‘Real’ Customer Experience


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Customer experience has been with us for more than 20 years. Yet it is only recently that the term has exploded into business consciousness. Now it seems like there is a ‘customer experience conference’ being held every week in some part of the world.

But what does the term mean? What is ‘Real’ CX?

While this may seem like a theoretical question, I believe this is in fact the most practical question of all. After all, as a business leader, if you don’t know what you’re talking about how can you know what to do? As one Indian Operator said to me, we are interested in CX because ‘we want our customers to love our brand’; and then proceeded to ask questions about opex reduction. I question their understanding of CX.

CX Ontology

One of the best starting points for understanding customer experience is to look back in time, and here we find that customer experience has shifted in meaning on more than one occasion.

Looking at Google Scholar we find articles from the 1980s where the term meant ‘experience’ as in how customers learn about you through time. Then from the mid to late 1990s we find the term being applied in several distinct ways. McGrath and McMillan (1997) use it to mean ‘the experience of it all’, how the customer receives information through time about the brand.

If you like experience as in ‘how I experience things’.

Then in 1998 Pine and Gilmour came in with the Experience Economy, as in ‘that was an experience’, personal and memorable.

Since then there have been various formulations, which essentially focus on the last two approaches. Hence, we find experience meaning ‘the sum of all touchpoints’ or ‘creating an emotion, a delight’. Both bastardised representations of what McGrath, McMillan, Pine and Gilmore actually meant: sacrificing original meaning on the alter of ‘what gets measured gets managed’ perhaps.

Implicitly and probably inevitably we also find companies talking about customer experience without the customer, since ‘experience means everything’. This last one has unfortunate connotations with how CRM progressed, redefining relationship into measurable and hence constrained terms around upsell and cross-sell which had little to do with relationship.

And this is where we find ourselves today. In a mess. Companies talk about customer experience but they don’t really mean it or have been sold a pup by vendors eager to ‘measure hygiene’; the customer be damned.

Of course, companies are beginning to realise this, hence the increased interest in emotion; although this is a red herring as I am fond of pointing out, since its not the emotion that matters but what that emotion means.

Which brings me back to my original question. Cut the waffle: what is customer experience, really?

Well, why don’t you ask the customer?

After all customer experience is ‘the experience the customer has’. What they think, feel and do.

How information is received by them, registered and hence ‘experienced by them’.

Does that help? Maybe but more likely than not just leaves us confused as to how we can control, manage and drive CX for profit. Especially when things are so contextual.

But there you see, now you’re asking a different question: not ‘what is customer experience’ but ‘where is the return on the experience the customer has’?

Is it by fixing problems? Service quality is after all most certainly ‘an experience’ as my recent home moving ‘experience’ testifies.

Is it by looking for differentiated services to sell through the ‘customer journey’? Reimagining what business you’re in, such as how Rolls Royce moved from selling engines to power by the hour. Maybe but being meaningfully different to the customer, is not a panacea for every occasion and can degrade experience when done poorly: especially when you receive a constant stream of spam emails trying to sell you things or services you used to receive such as Pay as You Go no longer become CX’s you want when the vendors act in cartel to make it near impossible to avoid paying £10 per month for fear of getting cut off.

Is it by focusing on the Experience Economy? So like LUSH, Starbucks and Apple you use the goods and services as the platform for something else, ‘the experience of it all’, brand love, the value of time well spent as you immerse in ‘the experience’. Possibly, but depends what the conditions of your industry are. Although, I pitch that this definition when seen in relation to digital experiences creating immersion and absorption opportunities is more important than often realised. We certainly have Pine and Gilmore to thank for that.

Is it by how you communicate with the customer? The latest incarnation, where we talk about building loyalty through longitudinal engagement. Once again, if I offer it and you don’t the ROI is simple: survival. Never mind breaking the business model.

For me, it is clear, CX is all of these things. That is the Art (not just science) of business. That is also the beauty of holding firm to a definition of customer experience as simply ‘the experience the customer has’. It focuses the mind on the necessary questions the firm has to ask itself. Such as, do we understand the customer in context, how is the customer changing ‘their definition’, how are we responding, where is the return?

Which brings us back ironically to the 1980s. To understand the experience the customer has, we also have to understand how customer’s build up their knowledge of you through time and how they change their impression of you. Which leads them to behave in certain ways.

