Time to get the digital customer experience right - again

by Erwin Jansen - April 23, 2015

For most seasoned marketers (and many others), concepts such as the customer experience, touchpoints, customer journeys and the like are not really new. And yet, attention for these phenomena has never been as high as it is today. Two reasons for this are the pervasiveness of digital technologies and the increasingly customer-driven economy.

As the number of touchpoints increases and technological innovations are introduced and adopted incrementally, the customer experience is even more recognized as a source of core value. Especially given that the consumer is more in control and at the same time expects more than ever. What we see, therefore, is a nexus of technological and human forces that leads to genuine transformations in all aspects of business.

Within that nexus of forces, the customer experience takes centre stage. Even for trailblazers, customer experience champions and marketing leaders, the current attention for the digital customer experience can come somewhat as a surprise. For the C-level suite, it's more than a surprise: it's a matter of survival in this customer-driven age. One of the questions that immediately comes to mind is why it has taken so long to realize this? And a second: are we really ready to put the customer (experience) first or are we still paying lip service to king customer?

Taking steps back to look ahead and prioritize

In practice, digital transformation goes hand in hand with the digital customer experience. Even marketing cannot escape the challenge as the call for digital marketing transformation (not the same as digital transformation) is louder than ever.

Taking a few steps back and looking at the whole evolution, there are many developments and elements that deserve our attention. However, it is at least as important to look at the essence of the perfect storm that is sweeping across the whole economy. And you know it is a perfect storm when CEOs, other C-level execs and virtually all analyst firms, even those that never paid attention to marketing and the customer experience before, tell you that 1) digital - in its various aspects - is a core priority and 2) the customer experience is a top priority. In 2012, the customer experience even entered the top 10 of CIO technology priorities for the first time – and has become increasingly important ever since.

Let’s face it though: this perfect storm has been brewing for two decades now, ever since we put up the first business websites and started using digital channels to interact with customers and conduct business online. Two decades! An eternity in today’s market. Admittedly, what has changed is the speed at which it all happens and the profound impact of incremental changes. And, maybe, after all, we are indeed starting to “get it”.

The growing role of digital channels and devices for people - consumers, workers,... – is of course nothing new. The same goes for the proliferation of channels. The power shift I favour of the customer, strengthened among other things by the advent of social media, has been going on for years. The impact of the end-to-end customer experience on the bottom-line has also been known for years . And it has become harder to differentiate ourselves in a context of globalization, commoditization and increasing competition – with the customer experience as a potential sustainable differentiator – for quite some time as well.

The wake-up calls of disruption

On top of the speed of change in an increasingly real-time economy and the increased expectations of today’s customers, organizations started getting wake-up calls when new players with digital, customer-centric and lean business models first disrupted a few specific industries. Today, a sudden massive adoption of such new market entrants by customers can shake up virtually any industry and change the status quo entirely. In other words: we are talking about hard cash here and the very survival of organizations, not just about losing a few

percentage points. When customers vote differently with their wallets it can be immediately felt and there are ample examples of big corporations that have gone out of business because they missed the digital boat and with it, the change in customerbehaviour.

Nevertheless and even if it is more than time to get our act together, this is not a time to panic. On the contrary, it is a time to focus on the digital customer experience, seize the opportunities that present themselves and transform in a prioritized, intelligent and calculated way.

In order to prioritize, it is essential to look at the common denominator in all the evolutions we are currently witnessing: the customer in the broadest sense and, even more importantly, what he wants and how we can make sure we offer it in a way that also makes sense for the business.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the challenges of the customer, let alone the digital economy and the essential digital customer experience. Fortunately, there is common sense and the lessons from the past and present that we can apply to the future.

For starters, it is crucial to understand where we, as individual organizations with specific business models, activities and customers are today. What are we doing right and wrong? What can we change right now in the interactions with customers that we will feel tomorrow? Where are the leaks and how do we close them? What do customers tell us, both directly and through the avalanche of data we can turn into actionable knowledge? And do we even have this data and direct input, feedback and information?

Before you exceed customer expectations - assess

While most of us want to - and are recommended to - exceed customer expectations, the first action to take is to actually meet customer expectations, even if both can be done in parallel in some areas. Because here is a simple fact: despite all our promises, we meet neither customer expectations nor customer experience expectations. And to close the gap, assessment is a crucial first step.

