Customer Experience: Beyond Better Sameness

So… we’re ten years into the Experience Economy and, over that time, there’s been an explosion of attention and investment in creating and improving customer experiences.  Even in this midst of very challenging economic environment, it’s hard to find a company that isn’t either actively involved in or planning customer experience investments.   As the economy now starts to show signs of turning around, we’ve observed an increasing level of interest in getting closer to customers.

Despite the attention paid to customer experience, with a few exceptions, people are no happier with their experiences as customers today then they were 10 years ago.  It’s as if the majority of customer experience efforts have produced little more than “better sameness.”   Better sameness is doing what you’ve always done… and what pretty much all your competitors do… a little bit better and faster; providing friendlier customer service, incrementally faster response times,  a more appealing retail environment, a more streamlined web catalog and ordering processes, etc…

The problem is, customers don’t perceive these incremental differences.  If you’re looking for a competitively relevant improvement, you need to do something that actually grabs the customer’s attention and positively influences how they feel and what they do.  These are the only things that actually improve your competitive differentiation.  Moving beyond better sameness demands doing something that isn’t just a difference in degree; it demands doing something that’s a difference in kind.

For examples:

Southwest and JetBlue represent a difference in kind experience compared to the other major US-based airlines;

Umpqua Bank represents a difference in kind financial experience is a sea of highly undifferentiated consumer banks;


Wegmans, and Nugget Market is a difference in kind experience compared to most other major grocery retailers.

wegmans_food_markets nugget_markets

Unless what you’re after is better sameness…

…the most common tools for improving customers’ experiences are insufficient ! !

This includes:

Customer Satisfaction Measurement: Most companies ask customers for subjective evaluations of the company’s or product’s performance on the assumption that these expressed attitudes drive behavior, such as repeat purchases or positive word of mouth.  Unfortunately, decades of research into the correlation between evaluations and subsequent behavior show, although the link exists, it tends to be relatively weak.  Most customers who switch said they were satisfied.  Satisfaction is not an emotional state that powerfully drives behavior.  In order to get beyond better sameness, companies need to surface how the the experience influences customers’ perceptions and feelings about themselves not the company.

Voice of the Customer Insight: Listening to customers is critical for gaining insight into their lives, their goals, their needs, as well as, their frustrations, feelings, and behaviors.  However, as Henry Ford said, “If I asked customers what they wanted, we’d just have ended up with faster horses.”  In addition, what customers say they want is not often well-correlated with the deeper goals and subconscious factors that influence their behavior.  In many cases, what customers say they want is inconsistent with what ultimately drives their behavior… leading companies to invest in the wrong things.   Getting beyond better sameness involves engaging customers in fundamentally different kinds of conversations and getting beneath the surface of what they say to understand their deeper goals and the experiences they’re having.

Touchpoint Mapping and Service Level Improvements:  Touch point mapping is a highly company-centric activity.  Customers’ experiences do not just happen at your company’s touch points.  Customers follow an end-to-end set of activities that make sense to them given the goals and needs they’re trying to address.  You can’t understand and meaningfully improve the customers’ experience by just looking at and incrementally improving service levels at your touch points.  As customers go about their busy lives, they rarely pay attention to or act on any of the incremental service improvements at the existing touch points.  Getting beyond better sameness involves creating high contrast, signature experiences that get customers’ attention, influence how they feel, and shape the story about what you stand for.

Training and Motivating Front-line Service Employees:  Having engaged, well-trained, and motivated service employees is important.  However, a lack of training and motivation is rarely the real issue behind a poor experience.  The experience customers’ have with any organization is the product of behavior that emerges from a complex organizational system. The root of that behavior is a leadership, management, measurement, and cultural environment that reinforce “unwritten rules” inconsistent with employees doing the right thing for customers.  Focusing on training and motivating employees without surfacing and addressing the unwritten rules is like hacking at the leaves rather than striking at the root of the problem.  Getting beyond better sameness involves surfacing the unwritten rules and leadership and management beliefs and behavior that constrain the experience.

Creating positively and profitably influential experiences, that go beyond better sameness, requires a more fundamental shift in perspective.  You have to focus first on how customers HAVE experiences… not on how your organization or product DELIVERS experiences.  This includes being very clear on:   What are customers really trying to accomplish?  What influences the pathway they follow in pursuing those goals?  How do they actually construct preferences and make choices along that pathway?  How does the process make them feel about themselves?  How does the experience influence the relationships they care about?  In most cases, understanding how customers HAVE experiences, leads to a completely different set of strategies for creating experiences that really make a difference for customers and the business.

