What You’ll Learn

This episode of “StoryConnect: The Podcast” begins a special six-part miniseries exploring the customer experience. Each stop on the journey is important to have a great customer experience. But first, what is the customer experience?

Show Notes

Andy Johns: This is “Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience.” A special six-part StoryConnect miniseries hosted by Carrie Huckeby. Journey is a production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. And in partnership with our presenting sponsor, Calix, whose mission is to enable broadband service providers of all sizes to simplify, excite and grow. Email us at hello@WordSouth.com to continue this customer experience conversations.

Carrie Huckeby: What does customer experience mean? How much of your day are you thinking about it? Is it a new term, a buzz word, that just simply describes what rural service providers have always cared about? 73% of customers say when treated well at one company, they hold other companies to that same standard. Does that mean that our customers, our members, our consumers, are holding us to the Amazon, Southwest Airlines and Chick-fil-A standard of customer service? Has the expectation caused service providers to do anything different? How does the customer journey fit into the overall customer experience? Well, I’ve taken a journey of sorts myself. I’ve been talking to marketing and industry pioneers across the country. Those that are in the trenches every day monitoring not only the customer experience, but fiber builds, budgets, marketing projections, campaigns, CLEC operations and doing it all, while also adhering to COVID guidelines and standards. Not only are they some of the best at what they do, but they are long time friends.

Kyle Randleman is the VP of marketing and customer operations at Star Communications in North Carolina.

Derek Barr is the assistant general manager at Hardy Communications in West Virginia.

Dee Dee Longenecker is the director of business development at Eastex in Texas.

I have Gregg Hunter, public relations and marketing specialist at Nemont in Montana.

Deb Lucht is the CEO and the GM at Minburn Communications in Iowa.

I have Kirk Gruendling, the VP of marketing and business development at WCVT in Waitsfield, Vermont.

And Shannon Sears is the director of commercial operations at WCTEL in South Carolina.

We have six podcast episodes in this special series. Each episode will cover one of the stops on the customer journey: awareness, evaluation, purchase, retention and advocacy. And in this very first episode, I thought it would be a good ideal to start with a question: when did customer experience become a thing at your company? We start with Gregg Hunter at Nemont. He has a great story about the first time he attended the NTCA Sales and Marketing Conference. He experienced a customer experience moment. For Gregg, it was an “aha moment.”

Gregg Hunter: What I remember about that whole experience, it was my very first NTCA Marketing Conference, PR and Marketing conference. And I remember walking into the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel and standing in line in front of the counter, waiting to be helped. And this lady called out to me and she said,”Mr. Hunter, I can help you over here.” And I thought, “how in the world did she know who I was,” and that baffled me. And from that time on — well, I investigated and found out that these guys had these little earwigs out there in the valet. They were taking your baggage out of the taxis or whatever, and they were actually looking at your name and saying, “OK, Mr. Hunter has a blue shirt on,” and that’s the only way, because I was traveling with a coworker, and she was addressed the same way. I don’t know if everybody gets that kind of service, but I kind of immediately tied it back to your competition. And your competition is anybody out there that can give better service than you can. And that made me a firm believer right there. It wasn’t that they were a better hotel. It’s their customer experience there was better than I’ve seen a lot of places. And you compare it to a restaurant or you compare it to a lot of different things. And I thought, well, that’s — it was kind of interesting that that was my very first exposure to that, and yet I it kind of like wrapped me alongside the head and said, “wake up.”

Carrie Huckeby: I love that story. I read “The Power of Moments” a couple of years ago, and the writers talk about how to engineer CX moments. And one of the ways to do that is to elevate. And that’s exactly what Gregg’s hotel did.

Carrie Huckeby: Kyle Randleman admits he heard a lot about customer experience when he went to meetings from various speakers, but he really wasn’t convinced it meant anything to the bottom line.

Kyle Randleman: Yeah, you know, I’m glad you asked it, because it got me thinking about where did it come from? And because it definitely was not a term for many, many years of us working and especially when I had my marketing hat on. At that point, you if it didn’t make us money, it didn’t move the needle or save us money, I really didn’t care. I think it was back in about 2016 or 2015, I can’t remember the year, but Tim Owens at Cronin, he and I were talking at some event, and I think he was the first one I’d ever heard mentioned, you know, the customer experience and mapping it out. I’ll be honest, Carrie, at the time, you know, I said “that’s cool. I’m busy enough as it is. I’m not looking for any extra work; I’m stressed as it is.” But I think it was years later, probably 2018 or so that it started seeping into the company. You’d hear other people say, you know, customer experience, customer CX, you would hear these things. I didn’t take it seriously until 2018. I think that was a mistake on my behalf. I should have done it earlier because it actually does make a financial impact on your company — what your customers perceive of your company. So I wish I had jumped on the bandwagon a little sooner than I did, Carrie. So I kind of missed out on that one a little bit. But I did try to start catching up at about 2018.

