Time to REALLY think differently about customer experience…..


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Over the last 10 years I have seen many attempts by teams to engage with their companies customer experience and how they have failed, the discipline (emerging as it is) is still being dominated by old thinking – ‘wow’ your customer, be ‘customer centric’, ‘transform’ your business none of which are achievable or desirable in some cases in the real world.

Here are a few examples of my thinking that has developed over many years of client engagement around the world.

Let’s start by looking at the sound-bite that is “Customer Centricity”, businesses that focus on Customer Centricity rather than Customer Experience are using the wrong questions and wrong language to measure the success of their business, and are contributing to their own failure to deliver results.

They are misinterpreting what they want to, and can, achieve. ‘Customer Centricity’ is not Customer Experience yet many people use them as if they are interchangeable. True Customer Centricity talks about the customer being at heart of everything a business does, with a policy that nothing happens within a company without their involvement. It’s a lovely dream but is not practical or commercial, and rarely if ever works in large established Corporations that typically try to adopt it!

What is this about wanting to WoW customers – by definition to WoW someone it is going to be unexpected and well beyond expectation – if you set out to WoW all your customers then quickly what was WoW becomes the de facto norm and you are quickly at a loss to continue. Just delivering consistently at or just above your customers expectations would be enough to impress in a world where we are consistently underwhelmed by the experiences we have as customers.

Transformation of an established business is an almost impossible goal to achieve yet we see almost every day how another global company is going to become customer centric through a huge customer based transformational programme – how many can you think of that have ever come close to succeeding? So why set yourself up for failure in the first place? What companies need to do is to ‘dial up’ the customer component of their value proposition to the level that is appropriate for that company.

In my new book “The Customer Experience Book’ published this month and available on Amazon you can read in detail about this and other issues including trust, experience design, culture and about how to think differently about customer experience and learn how to actually be successful at it 😉 More posts to come on these other subjects to come 😉

Check out my blog www.thecustomerexperiencebook.com for lots of examples of experiences that we can all relate too!

Alan Pennington
Currently Chairman of Acme Group the first company to combine customer experience design and award winning creative and advertising company and Non Executive Director of SuiteCX the leading CX software company, he was prior to its sale Managing Director and co-founder of Mulberry Consulting the Number One CE business globally and Executive Chair of 'Experience by Design' a South African based venture.


  1. I’m obviously missing something here. Customer-centricity is, indeed, about putting the customer value proposition at the core of enterprise culture and processes. But, it is not distinct or separate from customer experience. Generating an optimum experience, building trust, and delivering perceived value are core tenets of operating from a customer-centric base.

    I do share the perspective that, though some companies have been able to WOW customers on a consistent basis, over-delivery against expectations is usually more than sufficient to generate advocacy behavior.

    There’s a ‘horizon’ companies can follow as they become more customer-centric. It starts with being more aware of customer needs, sharing customer insights across the enterprise, actively incorporating employees in initiatives, and driving shared customer values and superordinate goals through the organizational culture.

  2. A well thought out piece Alan. Interestingly enough I think there is even a difference between the Customer Experience and the Customer’s Experience. Being able to understand their desired ‘relationship’ with a company or entity and then enabling it with the least amount of friction would be ideal. Lots of work in that simple statement.
    Its time to do more than THINK about it. We have been doing that collectively for many years. Its time do DO something about it.

  3. I am not only surprised but a bit disappointed with this narrative..

    I think it is not only possible to have a customer centric strategy but even desirable to be successful in the long run. Gone are the days when you could continue to grow by providing decent service and meeting customer expectations (which by the way are so low). When is it that we as consumers or customers had high expectations from any of the brands that we interact with..

    Also, in a world, with limitless choice for every product category, there are two ways for a brand to stand out

    – To stand for something (which also means that you dont stand for something else). Brands can and should pick up a position and maintain it. This gives them a clear idea about who their customers would be and give them an opportunity to do the next thing
    – To pleasantly surprise these customers at every interaction that they have with the brand. This will continually push the boundaries and increase the expectations of your customers, but it is you and your brand that is driving this and which is way better than reacting to one of your competitors do this. That never goes well for a brand when you have to play catch-up.

    Also, remember, you are not just competing with your direct competitors, you are competing with everything that your customer is experiencing around them.. This includes all the brands – large and small that are constantly trying to get the attention of your customer..

    So, in my humble opinion, the strategy to just keep the experience enough to satisfy your customers is a strategy that could lead to playing catch up and is defensive, if you want to dominate your market, which is fine, as long as that is the intent of the brand.

    However, if you are aggressive and want to grow fast (which is most brands), I would think that a better strategy is to be aggressive and continue to raise the bar for yourself and your competition – direct and indirect.

