Perhaps you've noticed how certain themes run through the front-office software market.
We've seen platform and cloud computing. Of course, social media is having its day in the sun. And now, and I suspect for a time that goes well into 2013, the theme seems to be improving "the customer experience."
You usually can get an inkling of which vendor influences these themes. Salesforce.com, for instance, has dominated the discussion in successive waves: from SaaS to cloud computing to social business. But when you hear "customer experience," Salesforce is not the first word that comes to mind.
Customer experience is a term whose time came and went a few years ago but has found new life, in part because its greatest proponent was RightNow Technologies Inc., which is now owned by Oracle Corp.
Oracle is banging the customer experience drum fairly hard and consistently, or at least it did during its recent OpenWorld conference. They've added some bells and whistles that make the second coming of customer experience quite interesting. I think it's only a matter of time before Oracle introduces a hardware box (the Exa-experience?) to drive experiences. At any rate, other vendors are following the improved customer experience wave.
Today, as always, customer experience has several overlapping meanings. For one, it refers to the vendor's proactive attempt to make a product or a service an "occasion" -- literally an experience that the user will consume through his own lens and remember positively, not for what he bought, but for the holistic event.
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Of course, to stage an experience, as consultant Joe Pine would say, one needs a great deal of information about the customer. What drives the customer's desire and need? And to learn this information there is nothing quite as useful as social technology and analytics.
It's almost as though the first coming of customer experience was a dry run, a dress rehearsal, and today's is the main event. We now see an advanced use of social that requires no new applications, just a new approach to the concept.
But whereas social was, just a little while ago, focused on a more or less traditional form of communication about products and services, the customer experience mavens nowadays appear to be aiming at something other than just understanding customers' needs.
The metric that many companies rely on these days to show that the market validates their approach to "experiences" is the Net Promoter Score, or NPS. You might recall NPS as a measure of one thing: whether the customer would recommend a business, its products and services to friends and family. High scores are supposed to show that customers are favorably disposed to recommend, and low scores -- well, you know.
To calculate the NPS you should take your high scoring population, typically those people who award you a 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale, and subtract all the other scores. That may or may not be good depending on your business and competition. (I once had a car dealer demand a 9 or 10 because it was the only thing that mattered, but after a problem in the delivery of the car, I never heard from the survey company. You can game any system.)
Driving a high NPS can be very valuable, hence the importance of customer experience tools that make great experiences possible. The big gotcha is that a high NPS might not be automatic if you take a bare bones approach to improving customer experience and simply try not to offend anyone or make sure nobody waits in queue too long.
The difference between a real, improved customer experience and one that tries to just cover the basics is really the difference between constructing an experience out of your product and simply slapping on some kind of happy face. In a way, it's the same conundrum that we saw a few decades ago when quality was the theme running through business. Eventually, we all got the idea that quality is something built in and not just an item to inspect in the last step of a long manufacturing process.
Where the customer experience is concerned, it looks to me like constantly gathering customer data and analyzing it to determine the attributes of customer dimensions is roughly the same as building quality into the manufacturing process.
If the customer experience is having a renaissance, it is because we can do it so much better now that we have social tools that afford us better precision and attention to detail.