Sunday, September 22, 2013

Customer Experience Theater

I've observed and participated in a number of Customer Experience Initiatives (use air-quotes) over the years. They often start in response to a remarkably bad score reported by the customer service department, or FUD from competitors about poor customer satisfaction that eventually gets back to the head of sales or the CEO. If left unchecked, it becomes a barrier that must be overcome in sales situations. Rarely, but in spectacular fashion, there might be a customer experience failure of such epic proportion that it gets public attention. So in response, the company redoubles its efforts to improve customer experience, and launches a company-wide program. Even in less reactionary scenarios, where the company wants to leverage good customer experience as a competitive advantage, the tactics they pursue are similar. They involve measuring customer satisfaction at all the usual touch points: the sales process, billing and account management, and support. These measurements are assembled into a dashboard or scorecard and are periodically reported by the newly promoted Customer Care Czar. When the numbers go up month over month, everyone cheers! But is that really all that's involved in improving the customer's experience? To me, this resembles a sort of Customer Experience Theater that lets companies feel good about themselves and show attention to customer experience without really being invested in the root cause of substandard performance. Measuring outcomes seems a little late in the process to have a material (or sustainable) effect—necessary but not sufficient. When I think about an organization optimized for the experience of the customer, certain fundamental efforts come to mind.

Make your product or service better

Assuming your business offers a product or service, the usability and utility of that offering is the number one thing that affects how users think about your company. If all your focus is on how you resolve issues independent of how the product actually works, you're never going to win. Designing products around the user's work (not necessarily mimicking existing workflows, but improving and delivering value towards the user's underlying goals) is not a superficial endeavor. It requires a dedication to user experience design as a core competency, and that impacts the make-up of the product and development team and the type of ongoing research they perform. You must have a deep understanding of the context of the work your users are doing, and that's not easy. But how else are you going to build products that your customers consider truly useful and satisfying?

Think in terms of the customer's work, not yours

Most companies are structured to accomplish the things that generate revenue and sustain their existence. This leads to an organizational mindset that is inwardly focused and not so much focused on the type of work the customer does. I understand that your business may serve all kinds of customers who might do very different types of work. But your users have something in common, otherwise you wouldn't be able to serve them all with your offering. Every process within your organization has the potential to impact prospects and customers—as they evaluate competitive products, as they make a purchase, as they learn how the product works, as they become experts, and as they pursue their own goals. Do all the functions within your organization think about how their job impacts these concerns?

Change your systems and organization to actually do something about it

The biggest shortcoming I see in many customer experience initiatives is that they are focused on measurement rather than action, and that they are localized in a single function ("customer care") within the organization. If you really want to improve the experience of your customers, you need to make the customer an organizational centerpiece, which means systems that capture and illuminate their voice need to be accessible by every function within your business. This goes beyond the standard scorecards and dashboards you share each month. These systems need to expose not just support queries and csat scores, but also the types of questions prospects ask when evaluating solutions, and what success and failure they have in pursuit of their own goals. Then you need to empower everyone in your company to engage with those prospects and customers and do something that improves their experience. Doing something might involve providing advice or answering a question, asking questions and getting to know what the customer wants to accomplish, lobbying for a useful feature or capability, or blowing a whistle when something is broken.

What if everyone in your organization kept you honest with respect to the experience you were creating for your customers? What if they had the ability to change how they worked to improve that experience? That sort of behavior goes beyond Customer Experience Theater, and represents what I hope will become the standard for businesses in the social age.
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