wire frame sculpture at SF MoMA
Customer experience contains four main characteristics: a customer-first focus, empathy, holistic growth and agility PHOTO: Jason Leung

When undertaking a digital transformation strategy, one of the first — and most important — steps in the process is to create a compelling customer experience (CX).

Think of some of the leaders in the CX space: Amazon, Southwest Airlines, Zappos and JetBlue. We all know a strong CX when we see it. Good CX is easy to recognize, but it can be difficult to deliver. It’s the sum total of all customer interactions and, behind the scenes, the people, systems, technology and processes that enable and power those experiences.

And since CX sits at the intersection of your product, brand, customer engagement, transactions and customer care, designing (or redesigning, which is more often the case) your business around your customer requires extraordinary collaboration and effort. Think of CX as an invisible thread that ties all interactions into a cohesive whole, with the end result being a happy customer who won’t hesitate to continue to do business with you.

While CX is still in its infancy, some best practices and guidelines are coming into focus.

CX Best Practices

For this article, I spoke with several leaders in the customer experience strategy and implementation world to get their insights about CX and ask them about best practices to form a framework for mapping customer experience. Whether you’re already at the top of your CX game or are just getting started, creating a strong customer experience embodies these characteristics: a customer-first focus, empathy for the customer, a holistic outlook and an agile approach to development.

A Customer-First Focus

Across the board, everyone I spoke with echoed a “start with the customer” mantra and advocated for an “outside-in” approach, where putting yourself and your team in the shoes of the customer is Job One when it comes to designing a useful and differentiating customer experience.

“Start with the customer” might sound obvious, but companies often approach CX and digital transformation from an inward-facing, cost-cutting or productivity perspective, which rarely results in a superior experience for the customer.

For Scot Gillespie, chief technology officer at the Washington Post — who leads the team responsible for a suite of 26 products under the Arc Publishing umbrella that support and enable newsroom operations as well as the creation, distribution, marketing, measurement and optimization of WaPo content — the “customers” he designs for are not just subscribers to Washington Post, but the internal newsroom operations and even his own engineering and development team. Treating all these groups as “customers” helped Gillespie and his team deliver experiences that are easy, useful and enjoyable based on the needs of each customer persona.

Empathy for the Customer

Adopting an “outside-in” approach that embodies empathy for customer is a key pillar in user experience design, but it also applies to customer experience efforts.

Carlos Manalo, co-founder of design firm Office of Experience, shared his thoughts about empathy with me. Manalo said his firm “helps companies think about the customer journey through a ‘user-centered’ design approach.”

“A big part of this process is fostering empathy for the customer, and it can be difficult to gain that perspective,” he added. “But, in crafting a useful and appealing customer experience, it’s imperative to get out of your company (or brand) head space and really look at things through the lens of the customer.”

There are many options available to tackle this type of work. Stakeholder interviews, qualitative and quantitative research, ethnographies, observation, focus groups and co-creation approaches are all useful. Social insights can also help provide valuable learning and feedback into persona and user-story development.

A Holistic Approach

An effective customer experience is one built with intention that takes into account all of the various touchpoints and tasks that a customer engages in.

Great CX is “intentional, purposeful and consistent,” said Diane Magers, CEO and chairman of the board of the Customer Experience Professionals Association. And, CX is “not just about the transaction,” she added. It also “optimizes every touchpoint and takes into account all customer interactions, both online and offline.”

Lack of leadership can derail customer experience, and it’s important to gain endorsement, but it doesn’t end there. Expertise and input from all departments and functions should be included in customer experience planning efforts.

According to Jeannie Walters, founder of 360Connext, a customer-experience strategy firm, CX design is a challenge because “it doesn’t fall into one department or function — even with a chief customer officer in place, the purview isn’t always big enough because they’re not involved in designing the experience. They get bits and pieces, but not the whole thing. It’s a difficult role to define right now, and [the shift] is similar to what marketing went through two decades ago.”

Ideally, a strong customer experience builds on your brand equity. According to Manalo, “brands that can take advantage of [customer experience] will continue to build equity; [CX] deepens engagement and is the new road to ‘stickiness’ and getting advocates and influencers.”

Agile

Due to the multifaceted nature of customer experience, constant iteration and experimentation becomes a requirement to get the intended results. Agile development, whether applied to product development, marketing or customer experience planning, means “a constant tuning, and is focused on speed and performance, measurement, and trust in front-line employees,” said Gillespie. Because, he added, “if you want to get closer to your customers, you have to trust that the people closest to them working on the front lines will do the right thing.”

Another way to think of this, according to Manalo, is to envision the customer experience as an “ever-present continuum” and recognize that “the goal is to be planful and purposeful for as far down the pike as you can see.”

How the Washington Post Tackles CX

The way the Washington Post has approached CX is fascinating, a case study of digital transformation on a grand scale. According to Gillespie, many of the products were “born out of necessity” at a time when the journalism industry was struggling to stay afloat amidst dual threats of declining interest in print media and the advent of digital content.

Fast-forward through several years with an intense digital transformation focus, and now the Washington Post’s publishing products are so successful the company has monetized the product suite and is offering the products and services to other companies, brands and digital publishers under the Arc Publishing umbrella.

How did Gillespie and his team do it? By designing not just for the millions of WaPo readers and subscribers who are the end users, but by also taking into consideration the hundreds of internal individuals and teams at the company whose job is to produce and deliver news and content — correctly, consistently and at lightning speed.

The end goal at the Washington Post and its Arc Publishing arm, according to Gillespie, is to focus internally on “speed and performance” in the products they develop to deliver “something that is quick, seamless and enjoyable” or, essentially, a “frictionless experience.”

Advice for the Journey Ahead

These best practices are also characteristic of a design-thinking approach. Here are a few other things to keep in mind when embarking on your customer experience-planning journey.

For companies new to the space, CX “has been a catalyst for organizational change, and it needs to sit in a place that encompasses all facets of the organization,” said Magers. “A governing body like a council can be helpful in defining the strategy and being empowered to execute on it.”

For companies that are already well into their digital transformation journey and already have a well-defined customer experience in place, Gillespie offered this advice: “Don’t get complacent. You can have a tendency to slow down or stop innovating. WaPo has been successful because they continually push the needle and have transformed themselves from a publisher to a software company and now a media company.”