Companies seem inordinately invested in their customer experience (CX) strategy. They send surveys, analyze touchpoints, and build out customer personas. But an alarming paradox has emerged: Customers are more dissatisfied than ever.

According to Forrester Research, in 2023, for the second year in a row, the quality of customer experience among U.S. brands declined. In addition, the Average American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) was 77 (a C+ grade) in 2023 and has been hovering in the mid-70s for years.

What’s the missing link? How is it that companies implement customer experience initiatives, yet customers don’t feel the love?

I’ve been running customer feedback and CX programs since before customer experience was a discipline, and here’s what I see: Many companies fail to improve the customer experience in ways that fundamentally matter because of two main pitfalls:

  1. First, there’s a tendency to hyperfocus on tactical issues at the expense of big-picture thinking. It’s understandable, given the pressure to get things done—if not now, by the end of the quarter.
  2. Second, which is a much bigger problem, companies often work from a definition of customer experience that’s outdated, limited in scope, and misses the nature of what experience really is. If you misunderstand the customer experience, any strategy to improve it will fall short.

people at a whiteboard discussing customer experience strategy

The Usual Definition of Customer Experience

Many companies, such as Zendesk, Oracle, etc., define customer experience as the sum of customers’ interactions with a company’s touchpoints.

Wikipedia expands on this by defining customer experience as the “totality of cognitive, affective, sensory, and behavioral customer responses during all stages of the consumption process, including pre-purchase, consumption, and post-purchase stages.”

Both definitions represent the usual customer experience paradigm, which is inward-focused, treating companies as islands on to themselves, as though when customers interact with companies, they are only perceiving that interaction and not comparing it with an entire milieu.

In other words, the standard customer experience paradigm misses the depth and breadth of the customer’s lived experience, which is why it’s time for a paradigm shift.

So, what is the customer experience?

Like all experiences, whether that’s reading a book, going to a concert, or anything else, the customer experience is a constellation of unequally weighted sensations, emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and, perhaps most importantly, expectations.

This definition accounts for two critical reality checks.

Reality Check #1: Multiple factors affect the customer experience but to different degrees.

For example, Starbucks customers typically care much more about getting their order quickly than whether the barista uses their name–which is a nice touch and definitely affects the experience, just not by as much as how long the customer waits in line.

I am guessing here, but wait time probably has 5X the impact of personalization. So, CX isn’t just which factors affect the experience but how they stack up against each other.

Therefore, to reflect the uneven nature of experiences, an accurate rendering of the CX won’t simply sum or average variables; it will include a multiplier in the calculation.

Reality Check #2: Whether we’re conscious of our expectations or not, the quality of any experience is largely driven by our expectations.

For the customer experience, expectations arise from three main sources:

  • What you say about your company and the values you advertise
  • How your competition handles the customer experience
  • Surrounding companies that you are compared with

With expectations playing an outsized role in experience, before you embark on your customer experience strategy, here’s some of the discovery work you’ll need to do.

Explore:    

  • Values: What do your marketing materials advertise? What does your website say? And what are your mission and value statements?

    Whatever you promote about your company sets up what customers expect. For instance, if your website bellows that customer care is one of your core priorities, then naturally, customers will expect above-average customer service.
  • Competitors: Use interviews, surveys, and focus groups to research who your customers consider your competitors to be. Also, determine if this varies by customer type. For instance, if you are in manufacturing, your distributors may cite a very different list of competitors than your OEMs do.

    Once you know your competitors from your customers’ perspectives, again, use research to determine what customers think each competitor does particularly well—and not so well. Again, no company is an island; almost all of your customers have, at some point, purchased from the competition, and those interactions shape their expectations of you.
  • Comparables: What companies do your customers compare you to? Comparable companies may be the same size as you or provide services related to what you offer.

    Amazon is often a comparable simply because customers are buying from them so often—and that means, when it comes to delivery, customers can’t help but think if they can send packages within a day, why can’t you? Sure, B2B companies get some slack on delivery, but not a lot!

people looking around to demonstrate looking at your customer experience strategy

Customer Experience, Taking a Hard Look

Once you’ve explored your customers’ expectations, the next phase of a customer experience strategy requires ‘taking a hard look.’ The gist here is to determine what you know for sure about the experience your customers have and what you want that experience to be.

Explore:

  • What statistically valid facts do you have about the customer experience? Could those ‘facts’ be skewed due to poor sampling or leading questions?
  • How many different kinds of interactions do you have, and what are they?
  • In detail, to support your values, beat the competition, and stand out among comparable companies, what should happen at each interaction point? How would you describe those interaction details in a word, a paragraph, with a map, and as a set of rules?
  • Ask yourselves, employees, and customers how well your departments collaborate? We’ve all had the experience of calling a company to hear, “That’s not my responsibility, talk with another department.” Then, the next department explains that it is someone else’s responsibility. This results in endless customer frustration and proves the company is unduly siloed.

    When you take a hard look at collaboration, the stakes could not be higher—because, for your customer experience strategy to stick, you need teams to exchange information and meet regularly.

    For instance, if your Repairs and Warranty teams embrace your strategy but Tech Support doesn’t, there will be gaps in the customer experience, and you’ll need to find a way to get Tech Support on board. Because the customer experience crosses departments, there is almost always a need for more dialogue among teams.

hand holding a pencil shaped as a lightning bolt do demonstrate starting your customer experience strategy

Ignite Your Customer Experience Strategy

Now that you’ve done some exploratory research, it’s time to start planning your customer experience strategy. Obviously, an entire book could be written about this, and Fred Reichheld’s “Winning on Purpose: The Unbeatable Strategy of Loving Customers” is a fantastic resource.

