The customer is always right. The motto that put customer satisfaction on a pedestal is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago, when merchants like Marshall Field pioneered the approach. But fueled by a rapidly evolving array of technologies -- from AI to AR to IoT -- the stakes today are much higher. To successfully engage and satisfy customers, companies must have a killer customer experience strategy.
Today, a customer experience strategy incorporates the consumer expectation that companies -- large and small, located around the corner or half a world away -- know their customers on intimate terms. Customers expect businesses to offer, at just the right time, merchandise and services that fit their exact needs. They demand quick and satisfying responses to their queries and complaints. No matter if they shop on a digital device or in a store, they want the customer experience, or CX, to be uniquely personalized and delivered effortlessly every time and across every platform.
Indeed, delivering a positive customer experience can seem like a business unto itself. It takes a Herculean effort, requiring that external channels are aligned and internal departments share a common view of customers. Offers designed to appeal to one customer segment can't be fobbed off on another. Merchandise must be available whenever and wherever a brand promises it will be. Today, the omni channel customer comes first.
"Customer experience is not a department," said Shep Hyken, a public speaker and author on CX. "It's a philosophy. It's a culture. It's to be embraced by every employee of an organization."
What is a CX strategy?
A customer experience (CX) strategy addresses the totality of a customer's experience with a brand over time. It covers the full array of interactions customers have with a company -- in stores, on digital devices, on the phone with a call center representative or when receiving a delivery package.
Technology is essential to a customer experience strategy, but it's not a magic wand and doesn't replace the need to follow CX best practices. No matter how advanced the social media programs, CRM platforms and other technologies, they serve only as a bridge between brand and consumer.
A CX strategy starts with knowing how your organization wants to appeal to its customers. Will you be known as the company that has seamless conversations with customers -- whether on the phone or via chatbot? Will you be known as the company that anticipates customers' needs before they do? Will you stand out for the little things that can add up to the big score: a customer's loyalty and brand advocacy?
Many companies strive to be like Amazon with its seemingly intuitive sense of which products best suit customers and its ever-shorter delivery times. But few companies can fight in Amazon's weight class. Instead, CX experts advise companies to focus on the strengths of their people, processes and technology and how they combine to put forth their own unique brand of CX.
"The goal of CX across industries is the same," said Liliana Petrova, who until recently served as head of JetBlue's customer experience programs and is now the vice president of member success for the Specialty Food Association. "It's delivering to your customers the value that they value. It's a simple goal that carries a lot of weight and is hard to execute."
Here are the six steps your organization should take to build a CX strategy that exceeds customer expectations and confers a competitive advantage.
1. Build a cross-functional team and put a CCO or equivalent in charge
Smart customer experience starts with strategy and therefore starts with people.
"The biggest problem isn't technology," said Jessica Ekholm, a Gartner analyst covering customer experience. "It's getting people in the same room."
In crafting its customer experience strategy, companies should strive to involve leaders from many departments, even those that might seem tangential to the customer experience.
"Customer experience touches every part of your organization. That is your key guiding principle" in forming a team, Petrova said.
In addition to wide representation, there needs to be someone in charge of this cross-functional team. That could be a formal head of CX -- a chief customer officer -- or the CMO.
Jeanne Bliss was Microsoft's first CCO. Now, as a coach of other CCOs, she sees the position as critical to driving what should be the non-territorial goal of serving customers. "When a company is not used to uniting around customer goals, you need someone to organize and help," she said.
Bliss and others also recommend the continued involvement of the CIO in CX. "The tech people are often brought to the party too late," Bliss explained. "Having a CIO at the table early on can bring in amazing insights" on what technology can do, which in turn can help shape a smart customer experience strategy. "They're not getting CX as a requisite," she added, "they are brainstorming with everyone else from the beginning on how to approach it."
2. Develop detailed customer personas to create precise customer journey maps
Once a CX team is in place and the organization's approach to customer service is clear, most experts agree that companies should then identify -- and, in some cases, create -- the various "personas" of their customers.
Building detailed personas will reveal the types of journeys that B2B and B2C customers want to take, according to Gartner analyst Augie Ray. Without detailed personas to draw from, companies tend to create customer journey maps that inevitably have every customer or client pigeon-holed into the same experience. Personas help companies match up customers to their preferred journeys. Ray said they also prevent key customers from being overlooked -- for example, the B2B decision-maker whose input was key to forging a client relationship but is forgotten in subsequent communications.