  4. Alan, the idea is not to wow the Customer but to do the right thing for them. And to have everyone aligned to the Customer. Customer experience looks at the wow!
    We need a Customer strategy and a transformation that front line people are self directed and self motivated, self driven to do the right things for the Customer.

    Customer experience is one part of customer centricity. Pricing and cost structures, emotional and branding ideas are other parts, association and belonging yet another aspect.

  5. Hi Michael agree fully with your last paragraph that is the critical component – my main point is that true customer centricity is out of reach for most established businesses that did not start out with that as a central tenet of their purpose. It has now been hijacked by large Consulting Companies that look to derive a lifetime of fees from convincing leaders that it is the holy grail – and we all know the story of the holy grail! What I am advocating is dialling up the customer component of the business strategy (it usually exists in the CVP) to the right level so that it has sufficient influence amongst the other competing strategic drivers that are typically much more robustly established and entrenched. Many businesses will never be truly Customer Centric and it is this recognition that converts a pipe dream into an achievable set of goals over time,,as you note in your last para.

  6. HI Mukesh don’t be disappointed this about debating a serious issue and perhaps we have differing viewpoints – indeed I wish that more companies were more customer focussed in their delivery of their brand, sadly my experiences are a little different to your in tat I still every day see global brands not even delivering on their baseline promise. What that means is that actually it is absolutely possible to stand out in many verticals JUSt by delivering what you say you will consistently and with no requirement to step beyond that in an attempt to wow.

    I absolutely agree that standing out based on service and experience is the way forward in an increasingly competitive world and where product innovation becomes harder, so lets invert the strategy and have deliverable experiences lead the advertising and not the advertising creating unachievebale expectations amongst us customers…

  7. Hi Gautam some interesting points of course we need to remember that many successful brands have a strategy of not doing the right thing for the customer – look at Ryanair the low cost carrier if you complained they either completely ignored you or basically said what do you expect when you fly to Europe for 25 Euros.

    My key point is that actually customer experience which is of course a customer outcome should be the language not customer centricity which is an inwardly facing phrase – all of the things you mention including price have an impact on the customer experience and the customer expectations as in the example I have used above…come on lets change the business language and help businesses to improve their understanding and delivery of the experiences we have every day !

  8. Terms like Customer Centricity, Customer Experience, Customer Relationship, Customer Value are all susceptible to being defined and perceived many different ways.

    Alan, based on my research I have to disagree with your statement:
    True Customer Centricity talks about the customer being at heart of everything a business does, with a policy that nothing happens within a company without their involvement. It’s a lovely dream but is not practical or commercial, and rarely if ever works in large established Corporations that typically try to adopt it!

    In the real world, I’ve yet to find a company with such an unbalanced view. In a survey of business leaders about their views of customer-centricity:
    * 98% agreed it’s a business strategy to create loyal customer relationships
    * 92% agreed it means serving customers in a way that also creates shareholder value
    * 82% disagreed that it means listening to customers and doing whatever they ask
    * 68% disagreed that it is mainly about customer interactions, not products or pricing

    When CXM became the next big thing it was mainly about interactions. Now CX proponents seem to have recast it as the next coming of customer loyalty management, or dare I say, customer-centricity.

    Regardless of the current naming, the fundamentals remain the same. You can’t run a business by only doing what your customers want, without regard to how it impacts the company. Likewise, you can’t succeed for long by doing the opposite (Ryanair is a case in point). Over the long haul, business leaders and customers must see value.

  9. Bob the reality is that the %’s in Surveys are not a surprise who is going to say that in principle they do not want to create loyal customer relationships and these results have not really changed since Lippincott and Mercer back in 2002 – however responding to a survey and actually doing it in practice are worlds apart as real world companies have shown me over the last 10+ years.

    I do agree that some are trying to move CX into loyalty that is incredibly short sighted and serves particular needs – as we both agree simply doing what the customer demands is not the answer but adjusting the customer experience influence is…and that stretches from knowing what is important, designing experiences and equipping people to deliver it so that’s everyone from HR to Operations and Finance..but let’s not call it customer centricity?

    ps Ryanair have succeeded for a long time doing just that and continue to do so and only now have started to make some minor changes that are seen as revolutionary buying them more time to continue to make money whilst providing an experience which is not good but is exactly what their customers expect 😉

  10. Alan, I disagree with your example (I am repeating it)
    look at Ryanair the low cost carrier if you complained they either completely ignored you or basically said what do you expect when you fly to Europe for 25 Euros
    You said they did what the customer did not want. If that was the case n customer would use it. there was a segment that saw value in their offering even though the experience might have been poor.
    Your definition of what a customer wants cannot be global..it depends on the segment and the industry.
    Your example shows customer experience was not important to the customers of RyanAir, but they still got value from the low price, hence they used the airline

