11/30/2016 03:00 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2016

9 Transaction Models Shape Your Customer Experience

Focus is everything in a business, whether it be a new startup or a large enterprise. In my role as a business advisor, I often see well-meaning entrepreneurs try to be everything to everyone, which results in many things done poorly, and few totally delighted customers. People are confused by multiple messages, and employees are frustrated trying to personalize customer experiences.

These days, the whole business experience is often more important than the product. If the shopping process, delivery, and support experiences are not designed-in and delivered consistently, no after-the-fact effort or product feature can compensate for the lack of it.

The specifics and need for an overall service experience design were driven home to me in a new book, "Woo, Wow, and Win," by Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O'Connell. The authors provide details and multiple examples of how imagining, creating, and rethinking the execution of every aspect of the transaction not only better satisfies customers, but advances your strategic goals.

Most experts agree that there are at least nine generic types of customer experiences commonly in use by successful businesses today. As a place to start, I recommend that you model your business after one of the following archetypes, understanding the pros and cons, rather than defining a new one with a large inherent learning curve:

  1. The aggregator - one-stop shop. Popular examples of this type include Amazon for buying, eBay for selling, and Craigslist for anything. Aggregators delight customers by offering a vast array of products or services under the same experience. Success requires a lean and powerful back office, and a quick recovery when things go wrong.
  2. The bargain - we will not be undersold. Many entrepreneurs start out down this path, with dreams of being the next Walmart, Costco, or Dollar General. The challenges include lean margins, with little room for personalization on mass offerings. The biggest danger is to think that nothing matters except price, in an age where service is king.
  3. The classic - top of the line, just the best. Brands such as Mercedes, Brooks Brothers, and Yale University confer prestige and power to their customers, and imply excellence. Yet they have to be careful not to chase fads, without ever falling behind the times. Paying top dollar is part of this customer experience, so the audience is limited.
  4. The old shoe - we are your local; you are our regular. There are few market positions more powerful than being a familiar, comfortable, hometown business. Very few of these are able to go national or global and still retain the warmth and intimacy of their expected customer experience. Change is hard in this model, and the human element is key.
  5. The safe choice - you cannot go wrong with us. Safe choices are frequently old brands, like traditional banks and department stores, but even technology companies like IBM can fit this mold if they design themselves appropriately. With this model, the urge to evolve is tricky, since change scares people, and can easily distract company focus.
  6. The solution integrator - we put complex things together. Well-recognized users of this model include Deloitte, Lockheed Martin, and Oracle. These companies walk the fine line between selling discrete services and products. Productizing can easily destroy the magic of the service, putting them in the same customer experience as solution sellers.
  7. The specialist - no one is better at what we do. You can find specialists in almost every industry, focused on a particular type of service. Their challenge is to make their excellence visible to customers, and design a customer experience that delights users. Focus is their strength, and they must avoid the temptation of mass-market for growth.
  8. The trendsetter - we are sleek and hip. Trendsetters, like Uber, turn their first-mover advantage into a business model, enticing others to play their game. They are cool, and they foster engagement, not distance. Yet sometimes, they can get too far out in front of customers, and lose the market. Experience design has to change as the market evolves.
  9. The utility - we are a public trust. Many of these are regulated, and risk becoming bureaucratic. It's tough to design and maintain a positive customer experience, since customers often cannot choose their utilities. Yet, over time, if they take their customers for granted, they can be pushed out or superseded by other solutions.

In any case, your challenge is deciding how you are going to market, and designing every aspect of your customer experience. The model selected will drive what offerings you make, and what expectations you set. Just as importantly, it identifies the customers you seek to delight, and the customers you expect to happily look elsewhere without becoming your nemesis.

Service design and delivery can only be successfully done proactively, and it has to start with what you want to promise as the seller, rather than trying to accede to everything a customer asks. Is your company as focused on designing the customer experience as they are on the product or service offered? Your long-term survival and success depends on it.