Which affects customer experience more: marketing; direct sales and service contact; or process quality?


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If you’re a marketing person, you’re probably saying something like, “Look, brand is an emotional bond, not a rational reaction to process mechanics or hit or miss direct contact.” If you’re a sales or service person, you might be saying, “We deliver the customer experience.” If you’re a process person, you’re probably shaking your head saying, “It’s all about what’s delivered to customers, not what’s promised or apologized for.”

I’ll give you my take. Brand and promotional communication are steadily losing effect, diminishing marketing’s impact. The days of implanting experiences and impressions in customer brains are fast fading. Likewise, sales’ influence is fading. Increasingly, prospects do their research on the web, and don’t call sales until they need a quote. Service plays an important role, but the quality of band-aids applied matters far less than eliminating the need to fix stuff after the fact.

In contrast, the recognition is rapidly growing that “what” work gets done, “who” does it, “how it’s done,” and the quality of the enabling technology – all driven by process (at least Outside-In process) – overwhelms the impact of marketing, sales and service on customer experience. The parties that believed they “owned” customer experience until now are resisting giving up their perceived primary customer roles, but the reality of change is making their arguments moot points.

Look, we’re all headed into a drastically different business world where traditional boundaries and assumptions will go out the window. We can all benefit from starting to think customer-first, not function-first.


  1. Dick, when we studied customer experiences 3 years ago, we found that about 1/3 of “memorable” experiences (good or bad) were in customer service. The rest were distributed between marketing, sales and purchasing processes.

    I understand your point about process quality, and agree it’s probably at the root of some experience successes or failures. But in our study we found that people were actually the strongest contributor to great experiences. People who were perceived as friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and empathetic made a real difference.

    Sure we need high-quality, end-to-end, customer-driven processes. Quality does matter, especially when it’s missing. But the attributes of frontline people matter more if the goal is to create differentiated customer experiences.

    One company that gets it right is Zappos! The run a very efficient operation, with 95% of transactions going online. But when someone calls for assistance, they’ve got a staff of “customer loyalty reps” to provide a great experience on the phone.

  2. Hi, Dick, Bob,

    I agree with you (both of you) if the question of “Which affects customer experience more: marketing; direct sales and service contact; or process quality?” is talking about GOOD experiences, it could be process, or people, or technology, etc, the most important factor in driving them. I won’t say a definite answer as it varies upon different touch-points, industries, or even customer segments.

    But if we’re talking about GREAT experiences instead, then my vote will definitely go to “Branded Experience”. As Axel stated in his blog post “What are the skills of a CEM Leader?: “Do you know ANY company in any industry around the whole planet that created a great customer experience but is not profitable? We all can find companies with great products that are not profitable, we find companies with lots of cash in the bank that are not profitable, we find innovative companies that are not profitable, we find companies of any size that are not profitable, we find companies with the most skilled engineers that are not profitable, but I couldn’t find a single company with a great customer experience that is not profitable.”. If GREAT experiences are so important in driving profits, what are the key elements in creating great experiences?

    It will take me to write an article to state clear my argument why I said it is “Branded Experience” which matters most. To make it simple, may I suggest the interested audience to read (or read again) my previous article IKEA: A Branded Experience Is More Important Than Customer-Centricity

    Sampson Lee
    Follow Sampson on Twitter

  3. Dick,

    Nice article. It gets the brain working! I would disagree that you cannot design a Customer Experience. I am mindful of the blog post I read in Science Today a will ago. http://www.beyondphilosophy.com/customer-experience/making-an-impression-in-120-milliseconds/ This shows people start to form an impression within 120 milliseconds of an experience. This is a basic Human ability that doesn’t change. Therefore if you consider in detail about impression you wish to make you can build a Customer Experience around it and then design it.

    The issue for me is that is none of these departments that you mention and all of them, but it is certainly not technology. I would not focus on departments. I would focus on building a Customer centric organisation, then no matter what the department people would be focussed on the ‘Customer first’ as you rightly say.

    Colin Shaw
    International Author. Lastest book “The DNA of Customer Experience”

    Follow me on Twitter:

  4. Hi Dick,

    I agree that the key to customer experience optimization is prevention of potential dis-satisfiers through customer-first outside-in processes company-wide.

    Depending on the industry, prevention may be centered in customer service (e.g. Zappos) or any other function (e.g. wide range of drivers in heavy equipment and construction industries, government, small consumer packaged goods firms with heavy reliance on channel management, etc.).

    The point, as you and all the commentators have mentioned, is that substance plays a strong role relative to sizzle. I’d also add that the company which has superior understanding of customer experience outcomes and drivers will in turn have the greater likelihood of capturing sustainable market share and profitability.


    Lynn Hunsaker helps companies improve customer data ROI, customer-centricity and customer experience innovation. She is author of 3 handbooks, including Innovating Superior Customer Experience.

