For the Birds
I’m going to posit two things: One, (most) companies struggle with complexity, and two, (most) resources are finite.
Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, but these are the main reasons why customer experience for most firms is such a disaster. Think about your phone last interaction with a bank—or an airline, or any number of service providers—you probably navigated a universally hated phone menu, authenticated several times, and explained your situation to a representative, before being transferred and repeating the whole process.
Companies have optimized for their own benefit at the expense of customer experience.
Worse yet, is when goodwill is squandered, and the relationship damaged, by extending offers that are patently stupid. Hey banking manager, you should be aware that I live in a van down by the river, why are you offering me a home equity line of credit? Hey Amazon, I just purchased a mattress, do you think that offering me another one is such a great idea? Either you don’t know who you’re talking to, or you don’t care.
None of this was done out of malice, it is the logical result of Classical Economics; the division of labor increases efficiency of the system. The customer journey has been sliced and diced and parceled out to specialists—or computers—that handle the little bits and pieces more efficiently. It’s a response to the growing complexity of our relationships with businesses – the bank teller might be adept at taking deposits but is probably not the best person to speak with regarding your retirement.
So, you sit in line or on hold, waiting to speak to a ‘specialist’ who supposedly can address your issue, wistfully wondering why you do business with XYZ & Co in the first place.
What all the Buzz is About
None of this mattered much to firms a couple of decades ago: choices were limited, and information was scarce. But in a connected economy, being the only game in town doesn’t have much meaning; end users can—and will—engage with your competition on a global scale. Want to differentiate? Cost leadership is a dangerous game and creating the coolest widgets with the most bells and whistles can be expensive. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, most firms chose one of those two paths and only paid lip service to understanding their customers, doing just enough to keep the customer retention KPI at an acceptable level.
Keep people marginally happy, keep cramming offers down their throats, hope that when they call into complain they sit in the phone menu for long enough that a few drop off and you don’t have to pay an actual human to take a call. All of this used to work, and most companies were only worried that another firm could step in and cram even more offers in and steal their market share. But through an odd confluence of events, the markets started drying up.
It usually shows up in the headlines as ‘Millennials are killing XYZ industry’, which is an oversimplification of the phenomenon. Did they magically stop eating? No, they stopped going to Applebee’s.
So, what is it that most customers really want? It’s probably not a laundry list of features, though that will catch the eye of a few. Far more likely, they’re looking for an experience—they are interested in what your product or service delivers, not the actual product or service itself. Most customers didn’t want pianos, they wanted music; they didn’t want VCRs, they wanted to watch TV on their own schedule. As soon as someone invented the radio, or the DVR, respectively, both of those products went the way of the dodo, even the super-fancy VCRs that didn’t constantly flash 12:00.
Don’t get me wrong, price and quality are still important metrics, but I question whether or not they’re still competitive strategies.
The White Rabbit
One last trip through the looking glass: I’d argue that the success of ride-sharing platforms, or of Airbnb, or of Robinhood, or many, many new digital entrants is because they don’t attempt to be a one-stop shop for absolutely everything, or offer the latest and greatest. I can get the solution that I want with a couple of clicks on my smartphone: no confusion, no bullshit, just results.
Airbnb doesn’t own hotels yet is arguably the largest hospitality company simply by providing an easy to use interface and a focus on connecting people on their platform. After all, I didn’t really want the hotel room, I wanted adventure—while still feeling comfortable—and Airbnb delivered it seamlessly. It’s usually not the cheapest or the fanciest, but I’m willing to give up the penthouse suite or pay a few more bucks because they offer an orchestrated experience, and the lack of aggressive cross-selling makes me feel like I’m more than a number, whether or not that’s actually the case.
CX, of course, is not a silver bullet for all your business woes, but you ignore it at your peril. The customer journey begins long before they make contact and continues for an indeterminate time after. Knowing when, how, and why to engage a customer is no easy feat, very few companies even have a unified view of their customers, and I bet even fewer would know how to use it.
It’s complex, extremely hard to measure, and even more difficult—perhaps impossible—to perfect, and that’s exactly why it makes such a compelling competitive strategy: there’s blue ocean everywhere.