by Anh H. Nguyen
A recent incident in Hoi An, a charming little old town off the South Central coast of Vietnam, made the rounds on social media: Phuong's Sandwich Shop, an establishment made famous thanks to an episode from the late Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" food show, was accused of delivering terrible customer services. The newfound fame from the series had drawn many visitors to the shop, many of whom were foreigners before Covid-19. Even now, the shop was still considered a tourist hotspot. After the original poster claimed that Phuong's Sandwich Shop treated her in a rude, unfair, and potentially discriminatory manner, many other customers with a similar experience also chimed in. The team behind Phuong's Sandwich Shop is in crisis management mode, a state they seem to be wholly unprepared to deal with. This incident, however, highlights a remarkable shift in both consumers' and business owners' attitudes in Vietnam.
It has not always been like this. In Hanoi, the capital city, usually regarded as the "epitome of class" in Vietnam, "bún mắng, cháo chửi" (foods served with a side of swearing) not long ago were still considered a cultural staple at best and an amusing specialty at worst. Their flourish defied logic: the complicit diners, instead of condemning this practice, put up with it, even embraced it. Even in the more customer-oriented Ho Chi Minh city, similar places known for deliberately treating customers badly have also cropped up, perhaps encouraged by the success of this distasteful business model. But in recent years, the tides have changed. Many customers, especially the younger crowds, and government officials have rightly spoken against "bún mắng, cháo chửi". Why were customers OK with it for so long, and why aren't they now?
The core of customer experience: the customers themselves
A good deal of reasons could be cited for the first one: curiosity, force of habit, an ingrained subservient mindset when it comes to purchasing services. A whole lot more reasons could be cited for the second one: the social media, higher living standards, influx of Western values. But it all boils down to one thing and one thing only: expectations. People's needs were different then, so they were fine with the horrible customer services. As their needs evolve, so do their expectations. Businesses that could not keep up with customers' expectations would risk falling behind or even facing backlash. That, in a nutshell, is what makes up customer experience: anticipating, managing, meeting, and surpassing customers' wants and needs.
As customer experience becomes a buzzword in the business world of Vietnam, many have lost sight of what it truly means. Some think it means a lot of bells and whistles and unnecessary fringes. Others think customer experience is an esoteric concept, reserved exclusively for high-end boutiques, 5-star hotels, and the likes. Both are wrong. Customer experience exists whether the customers squats down for a bowl of noodle, visits an open-air market, or shops at a luxury fashion store. It is the invisible but very much tangible product that is served and sold alongside every meal, every shopping bag, every hotel room.
Customers assume different identities when they experience different services and adjust their expectations accordingly. They may be adventurous or reserved, formal or casual, in need of pampering or wanting to be left to their own devices. Either subconsciously or consciously, customers want the experience to match that. Those who manage that feat could secure not only customers' loyalty but also their advocacy.
Three levels of customer experience
Of course, it is easier said and done. To deliver great customer experience, business owners need to found and foster trust and connection, have a process to predict and solve problems, and live up to the implicit promises inferred from their branding and reputations. But above all, they need to have empathy for their customers. There are three levels of empathy:
Okay retailers understand their customers as fellow humans: they know and act on the basic wants and needs that any human has: to be treated civilly, to not be cheated out of their money, to endure minimal hassles. Okay retailers deliver neutral customer experience.
Good retailers understand their customers as consumers: consumers want to have easy access to the products, a frictionless buying process, and any other help they should need. Good retailers deliver neutral-to-positive customer experience.
Great retailers understand their customers as the specific consumers of their brands: this requires a deep insight of customers' circumstances and motivations and how they line up with the brands themselves. Great retailers are proactive. Great retailers personalize the services to drive customer emotions. Great retailers achieve strong rapport with customers. Great retailers thrive. Great retailers deliver positive-to-memorable customer experience.
Great retailers do not mean premium retailers only. Even mid-range retailers that target the mass could become leaders of customer experience. See Starbucks, L.L. Beans, Zappos, Disney, and Amazon. Again, the key lies in knowing the customers.
Customers' behavior analytics is the way to go
Whether in Vietnam or other countries, few retailers truly know their customers. For many, the only data they have to go on is the total number of sales. One of the biggest reasons is cost. It takes resources to reach out to customers and conduct interviews or questionnaires, and hire mystery shoppers. The customer services department of many brands mostly answer questions and deal with problems after they have arisen, their main function being a "damage control" center.
But the POS data is not incomplete but could also be misleading. To develop good knowledge of customers, retailers need more metrics than that. They need the customer journey, the dwell time at each section, the quantity and quality of their interactions with the staff, the waiting time at the checkout, the conversion rate and drop off rate at every sales tunnel, all in all, a comprehensive visualization of every in-store touchpoint. Only then could they have the necessary tools at their disposal to build the kind of customer experience that matters. There are now many available, affordable, and accessible solutions on the market that could provide just that. The retailers' only job is to choose the solution that suits their needs best.