In his latest feature, EN guest editor Simon Parker talks to Rob Millar (pictured) on how the customer experience is evolving
Customer experience (CX) has always fascinated me. Get it right and you will have evangelical, repeat business, your NPS will go through the roof, your business will grow, and you will be showered with praise (you might even win an EN Award). Get it wrong, however, and you run the risk of creating an angry mob of detractors desperate for an alternative to your mediocre offerings.
My first event was Business Computing 1990 at Earls Court and, while that makes me feel incredibly old, I am trying to reconcile in my own mind whether my most recent event (Middle East Energy, March 2020 Dubai) was radically different in experiential terms; I am not convinced it was.
When comparing ‘experience’ in events with hospitality, retail and travel, do we think we have made similar strides: are we the equivalent of a 1980’s Wimpy, or have we moved in the direction on Nike Town or an Apple Store. As we all prepare to flock back to the Great British Pub (as we have been missing them so much, apparently) it is sobering to think that up to 25 were closing each week pre-pandemic. Of course, there have been many factors influencing this but a good friend of mine who runs a chain of pubs puts it down to bad management and bad customer experience – his chain is booming (or was pre pandemic, at least). He knows what his customers want, and he delivers a consistent and differentiated product at the right price. Those that don’t do that are those who go out of business; simple.
Of course, our events have evolved and improved over time, venues have become ‘destinations’ and have invested heavily in infrastructure, catering and their look and feel and organisers have created immersive and personalised journeys for exhibitors and visitors alike. Contractors have become far more responsive and customer-focused as well as offering better pricing models but has all of this moved the dial and what more can we do to really create memorable and unique CX that excites and inspires our communities.
To find out a little more I decided to ask someone who really knows what they are talking about. Rob Millar (main picture) has obsessed about CX for the last 20 years of his career, gaining experience from working in multiple sectors including retail, banking, government and hospitality. Since 2015, he has also worked with a number of event organisers including UBM, Reed and Clarion, so I asked if he would be happy to talk about how our industry compares and contrasts with the other sectors, he has worked in. As you will read, we are talking largely about visitors as customers although I think most of the discussion can be applied to both exhibitors and visitors – the principles are the same.
An obvious question to start with was how the events industry compared with the other sectors Millar has dealt with when delivering CX; where are we versus retail or hospitality?
“I have seen some excellent examples where customers are given an excellent, curated experience before, during and after an event,” he says. “However, overall, the feedback is that the industry does lag behind other sectors because too many shows have a very transactional relationship with their customers. They focus too much on what happens during the three to five days on-site where the emphasis is on connecting people so that serendipity can do its job.
“The issue is that the business people (both exhibitors and visitors) run their companies 365 days a year – but the tradeshow mindset means that there is little or no consideration of what happens the other 362 days outside the event. As an industry, you need to take a step back and think about what keeps your customers awake at night – what are the big issues that they are facing that drives their behaviours and decision-making.
“To give a simple example, the banking industry realized in the early 2000’s that they needed to stop selling mortgages and needed to start helping their customers buy houses. The house buying journey lasts sometimes 6-9 months, while the mortgage application is a small, often annoying transactional step. Think about, as an industry, how you could change your relationship with your customers if you started from the premise that you were trying to help your them improve their businesses.
“It is a big mind shift. As you will also know, many banks have still not successfully evolved in the mortgage space – but at least there are now examples where you can see they are attempting to change.”
So, does Millar think that we are relatively immature in CX terms in comparison with other sectors because we don’t necessarily have the insight to inform what experiences we should be creating? Is it simply about getting better data and insight?
“Insight is undoubtedly the cornerstone of any CX strategy, but it needs to be the right insight,” he says. “The issue with many tradeshows is that you focus all insights on how to improve your product: what worked well at the show; what could we do differently at the show; what else would you want to see at the show?
“You need to think about how you elevate the discussion to work out what is keeping them awake at night. Understand what hopes, fears and aspirations they have for their business – then work out how the trade show can help them solve those needs. Car manufacturers don’t focus on whether you have a four-wheel drive or ABS capabilities – they look at your underlying needs around safety (Volvo), status (BMW) or value (Skoda) and then build the features to support those needs.
