Why It’s Hard to “Manage” the Customer Experience


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Senior business leaders now recognize that providing outstanding customer experiences is a powerful driver of revenue growth and a critical component of competitive advantage.

In the 2017 Digital Trends report by Econsultancy and Adobe, which was based on a global survey of more than 14,000 digital marketing and ecommerce professionals, respondents said that optimizing the customer experience is their most exciting opportunity in 2017, and that customer experience is the primary way their company will seek to differentiate itself over the next five years.

In a 2015 survey of 1,350 B2B executives by Accenture, 79% of respondents said that a differentiated customer experience has a direct impact on business results, and 78% believe it produces a competitive advantage.

Several national consulting firms, such as McKinsey, Accenture, and Forrester, have made customer experience management a core part of their practice. And several professional societies, such as the Customer Experience Professionals Association, have been established to support the customer experience management discipline.

All of this demonstrates why customer experience (CX) management has become one of the most important and most widely-discussed topics in today’s business world. I would suggest that CX management is also likely to be one of the most significant and persistent challenges facing companies for the foreseeable future.

CX management is difficult to master for several reasons. First of all, it is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. A recent article in the Journal of Marketing contains a detailed review of the academic literature relating to customer experience and provides an excellent introduction to the complexities of the customer experience “construct.” If you have doubts about the complexity, just consider the definition of CX offered by the authors:  “Overall, we thus conclude that customer experience is a multidimensional construct focusing on a customer’s cognitive, emotional, behavioral, sensorial, and social responses to a firm’s offerings during the customer’s entire purchase journey.”

CX management is also difficult to master because no company can control all of the factors that produce customer experiences. At the most basic level, an “experience” has three components:

  1. The environment – This is the thing that is experienced. It can be a product or a service or a website or a call center (or for that matter, a theme park or a movie or dinner at a restaurant).
  2. The encounter – This is the interaction between an individual and a particular environment.
  3. The effect – This is the perception formed and held by the individual that results from his or her encounter with the environment.
A company can control the attributes and characteristics of the environments presented to customers, and it has some control over what happens during an encounter. But a company has no control over the effect component of an experience. The effect is largely determined by the context of the encounter and by the customer’s mental state, and these are the last things any company can control or “manage.”

Companies can increase the odds of achieving a positive outcome by understanding what the customer is trying to accomplish in an encounter and the context in which an encounter occurs. But, that’s a far cry from “managing” the customer experience.

Illustration courtesy of Ron Mader via Flickr CC.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

David Dodd
David Dodd is a B2B business and marketing strategist, author, and marketing content developer. He works with companies to develop and implement marketing strategies and programs that use compelling content to convert prospects into buyers.


  1. Hi David, an interesting article. Stil, I would like to challenge your thought somewhat by saying the the company does not have control the attributes and characteristics of the environment – at best it can control some of them. It doesn’t have any control about my mood nor my stress levels, nor anything else that is in my environment, but not the company’s. And I would venture to say that there are more attributes outside the company’s control than inside of it.

    The experience is my perception of the current interaction with the company. Customer experience as a whole is the sum of all perceptions (experiences).

    That’s why I would say that experience “management” is not possible. There is always a good deal of randomness inside that attempt. What is possible and achievable is influencing the experience. So, imo we should rather talk about customer engagement management than customer experience management.

    And yeah, I know that I am not always consistent in my texts as well. Abbreviating to experience management is just too tempting 😉

    2 ct from Down Under

  2. Hello Thomas,

    Thanks for your comment! I agree with your view. In fact, my first title for the article was “Why It’s Impossible to Manage the Customer Experience.” I changed the title because I thought the original version might sound a little to “clickbait-ish.”

    By way of clarification, I was using the term “environment” in a technical way in the same sense that it was used in the PhD thesis that I linked to in the article. The author of the thesis used the term environment to describe the “thing” that is experienced. So in this sense, if I visit a website, the website is the “environment.”

    The “effect” component of an experience is the perception that’s formed by an individual, and, as you point out, that perception will be influenced by a wide range of factors that are beyond a company’s control – e.g. stress level, emotional state, etc.

    My bottom line is that companies can control some aspects of customer experience, but not all. So, we can influence customer experiences but we can’t truly “manage” them.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. David – a fascinating article. First of all, I heartily agree that the practice of CX is difficult to master! And that it is impossible to influence all of the aspects of the interaction. The customer’s expectations, mental state are very difficult to influence. However, I would offer that part of the “effect” component is the perception based on previous interactions. For example, based on previous visits, many people expect a good to great interaction when they walk into an Apple store. This expectation affects their mental state – and, so, providing consistently positive interactions can influence the “effect” and is under the organization’s control!

