want to create doesn’t happen overnight. It’s often the case that, while they want to make this change, they don’t know yet how. When we, as customers, see this disconnect, I think it’s often because these companies haven’t yet been able to implement a new strategy and dismantle their old systems.
Then, of course, there are also leaders who tell others they understand the importance of good customer experience, but whether they believe in the importance of good customer experience or not, now that’s a different story. As a result, they allow other seemingly more urgent matters to take priority. And let’s face it if you’re not disciplined, your attention can be pulled in many different directions when you’re growing a business. But if you’re ready to create a great customer experience, you have to commit to it, make it a priority, plan it properly and see your plan to completion.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
Absolutely, I think competition helps force companies to improve their customer experience. In addition, the transparency that exists nowadays with social media forces companies to pay close attention to the customer experience they offer. Genuine and positive word of mouth is a powerful form of marketing.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
I’ll tell you about a person I met years ago, a person I’ll never forget. She was a customer who taught me more about marketing than all the textbooks I read. She was one of our most loyal and highest-spending clients at the company I was working for at the time. One day, I met her face to face at an event, and she talked to me about how much she loved our brand, company, and products. She was incredibly genuine and dedicated to our brand. Even as a marketer, I never thought that a customer could love a company so deeply. During my conversation that day with her, I realized that she wasn’t buying a product. She wasn’t buying a logo either. Instead, she was buying a feeling that deeply resonated with her, a feeling that added more meaning to her life.
And you see, the reason why she was a highly loyal customer wasn’t that we wow-ed her once. Instead, she was a loyal customer because we consistently offered her products, marketing, and experiences that made her feel special and appreciated. Whether it was through a handshake, a telephone call or a marketing email, we were consistent in how we showed up and how we made her feel.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Yes, it definitely had long term ripple effects. In this case, this customer brought us many referrals and continued to be our customer for a long time. In addition, she was also respectful and a joy to work with.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
First, it’s important to remember that an outstanding customer experience starts with how you make people feel.
No matter how big or small your company, the more respected, appreciated and acknowledged you make your customers feel, the more they will love you and the longer they will keep buying from you. I found that this core principle of customer relationship building holds true no matter how many customers you have, whether 1 customer, 10 million customers or more customers. Deep down, we all yearn to be respected, acknowledged and appreciated. When others make us feel this way, we stop and listen. We feel connected, included and loved.
If you think about it, the only reason why anybody buys anything is because of how they think they’ll feel as a result of buying or owning that product. Antonio Damasio conducted research that shows that people can’t make any decisions if they’re not able to feel emotion. To buy or not to buy is a decision. Therefore, if you make people feel loved, they are more likely to buy, and to buy again. In addition, you will also find your work more fulfilling because you will connect with others in a meaningful way.
I think we’ve reached the point when people don’t want products anymore, they want connection. They want to be seen, respected and appreciated. Products are always replaceable, but the way you make people feel can never be replicated. You can stand out in a saturated economy by making your customers feel loved, by offering them a long-lasting relationship and an authentic connection.
In genuine relationships, you don’t give in order to get and you don’t bribe. Instead, you respectfully recognize somebody for the contribution they’ve made to your life and business. I call this the art of lifelong customers. The art of lifelong customers is the timeless art of showing respect, appreciation, and acknowledgment to the people who bought from you in the past.
The second thing that I’d like to highlight is the importance of the post-purchase experience. The post-purchase experience includes what you say or do immediately after people buy. Most companies invest a ton of resources into creating funnels and experiences to convert leads into customers, but they completely disregard creating a thoughtful experience after people buy.
The reason why the post-purchase experience is vital to your overall success is because the moment when people decide if they will buy repeatedly is not later down the line when they are presented with a new offer. Instead, what I found is that people subconsciously decide if they will become loyal immediately after they buy for the first time. Therefore, it’s important to make people feel appreciated after they buy. Even a simple but genuine “thank you” email or note can go a long way.
Third, outstanding customer experience is not just about talking face to face. While the potential of an in-person connection will always outweigh that of an online connection, it’s important to scale your customer experience with direct marketing and thoughtful customer relationship management.
In other words, I encourage you to create thoughtful automated email sequences to reach customers during the most meaningful moments in their journey with your business. Think about it, will you really put the entire fate of your customer experience in one interaction in person? You need automated direct marketing sequences that make people feel loved, even if the person they talked to in the store or emailed with earlier that day had a rough morning.
Fourth, there’s a group of customers who I would like you to pay close attention to. They are your VIP customers, your most loyal, most dedicated and most eager to open their wallet customers. Every business has customers who buy a lot and customers who don’t buy so much. If you organize your customers hierarchically based on the contribution they’ve made to your business, you will notice you have a group of customers who stand out among the rest. Pareto’s rule says that 80% of a business’ revenue comes from just 20% of customers. While these percentages will vary from business to business, you most likely have a group of customers you simply can’t afford to lose. I encourage you to create a special marketing program specifically for these VIP customers, in order to keep them connected to you.
Lastly, I encourage you to use your customer data when creating, evaluating and re-shaping your customer experience. It’s easy to spin your wheels in various directions and bend over backward to create an outstanding customer experience. But at the end of the day, customers don’t care about many of the things we obsess over. In order to understand what matters to your customers and what makes the most impact on them, you have to intelligently use your customer data. Your customers are talking to you through the data they collectively give you. If you want to make them feel heard, you have to read and listen to your customer data.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
In my opinion, the most useful thing you can do is also the simplest. It is to ask. Many companies don’t ask. Ask your customers for referrals fearlessly. Most of the time, we take past customers’ future purchases and referrals for granted. We assume they will buy and they will refer others if they want to and when they want to. But people need to be asked and they need to be reminded. If you ask your past customers for referrals, you are more likely to get these referrals. It is not “salesy” or un-elegant to ask for referrals.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would encourage everyone to pour more love into their work and to do more of the things they love. We need more love for work and business. There are many people who suffer in their careers and businesses nowadays, and it’s time for this suffering to end. People feel unfulfilled, they feel called to do something else, but they don’t know where to begin. They ignore the voice they hear in their heart, but eventually, the calling gets too big to be ignored. We spend most of our time working, so I believe we all have the responsibility to take a close look at what brings us joy and to start taking steps to reframe and reinvent our work in such a way that we genuinely feel excited to show up for it.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you so much for having me!