What does “Customer Experience” really mean? Text analytics sheds some light

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A couple of years ago I bought a new bike at a local shop. My 20-something sales rep said my bike was “sick.”

Why would I buy a diseased bike? Seriously, the dictionary says the top 3 definitions are:
1. afflicted with ill health or disease; ailing.
2. affected with nausea; inclined to vomit.
3. deeply affected with some unpleasant feeling, as of sorrow, disgust, or boredom:

Did I buy a different bike? Of course not. I knew instantly the meaning conveyed was slang for “great” or “amazing” — the 11th definition.

In the same way, most people know that the term “CRM” refers to enterprise software. In this case, let’s use Google as the dictionary because it’s the most common way to learn. Google “define CRM” and you’ll get 46 million posts, with this “simple definition” offered by Salesforce.com at the top:

Customer relationship management (CRM) is a technology for managing all your company’s relationships and interactions with customers and potential customers. The goal is simple: Improve business relationships. A CRM system helps companies stay connected to customers, streamline processes, and improve profitability. When people talk about CRM, they are usually referring to a CRM system, a tool that helps with contact management, sales management, productivity, and more.

This is not how I defined CRM “back in the day” nor do most CRM thought leaders agree with this tech-centered view. Yet what people think CRM is defined by what people read. And what people read is enabled by what people write. And millions of posts say, one way or another, that CRM = technology. So that’s the dominant meaning.

Defining Customer Experience

I share this not to re-litigate past arguments about CRM, but to point out the same paradigm applies to Customer Experience (CX). What people write enables what people read which defines what CX really means.

Said another way: If you can’t find it on Google, does it really exist?

In recent years CX thought leaders have attempted to define it very broadly (much like CRM in the beginning) to include all interactions (products, services, pricing) and any resulting perceptions. Literally, everything that happens to a customer is part of an experience.

It’s hard to argue with this definition, especially since I wrote something similar myself in a 2006 research report.

Customer Experience: The customer’s perception of interactions with a brand
Customer Experience Management: Managing customer interactions to build brand equity and improve long-term profitability

And to clarify what I meant, I included this:

  • “Perception” is critical, because, unless the customer thinks or feels that something happened, it hasn’t. And perception can include the emotional aspect of the interaction.
  • An “interaction” could mean literally anything, from viewing a marketing message to the actual use of a product or service to a post-purchase service/support activity to solve a problem.
  • Finally, “brand” means far more than a logo or marketing communication. In the customer’s mind, the brand is a symbol for the organization and a promise to be fulfilled.

Here we are 12 years later, and CX industry experts all say much the same thing. In effect, we are the “dictionary” offering the official meaning.

But just like “sick” or “CRM” the actual meaning could be something else, in practice. What is it?

Voice of CustomerThink Authors

To answer that question, I analyzed CustomerThink’s CX content over the past 10 years. That’s 20,000+ posts from hundreds of thought leaders, consultants, vendors, and practitioners. Let me know a month or two from now when you’re done reading, or…

… spend a few minutes here to see what I learned using a text analytics solution from Datanautix. The solution — called Ana — is designed for customer feedback analysis. I used it to analyze posts (think post = very long comment), after a briefing where CEO Sanjay Patel told me they were having some success winning against established enterprise vendors like Clarabridge by offering an easier to use, more affordable solution.

So I asked Sanjay to provide me access to Ana to see if it could help me better understand what our CX authors were writing about. After about two hours for a demo and some training, I was pestering Ana with all sorts of queries and was impressed with the amount of insight I could get in a very short time.

This is what I learned.

Improving Service is a Dominant Theme

Let’s start with a top level word cloud, with similar words grouped together. Of course, it’s no surprise for CX-categorized posts that “customer” and “experience” are the most common words.

If you focus on the top row, however, you can quickly see that a big theme seems to be around service improvement. “Service” is one of the most common words, found in 63% of posts. (Note: click on any image in this post to enlarge.)

