Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, a site that helps small business owners get the gist of search marketing, and author of "The Small Business Guide to Search Engine Marketing" and of the free "Zero Dollars, a Little Bit of Talent and 30 Days" series. She is also the author of an article this week, The Customer Experience is Not a Commodity, in which she notes "online shoppers conduct more than half a dozen searches before making a purchase," and that it's not just price but the customer experience.

She notes her own experience at a local bakery-sandwich shop, Panera Bread, that has secured her loyalty by ensuring that she has a great experience at their store whenever she visits... even though there are more convenient locations closer to her...

"At "my" Panera Bread, they know me by name. On my second visit, Erin was taking my order and observed that I'd been there "for hours" that past Tuesday. I told her I drop my kids off at day care and come over with my laptop to work for a few hours. She got my bagel for me and I went on my way. The next visit, we chatted again as she asked me if I was working on a paper for school. I told her what I did for a living and she commented that it sounded interesting. Over the course of the next two months, Erin and Stacy continued to make conversation with me whenever I was placing an order. They even noticed when I came in on a Friday instead of my usual Tuesday and Thursday and when I ordered something other than my usual.

"When I stopped by on Wednesday with a friend to pick up an order to go, they commented on how great it was that I was taking a break and wanted to know about where we were headed to shop. Two workers at a chain store that I thought had secured my loyalty to the Panera Bread brand.

After she had a less-than-enthusiastic outing at another Panera, she noted how she missed her Panera Bread. It didn't matter that the closer shop offered the same product and admittedly a nicer setting, the one that was "her Panera bread" made the extra effort and secured her business.

In other words, "her Panera Bread" jumped through hoops for their customer, and found great success in the process, gaining a loyal customer, earning great word of mouth advertising and possibly received some great advice on web site marketing. ;)

Think about how your customers see you.  I get some of the best feedback whilst visiting the local computer and electronic stores, especially when people have no idea I work at Microsoft.  People are brutally honest and open with strangers in the oddest places, such as in the check out line, looking at PCs or TVs (you'd be surprised).  

And remember what it's like to be a customer of your own company. 

I purchase Microsoft products at retail (like my Xbox 360 and various games, as well as third party hardware and software), and learn so much from customers and sales people, particularly their impressions of Microsoft products.  I talk to enterprise customers, businesses and regular consumer who use our products and services, listen to their experiences (often with product teams and field staff), and pass the info on to the right teams when there's something to note.  And when something goes south or I run into a product issue of my own, I use our customer support offerings, and ultimately send feedback (good and bad) to our support management. 

Benjamin Franklin and Dale Carnegie both said that "any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain - and most fools do." But if you listen to the criticism and respond to it -- take the criticism and do something positive with it -- then you can course correct and improve the customer experience.

Tags: Customer service.