Many years ago, Uncle Frank said: “Your customer will pay almost anything if you give them an experience they will remember.”

He was way ahead of his time when he discovered this important golden nugget of business success.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Joseph Pine and James Gilmore published their book “The Experience Economy”.

This was one of the first books to argue that making the experience of doing business with you memorable was a way to create better – and more profitable – relationships with customers.

Just as products can become commodities, service often varies little between similar businesses.

Uncle Frank’s business was the car business.

It dawned on Uncle Frank all those years ago that all the car dealerships buy the same cars from the same places, pay the same for them and they all look just alike.

So – if everything was the same – what could he do to set himself apart, to stand out from the others?

He wanted to be “different” – unique, noticeable and memorable.

He also wanted to sell more cars.

So he started to do things that made coming to our dealership an experience rather than just a trip to buy a car.

He opened a gourmet “All-You-Can-Drink” coffee bar in the car dealership. He provided a free ‘new school’ arcade for the kids – complete with an X-Box – and he provided an ‘old school’ arcade for the young-at-heart adults – complete with a Ms. Pac Man and Donkey Kong.

He also added flat screen televisions featuring a FREE Family Movie Night – popcorn included for everyone, whether they bought a car from him or not.

It certainly made the dealership stand out from the competition and it’s an idea that can easily be copied by many other businesses, especially those – like retailers – that depend on building strong long-term relationships with customers.

Being different

Some of the most successful businesses around today have discovered the importance of creating a great customer experience and have grown to dominant positions because of it.

There are few products that are more of a commodity than a cup of coffee so, when Howard Schultz decided he wanted to open coffee shops all over the world, he knew he had to do something different.

After all, it costs about 3 cents to buy enough beans to make a cup of coffee.

Maxwell House converts those commodity beans into a product and charges 20 cents for enough ground beans to make a cup of coffee.

If you prefer to pay someone to brew the coffee for you, you can pick one up at your local cafe or convenience store for about $1 a cup.

Yet, thanks to Howard Shultz, there’s a Starbucks on virtually every corner where you pay $4 and up for a cup of coffee. And there’s almost always a line of people ready to buy.

What Howard Shultz realized was that it wasn’t just the coffee people wanted. They wanted an experience and he turned Starbucks into the ‘third place’ after work and home – making it ‘the place to be’.

One of the ultimate examples of providing memorable customer experiences is Disney theme parks. There are other theme parks and attractions all over the place – yet millions of people travel from all parts every year to visit Disney.

When you calculate time, travel expenses and the cost of tickets for the park – not to mention the gift shops that are everywhere – you pay a huge premium for the Disney experience.

But the truth is, it is an experience and Disney do it so well that many people just can’t get enough of it.

Another company that has become successful by recognizing the importance of customer experience is Apple.

Unless you are into all the technical details, every computer is pretty much the same – unless it’s an Apple.

Apple has defied the odds to not only survive but to prosper – because they changed the whole customer experience of computers.

An Apple was not the clunky gray box that you stared at all day at work. Apple enabled customers to experience a colorful machine that showed them how to “think different.”

It’s a concept they followed through with the iPod, iPhone and iPad, which have led the way in transforming the experience of technology.

So what can you learn from these huge successful businesses?

Well they all have several points in common about the way they create a special customer experience.

This not only allows them to charge more but also helps them build a huge band of fiercely loyal customers.

If you could replicate some of that in your business, how useful would that be?

Based on what I learned from Uncle Frank and my own studies of these highly successful businesses, here are my 21 tips for creating a great customer experience.

1. Tell Your Story

Disney may have built an empire out of storytelling but stories are as relevant to your business as they are at Disney.

Stories help people learn, build relationships and move beyond the idea of selling.

When people know your story, they start to feel part of it so make sure you celebrate and share your heritage with your customers.

2. Create Characters

You may think characters like Mickey Mouse are only relevant in theme parks.

But as your business grows, it can become more faceless. Characters give it a personality that makes it easier for people to feel they have a relationship with you.

Uncle Frank is the face of our business and is crucial to our success.

3. Learn from Outside Your Industry

You are not going to beat your competitors by doing the same as them. If Apple had tried to be like all the other computer manufacturers, they would not be such an icon today. Look for ideas and inspiration everywhere, but adapt them and make them uniquely yours.

4. Create a Powerful Cast

It’s probably not surprising that the people working at Disney are known as cast members. They are all ‘on stage’ any time a customer can see or hear them. They are ‘off stage’ only when they are safely out of the public’s eye.

But it’s a concept that goes well beyond the entertainment business. For example, the book “The Experience Economy” is subtitled “Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage”.

5. Follow a Script

Even the guy sweeping the streets at Disney has to follow an exact script when someone asks him for directions. What we say to people can make a huge difference to the impression we create.

