Consistency and the Customer Experience: Wise or Foolish?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote famously in his essay “Self-Reliance” that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” These days, many people drop the “foolish” out of the statement and thus completely pervert the saying’s meaning, creating a justification to bash the idea of consistency.

Consistency is a good thing — it’s the tendency that allows humans to replicate ways of doing things that work well, and thus enable us to shift our attention to new challenges.

It has its place in CRM, too — especially when it comes to the customer experience. Why would a customer who buys the same thing from the same business want to have a different experience — different processes, different points of contact, different terms for payment and delivery — the second or third time?

You should aspire to make the process better by using the data you collected from earlier interactions to shorten the customer’s journey from contact to close. However, the trip should not have unexpected bumps or detours that will force the customer to buy the same products from the same business in a different way.

Confusion Can Be Costly

The entire process of CRM involves the introduction of consistency to the buying and selling process, hopefully born of study of the processes that work — things you knew about sales, support and marketing from past experience, and things you learn from your customers. In order to realize an economic benefit, you have to synthesize this information into a repeatable set of activities. That’s all about consistency.

From a customer experience standpoint, that’s a critical element; having a routine, predictable and expected route from contact to completion makes buying things easy, and easy is good. While we often talk about pleasant surprises as a part of creating a great customer experience, most surprises tend to be less than delightful and impede customers from getting what they need or want in familiar ways. Switching processes abruptly or without a clear reason confuses customers and can ultimately slow the sales cycle.

Even when things aren’t necessarily perceived as impediments by the business, changes to the buying experience can be jarring to customers. Here’s an example: Many of us have had the experience of buying through the same sales representative for several years. Should you discover unannounced that your rep has changed, it can be jarring — it’s not what you, the buyer, expected, and now both buyer and seller have to re-establish the relationship.

The same phenomena can be even more jarring in self-service processes. If your customers are used to ordering from you via your website, think long and hard before altering a process that is already working, even if it saves time (and especially if you’re changing it for the benefit of your business).

When they’re buying lumber for a construction company, or looking to order toner for photocopiers, or buy new servers for a datacenter, the last thing customers want or expect is to have to learn a new way to negotiate the process of buying, especially when that process has gone smoothly in the past.

When Consistency Stops Making Sense

There’s also foolish consistency to contend with in CRM, as embodied in processes that have outlived their usefulness, or in employees who rigidly refuse to veer from the processes with which they have become too comfortable.

Re-evaluating your efforts based on the customer data you’re collecting is the only way to ensure that you’re getting the most return on your CRM investment. Doing things because they used to work is an exceptionally dangerous way of running a business, especially today as customer behavior evolves — and doubly so when you have CRM data to help you spot that evolution as it happens.

Even as you need to preserve a consistent experience for customers, you also need to continually evaluate and modify your CRM processes. That might seem to be contradictory — and in a way it is. But it goes back to Emerson’s original — and complete — quote: There are aspects of CRM where consistency makes sense, and there are others where it is foolish. Success depends on an understanding which areas are which for your unique business circumstances.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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