All mature companies routinely perform a set of sound, standard practices that result in a high-quality outcome. That’s just as true for the accounting firm that does your books as it is for the utility company that supplies your power. It’s true for manufacturers—they don’t get up in the morning and start pondering how they’ll produce high-quality widgets that day. Similarly, retailers have practices for keeping their supply chains flowing and their shelves stocked, and media companies have practices for getting the news online and into print. That’s how grown-ups do business.
Companies that want to produce a high-quality customer experience also need to routinely perform a set of sound, standard practices. These practices fall under six high-level disciplines: strategy, customer understanding, design, measurement, governance, and culture.
The Six Essential Customer Experience Disciplines
The strategy discipline is your game plan. It’s a set of practices for crafting a customer experience strategy, aligning it with the company’s overall strategy and brand attributes, and then sharing that strategy with employees to guide decision making and prioritization across the organization.
The customer experience strategy defines the intended experience. For example, the experience at Costco—a warehouse store in the United States where customers push giant carts through huge aisles stacked high with value-priced products—is very different from the experience at an Apple store, where customers see a comparatively sparse selection of pricey products and get expert assistance with picking the right one. Costco’s experience aligns with its overall strategy as a cost leader; Apple’s aligns with its strategy of innovation.
The strategy discipline is critical because it provides the blueprint for the experience you design, deliver, manage, and measure. Without it, you, your employees, and your partners won’t know whether to deliver an experience like the one at Costco, at Apple, or somewhere else entirely. Worse, you could deliver a Frankenstein experience of mismatched parts, like putting an Apple genius bar in the middle of a Costco store where customers wouldn’t care about it but would worry that prices were going up to pay for it.
2) Customer Understanding
The customer understanding discipline is a set of practices that creates a consistent shared understanding of who customers are, what they want and need, and how they perceive the interactions they’re having with your company today. In other words, it’s the thing that replaces everyone’s best guesses about customers with real, actionable insights about customers.
The customer understanding discipline includes a number of research practices such as conducting observational research studies (think of it as studying customers in the wild), collecting feedback (both solicited and unsolicited), and gathering input from employees about their interactions with your customers. The discipline also includes the practice of analyzing the information you collected through research. A third set of practices involves documenting your findings in ways that are easy for employees to understand and sharing those insights with your employees, through workshops and other methods.
The customer understanding discipline is bedrock. Without this level of insight, you’re liable to frustrate and annoy your customers with your well-intentioned efforts to serve them. When Geek Squad, the U.S.-based computer services company, interacts with its customers, it deals with them differently depending on which customer archetype they correspond to. A customer could be “Jill,” a suburban mom who uses her computer and other information technology daily. To her, technology is like plumbing and Geek Squad is like a plumbing company that she calls when she wants a leak fixed.
However, a Geek Squad customer could also be “Daryl,” who loves getting his hands dirty but sometimes gets into trouble when one of his tech projects goes awry. Trying to engage a Jill in the same way as a Daryl would be disastrous. When Geek Squad is at Daryl’s house he enjoys chatting about the gory details of the latest innovations, a conversation that would bore Jill senseless.
The practices in the design discipline help organizations envision and then implement customer interactions that meet or exceed customer needs. It spans the complex systems of people, products, interfaces, services, and spaces that your customers encounter in retail locations, over the phone, or through digital media like websites and mobile apps.
Design spells the difference between a symphony orchestra performance and a garage band jam session. The orchestra performance is carefully arranged, rehearsed, and executed—like the customer experience at top companies. The jam session just sort of happens, with varying levels of quality.
Practices in the design discipline include following a formal design process. Other practices include using the insights from the customer understanding discipline to focus and define requirements; identifying the interdependencies among people, processes, and technologies that shape interactions with the ecosystem; engaging customers, employees, and partners as part of the experience design process; and using iterative idea generation, prototyping, and evaluation.
Design weeds out bad ideas early and focuses your customer experience efforts on changes that really matter to customers. By leveraging expertise and ideas from customers, employees, and partners, it encourages creative solutions—and helps avoid missteps by grounding those solutions in reality.
Kevin Peters has implemented many of the practices in this discipline at Office Depot. To envision and define the store experience his customers want to have, Office Depot built a “planogram lab”—a prototype store in a nondescript office complex near company headquarters in south Florida. That lets him bring in customers to help design the shopping experience that’s just right for them, and then test those designs out on other customers. Everything from the amount of floor space to where products appear on shelves to where employees stand when they stock those shelves was designed from the ground up.
The measurement discipline is a set of practices that lets organizations quantify customer experience quality in a consistent manner across the enterprise, and deliver actionable insights to employees and partners. This is how you put customer experience metrics on par with traditional business metrics such as sales and profitability.
The practices that let organizations quantify customer experience quality include choosing the specific metrics they’ll use to conduct their measurement, then defining the subsets of those metrics that are relevant for each group, role, and individual in the organization.
Practices that help firms deliver actionable insights to the employees and partners include: measuring how customers perceive their experiences with the organization based on the criteria in the framework; collecting descriptive metrics (e.g., length of interactions, errors encountered); analyzing customer experience metrics to determine differences in experience quality among key customer segments, tasks (like getting service), or aspects of the experience (like friendliness of staff); modeling the relationship between drivers of customer experience quality (like speedy delivery), customer perceptions of their experiences (like ease or reliability), and business outcomes (like increased sales); and sharing customer experience metrics and models with all employees.