  11. Hi Gautam of course you are right and that is one of the central parts to my view that customer centricity (lets not go into if it should be called that) is one lever in terms of business strategy and is often not the dominant one in a CVP (but unfortunately when not dominant it is often non existent) and this is exemplified by the fact that there is a segment and it is a large one that varies by vertical that is price or other driver sensitive/dominant – I made my point badly “not doing the right thing for the customer” would be the way their approach would be viewed by many people including those purist advocates of customer centricity and indeed they have been roundly roasted in all media for adopting what some have termed as treating customers like cattle, not they mind it is all great publicity for free 🙂

  12. My point again is even if the experience is terrible, there is a segment willing to use Ryanair. Does it not say that experience does not relate to the sale? or re-sale

  13. Not sure the experience would be deemed to be terrible because as a customer you have lowered your expectation as both the company and your key driver is price – of course that is why over time any marginal improvements have a an exponentially greater positive impact because of the low base – some would say a very smart business strategy 😉

  14. Indeed – as ever Gautam customers are increasingly sophisticated and are buying the value proposition problems arise when the advertising gives you one CVP and the customer experience fails to deliver on it…

  15. Thanks Alan.
    Unfortunately, CX is a fragmented discipline, it has to be so, since the ‘experience the customer has’ is multi-faceted and contextual. Talk to Ericsson and it would be about loss aversion; for others frictionless and effort score, for others again ‘the Experience Economy’.
    However, saying that, I agree with you about the tendency amongst some to sell snake-oil around over-delight without reference to the customer need, business cost, capability to deliver or business necessity. A particular problem also relevant to another general word being banded about ’emotion’.
    I like your point though, that how you execute to ‘the experience’ required of your business/ customer is the challenge.
    I would also tease out the difference between customer centricity and customer experience as ‘the experience the customer has’ being the execution of centricity i.e., saying I want to be customer centric requires consideration of the experience: but that may be a tactical fix problem as much as a strategic purpose.
    At the end of the day to quote ‘Dave Snowden’ a lot of these are ‘terms without utility’.

  16. Thanks Gautam. I would say customer service on RyanAir is ‘sufficient enough’ to not detract from the value of price. Why can’t a low price be ‘an experience’ after all.
    People do not sum ‘experiences’, they notice what is salient to them and ignore the rest – unless it intervenes on their value calculation.

  17. Steven, agree with you about CX being fragmented. It can (and probably should) mean something different in every organization, depending on the business strategy.

    Also agree with your point about the experience being the execution of customer centricity. Said slightly differently, I view customer-centricity as the practices of the company that help operationalize the fuzzy notion of “customers at the heart of business” into business outcomes. Listening to customers being one example. Delivering “delightful” experiences is another (and yes, some companies and especially industry leader do this successfully without breaking the bank).

    Regarding price, an unusual price (very low or high, special terms) could be an experience. Retailers certainly try to generate excitement with promotions don’t they. But generally isn’t price more of a way to answer the question: “Did I get what I expected?”

    If the price is low (e.g. Ryanair) then expectations should be lower and the customer should be satisfied with a lower quality experience. But oddly enough, Ryanair passengers were not. It seems passengers still believe they deserve basics like courteous service, transparent fees, etc.

    In the US, Spirit is following the Ryanair model with similar results. And, like Ryanair, Spirit is trying to upgrade customer service and fix other customer pain points while maintaining the low price, a la carte pricing model. (See http://customerthink.com/spirit-plans-passenger-experience-makeover-can-low-price-and-great-cx-coexist/.)

    Getting back to the subject of Alan’s post — thinking differently about CX — perhaps CX practitioners would be wise to think about what CX *doesn’t* include. In other words, be more focused.

  18. Thanks Bob.
    Well i think we are in agreement on most things but on price I would not agree.
    The term experience doesn’t have to follow a Pine and Gilmore economic approach of having to be ‘personal and memorable’; indeed by dictionary definition ‘experience’ means information received by the customer subjectively.
    So, any marginal price difference can be an experience to the customer, it doesn’t have to be unusual. Hence, I would not go to the extent of saying price is ‘did I get what I expected’, I can actively seek it our as a differentiator (and I frequently do).
    Hence, in Ryanair, price is the experience that counter-weighs other events received such as lowered service but that is not the same as bad service. I want low price, but not negative service.
    CX for me is a prototypical word, like emotion. The wisdom comes from recognising experiences are adapted to the context: a similar way of saying the same thing, as you subscribe.

  19. OK, Steven. Got it. CX means whatever people want it to mean.

    The most common positioning of CX goes something like this: “You can’t just compete on product or price, so you must compete on experience.” Meaning — interactions. Something *other* than product or price.

    There are countless articles making this case in one way or another.

    Yet in past year or so, it seems that CX has become the new term for customer loyalty. And of course, anything can be a loyalty driver — including price.

