You couldn't escape talk about awesome, amazing, remarkable customer experience (CX) in 2014 — or, for that matter, related terms like customer satisfaction, customer focus, customer service or customer-centricity. It is, after all, the Age of the Customer — a reality that has caused businesses everywhere to embrace CX as a business goal.

But like the mythical 10 pounds we collectively vow to lose on New Year's Day, the customer centricity of most companies, as evidenced by their delivery of memorable customer experience, rarely evolved from a concept to a practice this year.

And no matter how hard companies tried — with new technologies, new programs and even new names ("customer success," anyone?), the dream of seamless, engaging, excellent cross-channel customer experiences often remained an illusion.

  • Why is it cheaper if I order online for in-store pick-up than if I just buy it off the shelf at the store?
  • Why do so many companies make me wait more than 30 minutes to speak to someone who might have the authority to resolve my problem?
  • Why are call center representatives unable or unwilling to understand when you plead "I cannot hear you – please adjust your headset?"
  • Why can't anyone listen to what I am saying?
  • Why are so many of my interactions with companies simply frustraneous?

Why, indeed?

Good Isn't Good Enough

Consider this: 40 percent of the brands in Forrester's 2014 Customer Experience Index (CXi) earned scores in the good category. But "for many, those scores are actually anything but good because those brands compete in industries where good is the norm. To really stand out, they need to be great," noted Megan Burns, Forrester vice president and principal analyst serving CX professionals.

An annual benchmark of customer experience quality among large US brands, Forrester’s CXi is based on proprietary consumer survey data. Consumers were asked to rate how enjoyable it is do business with a company, how easy it is to deal with that company and how effectively they felt their needs were met. Forrester looked at detailed measures of experience quality, such as task completion rates, average hold times and agent friendliness.

As Forrester sees it, companies have to do three things to optimize customer experience and build loyalty:

  1. Make customers feel valued
  2. Resolve customers’ issues or problems quickly
  3. Talk to customers in plain language

Simple? Maybe. But as Leandro Perez, director of product marketing at Tibco, wrote recently, "While these drivers may seem obvious at first blush, it’s nonetheless amazing how many companies don’t effectively execute them. Ever. In fact, when was the last time a company you patronized did all three of these things during your interaction with them? Can you remember back that far? Frankly, a lot of companies can’t get past the first driver without failing spectacularly."

Technology Is Just a Tool

Christopher Ratcliff, a writer at London-based Econsultancy, which publishes independent research, analysis and advice on topics including digital marketing, social media and e-commerce, pointed out a too often overlooked fact in a recent post: specifically, that people still want to know the humans behind your brand. "If you strip away the smartphones, iPads and wearable devices, you’ll see that consumer needs haven’t really changed that much. In fact, the desires of the always-on digital consumer may be identical to those operating in the first marketplaces 1,000 years ago," he said.

Savvy companies understand that technology is only a tool and that successful CX strategies hinge on creating emotional connections with people.

Customers want to feel like they are being treated like humans, not numbers or corporate assets, said Max Eaglen, director at Brighton, UK-based Platform Group, a brand strategy agency. In a world where technology is bringing us fridges that can order our milk and telephones that can put on our central heating, there is still very much a need to connect with the human behind the service or product. As a customer, it is about a personal engagement with a brand, about understanding the benefits to you on a bespoke level," he said.

5 Keys of Customer-Centricity

In a recent post on LinkedIn (login required), Meg Bear, group vice president of the Social Cloud at Oracle, warned, "Customers have changed," adding:

The reality is that life on this planet is changing. It’s more connected, more empowered and more impatient. We are all part of this change and the pace of acceleration is giving Moore’s law a run for its money … What it means to serve a customer who is changing out from under you becomes an exercise in business model agility. The most critical success criterion for business agility is clarity of vision."

To become truly customer-centric, she said companies' need to:

  1. Listen more than they talk: You are way more likable if you listen first and talk second. You have more useful things to say and you are (generally) less annoying.
  2. Recognize employee engagement matters: Engaging your employees first, so that they can reflect your brand vision, is the most critical investment you can make.
  3. Embrace humility: Humility opens up opportunities for vulnerability and transparency. It allows you to share things that didn’t work so great and show how you are trying to improve. It suggests you could be imperfect and it leaves room for the customer to step up and advise and support your company. 
  4. Trade control for co-creation: Modern companies are leveraging customer feedback to help prevent problems, improve outcomes and even take new products to market. The opportunity to leverage the community to help you serve them better is a virtuous cycle that benefits everyone.
  5. Review your KPIs: Examine your key performance indicators (KPIs). Are they optimized for alignment to your business objective of customer centricity? Make sure you’re investing in the right things to make your business grow, because we all know we can’t manage what we don’t measure. 

Lessons Learned – or Not

Colin Shaw, the founder and CEO of Tampa, Fla.-based Beyond Philosophy, a consultancy and training organization devoted to customer experience, told CMSWire that much of the recent focus on customer experience started during the Great Recession. 

The long years of economic downturn made companies realize that keeping customers is critical — and can actually make or break a company during the worst times. "During the recession, we saw many more organizations contact us to help them emotionally engage with their customers, particularly after struggling with their budgets. Those companies with an excellent Customer Experience weathered the storm and emerged on the other side stronger."

But will the lessons learned be forgotten as more robust economic times return? "I predict improvement to the economy will result in a reduction in focus on customer experience for organizations lacking conviction on its effect for the bottom line … until the next recession, of course."

Title image by alec brinegar  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.