Customer Experience at war with itself

The first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina is: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” A quick glance across both the mainstream media and the Twittersphere will show there’s no lack of family warfare and culture wars, both verbal and physical being fought over many seemingly important issues. However, you would probably need to be closely involved in the business of customer service, or perhaps a customer, to see another one that is breaking out over the relevance and (self?) importance of customer experience (CX) and those that propagate it.

Oh yes, I’m The Great Pretender:

Apparently, the family battle lines are drawn between those who, it is claimed, only talk about CX, via podcasts, webinars, and conferences; have written books on CX; judge awards and have come up with yet another accreditation based on their CX model – The “Pretenders”, and the “Soldiers.” – Those who have the scars from engaging with the enemy, as it’s clear to me that by their actions, many companies consider their customers to be the enemy. We win, they lose!

I’m not sure which camp I’m in, as I certainly meet many of the conditions for the “Pretenders”, but during 50 years in business, I have spent time on the front line and have a wry, satisfactory smile on my face and an extra spring in my step, when every self-congratulatory, popularity contest, sorry, list of the top 1000 CX influencers, the CX Power 100, the CX Hall of Fame, the most exciting CX rock stars, and the best CX books of the year, is published- and I’m not on it! I’ve never been one for the cult of personality. And apparently, I’m not welcome at the slap-up lunches from CX “Organisations” at fancy hotels and days out at Ascot. No matter, I don’t look good in a top hat, and I don’t drink.

The most compelling argument about the troubles in the CX “industry” that I will make, is that despite all the hype, all the books, all the awards and the accreditations, all the journey maps, VOC, education etc., customer experience/service hasn’t improved. And I don’t seem to be alone, as the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) regularly points out in their annual customer satisfaction surveys, which this year showed that it was the worst year since 2015. This was amplified in a recent Daily Telegraph article entitled Britain ‘plunged back into 1970s’ amid record slump in customer satisfaction. In the article Jo Causon, ICS CEO, said that “There is a perfect storm going on with labour shortages, skills shortages, maybe too much short-termism, and then companies not where they need to be in terms of tech, all against a backdrop of consumers probably being under more financial pressure than they have ever been.” And added, “It’s the length of time that it takes to resolve an issue and also the sense of being passed from pillar to post.”

 None of these companies care about you!

Well, at the risk of self-identifying as a Pretender, it made me think of something that I’d written in my book, When a Customer Wins, Nobody Loses, when thinking about why, as customers, we’re still treated with disdain and rudeness by so many companies. This is what I said then about companies that appeared to ignore customer complaints and other communications.

I don’t believe that these companies are just ignoring their customer’s complaints – they are ignoring their customers completely or, amazingly, don’t care about them. And it’s not just me that thinks that. American business blogger and investor Tim Ferris asks a lot of people in his weekly podcasts “What would you put on a billboard?” Comedian Mike Birbiglia replied: ‘I’d put it in Times Square, where many businesses feature large and bold adverts and it would say’, “None of these companies care about you.” While that may be an extreme view, many businesses feel that investing in customer experience belongs in the ‘too hard’ or ‘too expensive’ pile. In case you think these are the musings of anti-capitalist, rabble-rouser, let me refer you to a well cited Rockefeller Corporation study that showed that 68% of customers leave a company because “They believe you don’t care about them.”

I wrote that over six years ago, but it reflected the feelings that I had as a customer for many years before that. And half a decade on, nothing has changed and while many people wax lyrically about how many companies stepped up during the Covid-19 pandemic, I feel it was simply that many others didn’t, and even now are still using the pandemic as an excuse for their appalling service, which the ICS has also called out an unacceptable reason for bad service.  I’ve shared my feelings via my blog “There’s no new normal”, by saying it was the mother of all wake-up calls and it’s taken a wrecking ball to any concept of normality. But it’s clear that many companies have slept through the alarm!

We keep hearing that customers’ expectations are changing, that they “demand” an experience! No, they don’t. They just want to know that you appreciate their business, be treated fairly, respectfully, have their issue fixed swiftly and not be ripped off. Not hard, is it? Unless you’re a water company, train operator, a bank, or a telco.  It hasn’t really changed much over many years. But of course, one of the issues that I touched on earlier is whether or not many companies actually care.

But some of us do care:

But in truth it’s a phony war. There are no bad guys or girls, at least at the sharp end. Most of the people directly interacting with customers, are decent, caring, and well-intentioned and none of them get up in the morning saying, “I wonder how many people I can piss off today”. But, as the saying goes, there’s no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. And similarly, there is no silver bullet for fixing customer experience, it’s about applying the right approach, with the right people, at the right time. Whether that’s journey mapping VOC, training, technology refresh, cultural reset, they all have their place, but they’re not necessarily the starting point.

My own approach has been based on my experiences as a customer that helped me identify four core principles Culture, Communication, Commitment and Community that I introduced a few years ago and in my eyes are still the key foundations of a successful customer experience strategy. These continue to be my CX travelling companions and are always my starting point, in any engagement, I find that a deep dive into any or all of these will surface some issues to be resolved. I’ll only just dip my toe in the water here, but I hope that you can use these simple but powerful words to shine a light on your own organisation.

It’s the principles that count:
When we read about many of the butt clenching, eye watering, brain numbing, bad CX stories in the media and say to ourselves “What were they thinking?” it usually the company’s underlying Culture that causes these problems. And for the best examples of a toxic culture, in every sense of the word, look no further than Southern or Thames Water, and more recently Air Canada and their delinquent chatbot. So, I look at a few clues.  Do they make it easy for customers to do business with, and contact them? Do they really understand what it’s like to be a customer? Do they empower their people? Or do they have dumb policies and procedures that tie their hands. Can you find a phone number? And can they even spell EMPATHY?

Bad vibes in the culture department often also involve the types of Communication breakdowns that fill the airwaves when we have airport or airline disruption with the most common theme being, “Nobody told us anything.” Or when people attempt to get resolution for a complaint, or request a legitimate refund, and the “computer says no” responses are due to “technical or admin issues.” And it’s not just external communications. Front line teams must be updated with any changes in policy, procedures, marketing campaigns, so that they can respond confidently and accurately. And don’t forget the website as this is where many people go first.

As with culture, senior executive ownership, on an on-going and visibly participatory basis, is a vital element in demonstrating Commitment. So, does your CEO spend time in the contact centre, or on the delivery trucks? Do they engage with customers on a regular basis? Do they attend the cross-functional team briefings. And do they ensure that “customers are at the heart of all we do” is not just an empty promise or a marketing slogan as demonstrated this week by Govia Thameslink.

In customer experience terms, Community truly means all being in this together although perhaps not in the same context espoused by one of our previous politicians. It resides comfortably and symbiotically with the other three principles. It is dependent on intertwining and bringing together the different parts of an organization to agree common goals, and ways of achieving them, in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration. In other words, it probably won’t work in a vacuum and you really must gather the troops together to achieve success.

So maybe it’s not a war, more of a revolution with many of us on the same side and that needs to be on the side of the customer. Success in a CX world doesn’t mean consensus, although clearly there must be some coming together.  A cohesion of sprit and a non-destructive collision of ideas can lead to continual and measurable progress. The operative word in all of this, as in any human endeavour to bring people together, is engagement. It means making a connection with those with whom you have more in common that you may think and where the outcome is mutually beneficial, and both customers and the company end up winning.

And who knows maybe we can make this a (happy) family affair after all.