Contrary to popular belief, customer experience isn’t a destination, but rather a journey. While every company must follow its own path to meet the specific needs of their customers, there are common stages that it will travel through on their way to success.

In a recent post by Kerry Bodine, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research serving customer experience professionals, she outlines three distinct phases: improve, transform, sustain. While they pretty much speak for themselves, it’s important to note their value to the customer experience process.

It’s essential that each of these landmarks is prominently marked on an organization’s customer experience roadmap, much like they would be on any marketing or business plan. Yet, if you don’t know what each stage looks like, how will you know that you’re there?

Improve

When a company starts to prioritize customer feedback and better understand how it can influence the way a company works and the products or services it provides, it is en route to the improvement stage. However, just because customers and employees alike can identify ways in which improvements can be made, it may not be clear what’s actually worth doing and what isn’t.

For companies struggling to figure out their priorities, I encourage them to revisit Getting Real, 37Signals’ first book. In it, there are several morsels that lend themselves nicely to the improvement stage

People often spend too much time up front trying to solve problems they don't even have yet. Don't.

Don't sweat stuff until you actually must. Don't overbuild. Increase hardware and system software as necessary. If you're slow for a week or two it's not the end of the world. Just be honest: explain to your customers you're experiencing some growing pains. They may not be thrilled but they'll appreciate the candor.

Bottom Line: Make decisions just in time, when you have access to the real information you need. In the meanwhile, you'll be able to lavish attention on the things that require immediate care.

There will always be things to improve -- it’s essential to your customers that you work on fixing the things that are actually broken or in need of repair. Anything else, and it will be perceived as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Transform

Change is never easy. Once you have identified the necessary improvements, phasing in change is the next step. Just as selling changes to your customers takes sufficient buy-in, convincing employees to adopt new workflows and business processes takes some degree of marketing.

For some organizations, incremental changes will be necessary, so the improvements are not too drastic to scare away skeptics. For others, making improvements may require radical changes that demonstrate to customers and employees that the company is committed to making things work better, for everyone.

In the book Empowered: Unlease Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, Transform Your Business, authors Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler caution organizations to acknowledge the tension between chaos and management.

…Leaderhip that tolerates experiments and innovation does not mean abandoning corporate strategy. … They articulate a clear strategy so people know what the goal is. They encourage people to do lots of experiments, failures and half-baked stuff to surface the best ideas. They recognize that what works often comes from some unexpected direction, so they’re open to all sorts of innovation. And by rewarding that innovation, they encourage more of it.

Sustain

Once improvement has been identified and new business processes have been implemented, it’s important that companies understand how to sustain the new ways of working so that they can continue to deliver a successful customer experience. Bodine says that most companies view sustain as the end goal. A sustainable development process allows for growth to be managed efficiently, but it should also provide for an organization’s inevitable evolution.

Is the customer experience you provide now able to be maintained as your company grows? If you pride yourself on being personable with customers, how can that be sustained as departments grow and products diversify?

In his article Sustaining Customer Loyalty: Do You Think You Can?, Dr. John R. Miller writes:

Promoter and Loyalty status these days must be consistently won and re-won every day, in every interaction, in every channel, with every experience, during every customer touchpoint. A customer’s search for value never ends or takes a rest. Even when price and features are competitive, customers are constantly searching for better customer service and a better customer experience elsewhere. If you are not good enough tomorrow, you risk losing the promoter you created today.

There is always another customer experience hill to climb, and everyone on your customer service team or sales team must possess and demonstrate the passion, competencies, consistency and singular focus to continually build that value perception in the minds and hearts of your customers.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The customer experience is a cyclical process. Organizations must continually evaluate how they engage with customers, how that engagement influences internal process and how they can sustain or evolve processes to deliver these successful interactions.