Filling a Vacuum

The words “customer experience” don’t often pop-up in the same sentence as the words “vacuum cleaner.” It’s not a sexy category and it is a category where customer experience is often not satisfactory. I’ve had my share of unsatisfactory experiences with different brands over the years.

Dyson, which retails in Canada starting at about $500, claims that it never clogs. In an interview with Fortune, James Dyson, the founder, talked about how he created more than 5000 prototypes before the product went to market. That’s pretty impressive. I don’t have firsthand experience with this brand. I’ve seen a few reviews online… it’s a mixed bag really. The price and weight of the upright models seem to be the major concerns. You’ll see both positive ratings at Epinions.com and some complaints here.

The customer experience in this category is going to depend on the performance (does it clean well without clogging and easily losing power), price, durability and ease of handling (weight, attachments and cleaning). Dyson may be among the best in the category. But it seems like when it comes to clean floors, there’s still a vacuum in the market. I am not sure there’s a brand with all the ideal attributes which fills this vacuum.

This brings me to a larger issue regarding customer experience. In situations where the company controls the environment in which the product or service is used or when consumer usage situation is similar, it is easier to deliver a consistent customer experience. When Dyson says “it never clogs”, there will always be customer who’s had the contrary experience simply because the situation in which the brand is used varies from user to user (Image someone with four dogs and six cats… the vacuum cleaner will get quite a workout:-).

When the consumer does not use the product as intended, the result may be a less than optimal experience. But as you can see in the consumer ratings online, the frustration (no matter the cause of it) can turn into negative word-of-mouth. Consumer product development has to take into account the varying conditions in which the product may be used. Very few products these days are so versatile and durable.

When the situation in which the consumption occurs cannot be controlled, as in the case of most consumer products, the firm has less control over the final user experience with the product. Services have their own challenges in delivering a consistent experience, but at least they tend to have greater control over the environment in which the service is consumed.

Product quality and ease of use are important when it comes to experience. Educating the consumer about appropriate usage is also important at times. Substandard, unfriendly and incomplete user/owner manuals don’t enhance the customer experience. I recently had some problems with my treadmill. The owner’s manual has scant information on troubleshooting. It took some online research and a call to the company and finally the help of a service technician to solve the problem.

It makes sense for companies to invest some resources (online and print materials) so that customers are (a) informed about appropriate product use and (b) able to help themselves when faced with minor problems.

Any thoughts on this?

(This post originally appeared on May 25, 2007)