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Gartner suggests seven ways to improve the customer experience

Customer experience initiatives require a total corporate commitment, and there are some key initiatives to focus on, according to Gartner.

Increasingly, companies are turning to customer experience initiatives to boost the bottom line, but it's an effort that requires cooperation across the organization and extends beyond just CRM, research from Gartner Inc. suggests.

In fact, targeting, attracting and retaining new customers remains a top priority for CIOs this year, a Gartner survey of 1,500 CIOs worldwide found. Yet CIOs have little involvement in customer experience initiatives, according to Ed Thompson, research vice president with the Stamford, Conn.-based analyst firm.

"None -- I can't think of one example," Thompson said. "They're not invited to the conversation. There's generally no IT presence in the meeting at all. It's usually marketing, quality improvement, CRM, and customer experience specialists."

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In the past, CRM failure was often blamed on too much IT involvement and not enough backing from the business side. However, customer experience initiatives and CRM are not the same. CRM projects may be a subset of customer experience initiatives. For example, in companies where the CRM initiative went well, it's organized, funded and there is a plan for a single view of the customer, according to Thompson.

"Most companies are much more fragmented and disorganized," he said. "And in those cases, there's a bit of a vacuum and CRM is just one little piece that might help. It depends on how successful CRM was in the past."

Customer experience team structure

While customer experience initiatives are often led by someone from marketing, organizations with the best-run programs tend to have a mixture of people who are responsible for, or report on, customers across the organization.

"The main types of people you get are brand- and design-type people, then the customer satisfaction and sometimes the loyalty people, then the process improvement people," Thompson said. "When you look at that group, if you have two of the four, maybe three of the four, that's what tends to work the best."

To improve the customer experience, Gartner advises focusing on projects that are doable and critical. There are two things to keep in mind before embarking on a project.

"One thing everyone tells you is: 'There's no silver bullet,'" Thompson said. "The second thing they all say is [that] as they start to look at what they're doing already … they're sort of amazed at what's going on."

Gartner's seven key initiatives are:

Act on feedback:

    Companies that fail to respond to customer feedback are throwing away the chance to increase the number of satisfied and loyal customers. Changes need to be deployed throughout the company and communicated to employees and customers.

Design processes from the outside in:

    Organizations need to identify which processes matter most to customers rather than designing them with the objective of improving operational efficiencies.

Act as one organization to ensure consistency:

    Companies need to ensure that information gleaned from a customer at one interaction is not forgotten in the next channel.

Be open:

    Opening channels or extending hours are one way, but it can mean more, like building communities. Organizations should be transparent and clear, open-minded and inclusive.

Personalize products and experiences:

    Personalization can be complex, and complexity can mean costs for the company. Companies need to beware of just evaluating the costs of personalization against the sales benefits and to factor in the longer-term value of improving the customer experience when building a business case.

Alter attitudes and company behavior:

    Employee actions are often the most powerful actions in a customer's experience. There are three ways to alter employee behavior: recruit the right employees; ensure standards with policies, procedures and governance structures; and create training programs that incent and can modify employee behavior.

Design the complete customer experience:

    Organizations need to plan and design the customer experience, rather than letting it "just happen."

Companies should focus on what's already working, particularly in tough economic times.

"When you start to think about it, every part of the organization can be involved," Thompson said. "But the first thing to ask is: 'What are we already doing? What are the aspects of it? What can we fund better that's already being successful?' Often, people throw good money after bad, but how about throwing good money after good."

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