    In the not-so-good old CRM days, when someone asked me a question about CRM, I would have to ask “What do you mean by CRM?” Because it was just a term for anything customer related.

    Now the same thing is happening to CX. When someone says they are “doing a CX initiative” I have no idea what they mean without asking a bunch of questions.

    The problem is when a term is used so broadly, it loses its impact. Given the broad range of potential connotations of CX, it seems to me that business leaders should define what it means at their company. You can’t make a plan to improve something that is not precisely defined. And plans to “boil the ocean” rarely work.

  20. I think (pardon the pun) we are now converging in terms of ‘thinking’. You are correct that language is critical part of the problem when we talk about customer experience that is part of where I originally came in around ‘customer centricity’ – in most engagements that I undertake with clients I begin by asking the question “what do you mean by customer experience and what experience can your customer s expect to have when they interact with you” – then if they feel able to answer “yes” then the follow up is simply “have you explained that to your business and equipped teams to deliver on it?” …you can imagine the what the answer then is 9/10 times “NO”.

  21. If price is the experience you want to use, you are accepting being a commodity.
    CX in this definition is leading to the opposite of what it is meant to be

  22. Have to confess to being a bit lost by that one Gautam I think this is getting a little too esoteric – price is not ‘the experience’ the simple reality is that we as customers automatically adjust our ‘expectation’ of the experience based on the price that we are paying – don’t get the ‘commodity’ comment at all 🙂

  23. Thanks Bob, you know I don’t disagree with you but come from a different direction. Price and product functionality absolutely can be ‘experiences to me’ (and emotionally appealing ones at that) but I see no difference between that approach and ServQual. So, why bother with a term like CX? Look at how interchangable service and experience have become; you only have to download documents from TMForum to see that.
    For me, CX sees things more broadly or rather ‘potentially more broadly’ from the customers perspective.
    And utmost respect to Pine and Gilmore, I get their point on experience too.
    You have to understand as ex-Ericsson I have seen the term utterly bastardised to mean download speeds and avoidance of loss aversion – the opposite of your contention that it is wrapped into loyalty.
    Who is right, when no-one owns the term?
    Gautam – CX as non-commodity for me is a Pine and Gilmour approach/ McMillan-McGrath but frequently and unfortunately a dominant logic for CX is to avoid loss aversion which means higher rates of commoditisation e.g., total obsession with web browsing speeds to sell boxes at the detriment of the customer (since hygiene is measurable).
    Bob – in one industry it is wrapped into vague notions of loyalty; in another hygiene.

    Isn’t this similar to what happened with CRM?

  24. Alan, If price is the experience, and I assume a lower price, then you are selling basically on price and nothing else, which is what you do with a commodity…you sell it on price…

  25. Diving in to this discussion feels a bit like going off the cliff at Acapulco. Wheeee …

    Alan, you highlight the words: “What companies need to do is to ‘dial up’ the customer component of their value proposition to the level that is appropriate for that company.” Quite right. Any value proposition includes elements that are superior to, equal to, and inferior to other competing options. That’s why Ryanair does what it does. It’s all about trade-offs. The inferior part of their VP (versus, say, a flag carrier) is the fact that the legroom may be cramp-inducing and there are no frills. But the superior element is the low price. And the ‘equal to’ element is the fact that the airplane is airworthy. Not much value in a cheap flight if it’s going to kill you!

    Price, therefore, in my opinion, is absolutely a part of the customer experience. Any transaction involves functional, experiential and financial elements. They all combine to constitute the delivered experience.

  26. Thanks David and agreed the whole point about a CVP is that it is composed of different elements that together influence our expectation of the product/service experience, price is a big player in that conscious and sub-conscious view that we developed therefore it is ok not to have a brilliant experience if that is what you are offering and I am expecting.

    The problems arise where the brand promise is at odds with the experience – if you look at my recent post about British Airways “BA take my expectation versus customer experience reality and score 2/10″ you will see that in action and how that then made me ‘FEEL” about the company as a consequence of the experience/price dynamic.

  27. In your opener at the top of the thread, Alan, you ask “What is this about wanting to WoW customers?” And you’re right to point out that, literally, it would always mean doing something “unexpected and well beyond expectation”. However, I (and others, I suspect) use it as a shorthand to get clients actively to think about raising their game … and, even, just to get them to start thinking from an outside-in perspective. .

    With that in mind, a key issue always is the alignment (or not) between brand image and brand reality. Brand image is designed by a Company. Brand reality is always assessed by a Customer. Sometimes (often?), as in your BA example, there is a chasm between the two.

    The no-frills offerings of Ryanair are not ‘poor experiences’. They are appropriate and right in terms of the brand promise. The brand promise and brand reality are in alignment.

    But the brand promise of BA is quite different – and the service you received sounds as though it would have been abysmal even against the Ryanair proposition!


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