CX Journey™ Musings: Are We Dumbing Down the Customer Experience?


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Does “imitate the competition” describe your approach to customer experience design? 

Are you more focused on what your competitors are doing than on your own business, customers, and customer experience strategy?

I feel like some companies are dumbing down their customers and the customer experience.

Why do I call it “dumbing down?” Let’s define it first, in case you’re not familiar with the phrase. According to Merriam-Webster, dumbing down is: to lower the level of difficulty and the intellectual content of. 

Every time I pick up a book about customer experience, I’m shocked (sarcasm) to see yet another one cite Apple, Zappos, Ritz-Carlton, or Nordstrom as the poster children for a great customer experience. Don’t get me wrong, they are (the poster children).

But do companies rely too much on those examples to simply lower the level of difficulty in execution for themselves – so that they don’t have to think about how to develop something unique and specific to their own brand?

Think about the word “brand” for a second. It’s not just a unique mark on an animal (sorry, the farm girl in me surfaced for a minute), it’s a company’s unique mark, too. Heidi Cohen provides some great definitions of “brand” on her site.

But I digress.

When companies “dumb down” their customer experience to be (or try to be) like someone else’s, it’s unoriginal. As if customers want and expect the same thing from every company with which they interact.

So if companies all think that they have to be like Apple or Ritz-Carlton or Zappos or Nordstrom, does that mean they can’t think for themselves? Does that mean that companies can’t be themselves? Does that mean your company has to be like them? And what if your customers don’t want you to be like them? What if your customers have different needs or want a different experience with you? Because you’re you?

I feel like companies are just being lazy if they think they can just do what others are doing and call it their customer experience.

Note that I use those companies as examples, too. But to inspire, not to copy. Let those examples help you raise your own bar, but you can’t imitate.

From Forrester, we know that customer experience quality is based on:

  • Effectiveness: customers get value from the experience
  • Ease: customers get value without difficulty
  • Emotion: customers feel good about the experience

Bain tells us that the five disciplines in which customer experience leaders excel:

  1. Compelling vision linked to brand promise: What do we want to stand for in the eyes of our customers?
  2. Must-win battles defined from the outside: Which handful of actions will generate the most impact with our target customers?
  3. NPS/customer feedback for continuous improvement: How can we use customer feedback to promote learning and behavior change among employees?
  4. Customer experience redesign: When we put ourselves in the customer’s shoes, what aspects of the experience need to change?
  5. How can we anticipate and mitigate the risks, in order to sustain the changes?

And there are other firms out there who recommend their own set of attributes to describe customer experience leaders. I’ve written that I believe a customer experience ought to be built on trust and be personal, memorable, remarkable, emotional, and consistent.

You cannot be remarkable by following someone else who’s remarkable. -Seth Godin

These are just attributes to follow, to use as design guidelines, not exact experiences to mimic.

Not everyone can be a Zappos or an Apple or a Nordstrom or a Ritz Carlton. And perhaps that’s not what customers expect. These companies are inspirational and aspirational, but you need to figure out what your customers want and need and expect.

Listen to your customers. Understand who they are and what they are trying to achieve. Then go forth and design an experience that is relevant to them. Not to someone else’s business or to someone else’s customers.

If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance. -Orville Wright

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Annette Franz
Annette Franz is founder and Chief Experience Officer of CX Journey Inc. She is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, consultant, and speaker. She has 25+ years of experience in helping companies understand their employees and customers in order to identify what makes for a great experience and what drives retention, satisfaction, and engagement. She's sharing this knowledge and experience in her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the "Customer" in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business).


  1. I agreed with everything you said up until “Then go forth and design an experience that is relevant to them.” This is why companies ‘mimic’ the experience of others – because they believe the vendor owns the experience.

    That is false. The customer owns the experience. The vendor is responsible to understand that experience through the eyes of the customer and align their people, process and technology to deliver the sought after value at the right time through the right channels.

    There is no quick fix, magic bullet, instant answer on customer experience. Customer experience is unique to each customer segment, it’s up to vendors to make it valuable, differentiated and trusted.

  2. A wonderful post, Annette. And good advice, Christine. I’m wondering whether the right-sizing in corporations has put too much on execs’ and employees’ plates to allow sufficient time and energy to step back more often and be truly strategic. I’m also wondering whether ambitious marketing by CX technology providers may be obscuring more strategic thinking. There are examples of companies that have transformed themselves through outside-in thinking and doing, and innovative CXM techniques, beyond technologies and fads, that could make CX careers more rewarding, and most importantly, make substantial changes that customers will organically reward for ongoing growth.

