Overcoming Customer Experience Program Stress Points

Along with my colleagues at Customer Innovations, I’ve had the opportunity to help structure and manage major customer experience initiatives for a wide range of companies.    In the course of doing so, we’ve run into every imaginable roadblock and gone down our fair share of unproductive “rat holes.”   About a year ago, the Customer Innovations leadership team took a step back and summarized the stress points that organizations face as they try to build and maintain momentum with their customer experience programs.   Here’s what we came up with:

Customer Experience Program Stress Points

Customer Experience Program Stress Points

These stress points create confusion, slow or stall progress, and often partially, if not totally, derail the effort.   We’ve found that these stress points occur predictably with certain roles (e.g., the project team, executive stakeholders, support functions, etc…) and at certain points in the lifecycle of the effort.   Although they occur predictably, they tend to catch most organizations by surprise.   The key to building and maintaining progress is to know how to anticipate these stress points and manage them in advance.

Here are just a couple of the predictable stress points and what we’ve found is important to proactively address them:

  • Moving Beyond Platitudes (Executive Sponsors). Many executives have strong rhetoric around customer-focus and the need to deliver a compelling customer experience.  Very rarely do they understand how to move the organization beyond this rhetoric into action.  The experience that customers have with the business is typically the product of very deeply entrenched structural, cultural, and behavioral “legacy effects.”   Shifting the customer experience in any noticeable and profitable way involves knowing how to shift this deeply entrenched organizational behavior.  Addressing this stress point requires having a comprehensive, well-tested roadmap that allows Executive Sponsors to know how to create the conditions for success with a program that follows through on the rhetoric.  This roadmap must take into account surfacing and addressing the legacy effects that get in the way.  (see:  Centers of Gravity: Levers for Shifting the Customer ExperienceHow Employee Experiences Drive Organizational Behavior, and Integrating Customer and Employee Experiences)
  • Knowing Where to Start (Project Leadership and Support Functions). Improving the experience customers have with the organization seems all encompassing.  There are usually a very wide range of processes, functions, technology, and people that touch the customer.  Most organizations have multiple lines of business, each with multiple types of customers, and often many different channels or intermediaries that play a role.  Where do you start?  Do you try to work top-down on the things that are common across all of these dimensions or do you try to work bottom-up by focusing on individual elements of what the organization does to influence the experience?   The answer is neither… and both.  We’ve found that an iterative top-down / bottom-up process works best.  Starting with top-down principles and a unifying customer experience specification (see:  Customer Experience Specification) and then refining the principles and specification in bottom-up detailed design and pilots with individual lines of business or experience components.
  • The Experience Mapping Swamp (Project Team and Support Functions). Touch-point mapping… the analysis of how customers experience what the company does at each of the points of interaction… is the central approach used in most customer experience initiatives.    It’s very rational that the organization would want to know how it’s doing at those points of interaction.  The problem is that it’s close to useless for figuring what to do to significantly improve the experience.  In most cases, addressing the issues that get surfaced in touch point mapping exercises creates no more than “better sameness.”  (see:  Whose Experience is it Anyway? and The Customers’ Experience Does Not Happen At Your Touchpoints!)   The fact is, the customers experience doesn’t just happen at an organization’s touchpoints and, as a result, it’s really impossible to know how to meaningfully improve that experience unless you understand what’s happening at the non-touch-points.   The most effective tool for proactively addressing this stress point is making sure that the effort starts with an “experiencer-centric” definition of the experience.   (See Experience Miner: Creating Profitable, Evocative Experiences)

There are many other stress points:   Facing the ugly truth in “Coming to Terms with the Truth About Today“, overcoming the tendency to define an “Ideal Experience We Can’t Implement,”  having the guts to do drive towards “Differentiation vs. Better Sameness,” while avoiding “Painting the Surface vs. Changing the Core,”  and overcoming the “Surfacing Unwritten Rule Barriers” that make it impossible for the organization and it’s intermediaries to behave in a way that creates the desired experience, etc…  You get the picture.  We’ve developed effective strategies for addressing each of these stress points.   I’m happy to provide additional information…. just shoot me a message.

