The ultimate guide to customer experience: Definition, strategy, examples

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No two customers are alike, and yet, take any two customers and fail to deliver a positive customer experience (CX) to them, and they’ll drop you like yesterday’s TikTok trend.

Customer experience—unique to each consumer—relies on several immutable core principles that are right in your wheelhouse. It’s why seeing companies fail at customer experience is such a conundrum.

Let’s map the anatomy of customer experience and get your team suited up to win.

Modeled after Gray's Anatomy, this black and white line drawing of the human form is labeled with things like "Gut check" and "knee jerk reaction," to illustrate the parts of a consumer.

Table of contents

  1. How do you define customer experience?
  2. What’s the point of customer experience?
  3. How do we improve the customer experience?
  4. Is it possible to measure our success with customer experience?
  5. What does a positive customer experience look like?

The best way to create a happy customer is to deliver a customer experience focused on satisfaction. Let’s say that again: to make a happy customer concentrate on their happiness.

There is no risk to investing in customer experience because for as long as you operate a business, the strength of CX will always be fuel for success.

If it feels overwhelming to figure out where to start, take a deep breath, sit back, and allow this post to equip you with the ideas, tools, rationales, and motivation to put CX at the center of your mission.

Defining customer experience

Customer experience is how interactions with your brand or product make customers feel. That can be a business (B2B) or a person (B2C). The spirit of honoring their journey is the same. It’s their experience, and if you plan for it, it will be a good experience.

“Brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” —Marty Neumeier

It’s easy to assign customer experience to a single moment, the transaction at a cash register, or the first use of a product. Unfortunately, that limits your ability to impact customer experience truly. Customer experience is everything, from being in a store, speaking with an operator, viewing a commercial, even hearing another person’s experience. All of those things are fused to form the customer experience.

What does this mean to you? It means that you have to look at things from the customer’s perspective. When you realize that customers don’t see departments or layers but rather a whole entity, you understand you need to be strong on all fronts.

Here’s a simple approach for checking in with your approach, and if it’s working:

A traffic light.

It begins with asking questions, which some companies are afraid or unwilling to do. The reality of how customers feel about you is not something to stick your head in the sand about. Knowledge is power. The takeaway: even if you don’t ask the question, the customer still has the feelings. Give yourself the tools to improve CX.

Step 1: Start

What should you start doing? Could it be listening? Understand that you can be doing things that will help retain customers.

American Express deconstructed their view of customer service from a cost center to investment and allowed the effort to focus on relationship building. This switch, in effect, allowed customers to inform the process, technology, and policy actions. It shortened the distance between improvement and satisfaction and led to a 400% increase in customer retention.

Step 2: Stop

What should you no longer be doing? Are there efforts that don’t create revenue or drive customer loyalty? Stop doing them.

Things to stop may not always be service or product-related, but they can influence customer experience if they reflect on your company. In February of 2018, after the Parkland shooting, a dozen companies severed their ties with the N.R.A.

Step 3: Continue

What’s working? How can we build upon that? Commit to cultivating the efforts that are providing benefits.

“Many organizations are embracing a land-and-expand mindset, realizing they can exponentially increase profitability by increasing customer lifetime value.”

What’s the point of customer experience?

Experiences involve emotions. People may feel included or excluded, seen or ignored, catered to, or rebuffed. If we focus only on the transactional moments for us as companies, we overlook the most important exchanges, those that sit with the consumer. Adopting customer experience into the conversations in the board room, the break room, the sales room, and the warehouse is how customers stay centered in our work.

The last decade demonstrated a tipping point of sharing disastrous experiences, creating a nearly round-the-clock, on-call aspect to brand managers on social media. Customer experience plays out for the world to see, and in a culture that leans heavily on user reviews and word of mouth, the time has come for CX to be at the core of your business.

Joana de Quintanilha, VP Principal Analyst for Forrester, says that CX leaders need to be prepared to balance quantitative and qualitative research to excel at key customer experience competencies. The ability to adapt as customer behaviors changed was critical during the global pandemic. Moving forward, it will be equally important. De Quintanilha also stresses the value of empowering employees to deliver excellent customer experiences. Forrester also predicts that for 2021 the foundation of customer experience will rest in trust, safety, and inclusion. The pandemic’s aftermath is consumer demand for accountability, from supply chain to public safety, and corporate transparency.

Ritz-Carlton Hotels have a legendary policy of allowing employees up to $2,000 to address a negative guest experience. As part of their unwavering commitment to top-tier service and enduring relationships with their guests, they recognize their employees’ potential to influence customer experience. The human aspect of service is too valuable to risk. Sixty percent of consumers say that poor or unfriendly service is reason enough to stop doing business with a company.

