The Moment of Truth: A Co-creation Perspective


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The Moment of Truth
Actress Lizabeth Scott in You Came Along (1945)
“Words are made for a certain exactness of thought, as tears are for a certain degree of pain. What is least distinct cannot be named; what is clearest is unutterable.” — René Daumal.

The Spanish expression “el momento de la verdad” signified the point in a bullfight when the matador makes the kill. The English translation, the moment of truth, first appeared in Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932) which was largely about the sport of bullfighting. Since that time people have used, and somewhat overused, these words to communicate myriad ideas and situations. A teenager may experience a “moment of truth” when he comes home after curfew. An electrical engineer may experience a “moment of truth” when she applies power to her latest invention. Television, music, and movie producers have adopted “Moment of Truth” as titles for game shows, songs, and movies. So today, we’re left with an idiom that can mean almost whatever we want it to.

I became acquainted with the concept of moments of truth (MOTs) in my process-improvement work in 2005. Then, the definition was any interaction in the process that includes the “paying customer.” But when it gets right down to the identification of MOTs in process analysis, I’ve seen the definition expanded to include everything from the whole of a customer conversation, or narrowed to each distinct question asked of a customer, and then every separate response from that customer.

The customer-experience community also has various definitions for MOTs in relation to the customer journey. There, customer interactions are typically called “touchpoints,” and MOTs are the more significant touchpoints. However, the criteria for what’s “significant” depends on who you talk to. Some say the MOT is at the beginning when the customer decides to accept (or reject) the firm’s offer, while others point to the end of the transaction when they determine whether the whole experience was good or bad. Some identify various touchpoints where significant value is or is not realized. Yet another criteria for an MOT is a touchpoint that shows the greatest likelihood the customer will “fall off”, or is most likely to end the business relationship. Some of these interpretations are actually very close to the original meaning of the bullfight kill. But just as in the process world, there is too much ambiguity for the term to be useful in the context of a professional discussion. At a minimum, the customer-experience community needs to agree on a more unified definition. I would go as far as to suggest a slightly different definition — one I think was intended by the first person to use the idiom in these contexts.

Richard Normann (1943–2003) was a Swedish academic and management consultant who rose to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s for his work in emergent strategy, value creation systems, and service management. He was one of the first to suggest that value is co-created with the customer, and that products are better bundled as services. He was the first to suggest the need for an organizational “mission”.

Normann is also credited with the first use of the idiom “moment of truth” in a business context. Using the MOT concept, Normann was highly instrumental in the turnaround of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) in the early 1980s. Jan Carlzon, SAS’s CEO during that time, recounts the turnaround in his book titled Moments of Truth (1987), attesting to the powerful perspective the MOT provides and Normann’s more significant contribution to the effort. By removing MOTs which provided little or no value to their customers, and enabling employees to deliver the best experience possible in those that remained, SAS became profitable again by more than three times the first year target. They also earned the rank of “top Airline” the same year, and held that distinction for many years.

I would have loved to have asked Dr. Normann to concretely define the MOT, but he died much too young. Therefore we need to research his writings about the concept. Thankfully, he wrote quite a lot. His book Service Management: Strategy and Leadership in Service Business, Third edition (2002) gives us the greatest insight to his thought process regarding MOTs. I find it fascinating and affirming that his first reference to MOTs is directly preceded by a discussion about co-creation. Normann says:

…the customer is often more than just a customer — he is also a participant in the production of the service. A haircut, the cashing of a cheque, education — none of these can conceivably be produced without the participation of the consumer. Thus the service company not only has to get in contact with the consumers and to interact with them socially; it is also necessary to ‘manage’ them as part of the production force.

Normann is clearly stating that a customer is integral to the value creation process. This is co-creation — the customer and the organization working together to create desired value. If the customer is not involved, no value is ever created. No customer, no value. By the way, when Normann uses the word “quality”, I believe he meant “value” (English was not his native language).
With this backdrop, Normann introduces the concept of MOTs. He states:

Most services are the result of social acts which take place in direct contact between the customer and representatives of the service company. To take a metaphor from bullfighting, we could say that the perceived quality is realized at the moment of truth, when the service provider and the service customer confront one another in the arena. At that moment they are very much their own. What happens then can no longer be directly influenced by the company. It is the skill, the motivation and the tools employed by the firm’s representative and the expectations and behavior of the client which together will create the service delivery process. A large service company may well experience tens of thousands of ‘moments of truth’ every day.

