We're in the "Modern Age" of customer metrics (or at least that's what my editor told me). And try as I might to tap into some secret sauce, a shortcut or growth hack that represents this era of measuring a customer experience, I kept winding up at the same place: Ask your customers.

OK, so there is more to it than that, otherwise this would be a very short article, but industry metrics like NPS or Forrester CX rankings are just fancy ways of doing this: They are asking customers what they think of the experience and if they would buy again — they're just asking a lot more people than you can.

The same is true of some of the data led approaches, like visitor intent, where you can look at web analytics data and understand what the visitor did and maybe discern a little bit about why. But to truly understand their mission you need to ask them.

Sometimes Customer Behavior Isn't What it Seems

A client once told me a story where they were excited to see a spike in traffic on one of their website sections that suggested an increase in interest in a product and its content. They then discovered their UX was flawed and it was taking visitors way more clicks to achieve their objective and only the persistent made it through to the call to action. They heard this from a site visitor, cleaned up the process, and ended up with less clicks but more engagement.

Yes, specialist tools and data collection can help diagnose this kind of thing. But aside from this being a cautionary tale against valuing success against vanity metrics, a real person will tell you what’s wrong instantly if you actually ask them.

In my last CMO gig, we had an agency test our website using a panel of real people, recording the results and their commentary. You have to do this. Listening to actual people who, frankly, don’t really care about you, carve their way through your lovingly crafted web presence to get their thing done is sobering, humbling and equally enlightening. A firm reminder of what your audience needs your website for.

Related Article: Drawing a Line Between VoC, Customer Experience and Customer Analytics

Where to Find the Voice of Your Customer

There is absolutely no substitute for the authentic voice of your customer.

And this authentic voice is not from automated surveys, or maybe more correctly not just from these surveys. While surveys are an amazing user research tool, the challenge of surveys, of course, is you are only getting feedback from the people who like to do surveys. That’s not the majority of us. Most of us only give feedback when the service either REALLY sucks or you’ve been delighted to the point of being a brand advocate. Years ago I shared a quote from US comedian Rich Hall in this blog post:

“You know where they take these polls? Shopping malls. That means that 67% of the people weren’t smart enough to get out of the way of someone with a clipboard bearing down on them.”

Harsh! But you get the point — if a survey pops up right now, how fast would you click the ‘x’ to close?

Related Article: What Do Your Customers Really Think of You?

Customer Loyalty Isn't Always Cut and Dry 

So surveys and "the data" are useful, but not the whole answer. So how about the most basic metric that drives all of our businesses: revenue and sales? More specifically customer retention, churn and loyalty.

I've spent the better part of the last two years flying Lufthansa from Heathrow to Munich. I joined a German company and despite being a British Airways loyal customer for close to two decades, my status had lapsed and I went with the airline my German admin colleagues picked. I stuck with it: Its flights were direct, conveniently timed, well priced and while not quite as modern as a British Airways cabin, the flying experience was super. I accrued a little status. It became part of my routine and my life and I flew exclusively Lufthansa (or Star Alliance) for two years — and if the opportunity comes again, I would do so again.

Learning Opportunities

However, I like to book my own flights and ... well ... that experience was not so great. Discussing the Lufthansa website is a great ice breaker. Meet a fellow Lufthansa frequent flyer and you'll end up sharing stories of the little spinning airplane. Compared to its competitors it’s slow, a little kludgy and more than once I had to accept it was only going to show the information I needed in German because I was sitting in my German office, despite all of our hundreds of previous interactions in English.

I was a loyal customer, in love with my new travel provider, spent a considerable sum of euros with them, returning every week, so the revenue metric boxes all got ticked — but this was despite the digital customer experience, not because of it.

I am not alone. Chat with people about the brands they love or are loyal to and they all have flaws. For example, EVERYONE has an Amazon story, either about its recommendations or delivery partners — yet we still choose it based on other facets of the experience it offers, like price, convenience or we just kinda like the brand.

Does this matter? These guys are imperfect and still retain our business. Maybe today it doesn’t, but tomorrow a competitor will ratchet up their game and customers will be lost on these things. Therefore, judging CX by today’s customer revenue, churn and loyalty could be flawed in scoring the game.

Related Article: Are You Listening to Your Customers or Just Tuning Out?

A Multi-Layered Approach

Lots of little things make up a customer experience, from the brand promise made in the marketing communications that sets the expectation and tone, to every single aspect of the purchase and then delivery of the product or service. Possibly dozens of micro-moments that accrue to create a consumer’s opinion. To improve the overall top-line customer experience, each of these little cogs in the big machine need to be focused on and improved, a diagnosis that would be hard if you only focus on the big numbers like NPS or customer revenue.

This “big machine” is the customer journey. This needs to be mapped, with a question at each stage of how to measure satisfaction, specifically what question you would ask a customer as they pass through this interaction if you were standing in front of them at the time.

Then apply the digital data points, survey feedback, revenue numbers (or whatever is appropriate) to each journey point and see if it provides the answers.

If you don't want to go through the trouble then, hey, why not ask them?