This discipline is key because it lets companies understand the current state of the customer experience they provide, uncover opportunities for improvement, and track progress over time. It connects the dots starting with what needs to be done to improve customer experience, all the way to the business benefits of what has been done.
The customer experience team at technology giant EMC has a sophisticated measurement framework. It first identifies the aspects of the customer experience that drive the most loyalty, like ease of doing business. It then prioritizes those drivers based on customers’ satisfaction with each driver and the impact of each driver on the overall experience. That tells EMC which things to fix immediately, which to improve over time, which to maintain at current levels, and which to promote as strengths.
The customer experience governance discipline is a set of practices that helps organizations manage customer experience in a proactive and disciplined way. If your customer experience strategy is your game plan, then the governance discipline supplies your referees and your rule book. It does this through a mix of assigning responsibilities and changing business processes.
The practices related to assigning responsibilities include giving customer experience management tasks to specific roles within the organization, and facilitating coordination across groups that share responsibility for a given experience.
The practices related to processes include defining a consistent set of customer experience standards; including impact to customer experience as a criterion for major business decisions; including alignment with the customer experience strategy as a criterion for evaluating project funding and prioritization decisions; maintaining a dedicated queue of customer experience improvement projects; reviewing customer experience program status and metrics regularly; evaluating employee performance against role-specific customer experience metrics; and proactively redesigning an experience to reflect changes in policies, business processes, products, technologies, or other systems that affect the experience.
The governance practice is essential because it holds people accountable for their role in the customer experience ecosystem, and helps keep bad experiences from getting out the door. It also gives a boost to initiatives that improve customer experience.
Customer experience management practices hold people accountable in a number of ways. These range from executive oversight, like what the customer experience steering committee does at FedEx, to day-to-day coaching of frontline employees.
Processes help force customer experience concerns into the mix when making day-to-day business decisions. For example, Canada Post requires all funding requests from any department to answer ten customer-focused questions in the business case. This ensures that all leaders think not just about how their projects will affect the bottom line, but also about how they’ll impact the customer experience.
The culture discipline consists of practices that create a system of shared values and behaviors that focus employees on delivering a great customer experience. You might think of it as the way you shape what your employees do when you’re not in the room. Practices in the culture discipline fall into three categories: hiring, socialization, and rewards.
Hiring practices include screening candidates for customer-centric values, and screening candidates for the specific skills needed to deliver on the organization’s customer experience strategy. Of these two, the most important is screening for values—like commitment to helping customers. This is often expressed as “hire the will, train the skill,” which is shorthand for “it’s easier to teach someone a skill than it is to change their core beliefs or personality.”
Socialization practices include communicating the importance of customer experience to employees, customers, and other stakeholders; training new and existing employees in the skills they need to deliver on their part of the customer experience strategy; collecting and sharing stories of customer experience best practices across the employee base; and performing rituals and routines that reinforce the importance of customer experience. Of these, rituals and routines are the least understood yet most intriguing. You see them at companies like Umpqua Bank, where employees at all branch locations get together for five minutes each day for “motivational moments,” taking turns sharing lessons they’ve learned that connect back to the customer.
Rewards practices include connecting formal rewards (e.g., bonuses, promotions) to performance on customer experience metrics and using informal awards and celebrations to highlight customer-centric behavior. Informal awards are often overlooked but they can be powerful motivators. For example, Starbucks encourages personal recognition with M.U.G. Awards, which partners give to employees as a thank-you for “moves of uncommon greatness.”
The culture discipline is perhaps the most powerful of all the disciplines because it embeds practices from the other five disciplines into employee DNA. Companies like Disney, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton, and FedEx all point to their customer-centric cultures as key to their success. That’s because this discipline turns customer experience excellence into a habit and makes future change easier by creating an ecosystem that’s receptive to customer experience improvement efforts.
To understand how powerful a customer-centric culture can be, you don’t have to look farther than USAA. When storms ravaged much of the United States in the spring of 2011, USAA representatives deployed to the devastated locations for twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, over the course of eight weeks. USAA executives visited with them in the field, and employees at the home office connected with them to create a sense of teamwork. This behavior stemmed from the deeply held, shared belief that the field team was doing the most important work at the company: taking care of its members in their hour of need. As they like to say at USAA meetings, “We do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”
It’s Commitment Time
Mastering the six essential disciplines of customer experience takes time and effort but it’s something that you have to do. You’re not going to succeed through manufacturing strength, distribution power, or information mastery—those have all been commoditized. And you can’t win by controlling the flow of information about your products and services, either. Often your customers know more about your products, services, competitors, and pricing than you do—courtesy of the information age.
If you want to succeed, today and in the immediate future, you have to decide—right here, right now—to roll up your sleeves and do the work of building competence in these six disciplines. That may scare you. But what should scare you more is the thought of becoming irrelevant to your customers, which is what will happen if you don’t take action.
It’s time to get started. Your customers and your company will be glad you did.