Customer Innovations follows a unique Cognitive-Affective-Behavioral Engineering approach that enables companies to design products, services, and experiences from the mental model of the experiencer… not just the mental model of the company.  Over the course of 25 years track we’ve helped leading organizations realize bottom line results of 10-25% in the form of increased retention, incremental sales, reduced acquisition costs, positive word of mouth, higher price realization, and improved productivity of customer-facing operations.

The Customer Innovations approach is driven by three toolsets deliberately structured to push companies beyond better sameness:

  • Behavioral Portraits – Generates deep insight that enables you to understand why customers behave as they do and identifies the most important behavioral drivers for specific groups of customers.
  • Trigger Analysis – Surfaces how people perceive, interpret and evaluate their experience and identifies the specific customer interactions that elicit positive or negative behavioral responses.
  • Influence Strategies – Designs the product, service, and experience interventions needed to influence customer behavior and creates the mechanism for consistent delivery of those changes.

Human Sigma: Strong on Description; Weak on Prescription

I just finished reading the new book Human Sigma; Managing the Employee-Customer Encounter by John Fleming and Jim Asplund.  I’m excited that an integrated perspective on employees and customers is getting the attention it deserves.  The book is well written and makes a strong case for the importance of both employee engagement and customer engagement.  The authors are executives at Gallup and, as might be expected from an organization that’s sweet-spot is measurement, the book does a solid job of discussing the measurement of customer and employee engagement.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the book for three very important reasons:

  • First, I’m concerned that the focus on employee-customer encounters will perpetuate a flawed belief amongst many executives that the solution to improving the customer experience is about fixing the behaviors of front line employees and managers.  Of course, what customers’ experience is often highly dependent on the interactions they have with front-line employees.  The authors do make a strong point about empowering front-line employees.  However, we’ve found that customer experience shortfalls are almost always a result of organizational issues that are closer to the core of the business.  In most cases, the behavior of the front line employees is just an outward expression of organizational conditions and culture that have deep roots in the beliefs, values, leadership, and legacy of the organization.  Visualize a tree; addressing front-line employee behavior is like hacking at the leaves rather than striking at the root of the problem.
  • Second, the prescriptions described in the book include conducting ongoing Human Sigma measurement and appointing a Chief Human Sigma officer.  In addition, the last two chapters provide short descriptions of actions like: brand alignment, customer advisory counsels, selecting for talent, employee communications, recognition, rewards, motivational retreats, etc…  While these actions may contribute to some amount of improvement, they are superficial bordering on naïve.  They substantially underestimate the complexity of shifting deeply entrenched organizational behavior.  We’ve found that the fundamental character of customers’ and employees’ experiences with an organization are largely determined by the “unwritten rules” that drive the real behavior of individuals throughout the organization… from executive management all the way to the front lines.  Those “unwritten rules” are the sensible ways for those individuals to behave given a deeply embedded set of motivators (what’s important?), enablers (who’s important?), and trigger (how do people get what they want?) that exist in the organizational system.   Any effort to improve the customer and employee experiences that doesn’t deliberately surface 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 the Customer Experience?)
  • Finally, the book proposes Human Sigma as a measurement that falls between 1 and 6 and summarizes the overall effectiveness of employee-customer encounters. The authors provide no explicit description for how the score is calculated.  The units of measure are not defined.  This “measure of employee-customer encounter effectiveness” doesn’t appear to be based on any information actually derived at the point of these encounters.  It seems like a simple bending of the customers’ stated levels of engagement and employees’ stated levels of engagement.  One can’t help but assume that the point of this book is to make the case for hiring Gallup to do this measurement, since they clearly didn’t intend to enable readers to do it themselves.

On a positive note, the authors make several strong points:

  • Many companies appear to operate based on a risk adverse philosophy that can be described as “Just Don’t Suck.” Many companies think if they deliver an adequate, industry par experience they’re entitled to their “fair share” of the market.
  • Scripting employee behavior doesn’t improve the customer experience. You need to define the outcomes you intend to produce for customers and then allow employees some flexibility in how they get to those outcomes.
  • There is a critical distinction between customers that are rationally satisfied and customers that are emotionally satisfied. Customers that are highly emotionally satisfied deliver the greatest value to the company while customers that are highly rationally satisfied often do not behave any different than dissatisfied customers.
  • For customer or employee experiences, “feelings are facts.” How the people perceive and feel about their experience are the most critical facts, not the objective measures of service levels.
  • There are four levels of emotional attachment that people have towards a company:
    • Confidence.  “A name I can trust; always delivers on their promises”
    • Integrity.  “They resolve problems and treat me fairly.”
    • Pride.  “They treat me with respect and I’m proud to be associated with them.”
    • Passion.  “I can’t imagine a world without them; the perfect company for people like me.”

Overall, I’m glad that this critical topic is beginning to get the attention it deserves.  I’d love to hear other reactions to the book or the points I raised above.