As companies and teams, we have sales goals, internal morale benchmarks, and, perhaps, personal goals. We tend to think long term and use incremental goal setting to achieve our objectives. For customers, it’s something else entirely. Customer expectations are in the moment. If that timing doesn’t align with a company’s pursuit of their goals, chances are the customer experience will nosedive. We can aim higher.

“You can’t transform something you don’t understand. If you don’t know and understand what the current state of the customer experience is, how can you possibly design the desired future state?”
– Annette Franz, Founder CX Journey, Inc.

How do we improve customer service?

Exceeding expectations positively influences customer experience, but how do you do that? Consider that customer experience is both entrée and dessert, meaning that excellence in CX is an essential luxury you can master. Improving how you deliver customer service and enhance customer experience can transform your organization, improving employee morale, boosting your bottom line, and strengthening customer retention.

1950s style illustration about customer experience defining brands.When you broaden the definition of sales and service, it creates a shape that you can fill. Instead of a transaction, it’s dimensional—a floor and ceilings, walls, doors, light, and temperature. We welcome people to us. We cater to what they’re interested in (our product or service) and more, whatever they might wish to have for the duration of their travel, for excitement, or any number of factors that influence their emotional state. When we allow for the eventuality that they may have additional needs or unexpected requests, it does two things: prepares us to handle requests, and elevates our usefulness.

“The challenge of a leader is looking around the corner and making the change before it’s too late.”
—Indra Nooyi, former CEO PepsiCo, Inc.

  1. Anticipate customer preferences—For online and in-person sales, provide hassle-free service, build customization opportunities, and demonstrate value. Only 22% of consumers had what they would call a personalized experience. Meanwhile, 49% said that after they experienced personalization, they purchased additional products.
  2. Meet needs—When consumers consider where to spend their money and assign their loyalty, there are opportunities to exceed expectations and build relationships. Listening, whether in person or through AI, and considering the best ways to provide solutions will build rapport. Twenty-three percent of consumers have spent more than $50 on an impulse purchase fueled by positive interactions with a brand.
  3. Honor the individual—When a consumer has a positive experience enhanced through personalization, calling them by name, remembering previous purchases, and providing additional options, 40% of consumers will spend more money than planned.

1950s style illustration of gas station attendant and Exceed Expectations.

“Building a good customer experience does not happen by accident. It happens by design.” —Clare Muscutt, Founder of CMXperience.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s look at a few more angles on customer experience. Beyond the individuals that you know are there, we’ve passed the point of ignoring the previously unseen. The Americans with Disabilities Act celebrated 30 years of advocacy in July. There are more than 1.3 billion people in the world with mobility or vision-related disabilities. The number with invisible disabilities takes that number over the 3 billion mark.

Accessibility isn’t a thing to shoot for; it’s a baseline.

And what about businesses? The concept of business-to-business CX needs its due. While it’s true that people tend to downgrade B2B exchanges as needing less, shall we say jazz hands and pixie dust, and more cut to the chase, give-me-what-I-need without the frills. But at the end of the day, it’s still people making the decisions. Making someone’s life easier, facilitating a smoother exchange of goods, or offering efficiencies and perks can make the difference between a prospect and a customer.

The gestation period for B2B maybe longer, but the effort will be rewarded. Developing the instinct to assess a potential customer’s needs and the endurance to be a resource will always be transferrable. Intuitiveness toward an individual or a company is a gesture of investment in their happiness.

A drawing of a pocket knife with the blades identified as kindness attributes with a headline, "Empathy Toolkit"Can we measure our success with customer experience?

The short answer is yes; the longer answer is it’s going to take effort. The life force of customer experience is total organization commitment. When you develop a plan, it isn’t a top-down thing; it’s a living organism that demands representation from all organization levels to thrive. Many hands make light work, so buck up; in all of this work, you will be the pig who built the house that the big bad wolf could huff and puff at but never could blowdown.

Customer experience is mostly subjective and abstract; however, you can use tools to gauge your success. As with anything, season to taste. 

