Thursday, November 20, 2014

What the Hell is Customer Experience?

Image courtesy of Pixabay
How ingrained is the customer and his perspective in your company's DNA?

I recently came across an article/speech by the late David Foster Wallace; it starts with the following story.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

David Foster Wallace's interpretation of this story is: the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

While I don't disagree with that, my interpretation is: we have forgotten about the water because it's what we "live" or "live in" every day. It's just natural for us and not something we think about.

That translates nicely to customer focus and to delivering a consistently great customer experience.

I believe that every company should strive to achieve this level of customer experience maturity, where we look at each other every day and say, "What the hell is customer experience?" Why are we even talking about customer-focus or customer-centricity or customer listening or improving the customer experience? It's ridiculous. It should be what every company lives and breathes every day. There should be no concerns over executive buy-in or battles to build a business case and prove return on investment. This is a no-brainer.

Instead, we have companies/executives that...
  • still need to be sold on employees first, customers second, shareholders third
  • focus more on acquisition than on retention
  • share nothing but sales metrics in company meetings
  • sell things they shouldn't sell, just to make your numbers
  • focus solely on making their numbers
  • talk about nothing but sales metrics in executive meetings
  • don't listen to their customers
  • or listen to customers but don't act on the feedback (only listen to check a box)
  • don't make decisions based on what's best for customers
  • don't include some reference to customers in job descriptions for customer-facing positions
  • don't train employees on what it means to deliver a great customer experience
  • don't teach employees how to deliver a great customer experience
  • don't create a clear line of sight for employees to the customer so that they understand their roles in, or contributions to, delivering a great customer experience
  • don't communicate their brand promise to employees
  • don't communicate openly and transparently with employees
  • who then can't live the brand promise and deliver on it
  • don't explain their vision or purpose to employees
  • don't understand customers or their needs
  • listen to customers but only focus on the metrics, not on improving the experience
  • develop products without understanding customer needs
  • are focused on shareholder value
  • don't make the employee experience a priority
  • don't hire the right people 
  • don't celebrate achievements or customer experience greatness
  • have siloed organizations
  • ... and the list could go on...
What's the purpose of a business? To create (and to nurture) a customer. Enough said. Everyone should be marching to those orders. Every decision we make should focus on and lead to that outcome. First.

When customer-thinking is part of your culture, when delivering a great customer experience is ingrained in the DNA, when everyone speaks "customer," then you've achieved the "What the hell is water?" level of customer experience maturity. Here's to hoping that that's not too far off for your company.

When you’re trying to make an important decision, and you’re sort of divided on the issue, ask yourself: If the customer were here, what would she say? -Dharmesh Shah


  1. Hi Annette,
    I'm with you but your question: What's the purpose of a business? gets to the heart of the matter. Not everyone would agree with you or Drucker that the purpose of a business is: To create (and to nurture) a customer.

    Should we be focusing our energies on 'converting' as many people as possible or would we be better suited to help those that 'get' it be the best that they can be?


    1. You're right, Adrian. There are many who don't agree. And a good question. I'm inclined to answer the former, to convert, since it seems there are so few who actually get it. I know not everyone will agree with me on this... but it's also the harder road, or the road less traveled.

  2. Annette,

    I think most of us, at our core are selfish, and the vast majority are lazy and stupid.

    I know that is a little daming on man kind, but that is the only way I can answer your questions.

    On a positive note it keeps me (and I suspect you) employed.

    1. LOL. Always calling it like it is, James. Thank you.

  3. I understand customer experience in its broadest sense to encompass internal (employees, shareholders) and external ( clients, partners, suppliers, community). Mapping and ensuring a positive customer experience at all touch points with the organization is indeed essential. Thanks!

  4. Business purpose is to create value for its customers. Employees, consumers & stakeholders all are its customers. Customer experience is fundamental aspect of business but it seems it is now being positioned as value ad/ unique proposition.

    1. Interesting perspective, Jaiveer. Thanks for commenting.

  5. True, but big brands equaled little if any competition. Even the 100th guy down on the list made millions. Now we have online businesses hiding behind Amazon and Ebay sites that can match or beat any price you offer. But the one thing that online stores can not do is be there right in front of you and now companies are leveraging that, the only way to make that matter better is Customer Experience Building.

    1. Focus on the customer experience, and the rest will fall into place. The business will come. And stay.

  6. Hi Annette,

    I love this blog post. My company, Club Works helps health clubs manage their customer experience. We coach them over and over again to use the data they gain from the customer surveys to empower their frontline staff. When you can get your whole team focused on improving the customer experience amazing things can happen. Not only will your survey scores improve so will your revenue and member retention.

    1. Hi Calen. I know your company and appreciate what you're doing. Your points are solid. As long as employees use the data to understand the customer, his needs, and the experience being delivered ... And then use it to deliver the experience members desire, then their clubs are miles ahead of others. It's truly a competitive advantage that the industry can and should embrace.