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It's the Customer Experience

By Denis Pombriant
May 5, 2015 12:45 PM PT

Bill Clinton won the presidency with the mantra, "It's the economy, stupid," and I think CRM could borrow heavily from that pithy bit of logic. When in doubt, if you can check your preconceptions at the door and actually perceive the information in front of you, there's no telling what you can figure out.

It's the <em>Customer</em> Experience

Such is the case with the tired phrase "customer experience." Much like Charles Dudley Warner's famous remark, "Everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it," CX, as it is being rebranded, is something we either can't or won't do anything about, notwithstanding all protests to the contrary.

Customers Left Out of the Loop

Throughout this spring I have attended multiple conferences where CX was trotted out only to be defined in a vendor's favorite terms, which rarely included such basics as asking customers for opinions.

There is no shortage of hand-wringing and worry about CX (and proof of Warner's wisdom) than the data floating around. A new Forrester report claims that only 1 percent of businesses surveyed were providing excellent customer experiences. Oracle tells us that more than 90 percent of its customers think CX is primo in importance, but only about a quarter of them are hitting the ball out of the park.

What's going on here? If it's so important, why aren't we doing better? I'd suggest it's because we've misdiagnosed the problem. It's my belief that the challenge is between our ears.

I spent part of the last week at a conference where yet another vendor paid homage to the concept of CX. It brought in consultants and analysts from big firms to tell the audience of the importance that needs to be placed on CX and then proceeded to tell multiple stories about what executives at various companies did to improve CX. Amazingly, though, no one saw fit to mention the vital role of customers in all this.

"Customer" -- the adjective modifying "Experience" -- was bandied about plenty, but it never turned into a noun, as in "let's ask the customers what they think." It went over most people's heads and could have missed me, except that I just spent the last 18 months studying the issue.

To net it out, if you want to know what makes a customer experience, you have to ask the customer. If you don't ask, you are committing the age-old error of letting opinion substitute for fact.

Moments of Truth

Now, to be fair, the substitution is a natural one. Until the last few years, we didn't have the ability either to collect enough customer data or to analyze it effectively. Opinion was the only thing we had. Expert and experienced opinion from senior executives drove most CX decisions, and it worked -- up to a point.

In the 19th century, retailer John Wanamaker is said to have uttered the famous quip that half of his advertising budget was wasted, but he didn't know which half. He had little recourse, since he lacked a fast and efficient way to capture data and analyze it for telltale customer signals.

Old habits die hard, and despite our harvest of big data and robust analytics, we still rely on HiPPOs -- the Highest Paid Persons' Opinions -- when we should be analyzing community data.

The disconnect is becoming significant. With modern methods and using community approaches to collect data, a business can have a laboratory in which it tests ideas with customers to discover what makes optimum customer experiences for a particular business' customers.

One big finding from my research is that we are engineering CX backwards. Customers experience moments of truth -- specific times when they want vendor interaction. If you want to engineer CX, start with understanding the customer not with the opinions of "experts."

The reason is simple: Each customer experience is not something completely new that a vendor has to brace for. Imagine you're a doctor and a patient presents with a sore throat. You might treat the patient as an individual and with empathy, but you certainly won't treat the sore throat as if it is a condition new to medical science.

There are decision trees and best practices for dealing with any malady, and the doctor makes a diagnosis and prognosis based on them and supporting data gathered in the form of lab work.

Notice how the personalization is separate from the diagnosis and treatment. The specific malady, a sore throat, is the moment of truth. It is treated differently from a broken leg, though the attentiveness is similar. That's what we need today in the front office.

Ask Customers What They Want

Companies that take a moments-of-truth approach find that rather than preparing for almost anything in sales, service and marketing, they can limit their horizons to the things their customers care about and that they wish to be great at.

There always will be things that customers want from us that are outside of our capabilities, and we need to say -- in so many words and business models -- that this isn't what I do. Regardless of what the customer experience gurus tell you about customer's attitudes toward a good steak dinner, you don't prepare to handle a customer request for steak if you run a burger joint.

So my advice for anyone who is confused about all the CX talk today is simple: Treat the experience as an outgrowth of an authentic engagement, a moment of truth. Use analytics and community to ferret out those moments of truth that you need to be great at -- some are not obvious, even for HiPPOs -- and then build metrics around your moments of truth to track your progress.

Above all, get rid of the belief that you can know what you need to know without asking customers what they think. If nothing else, it will save a lot of resources spent chasing unicorns.


Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, writer and speaker. His new book, Solve for the Customer, is now available on Amazon. He can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com. You can also connect with him on Google+.


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