Customer Experience Isn’t Working


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A few years ago, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) was the hottest of topics for business. Its attractive promises of increased customer satisfaction, increased customer loyalty and increased business profitability were believed by gullible C-suite executives. But a combination of an over-emphasis on CRM technology, a failure to pull all the associated business levers and a failure to extract step-by-step benefits from CRM’s implementation led to its widely publiced failure to deliver its promised potential. Nobody really wants to talk about CRM today.

One of CRM’s biggest failings was its tacit inside-out, company-first focus; it was largely about how companies wanted to go to market with their customers, not about customers and their needs. Customer Experience Management (CEM) was developed as the antidote to CRM. Rather than just taking an inside-out view, CEM looks at customers’ requirements over the customer’s tenure with a business and the business’ own requirements, to create a balanced view of mutual value exchange. But despite this balanced approach, we are already starting to see the same symptoms of implending failure in many CEM implementations.

One of the biggest reasons for this failure is, to put it bluntly, rotten customer service. There is considerable evidence that customers look to business to provide them with support before and during the sale, and particularly, to support them in the long period of ownership after the sale. This usually falls to Customer Service. But most companies consider post-sale customer service to be an unnecessary cost to be got rid of, rather than as part of the bargain entered into at the point of sale. The results of this mis-match often strain the customer’s patience and can cost incompetent service providers untold millions in bad publicity.

Take the case of Patrick Askins. Mr Askins received a retrospective bill for GBP90 for services mysteriously not billed by British Telecom almost a year earlier. Mr Askins phoned BT to enquire what the services not billed were for, but didn’t get an explanation. Many months later, and after several disconnections and reconnections, and almost GBP200 in calls to BT’s service centre, exasperated, he paid his outstanding bill and posted a video about his customer experience onto YouTube for the whole world to see how incompetent BT’s customer service is. The story was quickly picked up by the UK newspapers and by UK TV, and shortly afterwards, Mr Askins received a full refund and an apology from BT’s CEO.

I shudder to think of the direct customer service costs that BT incurred by not handling Mr Askins’ enquiry competently on the first contact or any subsequent contact. Or of the much larger indirect costs of mobilising BT’s PR army to handle openly hostile questions from the media. And the damage to BT’s already poor reputation in customer social networks (read: ‘the market’) is quite simply incalculable.

This is not an isolated case. The business press is stuffed full of the most rotten customer service stories imaginable, and of the incompetent, bullying and selfish behaviour of the companies who fail to keep their end of the bargain. And who in doing so, pour cold water on the over-heated promise of CEM.

What do you think? Is rotten customer service putting CEM in jeapardy? Or is CEM robust enough to withstand being tarred and feathered by rotten customer service?

Post a comment and get the conversation going.

Graham Hill
Independent CRM Consultant
Interim CRM Manager

Graham Hill (Dr G)
Business Troubleshooter | Questioning | Thoughtful | Industrious | Opinions my own | Connect with me on LinkedIn


  1. When tech-oriented CRM projects failed, it’s easy to point the finger at software vendors. But in most cases, based on several industry studies, the fault lies with problems of strategy, people or execution.

    That’s not to say that software isn’t sometimes a culprit, or can’t be improved. The growth in on-demand solutions is one way customers are saying they want solutions that are easier to implement and use.

    When the “customer experience” is poor, who is to blame for that? Again, it’s possibly that systems aren’t up to snuff. But as with CRM, the fault lies in strategy, people and execution. I suspect that since CEM is less associated with vendors/technology, the blame will more clearly come back where it should, to the company delivering the experience.

    All that said, the Web has made it easy to share stories of bad customer service, be it “Dell Hell,” a billing foul-up or a botched airline flight. These stories, easily posted for all to see, create a perception that service is getting worse. But systematic research, such as conducted by The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), has found that customer satisfaction has been rising the past several years on an aggregate level. (Individual companies, like Dell, have had their challenges.)

    So, I wonder, is customer experience really not working on a broader scale, or is it just the case that any one service “molehill” can quickly turn into a media “mountain” of bad perception?

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  2. Bob

    I agree with you entirely that software vendors are not solely to blame for CRM projects that go wrong. As I said early in my post, “a combination of an over-emphasis on CRM technology, a failure to pull all the associated business levers and a failure to extract step-by-step benefits from CRM’s implementation led to its widely publiced failure”. Having said that, CRM vendors and their captive systems integrators were often guilty of over-selling the promise and under-delivering against said promise.

    The relationship between satisfaction and the customer experience is a difficult one, worthy of further academic research. If we make the assumption that satisfaction as measured by the ACSI is a rational assessment by the customer of their attitude towards a company, based on their own experiences, then rising customer satisfaction is good news indeed for the state of customer experiences in general. But if we assume that customers are not rational economic maximisers, are plagued by well documented cognitive biases and are heavily influenced by what their peers say about a company, then as you point out, all it takes is one big botch-up by a company and suddenly you are on YouTube, in The New York Times and on CNN. And your share price is doing the Northern Rock Shuffle.

    We live in a connected, network age. Serial incompetence like that shown by BT in how they dealt with Patrick Askins raises serious questions about the quality of their customer service as a whole. Sometimes that is all it takes to focus the media’s spotlights on a company behaving badly. And as David Ogilvy famously said, “Perception is Reality”.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager


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