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Four Outside-the-Box Ideas to Better Understand Customer Experience

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You've seen the show "Undercover Boss" by now, right? The premise is simple, but brilliant: Ask senior executives to go "undercover" within their own companies as frontline employees to investigate how their company is really doing and how they might improve and better satisfy their customers.

The executives get an up-close-and-personal look at how their company does business with customers—and what that customer experience looks like. From tip to toe.

As I watch the show, I'm constantly thinking: All CMOs should go through this experience. Why? So they can get a better handle on the customer experience their company fosters—from the eyes of the frontlines.

Many CMOs try to get at customer experience effectiveness by looking through a marketing lens. That's great, you'll get oodles of important information that way. But you won't get a look at the complete customer experience—and that's what CMOs need to see in this competitive business climate.

After all, they're sitting at the table with the CEO, CFO, CIO, and other C-level leaders. They need to know how the business is doing—not just how the marketing department is performing.


Since CMOs often struggle with this notion, here are four outside-the-box ideas to get a better handle on your company's customer experience.

1. Ask your product managers to answer one simple question

What are your customers able to do differently or better because of your product/service?

Simple question, right? What you're after here is a frontline understanding of what your staff is solving for customers, not what you're selling.

Because customers buy absence of pain or a desire fulfilled rather than products or services, all of your operating decisions (and your performance outcomes) flow from focused execution on the answer to this key question.

If your product managers can't answer this question fairly quickly, the chances that your company will exceed your performance goals are very low.

2. Be a customer all the way through the customer experience

Many CMOs go through this process from time to time—with the goal of trying to get a better feel for what their customers go through when purchasing from the company. Too many CMOs and marketing leaders get stuck in the "trial and purchase" phases and never bother to look at the whole experience. Don't fall into that trap.

What happens—and how do your target customers feel—as they learn about your brand or service for the first time? How do they try you out and buy, yes, but also, How do they use your product or service to solve the need that triggered them to act in the first place?

And here's a big one many marketers spend little time on: How do customers' needs evolve over time? Are you anticipating those as new demand, or are you simply using purchase algorithms to drive cross-selling?

Do this exploration as a customer, and use metrics that demonstrate value to customers and your company at each step. Only by looking at all these stages will you get a complete picture of the experience from both your customer's and your organization's points of view.

You'll make decisions and meaningful changes that will drive profitable growth and value if you are armed with ALL this insight.

3. Look backward from performance outcomes

Steven Covey said "start with the end in mind." The effectiveness of any customer experience is measured in the outcome for your customer and the outcome for your organization. So a great way to better see your customer experience is to look backward from these outcomes.

For example, when customers have used your product or service to solve their problem, need, or desire, a Net Promoter Score might be a key performance outcome, or metric, you can unpack. You might look for the predictability, speed, or flexibility actions that are driving your positive or negative NPS.

The number is great: It's an indicator. But the real value comes from looking backward from the number and figuring out what is working—and what is not—to improve your customers' experience.

4. Find the tipping points in your customer experience

Have you ever noticed there are a few "tipping points" in any customer experience that have a disproportionate impact on its success?

It might be the moment you slip between the sheets of a heavenly bed at a Westin, or find yourself smiling and relaxed watching the safety video on an Air New Zealand. Or the moment you received all the charges for your son's broken arm in one easy-to-read and no-surprises bill from your health plan (I made this last one up, but we can dream, right?).

If you get them right, tipping point moments seem to have a halo effect on everything else. And if you get them wrong, you're forever climbing out of a big hole of negative customer perceptions.

Do you know what the tipping point is for your customer experience? Finding it, and getting it right, can mean the difference between creating an army of brand advocates and loyal customers... or an apathetic slog of customers who feel chained to your brand.

* * *

Those are my ideas. What about you? Any outside-the-box ideas for CMOs to get a better understanding of their customer experience?


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Linda Ireland is co-owner and partner at Aveus, a global strategy and operational change firm. Linda's book, Domino, covers how leaders can define customer experience and use it to tip everything in a business toward better financial performance.

Twitter: @LindaIreland

LinkedIn: Linda Ireland

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  • by Bob Anderson Tue May 21, 2013 via web

    Hey Linda, Great points. I like the tipping point concept and we should be looking for as many of these as possible. Typically, there should be more than one. The more tipping points we optimize, the more our customers will lean toward us happy and satisfied. Thanks.

