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Thinking question

Crack your customer experience strategy: The one question you need to ask

18th Aug 2017
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It stands to reason that all CEOs, CTOs, CIOs, CMOs and COOs are going to express interest and support for customer experience. After all, which member of the C-suite is going to be brave enough to make a public announcement that they don’t care about customers; or that they are really only interested in cutting costs and sending out junk email?

None of course. But am I being unfair in implying a less than honest appreciation of the customer?

Sure, there are some companies that do genuinely take CX to heart. I can even name a few: USAA, Overbury, Disney and LUSH. But, for the most part, it seems to me that rather like loyalty and customer relationship management before it, customer experience for the vast majority has become a corporate ‘fig leaf’ - something, to hide behind when the real intent of business hasn’t changed at all.

Perhaps this is why, in many firms, the role of director of customer experience is something not invested in or supported; frequently left to languish in the purgatory of an NPS roll-out no-one will pay attention to. Or a support for bolt on activities to whatever has been done before rather than one that seeks to take and embed the view of the customer.

However, I do admit CX has demonstrated some value. After all, if putting lipstick on a pig were the only benefit, Forrester and Gartner would be talking about a small scale market similar in size to corporate social responsibility. There is, it seems, a strong argument to be made that when faced with commoditising markets a deep appreciation of the customer (customer intimacy) can be used to create experiences that drive lifetime value, innovation and loyalty.

So why have things gone astray? Why have we seen such little development in the methodology of CX and why are we witnessing such a vendor feeding frenzy?

Well, first and foremost, we need to appreciate how CX has become bastardised.

Bastardised CX

Take our understanding of it. I would argue that customer experience is ‘the experience the customer has’. There is no difficulty here. So when did it become ‘the sum of all touchpoints’ and when did customers suddenly start evaluating firms on the basis of adding up all touchpoints they experience to come up with some mathematical algorithm of delight?

Follow that path and we end up with what Professor Stan Maklan calls "the theory of everything". And as we all know, something that means anything really means nothing at all.


  • Sell a digital something? Now customers are only interested in ease and the effortless experience.
  • Sell a VoC platform? Now customers are always on the lookout for delight and how they can measure every activity on a scale between 0 and 10.

CX in this paradigm simply becomes a low effort over-brand where anything and everything that vaguely touches the customer is sold under its marque. The only problem is, the customer view has been hijacked and ignored in favour of whatever we tell you the customer wants.

Or even worse, CX becomes the starting point for a discussion on firm efficiency. An entirely different strategy. As one well known consultancy put it: "We always go in and discuss customer experience. Then halfway through the discussion we say 'you know you’re really not interested in this. What is important to you is cutting costs.' 9 out of 10 companies agree and we move on."

It is indeed unfortunate that the egotism of leadership intent on lazy short-term magic bullet solutions together with a lack of thought-leadership at the top has led to so much lip-service being paid to CX.  

So what’s the cure?

Well, businesses would do well to ask themselves a number of fundamental questions before they engage in a customer-centric strategy. Questions such as ‘what is our intent’ in engaging with CX? Why are we doing this at all: do we see CX as a strategic differentiator or not?  Do we want to create experiences ‘with’ your customers that they value and pay more for in terms of customer lifetime value or premium pricing? Or do we just want to focus on firm efficiency?

The problem is, of course, when we put the customer front and centre we immediately challenge how the firm has traditionally been run. We put into play, notions of long-term relationship and subjective value. Domains of knowledge that do not sit well with traditional approaches designed for service quality engineering or the cycle of short term returns.

In short, we challenge the usual notion that the customer is some ‘cash cow’ we can endlessly milk.

CEM rebooted

To manage this what’s needed then is a way to rethink customer experience; to break away from mechanistic thinking and engage systems more in line with human psychology. Approaches that encourage us to empathise with and on behalf of the customer (and don’t forget the employee here either).

In my book, Customer Experience Management Rebooted, I attempt just that. Searching out leading edge thinking from the likes of Dave Snowden, Joe Pine and Dr Olaf Hermans, I look at customer experience as something profoundly subjective; about ‘the experience the customer has’ not the sum of all touchpoints. Hence, I critique the current conflation between objective manufacturing approaches to service quality with what we are trying to achieve with CX: to develop a relationship.

Indeed, the irony for those who thought that ‘objectifying’ the subjective to make it more practical, is that we ‘miss’ the experience and end up wasting huge sums of money under some false hope that CX can be delivered in a box. 

