Will Customer Experience Survive?

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As a Master Black Belt at General Electric, I got to see the rise & fall of 6 Sigma. For those of you less than familiar with 6 Sigma, 1) thanks for already proving my point and 2) it’s a data-driven process improvement methodology that seeks to reduce customer defects. (Check out this definition for more.)2

I know what some of you are thinking, “Wait a minute … there’s still plenty of black belt jobs around.” You’re right, but the emphasis is nothing like it was in the late 90’s to mid 2000’s when nearly every company was trying to get on the bandwagon and seemingly every project manager was trying to get a 6 sigma certification. FLO Partners released a study of process excellence professionals documenting that 71% of respondents used 6 Sigma in 2005 while only 33% did in 2013. What happened? The tail started wagging the dog.

Six Sigma started its decline at GE when Jack Welch mandated that every employee become Green Belt certified. It seemed like a good way to get 6 sigma into everyone’s DNA. Unfortunately, it backfired. Think about your business. Now think about every employee completing a project where they measure a process, fix it and then monitor its progress over time. Oh, and pass a test with math and statistical analysis. I’ll pause while you think through that … every employee.

3As I was mentoring (and I use that term loosely) sales veterans – who rarely even turned on their computer – to use Minitab to statistically analyze data to determine if their 2-sample T test had a p value less than 0.05, I realized something was wrong. When I was flying home from Connecticut after presenting 60-page PowerPoint decks about projects I had finished several months earlier and had already shown big improvements, yet required some “additional pages to fully flesh out my statistical results,” I knew we had completely lost sight of our goal. Instead of using 6 sigma to improve processes in a methodical, data-driven way, we were doing 6 sigma for the sake of 6 sigma. The tail was wagging the dog.

4The question is, “Will Customer Experience go the way of 6 sigma?” Unfortunately, I see some of the warning signs already. Ask yourself, “Are we really trying to improve customer experience or are we just trying to improve out net promoter score (NPS)?” You can view a webinar on this topic here. How much time are you spending building your team vs. time spent understanding your customer’s journey? Are you counting the number of CX projects your business completes or are you measuring the outcomes of those projects? In particular, I think it’s in “outcomes” where we’re collectively falling short.

I work with several clients who started their CX programs in earnest a few years ago. They’ve grown from one person to a team, moved from smaller projects to larger ones and set up their customer research processes. But they don’t have a lot of clear results at which to point. And, their leadership teams are starting to notice.

5The most common concern I hear from my clients with semi-mature CX programs is that their leadership team is starting to ask about results. Often times, leaders weren’t 100% bought in to CX, but they thought it was worth a try. They’re now looking at the cost of a CX program and wondering if it’s worth it. Just like when interest in 6 sigma started to wane, they’re deciding if CX is a fad or if it’s something that will truly change their business for the better in terms of improved retention, revenue and whatever other business outcome is most important to them (and it’s usually not NPS). It appears the CX honeymoon may be over.

Every business is different, but here are a few ideas I’ve seen around the industry that help drive tangible results.

  1. Start with the end in mind. With a nod to Stephen Covey, this is a very important concept for CX. Instead of initiating an improvement in your customer experience program based solely on a customer complaint, start with the business metric or outcome you want to improve. If it’s retention, what drives retention? What processes most closely affect those drivers? Then, within those processes, where is the largest gap between customer expectations and customer satisfaction?
  2. Use linkage modeling to connect survey results to financial outcomes. You don’t have the resources to solve every customer problem so figure out the ones that are most important and solve those. Statistically show the correlation between specific survey responses and operational data … especially operational data that’s linked to financial outcomes.
  3. Closely monitor the customer touchpoints you most care about (see #’s 1 and 2 above) and act quickly when there’s an issue. Checking trends once a month may work ok in the aggregate, but it feels like an eternity to a customer that’s just had a bad experience.

Using these techniques and others, we can drive the results we and our business leaders are seeking. Also, by pushing ourselves to achieve real business outcomes with our CX projects, we can avoid the fate of 6 sigma. Let’s make sure customer experience isn’t just a fad, but instead, a lasting part of our business’ DNA.

Full disclosure: I’m the Senior Director of Strategic Consulting at MaritzCX so I’d be happy to help you realize the business outcomes you’re seeking. If you want to do it yourself, that’s cool too. At the end of the day, we’re all customers and I want our experiences to be awesome – regardless of who made them that way.

