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If 2014 was the year when marketers added "customer centric" to  their vocabulary, this should be the year many of them turn those words into actions. 

But how? To help, IDC Research has published a MaturityScape report that presents a five-step process to go from the first tentative stage to optimizing the customer experience (CX). Sound simple? Actually, it's a pretty steep climb.

"Some of them are on the journey, and it's more about how to get started," said Mary Wardley, IDC's vice president for enterprise applications and CRM software. "This is to give them some sort of roadmap."

A Cultural Shift

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In her introduction to the report, Wardley sums up the many challenges:

While many corners of the organization understand and believe in a customer imperative, these departments often do not come together to collaborate on customer experience initiatives. There are many reasons for this, including a lack of clear direction from management, limited understanding of how each functional area contributes to an overall customer-led go-to-market strategy, disconnected systems that make internal communications and information sharing cumbersome or impossible, and a perception that work processes are by nature siloed."

In an interview with CMSWire, Wardley estimated that most organizations are now in only the first or second of the five stages, which are summarized here:

  1. Ad Hoc: Organizations can't deliver a high customer experience. Instead, customers get inconsistent and sometimes incorrect information, which not only damages goodwill but leads some customers to complain through social media in ways that leaves the business "highly vulnerable" to customer-centric competitors.
  2. Opportunistic: In this stage, businesses have assembled a CX team from all areas and have identified challenges and processes. The company is evangelizing the concept internally, but lacks specific guidelines or directives. The effort often targets one product line, with 5-10 percent of customer touch points focused on feedback or improvements.
  3. Repeatable: Now there's "a bridge between processes and CX" and a C-suite leader may be spearheading the initiatives. Employees are viewed as essential to the process. Compliance with CX directives is mandatory. At this point, all customer-facing personnel are on the training path.
  4. Managed: Specific metrics are aligned with experiences. Partners and suppliers receive training and tools that enable them to become "brand advocates" by providing exceptional customer experiences. About 40 percent of business processes pertain to CX initiatives along the critical paths of customer communications, sales, delivery and support.
  5. Optimized: Customers now have consistent experience across channels, employees and partners are essential contributors to a competitive advantage and satisfaction-related metrics provide "pulse checks" to fine-tune business performance. The initiative at this point drives measurable results.

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Coordinated Effort

While the journey will vary for each company, Wardley emphasized the employees, partners and suppliers are "not bit players in this dramatic comedy," even though the customer is at the center of the plot.

"The employees, we really feel, are over 50 percent of what it takes to execute," she said. "They ultimately act as ambassadors for the brand. To that end, they have to buy into the integrity of the brand."

The strategy is also reliant on six components:

  • Culture, strategy, processes
  • Products and Services
  • People
  • Information
  • Access
  • Technology

Among the technologies involved are collaboration, analytics, social, business process automation and community applications.

Think Long-Term

"The ability for an organization to turn on a dime and undertake such a broad and complex business strategy and install the accompanying IT infrastructure will be a challenge even for the most committed of organizations," the report said. "Management will need to see the bigger picture  of long-term profits over short-term gains."

Wardley's report said the commitment to long-term outcomes "will pose a problem" for companies that must answer to investors.

The next stage of Wardley's research will include a benchmark study to determine where  companies see themselves in the five-step process, and how that perception lines up with reality.