Not every employee in a company will need to master the nuances of buyer personas, but the entire workforce must understand how the company intends to serve customers -- its CX vision. "You train everyone to this vision," Hyken said. That way, even those employees who don't have direct contact with customers will understand that they have a vital role in creating a positive customer experience.
"The guy in the warehouse has to understand his role," Hyken added. "If he doesn't pack something properly, then customer service gets involved, and you have to do everything all over again."
3. Make 'voice of the customer' feedback the central pillar of your CX strategy
A clear CX vision and well-defined buyer personas won't help much if organizations don't have the processes in place to hear what their customers are saying -- what's known as the voice of the customer (VOC).
Specialty Food's Petrova said she was delighted when Citibank acted on customer feedback like hers and now offers the option to make ATM withdrawals in denominations smaller than $20 bills. "I see proof that they listened when I use the ATM," she said. "It's alive. That is the customer feedback loop that's critical. Many companies hear but don't listen. When you close the loop, you're listening, internalizing suggestions and then going back to the customer and showing you're doing something."
Gartner's Ray said VOC is at the heart of any customer experience strategy. When companies seek his help in enhancing or rebuilding their approach to customer experience management, many want to define CX from the inside-out by measuring leads, conversions and sales. But saving money and other company-oriented goals don't tell companies what their customers are saying nor improve customer retention. Ray instead urges clients to work outside-in and construct a CX strategy based on what customers want -- and that entails measuring their loyalty to a brand and their advocacy of the brand.
One way to start understanding what customers are saying is to use a VOC platform that coalesces data from the customer service department, the internet, customers' social media profiles, surveys and other outward-facing sources, Ray advised. These voices will illustrate what drives customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction as well as point companies to innovations that can solve customer problems, rather than simply reacting to a query or complaint.
"In order to understand the voice of the customer, you need to shift from a process orientation -- where the customer asks for this and the company responds -- to an information mentality," underscored Gartner analyst Patrick Sullivan. "It's about understanding the information of each customer at each point and making that information available to the people who need it."
Blake Morgan, who writes and speaks about customer experience management, agreed that smart CX is ultimately about understanding the customer experience in order to improve it. "Prioritizing CX doesn't require huge amounts of time or resources," she said. "Even smaller efforts can have a big impact when done strategically."
4. Choose customer experience management technologies based on your company's CX goal
In an age when customers are increasingly defined by the digital data they generate, ensuring a positive experience for customers requires shifting to an "information mentality," Sullivan recommended. Gathering and understanding digital customer feedback requires the use of information technology. There's a lot of it out there -- from customer management and cloud communications platforms to AI-supported data analytics and marketing platforms.
"A suite of technologies is required," said Forrester Research analyst Jennifer Wise. But sorting out the CX landscape can be confusing as the number of platforms expands and vendor hype reaches stratospheric levels. "The best place to start," she advised, "is understanding what the end experience will look like and then looking at which technologies will do it."
Knowing what the technology needs to do makes it easier to see the strengths and limitations of programs and platforms and recognize what will and won't fit, Wise said. It also curbs the itch to buy the latest hot technologies -- but making prudent choices is easier said than done, she conceded.
Using data insights to create a great customer experience
How much data crunching is needed to provide a personalized customer experience? Not as much as companies might believe, according to Forrester Research's Jennifer Wise.
"You don't have to mine all of my data just to call me Jenny," Wise said. "And it doesn't help that you use the data just to remind me I bought something." A company that collects massive amounts of data but fails to use it intelligently will see customer trust diminish, not increase.
One way to personalize a user experience that doesn't involve crunching a huge amount of data is enhancing website interactions, Wise said. After determining which service offerings a customer visits most often, a company should make navigating to those pages easy by providing as many shortcuts as possible, she explained: "No algorithm is needed for that."
"Finding the 'right' technology is a problem because you think you need to replace systems or solve a problem with something [that's driven] by AI, and then before you know it, you're using chatbots," Wise said. While using chatbots sounds good in theory, some of the CX problems a company may be facing require other technologies. "Maybe the company just needs to fix one discreet touchpoint in an entire customer journey," she conjectured. "Or maybe the technology is being used as a blunt force instrument, and there's not enough thought about data."
Business vision and CX strategy come before any decisions on which technology to use, Gartner's Sullivan agreed. "If you can get it to a level where everyone understands what you're doing and why," he said, reviewing your current architecture and the products on the market should take no more than two weeks. Vendor consultation programs help companies see how technologies work within their ecosystems and let them envision how these offerings can manage their CX efforts.