Photo credits:
6 sigma: http://www.ijgolding.com/2013/09/16/shhhhh-dont-mention-six-sigma-the-truth-behind-the-stigma/
Tail wagging dog: http://kippaxvet.com.au/Media/Blog/tabid/2295/EntryId/145/Understanding-What-Your-Dog-is-Telling-You.aspx
Confused with computer: www.stmarys-ca.edu
Question mark: http://monroevillein.com/?attachment_id=2005

14 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for your post, Brian. Customer experience has been with us since the dawn of commerce and will always be with us. Any time a customer encounters a business of any kind for the exchange of goods and services there is an experience–some interaction that creates an emotional evaluation. The point of your post is about CX–as in Customer Experience as a program.

    We all know the way of the “Program of the Month.” Without active leadership involvement (not just lip service) and a well thought out culture change initiative that is sustained to the point it is a way of life, programs are often about as welcome as a virus and the culture will fight to reject them. No serious organization wants a diversity program, they want diversity! The same with quality–do you want a culture that values quality as a way of life, or do you want a quality program?

    Most organizations would rather their customers have a good experience versus a bad or mediocre experience. The path to that important outcome is not achieved through some program with an acronym; but rather through a smart long-term culture change initiative that envelopes everyone, is grounded in relevant customer intelligence, and has leaders as both its champions and its role models.

    Harvard professor and marketing guru Ted Levitt communicated it wisely: People don’t buy a quarter-inch drill bit because they wanted to frame it and hang it on their living room walls. They want a quarter-inch hole. As long as we focus on drill bits (a.k.a., programs, tools like Six Sigma and the like) instead of holes, we will get the rise and fall of fads just as you suggest.

  2. You’re exactly right, Chip – the customer experience will happen regardless of if you have a program in place or not. The key is to have a program that actually improves that customer experience in significant ways. As you said, the cultural buy-in is so important in this regard. Without active leadership support, a common vision and systems to support CX, we find ourselves with lots of drill bits and no holes. Thanks for the response!

  3. Hi Brian

    Thanks for a very insightful article.

    I remember a heated argument at a BPR conference between an AT&T Sig Sigma Black Belt and an AT&T marketer, (who were both presenting at the conference unknown to each other), about whether marketing could have significantly improved its operations (it had) because the Six Sigma group hadn’t reached marketing yet!

    On the other hand, as a former Head of CRM at Toyota Financial Service, I can vouch for the fact that reducing waste using Toyota’s lean toolkit was a significant part of everybody’s day-to-day behaviour. My team used the toolkit to increase the response rates of some marketing campaigns from 10% to over 35%! The key difference between Toyota and AT&T was that lean was a team responsibility at Toyota, whereas Six Sigma was apparently someone else’s responsibility at AT&T.

    The lessons from BPR yesterday apply directly to CEx today. The customer experience is the sum of all the interactions a customer has with a company, its products and people. The vast majority of experiences were neither designed with customers in mind, nor with the linkage of interactions into a coherent end-to-end experience as a goal. They just evolved in an unmanaged way; and it shows. There is plenty of evidence that improving experiences improves business results too. As you suggest the heart of the matter is knowing which bits of the experience to focus on, setting SMART targets for improvements and linking these to business value drivers, whether they are financial or intangible.

    Is CEx a fad? Will it go the same way as BPR? Personally, I don’t think so. CEx is all about improving the experience for customers and the company alike. As Sam Walton used to say, ‘Customers have all the best ideas, and the have all the money!’

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  4. Hi Brian,
    I am seeing some similar trends. Here’s where I always end up – data is always late. If leaders become obsessed with moving a metric then they miss the point of collecting all that data in the first place. Reacting to the information is far more important than the .01% swing either way. The best companies proactively design their customer experiences and then monitor closely if they are exceeding customer expectations. I love your third piece of advice for this reason! There are many quick wins for organizations and their customers…but only if they’re paying attention in the moment. Long live CX!

  5. Hi Brian,

    Quality and 6 Sigma may be declining in corporate interest but they are still around because they are useful. Both help businesses create value for themselves and their customers. CX is the same. But it will be replaced by the next “shinny object”.

    The real challenge is how do leaders, managers, consultants, and academics teach or convince everyone that we must focus on outcomes. Internally, SMART goals attempt to do that but how many of us actually use them? Who is talking about improving business customer’s outcomes? Without that focus we do not stand a chance of retaining existing customers and acquiring new ones. And then, sadly, CX will become another flavor of the month and will be replaced and you will have an opportunity to reissue this post annually.

    Hope I am wrong!

