Ensuring a seamless customer experience from desire to disposal is impossible, but companies could start by resolving the basic niggles
But is there any evidence that customers’ experience of dealing with companies is actually improving? Hardly. The most comprehensive long-term study of customer satisfaction levels is the American Customer Satisfaction Index: overall customer satisfaction in 2006 is lower than it was in 2004, which was lower than it was in 1994. So if everybody thinks customer experience is so important, why isn’t it improving?
Here’s a suggestion. The notion of improved customer experiences is breathtakingly simple, but doing something about it is horrendously difficult, because while people judge experiences holistically, companies are managed in silos and making them work holistically is a nightmare.
Consider what you have to do to address the challenge: first, you need to re-engineer every step of the customer journey, including pre-purchase (research, decision-making), the purchase process itself, delivery, usage itself, servicing and repair, accessories and related issues such as financing and disposal. Your customer experience is as good as the weakest link.
You also need to manage every touchpoint from a range of different perspectives. You need to manage touchpoints by channel: media channels (TV, press etc), call centre, retail outlet, the product or service itself, the website and so on.
You also need to manage touchpoints by type. These include person-to-person touchpoints (call centre, retail outlet, service delivery), information exchanges, physical process (logistics, the product’s particular attributes and qualities).
Each one of these touchpoints reaches deep inside a company in different ways. The people side of the equation raises a million questions about what sort of staff you recruit, how they are trained and how they are motivated, which in turn reaches back to the organisation’s culture, values and so on. Department-wise, this makes human resources critical.
Information touchpoints require state-of-the-art IT systems, including the ability to develop a 360° single customer view and to feed this single customer view to every touchpoint so that they can act upon it in a seamless way, to enable the customer to flit from one channel to another without noticing the joins. Plus superb marketing communications, of course.
The physical side not only involves product quality, but also getting the right stuff to the right people at the right time which – as any logistics expert will tell you – is a major challenge in its own right.
A slim chance
So a number of different departments (including marketing, sales, customer service, production, human resources and IT) need to be involved. But even without internal politics the chances of effectively aligning measures, priorities and timescales across all these departments are slim.
We also need to understand each touchpoint by degree of control. We might have 100% control over the physical attributes of a product, for example, but almost zero control over how it is displayed in some third-party retailer, and only tenuous influence over how third-party distributor sales people present it to potential customers. Car manufacturers and dealers have been wrestling with such issues for decades. Even so, if we increase control over distributors, we aren’t likely to have the same luck controlling which channels customers choose to use, when or how.
And there’s more to come, because even with all this under our belts we need to define exactly what sort of experiences we want to deliver (“friendly” or “authoritative”, “caring” or “efficient”?), and to who. This “who” question is far from trivial. A “brand experience” may not be the same as a “customer experience”, especially in multi-brand companies. Different customer segments will value different experiences, and somehow the organisation needs to be sensitive to these diverse priorities and be able to address them – all from the same operational platforms.
Considering this daunting list, it’s easy to see why customer experience hype is so much greater than the reality. Actually delivering a cross-company customer experience programme in a seamless, joined-up way is a gargantuan challenge. Simply adding “customer experience” to the marketing or human resources director’s job description won’t do. He won’t have the cross-departmental clout to deliver the goods.
The glib answer is that customer experience must be the chief executive’s responsibility. But it is a glib answer. In command and control environments, nothing happens without “chief executive buy-in”. But that’s the problem with command and control environments. Chief executives haven’t got the time to buy in to everything. Getting chief executive buy-in may be presented as the only way to get things done, but in reality it’s a very good way of getting only a few things done and leaving the rest to languish. Most chief executives have got too much to worry about – costs and revenues, mergers and acquisitions, dealing with regulators and investors, opening up new markets – to prioritise things like customer experience where the time scales are too long and the payback too uncertain. That’s why customer experience always remains important, but rarely the top priority.
All too much
The sad conclusion is that creating all-singing, all-dancing, customer-delighting customer experience programmes is just a dream. In most big companies, joining up all the dots to achieve this is just too fraught and complicated.
So, what should we do? First, let’s take it for granted that each silo must do its job properly: providing timely, relevant information, or hassle-free service, or compelling communications, or knowledgeable and helpful staff. What’s needed is for these silos to work in parallel toward the same, general direction. A board-level customer-experience director can help set this overall direction.
Second, pragmatically speaking, the real opportunity for most large companies isn’t so much touchpoint management but pinchpoint management. Forget creating legendary customer delight that leads to word of mouth recommendation. Instead, try fixing the things that drive customers up the wall right now. If a customer experience director could identify the three biggest experience-destroying culprits and bang heads together to fix them, that would be progress. Once those were fixed, he or she could find the next three and address those.
It’s not sexy. It’s not a platform to sell massive consultancy programmes. It won’t get you on to the front cover of this magazine. But it might actually help address the issue.