  3. Annette, great thoughts
    But Ritz Carlton is different from Zappos, and different from Nordstrom and in their CX design and delivery. The message is you can be different and you can’t copy, but you can learn
    I do not believe NPS is the right measure because it only tells you about detractors and promoters,,, (Even people like Tim Keiningham have proved NPS to be a poor measure) You need much more and that is measure the value the 3 E’s are contributing.
    I like your article, and would say many things in designing good CX is common sense, and if we can get employees to be self directed through customer centric circles, this attitude will come. It has been proved in many companies where even the so called problem employees (cannot change, difficult people) became the best customer supporters. We spend to much time and energy on process re-design instead of focusing on our people and the experience we want to give and to which segment

  4. Thanks for your post. I am finding the most original thinking service providing organizations are the small entrepreneurs that recognize the path to greatness is not complex, but it is clearly not always easy to maintain!

    Corley Plumbing sends an email to customers when the service tech is en route (along with the photo, background and experience) of the tech on the way and the dispatcher triaging the exchange. Oconee Cellars got customers to taste test a new adult beverage and help design the label; they have sold out three barrels so far of the customized bourbon. Unique Fragrances lets customers design their own perfume online, including the bottle and the label…all in six clicks. Sewell Lexus programs customers’ radio stations from their trade-in’s and then just lets them discover surprising gesture. The examples are endless. And, maybe the best exemplars are not in Seattle or Orlando…perhaps they are just down the street!

  5. Thanks for all of your great comments.

    Christine, I think we’re on the same page. Designing an experience that is relevant to your customers is predicated on understanding customers, what they are trying to do, listening to them, and acting on what you hear. Without knowing who your customer is and what he is trying to achieve, you cannot design a relevant experience.

    Thanks, Lynn, for your insights.

    Gautam, exactly. Those companies can inspire us, but inspiration should not mean imitation.

    Chip, great point… and great examples. There’s a local moving company that does what Corley does. I love that concept. I agree with your point about small biz – they often beat the Goliath in their industry because they can pivot on a dime, offer a fresh experience, etc.

  6. Hi Annette – as someone who spends many hours with leaders of organisations across a wide array of industries in many different parts of the world, I can strongly endorse your comments and observations. If I had £5 or $5 for every time one of these leaders said that they wanted their organisation to ‘be like Apple’, I would not be a wealthy man, but I would have some pocket money to get me to the next CXPA Members Insight Exchange!

    I once showed a high level customer journey map to the board of directors of a B2B organisation. The CEO said that the journey was ‘not very sexy’ – I cannot tell you what business they are in, but ‘sexy’ certainly would never come to mind when thinking about it!!

    I my experience, organisations need to have the courage and faith to clearly define and believe in THEIR purpose. Once they have done this, they can then set about connecting that PURPOSE to both their Customer AND Employee experiences. It is not about being ‘sexy’ – it is abut being true to your chosen purpose. Sadly, not many are good at doing this very well.

  7. “The problem with following the herd is stepping in what it leaves behind.” – Annette: thanks for providing this excellent article. Your picture of the flock of sheep is certainly apropos.

    Like many people, I seek stories about both customer successes and epic failures. For me, it’s just as much to learn a new way of thinking as it is to learn the nuts and bolts of an effective program or process. Or, one that’s untested – just novel or interesting. One thing I have learned in business: there is very, very little that companies do that is purely original. Almost everything I see was built on, based on, borrowed from, co-opted, copied, stolen, or outright plagiarized from something that someone else created.

    Nordstrom has a reputation for high-touch customer service that is widely known and well documented. If a plumbing services company, professional photographer, or any other firm chooses to emulate Nordstrom’s approach with or without modification, good for them. I don’t think that using an approach that another company has successfully pioneered translates to a competitive liability.

    My background is in IT, where we have a mantra that when something works, copy it. There’s no shame in that. If IT entrepreneurs had any scruples, I might still be using a typewriter, along with everyone else.

    The durability and success of any tactic in the customer experience context depends on a company’s culture, and how management thinks about delivering value to its customers. Sure, I can attempt to copy something that Zappos does, but it won’t amount to success if that tactic isn’t buttressed with tons of other equally important steps, procedures, processes, and policies.

    As the saying goes, if it was easy, then everyone could do it.

  8. When you mentioned “be like Apple” I recalled an excellent article by a friend of mine, Janice Cuban, about JC Penney’s mis-steps in doing just that:

    A favorite book of mine about wise and unwise ideas is What Were They Thinking? Marketing Lessons I’ve Learned From Over 80,000 New Product Innovations & Idiocies, by Robert M. McMath & Thom Forbes.

    These ideas have been instrumental in my blog posts since 2010, and in my ehandbook, Innovating Superior Customer Experience.

  9. Ian, I like your last point about feeling strongly enough about defining and delivering on their own purpose. Well said.

    Andrew, love that quote about stepping in it. And I agree about your point about a company’s culture.

    Lynn, thanks for sharing the related reading materials.

    Annette 🙂


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