  • by Margaret Donovan Tue May 21, 2013 via web

    Love this! Had not been aware of the Air new Zealand video or the cool Westin bed description, but am constantly working on improving customer experiences for my clients' customers, and know that the Tipping Point is extremely powerful.

  • by Cristina S Tue May 21, 2013 via web

    Linda - the tipping point concept is fantastic - mine happened recently on Jet Blue when I experienced (1) a pleasant check in process (2) friendly flight attendants (3) free headsets and free TV in every seat - which was phenomenal when traveling with my child (4) a decent selection of food for purchase (5) FREE SNACKS. Every delightful service point just highlighted the extreme difference between an airline that is TRYING. Compare that with American Airlines, an airline that has dropped the ball.

    I have to think how this can apply to my business, a gift service called NeverMissGift.

  • by Bart Foreman Tue May 21, 2013 via web

    Really good post. Sport on. It goes several steps further than the old MBWA. (Manage By Wandering Around) Marketing and all the other C-level suite suits need to get close to the front lines and talk to customers - not just about their products but about business conditions and what is changing.

  • by Jörg Seidel Tue May 21, 2013 via web

    We currently develop and deploy a lot of programs aimed at improving customer satisfaction. Many of these are derived from data we collected from retail customers over the last 2 years. Our tipping point will come when we check out if and how dealers have implemented these programs. Becoming your own customer will make you aware of what you need to do when developing programs & services.

    Great points raised in Linda's article. Thanks.

  • by Linda Ireland Tue May 21, 2013 via web

    Really appreciate all the ideas and comments - particularly on the idea of 'tipping points." In my experience there are usually a handful of these in any customer experience. Finding these - and focusing on them, is a terrific way to drive performance. You've got me percolating on another post - would be happy to share how to do just that. Would love to keep the conversation going with you all.

  • by Naveen Blazey Wed May 22, 2013 via web

    I could not agree more on #1. Selling what ‘we have’ rather listening to a customer and solving their problem area is something I witness with my sales team do everyday. This is vital in B2B Marketing (+others too) where listening is the key. You can have all the right messaging and content but if its not customized to a specific client or positioned to fit a need-it can turn useless and ruin the complete customer experience. Marketing should educate sales team(and no we are not teaching them their job) and equip them with the right tools on these subtleties and help them sell smartly. I love to accompany my sales team in meetings and not only witness this first hand but take notes and give them constructive feedback which can be used by others so that mistakes are not repeated.

  • by Darci Wed May 22, 2013 via web

    Great article, Linda. Your comment about the bill from your health plan made me think that by looking at the experience from the front line employee's perspective, you will be able to identify and remove some of the frustrations your employees, and customers, experience that different policies and procedures cause. This will enhance the experience for both your employee and customer, strengthening the level of satisfaction of both. No doubt a positive outcome for employee, customer and company.

  • by Gracious store Wed May 22, 2013 via web

    Good post! It is always good to turn the table around so as to understand how it feels to be on the other side of the table and feel as a customer to your own comapny

  • by Kevin Patterson Thu May 23, 2013 via web

    Great post Linda! I think that all too often, companies operate in a reactive mode and only address key (inflection) points in the cx when something goes terribly wrong. Taking a proactive approach like the one you suggested, and occasionally reviewing/assessing the entire cx is definitely the best way to keep your customers happy and keep your competitors unhappy.

  • by Linda Ireland Thu May 23, 2013 via web

    Thanks so much for the comments, all! And Kevin, there is another great payoff to looking at the entire experience: Those obvious "inflection points" you mention- the low hanging pain points - are often NOT the same as the tipping points that actually make or break your customer experience. I don't think either of us are saying "ignore" the obvious things. I do think we're looking for that bigger and more meaningful payoff for finding and focusing on the things customers value most to solve their need. Onward! LCI

  • by Kathy Doering Mon Jun 17, 2013 via web

    I too love Undercover Boss, Linda. Every executive needs to go through this process or one that is similar because sometimes we all forget we are dealing with people. People who have problems and obstacles in their own lives. What I find interesting is that most employees really do a good job or at least want to do what is right by the company.

    Start with the employees. Give them a voice- Not only by sending out once a year surveys, but by giving them a way to submit feedback on what they are seeing out in the field. How can we serve our customers better? One simple question that should be out there at every location for employees to submit ideas to. Happy employees = happy customers!

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