Asian retailers have yet to understand the importance of customer service. Photo: Bloomberg

Customer experience matters when it comes to building a lasting brand

Asian service brands lag the US when it comes to giving customers the best shopping experience

Experience matters. We live in an experience age and brands can no longer build strong positions by providing clear functional benefits. In research I undertook with a former colleague, Professor Peter Darke at York University, and then student and now professor at Queens University, Laurence Ashworth, we showed that exposing consumers to irrelevant experiential cues, e.g., asking consumers to listen to music genres they liked versus disliked on a given portable CD player influenced their choice of portable CD players.

Consumers chose CD players that were objectively inferior on functional benefits like battery life and weight, two important characteristics of portable CD players, when they listened to disliked music genres on them, even though the music experience was irrelevant to choice. Consumers would, after all, never listen to a disliked genre of music on the CD player once they took it home!

Notwithstanding such research or the general discussion of how we live in an experience economy and how this matters so much - particularly in the service business in Asia - service businesses do not seem to have understood the importance of experience in building brands. Consider three recent experiences of mine at two leading Singapore retailers and a bank.

In the first case, I visited Takashimaya, an up-market Orchard Street retailer in Singapore, to buy a pair of dress shoes. Having looked at the various shoe brands and models on display, I selected three pairs and approached a salesperson asking them to get me those shoes in my size for me to try them on. To my surprise the salesperson told me that I was asking the wrong person, since he was representing a brand that I had not chosen.

It turned out that I had to find the right salesperson for each shoe brand I had picked up and ask him/her to help get the right size to try. I walked out, dress shoe unbought!

Or consider a visit to Tangs, another up-market retailer on Orchard Street in Singapore, last month. I was looking for a masticating juicer. The experience was the same. Each brand had its own salespeople and one could not get service to look across brands, the normal way consumers make a choice, without having to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy locating the right salespeople.

Moreover, given their vested interest in their own brand, they all give a distorted and self-serving picture of the brand they are selling. Worse still, for a somewhat technical product like a masticating juicer, I found the salespeople in Singapore rather inept. Armed with my internet searches of the product category and product reviews, I seemed to know more than the salespeople did! Once again I left without buying.

In the third instance it was at DBS, a large local Singaporean bank. I wished to deposit a cheque made out in my name into my own account at DBS. I provided my bank account number along with my bank card to the teller. She asked me for my identity card. Why, oh why, would that be necessary?

Perhaps if I was withdrawing money it would make sense, but to deposit money using an account payee cheque in my name, what relevance does my identity have? What could she have learned from my driver's license that would make the transaction more secure or legitimate?

In point of fact it was not necessary because when I threatened I would shut my account she accepted the cheque and deposited it.

Contrast with this my fabulous experience when I shopped in the US recently, for the pair of shoes that I failed to buy at Takashimaya. I was at Nordstrom. The sales person sat me down and took my foot measurement - both length and width.

She then went and retrieved the right sizes for all the different brands and models. She pointed out how for some of the brands I had chosen, the tendency was to have shoe widths that were not suitable for me and she had me try on another brand that had a similar style to the ones I had chosen, that she felt would fit more comfortably.

I left having bought two pairs instead of the one pair I had gone in to buy. And here I am singing praises of Nordstrom and wishing that they open a store in Singapore! And, lest you think this is a unique experience, just visit any number of stores in the US ranging from Nordstrom, through Macy's, Home Depot, or REI, all of whom I happened to visit while in the US in February - the experience is similar and excellent.

So, Asian service brands beware - I say Asian because my experience with banking and retailing in India or Thailand or China, in the recent past, have been no different. It is but a matter of time that retailers with a better service culture, a superior understanding of how customers make decisions, knowledge of how customers wish to be treated, and an understanding of the importance of customer experience in building a service brand show up on Asian shores.

When that happens, as it eventually must, if local Asian retailers haven't understood the importance of customer service and delivering against it, then they might go the same way as the dodo bird.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Experience matters when it comes to building a brand