3 Surprising Facts About Customer Experience


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Customer experience has taken the world by storm. And with it, hundreds of consultants and researchers have flooded the market with books, interviews, training programs, and various methodologies.

The problem? This noisy, cluttered space has led to confusing, conflicting, and fragmented customer experience initiatives, even within the same organization. Despite their best efforts and intentions, leaders and teams end up missing three crucial—and surprising—facts about customer experience.

1. Customer experience is both far bigger—and much smaller—than many realize.

Customer experience is more than your products or services. It’s more than customer service. It’s more than your technology platform. It’s all-encompassing. It’s big.

But it’s also the last, small interaction a customer had. Even with all of your effort—all of your processes and tireless work on products—just one interaction can leave customers with an indelible impression of your organization.

For example, I once found a human hair in a roasted chicken dish from what had been a favorite, frequented restaurant. Three decades later, I’ve never returned. In fact, every time I see a commercial for the restaurant, that experience comes to mind. Jan Carlzon, a former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines and author of Moments of Truth, used to remind employees that customers will make inferences on the quality of maintenance based on the cleanliness of fold-down trays. Is there a coffee stain from the last flight? Passengers will think, “Geez, I hope they’re giving better attention to the engines.”

The bottom line: any one thing (and any one person) can make or break your customers’ experience.

2. Customer experience is often worse than leaders know.

While there are always exceptions, far too many leaders hold a skewed—and overly positive—view of customer experience. But why?

One reason is that unhappy consumers may not complain to your organization. Yes, they may tell their friends and neighbors about a bad experience or fire off a scathing comment on social media. But they may feel it will do little good to complain to the organization itself. Or they might expect doing so will be inconvenient, so they don’t even try.

Research by Customer Care Measurement and Consulting reveals that many companies are aware of only a small percentage (often just 1% to 5%) of customers who encounter problems, much like the visible tip of an iceberg. So, for every 10 complaints, there are anywhere from 200 to 1,000 customers you don’t hear from.

Why does this matter? Customer loyalty drops by as much as 20% when problems aren’t brought to an organization’s attention, so those 10 complaints could represent a loss of anywhere from 40 to 200 customers. That’s not chump change.

Another problem is surveys, which are a mixed bag across the business landscape. Some surveys work well, like the quick and easy feedback you give a driver when hopping out of an Uber or Lyft. But many surveys aren’t producing the objective input leaders need.

One obvious challenge is that we’re all over-surveyed. Even if your organization is sensible, your customers are getting a jillion surveys from other well-meaning businesses. Customers are exhausted. So, unless they’re especially delighted or very upset, they simply ignore many surveys.

Survey begging is another problem. Case in point: each time I have a car serviced, the advisor makes it clear that their performance review is on the line. It works—I hesitate to share constructive feedback on other aspects of the experience, not wanting it to reflect on that person. Other times, the survey questions are way off. I recently endured a cumbersome process to fix an error with a credit monitoring service I’ve used for years. After many attempts and steps, I finally reached someone who could help, and she was superb. Yet the survey question I received following the interaction was: “Would you hire this person?” Yes! But the process to reach her…my goodness! Where’s that reflected in the survey?

Even with usable data, some organizations aren’t making use of the input they have. One problem is that businesses tend to overgeneralize customer satisfaction scores. Your customer satisfaction might be reported as 92%, but lumping “somewhat satisfied” and “very satisfied” responses into the same bucket obscures problems.

Suffice it to say, you may not have the full picture of your customers’ experiences.

3. The returns on improving customer experience are better than many leaders realize.

Now, here’s some great news: improvements to customer experience do wonders! And they surpass what many leaders realize.

A part of what I’m talking about is the marketing benefit you get from customers who sing your praises. That can save a boatload of money in otherwise trying to reach prospects.

But there’s more to it than that. Lasting improvements to customer experience require you to improve underlying processes, technologies, and services. For instance, your customer support center might flag issues that push you to revamp your training and reference resources for customers, which end up reducing unnecessary service contacts, slashing costs, and ultimately improving your products. Customer experience can deliver big returns.

Customer experience models can be mind-bogglingly complex, but it shouldn’t be that way. In fact, it mustn’t be that way. Customer experience is a team sport, and (ideally) every person, team, and department should understand the role they play. Making lasting improvements involves hard work, but by returning to these basic facts, you can start to chart a clear course.

Brad Cleveland
BRAD CLEVELAND is one of the world’s foremost experts in customer strategy and management. Based in Sun Valley, Idaho, he has worked across 45 states and in over 60 countries for clients as diverse as American Express, Apple, USAA, the University of California, and the federal governments of Australia, Canada, and the U.S. The founding partner and former CEO of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), Cleveland is now a sought-after speaker and consultant. His new book is Leading the Customer Experience: How to Chart a Course and Deliver Outstanding Results (Kogan Page; May 25,


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