From the very first mention, Normann is clear that when a customer comes into contact with the organization, it is a MOT. The two have come together to accomplish something in relation to creating the value the customer seeks — their job-to-be-done. We know from experience there are often many interactions per customer journey depending on the size of the job-to-be-done. Also note the VERY LARGE number he references –tens of thousands– doesn’t come from one or two MOTs per customer journey.

We also know customers judge the experience of each and every interaction as to perceived quality in relation to its part of accomplishing “the service delivery process”. Customers have some idea of how much time and effort they should be expending. They have some expectation of how they should feel at a particular point in the process, and they judge the interaction based on whether their expectations were met. The quality of each and every interaction is determined and (either consciously or subconsciously) scored in the mind of the customer. Think of this as a “running score.”

When Normann first introduced the MOT concept, most interactions were face-to-face; but don’t take this too literally. As technology emerged and matured, Normann realized the potential for applying technology to MOTs. He says, “…new communication and information technology clearly increase the possibilities to ‘store services’, and to make person-to-person interaction in their provision unnecessary.” In other words, automation does not a MOT remove; yet we know that intrinsically. Customers understand that automation is still designed and implemented by “faces” in the organization.

Later in the book Normann made the case for continued investment in human resources in addition to the technology due to the fact that people still design the experiences which use the technology:

If today’s service business wishes to continue earning an appropriate return on its resources, its significantly greater capital investment and its customer base, then it can no longer treat strategic human resource development as an option. A competent and dedicated workforce is a key resource. While technology and equipment are important new elements of many services, people continue to play often different, but nevertheless pivotal roles. They are essential in analysing and interpreting what is happening in the marketplace, their creative capacities construct the ‘fit’ between the product offering and the customers needs, and they are the ‘face’ of the service organization at the ‘moments of truth’.

How the MOT is accomplished makes no difference: human-to-human or technology-to-human. Normann believed the investment in technology needed to be accompanied with the investment in the humans applying it. Otherwise, the investments would likely be wasted. Consider how Normann challenges traditional thinking about costs:

In many companies expenditures on human resource development have been seen as costs rather than investments. Perhaps with the higher levels of capital expenditure in services, the investment on human resources will seem in better proportion. The potential benefits of expensive equipment will not be realized if there is no opportunity for employees to develop the necessary competence. Then all that costly equipment will be of little use.

Normann also talked about the cumulative and/or knock-on effects of MOTs. Using the example of an airline (possibly SAS) where customers had experienced negative MOTs he says:

Customers are no longer as happy as they might have been, which affects the social climate at the check-in desk or in the aircraft, which in turn reduces the enthusiasm and motivation of the service personnel. The customer’s negative experience is then reinforced, which in turn reduces his own contribution to the overall quality. And so, as the negative effects reinforce one another, the vicious circle continues in an ever accelerating downward spiral.

Much later in the book, Normann is a bit clearer about the positive significance this cycle has in relation to MOTs:

There is a well-known dynamic in interpersonal interactions whereby positive action creates positive reactions, which in turn leads to mutually positive feelings which in turn leads to mutually positive interaction. Or the reverse can apply. A positive attitude and efficient action on the part of the service supplier will encourage the client to participate more, and more effectively, which in turn encourages the service supplier, and so on. A ‘virtuous circle’ has started.

Normann continues at length to point out when the interactions are positive and customers feel the experience is valuable, a “virtuous circle” ensues. Furthermore, the outcome of each interaction or MOT sets up the likelihood of a similar outcome at the next interaction. Good interactions tend to foster more good interactions, while poor interactions tend to lead to yet poorer interactions. Intuitively, we understand this correlation.

