Customer experience is nothing new

Over two decades have passed since Robert Woodruff’s paper was published showing how customer value would create competitive advantage.

Over two decades have passed since Robert Woodruff’s paper was published showing how customer value would create competitive advantage. However, it seems more recently the fashion for embedding “customer experience” (CX) as a corporate concept has skyrocketed.

The number of Chief Customer Officers (CCOs) across the UK has nearly doubled in the past year from 90 to 169 (source: Telecco’s UK CCO report). Since 2014, Google searches for “customer experience” have more than doubled, underlining the trend.

However, when CX replaces service quality and product quality, focus can be easily misdirected and not have the intended effect. The risks are that:-

(i) language becomes too highfalutin and you lose buy-in (‘product’ and ‘service’ are easy-to-understand concepts for everyone in your organisation, ‘experience’ less so)

(ii) you miss obvious things through excessive abstraction

(iii) you focus too much on rebranding your efforts instead of improving things for customers

Whilst on a CX course recently, I was shown a diagram of concentric circles, representing the relationship between service quality, product quality and customer experience.


It got me thinking.

The outer circle is supposed to represent the parts of CX not captured by (traditional, old school) service quality and product quality. It includes things like “emotional relationship with product” and “brand communication”. Obviously these are extremely important concepts, but aren’t they just (traditional, old school) marketing?

This objection is supported by a Marketing Week article published last summer “Are CCOs just CMOs in disguise?” where they challenged “Why is the role necessary?... Is there a real evolution here or have businesses failed to understand what marketing is and so resorted to giving it a new name?”

There’s no doubting CX can be a useful concept.

For one thing, it encourages us to look at the organisation from the outside in and asserts that we think holistically, collaborating across departments to improve the customer journey.

It introduces a useful language which interweaves service quality and product quality with more indirect, subjective factors. It ensures that we actually engage with customers and act on the feedback they provide. We know this works because companies which do this typically outperform the market (source: Institute of Customer Service).

CX has also catalysed the development of customer-centric tools such as journey maps and approaches for analysing customer sentiment - together with a range of technological innovation. All of these can bring improved understanding and insight into business transformation.

But how much of the CX subject matter is actually new? Companies have been trying to create the best customer experience since the dawn of capitalism, namely through product improvement and service transformation? (ie. the inner two circles on the diagram)

Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos said: “The balance of power is shifting toward consumers and away from companies… The right way to respond to this if you are a company is to put the vast majority of your energy, attention and dollars into building a great product or service and put a smaller amount into shouting about it, marketing it.”

The biggest opportunities for CX improvement still seem to sit in old-fashioned product quality and service quality improvements. Disney is often held up as the ultimate customer experience. But if you asked Disney to list the top ten things that create their experience, I wonder how many of them aren’t satisfactorily covered by product or service?

CX experts seem to come from the marketing world and marketing typically pushes to ‘own’ the full CX, even if they are at times quite distant from the customer-facing parts of the business.  I recently attended a marketing seminar where the presenter rallied the attendees to “fight in your organisation to own customer experience”.

CX really resonates for me more as philosophy than theory or practice, engendering the belief that collaboration should be at the heart of everything we do. You can’t have operations, fulfillment, customer service and other teams sitting in their own bubble making individual decisions for themselves.

CX philosophy guides us to look at the whole customer journey and great customer experience relies heavily on departments working together. One of our jobs as transformation agents is to help create a spirit of collaboration in people and processes. Once we’ve done that, positive CX is more achievable  but I still believe that by focusing on products and services you will create most customer value.


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