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Who Owns the Customer Experience? Hint, Customers Do

October 10, 2012

A recent survey conducted for Amdocs by Coleman Parkes highlighted the interesting battle, and the opportunities for partnering, between service providers, OTTs and device manufacturers as to who owns the all important customer experience. In thinking about this, it occurred to me that this is the wrong question. Reality is that the customer owns the customer experience. It time for the industry to “get with the program.”

I admit to having a fixation for watching “the buzz” in various technology markets.  And, there is no bigger buzz than the “what’s old is new again” fascination in our industry on “delighting customers.” It is almost impossible to get away from surveys, market forecasts, webinars, white papers and news articles about how C-levels regardless of the size or location of their company now believe focusing on improving the customer experience is a top if not the top business priority. They appear willing to invest in technology that is going to enable them to “change the conversation” and allow them to create and sustain differentiated and profitable value. Needless-to-say this is much to the delight of solutions sellers, and why not?

The challenge is that we are well past the era where technology was bought for its own sake. Purchases driven by CFOs and not CIOs now have to be aligned with business objectives and imperatives. At the top of the list is improving the customer experience. However, as noble a goal as this is, it assumes a fundamental understanding of what the customer experience is and the context of where we are in the transformation of buyer/seller relationships.

I am going to show my age, but all of the talk about companies and their tech vendors focusing on and improving the customer experience really is a case of “back to the future” but with a twist. In the late 1970s, the CEO of AT&T (when it was ‘Ma Bell’) John deButts was featured in AT&T vertical market focused commercials. This was at the dawn of competition. His message was that AT&T wanted to be your trusted communications vendor but knew that it had to earn that trust by focusing on your specific business and it unique needs first if it were to be entrusted with the job of being vendor choice. Like I said, the old is new again.

What was different then was that in the buyer/seller relationship management game, sellers could dictate the terms and conditions of engagement. What is different now is that in my estimation the Internet revolution’s most important impact from a business perspective is how it profoundly changed the power positions of buyer and seller. Much to the consternation of sellers, the emergence of a world where there is virtually ubiquitous access to information and competitive alternatives has meant that now and going forward the buyer is in control. 

It may seem trite to say, but the bottom line really is the bottom line. In today’s Age of Acceleration — where the only constant is change and the increasing speed at which it is happening—because of the mass adoption of things like smartphones and tablets the buyer calls the shots. If you do not give me what I want, how I want it, where I want it, when I want it and at a price that is in my zone of perceived reasonableness (i.e., meets my complex behavioral and transactional requirements), I can and will go elsewhere.

This has created an age of not just smarter buyers but one of increased customer disloyalty. In addition, the megaphone we call the Internet has meant the broadcasting of customer dissatisfaction. Not only do you not get a second chance to make a first impression, but that bad taste in a customer’s mouth can become a contagion. This has led to C-level focus on improving the customer experience to avoid brand stewardship challenges that can go viral and be catastrophic in minutes. Risk management in this context has taken on a whole new meaning. It is not just a good business practice offensively, but as importantly defensively as well.

The challenge for sellers in the Age of Acceleration is that the shift in power and subsequent increased lack of control in the buyer/seller relationship has extraordinary ramifications. Let’s be honest, nobody feels comfortable when they no longer call the shots or can dictate terms and conditions when things like the justification of the need for proprietary solutions and market pricing power go the way of the dinosaurs. 

What we are seeing with the so-called “consumerization of IT,” and the attempts to embrace multi-channel communications interactions with customers to improve the customer experience, is a much needed and mandatory game of vendor catch up. Truth be told, whether it be mobility, social media, virtualization, unified communications, the cloud, data center transformation, the need for next generation solutions at its heart is being driven by customers. Technology purchasing in this case is actually a lagging indicator. WARNING! We are at a tipping point and the next 24 months have a significant potential to determine winners and losers for years to come. 

Please repeat after me. The buyers own the customer experience! The buyers own the customer experience! The buyers own the customer experience! 

The sooner there is recognition of this, the healthier will be your bottom line. In fact, that was the enduring genius of Steve Jobs. He refused to be a “fast follower.” He understood that creative destruction, constant disruption and the accommodation of change were just as critical as envisioning things that improved the customer experience in new ways that Apple could then make as a means to turn technologic wonder and wizardry into personal necessity.

In the Age of Acceleration, if you are not moving as fast or faster than your customers you will not thrive and may not even survive. This means that your people need to be armed with the right tools to optimize customer engagement. 

This is one of those keen grasp of the obvious observations but technology should be a means to an end and not an end to a means. In fact, a quick note to non-IT C-levels, the customer experience you probably need to invest in most is how your internal users experience their work tools and adjust accordingly. 

It is distressing for example that the age of the installed base PBXs has never been older. The obvious reason is that they still are great for managing voice calls. However, when the world has gone IP and multi-channel interactions are table stakes for being competitive, it is time to understand that your external customers want and expect a lot more when they interact with your organization.

If you will pardon the expression, all of the industry focus on improving the customers experience right now seems to be lip service. It sounds great, but until most of us actually feel better about our interactions it rings hollow. Declaratory statements are no substitute for how on a daily basis not just your customers but your employees interact with your people, products and processes.

I actually harbor hope that as a result of more and more C-levels running their businesses off of their smartphones and tablets, the real driver behind why IT has had to accommodate BYOD that things can change rapidly. We are after all a little over two years into the iPad revolution and it is picking up steam. When the customer experience that needs to be markedly improved is that of the boss, it is amazing how fast things can change. Now if they would only every couple of days interact with their contact centers and experience the pain we might get some real progress. Actions always speak louder than words.     

This is now a time of “seller beware!” It reminds me of the title of a hit 1994 romantic comedy film, Reality Bites.     

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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