There is a terminology arms race in customer experience (CX) that betrays an insecurity. B2B and B2C companies are claiming to be customer-first, customer-centric, customer-focused, customer-obsessed, etc., as if caring for customers were a rare thing.
Maybe it is. According to annual surveys by Broadridge Financial Solution, the percentage of consumers that feel companies need to improve their overall customer experience grew from 35% in 2019 to 65% in 2021. Meanwhile, spending on customer experience technology is expected to grow from $471 billion in 2018 to $641 billion this year. Tech alone isn’t moving those numbers in the right direction.
Definitions of “customer experience” mostly agree that it is the cumulative impression a brand makes on people who buy its goods and services. But we seem to lack an underlying theory of what makes a customer experience good or bad. So, I want to discuss why it’s difficult to provide great customer experiences in the digital era and discuss three, jargon-free levers for creating more of them.
The Constraints of Customer Experience
Why is providing a great experience online difficult? Well, with unlimited resources and face-to-face contact, brands could make every experience ridiculously amazing. That’s what happens at five-star hotels and Michelin Star restaurants. Hence, the prices. The issue is how to provide extraordinary experiences with limited resources and the weirdness of communicating online.
Resource constraints have many effects. The content we find online is often rushed, mediocre, wrong, outdated, confusing or misleading. Getting support from a real human being might not be possible. You scroll the contact page, only to find an email form. You Google for a phone number, only to hear it’s a 45-minute wait. You go to Twitter or Facebook, only to see that others have vented and received a stock “sorry” message in reply. More touchpoints can mean that customers are just disappointed more times in a row.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that interacting online is not the same as being there in person. Face to face, we rely on context, tone and body language to understand each other. We show empathy or concern without saying a word, and we see how our words affect someone. Online interactions raise the probability of miscommunication. Think about how much we read into texts from friends and family members who are good communicators in person but enigmas over SMS.
So, given our limited resources and the challenge of digital interaction, what should we strive for in customer experience?
Related Article: 2 Years Later: How Customer Service Has Changed
At first, a brand online is a stranger made of bytes. We decide whether to be associated with that stranger or not.
We take in the text, images and videos the brand puts online. We judge the content for character, values and personality. We see how other people react to that brand, everywhere from user ratings and Reddit forums to YouTube and TikTok. We trust our online tribes and communities to protect us.
Further along, we wonder if the brand is really what meets the eye online. For complex products, we sift through dimensions, materials, ratings and features, or maybe we do a trial or demo.
When that product arrives or service begins in earnest, our judgments get tested. We see whether the brand lives up to the expectations it set (or whether the brand honors its return and exchange policies). A brand earns our trust like a person — bit by bit, or online, byte by byte.
The more complex a product is, the more education that customers need to get value out of it. They often look to the brand to be their coach, guide and expert.
Education matters because products can set expectations about who a person is, and who they want to become. The buyer of a pellet grill wants to take pride in making delicious meals for their family and friends. The buyer of a B2B software platform seeks the achievement of growing and improving a business. The new owner of an exercise machine envisions greater health and wellbeing. Those transformations are the ultimate customer experience.
Without the support to achieve their goals, customers suffer. They feel like a failure at grilling. They feel jaded about the software. They feel silly for injuring themselves a week into that new exercise regimen. Education can shape not just a customer experience, but better someone’s experience as a person.
Related Article: 3 Steps to Start Your Customer Experience Program
Brands, like people, sometimes fail or let us down. As with people, we learn the most about their character in those moments.
We all know how disappointing or maddening it is when a brand tries to deflect responsibility. They blame it on user error. They suspect the customer of doing something improperly or lying about the circumstances. They’re exasperated to even be dealing with the situation.
Oppositely, some brands own their responsibility and act according to the severity of the situation. Their reply is prompt and professional. There’s no blaming; the focus is on making things right or even better than before. The customer’s trust feels validated, their education worth the effort.
Some brands take on responsibilities that are unexpected or unenforceable. They tell you that a subscription is going to renew before they charge you(!). Maybe they switch to a more sustainable energy source or take on a social cause — and find that sweet spot between informing customers and gloating about it. They choose to be responsible without being forced to do so.
A Human Vocabulary for CX
CX technology doesn’t change customer experiences when we lack the vocabulary to describe what we want to change. Being “customer-centric” or “customer-obsessed” is too vague (and who wants a business to “obsess” about them anyway?). Jargon about “personalizing content” or “unifying digital experience” speaks to technique, not the substance of an experience.
Rather, we need an underlying theory of CX that recognizes customers as human beings, not just biological systems that click “purchase.” Maybe simple words like trust, education and responsibility can fill a void in how we approach customer experience.