“Sucking Less” is Not a #CX Strategy


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In this day and age, is there any viable excuse for not focusing on the customer experience?

I was part of a panel that participated in a Google Hangout on Air hosted by Fonolo a couple weeks ago. During the Hangout, the panel discussed a few stats on – and trends affecting – customer experience.

My lead topic was about this statistic from recent Forrester research: 93% of respondents say that the customer experience is among their companies’ strategy priorities; however, reality shows that only 37% of companies have a dedicated budget for initiatives focused on improving the customer experience. The question posed to me was: Why aren’t organizations seeing the value of the customer experience? Honestly, that’s an entire Hangout on its own, but we boiled it down to a few minutes of discussion.

Are organizations seeing the value of delivering a great customer experience? Clearly they pay lip service, but we know that actions speak louder than words. Do they really get it? No. There’s no real commitment of time, resources, and budgets to initiatives that improve the customer experience. Obviously those companies have not seen the chart from Watermark Consulting that shows how Customer Experience Leaders have outperformed the market over the last several years.

I spend a lot of time talking to prospects and clients about how to sell the value of customer experience to company leaders. It’s so disheartening because it seems so obvious. Instead, what I see and hear is this:

  • Companies still don’t make the connection between a great employee experience and a great customer experience. This is the foundation.
  • They focus on sales and acquisition rather than on retention. It becomes a never-ending vicious cycle if you can’t keep your customers.
  • They focus on metrics and metrics alone. Yes, what gets measured gets done. But if you’re measuring the wrong thing, you’re driving the wrong behavior. And if you’re only listening (VOC) for the sake of measuring – and not for acting – then you’re doing it all wrong.
  • “Well, we have a customer service department.” It’s not the same thing!

I think there are three types of leaders that fill up the “don’t get it” bucket. (There are probably more; feel free to add them in a comment below.)

  • Those who just simply don’t understand that great customer experiences drive business success.
  • Those who just simply don’t care (to understand) that great customer experiences drive business success.
  • And those who think they don’t need to focus on the experience because “business is good.”

The first two are pretty straightforward. That doesn’t make them OK, but I’ll bypass those and focus on the third type.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend was telling me about issues that his company is having. The company is a mess, literally: bad leadership, no transparency, no communication, no onboarding or training, lots of turnover, and so much more. Yet the business (sales) is flourishing. How is that possible? They have long-term contracts, so they’ve got a captive audience. And they don’t deliver on all of the requirements within the contract unless the customer complains; so then the requirement is fulfilled, the box is checked, and the customer is “happy” again. This is no way to do business. That’s an experience alright – not a very good one. And yet, they are doing well, in spite of themselves. Why? Because, in their industry, they suck least.

“Sucking least” is not a strategy. It’s not even an excuse for not focusing on the customer. It’s lame, and it’s lazy. If they think the business is doing “well” now, imagine what it could be if they pulled themselves together, did right by their employees and their customers, and became the best in the industry, not just the one that sucked least. Imagine what their revenues would look like then. Imagine what that would force the rest of the industry to do. There are no competitive pressures to do better by/for the customer right now. It’s a sad excuse, but it’s certainly a reason that we have CX leaders and CX laggards.

So here’s a thought… and I’m going to borrow from and add to something James Lawther commented in a previous post: Instead of trying to push the noodle up the hill, if executives within your company don’t get it, maybe it’s time for new executives.

On the Google Hangout, I give an example of just such a change (a new executive who “gets it”) for a client that I work with. What a huge transformation for them. The Hangout video is unlisted, so I can’t share it here in this post, but if you’d like to view the portion where we discuss this topic, go here.

We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are. -Max Dupree

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. … you believe that delight doesn’t matter and it’s enough to focus on fixing problems and reducing customer effort.

    That’s the conclusion of Matt Dixon et al in the CEB research that found most companies would be better off not trying to delight customers but rather make sure the basics are done right.

    I think “sucking less” is a good way to summarize this way of thinking. Why doesn’t it qualify as a #CX strategy?

  2. I think “Sucking Less” is indeed a flawed strategy because someone may come along and suck less than you. The one thing I would add to this discussion is the concept of quality and continuous improvement. Going from “Sucky” to “Un-sucky” does not happen over night but rather it’s a process and improving the customer experience is no exception. It starts with a daily focus on customers and evaluating ways to improve their experience. I agree with James that if executives can’t commit to that process it may indeed be time for new executives. Thanks for a great post Annette!