  5. Dick Lee – folks, thanks for the great comments. I want to inject a couple of further thoughts. One is the title of Bill Price’s book, “The Best Service is No Service.” Process” is the factor that produces “no service.” Also, Bob I understand what you research numbers show. However, you’re trying to compare something that did happen (human interaction) with something that didn’t (no problems). That’s very speculative. I do very much agree with the late Ron Zemke who produced the first statisticalo data showing that customers experiencing spectaculer servic e recoveries wound up greater customer advocates than those experiencing no problems. However, if the problems repeat customer loyalty falls like a rock. And almost all problem that occur recur unless the underlying process issues are addressed.

    Regarding brand, Sampson, you and I will never agree on this one. The data I’m aware of suggest the importance of brand is declining, and today’s economic environment is ill-suited for brand to be a dominant factor, or in many cases even an important factor. And that’s what I see occuring on the street.

  6. Dick Lee – Colin, I wanted to read the piece before responding. I agree with what you’re saying up to a point. And that point is that no amount of emotional “stroking” will get most customers past repeated product/service issues (and repeated can mean twice). I would argue that the most important aspect of customer experience is what doesn’t happen. And you definitely can’t build a lasting brand on top of poor process, not today.

  7. Dick, I certainly agree with Bill Price’s message that “the best service is no service.” Get rid of problems at the source. And that’s a great place for process improvement.

    The trouble is, I don’t know of any company that has been able to do this, and get rid of the customer service department. Products change, new problems happen, and even the best run companies (e.g. Toyota) have problem and need people to help solve them. And hopefully improve the process so they don’t happen again.

    I agree with Lynn that process improvement removes dissatisfiers. A great place to start, but problems that don’t happen don’t create much of an emotional bond.

    Your question was: “Which affects customer experience more: marketing; direct sales and service contact; or process quality?” Well, they all matter — as do the processes that connect them. Getting rid of problems is a great start, and seems like the main thrust of process improvement, but loyalty-building experiences have to go further than that to include the marketing, sales and service people that interact with customers.

  8. Dick Lee – Bob, what I’m trying to address in the question is a question of balance. From my perspective, business is relying too much on promotional tools and band-aids applied after the fact to bond with customers – and too little on preventing customer disappointments from occuring. But I agree with you that both are needed.

  9. If the question is “Which affects customer experience more: marketing; direct sales and service contact; or process quality?” then the answer should have some type of measurement associated to it, shouldn’t it? It would seem to be the most objective way to compare.

    I don’t have any data to answer this, however, my humble opinion is that this is an ongoing balancing act that promise makers (sales, marketing) and promise keepers (support, services, product development, ops) play.

    Marketing and Sales are out there pitching, making promises, and then handing them off to some type of delivery model. If the promise keepers are in the know, then the experience should be delivered according to the set expectation. If not, then issues typically arise.

    So maybe what affects customer experience more is communication – good communication.

  10. Dick, I couldn’t resist throwing-in comments with this esteemed ad-hoc panel.

    I know companies can do it all – so why choose. Great leadership teams can craft a compelling brand promise that piques customer interest right along with a healthy dose of customer skepticism. These leaders can develop training and systems to assure customer expectations are exceeded, emotional bonds are forged and resistance melts away. Additionally, these leaders find ways to consistently maintain relationships by leveraging terrific CRM systems.

    Unfortunately, far too many companies become more enamored with their marketing strategies which are let down by faulty service delivery processes and even more so by failed relationship management post sale.

    Thanks to people like you, Lynn, Colin, Bob, Arturo, and Sampson more companies are appreciating and achieving terrific experiences across brand presentation, delivery, and follow through.

    I am grateful to have been allowed to be a part of this discussion! Thank you.

  11. Hi, Dick,

    One of the things I like very much about you is your persistence and the ‘cystal clear’ standpoint on “Process”. My logicial mind definitely agrees with what you said: “Regarding brand, Sampson, you and I will never agree on this one….” However, my emotional side still drives me to try the ‘mission impossible’, or at least hoping you could look at my ideas in a different perspective?

    A picture tells thousand words. To illustrate my ideas more clear, I’d like to borrow two diagrams from IKEA’s branded experience. Though I use IKEA to explain, my key point is not about IKEA. It lies inside the two quadrant diagrams.

    I guess all of us should be very familiar with the Important-Performance Quadrant. When looking at Figure 1, we could see the red dots, which represent the sub-processes / attributes within the IKEA in-store experience, they are poorly performed but are highly important to customers, i.e. their critical needs.

    [img_assist|nid=2419|title=Figure 1: Importance-performance quadrant of IKEA in-store experience|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=360|height=261]

    Probably ten out of ten companies when they look at the results of Figure 1, they would focus their resources to enhance the red dots – those attributes with high importance and low performance. However, I’d recommend companies to look at one more perspective before making the decisions.

    [img_assist|nid=2420|title=Figure 2: Importance level to brand and customer of IKEA in-store experience|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=360|height=256]

    Figure 2 added one more dimension on ‘Importance Level to Brand’, i.e. in reflecting the brand values of IKEA throughout the experience. Though the red dots are important to customers, it is the ‘blue stars’ which are important both to customers and to the brand.