Perhaps Normann is the clearest in defining the MOT when he said:

The quality experienced by the customer is created at the moment of truth, when the service provider and the client meet in a face-to-face interaction. The most perfectly designed and engineered service delivery system will fail until things work out then. Thus, any enquiry into quality must start from the microsituation of client interaction, the moment of truth. The important question is: what mechanisms lead to and reinforce the client’s experience of quality and good value in that microsituation?

Remember, today we need to add automated interactions to Normann’s assertion about face-to-face interactions. The face of the organization could also be technology. In defining what Normann meant by the ‘moment of truth’, focus on the most consistent and defining vocabulary he used throughout: the words “interaction” (used consistently) and “microsituation” (used specifically), and more importantly, the juxtaposition of the two — “microsituation of client interaction.” From my reading of Normann, MOTs are each individual interaction with the customer — not high-value interactions, not high-risk interactions, not just the buy/no-buy interaction, and not the last interaction, which are all macrosituations.

The concept of co-creation recognizes the customer as an active participant in creating the value they desire, though the amount of customer participation can vary greatly. The amount of customer participation is influenced by balancing a number of factors: service or product cost, available time, domain skill and knowledge, etc. Typically customers are willing to provide more effort if the cost is lower and visa-versa. If a customer values her time more than money, she’ll likely pay more to be less involved. If she can do some of the required work, she’ll want less from the provider. Yet every customer has some expectation of what the “right” level of involvement should be, and a significant component to their measure of satisfaction is how closely the experience matches up.

The organization typically dictates the customer’s journey, and therefore, determines the time and effort required from customers. Unfortunately many organizations tend to think of some interactions as trivial and inconsequential. All too often, what the organization considers innocuous, the customer perceives as a waste of time and resources. Furthermore, the cumulative or knock-on effects of multiple or poorly executed interactions could culminate at a relatively innocuous one — the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

From a co-creation perspective, each interaction either increases or reduces value to the customer. In other words, that running score really matters. Is every interaction equal to another? Absolutely not, but they are all weighty! We need to consider each and every interaction and what it contributes to customer value in relation to all other interactions. It’s at this point I like to point out that all these interactions need to be analyzed from the reality that, as customers, we are rarely logical, rational, or reasonable; and the fools are those who expect us to be anything but.

Therefore, a co-creation perspective takes into account the value exchange of each and every interaction with a customer. As the customers navigate their journey, moment by moment they are sizing up how they feel about the potential of achieving overall success, and with a few exceptions, they can drop out at any interaction in the journey. Though the organization may identify a particular interaction in which customers typically drop out of the journey, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that interaction is the culprit. The root problem is just as likely to be poor execution of one or more upstream interactions. The customer journey is part of the co-creation ecosystem and systems thinking needs to be applied. The main point here is Normann’s view of each interaction indeed being an MOT fits hand-in-glove with the concept of co-creation.

For customer-experience professionals, I realize this definition of the MOT may be difficult to swallow given how it’s been used in the past. Please keep in mind my purpose is first: to create a better and more common understanding in our terminology, and second: help us leverage the brilliance of Normann’s work. What I appreciate about the customer-experience community is its unabashed and fanatical focus on customer success AND the acknowledgement of the existence of MOTs (as opposed to most process professionals who don’t). However, I think what the customer-experience community refers to as a touchpoint is probably closer to what Normann called the MOT.

I’m not necessarily suggesting the customer-experience community change its vocabulary. However, I do recommend we at least apply Normann’s research and concepts to whatever the corresponding vocabulary is. Every organization’s success depends on creating Normann’s “virtuous circles”, yet these are only possible when we acknowledge the full significance of what he called the MOT with their cumulative, knock-on effect in the co-creation ecosystem. Call them what you will, interactions, touchpoints or MOTs, but for the good of the customer give every single one their due consideration.

Image is public domain from WikiMedia Commons:

Donald (Don) Smith, CBPP, CPE
I believe that all business is shifting to co-creating value with employees, customers and partners. By harnessing the power of co-creation, we can make our organizations more nimble, more responsive, and best positioned to create long term value while ensuring relevance into the future. I draw on a vast range of experience from Fortune 500 IT leadership to several successful entrepreneurial ventures, as well as running a non-profit. I'm a Certified Business Process Professional (CBPP) and Certified Process Expert (CPE).


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