  3. I agree with Bob’s argument that “delight doesn’t matter”. Plus it’s too hard to institutionalize. Putting it in a slogan is great but how do you turn it into process. That doesn’t really get to the heart of this article.

    Unfortunately in your example Annette, sucking less is a viable approach. Management are paid to make the most money for a given set of risk. Introducing change in an organisation is risk, almost by definition. So unless you really need to change because, say a competitor is upping the ante, then doing the same thing is a valid approach: risky long term, but valid.

    It’s sad for the employees who are probably not motivated, their customers who are not as happy as they might be and frustrating for outsiders like us who can see what is really possible, but it’s a fact of life.

    This phenomenon is why it is so hard for companies that are number one in their market to stay stay there long term. Think Kodak vs digital cameras, Apple and Samsung (Android), etc.

    Necessity is the mother of invention. No necessity, no invention.


  4. I get the spirit of what you were saying Annette! But there is a bit of strategy that needs to come into play here. The strategy part of it comes in when you direct and identify the company to once and for all smooth out experiences to make them reliable, memorable and worth talking about.

    Customers care about how much you care about what they care about. So identify the things that give them the most pain and work on those things first. Suck less at the everyday irritants. That will earn you the right to do more.

    Let’s say you are a hotel and at the front desk you have the check in people offer customers their choice of pillow and type of chocolate they want on it at the turn down service. But if there’s hair in the sink and dirty under the bed…who cares!

  5. Thanks for spurring a great discussion Annette. Kudos to Bob for stirring the pot.

    Sucking less is a strategy, just like playing prevent defense is in football. I’d argue it’s probably not a very strong long term strategy. Like in football, playing on your heels only prevents you from doing one thing… and that’s winning.

    That said – every company needs to start somewhere. If you are not getting the basics right, launching towards delight probably doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to meet expectations before vying to exceed them. You can’t put lipstick on a pig unless your customers are all named Kermit.

    I guess I’m saying there are two roads to travel in customer experience:

    1. The well beaten path to mediocrity and commoditization. Let’s call this the Milton Friedman model. “Doing the least possible and sucking less” in order to maximize shareholder value.

    2. The path less traveled towards delight. Let’s call it the Ted Levitt model. Operating your business in a way that “delights and keeps customers.” I’m going to share my favorite quote by Levitt and substitute “CX” for marketing: “The search for meaningful distinction is central to CX. If customer experience is about anything, it is about achieving customer-getting distinction by differentiating what you do and how you do it. All else is derivative of that and only that.”

    I believe it comes down to value and maintenance in CX. The value of “what” you provide and the maintenance of “how” it is to deal with you as a brand.

    You’ve got two paths. Choose wisely. Everyone wants to go heaven, but few are willing to pay the price.

  6. …something that, when asked, a colleague at a major research and consulting company defined (jokingly) as our USP some years ago. In a herd of mediocre vendors, who are just doing the rational, functional, tactical, and reactive basics, this may once have been enough to win the day on a proposal or a competitive sale. That said, I’d argue against such a default approach as a model for leveraging desired customer behavior. It is neither customer-centric nor customer-friendly, and is an ineffectual strategy.

    Customers are increasingly less willing to accept minimal, even competent, performance; and they won’t hesitate very much, or for very long, if an alternative supplier offers more proactive and consistent performance, value that is at least as much emotional as it is tangible, more personalized and inclusive communication, and a more responsive culture.

    I remember when Peters and Waterman’s book, In Search of Excellence, first came out. Conceptually, as an extension of their historic Seven S Framework model, it was a build on the ideas underpinning the TQ movement. Excellence in all things developed by the enterprise for delivery to its stakeholders, and ‘sucking less’, in terms of customer value provision, hardly seem to be ideas that are connected. Over the 30 years since the book was published, where customer experience is concerned, we’ve moved from benign and grudging satisfaction (which I’d characterize as ‘sucking less’), to loyalty, to engagement, to advocacy and brand bonding. As a CEM core concept, ‘sucking less’ not only doesn’t seem aspirational, it doesn’t even seem like something any company wanting to maintain, and desiring to grow, its customer base would want to consider – even as a ground floor approach.