This was particularly driven home to me while working at Ericsson. Engineers obsessing about network and service operations KPIs, trying to achieve some 99% threshold for download speed when the reality is customers were more annoyed by early billing and poor customer service. Of course, since that was ‘subjective’ it was ignored as so much fluff, who cares what the customer says. Buy our measurement system: that’ll be £1 million.

A new approach

To reboot customer experience, therefore, I introduce new frameworks of measurement and application. In particular, Cynefin and SenseMaker from the complexity sciences. It stands to reason after all that ‘the experience the customer has’ is more complex and emergent so why have these techniques not been ingested into CX? If we do CX we need to consider how close this is to innovation and design not inflated movements on a scale.

I mean no customer walks out of a store saying that was great 8.5 out of 10 experience and no customer measures everything to come up with some algorithm of delight that predicts spend. What they do is construct their own fragmented micro-narrative for themselves and others as they engaged with the experience.

And the implication of this is that while there is a lot of talk about NPS, CES, CSAT and whatever the real deal should be in more descriptive metrics such as ‘more stories like this, fewer stories like that’. A focus not on gamed scales but on vector approaches that show where things are moving and alert us to change.

Which holds implications for how we map the customer journey as well.

We should not use inside-out journey maps that reflect how we as businesses think. We need to think of story maps (non-linear) and engage more in ethnography, while mining the creative equity of the firm through trial and test.

I also slam the current fad for emotion. While of course emotion is important, it is an outcome of a prevalent appraisal. We should not separate cognition from emotion. Otherwise we end up talking about creating delight when it’s not delight that’s required but something more grounded in both ‘the jobs that we do’ and ‘the ongoing relationship’. In this way I move away from abstract personas; except as a qualitative device for design.

And with the work of Dr Olaf Hermans we go further!

It’s no longer about CX it’s about understanding the relationship through dialogue as the first priority for resource allocation before we even get to designing CX. After all while service quality is a good thing, it is relationship that builds loyalty as well, and what kind of relationship can only ever be negotiated.


In short, I put the case that customer experience must be reconceptualised.

If the experience is owned by the customer then customer experience management is all about ‘working with’ not ‘selling to’ the customer. In other words, utilising the customer as a source of value (co-creation) and as a means to redefine the firm through their perspective (co-design).

Something that must also extend to the employee experience (EX).  After all, next to the customer, the best intuitive judge of customer experience is your employee base.

In this way, how we dialogue and engage with our customers (and employees) becomes the heart and soul of CX. And this doesn’t mean by surveys alone but also by how we use technology and design to create value in the minds of our customers (and employees) over the long-term.

Hence, CX falls into opposition to a short-term ROI focus on service and product quality. Now our aim is to develop a relationship, yet relationship takes time, relationship involves give and take and relationship is something both sides must invest in.

The one question you need to ask

The title of this book summarises the one question all companies need to ask. Are you an experience brand focused on ‘selling with not to’ the customer or an efficiency brand inwardly directed and focused on cost-cutting? While the two are not completely diametrically opposed it is the intent of the company that sits behind your answer that I want to get to.

So, if your answer is efficiency, stop wasting your time on CX, it’s not right for you. And there is no harm in that at all. Customer experience cannot be a panacea for all ills. Sometimes, frequently even, CX is not wanted and should not be applied. Stop, believing you can become the next Apple by being efficient. That is a service quality, zero defects approach circa 1990.

If your answer is you want to be an experience brand, then be honest and invest it and above all else focus on that one word: co-creation.

The true meaning of customer experience and something that supercedes it. Where the customer is the source of value not just in terms of innovation but how you run your business as well. Customer experience is not about ‘the sum of all touchpoints’ it is about creating value with the customer.

In a world where all that can be digitalised, will be digitalised and we seek new sources of value through the interconnectedness of data streams, co-creation will become ever more important.

Which will in turn mean in the near future breaking down the barriers between corporates as much as we seek to break down the silos between departments.

Customer Experience Management Rebooted: Are you an Experience brand or an Efficiency brand? is available now. In the book, Steven Walden reboots our understanding of customer experience, showing us what it means, how to measure it, what we need to do to manage it, and how we can gain financially from it: by focusing not only on being efficient but on becoming an experience based brand. Understand, measure, create and do – but first of all, understand.


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