    What exactly it means? There’s nothing wrong with listening to the voice of the customer, and it’s necessary. However, if IKEA really did all that, i.e. to satisfafy all the critical needs of customers, we wouldn’t have the great IKEA brand we have. Simply put, there will be no pleasure peaks during the whole in-store experience because the company’s resources would be spread too thin among the various attributes without any focus.

    It’s not hard to understand the philosophy behind IKEA. To get quality products at a price level you can afford, you have to “do it yourself” more. IKEA’s primary target is the general masses, and its strategy is to select some, but definitely not all, of the critical needs of this target group and focus its resources on performing superbly well on fulfilling the select critical needs.

    No matter how big your company is, you can never fulfill all of the customer needs. For one thing, customer needs can be never-ending, and for another, it is not an effective way to manage customer experience.

    An insightful blog post from Shaun: Why Steve Jobs doesn’t listen to customers. Does Steve Jobs really NOT listen to customers? He may have his own unique way to listen but he definitely understands the critical needs of customers. But he is not trying satisfying them all. Customers concern price, compatiability, etc. There is a long list of critical needs from customers. Apple’s always been trying to democratize technology and as a symbol of innovation, Steve knows well it’s one of the critical needs of customers, and also the DNA of Apple (i.e. reflecting Apple’s core brand values). He focuses most resource on it. Steve also understands Apple is not everything to everyone. Apple’s products are not cheap and are highly incompatiable. Apple focus their resources on a few things that are critical to target customers, and can reflect their differentiated brand values, so that a highly effective branded APPLE’s experience could be delivered.

    Strategy is about making choices. Designing an effective customer strategy—and the corresponding branded experience—means making choices on resources allocation. You have to SELECT and focus. You must factor in the brand element while you listen to the voice of the customer. Attributes that are important to your customers may not be important to the brand. That means you should focus your resources on those attributes that are important both to the customers and to the brand, i.e. the bue stars in IKEA case, as long as other attributes don’t fall below what you deem to be an acceptable level.

    Customer-centric could be wrong if you don’t take a paradigm shift from measuring efficiency to effectiveness of experience; if you don’t build in brand values into the experience; and if you don’t have guts to select the critical few to focus on.

    To deliver any great customer experience, UNDERSTAND the critical needs of your customers (yes, the first step is to listen to the voice of customers), SELECT your target brand values from those critical needs (note: it’s extremely critical in order to deliver an effective experience, if your brand values are not what customers treasure, i.e. not their critical needs, you end up very branded but drive your customers away), then SERVE your customers with your unique Branded Customer Experience (which excelling in a few attributes which are both important to your customers and to the brand).

    Dick, no matter I did success or not in influencing you to look at my ideas in a different perspective, I do treasure every interaction opportunity with you.

    Have a nice day!

    Sampson Lee
    Follow Sampson on Twitter

  12. Thanks to Sampson’s comment to another CustomerThink post for alerting me to Dick’s post. Dick’s posts are usually good for a (Pythonesque) argument.

    In reading through Dick’s post and the various comments all I see is people beating the drum for their own particular service offering. For example: Dick is beating the drum for ‘Outside-In’ process improvement, Sampson is beating the drum for branded experiences and Colin is beating the drum for emotional experiences. All of the viewpoints are very reasonable, but none of them provide anything like a complete answer to Dick’s question by themselves.

    What I don’t see is any supporting evidence for any of the perspectives. I have the sneaking suspicion that if evidence were presented, a middle ground would emerge that would encompass all of the viewpoints.

    Shouldn’t this be about evidence-based customer management rather than disguised sales pitches?

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  13. Sampson – I’m flattered that you’re trying so had to persuade me. And you make a number of very cogent points. But from my perspective, one incorrect assumption undercuts much of your case. You say,

    “…there will be no pleasure peaks during the whole in-store experience because the company’s resources would be spread too thin among the various attributes without any focus.”

    Actually, effectively using Outside-In to redesign the customer experience around the full range of customer MOTs (moments of truth) will conserve resources, rather than spread them too thin. Paradoxically, in most cases improving customer experience involves streamlining internal operations, which saves resources and reduces cost. We prove this point over and over again with our clients. Properly executed, O-I redesign: improves customer experience; improves work quality; and streamlines operations.

    But you did make some good points, and thanks for your persistance.

    Have a good one!

  14. Hi, Dick,

    I am so glad that now you’ve a more positive perspective on my idea of branded experience, though at the same time you’ve raised another perspective of ‘Outside-in Process Redesign’ on “…there will be no pleasure peaks during the whole in-store experience because the company’s resources would be spread too thin among the various attributes without any focus.” It seems like we’ll have another round of long discussions in order to understand each other more. I’d find a good ocassion to sink in.

    Have a nice day!

    Sampson Lee
    Follow Sampson on Twitter

  15. Hi, Graham,

    Your comment is fair. We Consultants sometimes are beating our drums too hard. And probably your suspicion is right too. There are many roads to Rome. Most of our approaches may work quite well independently or even would work better if join hands appropriately according to circumstances. One sound evidence is always better than million arguments. Later, I will try to extract the findings and data from my CEM research and consulting works and see if meaningful results could be presented as evidences.

    Have a nice day!

    Sampson Lee
    Follow Sampson on Twitter


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