  6. Graham, Jeannie and Sam,

    Thanks for the engagement! This topic seems to be near & dear to a lot of people’s hearts. It appears to come down to if a program can drive visible financial gain. If we can do that, we’ll get the employees on board (although it won’t be quite that simple) and make CX part of the business’ DNA that Graham suggests is so important.

    Visible financial gains will also keep our leaders focused in the right areas (like Jeannie said) and keep us from becoming Sam’s “next shiny object.”

    I’m optimistic, but we have to keep working at it!

    Brian

  7. Two points:

    1. It’s not only the functional, rational and tangible elements of customer touch processes that matter. It’s the emotional and subconscious elements of the experience, and the resulting memory and downstream action that requires linkage. Emotions, and the emotional subtext of functional touch points (time, cost, accuracy, completeness, etc) leverage much of customer behavior, yet little of customer experience research goes beyond monitoring the tangible performance.

    2. Recognize that, whether b2b or b2c, only a small percent of customers with negative issues or complaints actually communicate them back to the vendor/supplier. Thus, the organization may be acting on red herrings, with little opportunity to improve the customer experience. Companies will be well-served to a) identify unexpressed complaints and b) identify level of resolution (positive, neutral or negative) with expressed complaints, because these have direct, proven bearing on future customer action.

  8. Hi Sam

    You raise an interesting and important point. Namely, looking at mutual value creation for the customer and the company, rather than just value creation for the company.

    One of the reasons why CRM failed, why marketing is currently failing and why customers are increasingly going ‘dark’ on business is that there is precious little in the rather one-sided interactions that companies typically generate for them. That marketing message extolling you to ‘buy my stuff’ or that creepy retargeted ad that follows you around whispering the same in your ear are irrelevant, if not irritating, unless you really want to buy stuff like that promoted.

    CEx was supposed to change that by focusing on what customers are trying to do (their journeys) as well as what companies are trying to do (their paths to purchase). Value for both parties is only created during interactions where each helps get closer to its goals. We still need input, process and output measures, but as you suggest we now need customer outcome and business impact measures as well. As the old saying goes, ‘what gets measured gets managed, and what gets managed gets done!’

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  9. Hi Michael

    I agree with you entirely in your request that we not forget the affective side of CEx. Bernd Schmitt described it perfectly in his book ‘Experiential Marketing’ where he says that experience designers should think about the sequence of sensing – feeling – thinking – acting and relating. Too much time is spent on the thinking – acting – relating part of the sequence and not enough on the sensing – feeling part. Of course, it is much easier to focus on the tangibles rather than the intangibles, like feelings (emotions belonging to the sensing part). Fortunately, there are relatively new tools like Reversal Theory we can use to design desired feelings into experiences, as Dutch airline KLM has done to redesign parts of the airline experience around the feelings it wants customers to experience.

    I agree with your suggestion to gather more complaints too. As Barlow & Moller write in their book of the same name, ‘A Complaint is a Gift’. Complaints not only tell you which customers need recovering, they also tell you which bits of the experience don’t work for customers as well. That doesn’t mean that the broken bits of the experience should be fixed though. As few experiences are purposefully designed, let alone with customers in mind, it is often the case that the experience should be completely redeveloped from the ground up using a designerly approach involving customers.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  10. Hi Brian – excellent post and excellent question. As another former GE Lean Six Sigma MBB – I completely empathise with your perspective! In fact, you may be interested in reading the post I wrote about Six Sigma – it aligns nicely to your article – http://www.ijgolding.com/2013/09/16/shhhhh-dont-mention-six-sigma-the-truth-behind-the-stigma/

    Do I think that CX will go the same way as 6S? There is always a risk that CX will be seen in the same light, but I very much hope and believe that it is here to stay – and these are my reasons why:

    1. The fact that CX has become a profession. The launch of the CXPA and the CCXP accreditation has gone a long way to turning a ‘methodology’ into a formally recognised global profession. This is what DID NOT happen with 6 Sigma

    2. The greatest irony of CX is that it has ALWAYS existed – whether organisations were/are conscious of it or not. I am seeing increasing awareness that to drive continuous improvement in CX, it requires skills, competencies and experience – that is where people like us come in

    3. Facts and figures – whilst process improvement methodology should have sustained itself indefinitely due to it being underpinned by FACT, the way it was deployed into organisations detracted from that (as I write in my article). Through organisations like Watermark Consulting (& Forrester) and KPMG Nunwood, there is an ever grwing wave of publicly available evidence that proves the posotive effect CX is having on the financial performance of organisati ons – this is very important for sustaining CX in the future

    4. Cost elimination exhaustion and differentiation – so many businesses have focussed for so long on stripping out cost from their organisations, there is now not much more that can be done. Businesses are increasingly understanding that to drive sustainable growth, a ‘cost out’ strategy has a finite life span/. The best way to drive sustainable growth indefinitely is to either redesign the customer experience OR continuously improve the experience you have. The great news with this is that the better the experience, the less money it will cost an organisation to deliver!!