  1. Net Promoter Score (NPS) This is a survey methodology that involves asking customers on a scale of zero to 10 if they would recommend your company/service to family and friends. Respondents are grouped into categories along a spectrum that ranges from a detractor to a promoter. Response rates on this approach are higher as it is a single question.
  2. Customer satisfaction score (CSAT) It feels like a test, but if you read this post and invest in customer experience, you’ve studied for it! This process is to find your customer satisfaction score. Keep in mind that all knowledge is good knowledge because knowing where you are failing is every bit as important as knowing where you are killing it. It’s a bit like a multiple-choice test; using a scale of 1-5, respondents share how satisfied or unsatisfied they are. Administer via website pop up, SMS, or a traditional questionnaire. These can have more than a single question, but since the answers are restricted to 1-5, it limits additional context.
  3. Good-old fashioned brand loyalty You should have some communication mechanism with clients. Maybe it’s HTML emails that go out, a Facebook page, a customer loyalty program, or any other thing that people opt into and that you use for customer retention. Take a look at cycles, are they continuing to buy, are there dips, do the changes correspond to interactions with your brand? Can you attribute changes in purchases to external factors (pandemic, supply chain breakdowns), or are they out of the ordinary?

You can measure anything; the question that looms larger is, “Will you?” It is your responsibility to set benchmarks, encourage and empower your team to achieve goals, and follow through on meeting expectations and making the strides to continue to be a resource for customers.

In the spirit of show don’t tell, some notable examples:

Zappos has long been a beacon of exceptional customer service. Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, created a culture of more for employees and customers. Hsieh’s untimely death in a house fire shocked the world, but his irrepressible spirit and clear views on corporate promises to consumers and employees will not fade.

Tony Hsieh photo with quote about being a customer service company that sells shoes.
Image via CustomerGuru

The company operates using a holacracy structure, which decentralizes management and spurs self-organizing teams with decision-making capabilities. This echoes, in many ways, the idea of allowing customer input to inform process, strategy, and qualities of success measurements.

 

Zappos 10 Core Values

Deliver WOW Through Service Embrace and Drive Change Create Fun and A Little Weirdness Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded Pursue Growth and Learning Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit Do More With Less Be Passionate and Determined Be Humble

One of Zappos' rules is to not use scripts for customer service calls, instead allowing the customer to steer the call.

 

Beware of relegating employees to the back seat

Uber and Lyft really tripped up with their drivers. The rideshare companies had a meteoric rise as people ditched traditional cabs for the app-driven model option. The apps began to segment, offering nicer rides and the flexibility of tapping into someone else’s ride. Both seemed to weather accusations and instances of sexual assault and harassment on behalf of both riders and drivers. The line that was too great to pass was the refusal to recognize drivers as employees. Legal action and plaintive cries from drivers tarnished the company. What was once seen as an equalizer and an opportunity for people to make a living mutated into more corporate greed and callousness.

Your employees are inextricably linked with your customers; mistreat one, and it impacts the other. As a customer of either company, the passenger is buying the ride, which means that they are also, in effect, purchasing the services of the driver. Knowingly engaging a company’s service that mistreats its employees (or independent contractors) creates guilt by association.

Publix, a company that consistently rates in the top ten for customer experience, gets it. Their tagline, “Where shopping is a pleasure,” speaks more to experience than a product, almost as if CX is the thing they are selling. Another aspect of their lead-with-friendliness ethos is that customers and employees are their most important focus.

“First, take care of your customers.  Second, take care of your associates. They will in turn take care of your customers.”– George.W. Jenkins, Founder – Publix

The opportunity to demonstrate empathy toward customers is available every day. Still, in recent years with so much focus on racial injustice, many companies have shied away from participating in taking a stand against hate. Publix made a public move to denounce violence and hate. In a letter to employees, Publix declared their commitment to taking an active role in dismantling discrimination and racism.

We’re past the moment of calling it brave to decry racism. Companies operating today do so with access to information about what their customers are experiencing. There was a risk in what Publix did. There still are plenty of people who prefer not to discuss, read, or even acknowledge the ugliness in the world. By addressing the discrimination and injustice their employees might be experiencing, Publix reinforced their team’s value even outside of the workplace.Headshot of founder of Publix and quote about the importance of giving back.

Every time we allow ourselves to have compassion be a part of our product, our potential for success grows exponentially when we employ empathy.

Customer experience begins and ends with our decisions

You came here to read about CX, maybe you were hoping to get it figured out and dive into a new way of doing things. We’ve offered tips and resources for creating a framework of action and measurement. Hopefully, you’ve picked up the current beneath it all: you and your team have all the makings of a superior customer experience squad.

Your willingness to listen and formulate responses based on what you hear, rather than what you assume, creates an incredible channel for insight. You can make small adjustments to language and process to convey to customers that you are invested in their happiness. It is one of the most potent things we can do as human beings: the act of seeing and valuing.

2020 drastically changed
consumer behavior.

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Amanda Magee

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