CEOs: This Is Not the Time to Forego Strategic Customer Experience Leadership

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The Egregious State of Customer Experience

It’s no surprise that customer experience is nearing a 17-year low, recently validated by the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI, September, 2022). But inflation, difficult international economics and the generally high sense of frustration that the world is not as it was pre-pandemic are not the only reasons. 

Source: ACSI (https://www.theacsi.org/)

The rush to capitalize on consumer openness for digitization and self-service, to create self-service modes of operation for processes previously manned, has led to lower operational costs for companies but not higher satisfaction for customers. Experiences designed in a rush to merely convert the physical to digital often leave out the most important problems to be solved from the consumer or customer’s perspective. This has led to a vacuum of purposefully designed and curated experiences. This is precisely why companies need to prioritize strategic customer experience right now, versus believing this is an expendable function when the numbers don’t look good.

Consider this example: have you attempted to order a meal at a self-service kiosk, only to be so confounded by the experience that you give up? (Think lack of signage, nowhere to queue, no help from the staff you do see, a mismatch of menu items.) Or have you tried one of the convenience store formats that allow you choose your items and “just walk out,” never interacting with a person? Both of these formats became more common after the pandemic, but the execution by some companies lacked an end-to-end design that accounted for customer needs, wants and emotions. (Please note: I am not saying self-service is a bad thing. I often advocate for solutions that allow me to control my own time and experience, if well designed.)

Starting in the fall of 2022, hundreds of customer experience professionals were considered non-essential and forced out of their positions. Why is that, when it appears that they are needed more than ever?

Confusion Reigns In Defining Customer Experience

One must first start with the common definition of customer experience. I challenge you to find one with which everyone agrees. While product management, for example, has a relatively discrete definition, companies have found customer experience to be a convenient label for many things directly related in any way to customers: customer service and support, account management and growth, UX design, strategy, marketing or product management. 

Customer Experience, especially post-pandemic, has become the latest catch-all label for anything that involves direct contact with a customer, but it no longer seems to be primarily about the classic definition. Customer Experience is the function of gathering customer insights and data, analyzing that data, reaching conclusions and recommending opportunities for improvement of current experiences or the creation of new ones. Action on those recommendations, carrying the thread of the customer experience vision through implementation is the final critical piece. The downside of calling everything “customer experience” is that too many functions that stand alone on their own merit have been cobbled together and assumed to be the same. After nearly 30 years as a discrete, stand-alone profession, many companies are combining functions that when standing alone can provide a higher degree of excellence. 

When the Customer Experience Professionals Association was formed in 2011 to support the advancement of those in this profession, and later developed an international standard by which to certify experience CX pros, CX was on a growth curve. When B2B discovered CX, later to the party than B2C, more opportunity was born. I have been a customer experience professional for 20+ years, leading CX in very large, large, mid-sized and small companies. This consolidation of all customer-facing roles is new. It makes sense under a Chief Customer Officer who is the ultimate advocate for the customer, but subsuming CX into other functions doesn’t work. Product can easily over-ride the customer’s needs to meet internal IT requirements, or customer success can prioritize goals of the business over the customer. A separate customer experience team provides that vital backstop for customer interests, though that does not need to conflict with over-arching business objectives. It should in fact support ultimate business outcomes.

Customer Experience in 2023

I’ve formed and led five corporate CX functions to date. But starting a CX function is the easy part, and fairly tactical. The hard part is moving or keeping the focus of CX at the strategic level, helping the c-suite to see that CX should not be confined to delivering surveys and throwing reports over the wall for implementation. Despite relentless probing into the vision company leaders have for customer experience, in practice many are not prepared to bring the customer in to early strategic planning efforts, nor to fund customer improvements, and this leads to a dumbing down of the function.

Thankfully, there are exceptions. Some companies have used end-to-end customer experience for years to great result, and if they have elevated customer experience to a strategic function, they are quite mature in their approach. It would be easy to point out Southwest Airlines’ 2022 holiday failures, after years of accolades for its superior customer experience, but they have the CX infrastructure to recover. Meanwhile Delta has been busy tackling major customer issues and training their teams for years based upon human-centered experience. They currently rank as the number one US airline in customer experience.

The fall of customer experience leaders from the c-suite continues as CMOs and CROs feel they “own” the customer, but that creates a need for a highly placed leader who is involved in all customer-impacting decisions, one who can be a neutral and objective advocate who encourages companies to be accountable when they claim to be customer-centric.