“That is not to say that you ignore insight around the show, this is still really important. However, be cautious. We have seen one example where the team sent 70+ surveys to the same people asking almost the same questions. This not only annoys people but adds little value and can sometimes even put people off – we saw one situation where there was an inverse relationship between the number of communication emails pre-show and the likelihood of attendance.
“There is definitely a lesson in ‘less is more’ and it clearly depends on the quality of the communication but a well-crafted and personalised piece of communication to behaviourally defined personas certainly trump a more blanket approach.”
So, if we can gain the right insights, what lessons do you have from other industries about how you then use the insight to improve your business?
“Retail is a great example of an industry that has used insight to help it evolve its offer to counter the challenges of digital. We always see headlines about the death of the high-street. However, eCommerce still only accounts for around 30% of total UK retail sales (slightly higher during lockdown, but as an exception not the rule). That said, retail has had an interesting journey over the last 20 years as companies have moved from single channel (High Street shop) to multiple channels (shop and website) to multi-channel (integrated shop, website and mobile offer) to omni-channel (seamless buying experience irrespective of channel).
“Retailers understand that their customers demand to be able to buy products when, how and where it is most convenient, and therefore, have built solutions that support those needs.”
Millar clearly sees that Covid-19 has created some interesting parallels for the events industry – although cautions that the virtual events over the past year place the industry at the ‘multiple-channel’ stage of maturity. Sort out hybrid events and we can then start to talk about offering ‘multi-channel’ solutions.
Moreover, there is a great opportunity to attract and engage with a far bigger audience because you are no longer time-bound, wall-bound or geography-bound in terms of attracting a much wider audience. Understand the wider needs of the industry your event serves, and you could build far more enduring/deeper relationships with much larger audiences by engaging with them through digital communities that allow you to inspire, educate, connect and entertain them throughout the year. Do this, he believes, and we can really start talking about becoming ‘omni-channel’.
I think most of us would accept Millar’s perspectives, despite the fact that many of us claim we were already doing ‘omni-channel’ before Covid. That said, I asked Millar if he had seen examples of events that were more mature in their approach:
“I am not saying this is universally true but, in my experience, smaller businesses, by their very nature tend to be better at this,” he notes. “The sales, marketing and the operations people are sat at the same table, listening to the same feedback and so are playing off each other to respond to their customer’s needs. Larger organisations, particularly if they’ve centralised marketing and sales tend to lose those connections. I am not saying don’t centralise but you need to be cognizant of this, building systems and processes that ensures there is a flow of insight that involves all stakeholders.”
So, it is partially influenced by the way that we are structured. I asked Millar if it was also down to the people and skills we have at our disposal:
“I remember talking to a digital lead in a big organising business who whose biggest problem was selling his vision to stakeholders and decision makers who were ‘event’ people,” he says. “He said he kept coming up against brick walls, because it’s all about the events. You need people that are willing to disrupt the status quo. Moreover, you need to give them the permission and the support to disrupt, which often requires the existing leaders to change their mindset and approach. You can bring in fantastic digital and CX people from outside the industry but without enlightened leadership that are willing to take risks, you will find it tough to change.”
I think it is obvious that Millar feels that we have challenges in moving from what we have done very successfully for many years to the sunlit uplands they call omnichannel but is he optimistic about our chances of success:
“You have as an industry some incredible natural advantages that should help you succeed, such as a live database of participants for whichever industry you are serving, access to the key influencers that will help you drive engagement, and a brand that is often seen as an independent third-party player with no axe to grind. Currently you are only really engaging with the people that attend your events. If you can utilise these assets to your advantage and extend your offer to the entire industry over the whole year; you will have a massive opportunity.
“It comes back to what I was saying earlier you have the opportunity to move from a transactional to an emotional relationship with a much larger group of people, many of whom would never go to the trade show.”
So, what started as a conversation about CX ended up with a grandiose plan that involves the events industry removing the shackles of the physical tradeshow and taking over the world. I like his thinking and it is clear there is a big opportunity for us to have an emotional connection with our industries a theme I will return to later as I am keen to find out who has done that successfully and how they did it.