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Customer Experience - Let's Get Three Things Straight

July 03, 2012

According to SEO best practices you need to put your keywords in the header and the first paragraph to get a high ranking. Here they are: customer experience.

In terms of buzz phrases in tech, customer experience now ranks up there with social media and mobile apps. Better yet, “improving the customer experience,” is now the catchall phrase for how to succeed in business although it will be through trying.  


We see it “E”verywhere. There are roughly 8,000 C-levels around the world with customer experience in their titles. This is up from zero from just a few years ago making it probably the fastest growing enterprise executive opportunity.  If you have been to a trade event recently you know vendor talks would be incomplete without an obligatory customer experience statement of commitment. 

This leads to the question, “if companies were not focused on customers experience before, why are they surprised customers are disloyal?”   

What changed to get us to this new concentration on the customer? 

The obvious thing was the global recession. Companies went into survival mode. Customer preservation became capital and cash flow preservation. No more triage to get to just the “best” customers. Not so obvious is that we are victims of our own devices. The Internet changed forever the relationship between buyers and sellers. Buyers with instant access to detailed information became educated consumers. And, educated consumers do not like being taken for granted. 

This shift is possibly the most profound one of the Internet age from a purely business perspective. I will be kind and say there has been a bit of an adjustment period by the sellers to the new normal where alternatives are a click away, and brands can be undermined in an instant.

The buyers answer for accommodating this brave new world has been to embrace a term that is user-friendly. Who will fault a proclamation of commitment to improving the customer experience? It may have started as a flag of marketing convenience, but it is morphing into a real priority rather than hyperbole as executive attention and investment flow into getting it right and making it a corporate culture imperative. 

This is great news except for one little caveat. In regards social media and mobile apps, I know what they are when I, for lack of a better term, experience them. However, when it comes to customer experience it means different things to different people. In this instance, that is not good.

In fact, there lies the challenge. We must get better at describing things. How can we be improving something we can’t accurately describe and measure? On this score please read my recent article on Clayton Christensen’s keynote address at Interactions 2012. There was a very good reason why he focused in on the term customer experience for a critique about how we ask the wrong questions, measure the wrong things, and get irrelevant information that then causes us to make bad business decisions.  With all of the talk about “big data,” how do we turn supposed “business intelligence” into intelligent and usable insight?

Three’s company

I posit the following for your consideration. Here are three different ways the industry looks at customer experience:

·         The Steve Jobs view: We experience the world through the devices we use. Improve the man-machine interface and what it enables you to do natively or access and you improve the customers’ experiences.

·         The service provider view: We experience the world through our perception of the totality of the end-to-end sessions we have interacting with people, machines and information. Those perceptions may start with the device but a device experience is only as good as the quality of the connections it has and how they perform while we interact. This means not just when we are in active mode, but also when we are in essence “listen only.” 

·         The business process view: This view is based on seeing perceived value through the lens of the quality of the interactions we have with humans and/or machines when interacting with businesses, i.e., their business people, practices, policies and procedures. We judge experience  quality based on how fast we get what we want —information or conflict resolution — using metrics like speed, ease-of-use, agent friendliness and knowledge, etc. This is the escalation point for when we are not delighted by our devices and services, or just have a question we’d like to have answered in a timely manner.  

The last point has two critical components. The first is the customer view which goes to whether they get satisfaction and feel good about you, or whether they take to Twitter and Facebook et al to electronically flog you. The second is the internal enterprise view, and your people are customers of IT which needs to be remembered. It involves looking at metrics to answer the questions, “so how we doing?” and “what can we change to do things better to make them want to not just stay as customers but do more business with us?” The two need to be better aligned. 

Putting aside the industry view for a moment, understanding the customer view is critical. The context for how the industry approaches improving the customer experience is that to the customer, it is very basic – I either have a good experience or a bad experience. Improving the customer experience is about understanding how your customer communicates, not how they define satisfaction – because they do not actually define it or think about it. They simply experience it and then react to it.

I once asked a former head of the old AT&T if they’d ever called what at the time was one of the truly poor customer service organizations to get a straight answer about their bill or change of service. The answer was, “I get my service for free from the company, I’ve never called our call center for help.” This was at a time when AT&T was running commercials featuring their CEO hyping the fact that they wanted to be your partner in business and knew to be a good partner they had to really understand your business. When I pointed out to the exec that if he did not know how customers experienced AT&T’s business why would there be an expectation that AT&T would make a trustworthy partner. This was a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. I got was a sneer.   

I bring this up because there is overlap involved in the above views, and not taking a holistic exposes you to a host of risks that are totally avoidable.  It is also a cautionary tale since at the moment we are at the stage in Gartner’s hype cycle where imprecision in describing things appears to be leading to that point in their curve where the industry over promises and under delivers. We do not have to get there.

What does it mean to “improve the customer experience?”

Some examples may be useful to highlight the challenge to be addressed. 

When the electricity goes out, for whatever reason, I know I am in the midst of a bad service experience. My lights not working is not the fault of bad light bulbs. While I know I need to be patient, my distress can be ameliorated to a certain extent, or at least I will not blame my provider, if I can use my smartphone and get either a verbal or visual update of when service will be restored. While I may not like the answers, at least I know they care enough to keep me informed.

The problem/challenge with communications, as opposed to our other one-way utility services, is that if my phone is not working I need to determine if I have a bad phone, bad service or both. In other words, improving my experience is a lot more complex. It involves the service provider who sold me my phone and service plan who in order to keep me happy really needs to think deeply about all three of the views of customer experience above. 

In this example, assuming I can still use my smartphone or have power and a wired phone, I can call to choke one throat. Their problem is then to determine if I have a bad product and/or a bad service which needs to be improved. Where it becomes problematic is on the backend. My angst can become exceedingly worse, if the people (and the processes they follow) give the perception that they are not there to help me but to just field complaints and put me in line until somebody who actually knows what they are doing, or can make exceptions to company practices, will resolve my issues. The fact, that there are double digit returns of new smartphones which in many cases go unused because they are too hard to activate, is something to ponder.

Improve it all

At the end of the day, improving the customer experience in communications can’t be taken as a siloed exercise.   Christensen’s advice about knowing who the customer is, and what job they have hired a product or service to actually do, and then measuring the ability of our organization to do that job better than anyone else is correct.   That being said, this is a case of not being able to tell the players without a score card. 

A holistic view is table stakes for actually getting the entire improve customer experience formula correct. The rest of getting it right is a marketing issue that goes beyond analytics and business intelligence. One of the most critical things to be measure is how well we educate customers. In other words, being able to state what is being improved, why and what it means for the customer is critical. 

Going back to the electricity for a moment is a harbinger of why education is important. The wind in the face of those utilities at the moment on smart grid initiatives comes in the form of concerns about invasion of privacy and the belief that putting smarts in people’s homes under the guise of better control and environmental friendliness is a Trojan horse for raising rates. The lack of clarity by electric utilities in explaining the improved customer experience associated with going to smart metering, and the problems this lack of education has caused, is a lesson communications providers need to learn. They can improve upon not just their past practices but on those who are facing similar challenges. 

The bottom line can be improved if we explain it better and improve it all. It starts with really knowing what we mean in reference to what we do when we use the term improve customer experience. 

Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend ITEXPO West 2012, taking place Oct. 2-5, in Austin, TX. ITEXPO offers an educational program to help corporate decision makers select the right IP-based voice, video, fax and unified communications solutions to improve their operations. It's also where service providers learn how to profitably roll out the services their subscribers are clamoring for – and where resellers can learn about new growth opportunities. For more information on registering for ITEXPO click here.

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Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli

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