If 2021-2022 were the years poor experiences needed to recover from COVID, 2023 is not the year to abandon CX in fear of a recession that hasn’t been fully manifested. 2023 could be the year to become really clear on the top two benefits of strengthening the CX function: 

  • Strategic planning that truly captures customers’ needs, wants and emotions, prior to marrying those with business goals and objectives; and
  • Customer-oriented execution of all new products or service changes, to achieve the positive outcomes and business results intended.

CEOs take note: now is the time to invest in this strategic capability, more than ever before. By the time the function is well-embedded, you’ll be ahead of many of your competitors who’ve put it to the side.

Footnotes:

“Customer satisfaction is nearing its lowest point ever, a new study suggests,” Consumer Affairs, Gary Guthrie, 9/16/2022

U.S. Airlines With the Best & Worst Customer Service , March 3, 2023, upgradedpoints.com

Shelly Chandler
SMC Group
Shelly Chandler, CCXP, has been a customer experience professional and leader for more than 20 years, creating and leading teams in corporate roles for very large B2C companies like Wells Fargo and PNC Bank, and large B2B companies like American Tire Distributors and Delaware North. Shelly has also been a CX advisor for more than 10 years, working with Walmart, Moen, Penske and other large and small corporations and CX platforms, across multiple verticals.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The ACSI findings are reinforced by CCMC’s National Rage Study reported in the last few weeks by both the Wall Street Journal ( WSJ Customer Problems Hit Record https://bit.ly/3mDTqDl) and the CBS Evening News https://cbsn.ws/40WGdVB . Long introduction messages and hard access to humans are two things that result in customers ultimately yelling at CSRs who are not at fault. Executives won’t invest in the front end and more humans until CX has quantified the revenue and Word of Mouth implications in a manner CFOs and CMOs understand. See this article on how to by a quantify the cost of inaction on CX by appealing to greed. Appeal to greed – https://bit.ly/3IGPpGS

  2. Thanks for reading, John. I haven’t seen the Customer Rage study in a few years. I appreciate the links!

  3. Right on, Shelly. I agree with every point you make. In tough times, people get myopic: they focus on what’s on their own plate without peripheral vision. (more silos!) This is underscored when mature CX managers move on to other things and a flood of less experienced managers take on CX roles. Business savvy, holistic mindset, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, strategic creativity, and organizational influence are vital CX competencies.

    Sensible vision for CX has gone out the window in far too many cases. Nowadays it’s a constant hamster wheel of surveys that do little to shape strategy, differentiation, and strategic growth (spanning cost containment to entering new markets). It’s data overload with a business as usual attitude. It’s quick wins and micro experience design. It’s CX tech business models declaring playbooks without regard to what CX, XM, and CCO purposes really are. For me, it’s heartbreaking. I’d like to underscore your message, Shelly, with these points:

    1) Clear Priority:
    As collectors of customer insights, CX managers are your window to how to manage your business smarter than your industry. (and every industry sucks, as can be seen in the Forrester CX Index and ASCI and studies cited by John Goodman, above) Differentiation!

    As customers are the hand that feeds investors and salaries/etc, there’s really nothing in an organization with more gravitas.

    2) Clear Roles:
    (a) CX is what customers experience (like gravity it has always existed). It’s a good experience when what’s received matches or exceeds expectations. (same goes for employee experience (EX) and partner experience (PX)).
    (b) XM is experience management: what you are doing to maximize lifetime value (of customers, employees, and partners).
    (c) VP-CX / CCO / Chief Experience Officer purpose is brand integrity: closing the gap between what’s received vs. what’s promised (what’s expected by the customer (CX), employee (EX), or partner (PX)).

    3) Moving Target:
    As you point out, Shelly, the brand integrity gap is widening, as shown in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, and in the studies cited by John Goodman. At the same time, profits are actually climbing for the same brands in ACSI. Hence, the outrage. Automatic experience excellence is NOT automation. Like you say in this article, digital efficiency and effectiveness are great, as long as they’re truly efficient and effective for CX, EX, and PX.

    In fact, every study by major consultancies points out CULTURAL success factors at the heart of every digitalization effort. And shifting forces on customers means the brand integrity gap is a moving target for every organization.

    Staying on top of expectation trends, adjusting companywide mindset accordingly, and closing the gaps are not tactical or automatable. It’s not trivial. It’s strategic. You really need mature, multi-faceted talent in CX roles.

  4. Lynn, thanks so much for adding these thoughts. Our best audience may not read these articles, however, and that is a huge challenge. They do listen to consulting firms, but there’s a heavy focus on digital/technology to solve problems with consultancies, and they often leave before the real cultural change can be embedded (through no fault of their own).

  5. True, Shelly. Thus, experience management professionals should share such resources as this with their networks and leadership teams to proliferate truths and squelch hype/misinformation. This is a gift, everyone — use it to re-shape views, by sharing it.

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