Reflections on the Causes of Lousy Customer Experiences


Share on LinkedIn

These days, it’s hard to find a company that doesn’t say it competes on customer experience. At the same time, we know as both CX pros and consumers that many – some might say most – deliver mediocre experiences on a good day and flat-out crummy experiences most of the time.

What is the source of this gap between what companies say and what companies do? Reflecting on this issue, what follows are 10 explanations, which probably are by no means exhaustive. In no particular order, here are 10 causes of lousy customer experiences and tips to help address each challenge.

Lack of commitment from the top. Lip service doesn’t cut it. Senior leadership has to walk the talk, not just mouth the words. All too often, leadership treats CX as the management fad du jour, rather than as a business strategy. Without senior-level commitment in time and funding, CX efforts are like pushing on a string.

• Actively solicit executive sponsorship and involvement; strive to make leadership a participant, rather than a spectator.

Inside-out view of the world. Looking out upon the marketplace from inside the company is gazing through the wrong end of the telescope: the perspective that matters is the outside-in view, seeing how the firm looks from the vantage point of the customer. Firms often build processes and systems strictly from an introspective position, failing to appreciate the impact on customers, even when customers directly interact with those processes and systems.

• Try constructing parallel journey maps, one from the customer’s perspective, one from the company’s orientation to clearly illustrate the disconnect . . . and then lock away the internal version and work from the customer map.

Rising customer expectations. While seemingly trite, CX is a journey, not a destination – and one reason is the tide of continuously rising customer expectations. Armed with more information and market power than ever before, exposed to a wider array of experiences and options, often with little “friction” in terms of switching costs, customers are more demanding than ever. And the hurdles will continue to get higher.

• Stay attuned to and measure performance against changing expectations, set aggressive (but realistic) goals that push the organization.

Sub-standard employee experiences and poorly trained employees. While these aren’t one-and-the-same, the two issues are closely related. Employees are the company’s customer experience delivery system. If that system suffers from its own malaise of bad experiences and isn’t properly trained, it is absurd to think that the firm will somehow magically delight customers.

• Link employee and customer experience to show how one affects the other and the impact of EX problems on CX.

Corporate culture. This is another closely related issue. To be effective, CX can’t merely be a program; it needs to be infused into the bloodstream of the company and become part of the corporate DNA. Great customer experience must be intrinsic to the firm and be part of what the company is, not just something that the company does every now and then.

• Constantly evangelize: disseminate information, train and communicate over and over (and over again).

Misperception and failure to listen. Some companies and leaders smoke their own dope and really believe they deliver a good customer experience, despite what their customers are saying. Perhaps dismissing complaints or bad scores as unrepresentative, these firms suffer from a huge disconnect between the caliber of the experience they think they are delivering and what the marketplace sees them as delivering.

• Getting leadership out of a box of their own construction is a tough one: you need multiple proof points that clearly illustrate the problem.

Failure of measurement and analysis. Despite good intentions, firms sometimes use poorly designed measurement tools or rely on faulty observations. Or their measurements are OK, but they don’t analyze the data for meaningful insights and understanding. Or, worse yet, they misinterpret the data and take the wrong steps to improve the customer experience.

• Bring in a third party to objectively assess your program and recommend paths for improvement.

Failure to act. On the flip side, there are those organizations that seem to think that the act of measurement addresses the situation sufficiently by itself. While you might not be able to manage what you don’t measure, measurement by itself isn’t active management. For a host of reasons – uncertainty, lack of direction, resource constraints, poor leadership and so on – some companies never seem to implement any changes.

• Look for small wins, perhaps action planning with frontline managers on modest initiatives to demonstrate to others.

Cost/benefit challenges. Delivering great customer experiences isn’t cheap. Some companies don’t see the ROI; they see the cost, but not the return and, in effect, make a conscious decision that investment in CX are bad investments.

• While there are third-party examples of the economics of CX that can be brought to the attention of leadership, the only really compelling case is based on your company’s own data, so do everything you can to link experience data with actual customer behaviors and business outcomes.

Lack of clarity in objectives. And some firms just don’t seem to know where to aim. If you don’t know where you are going, any path will do. Lacking a target linked to their business objectives, these organizations tread water or thrash about, but don’t accomplish much.

• Take the initiative and articulate clear business objectives for CX efforts and don’t be shy about sharing them.

There no doubt are other reasons why so many companies don’t live up to the promise of great (or even good) CX, as well as other steps that can be taken to overcome each of these challenges – so feel free to chime in with others.

Howard Lax, Ph.D.

Supporting better informed decision making with technology, research and strategy. With a focus on CX/VoC/NPS, Employee Engagement and emotion analytics, Howard's domain is the application of marketing information and SaaS platforms to solve business problems and activating CX programs to drive business objectives.


  1. Good article. However, I think the ‘root causes’ go much deeper. Flaws in our human nature cause bad CX, but our natural strengths can help solve it. We must better understand and counteract our cognitive biases:

    1. WYSIATI: A cognitive error behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman calls “What You See Is All There Is.” If the brain doesn’t have direct experience with something, it cannot recall relevant memories, so the issue effectively doesn’t exist. So when people in the organization have not had the same experience as their customers, they cannot relate to them. The solution? Show what happens using video, photographs, audio recordings, or other methods, including the customer’s frustration. This triggers and emotional response in the viewer (executives and front-line workers) and motivates them to take action.

    2. Tribalism: We’re programmed by evolution to cooperate with in-groups and compete with out-groups. Tribalism gives rise to silo-ism, and most CX problems occur between the ‘seams’ in the org. chart. The solution? Like in Amish barn-raising, create opportunities for the community to work together (cross-functionally) to achieve common goals. Not only does sharing a common experience break down barriers, working together creates Endowment Effect–people place higher value on something they own or construct themselves compared with something they’re given or purchase.

    3. Conditioning: About 40% of our day is simply done out of habit, and the brain automatically habituates routine tasks that result in rewards or avoid punishments. The solution? Closely examine and change the reinforcing mechanisms that drive automatic CX behaviors. These typically include workflow controls, metrics, incentives, and employee feedback systems at all levels in the organization.

    A deeper understanding of our human nature is the first step, in my opinion. Then strong, top-down leadership, commitment to action, and good planning and execution coupled with effective change management can transform organizations from mediocre to world-class CX. Anything less is just treating the symptoms.

  2. Thanks for your well thought out and insightful comments, Ed. I was more focused on organizational and programmatic shortcomings, as opposed to our human frailties — there is little doubt that all of the organizational failures in business, government, religious and other avenues of life can be traced to the vagaries of human nature. And I love the barn-raising metaphor.

    I completely agree, moreover, that a “deeper understanding of human nature” is sorely lacking in all (or at least most) of our human institutions. Ironically, the one time I was forunate to hear Kahneman speak was at a marketing conference, where he closed his comments with an appeal to the audience not to use their knowledge of human nature to overly manipulate the behavior of consumers.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here