Carrie Huckeby: Thankfully, Kyle realized it does make a difference. Customer experience has a big impact on the bottom line. Matter of fact, Sitecore published a white paper recently and their research said that for every dollar spent on customer experience that the return is three. I mean, that’s triple. That’s a good return. In that same report, 97% surveyed think retaining a customer increases revenue 72%, and profitability 65%. So happy customers buy more, and they keep coming back. Derek Barr talks about the customer perception and the impact that each and every interaction can have.

Derek Barr: Everybody is involved in the idea of selling and educating the customer as to what we have available. Then it was basically in the last couple of years that the whole idea of an overall experience, you know, what the customer is actually feeling at every step along the way. Because we all know at any point a bad experience with any part of your process can turn a customer off completely, and then you’ve lost that customer. So it became a focus on every aspect of their interaction with your organization is part of their experience. And so you have to make sure that as much as you can, that you’re making that a positive experience for the customer. Any interaction that leaves a bad taste in a customer’s mouth is going to linger. You know, you can have a 100 good things or what might be some ordinary interactions, and it all just goes fine. But that one that didn’t go the way they want, or they think that you didn’t deliver in the way you were supposed to, it’s going to take a lot to overcome that. So you have to think that it’s not a let up, so to speak. It’s just constant. Every interaction you want it to be the best that it can be.

Carrie Huckeby: I mentioned the book “The Power of Moments” earlier. And talking to Derek, I was reminded of something that the writers included. They said that customer service interactions are rarely remarkable and mostly forgettable. That’s true, unless it’s a negative experience. As humans, we do tend to remember the negative experiences we have with the business more than we remember the positive ones. And this is the driving factor in why every customer interaction needs to be a positive. And Derek agrees.

Derek Barr: Yes, I mean, I’m like that myself. That’s what I tend to look back and I’ll say, “oh, I’ve had great experiences with such and such a company,” but one time something goes wrong and then that’s going to stick in my mind for a long time. It’s no different than if you go to a restaurant. You know, you might have 100 meals that are great and then you get one where something’s wrong or something’s lousy, that’s what you’re going to remember for a while. So, you know, I wish we weren’t that way. We could always think about the good things, but but I’m no different than anybody else. A negative experience will stick in my mind.

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Carrie Huckeby: A few of my guests have completed 100% fiber networks over the last few years, and the others are continuing to work every day to reach that 100% mark. Having an excellent product certainly goes a long way when it comes to delivering an exceptional customer experience. But Deb Lucht knew that a great network doesn’t guarantee customers, and it can’t be the only determining factor in the customer experience.

Deb Lucht: We began deploying fiber to the home in 2010, and we were completed in 2016. So we were kind of one of the early adopters in our service territory. And at the time, I’m not sure that the consumer really understood the benefit. But as the demands have grown for Internet usage, it definitely has been able to set us apart from those other service areas around us. It was about five years ago when we completed the fiber to the home expansion or improvements to our network. Then it was about, “OK, how do we really identify and separate ourselves from the other carriers?” And we did a lot of internal evaluation about what makes us different and started focusing on our branding and our core values and how do we make that really be the foundation of how we operate. And so in order to engage in that customer experience and make it better, we came up with the strategic tag of “World-Class Connections…Hometown Touch” and we strive on that hometown touch. We want the experience of every single customer that we do business with to have that hometown touch experience. And so that has been the driving message behind our branding and our customer awareness.

Carrie Huckeby: I asked Deb if there is a step-by-step checklist to ensure that every customer feels the hometown touch, or is this something they’ve been able to instill in the company culture.

Deb Lucht: It starts with every interaction that we have with our customers and the potential customers that are not yet our customers. We have staff. Our technicians, for example, when they’re out in the rural areas, if they see a new home going up, they take it upon themselves to reach out to the contractor there and identify who the homeowner is and leave a packet of information. And then we do follow-up. It’s that constant personal interaction, even from the customer service side.

Carrie Huckeby: Those are some excellent points. And if customer experience is to be a priority at your company or any company, it has to come from the top down. It can’t be one department. It can’t be one person. Everyone has to believe in it. It has to be important. Everyone has to be on board. Dee Dee Longenecker agrees. She gives NTCA credit for discussing the importance of customer experience at conferences and at training, but says that an important part is having leadership that believes in training, helping employees sharpen their skills so that they are able to consistently deliver the type of experiences that Eastex want their customers to have.