Drilling down into “service” I can read the actual text to learn more. Here’s a sample:

  • Creating and keeping the trust of customers can be directly linked to the quality of service experience they receive from an organization. Convergys research has shown that customers value companies and brands they can trust to deliver superior service and understand exactly what they want.
  • It was a beautiful day and a lot of fun just relaxing. What stood out for me this day was the customer service delivered by an employee at the concession stand.
  • The only thing you have control over is your genetic make-up or how you differentiate your product or service.
  • The W Hotel in Times Square (New York, NY) is one of my favorite hotels. The customer service, ambiance, and energy are just a few of the reasons I love this hotel.
  • Service channels are arguably now more important to business growth than sales channels. Successful companies focus on proactive customer support and preventing issues rather than fixing them.
  • But, according to CTOs, when Nortel equipment goes down, the ‘service call’ to Nortel’s support group is more frustrating than with competing vendors.
  • So competing by providing additional services has become the norm. There is, however, a new breed of company that has come along in the last decade that has moved into the world of experience in order to create competitive advantage. One such company is Ikea.
  • Do companies/people not understand the difference between “customer service” and “customer experience?” Customer service is only one part of the entire customer experience.

Product and Price are Under-Represented

As noted at the beginning, conceptually CX includes the product, price, … anything the customer perceives. But are CX experts writing about providing a better product or price experience? Not nearly as much as customer service.

Take a look at subtopics — related words — to better understand the context in which “product” and “price” are found.

In a number of studies over the past 15 years, I’ve found that product (the solution or service that is bought to do something) plus the price represents about 60% of perceived value. The remaining 40% is non-product interactions — including customer service.

What CX experts write about is skewed towards improving service interactions. While that’s clearly important, it’s just one part of the total experience. It’s understandable why there is a lingering perception that CX = customer service.

Technology is the Big Mover

A final chart shows trends over the past 10 years, comparing keywords. You can see that “service” is a clear leader for that entire time, followed by “product” and “marketing” which show modest increases in frequency over the past few years. Dragging up the rear is “sell” and “price” which are included in only about one in five posts.

What this tells me is that of the traditional “CRM” topics, service and marketing have more traction in the CX world. Sales, not so much.

What really stands out is the nearly three-fold increase in the frequency of “technology” — from 14% in 2010 to 41% in 2017. This quantified a growing feeling I’ve had that technology is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the CX industry. In fact, it’s one reason I recently wrote that CX is a $1 trillion market.

Experts vs. the Crowd

It’s easy to assume that everyone else thinks like you do. I’ve been in the CRM and CX industries for 20 years, so I have opinions honed by all those years.

I’ve written hundreds of articles and blog posts to try to share my opinion and influence others. Fellow authors on our site have done the same, resulting in 20K pieces of content that help educate others about CX.

So, to my CX friends who don’t like the fact that CX is often defined incorrectly (or at least incompletely) as customer service, I say you need to write more often about improving the product/marketing/sales/price experience. Because what you write about is defining what CX really means!


Disclosure: I was provided free usage of the Datanautix solution to perform this analysis. I found it easy to learn and use, a huge improvement over open source text analytics tools I tested. However, this is not intended to be a formal product review, nor a comparison with other commercial text analytics solutions which I have not personally used. No endorsement of Datanautix is to be implied.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent post, as always, Bob. From a neuroscience perspective, however, I would add that we experience every moment of our lives but we only recall a small fraction of them. When a memory has strong logical salience and relevance combined with high emotional arousal, our brain retains it. So perhaps CX isn’t about experience but maximizing good memories and minimizing bad ones. That means we must pay closer attention to the events most likely to generate memories. It would be great if our definition captures this aspect.

  2. Interesting point Ed. We advice clients to measure transactional (short-term) and relationship (long-term) memories – the former being a measure right after some sort of an interaction with the company and the latter being something that is reasonably removed from any interactions. Using open-ended feedback as a way to examine what drives short-term memories to be moved to long-term memory can be an interesting way to understand what drives experience retention and forms perceptions.