    The fact that Forrester found such a statistical disparity between companies ‘talking the talk’ and ‘walking the talk’ (or, putting their money where their mouth is), on customer experience should surprise few. Many companies lack the commitment and discipline to make experience and value optimization a corporate priority. This was addressed in one of my blogs over the Summer: http://www.customerthink.com/blog/if_you_don_t_know_where_you_re_going_with_customers_any_road_will_get_you_there

  7. Great article, Annette – love the title. One thing you stated made me realize how hard this really is to “get”. You stated “if executives within your company don’t get it, maybe it’s time for new executives.” I’ve worked with companies where the front-line gets it but the executives are painfully out of touch, but I’ve also worked with companies where new executives are brought in, but the momentum of the existing people is so great that it just doesn’t sink in. Bringing about this type of organizational change is very hard, and takes significant time and effort. New execs can help be the catalyst, but aren’t a quick fix.

  8. Great job, Annette, on the article and well done, Bob, on getting the debate going.

    I would agree with Bob that ‘sucking less’ can be a viable strategy in the short term if that fits with what the customer wants and competition allows.

    However, ‘sucking less’ can only be a point on an ongoing journey and will be not be defensible or sustainable in the long term as competition and customer demands evolve.

    We have to be careful not to generalise about what is right or wrong for companies or customers and understand the relative positions of both. As Confucius said “a journey of a 1,000 miles starts with the first step”. Therefore, perhaps ‘sucking less’, for many firms and their customers, is a good first step on a longer journey.


  9. …strategy, even in the short-term, is customers’ memories of experience and their resulting future behavior. If a customer has had an vendor ‘sucking less’ experience and, even if by accident or happenstance, he/she has a ‘pleasing more’ downstream experience from a competitor, guess who will get a) the future business, b) the higher ratings, and c) the more positive brand perception and word-of-mouth? Given that an enterprise has the capability, resources and will to provide value and experience that is more positive, what is the financial and cultural advantage, or incentive, to do anything less?

  10. Great discussion Annette! And to echo Stan, thanks to Bob for kicking up the dust a bit.

    We seem to have varying interpretations of what “sucking less” means. If it means that your CX truly sucks and by improving it, it just sucks a bit less. Then, I would agree that is not a viable long term strategy.

    If it means, delivering the basics well and consistently, while minimizing customer hassle — then that is a viable strategy. This is particularly true if the basic product excels, and we are simply referring to the customer experience that surrounds it.

    I just interviewed Matt Dixon from CEB regarding their recent work on customer effort and loyalty, and as Bob pointed out, their findings showed that delight strategies do not pay. The research was limited to call centers, so I think there is a lot more exploring on the topic that needs to be done, but the results were really interesting.

  11. The CEB study defined delight as service recovery. When a customer had a problem, “delight” meant giving extras like “offering a refund, a free product, or a free service such as expedited shipping.” Yet 84% of customers didn’t feel their expectations were exceeded. As a result: customers were “only marginally more loyal than simply meeting their needs.”

    This is a very limited view of delight, in my opinion. I see this as placating customers, not delighting them. Consumers get offered extras when the company has screwed up. Personally, I don’t want to make customer service calls, but if I have to, I want my problem solved pronto. Any extras aren’t really “exceeding my expectations,” they are making up for the fact that my expectations weren’t met.

    If you don’t exceed expectations (as customers perceive it), you’re not actually delighting customers, are you? And therefore, it’s hardly surprising that there’s little loyalty impact.

    Doing what customers expect is a baseline that all companies should strive for. CEB’s research apparently finds that the majority of call centers struggle with this, and can’t delight customers with over-the-top service recovery.

    The source of the problems (why customers were calling) was most likely not in the call center, but somewhere else. The product didn’t work as described, billing was wrong, etc. So in one sense I agree with the CEB study — these root cause problems should be fixed.

    Having said that, the CEB article attempts to extrapolate to a conclusion that isn’t supported by their research. A more accurate title would have been “Stop Placating Your Customers, Get It Right the First Time.”

    As Stan and others have said, a delight strategy isn’t for everyone. But companies that aspire to be industry leaders do in fact make exceeding expectations a part of their strategy.