Deb Lucht: I don’t know exactly when that term started coming up in standard business jargon, but it seems like through conferences, we well before COVID we were regularly attending training sessions. Now we’re doing it virtually. But I think our staff has always benefited from our Board having a real positive take on education and training for all of our staff. So I think through those educational forums, customer experience was brought up. I know NTCA has done a great job through their annual PR and Marketing Conference and talking about customer experience, so we’ve adopted that internally, and certainly since before I came on board internally with Eastex. So, yeah, customer experience is very important to us. I think that there are some companies that have almost cult like followings because of the customer experience they’ve provided. And Chick-fil-A is a good example of that. I do think they’ve raised the bar. The old company that used to always be the model for that was Southwest Airlines. And so I think especially in Texas, as some of those companies have a very southern root. And I think our southern clientele, they they appreciate that. I mean, we’re in Texas and that state is known for how friendly its people are. So the bar is very high on how customers expect to be treated and the kind of experience they want to have. I feel like we are really lucky at Eastex that our customer service staff is so friendly, and we are so community-based that we really know a lot of our customers.

Carrie Huckeby: Shannon Sears agrees with Dee Dee about the importance of training and instilling the company culture and the DNA in everything they do at WCTEL. They use the golden rule whenever possible.

Shannon Sears: I would say we didn’t call it customer experience, but it was part of our culture. It was part of our DNA from the beginning of our company. It has really been built into our culture from the beginning to provide top notch customer service and an overall customer experience. I think sometimes we err on the side of spending too much time with the customer to try to do that. We might drive them a little bit crazy, but, you know, we respond to our customers, and we really do try to treat them the way we want to be treated. We live in the community. We work in the community. When we go to the grocery store and see these people, we want them to have positive things to say about our company. And most of the time we do, believe it or not. But it really is part of our DNA. We protect that culture fiercely. I mean, when we hire new people, it is the thing that we think about the most. You want quality people and you want to be able to train them and you want them to be able to fit into your group. But above all, you want them to join in with the culture that you have to provide a great customer experience.

Carrie Huckeby: We talked about the bottom line, training and setting your company apart from the competition. We haven’t talked about what it takes, though, to understand what your customer wants from your company. What do they want in a customer experience? When Kurt started at Waitsfield, he got off to a great start by going directly to the customer and asking those very questions.

Kurt Gruendling: I started here at Waitsfield in 1996, and one of the first things that I did, even though we were not quite a 100 years old yet, but obviously all of us thought we had pretty good scope and handle on our customers and our customer needs. I said it’s a great opportunity to really take a fresh look and take a step back. Let’s go out. Let’s do a series of focus groups throughout our rural communities that we serve. And then from there, let’s see what we learn and then kind of set up our regular marketing research to really scale that and just truly get a handle of our customer needs: what those expectations are, how we are doing and establishes those benchmarks. So I would say back into the early days, that was a big start of that. And then it’s just grown and expanded from there. We still do a ton of customer research, both annually through our customer satisfaction surveys, but also transactional. So that customer journey you refer to, that’s perpetual. And it’s our hope that that journey continues. It continues to evolve. And let’s face it, expectations aren’t stagnant either. So why we might be setting up procedures, policies, measurements and for certain touch points or that customer expectation is evolving. And certainly in the last couple of years, I think it’s changed exponentially.

Carrie Huckeby: Kurt is right. Customer expectations have changed. The customer has so much information available at their fingertips. This can change the way a business operates with just consumer reviews and suggestions. In addition, Kurt believes that service expectations have changed, too.

Kyle Randleman: I think COVID really focused on — I mean, we saw great usage pattern shift where just overnight in terms of people’s reliance. You and I always knew how important broadband was.

Carrie Huckeby: Fantastic, great points: the customer changes, the journey changes, expectations change. If you don’t ask the right questions, you never know what your customers really think. This reminds me of something I read from a Gartner study a few years ago. When CEOs were asked how satisfied their customers were with the customer experience, 80% said, oh, our customers are very happy. They’re satisfied. Everything’s great. But when they asked the customers of those companies the same question, only 8% said they were happy with the customer experience. That’s a pretty big disconnect.

Carrie Huckeby: I hope you’ve enjoyed this first podcast in our customer journey series. Our next one is all about the first stop on the customer journey, and my guests will not disappoint. Bring your road trip snacks and be sure to stay tuned for episode two.

Andy Johns: We hope that you have enjoyed this episode of Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience. A six-part StoryConnect miniseries hosted by Carrie Huckeby. A special thanks goes to our guests and to our presenting sponsor, Calix. Visit calix.com to learn how their cloud and software solutions can help you simplify your business, excite your subscribers and grow your value. Journey and StoryConnect are productions of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources.