Director Smith+Co
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WTF has gone wrong with customer experience management?

22nd Jan 2018
Director Smith+Co
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According to Forrester’s 2017 CX Index, customer experience quality has plateaued or declined for most industries and companies. The report unpacked one of the reasons for the recent decline, explaining that "CX initiatives tackled low-hanging fruit to put early points on the board, and most CX initiatives had too little clout to force meaningful operational change." 

It went on to say that "Customers’ expectations will outpace companies’ ability to evolve or invent experiences, and the deferred transformation in 2017 means that companies can’t adjust fast enough or well enough."

If the report is accurate in its prediction for the upcoming year, 30% of companies will see further declines in CX performance, and those declines will translate into a net loss of a point of growth. That is a pretty damning indictment on the customer experience movement and, as one of the founders of it, shocking to me personally. So the question is: "What the hell is going wrong and, is there anything that can be done about it?"

We’ve had the privilege of working with a number of brands over the last two decades to advise them on their customer experience. I have had the honour to address international audiences in over 25 countries and have sat through countless presentations on the subject. And as a result, concerning as the Forrester report is, I cannot say that it is surprising at all.

A focus on 'quick wins' has seemingly taken over customer experience, and the original intent of creating sustainable differentiation has been lost in the process.

Have the aliens landed?

If someone had told me 20 years ago that much of the discussion on customer experience management in 2018 would be dominated by chatbots, apps and emojis - I would have half-suspected an alien takeover. On many levels, the customer experience is almost unrecognisable to that of even one decade ago. We're playing computer games as we wait for haircuts. We're ordering our big shop from our phones. Scrap that, we're ordering everything from our phones.

In fact, we can't even call them phones anymore. They're more like digital portals where the customer's 'here and now' can be transformed instantly. They're our travel agent, our television, our teacher and our temptress. They're tethered to our schedules and tether us to the schedules of others.

For many brands, customer engagement is becoming reduced to meaningless ‘likes’ and the constant quest for feedback at every touchpoint.

But despite a revolution in the digital space, the Forrester report clearly shows that companies are becoming disenchanted with the customer experience - because they are not seeing sustainable results. Customers in turn are becoming disillusioned with brands because despite marketers using the highfalutin’ language of customer experience, their reality falls far short.

And no wonder; it is because leadership teams are becoming increasingly obsessed with quick wins and superficial solutions rather than the honest work of deciding where to invest in order to create real value for customers. I exaggerate of course, there are innovative brands like Amazon, MetroBank, Lush, Lego, CitizenM and many others that do ‘get’ customer experience and the need to take bold decisions to differentiate their offers. However, for many others, customer engagement is becoming reduced to meaningless ‘likes’ and the constant quest for feedback at every touchpoint.

The temptation in this instant digital world is to adopt short-term views and tackle superficial issues rather than taking a bold strategic approach to differentiating the experience. Let me be clear about this: customer experience is not about quick wins and it never has been. If the effort isn't as holistic as it is strategic, all you're doing is chasing shiny things. Equally, I am not arguing against agility and speed. The velocity of change needs to be greater than ever. However, I am arguing against tokenism.

What you do is who you become...

The 'Quick Win' phrase is used largely relating to either turning round a falling KPI, making an impact early on in a campaign, or simply to deliver tangible returns to the directorate. Nothing wrong with any of these but you'll rarely hear the phrase being used to explain how a brand can add value to the customer. And so quick wins can quickly become internally focused and about marginal gains rather than externally focused and dramatic improvements for customers.

If a company becomes too addicted to quick fixes it runs the risk of taking its eyes off the customer experience strategy entirely. Whether it's a disengaged and demotivated sales force or a series of internal re-organisations, what happens inside always affects what happens on the outside.

RyanAir has experienced a high turnover of pilots due to its cost-focused culture, which has affected its ability to operate.

In and of itself, a quick win is harmless, of course, (and may even be beneficial in the short-term) but a quick-win culture is lethal. If leadership teams are constantly chasing the fast buck, the short-term fix, that culture will permeate throughout the business and subsequently set the tone of the brand.

RyanAir has experienced a high turnover of pilots due to its cost-focused culture, which has affected its ability to operate. British Airways announcement that it is installing fixed back seating is a quick-win.

I don’t know the business case but I suspect this is driven by the desire for a common seating platform, increased capacity and lower operating costs. But how is that different to Vueling or Ryanair? How does this change to the product deliver on their purpose of ‘To Fly To Serve’ or their positioning as a quality airline? What impact is it likely to have on crew morale? My bet is that they will see a short-term reduction in costs followed by a long-term reduction in customer and employee loyalty.

