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Experience is Everything


Customers want more than your widgets or whatever your core offering happens to be. They want an experience. They want to be wowed. They want to join your tribe. If you don’t approach them on these terms, there are countless rival ‘tribes’ that will, argues Kevin Garber.

“You’re selling a candlelit dinner by poolside, not a piece of wax on a stick. You’re selling romance, not flatware.”

These are the words of Gordon Segal, entrepreneur and founder of Crate and Barrel, a specialist houseware and furniture company in the United States that has 170 stores across North America.

I remember many years ago a business mentor explaining how important it was to understand that customers are engaging your organisation for something greater than the product or service itself – they are purchasing an experience. “Kevin Airlines don’t sell tickets for air travel, they sell the dream of interesting experiences in exotic lands. Gyms don’t sell you access to weights and treadmills, they sell you health, vibrancy, youth and fitness. Prestige car makers don’t sell you a way to get from A to B, they sell you social value, a societal success symbol and recognition for your hard work and sacrifice.”

I was recently reminded of my mentor’s words on one of my infrequent trips to a major shopping centre in Sydney. First stop was a homeware store to purchase bed sheets. The store’s staff members were polite but unenthusiastic, the store fit-out was uninspiring and their stock options were limited. I kept on thinking, ‘This store is adding no value. I would be better off at home buying exactly what I want online.’ This shop was a slightly glorified mini-warehouse with retail prices.

I then took a 45 minute stroll to the other end of this shopping mega city to a tea store called T2 Tea. As I entered the store, a wall of energy and buzz hit me. People were sniffing tea leaves, playing with tea pots, fiddling with tea brewing paraphernalia like excited children in a toy shop. The staff was flat out but seemed to be having a ball. The store fit-out was edgy, contemporary, yet with a classic feel. Yes! I was excited! Someone at T2 clearly understood that they were not “just selling tea”.

I was swept up in the atmosphere, spent about an hour in the store and purchased $100 worth of tea! In contrast, I purchased nothing at the bedding store and ordered my sheets online from a different retailer later that evening.

Notwithstanding that more than ever retailers need to capitalise on the experience versus the commodity – all of us business owners and entrepreneurs need to reflect on the products and services that we provide and really get to understand the exact place we occupy in our customers’ worlds.

A couple of years back my company assisted a financial services firm with an email campaign regarding an event that they were hosting. Five minutes after the email was dispatched the client called. With a broad grin in her voice, the client excitedly told me that 10 bookings for her event had already been registered. Yes we assisted her with creative design, html coding, and execution of a professional email campaign, but that wasn’t really what she was after. She wanted a sold out event that brought in money for the company and made her look good in front of her boss and her peers.

Viewing business through this very broad customer-centric lens is powerful and can have significant positive impact at all levels of your organisation.

With us or against us

Last year I travelled on one of Australia’s budget airlines to Queensland. The airline had all sorts of logistical problems that resulted in all passengers having to wait overnight for a plane to fly back to Sydney. The airline industry is a complex one – we all get that. Weather is unpredictable, maintenance issues crop up and so on. What made this experience remarkable was the aggressive and surly nature that this issue was dealt with by airline staff.

This inappropriate service resulted in sweet little old ladies crying, business men losing tempers and popping veins, tourists stressing out about missed connecting flights – dream after dream was shattered. The airline clearly did not get that while their currency was air tickets, they were in fact providing a whole lot more than a plane, seat, and pilot. Empathy, sympathy and a process managed by people who grasp the concept of ‘we provide more than an air ticket’ would have spared their brand much of the damage that was done.

Brands that are loved have a common factor – they know that they are offering much more than their product or service. Leading brands make an ongoing effort to understand what it is that their customers are really buying from them. Brands such as Starbucks, Coke, Virgin, Google and eBay on mention probably trigger immediate positive emotional responses that are generally unrelated to the actual product that they provide. These brands all provide high quality products but stay tightly coupled with the broader experience that their customers are seeking.

Regardless of the size of your company and whether you sell flights into space or kitchen overalls – chances are that your customers are only interested in the product or service as it relates to a broader goal of theirs; a bigger experience that they want to be a part of.

The more that you get to understand the view of your business from your customers’ angle and feed this back into all aspects of your business, the greater your success will be.

Kevin Garber is founder and General Manager of Sydney-based digital marketing company Melon Media. His company recently launched spellr.us, a website and blog spell-checking service.