Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?

Most organizations have woken up to the fact that the quality of their customers’ experience is a primary driver of organic growth.  In fact, it’s hard to find an organization today that isn’t doing some sort work on the customer experience.  Unfortunately, despite the importance of these initiatives,  most of them will fail to produce any competitively relevant benefits.  Why is that?

If you take a step back, the majority of customer experience initiatives roughly follow this sequence of steps: 

  1. Assess the current experience
  2. Conduct customer research to identify unmet needs (optional),
  3. Describe the intended customer experience
  4. Design operating model changes required to deliver that experience
  5. Implement those operating model changes

Although it seems like a logical enough plan of action, our experience has shown that this sequence of steps is also totally naive!

It may be stating the obvious but…  the experience customers have with your organization is the product of highly complex organizational behavior.  This organizational behavior emerges from the individual behaviors of executive leaders, middle managers, and front-line employees.  We’ve observed that most customer experience initiatives significantly underestimate the difficulty of actually shifting this organizational behavior.   This is due largely to the fact that organizational behavior emerges from a complex web of individual behaviors that are influenced by the character, priorities, histories, and assumptions of those individuals.

Whether you like it or not, your organization is predisposed to deliver the experience your customers’ are having today.  We call this the “default experience.”   This default experience is the result of deeply entrenched beliefs, values, and unwritten rules that drive the real behavior of your organization. 

In every organization we’ve talked to and worked with, there are many unwritten rules that are inconsistent with delivering the experience those organizations would really like their customers to have.   These unwritten rules are unique to each organization, driven by extensive legacy effects, and reinforced by the existing employee experience.  Many of these unwritten rules typically center around things like:  what it takes to be successful in the organization; the importance of financial vs. non-financial metrics; the importance of internal vs. external stakeholders (e.g., my boss vs. the customer); the importance of acquiring new customers vs. caring for existing customers; the ability to admit mistakes; the ease of cross-functional collaboration, etc…

After working with dozens of organizations, the central lesson we’ve learned is: 

Any effort to change the customers’ experience must first decode how the existing organizational system creates the existing, “default” experience.

Understanding how the organizational system creates the existing experience involves: 

  1. Surfacing the motivators (what’s important?), enablers (who’s important?), triggers (how do people get what they want?), and the resulting unwritten rules within each relevant pocket of the organization
  2. Determining how those unwritten rules are either consistent or inconsistent with the desired customer experience
  3. Understanding how the current employee experiences reinforces these unwritten rules, particularly the unwritten rules inconsistent with the desired experience
  4. Designing specific employee experience interventions that deliberately address unwritten rules that are barriers to the desired customer experience

There are very significant implications of this lesson.  For example, many organizations do wonderfully creative work to identify what’s important to their customers and develop a compelling vision or design for a better experience…  that are fundamentally out of character with what the organization is capable of delivering. 

For example, we worked with a leading business-to-business services organization that had the vision to create “the most collaborative client experience.”  Unfortunately, the organization’s DNA made it exceptionally difficult for them to even collaborate with each other… much less collaborate effectively with their clients.

Over the past several years, we have collaborated with Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan  on the development of a rigorous approach to understanding and shifting organizational behavior behind the customer experience.  Dr. Scott-Morgan is the authority on understanding the unwritten rules of organizations and is the founder of the emerging field of Cryptonomics, which studies the emergent behavior of complex organizational systems.

If you are interested in more information feel free to check out our “Getting the Employee Experience Right“podcast interview with with Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan. 

8 Responses

  1. I would like to compliment you on your insights. Most organizations don’t know who they really are in the customer perception what creates that perception. The issue of the Unwritten Ground Rules is a huge factor as well. However, for me the key issue is usally Leadership. Yes, what else is new? I am always reminded of the deep truth of the saying that no organization shall rise above the level of its leadership.

    Love your article!

  2. Thanks Eric… you’re spot on. Leadership is a critical gating factor. Not only does executive leadership need to model the right behaviors… but they need to be deliberate about creating the conditions where different behavior can emerge from the organization.

    Often executive leaders have a hard time shifting the behavior of the organization if deeply entrenched unwritten rules are getting in the way. These unwritten rules typically operate just below the level of conscious awareness… and you can’t address them without clarifying what they are.

    I look forward to following your blog Eric.

  3. […] Some of the obvious barriers is that delivering true hospitality can’t be scripted.   You need to create elbow room for employees to do the right thing for the customer.  This requires a deliberately designed pattern of interventions in the employee experience including recruiting, incorporating, training, communicating, measurements, and rewards.  It also involves surfacing the unwritten rules that may be driving employee behavior inconsistent with the desired customer experience (see Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?). […]

  4. […] the past several years, we’ve been working on a way around this problem.  (See:   Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail? ).    We’ve learned that, if you want to enable an intentionally better customer […]

  5. […] and address these barriers is unlikely to shift the real behavior of the organization. (See: Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail? and A Break in the Service Profit Chain: Why Increases in Employee Engagement Don’t Improve […]

  6. […] to deliver a highly engaging and differentiated customer experience.  As I covered in the post, Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?,  Unwritten Rules are one of the primary reasons why customer experience efforts often […]

  7. Frank,

    Sorry it’s taken nearly 2 years to come across your insightful comments here. I happened to end up here because I recently read the book “Human Sigma” which you commented on some time ago.

    You are definitely hitting the nail on the head with the idea of where organizational behavior comes from. I’ve found that motivators for behavior are often much more strongly associated to what the boss wants than what the customer wants and needs. This can indeed become a quandry for those of us who are charged with a thing called “customer service”.

    The customer experience is very important but as you pointed out, there is no one thing that can make or break it, no matter how you measure it. Worse yet, it seems we want to make customer experience the most important parameter for customer-facing people to be measured against. While this seems like a reasonable approach to most managers, it actually is very counterproductive for several reasons. One of those reasons is that managers will never tell you to achieve high customer experience and ignore everything else. And yet, many items in the “everything else” category are counterproductive to a good customer experience. and believe me, you will hear about it if one of those other key metrics is abysmal even if your customer experience metric is in the stratosphere.

    Another problem with the scenario I just painted is the fact that those customer-facing people will be very motivated to find a way to make the numbers look good. That makes them look good. The number of ways this can be done are immense and unless you want to spend 90% of your time as a manager investigating all this, you had better find a better way of motivating your people to do the right thing.

    Managers get trapped in this scenario by their managers and by the top executives. They don’t know a way out because they are locked in the same paradigm. I was hoping the book “Human Sigma” would show a way out of that sort of trap. It didn’t,. The only answer I know of is to be very careful about how you motivate and how you measure employees. One false move and you will live to regret it at some point. Unless you want to simply go through life wearing the proverbial rose-colored glasses and keep saying “nothing is wrong.”

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