Cheers, Frank

Note:  Our stress point framework was inspired by the “Reengineering Stress Point” framework originally created by brilliant consultant,  Glenn Mangurian, while he was at CSC Index in the mid-90s’

Another note:  If you found this post interesting, you might also find the following posts helpful:

Experience Miner: Creating Profitable, Evocative Experiences

Most of the time and money organizations invest on customer experience is wasted…

… because they focus on how the organization “delivers the experience”…

… rather than on how customers actually “HAVE the experience”…

… and how those experiences influence behavior!

Most customer experience efforts are based on touch-point oriented approaches that define the experience in terms of a customers’ interactions with the company.  These approaches are inherently company-centric and, at best, lead to improvements that create “better sameness.”  The fact is:

Customers’ experiences do not just happen at your organizations’ touch-points.


Evocative Experiences… The Experiences that Matter

An experience is evocative when it positively and profitably influences:

  • What people think (cognitive outcomes)
    • What they remember about their experience
    • The story they tell themselves and others about their experience
    • The distinctions they draw that differentiate what you did for them
  • How people feel (affective outcomes)
    • How doing business with you makes them feel about themselves
    • How the way they feel about themselves drives how they feel about you
    • What specific emotional states and triggers motivate behavior
  • What people do (behavioral outcomes)
    • Making additional purchases
    • Diversifying what they buy from you
    • Telling stories about their experience with you
    • Recommending you to others
    • Behaving more cost effectively
    • Adopting new product, service, or process offerings

Four Characteristics of an Evocative Experience

  1. Are immediately simple to understand and easy to navigate. The vast majority of peoples’ experiences are accomplished using a combination of “gist processing” and “automatic behavioral scripts.” Well-designed experiences fit easily with the mindsets and natural behaviors people have for the problem they’re trying to solve. Note: As a result of being designed around automatic behavioral scripts, evocative experiences can have a surprising subconscious influence on behavior.
  2. Offer innovative solutions to peoples’ latent problems. Well-designed experiences start with a deep understanding of what people are trying to accomplish and provide solutions to problems, accomplish goals, and address needs that people may not even realize they have or be able to easily describe. These innovative solutions almost never occur at the existing company touch-points.
  3. Tell a compelling and memorable story. People perceive, interpret, and recall their experiences using stories. Well-designed experiences tell a story that has a clear and distinctive message that resolves conflict using a small number of high-contrast, signature experience elements. These signature experience elements get people’s attention and are perceived as a meaningful differences in kind… rather than incremental differences in degree.
  4. Trigger specific emotional states that influence behavior. The most influential experiences are designed to influence how people feel… not about the company… but about themselves. The specific emotional state(s) associated with the experience are chosen as the precursors to the behavior the experience is intended to generate.

Creating Evocative Experiences

In order to create evocative experiences you must start with an “experiencer-centric” rather than “company-centric” definition of experience.   We define an experience to be:

Experience:  A person’s cognitive, affective, and behavioral reactions… across the end-to-end process they follow… in order to realize a desired state, satisfy needs, and accomplish goals that are important to them.

This is fundamentally different than the typical company-centric definition:  Customer experience is the sum or all interactions a customer has with a supplier of goods or services, over the duration of their relationship with that supplier.

Experience MinerTM and the Design of Evocative Experiences

The objective of any product, service, or experience design is to profitably and powerfully influence how people think… how people feel… and, most importantly, how people act.   Most organizations’ efforts fail to achieve this objective because they focus on how their organization “delivers” an experience rather than how people actually HAVE experiences.  As a result, organizations routinely over-invest in incremental improvements that deliver “better sameness” at the existing touch-points.  In the course of doing so, these organizations miss the fact that customers’ experiences don’t just happen at their touch-points.   Although these investments may have a marginal impact on reported satisfaction, they often don’t lead to any measurable change in behavior in the face of changing customer needs, priorities, expectations, and alternatives.  In order to positively influence customer behavior, experiences must be designed and delivered with a deep understanding of how people actually HAVE experiences.  For more information on this, see:  Getting Beneath the Voice of the Customer

Experience MinerTM provides a rigorous way of capturing and analyzing the most critical aspects of the way people think, feel, and act  on their experiences.  Built on 25 years of research into the cognitive, affective, and behavioral basis of experience, it provides the specific insight required to focus design and delivery efforts on the areas of greatest influence and financial return.   Experience MinerTM is used to describe the key elements for each target customer personae.  This insight is used to 

…design evocative experiences from the mental model of the experiencer.