    Seriously, do you think the CEB study authors would advise the CEOs of Amazon, Intuit, Virgin and Zappos to stop delighting their customers because it’s a waste of resources?

  12. Thank you all for your comments. Lots of great insights and angles to this topic. Bob, thanks for starting the discussion!

    The one problem with the company I referenced is that they don’t even do the minimum. They don’t even meet the basic requirements of their contracts because “no one else in the industry does.” We all treat our customers like crap. The entire industry sucks at what they do. We just suck the least. (If you think about the Apostle Model, customers in this industry clearly fall into the Hostage bucket.)

    “Delight” isn’t even in their vocabulary. It’s not even a concern or a focus for the business. They fulfill their contracts in a reactive way, not in a proactive way.

    Nothing to aspire to, for sure.

    But as my friend said to me the other day, after he read my post: interestingly enough, those who started the company and who have financed it, their pockets are well-lined; they really have no incentive to do anything differently.

    In the spirit of the holiday season, it feels a bit like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 🙂

    BTW, the CEB has recently changed its approach to the customer effort score.

  13. Adam,

    You’re right. See my comment to the group in general. The founders and financiers are doing just that: making money for the company. So, in that regard, it is a valid approach.

    From a customer perspective, though, it is not. 🙁

    Annette 🙂

  14. Thanks, Jeanne.

    I think you sum it up well with your second paragraph: Customers care about how much you care about what they care about. So identify the things that give them the most pain and work on those things first. Suck less at the everyday irritants. That will earn you the right to do more.

    Annette 🙂

  15. Thanks, Stan. Love that concept of the two paths. This company has clearly chosen #1.

    They have, without a doubt, maximized shareholder value.

    And forgotten for whom they are in business.

    Annette 🙂

  16. Christopher,

    I agree. There are no quick fixes… just steps in the right direction that will eventually lead to the desired outcome. Even the example that I mention in the Google Hangout – they’ve brought in a new executive who gets it, but it’s still baby steps to get to where they need to be. A step in the right direction, and they have made visible progress.

    Annette 🙂

  17. Thanks, Michael. I appreciate both of your comments and your further insight.

    You hit the nail on the head with this statement: It is neither customer-centric nor customer-friendly, and is an ineffectual strategy.

    Annette 🙂

  18. Annette,

    I hadn’t see that CEB had changed is approach on CES. Are there any references on it you could point me to?



  19. Adam,

    Let me find the link tomorrow. I have it on my other computer. I’ll post it here once I dig it up.

    Annette 🙂

  20. While CES 2.0 is an improvement over the original, and appears to have more predictive power and actionability relative to NPS (a dubious distinction, at best, from the perspective of many customer experience consultants and researchers), it still has fundamental research flaws, but the CEB isn’t interested in hearing that there are better measures, such as customer advocacy and customer brand bonding: http://www.customerthink.com/blog/emerging_chinks_and_dents_in_the_universal_application_and_institutionalization_armor_of_popula

  21. I tend to steer away from the conversation about using NPS as a “key metric” and rather prefer to advocate for it to be a way to get everyone focused on what matters, the customer. (Though I know this is a battle in and of itself.)

    This is how I view CES, too. If the score is low, it means the customer put forth more effort than HE cares/wants to, and that’s what matters. There’s (potentially) a problem with a process there, so let’s take a look at it.

    Maybe it’s a squishy way to use something that was meant to have predictive powers, but I don’t necessarily believe that either metric has that. But if they can both get employees (a) rallying around the customer and (b) thinking about how they can make the experience better for the customer, then it’s a win-win.

    And there I go… opening another can of worms… 😉

    Annette 🙂

  22. Annette,

    For what it’s worth I agree with you on this. NPS is a good predictor of loyalty but it’s real value is driving action.


  23. …and customer value, especially where senior corporate management is concerned, is a significant benefit; but, that said, the low level of granular application and questionable science associated with both NPS and CES often more than counterbalances the positives of attention that such scoring receives. Rather than belabor the point, or be the opener for the worm can, just this guidance: There are more real-world, contemporary, and universally actionable measures and frameworks available.

    What many professional practitioners resent, as well, is the tendency for those who are supporters of NPS and CES to treat these measures as a ‘philosopher’s stone’, turning everything the metrics touch into gold.

  24. … especially with your last point.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking additions to this topic!

    Annette 🙂


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