CX strategy 101: how to get it right
Many customer experiences are excellent. But as we all know first-hand, many more are bad. At the heart of any experience is a paradox: it’s easy to make things hard, but hard to make them easy. The long-standing discipline of Customer Experience (CX) tackles this paradox head-on: first by learning about customers’ sentiments, then turning these into actionable recommendations for improvement.
The roots of CX stretch back five decades. Early CX research developed a generalised picture of their sentiment by focussing on commercial and marketing concerns: how customers perceived products, the price-point, and where and how they were promoted.
In parallel, the creative discipline of User Experience (UX) became the de-facto approach for designing at the human/digital frontier. If UX is the science of interaction, CX is the science of meaning. Conflating the two is detrimental: it causes a mistaken understanding of how customers’ feel based on data about what users do.
According to a survey conducted by research company Illuminas, 98% of marketers believe CX is critical and have a specific strategy. But only 64% feel it is performing, and 44% report their leadership is not aligned on it.
Additionally, many digital-era disruptors differentiate by creating the best CX in their sector, so this should be a golden age of CX amongst more established brands. Yet many approaches to CX are still wedded to the era before we all spent far more time online. So, what are the steps to evolving a brand’s CX thinking?
From my experience with brands, I often find there’s been some high-level effort to understand the sentiment of stakeholders: customers, employees, investors, trustees, resellers, journalists and so on. But it's surprising how often these efforts came to rely upon hunches and opinions rather than research and craft-skills and so they produce unclear, un-actionable conclusions.
Brands that have arrived at that tricky point, or brands that are starting from scratch, should take two parallel steps: engage external expertise and develop complementary internal capabilities. External partners will have been kept sharp by tackling similar challenges in other contexts. They can begin CX research and insight-gathering quickly and will be familiar with bringing back meaningful recommendations. Internally, identify the most impactful challenges and the right talent to value the recommendations and then act upon them.
Some findings will point to immediate actions. Others will need testing and experimentation, often by a blend of stakeholders from different disciplines. Run together, these programmes help brands develop the skills to turn stakeholder sentiment into meaningful outcomes.
Measure the right things; apply to the right challenges
Even done well, digital-channel analytics are narrow in scope. They’re good for downstream tactics such as persuasion, but a poor emotional indicator and often hard to interpret as such. For example, brands have no control over the mobile devices their customers might own or choose to use. Android users tend to outnumber iOS users, but the latter tend to be far more engaged with brands, products and marketing activities.
Why might this be? Is owning an iPhone the result of a more conscious purchase-decision, whereas the typical Android buyer just needs a straightforward phone? Does the marketing or price-point of a mobile device affect customers’ perceptions of what they should be able to do with it and, by extension, their expectations towards brands and products? Worth testing.
Start right up the top of the brand-value chain
Customers’ experiences begin way upstream: before they’ve clicked on anything, they’ve set out to buy something, often before they’re even aware of a product or the brand that makes it.
So, while it’s tempting to plot from a customer’s first click, all sales and product experiences can be improved by reaching back to the moment a customer’s perceived challenge intersected with a brand that can help. Affinity for those high-level ideas strongly influence that customer’s experience throughout their lifecycle; yet is often overlooked by CX. We all know the extent to which we are predisposed to a particular phone or car manufacturer, the idea of German engineering or a diamond being a symbol of eternity. That affinity, and a seamless experience, tangibly improves outcomes.
Remember that people buy in teams
Move beyond saying ‘the customer’: it creates a false impression of what’s happening. Purchases are seldom the logical decision of a single person. Understanding what and who influences a customer is key to understanding and shaping the quality of the experience they will expect. Some of those influencing factors can in turn be influenced by a brand, many more cannot. Basketball legend Michael Jordan has a strong influence over my choice of trainers but, when it comes to choosing where to go for the weekly shop, I’ll go with the family consensus.
While some purchase decisions are groupthink, they’re more often like nemawashi: an ongoing, informal process of persuasion and decision-making between people. The automotive industry has long understood the influence of those who sit in the back seats. No business places orders at the behest of just one person. And purchases are never solely rational: after all, nobody wants to make a bad choice in front of their boss, or their kids. Or Michael Jordan.
Measure, interpret, action and test
When running CX research, pick groups of stakeholders large enough to be meaningful while motivated to bring clarity. Aside from customers, shareholders are often an interesting addition into the mix, because there is a strong motivation for them to commit effort to improving experiences. From their vantage point, stakeholders often bring clarity and are pleased to be asked.
Third-party research alone is too general to be used as a benchmark for your own CX work but, along with macro trends, truths about your sector and anything described as ‘best practice’, they are useful to inform the kinds of things worth testing in your own first-party research.
To wrap this all up...
A strategic approach to CX lets brands participate directly in how their customers feel about them. To do so, it’s important to get out of the weeds of individual clicks and taps. Instead, study how interactions accumulate over time, and how each customer’s sentiment could strengthen in proportion.