The four schools of customer experience


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I hear a lot of talk and see a lot of confusion around ‘customer experience’. Having taken a closer look I have distinguished four schools of ‘customer experience’.

The school of service

People that belong in this school tend to come from a customer service background or have something to sell to the customer service community. This school collapses customer service into ‘customer experience’ and that is like collapsing ‘apples’ into ‘oranges’; all manner of things are carried out in the name of ‘customer experience’ which do not build lasting emotional bonds which I argue is the point of any investments in ‘customer experience’.

Yet, lets first look at the bright side. There is a profound grain of truth in the service school. Research (and my experience) shows that the strongest emotional bonds are created by your customer facing staff. The key is for your customers to genuinely care for you customers and their well-being leaving these customers thinking/feeling:

  • “I felt like she understood what I wanted”
  • “They treated me like an individual”
  • “He cared about me”
  • “They did everything they could to help”
  • “They made me feel I was the most important person in the world”

What are the big issues?

One of the biggest issues is to confuse ‘service’ with ‘customer services’. Imagine that you turn up to your local car dealership to have your car serviced and there is nowhere to park your car. Now that is likely to be an upleasant experience and yet it has absolutely nothing to do with folks working in customer service. ‘Service’ includes everything that you do including the marketing, the selling, the delivery, the returns, credit and billing, customer services etc……Yet, in practice it is often made to mean the customer services function. And despite the hype the reality is that the majority of organisations are busy cutting out/dumbing down this human contact and replacing it with technology.

Second, there is huge domain of ‘customer experience’ around the product itself. Apple has revolutionised the smartphone market through the iphone. How? By completely altering the ‘customer experience’ in owning and using the mobile phone. Before Apple, the phones were difficult to use: most of the functionality was not used because it was hard to use.

Third, customer service as commonly practiced and measured (in terms of call wait times and first call resolution) is primarily a hygiene factor. What do I mean? If you get this wrong then your customer is likely to be upset. If you get it right it is highly unlikely that it will create an emotional bond between you and your customer.

Fourth, you can be deliver great customer service and perhaps even ‘customer experience’ in your horse drawn buggy and then Henry Ford comes along and makes the car available to your customers and and you are toast. Or think how Nokia is struggling now.

The school of interaction management

This school assumes that if you make it easier for a customer to interact with your organisation across multiple channels throughout the customer journey then you have improved the ‘customer experience’. Hence, a lot of effort goes into listing, mapping and evaluating the various touchpoints, interactions, processes and supporting data and IT systems. The thinking is that if you streamline and integrate these interactions then you will have improved the ‘customer experience’, have happier customers and probably saved some money by cutting out unnecessary and error prone interactions.

There is grain of truth in this school as well. I, the customer, prefer to do business with organisations that make it easy for me to do business with them.

Yet this school ignores the fact that poor interaction design is a hygiene factor. If your website is hard to navigate then I will get annoyed and probably shop elsewhere. If you make it fit for purpose then that helps me out. If you glue up your marketing so that I get less irrelevant direct mail then it is likely that I will appreciate that. I may even take up your offers which are relevent to me. That is called a transaction: you make me an offer, I buy. If you glue up your interaction channels e.g. web and retail then you do make life easier for me and will benefit. None of these actions necessarily mean that you have built a strong emotional bond with me!

The best that this school can do is to take out the hurdles and frustrations that I have in dealing with your organisation. And thus you are not actively driving me into the arms of your competitors. There is nothing here to say that you are actually doing anything to build emotional bonds between me and you. I love the way that everything works with Amazon yet my emotional bonds are with BetterWorldBooks because this is an organisation that provides great service (which Amazon does) and stands for a cause that speaks to me.

The school of brand

This school is favoured by those that work in marketing and the organisations that cater to the needs of the marketing folks. The assumption here is that you take the brand values and make these come alive at the various touchpoints. The idea is to make the brand come alive and manifest itself in the ‘customer experience’.

Again there is a grain of truth in this provided that your brand values are a reflection of your deep understanding of your customer needs.

Who says that your brand values are customer-centred? How do you know that if you design the ‘customer experience’ to manifest your brand values then this will deliver the kind of experience that your customers are looking for? And what does ‘innovation’ look like/feel like when I, the customer, turn up at the store and want to buy one of your products? Are you front line staff given the mandate to be innovative? Perhaps they will pay me to take your product? That is certainly innovative.

The key issue, as I see it, is that the brand was cooked up to serve the interests of the organisation – not the customer. The brand agenda is usually about how you can project certain persona to differentiate your organisation and charge higher prices despite the fact that you produce and sell ‘me-too’ products/services. Please remember that ‘per’ is the latin for ‘mask’ that actors wore on stage and ‘sona’ is the latin for the ‘sound’ coming from the mask. The problem I have found is that some organisations have been acting for so long that they have forgotten that they are acting.

The triad school: genuine customer insight-attractive value propositions-memorable customer experiences

As far as I am aware this school is not that well known and probably does not have that many members. In fact, it might simply be a figment of my imagination. The central tenants of this school are as follows:

  • The purpose of ‘customer experience’ is to build mutually profitable lifetime relationships with customers;
  • Actively cultivating emotional bonds between you and your customers is central to building these lifetime relationships;
  • To build those emotional bonds you have to create value propositions that address the unmet needs of your customers;
  • And design and consistently deliver a ‘customer experience’ that supports and complement the value proposition;
  • The ‘customer experience’ done right enhances the value proposition;
  • Customer insight is the key to crafting the right propositions and designing the right ‘customer experience;
  • You need bucket loads of empathy combined with analytical rigor to make this approach work.

What do you think? What have I missed? What have I got wrong?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


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