What a long-term looks like...

During the last 20 years, the customer experience has been completely reimagined, forcing companies to spend big on technologies that had previously been deemed science fiction. This has, in turn, affected how businesses view their customers and the experience on offer for them.

As pressure mounts from the digital snake-oil salesmen promising CX nirvana and disruptor brands that are eating into mature markets every day, there comes a temptation for leaders to adopt a particularly short-term approach to growth. So what should long term look like for today's leaders?

The purposeful, intentional and consistent implementation of customer experience is the staple diet for market-leading brands.

At the risk of being boring and coming across as an old ‘I told you so’ I think we need to go back a few years to allow history to help us see the future. Our first book published in 2002 was called 'Uncommon Practice – People Who Deliver a Great Brand Experience' and spoke about brands like Amazon, Virgin and First Direct and how they thought and behaved differently from competitors.

Roll forward a few years to 2011 and our book 'Bold - How to be Brave in Business and Win’ looked at brands like Innocent, Six Senses and Zappos and how these brands made bold bets to really differentiate their experience. It is no surprise that all of these brands are still around and even more successful today than they were then. They have continued to invest in those things that truly create value for customers rather than the pursuit of quick-wins.

The purposeful, intentional and consistent implementation of customer experience is the staple diet for market-leading brands. Over the last two decades, we have strived to ensure that our approach is centred on these three things. We haven’t always been successful, but when leadership has embraced the need to take bold decisions to create value for customers the results have been remarkable.

2018 and you...

So it’s make your mind up time.

Do you want to be one of the 30% of companies Forrester predict will see declines in CX performance, one of the middle group who will muddle through from one quick-fix to another? 

Or one of the brands that takes a strategic approach to the customer experience, one focused on creating value for the customers, investing in those things that truly differentiate the brand and creating an internal culture that sustains them and delivers their purpose long-term? Think of John Lewis.

So, here's my unasked for and unedited advice for 2018: quick-wins are rather like one-night stands; seductive, often pleasurable but rarely leading to long-term success.

Shaun Smith is the founder of Smith+Co and a international speaker and award-winning author. To book him as a speaker or consultant, contact [email protected]

Replies (6)

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By EJohn Morris
23rd Jan 2018 09:54

Hello Shaun, thank you for this refreshingly honest and pointed article. Customer experience has certainly flat lined and brands need to rethink their investment strategies. In my view poor customer experience is like lion poo at a picnic, unpleasant in its self and an indication of far worse to come.
Many airlines are in a race to the bottom and it will be sad to see BA go but go they will if they stay on their current course.

Thanks (1)
By [email protected]
23rd Jan 2018 15:30

Shaun, thank you for the article. I did not realise the scale of CX ignorance, although certainly caught glimpses of it from my own experience. Still surprises me how many companies think they want to focus on customer experience, invest into CX professionals, consultancies and tools and do nothing with the results. If the goal is to put quick fixes in place (usually branded as 'wins') it could surely be done a lot cheaper.

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By NicolasBush
25th Jan 2018 08:29

Spot on, Shaun. Clear purpose is fundamental but when senior execs arrive at the point where their company's purpose needs to be rediscovered or renewed, they have the challenge that that wasn't the thinking or mindset that got them there in the first place.

Poor customer experience is a consequence of a lack of genuine customer-centricity at the heart of strategy and addressing that issue is the real - and exciting - challenge.

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By Jane Ainley
26th Jan 2018 13:38

Great article, Shaun. I share the same frustrations. It is amazing that so few CEOs really 'get' how fundamental the customer experience should be in any organisation. Once the quick-wins are delivered, they move quickly on to something else. The challenge, getting organisations to commit to funding the customer experience as an ongoing and integral part of their business, not as one-off projects. The benefits (financial and other) would far outweigh the annual costs!

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Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
26th Jan 2018 13:47

And just to reaffirm the thesis of this article, it's telling that Tesco has announced this week that it is cutting 226 Customer Experience Manager jobs from its workforce:

Clearly the UK's largest supermarket is having difficulty establishing the long-term benefits of customer experience too.

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Replying to Chris Ward:
By Jane Ainley
26th Jan 2018 14:30

Interesting. Sometimes organisations thank it's easier to create (and then get rid of) such roles, rather than ensure every aspect of their business is customer-focused for the long-term.

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