How the Customer Experience Lost Its Meaning


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Words are very important. Used well, they provide people with a crystal-clear meaning that everyone understands. But used badly, they just serve to confuse people. Sadly, ‘modern management speak’ is full of wooly, imprecise, confusing words that mean one thing to one person and something entirely different to another.

I don’t mean words (or acronyms) like CRM, even though it obviously falls squarely in this category, (as a brief look at the Wikipedia description of CRM shows). What I mean are the words that have crept into modern management speak and have taken on a life of their own. Sometimes spawning cottage industries to provide services in them.

The worst culprits are words like:

  • Experience – e.g. Customer Experience, As John Todor and others have written about recently, experience is a much used but not well understood word. For companies it generally means the collection of touchpoints they have with customers. For customers it means the end-to-end consumption process. Even the arrival of insights from the neurosciences hasn’t helped much; people routinely confuse feelings with emotions (despite them being two different things).
  • Optimise – e.g. Marketing Optimisation. This is one of those words that seems to promise so much but which rarely if ever actually get done. Wouldn’t it be great if we could optimise our marketing spend? But that’s not what we do. Instead, we just juggle about with marketing expenditures without much understanding of campaign cause & effect, of marketing trade-offs and of customer buying behaviour. But optimisation sounds so, well, so optimum!
  • Value – e.g Customer Value. This is another word that has been hijacked in an unbalanced way. In its truest sense, value is a measure of the relative worth of something. Customer value for most companies means the value of a customer to them. Usually in monetary terms. But for the customer, value is what the product they have bought enables them to do. They both need balancing together when deciding what to do. But it just doesn’t happen.
  • Needs – e.g. Customer Needs. This is a word that has crept into our vocabulary from market research. The trouble is that nobody really knows what a customer need is, let alone explain it to a confused customer. It is almost a meaningless word. It is one word that I have stopped using completely, in favour of the infinitely more useful customer jobs (what are customers trying to do) and customer outcomes (what are they trying to achieve by doing them).
  • Segment – e.g. Customer Segment. This word shouldn’t be all that difficult. After all, a segment is just a group of customers with similar behaviour that is different from the behaviour of other customers. The implication is that different parts of a business require different types of segmentation. Marketing requires one for deciding where to spend money on customer acquisition, but it is likely to be different from the one used by customer service to decide who gets what level of service quality. But too many companies just develop one simple segmentation model for general purposes, that ends up not being useful for any particular activity.

I try to be specific when using these words, or in the worst cases, to avoid using them at all. Sometimes it can be a real challenge. The problem isn’t the words per se, but sloppy managers who either don’t really know what the words mean or simply chose to misuse them.

What words are YOUR personal bugbears?

Leave a comment or eail me at graham(dot)hill(at)web(dot)de.

Graham Hill
Independent CRM Consultant
Interim CRM Manager

Graham Hill (Dr G)
Business Troubleshooter | Questioning | Thoughtful | Industrious | Opinions my own | Connect with me on LinkedIn


  1. I was teaching an MBA-class one fine evening, when I asked a mature (35 y.o.) student the following question: “What do you mean by customer-centric?” She looked at me blankly and asked ” What do you mean by what do you mean?”. I was tempted to ask in turn, “What do you mean by what do you mean by what do you mean?” but that would have been plain silly.

    What we have, and need, in the evolving discipline of marketing is an ever-changing vocabulary. New terms, new concepts, new jargon. Over time, the meaning of new terms is negotiated in inter-personal communication. Jargon becomes the language of interaction between insiders. Novices have to be socialized.

    Keith Crosier published an excellent article in the early 1970’s, “What exactly is marketing?” He collected together definitions of marketing suggested by many luminaries. He did a content analysis and classified them into clusters. Clustering proved that even the experts couldn’t agree. Michael Harker has done the same thing with ‘relationship marketing’. I was tempted to do it with ‘customer relationship management’, but life is too short.

    I’m just so pleased I’m not as accountant, where every term is carefully defined, and every chartered member of that club knows exactly what each term means. Boring.

    Francis Buttle, PhD
    The Customer Champion

  2. Hi Francis

    Thanks for your funny post. It made my laugh, especially the attempt at semantic reductio ad adsurdum by your student. It has all the makings of a Monty Python sketch.

    I agree with the thrust of your comment. Language is continuously changing to match the context in which it is used. As it should. We just have to be careful that we don’t loose the inherent meaning of the words in the process. Or that we introduce jargon for jargon’s sake.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  3. Graham

    I should have commented earlier… Interesting blog indeed!

    English is not my first language, so I need to spend more time trying to figure out what each word really means.

    After reading your blog, I think I ain’t the only person who needs to do translation, but ironically also for those whose first language is English too.

    I guess it’s not the words that matter, but how we want to define for ourselves.

    Your blog reminds me of the Tower of Babel.

    When will we have one common language again?

    Daryl Choy
    Make Little Things Count


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