Aug 30, 2018 6 min read

CX Spotlight: Sweetwater Sound

How Meaningful Relationships and Experiences Have Made Me a Loyal Customer for Almost a Decade

  • Culture
Jon Berbaum

Jon Berbaum

In my recent post, I made the claim that technology needed to be used in the service of creating deeper customer relationships and interactions. The truth is that it is easy to find companies and technologies that fail to meet our expectations, so I’ve decided to highlight a company that I think is just crushing it when it comes to customer experience.

Sweetwater Sound is a distributor and retailer of musical equipment based out of Fort Wayne, Indiana. They operate a physical retail store as well as a large e-commerce site focused exclusively on musical instruments and pro audio equipment. Founded in the early 90’s, primary as a musical catalog company, they have been experiencing fantastic growth in recent years all amid an industry that is undergoing tremendous shifts.

The musical equipment industry is in no way insulated from the pressures and Amazon, yet in this environment, Sweetwater has found a way to excel. In this increased era of efficiency, price competition, and commodification, I would assert that they are competing on customer experience. There’s not a thing I can buy on Sweetwater that I can’t find on Amazon, yet time and time again Sweetwater wins my business.

I recently had the privilege of attending Sweetwater’s Annual Gearfest and it struck me that they do three things exceptionally well:

  1. Focus on relationships

  2. Create unique, meaningful experiences

  3. Use technology in service of customer experience

1. Focus on relationships

As a company that makes most of its money as an e-commerce site, it would be an easy temptation for them to fall into focusing all of their efforts on the effectiveness of a website for converting sales, but this not Sweetwater’s approach.

Instead, they have a massive team of sales engineers (a team which I’m sure is a substantial portion of their operating expense) who quite simply build relationships with customers. As a Sweetwater customer, I have a dedicated sales engineer named Paul.

I’ve known Paul for over 8 years. We talk on the phone. We have lengthy email exchanges about potential purchases. He calls to check in on me and ask about my previous purchases. He gives me discounted pricing off what’s published on the site. He’s my equipment guy and time and time again, when I’m in the market for a new piece of gear for myself or for my church, I wouldn’t think of making a purchase without Paul. Meaning I make most, if not all, of my musical equipment purchases through Paul.

2. Create unique, meaningful experiences

Gearfest is essentially the biggest music equipment store I’ve ever seen in my life. There are literal circus tents filled with gear!

On top of that, each product section is staffed by representatives from the actual manufacturers. This provided an unparalleled experience for a customer to have a real interaction with the company that made the equipment — an experience music lovers long for but rarely get to have.
As a distributor and retailer, Sweetwater isn’t just moving units, but facilitating a relationship between end user and manufacturer. This even extends to how they use their website to publish in-depth gear videos featuring manufacturer representatives.

3. Use technology in service of customer experience

All this focus on a personal touch is not to say that Sweetwater is simply focused on old school customer service. They have a great, proprietary business platform that they use to support customer relationships, not automate them.

One of the greatest moments of delight at Gearfest was when I made my first purchase. The sales representative from Sweetwater simply scanned our show badges and told us we were free to keep browsing about the fest. All the orders were then compiled for a streamlined checkout experience. When I left the fest, I paid for my order and Sweetwater delivered it to my car. Seamless.

In this case, the technology certainly made for an efficient operation, but you could tell that the customer experience was paramount. I didn’t have to leave the fest to make sure to take care of the things I bought in the middle of browsing. This allowed me to have a more immersive experience at the fest. Sweetwater also installed wifi repeaters in every tent because they understood that many buyers would be checking prices and reviews online as we browsed the pop-up stores.

It was clear that Sweetwater understood the buyers’ core jobs to be done (the social, emotional, and physical jobs your potential customers are hiring your product or service to do) and set up technology to accomplish those jobs.

How to bring great CX to your organization

Think about companies that you just seem to enjoy interacting with. My hunch is they have a good grasp on these two pillars of customer experience:

  1. A deep understanding of your actual jobs to be done

  2. Use of technology in support of your experience, not just for the sake of internal efficiency

Maybe your company does these things well, or maybe you feel like you would like to have a better understanding of what your customers really need. The good news is there are plenty of tools and processes that can reliably get you there. A few suggestions on where to get started:

  • Highland’s written extensively around customer experience and design thinking (two schools of thought that complement one another well). Here’s a lengthy post from Highland President Jon Berbaum with lots of resources around design thinking mindsets and practices that can help you understand your customers on a deeper level. 

  • If you’re in Chicago, we host the Chicago Customer Experience Meetup on the second Tuesday of every month. These are totally free to attend (we even provide food and drinks!) and are a great opportunity to meet with others who are committed to creating great experiences for their customers. You’ll also be able to hear from inspiring speakers from Chicago companies who are known for creating legendary customer experiences.

  • Finally, if you’re looking to take a deeper dive into CX for your organization, Highland is hosting a Customer Journey Mapping Masterclass on October 3–4. This is a great opportunity for teams to come together and produce a real journey map with the help of our team of CX designers, researchers, and strategists.

Regardless of where you get started, I’d love to hear from you if you have questions about how to bring great CX to your organization. At the end of the day, CX is about helping businesses improve the experiences of the people they serve — and really, shouldn’t that be something we all strive for?