    And that is almost the punchline – to achieve number 4, process improvement methodology is having a rebirth – in fact, I would argue it never went away. What Customer Experience Professionals need to be able to do is use all the tools, methods and principles in their armoury to improve customer perception, Process improvement is a vital competency in that armoury. The difference between CX and 6 Sigma programmes of old, is that no-one needs to be blinded by what they may see as complicated project methodology.

    So in conclusion – do I think CX will survive – YES!

  11. Ian,

    I love you optimism and really enjoyed your blog post. I can’t say I start my introductions with “I’m a certified Master Black Belt” either. Too much pre-judging. I’m happy/sorry to see you had some of the same experiences I did.

    I particularly like your sentiment at the bottom of your post here. To paraphrase (and correct me if I’m wrong), process improvement – with the customer in mind and not totally self-centered – continues to be very useful and even key to improving the customers’ experience. Totally agree – thanks for your comment!

    Brian

  12. Hi Ian

    Has CEx really become a profession? Like accounting, or medicine, or law? I don’t think so. Where is the body of widely accepted knowledge that constitutes the foundations of CEx. Where are the accredited university courses teaching foundation courses in CEx? Where is the expectation that practitioners should be certified by an accredited organisation to prove that they are proficient? The fact is that CEx does not yet meet these three defining characteristics.

    With the best will in the world, the CXPA and CCXP accreditation are quite meaningless in the absence of the three defining characteristics. Anybody can get a group of practitioners together and create a sales organisation to promote their own services. They can even sell certified training to others, safe in the knowledge that they and they alone certify their own training. As the old Latin aphorism goes, ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes!’

    CEx is clearly not a profession, at least not yet. Anybody can call themselves a CEx professional without fear of contradiction. Maybe in five or ten years time things will be different. CEx practitioners have clearly got a lot of work to do before that happens.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  13. Hi Graham. Many thanks for sharing your perspective on the CX Profession. We will have to ‘agree to disagree’ on this one. Customer Experience is only now getting recognition as a profession – a vocation that requires specialist knowledge and skills to practice it competently and making a demonstrable difference. I do agree that it is still very early days for the Profession, but I am greatly encouraged by the passion, enthusiasm and expertise of thousands of Customer Experience Professionals who are helping organisations all over the world.

    The more Customer Experience Professionals there are in the world, the more likely it is that organisations will start to refocus their efforts on solely making money, to making money through being better at fulfilling their purpose for customers and employees – the better they are at doing that, the more money they will make.

    I will continue to do whatever I can to develop the profession and encourage those who believe in it to continually develop their specialism.

  14. Hi Ian

    Like you I have been involved in designing, implementing and operating customer experiences, in my case since 1999 (shortly after Pine & Gilmore wrote ‘The Experience Economy’). And like you I have been greatly impressed by the enthusiasm and expertise of many customer experience practitioners.

    But therein lies a challenge for us all.

    Currently, anybody can call themselves a Customer Experience Practitioner. They don’t need to have been trained in CEx design by an accredited institution, they don’t need to be certified by the institution, nor do they need to have any experience of hands-on CEx design. Al they need is a website and a business card. In the absence of recognised standards for CEx design, how is a company to know if the practitioners they talk to are competent, let alone good at CEx design?

    I am in an unusual position of both being involved in designing CEx and of being a buyer of CEx design services (for my large bank, telecom, automotive and airline clients). In my experience, service designers trained at D-School create far better CEx designs than those who have rebadged themselves from other consulting disciplines. I believe it is the rigorous training in the principles and practices of design that makes all the difference. For that reason, I only buy CEx design services from specialist Service Design agencies such as Nile Service Design or LiveWork (in the UK). And I am not the only one to have identified the superiority of D-School trained designers. It is not for nothing that practically all of the traditional SI consultancies have developed service design practices, often by buying an external service design agency.

    Food for thought as CEx struggles to professionalise itself.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

    Disclosure: I am a PhD Genetecist by training, not a D-School trained designer.

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