But here are four fresh paradigms to get your customer experience strategy in gear:
  1. Think in context.
  2. Subtle customer questions work best.
  3. Always assume there’s room to improve.
  4. Yes AI, but focus on human connections.

Paradigm 1: Think in Context

All experiences, including the customer experience, get their meaning from context, and contexts are constantly shifting. Your services change, and marketplace forces evolve. Nothing is static.

“…because everything is always changing and the context is changing, absolutes need to be questioned,” cautions the famed Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer.

An example of absolutist thinking is the assumption that one method, like a survey, or one metric, like Net Promoter Score, is sufficient.

Instead, examine your customer experience from multiple angles. For instance, in addition to your NPS survey:

  • Analyze reviews and customer comments
  • Evaluate customer service call recordings (with and without AI assistance)
  • Mystery shop your company — and your competitors, too
  • Ask freeform questions in emails without relying on a survey

And instead of relying on a single satisfaction metric, use an array of scores. For example:

  • Competitive Edge Score shows where you stand in relation to other companies.
  • Brand Compliance Score gauges the extent to which your interactions support the pillars of your brand.
  • Customer Effort Score measures how easy it is to buy from you and get product and service support when needed.

Paradigm 2: Subtle customer questions work best.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” the American poet Emily Dickinson wrote. You don’t need to hit your customers over the head with glaringly direct questions like, “How satisfied are you with…” or, “Tell us why you gave us that rating.”

Instead, look for creative and nuanced ways to ask customer questions. It all depends on your objectives, but questions that can be fruitful are:

  • Asking about Priorities: Customers rank what impacts them the most by sorting a list of features, services, or departments in order of most to least important.
  • Usability Questions: “Outside of price, what are one or two things that would make buying from us easier?
  • Marketplace Questions: This one works well in one-on-one interviews: “I am interested in everything you have to say about <COMPANY> and the <ABC> industry.”

Often, indirect questions produce more insightful answers than direct questions do because customers are more willing to express their thoughts when they don’t feel pressured to produce a “right” answer.

Another way of looking at this is that direct questions can make respondents feel defensive, even intimidated, whereas indirect questions sidestep confrontation by inviting,  not demanding, customers to share their experiences.

Basically, while direct questions can result in superficial responses, indirect questions often provide a greater understanding of the context in which customers form their opinions.

Paradigm 3: Always Assume there’s Room to Improve

It’s easy to tell yourself that your company is ‘in a pretty good place,’ but complacency can be deadly for a business. Never assume anything except this: always assume your customer experience has room to improve.

Because of confirmation bias, we all tend to seek information supporting our preexisting beliefs and ignore evidence contradicting them. This affects everything from how we remember information to how we interpret it and can skew our judgment when we make decisions.

The first step to counteract confirmation bias is to be aware of it. Then, seek out information that might challenge your preconceptions.

To zero in on your opportunities to improve, ask your customers and employees:

  • What did we overlook?
  • What are you seeing other companies do better?
  • What advice could you give us?

Advice is worth dwelling on because customers and employees are often happy to give constructive advice when asked.

In fact, Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant finds that we are more likely to give useful information when we’re asked for advice instead of feedback. He says, “Feedback tends to focus on how well you did in the past. Advice shifts attention to how you can do better in the future.”

Of course, it can be painful to face your shortcomings. But it’s how we grow. In an interview with The New York Times, Adam Grant said, “The feeling that something is uncomfortable is a signal that you’re about to learn something new.”

people with speech bubbles showing the human connection aspect of customer experience strategy

Paradigm 4: Yes AI, but Focus on the Human Connection

While AI is rightfully getting endless attention, my last point about a successful customer experience strategy is this:

Remove the word customer from “customer experience” and consider what makes all experiences fulfilling.

Whether it’s a day at Disney, a stay at the Ritz Carlton, or a quick burger at Shake Shack, there are a few core elements that leaders from Robert Iger to Danny Meyer know how to implement in their customer experience strategies. None of these pointers are AI-driven and include:

  • Delight: Small positive surprises elevate experiences. Helpful information, a special discount, or an unexpected perk that exceeds customers’ expectations goes far.
  • Personalization: Whenever possible, tailor experiences to individual preferences. This might come in the form of a thoughtful recommendation, a callback when the customer is ready, or focused attention on the customer’s unique situation.
  • Convenience: Streamlined processes enhance every experience. Whether it’s a purchase, a return, or a chat with a customer service rep, at the end of every interaction, you want your customers to say, “Wow, that was easy!”
  • Clear Communication: Build trust with transparent, clear, and proactive communication. When businesses communicate honestly and openly, customers’ confidence soars.
  • Consistency: Do your customers know you’ll deliver a high-quality experience every time? To develop a positive reputation for CX, you need to perform exceptionally, regardless of which associate is involved, whether it’s early or late in the day, and whether it’s a Monday or a Friday.
  • Innovation: Don’t get complacent. Introduce new services or products to keep your company fresh. Customers appreciate companies that are the first to deliver something unique.

The Experience is a Journey

The best customer experience strategy integrates different fields of knowledge cohesively—in a way that meets customers humanistically and helps them thrive. This is critical if you want your customer experience to make a remarkable impression that stands out among your competitors and peers.

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Is your customer experience strategy in a rut? Maybe it’s time to examine your customer experience practices from a fresh perspective. To fuel your thinking, drop us a line. We look forward to hearing from you.

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