Two years ago my family and I were fortunate and honoured to participate in a BBC1 ‘living history’ programme called Turn Back Time: the Family. An experience like no other, we were transported back in time to the turn of the 20th century to find out how life was like for our ancestors. The essence of the programme was for us to live as our forbears lived with a view to understanding how life for the family unit has changed over time. Whilst there was not a focus on what life was like for the consumer, it is impossible for me not to consider the impact of Customer Experience – whatever the era!! If you want to know more about the programme, you can read all about it here.
Two years on, I am continually reminded about our Turn Back Time experience as commemorations for the start of World War I increase in visibility. I personally went on a significant journey getting closer to understanding the sacrifices my family made for me. As I wear my poppy with pride, I will never forget them and the millions of others who have lost (and continue to lose) their lives protecting the future for us all.
1914 has another significance for the Golding family – it is the year my Grandma was born. Wonderfully, Pauline is still with us having celebrated her 100th birthday on the 1st May. To think that she was born BEFORE the war started is quite something. To think what life was really like in 1914 in London is intriguing. Being involved in Turn Back Time gave me enough of a flavour to make a comparison between the Customer Experience then and now. That is why I want to pose the question – 1914 or 2014: when was the best time to be a customer?
Let us start by going black and white. Life in pre war Britain was in many ways much simpler for the consumer than it is today. For a customer there was only one predominant way to shop….one ‘channel’. That channel was the channel that in 2014 is continually in decline – Face to Face! With the overwhelming majority of consumers not owning a car most customers would purchase goods with local retailers in the high street (remember them?).
As a father in 1914, I learned how important etiquette was. Manners and politeness was evident in all daily interactions at home, work and as a customer. Shops were very orderly places, manned by smartly dressed shopkeepers stood behind tall counters. Knowing most of their customers by name, products would be picked and packed whilst maintaining friendly conversation. Most of the time the shopkeepers did not even have to ask what their customers wanted to buy – they knew already. There was not a great deal of variety with the products on offer, but that just made the shopping experience more efficient.
Even in 1914 there was an alternative to shopping on the high street. The first iteration of home shopping had been in existence for some time by then – shopping by mail order allowed consumers to purchase products not available on their high street. Payment in 1914 was also pretty simple – cash or cheque with no plastic in sight.
Fast forward 100 years to 2014. Today, consumers do not have two channels to purchase products. In 2014 we have arguably eight (Shops; telephone; web; mobile; live chat; SMS; mail order; TV). I am sure someone will tell me I have forgotten one as well!! We are able to purchase literally everything we need in any way we want from anywhere in the world. We could in theory live our lives without ever talking to anyone or setting foot outside of our front door!
If we do choose to talk to someone, it is often via an automated telephone system. It is not uncommon to conduct an entire transaction without a human being involved and even if one is, they are often just reading back a pre written script. In stores, it is unlikely that anyone will know who the customer is and staff may not even need to help you make your purchase.
That being said, we are able to choose what we want when we want it. We can buy whatever we need seven days a week 24 hours a day. We can buy things online and have them delivered to our door within the hour. We can pay in a multitude of ways without the need to fill our pockets with cash. We are even able to see what others think about the things we might buy before we commit to doing so.
So when was the best time to be a customer? the personal, simple consumer experience of 1914; or the global, convenient consumer led experience of 2014? Many will argue that surely the ‘winner’ has to be the modern-day – 2014. We experience what we do today because consumers have demanded that the organisations we interact with provide a more functional, accessible experience. We wanted the 24/7 society that we now have and will continue to demand more and more from companies.
Is that really the case though? Is everyone really happy with the connected world that we are now all a part of? It is difficult to deny ease and convenience provided by amazing technology is that greatest evolution for the 2014 consumer. To be able to do/get what we want when we need it is a remarkable thing. However, it is also difficult to deny that shopping in 2014 is often not a particularly emotional experience. It does not always feel particularly good being a customer of the global corporations who distribute the products or provide the services we buy.
in 2014, all too often we read and hear about stories of organisations completely failing to connect emotionally with customers. Not only do they not know their names, but very few businesses seem to empathise with the people who want to buy their products or services. It is almost ironic that the consumer is now demanding more and more personalisation in their interactions……a little like we used to have in the good old days.
My answer to the question ‘when was the best time to be a customer?’, is very possibly one you may already have guessed. I think there is much to learn from BOTH eras. The power a consumer has in 2014 has completely changed the relationship between company and customer. Some have adapted to the change better than others. Improved choice and convenience is a good thing. Easily accessible products and services at affordable prices is another. However, if we could consistently add the personal, empathetic, emotional flavour of the shopping experience of the early 1900’s (albeit modernised), then surely we would have an era that all consumers could enjoy with confidence.
As we steadily approach the end of another calendar year, the importance of Customer Experience in all sectors gathers yet more pace. Maybe 2014 is not the best time to be a customer at all – maybe 2015 will be!!