Of course that all assumes you accept the red-line that there is a customer there – and that we are talking customer experience management not experience management

Steven Walden
Steven Walden is Director of Customer Experience at leading CX firm TeleTech Consulting (which includes Peppers and Rogers, iKnowtion and RogenSi). Steven is instrumental in efforts to develop the CX practice promoting thought leadership and CX community engagement and IP development. Prior to TeleTech he was Director of CX at Ericsson, developing their Experience Management Centre and also Head of Research specialising in emotion and journey mapping agency side.


  1. I’d argue that the meaning, even the emotional underpinning, of customer experience predates theorists like Pine and Gilmore. In books like Out of the Crisis (1982) and, later, The New Economics, TQ guru W. Edwards Deming made statements like “Our customers should take joy in our products and services.” Joy? Joy us an emotion, core to the experience of products and services, and essential to building desired memory and downstream customer behavior.

  2. Lovely post Steven and one that I very much align to. The greatest irony in Customer Experience finally getting recognition as a profession (by some… not all), is that organisations have been delivering an Experience from the minute they were created – hence CX should actually be the oldest profession of them all!!

  3. Good thinking, Steven
    The problem is the experience is not everything. If I buy a Rolls Royce, the car maybe an experience, but I do not want to have the experience of sending it in for repair….so the fewer times there is a breakdown is a better experience than good experiences during breakdown (I should have replaced Rolls Royce with my Honda!)

    I think we have to stop overall reverence to experience, because most of us do not want an experience other than my product works well. More effort is needed there than in making the experience good when there is a defect.

    And in what way is experience different from satisfaction? Is that a measure of experience?

    Lastly, I just read this article about lawyers asking (and I guess we could do this for doctors) which asked:
    Do you want a lawyer that gives you a good experience and loses vs the reverse?

  4. Appreciate the comments. A lot to respond to, I will do what I can:

    Emotion is core but not directly causative. Cognitive psychology (Lazarus, Clore and Ortony, Oatley) are clear, appraisal is required for an emotive response. Hence, an emotion only view without reference leads us down the path of talking of delight/ happiness as leading to experience which neither answers the how or the why. However, emotion is an indirect effect on behaviour (ref: Baumeister) and memorable if it is meaningfully appraised (cognitive goal states) – otherwise it becomes non durable to value, a consistent problem with CX (at least in one approach).

    Hence, cognition is the essential state to understanding CX.

    As for the term ‘experience’ itself, it is a prototypical word like ‘dog’, its only meaning is how customers think and feel (and for some ‘do’); how information is subjectively received. For me this puts subjectivity front and centre (although engineers would focus on loss aversion and disagree I’m sure – for me that’s zero defects, Reichheld circa 1990).

    Hence, the more important question is ‘where is the return on ‘the experience the customer has’ which most certainly is not the sum of all touchpoints’.

    Gautham – I agree on the longitudinal approach to experience you take, but would still contend that for an experience to be an experience (to me) it has to be noticed. If I notice less breakdowns, that would conform, if I don’t then it is a non-event, hygiene. This is the problem with service operations – lets ensure mobile signal works all the time. That’s a great idea since it avoids loss aversion, but would I actively state my mobile works as of differential or even noticeable value? Perhaps its market dependent.

    On my product works, I agree workability is fundamental but I buy a product or service for a reason, not because it works. Value is not valence neutral. However, I see both make it work and make it of value equally important to ‘the experience the customer has’.

    In terms of how experience is different from satisfaction: satisfaction is a metric, experience is as I have defined, at least in my opinion. Different things. I, as I have always contested, would state that the domain of experience is complex adaptive (ref: Cynefin) so measures of CSAT are not too relevant to CX metrics. I would refer you to Dave Snowden for that.

    Again there are problems with definition of experience on the Dr example: a Dr that cures my condition is a good experience to me – brilliant in fact. So I see no contradiction. The contradiction comes from implicit beliefs in the CX community (its different from goods and services) and confusion between 2 questions: what is customer experience vs. where is the return on the experience the customer has (the Experience Economy is one area here) I am sure most people would disagree with me… p.s., a better focus on outcomes (Gautham) and relationship outcomes (Hermans) would help… I believe…


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