Experience Miner Toolset

The Experience MinerTM toolset consists of the following seven elements, each designed to fill in a critical piece of insight required to design experiences that influence behavior.

Goal Space MappingTM Describes the desired states and situation-specific goals that motivate and direct the experience for each key persona

Experiential TemperamentTM – Profiles how temperamental differences influence the way people are drawn to and engage with novelty seeking, harm avoidance, social orientation, and persistence

Framing Metaphors – Surfaces the underlying physical metaphors people use to interpret, evaluate and act on their experiences in the relevant domain(s).

Experiential ConstructsTM – Identifies the most common, learned distinctions that enable people to recognize, categorize, differentiate, and form expectations.

Emotional States and TriggersTM –  Surfaces the emotional states and specific triggers across the lifecycle of the experience highlighting areas of uncertainty, stress, frustration, etc…

Experiential PathwaysTM – Maps the end-to-end set of activities and choice points that people follow in pursuit of their goals… including the unwritten rules and automatic behavioral scripts people apply along this pathway.

Experiential Choice DynamicsTM – Describes the situation-specific choice processes that people follow, as well as, how they construct preferences and make decisions that influence their behavior.

Most of the time and money organizations invest on customer experience is wasted…

… because they focus on how the organization “delivers experiences”…

rather than on how customers actually “HAVE experiences” and how those experiences influence their behavior!

The Customers’ Experience Does Not Happen At Your Touchpoints!

In an earlier post I mentioned that touchpoint mapping is a relatively useless approach for making significant improvements in the customers’ experience.  Unfortunately, touchpoint mapping is also the most frequently used approach… either followed by companies on their own or recommended by consultants who claim expertise in customer experience design.   The most important thing to realize is that… the most influential elements of the customer experience often occur at the non-touchpoints with your business.  As a result, touchpoint mapping doesn’t lead to anything more than incremental improvement that, for the customer, amount to “better sameness.”

In most situations, the lifecycle of the customers’ experience follows something that roughly approximates this simplified picture:

Above and Below the Surface Experience

Of course, the details look different for each situation.  However, in most cases, an organization’s touchpoints with the customer include:  sales contacts, ordering activities, fulfillment activities, and problem resolution.  As you see, the customers’ process includes a lot of other things that have a substantial impact on their overall experience.  In addition, customers often have to integrate products and services they get from you with the products and services of other organizations in order to address their needs.

For example, one of our recent clients is a leading jewelry store chain.  Like many retailers, there is a natural tendency to think about the customer experience from the perspective of “things that happen in the store” or, increasingly, “things that happen on a website.”  However, for most jewelry stores,  70% of the customers are “male gift givers.”  For these customers, the experience is really defined by the end-to-end process they go through when they give a gift that makes a meaningful contribution to a “relationship bank account” with someone that matters a lot to them.

The customer is certainly affected by what happens in the store… but major parts of the experience have little to do with the store.  They may think about an upcoming event, like a birthday, anniversary, graduation, or holiday.  Although many male gift givers put off actually buying anything until just about the last minute, they typically engage in a “semi-conscious consideration of options” for what to buy.  These customers have unwritten or implicit “rules of thumb” that influence how they shop.  For example, “do a quick pass through three of four stores, then return to buy the best I find… or… “spend two months salary on an engagement ring.”  There are also very significant portions of the experience driven by how they give the gift, how the recipient reacts both initially and over time after receiving the gift.  If the gift giving experience does not go as planned, there are many cycles of highly emotional reactions for both the gift giver and the recipient.  One of these that is particularly important is the experience that precedes having to return an item… which many stores make very stressful.

These are just the highlights.  There’s actually quite a bit more.  In this case, the parts of the experience that happen outside the store are the primary determinants of the quality of the experience for the customer.  If a jewelry store were to focus on understanding and improving what happens in the store and/or online interactions, the best they’ll come up with is better sameness.  The opportunity for a creative jewelry chain is to leverage insight into those portions of the customers’ experience that are “below the surface.”  This provides insight that can help not only improve what happens at the “above the surface” touchpoints, but also provides insight into related services that address customers’ unarticulated or unmet needs at the non-touchpoints.