Each and every day, my Twitter feed is filled with references to “Customer Experience” to the point that the term has somewhat lost all meaning. Articles like “Why Focus On Customer Experience? Here’s Why.” appear daily and many of them reference much of the same underlying data that show ” Customer Experience Leaders outperformed the Laggards by a nearly 3-to-1 margin”. And it’s true – customer experience is a massive differentiator, but many of the lessons from those articles and companies are lost to customers and vendors looking for (or selling) an easy answer.

What’s even worse than the overuse of the term “Customer Experience” is that of “Customer Delight” because “delight” implies going “above and beyond” and this is often the wrong goal. Certainly companies such as The Four Seasons and Disney are renowned for these skills, which I will agree are vitally important in sectors such as travel and tourism – and in the case of Disney, they actually teach classes on the subject. However, in the majority of cases, customers don’t want to be delighted, they just want to get the job done.

My best customer experiences of late have actually been at the Passport office and renewing my driver’s licence. Why? Because they were clean, fast, and efficiently laid out (things like different lines for processing and pickup) and in the case of my drivers licence photo, they actually process updating my Health Card at the same time. There wasn’t a surprise visit from a cartoon character, and I didn’t have any chocolate (or even magazines) on my waiting room chair – I just got in and out in under 15 minutes, which is literally all anyone wants in those situations.

Now here’s the thing – what CEO would get on a stage and say “you know what, screw customer experience”? You can bet that even as airlines are figuring out how to reduce legroom and consider charging you for going to the bathroom, they still talk about customer experience in the same glowing terms as everyone else. I know of a CEO whose publicly stated sole focus was being “obsessed” with “Customer Experience” and even went so far as to create a new role of Chief Customer Officer and hire someone externally to fill it. Meanwhile, after some time working on the task, the company “reputation for offering good customer experiences has been compromised significantly” (in the words of an analyst firm).

What went wrong there?

The answer is always empathy. In the case of that company, as it grew many of the folks who were responsible for customer-facing functions liked the product and came from the world of partners and clients. They had a first-hand, but perhaps “amateur” understanding of these issues and tasks facing those people on a regular basis. Because of this, they were replaced by “professional” managers more interested in the KPIs (and in some cases, not even in the KPIs themselves, but the program and framework for the KPIs!) and over time, the actual outcome of customer satisfaction fell dramatically. Home Depot also famously went awry when they got rid of experienced full-time help in favour of less-experienced part-time staff (to improve operational flexibility). After a sharp u-turn, they are now in the process of turning back into a market leader with customer experience.

The empathy for your customer is the core difference between actual customer experience and the ersatz “Customer Experience” a CEO talks about on stage, and this reflects itself in your product and interactions over time – it’s not enough to say you are “obsessed” with customer experience, you have to live it. This also bears itself out in the strong relationship between Employee Engagement and Customer Experience (Forrester has a great podcast episode on this).

In some cases, empathy comes naturally. We all have to get our passports and licences renewed, so those working in and designing those spaces at least have a minimum intuitive understanding of the goals of the customer and what the experience needs to be successful (but the organizational norms and behaviors to enable and harness this experience in delivery still need to exist). In other cases, you can hire for this expertise – bringing those with firsthand knowledge of the business problems and challenges is an easy way to accomplish this. Lastly, in the case of the Four Seasons, this has to be effectively built from the ground up, actively trained and constantly reinforced since the expectations and experiences of employees and their clientele are probably quite different.


Now that we have the core problem related to customer experience identified, in a future article, I will discuss how Customer Experience actually relates to Customer Experience Management (CXM) or Digital Experience Platforms (DXP). While these platforms (and any martech stack) has the potential to help transform customer experience, many of the tools enabled by these suites are often aligned to a superficial understanding what we think customer experience is, and there is typically a gap that needs to be filled. Personalization and other platform tools are often used in a marketing and customer acquisition sense (it is called marketing technology, after all) and are disconnected from the other systems, processes and employees which truly impact customer experience (such as CRM, support cases, order history, etc.). More often than not, common and well-understood design principles such as top tasks (as described by Gerry McGovern) are sidelined while the marketing organization (which often owns the DXP stack) are squeezed by the pressures of focusing on brand-building and lead-generation. So we’ll look at how to get out of this trap.


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