So it’s worth making sure that your people know what to say at key moments. The way someone answers the phone has a big impact on how people perceive you.

6. Call Your Customers by their Name

You know how good you feel when you walk in to a top hotel or restaurant and you’re greeted by your name. It’s a simple tactic but can make a big difference to the way people see you.

7. Welcome Feedback

At Starbucks, one of the principles is “Embrace Resistance”. That means they welcome feedback and try to correct the situation.

Encourage your staff to respond positively to criticism and view complaints as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with customers and improve your business.

8. Make it Fun

When you go to a Disney theme park, you expect to have fun. But who’d expect to have fun in a computer store?

Yet, chances are, the most crowded store in many malls will always be the Apple Store. So what can we learn from Apple?

If customers can come in and try out your products, you should let them do so. You could copy Uncle Frank’s idea and have them round to play games and watch your big TV. Even something as simple as a summer cookout could make your business seem fun.

9. Pay Attention to Detail

One of the guiding principles of Starbucks is that “Everything Matters”.

That means that all the little details in your business – the environment, your people, the background music – are crucial to the customer experience.

Often it’s the small things people notice – and getting small things wrong can be a deal breaker.

10. Charge Premium Prices

One thing about all three of these successful role models is that they don’t even try to compete on price. Indeed they often make a virtue of being more expensive.

Are you trying to build a great experience on thin profit margins? Think about how you can improve the experience to charge higher prices.

11. Have a Clear Vision

The founders of Disney, Starbucks and Apple all had clear ideas of what they wanted their future to look like.

Imagine the future of your business — think ahead 100 years and your company is still going strong. What would you like it to look like then?

12. Cater to the Kids

If your business serves adults who just happen to be parents, don’t forget that happy kids mean happy parents. So it’s a good idea to take account of the kids that tag along with them.

Imagine the buying experience with bored kids in tow and you will see why parents gravitate toward kid-friendly companies.

13. Develop Processes

Processes and standards enforce consistency. Consistency builds trust. Trust builds long-term customer relationships.

There’s a reason your favorite drink will taste the same at any Starbucks in the world. Starbucks prides itself on its consistent standards and processes.

You can make your business work better by developing and implementing effective processes.

14. Set High Standards of Service

In the Disney theme parks, there is a specific procedure in which cast members are expected to interact with guests and they are candidly evaluated and graded on this regularly by their managers.

Review the key contact points in your business and draft up a standards procedure. Then make sure it’s enforced for consistency.

15. Communicate with Your Team

Successful businesses like Disney and Starbucks invest heavily in internal communications. They want their staff to feel part of something and to know what is going on.

Yet you’ll often find that smaller businesses have little formal communication and never have team meetings.

Even a few minutes at the start or end of each day or week could make a huge difference to your team.

16. Make Everything Easy

Apple changed the whole way that people worked with computers by making the process simpler, more fun and more user-friendly.

Try walking through the way customers experience your business and see what they see. Mystery shoppers and mystery videos are good ways to test it out.

17. Go the Extra Mile

Every Disney World cast member knows their purpose is “to make sure that every guest who comes to the Walt Disney World Resort has the most fabulous time of his or her life.”

They go above and beyond what’s expected. It means if you have to bend over backwards to make a customer happy, even if you have to stay late, even if you have to call all over the world to find whatever they’re looking for — do it.

Do you expect that from your team? If not, what could you do to make it reality?

18. Get People Talking

One of the keys behind the success of Apple was the immense loyalty they built among their customers. And few people go to a Disney resort without raving about it when they get home.

If you can get your customers talking positively about their experience with your business, they become raving fans and will be invaluable allies in marketing and growing your business.

19. Treat Customers as Friends

You want people to feel that you care about them and that it’s not just all about money. Little things like remembering important personal details or sending a birthday card can make all the difference.

20. Always Make the Customer Right

Disney cast members are taught that every customer is special and that each interaction between a customer and staff is a link in the chain of the customer’s experience.

They understand if they do something wrong, they are erasing the customer’s memories of good treatment up to that moment. But if they do something right, they can undo any wrong that may have happened before.

21. Make a Difference

A key principle at Starbucks is the idea that you should get the chance to “Leave Your Mark”.

The idea is that we are not just in business to sell things; we should also make a difference in the world. That may be about being socially responsible, about being involved in our communities.

What is your business doing to make your community a better place? And have you told your customers?

The success of businesses like Apple, Starbucks and Disney shows that when you create an experience around what you sell, you can charge a significant premium over the competition.

So, if you want to avoid competing in a commoditized market with thin profit margins and tough competition, create an experience for your customers to remember. Just like Uncle Frank did all those many years ago.