Experience Economy Overview
In brief, the theory of the experience economy is this: companies can charge more for experiences than they can for goods or services. Customers willingly pay a premium for experiences that are distinctive, excellent, and memorable.
The oft-cited example of the experience economy at work is Starbucks. According to the Pine and Gilmore school of thought, Starbucks has succeeded precisely because it does not sell a good (coffee beans [pennies per cup]) or a service (a cup of joe to go [75 cents per cup]). Instead, as a "Third Place" (not the home or the office but the place between), Starbucks sells a one-of-a-kind experience–and the experience is so enticing that customers clamor for more.
As the Experience Economy Unfolds, There is Room for Concern
Pine and Gilmore anticipate the potential argument that, like goods and service, experiences will one day become the expectation or the new normal. In other words, experiences will also become commoditized.
In response, the authors foresee a level beyond experiences and they call it a "final economic offering." At this level, companies will create transformative events perfectly tailored to the customer's needs. These transformations will change the customer in a uniquely uplifting way.[ii]
In pondering companies that appear to be in the transformation business, spas, health clubs, and organic grocery stores come to mind. Beyond providing just a positive memory for customers, these companies seek to transform their customers' relaxation levels, physical stamina and eating habits. Certainly all of this qualifies as a lasting impression—and what company could possibly hope for more? But in these instances
the question is this: What is the
cause driving the transformation? If
the company truly provides a unique experience, then it
can confidently forecast strong customer loyalty. But if
it's their product offering that is unique, this is not
necessarily the case.
Experience Economy Overview
Certainly, the concept of the experience economy got companies to ask some important questions: What experience are we providing? What experience could we provide? Is there anything memorable or positive (theatrical) about our physical stores, our web store or our call centers?
And while some companies (birthday party companies, for instance) have succeeded with theatricality, other companies seem to have gotten so bogged down (see
section below on Song Airline) with creating a vivid experience that they have failed to deliver necessary brass tack services. To better understand the experience economy principles at work, consider the Mayo Clinic and Song Airline, two companies that have focused heavily on the customer experience.
The Mayo Clinic: Managing to the Smallest Details
Ever since the first Mayo Clinic opened in 1883, the hospital has been renowned for its quality care and innovative medical practices. More recently, the Mayo Clinic has begun to approach hospital care in a thoroughly new way.
Recognizing that the quality of medical attention is NOT all that patients remember from a hospital visit, the clinic set out to reshape other aspects of the hospital atmosphere which would positively reflect on the Mayo Clinic as a stellar, high-class facility.
Changes began with architecture and design approaches, but the Mayo Clinic directors also acknowledged the need for nuanced, consistent experience design. They equipped rooms with extra amenities for visiting family members and added comforting touches to outpatient facilities. They also altered the employee dress code, requiring physicians to wear professional business attire when interacting with patients outside of surgical situations.
Mayo Clinic directors thought through the nuances of their approach to such a degree that they even requested that employees (even those who did not regularly interact with patients) replace their dirty shoelaces. Why? Because the Mayo Clinic understood that employees encountered patients in a number of ways—walking down the street in Mayo attire or passing patients in the halls—and that each one of these interactions subtly impacted (if perhaps unconsciously) patients' impressions and feelings about the Mayo Clinic as a whole.
An article in the Harvard Business School magazine "Working Knowledge" detailed why this policy mattered for the Mayo Clinic. For one, it inspired employees to take customer service seriously. One Mayo administrator recounted that her initial reaction to the shoelace policy was confusion, but that she soon came to see the wisdom in it:
"Though I was initially offended, I realized over time [that] everything I do, down to my shoelaces, represents my commitment to our patients and visitors." [iii]
In other words, the Mayo Clinic treated even the most minor detail as "a piece of evidence, a small but integral part of the story Mayo tells its customers." [iv] And by consistently telling its story, via concentrated focus on the customer and customer service, The Mayo Clinic has continued to attract and impress customers from around the world.
Song Airline: Stylish Fun but Perhaps Lacking in Key Details
In 2003, Delta Airlines introduced Song, a new kind of air carrier service designed specifically for hip, professional women. [v] The airline was outfitted with personal entertainment systems and the flight attendants wore Kate Spade-designed uniforms. The airplanes even featured in-flight exercise programs. In short, Song had everything a stylish, urban 30-something might want on a long cross-country flight. It seemed to be the epitome of the experience economy with its "business as a stage" doctrine in practice.
Even so, ultimately Song failed to take off. In 2005, Delta incorporated the aircraft back into its operations, refitting the interiors and repainting the exteriors with traditional Delta colors. Mired in bankruptcy problems, Delta officially removed the airline from its schedules in 2006. Without the inside scoop, we can only surmise as to why: In contrast with the Mayo Clinic's nuanced approach, perhaps Song's execs were so focused on theatrical aspects that they overlooked the more subtle—but equally, if not more, important—details of the customer experience, such as on time, excellent service and a multitude of other factors. Or maybe they failed to find out what was truly important to customers and deliver in those core areas. Whatever the case, the Song experience just didn't connect with customers enough to turn a profit.