    Thanks for the provocative thoughts!

  4. Nancy, yes, consistency is a good part of influencing the effect, as it is about delivering up to promise, i.e. being up to expectations. Take another example: Calling the call center of your utility you expect a poor experience – how much easier would it be to get out of it with a positive one? And how many utilities manage that? Apart from the fact that they get less of a chance as one already has a bad opinion?

    And then the majority of influencers for my current state of mind that will never be under a company’s control as David also listed.

    Still: Customer Experience is the sum of all experiences – good as well as bad, but with a prioritization of the most recent experiences. So, the effort to create good experiences via positive engagements should be worthwhile.

    2 ct from Down Under (relayed from the old world)

  5. Thanks for your comment, Nancy! I agree with you that the “effect” produced by a particular encounter can be influenced by the “effects” produced by previous encounters. When a company delivers several outstanding experiences to a customer, it can create something like a “halo effect” in the mind of the customer. The customer comes to expect a good experience from that company, and this expectation can influence his or her perception of the next encounter. In addition, when a customer has had several good experiences with a company, he or she will be much more likely to forgive a bad one.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  6. A great debate provoking article David – many thanks for sharing it. From my perspective, Customer Experience is actually all about CAUSE and EFFECT. Everything an organisation does (through the delivery of its business processes), CAUSES the customer to feel they way they do – the EFFECT. The better an organisations ability to do the things they intend to do to deliver the experience they want their customers to have, the better their customer will FEEL about the experience. In other words, all businesses DO have the ability to control the effect or perception of the experiences they deliver.

    I do agree that it is proving remarkably difficult for many to master – partly because they do not know what their ‘desired’ customer experience is in the first place; partly because they are not measuring the cause or effect correctly. However, if a business can accurately align business processes to the customer journey, it CAN control the effect of the experiences they deliver (in my opinion!!).

  7. Hi Ian,

    yes, it is cause and effect. However, the organization has access only to parts of the causes. This in turn means that the effect is only partly predictable. example: The airline cannot control that I was stuck in traffic for some time when rushing to the airport (already being somewhat late). This changes any experience at the airport as I am likely to be in a strained mood. So they have influence only but nothing resembling control.


  8. David and Thomas, are you saying you can only “manage” something if every aspect of that thing is under your direct control?

  9. Hi Bob,

    good question! What I say is that you can manage something only if you have enough of the environment under control. Regarding customer experience I do think that this is mostly not the case. If you do not have enough control you end up in disaster recovery (which one could put into the management category again). How do you manage a game of roulette? There are just too many free variables.

  10. Hi Thomas – yes – I do agree that there are a number of things that will always be out of the control of the company. However, if a business is able to proactively address things that negatively effect the customer – even if they cannot control the cause, then they will be able to deliver and manage the customer experience far better than one that cannot.

    For example, I used to work for an online retailer. In December 2010, the UK experienced its worst snowfall on record. Because of the way we were measuring BOTH business process AND customer perception (in alignment with each other), as soon as our customers started to panic about the effect of the weather on their ability to receive Christmas presents they had ordered, we were able to take PROACTIVE action to minimise disruption, confusion and better manage expectation.

    Disaster recovery is typical of organisations who ‘normalise’ the things that go wrong and wait until too long after the fact the address the problem that has been caused. The better a companies measurement system and its ability to create alignment between process and customer journey, the more proactive and predictive the customer experience will become.

  11. I agree that it’s difficult to “manage” customer experiences, if by that you mean control the end results. Of course you can’t control perceptions, but as Ian notes, there are many thing you can control that can help produce the desired effects.

    It’s possible to manage people, isn’t it? But you can’t control everything people do even if they are employees, much less how they feel. And isn’t that the job of skilled managers to try to get top performance by motivating (not ordering) employees to do their best.

    Then there’s CRM — Customer Relationship Management. In the fullest (non-automation) meaning of the term it means creating and sustaining a loyal, profitable relationship. Companies can “manage” their half of the relationship in the hope that the customer will return the favor with continued if not increased orders.

    Our businesses and lives are full of things we can’t completely control, yet we attempt to manage them nonetheless. Same goes with customer experiences. Suggest reading one of the earliest books by Pine and Gilmore, “The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage” to learn more about managing customer experiences.


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