  3. Love this. We recently had a discussion on ‘what is the difference between customer service and customer experience’ in our LinkedIn Customer Service Champions group ( https://www.linkedin.com/groups/1815345/1815345-6402482691102568452 .) I was quite surprised at the large and divergent array of definitions.

    I have always defined CX as those controllables which impact a customer’s overall experience, and have segmented them into broad categories of People, Processes, Policies and Practices. The People part is customer service.

    We completed a study in 2016, “The Science of WOW,” to determine the common elements of viral customer experience – things that would remain top of mind, and that people would be likely to share with friends. A little over 92% of these “Wow” experiences were created by a person or people’s actions or behaviours. In other words – customer service.

    I suspect this is why the confusion between customer service and customer experience is so persistent. While customers’ experiences are actually influenced by many things, it is the people part that sticks in our minds.

  4. The text analytics assessment of CX reminds me of the Saturday Night Live spoofs of game shows, in which contestants’ insufficient knowledge, conventional wisdom, and urban legend beliefs substitute for real facts. Like…where was Benjamin Franklin born? How many people would say Philadelphia? No, it was actually Boston, on Milk Street to be precise.

    Conflating a component of customer experience – service, pricing, brand perception, product, etc. – with the holistic, functional and emotional, relationship represented by transactional/strategic value delivery is an ongoing issue, on both the consulting and corporate sides of CX. Speaking personally and professionally, I’ve been writing about this for years:

  5. The point of my post was to analyze what people are writing about customer experience. The theory being that if someone is trying to learn about CX, they will read content online and form an opinion about what CX is based on what they read.

    My conclusion is that many people will likely conclude that CX is mostly about improving service interactions, because that theme has dominated the writing. Products, pricing, marketing, and sales are all part of CX — as defined by experts — but are under-represented in what authors write about.

    This analysis does not address what consumers think CX means. It also does not necessarily reflect what businesses are actually doing under the name of CX. However, my hypothesis is that so-called CX initiatives are also skewed towards improving service interactions. Further research is needed to see if that’s true.

    Michael, the authors writing on CustomerThink are smart, accomplished professionals. They are not writing about urban legends, they are presenting their POV about CX and how to be more successful. The problem is that for every author writing about CX from a holistic standpoint, there are 10 or 20 or more writing about customer service. So someone learning about CX is likely to conflate service improvement with the CX that you and other experts promote.

    It is a fact that experts define CX a certain way. But it is also a fact that not everyone understands the expert definition. Remember, experts defined CRM one way but eventually it became known as software. The same thing could happen to CX, unless more people start writing about other areas besides service.

  6. Bob – My point is pretty much the same as yours, but you’ve stated the situation better than I did. People – and that certainly includes competent CX practitioners and authors – tend to view things through their own, persona\l life prisms. If service dominates your beliefs and world view of CX, and you write about it, then service will get much of the attention in your thinking and writing. It’s kind of ‘you are what you eat’. If you only eat meat and potatoes, that diet dominates your thinking about food. As you noted, this often results in other core components of CX being under-represented, sort of like food essentials like fruits and vegetables being left out of the carnivore’s diet.

  7. I just got back from a physio therapist. Great people, great experience, they were very nice. But my pain problem increased. Dif I get a great experience? or a bad one. The service was great but the results were poor

  8. Gautam, it’s not clear to me whether consumers use the word “experience” the same way the CX industry does — to mean everything that happens including the product — pain resolution in your case.

    And I’m not sure it matters. Business leaders should focus on delivering the total value (product, interactions, …) at a price that will motivate the consumer to buy and buy again. That’s what loyalty is about. Whether the consumer says “I like the product or experience or value or whatever “is interesting, but doesn’t change the job that the business should be doing.

    The problem you’re highlighting, however, is that the CX industry tends to “miss” the product dimension by focusing on service and other interactions. You recall the lunch we had in Santa Clara with CX professionals. When I asked the group what they were doing to “improve customer experiences” only a couple said that the product was part of their mission. That pretty well mirrors the findings from my content analysis.

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