"The key thing is to not get enamored too quickly with the technology," Sullivan said. "Make sure you understand your business vision and then translate that into strategy and then the operational model. Then you're in line for the technology itself."
Customer experience: Definitions to know
Customer journey. Customer journey refers to the many steps customers take when interacting with a company, from buying products online to accessing customer service on the phone to airing grievances on social media. Companies lay out the journeys on hypothetical maps so they can see how effectively people "travel" through their customer experience initiatives.
Voice of the customer (VOC). The customer's "voice" is "heard" by reviewing direct and indirect communications a customer has with and about a company. The communications, which include phone calls, emails and social media posts, enable companies to understand a customer's perception of the company's CX efforts and its products.
Customer persona. A persona is a composite representation or idea of a type of customer. It's based on the attributes and demographics of a particular customer segment, information that was compiled through data and market research.
Customer data platform (CDP). A customer data platform is software that unifies a company's many streams of customer information onto one platform, enabling employees to get a nearly complete view of customers. The information on a CDP can be viewed or accessed by other systems.
Petrova recommended finding a vendor that will partner with you as you implement CX technologies. At JetBlue, Petrova leaned on the airline technology vendor SITA while implementing biometric facial recognition scanners for boarding passengers at several airports. Anxiety ran high because of the need to move passengers along without compromising security. SITA's successful handling of the live-testing process was key, Petrova said, adding that the vendor came through "when the relationship mattered most."
5. Invest in automation and AI to take customer journey maps to the next level
To deliver the seamless and personalized interactions customers now demand, most companies will need to invest in at least two types of technologies: a customer engagement platform and data analytics platform.
"Customer engagement hubs, although they might have different names, are platforms that integrate data from CRM systems and all other databases, so you're getting a complete view of the customer," said Gartner's Ekholm. "Pegasystems, Salesforce 360 and a few others do this."
Data integration is critical to delivering a positive customer experience, she said: "For the customer, it really boils down to, 'If I gave you all of this information, why do I have to do it again?' People see a company as one [entity]. They don't want to think, 'Now I'm speaking to the customer services department.'"
Analytics and AI are big buzzwords in the quest for a 360-degree view of customers -- and there's some legitimacy to the hype. Some customer data platforms have the analytical know-how to coalesce, clean, analyze and segment customer data to levels that separate consumers by purchase habits, geography, socioeconomics and other factors. With that level of detail, the table is set for consumers to receive personalized offers.
"There are also companies that offer customer journey analytics to help you understand where customers are in their particular part of the journey," Ekholm said. "It helps you answer, 'What do we need to think about now? What do we need to push?' They give clues for the next best action."
Automation and AI are also starting to shape the unstructured data collected from surveys and VOC platforms into structured insights on the user experience. "That move from qualitative to quantitative, from manual to automation -- that will really transform the customer experience," said Jeff Foley, vice president of marketing at Luminoso, a company that uses natural language processing to analyze customers' text messages to companies.
The efficacy of AI technologies in improving customer relationships, however, still depends on the humans that train it and the processes in place.
"With analytics, you need to ask the right questions," Petrova said. "In my new job, there is so much data. I'm recognizing I'm not yet ready for it all. I need time to learn and then go back to the data later." That raises one of CX's biggest challenges, she added: CX teams may not be up to performing the difficult tasks that yield actionable insights -- at least not without training.
"The challenge [in CX] is we don't have the caliber of people who are comfortable with mining big data sets and [also] know the business well," she explained. "Extracting value from the data is a collaborative effort."
6. Look to the customer experience masters for CX strategy inspiration
Amazon is widely considered the gold standard for customer experience, but many other companies have also made a mark in CX management, perhaps by having knowledgeable and attentive employees in a store, offering an exciting and easy shopping experience on a mobile app or handling customer service deftly over the phone.
In his research and on the lecture circuit, Hyken has seen the entire gamut of approaches to CX management. He said big box retailers like Target and Walmart are balancing in-store and online CX to the point where the digital and virtual experiences are nearly intertwined. Southwest Airlines has made the online booking of flights intuitive, while Marriott has made check-in easier by letting guests open their hotel room doors through an app on their mobile phones.
"CX, at the end of the day, has to be about strategy and insight, and knowing the customer better than your competitor," Gartner's Ray said. "Everybody wants to be Amazon. But Amazon didn't say, 'Hey, we finally got CX right and now we're done with it.' You have to always keep taking steps."