Poor Customer Experience Is a Systemic Disease

Nowadays there’s hardly an executive who isn’t preaching the virtues of customer experience to their organizations. You could say there is a sort of hype around the topic. As Gartner surveyed, soon 89 % of companies will aim to compete primarily based on customer experience. Despite all the fuss a great experience remains to be an elusive target and hard to hit even with the best of effort. How come is that?

Excellence in Three Capabilities

Any effort with customer experience (known as CX) will eventually fall short if it doesn’t address the systemic dimensions. In order for an organisation to consistently create great experiences, the organisational capabilities would need to be developed and perfected. That kind of transformative change is often neglected, maybe since it’s also the hardest to achieve. The three capabilities that limit organisations capacity to sustain high customer experience the most are empathy, synchronisation and mandate.

Triangle of customer experience
The three capabilities of your organization enabling great customer experience


Empathy Lays the Foundation

Empathy in this context means never-ending curiosity about your customers and their lives, as well as willingness and ability to use that information to guide your decisions and actions. As the famous Dieter Rams nicely put it:

Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design.

Engage with your customers to enhance chances of hitting the right target with your services. That’s what it is essentially about.

Missing this empathic urge will lead to mismatch between your customers’ expectations and the reality you are able to deliver. I bet all of us have seen examples of products that just did not quite make it. I can easily remember one cell phone manufacturer that did a lot of work to understand its customers and spot trends – yet failed to respond quickly enough to a market disruption. To me it seems the empathic capability didn’t cut through the whole organisation. Someone still had the opportunity to live in a fictitious bubble. In an all-empathetic organisation this wouldn’t have been possible.

Synchronisation Assures Holistic Delivery

Customer experience is a holistic thing. Whatever you intuitively think about “holistic” you probably are wrong. The “holistic” within CX means more than you think. I let a real-life example explain the point.

This summer I was travelling with a familiar airline. On my outbound flight I noticed a pre-order offer in their inflight magazine. Obviously the marketing department had done good job to get my attention and interest to try what was a new thing for me. So in the destination I filled in the online order form for the selected articles.

However, what followed was a series of synchronisation issues between the digital and the physical experiences:

  1. The actual offer was much more restricted online than what the advertisement had indicated and I wasn’t eligible for some of it after all.

  2. There were multiple overlapping offers and the final price was calculated unfavourably for me.

  3. The payment system in the plane was unreliable: it didn’t provide me with any receipt and finally charged me twice, one correct and one completely mysterious charge.

What was the lesson after all? There were two things done right: marketing got my attention, and the personnel in the plane were friendly and helpful. But at the same time I felt sorry for them since the service system failed them time after time. They managed to keep up the smile despite my irritation and tried to do all they could to save the situation.

“Succeeding in CX turns into a question of succeeding in leadership.”

But the service system and the synchronisation between all of its components made their efforts to be in vain. I was an unhappy customer with a poor experience. I think this an excellent example of how you need to lead all your operations holistically in order to succeed in those short, face-to-face, opportunities with your customers.

Mandate Fixes the Faults of the Systems

Another lesson you can learn from the above relates to the capability of having the proper mandate to act. Instead of feeling helpless and being restricted by the system, the crew in the plane should have had the authority to make up my bad feeling immediately. Now they just kept repeating the message of their hands being tied and that there wasn’t anything they could do.

No system is perfect and even more so with complex service systems dealing with humans and all of their emotions. As Alf Rehn reminds us all:

“[The customer] needs, no, requires individual attention.

There is no one who could design a perfectly functioning machine to consistently deliver excellent experiences. Customers are way too “mercurial and flighty”, as Rehn aptly puts it.

It always requires people to compensate for the faults in the system. And those people need to feel they have the mandate to act when things start going wrong. In the airline example it all came too late, if at all. Clearly it wasn’t ingrained in the culture to seize the moment, rather everyone, both in the plane and in the customer service later, hid behind the system and only kept apologising for its faults.

Customer Experience Transformation Requires No Miracles, Only Hard Work

Pervasiveness of CX doesn’t make the work easy. Succeeding in CX turns into a question of succeeding in leadership. It’s not something a consultant can do for you. CX transformation requires the top team to seize the helm personally. After that it becomes a question of raising your organisation’s capability along the three dimensions listed above. Add some resources, systematics, and most importantly lot of patience, and you’re on your way to stunning customer experiences.