The signs that we are not meeting customer (experience) expectations and the research confirming it are abundant: 

According to the 2015 global contact centre benchmarking report from Dimension Data's merchants, customer experience levels have dropped for the 4th consecutive year in contact centres. Knowing the crucial role of the contact centre and the fact that the most important strategic performance measurement is the customer experience, according to the report, not exactly a good sign. 

Forrester's Customer Experience Index keeps showing that the large majority of top brands rate "OK" or "worse", based on consumer research in the UK, France and Germany. Knowing that Forrester’s Index looks at 3 essential customer interaction experience/perception attributes (how easy are they, how enjoyable are they and to what degree do they meet needs), not exactly a good result.

Of course, we need to distinguish between different companies and industries. Among the poorer performers in customer experience we often see service-related industries. Just one example: in the insurance industry, for instance, a global survey from Capgemini, in collaboration with FEMA, found that only 30% of insurance customers reports a positive insurance customer experience.

It is also important to realize that each of these research reports have their own methodologies. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the reality, starting with your own business and customers. So, assessment in this regard is an essential first step to take. Know what your customers want but also how they perceive (what customer experience is all about) your performance across touchpoints and individual interactions. 

Regardless of the exact figures and even if Bain and Company’s still often-used “customer experience delivery gap” (80% of companies believe they provide a superior proposition even if only 8% customers agree) does date back from… 2005, it is safe to say we are not where we should be yet. And that is an understatement. Furthermore, with regards to the digital customer experience, it is a different story yet again...

Assessing the current situation, for instance by looking at the leaks in your digital processes and mapping and measuring digital touchpoints and the correlating perceptions, is a good way to start improving the digital customer experience.

Before you exceed customer expectations – get the essence right

Meeting customer expectations across digital touchpoints and interactions simply means understanding what your customers want and delivering upon these expectations.

In that regard, the ‘good, old rules’ of digital marketing and customer service (as we also know them from usability, conversion optimization and various marketing techniques), remain important.

As a matter of fact, research by the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that essential customer experience expectations are pretty straightforward. The top five elements in the ideal customer experience, according to respondents are:

-    Fast responses to inquiries or complaints (47%)

-    A simple purchasing process (47%)

-    The ability to track orders in real time (34%)

-    Clarity and simplicity of product information across channels (25%)

-    The ability to interact with the company over multiple channels (22%).

Personalization and customized offers rank much lower. This doesn’t mean they do not matter. But without meeting the key needs, overall impact will not be what it should be. Other surveys put personalization much higher but even then: basics first. And when we look at those basics, they are pretty – well – basic. And it is quite a shocker to see that in more than two decades, customers still want the same things and are clearly not getting them.

The time to connect the dots is now

Seamless customer experiences (as in consistency), speed (don’t make me think or wait), accuracy (make sure the information is right), choice (nowadays about multi-channel and even channel-agnostic interaction and information opportunities) and, last but not least, ease of use or simplicity… These findings fully correlate with the increasing focus – in customer experience practice – on enabling frictionless experiences or removing hurdles. It is absolutely something any good web developer, digital marketer and usability practitioner can relate to.

So, build it within your overall digital customer experience approach and connect the dots within your digital marketing and in the relationship between marketing and other crucial departments that are involved in the digital customer experience (service, sales, analytics, …).

The same goes for the connection/integration of marketing platforms and essential related back-office systems: the ways in which you measure and the cross-fertilization and mutual education of various experts. The days of digital marketing tactics or channels operating in more or less siloed environments really are over. The only customer-centric digital marketing is integrated digital marketing. And the only digital marketing (or other) team that knows how to seize the customer experience opportunity is the connected team that goes beyond functions and roles and considers ownership of the customer experience as non-debatable.

The time to get started is now. As one thing is for sure: customers no longer wait until businesses are ready to catch up before voting who wins and who loses.

This blog post is the first in a series, based on an ongoing conversation with Jean-Paul De Clerck, a Belgium-based leading marketing & business consultant and a great friend. 


Erwin Jansen