Customer Experience the ‘Elephant in the Boardroom”….and how to eat it!


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The ‘elephant in the room’ is a highly-visual representation of something that exists but we try to ignore. Picture yourself in your office or study and the elephant squished into the room, too. As much as we pretend it isn’t there, the big, grey thing is an issue… and a sizeable one at that.

Why do these elephants exist? Why do we ignore something that seems to be important?

Our business might be doing OK anyway: “The results are fine, so show me how doing something in this area will add value?” It might appear that addressing the issue will only rock the boat.

The image, of course, is part of the answer. The elephant is so big, so overwhelming that you don’t know where to start. We lack the confidence to deal with it, so we ignore it and hope it goes away, because we are scared to take responsibility. If you do then before you know it, the elephant has morphed into a monkey and is now firmly attached to your back.

So, do these animal metaphors apply to Customer Experience? The answer is a resounding yes; from the basic organisational challenge of “If we do this, who is responsible? Where does it appear in the organisational chart?” to “How do we account for this? Is there a line in the annual business plan to do so?”

Why, then, have companies consistently failed to address what is, or certainly should be, an increasingly important part of core strategy?

Customer Experience has to start from the top in order to unleash the enthusiasm inside the company it is essential that there is confidence at the C level. Yet, corporate life has not prepared us to engage with Customer Experience in an ordered, structured and logical way. For instance, how many training programmes have Customer Experience as a key component?

What we do know is that when we are unsure, we rarely make the best decisions – and can even shy away from making any real decision.

How many senior players can say with confidence when they appoint the new Head of Customer Experience or Chief Customer Officer: “I know what they need to achieve in their first 100 days”, or: “I know what success will look like and I know what we as a team will do to ensure that the new appointee is successful”?

I have asked those questions of a few CEOs recently and been on the end of some long and embarrassing silences, along with admissions that they have made appointments that have not worked.

The landscape is changing, however. Firstly, the discipline has improved. Previously, I would argue that Customer Experience was its own worst enemy; stuck somewhere between brand marketing and communication and the operational delivery, thereby lacking the financial credentials to muscle into strategic discussions. That made it an easy target for the simple challenge: “Why should I bother investing in this? Go away and come back when you can show me the return”.

But the growing and almost overwhelming body of evidence – both qualitative and quantitative – shows that commercial advantage from focus on CE as part of company strategy is ‘turning heads, hearts and minds’.

Now that we have the attention of the boardroom, what is required is a new way to approach Customer Experience.

It is important to acknowledge that Customer Experiience is not a silver bullet, that it is being introduced into businesses with a long heritage and where the culture is not attuned to it.

Talk of customer transformation or customer centricity is far from helpful, while great buzz phrases they conjure up subconscious images of eye-watering investments and long-term disruption and these are considered neither deliverable nor desirable from company or customer perspective. Just look at what the whole CRM IT-driven agenda of the 1990s created: the wrong focus, huge spend and a legacy that the world of Customer Experience has struggled to recover from.

In ‘The Customer Experience Book’ I argue that what most companies actually want to do is to dial up the customer experience as part of their strategy to the right level in their company in order to close the gap between brand-led customer expectations and typically operationally-led customer reality. The result is one of the biggest of company failings; one that drives customer dissatisfaction and impacts adversely on business results.

They neither want to, need to, nor could possibly ‘transform’ their business to be dominated by the customer agenda. This view has the customer-centrist thinkers up in arms at the suggestion that customer centricity is not the end game. However, they tend to live in a Utopian world where the basic rules of business are suspended.

I advocate more focus on the customer but not the purist definition of customer centricity, except under certain circumstances: usually start-ups with no legacy to manage!

How to achieve that requires companies to think differently about how they approach their response to this growing business challenge.

They need to create some basic business assets that show an understanding of their customer needs and that translate the brand expectation into challenges that the company can hold itself to account against. Making an overt connection between the customer experience reality and the brand led expectation.

So they need to reverse the current thinking and have the customer experience as a key driver of the brand advertising and communications.

They need to consider how the current culture will respond and how it can be evolved to embrace the customer part of the company approach.

They need to think about how key customer outcomes are measured and how measures inside the business can be made relevant across all departments – and, yes, that includes legal, compliance, technology and finance.

They need to consider how trust is going to become another key differentiator for customers in the future.

They need to think about how to evolve the organisational design to take account of the new reality.

Lastly, they need to educate teams on how to think differently and think about creating business solutions that have a strong customer component running through them to instill confidence in engaging with the customer.

Elephant? What elephant?

Alan Pennington
Currently Chairman of Acme Group the first company to combine customer experience design and award winning creative and advertising company and Non Executive Director of SuiteCX the leading CX software company, he was prior to its sale Managing Director and co-founder of Mulberry Consulting the Number One CE business globally and Executive Chair of 'Experience by Design' a South African based venture.


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