Improving the customer experience doesn't have to be complicated. It can be broken down into three steps that allow you to examine how different parts of your business contribute to the overall encounter. Improved customer experiences usually result in increased customer retention and more referrals.

All you need to do is look at your business and its processes from the customer's perspective, to see your company as the customer sees it. There are three steps: before, during, and after the customer interaction.

Before the Sale

"Before" includes how customers become aware of your business and the influences that drive them to walk up to your door. Marketing and word-of-mouth advertising is a big part of this step. In today's world, advertising includes everything from traditional mainstream media to social media platforms such as Facebook, blogs, and Twitter. For retailers, store signage and point-of-sale advertising is still important.

Inventory control is crucial. Retailers order their inventory months in advance of their busy seasons. The ability to spot new fashions and trends is critical to many professions. Determine whether this is a strength or a weakness.

During the Sale

The second step is "during." When customers enter a place of business, they'll be asking themselves questions such as "Do I like what I see here? Do I feel safe? Is the environment not only comfortable but pleasant?" For brick-and-mortar retailers this means your customers must see an enticing accessible storefront. Is the area outside of the store clean and safe? Once inside, comfort includes everything from lighting, decorations, temperature, and cleanliness to how the staff greets and interacts with customers. The way merchandise is displayed is also crucial.

The level of customer service offered by your staff can make you stand out from your competition. You and your employees should be polite, knowledgeable, and adept at matching customer needs with your products. Retail staff should be trained to stop their paperwork or restocking to wait on customers as soon as they enter. Additionally, you should empower your employees to go the extra mile to exceed your customer needs, especially when complaints are voiced.

Depending on your business, your customers should be able to "test-drive" your products or otherwise interact with them. Train your employees to bring spouses, especially wives, into the conversation. Identify other ways to make your business family-friendly.

If it's appropriate, offer your customers free refreshments. Coffee, water, and tea can go a long way to improving the customer experience for a minimal investment.

After the Sale

The final step is "after" the sale. Determine a way to identify those customers who want you to inform them of upcoming sales and promotions. Consider creating a monthly e-newsletter that offers tips about the "care and feeding" of your product that will keep your name topmost in your customers' minds.

Then examine the part of your business that customers don't see. Studies have shown a direct link between employee morale and the level of customer service. The saying "Happy employees make happy customers" is true. You should identify those competencies you require in your employees and make sure that you're looking for them when you hire. Be sure you are properly rewarding and recognizing your employees when they make positive contributions to the customer experience.

Audit your policies and procedures, such as how and when you offer refunds, to make sure that they don't stand in the way of "wowing" your customers.

Determine what additional training and other resources your employees need to truly make your customers' experiences memorable.

If you focus on examining the factors your customers can see, such as inventory, customer service, and "test-driving" the merchandise as well as behind-the-scenes processes that your customers don't see (hiring, training, recognition) you'll be able to better craft a customer experience that will surprise and please.