‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ is a famous idiom which paraphrases our need to compare and evaluate our successes based on the success of our peers, a process called ‘benchmarking’ in the business world. 

Not only is it an important part of human development, as part of understanding the cause and effects of our actions, it enables us to remain on par and at ease with everything around us.

Whether this is enough of an excuse to justify the new conservatory in my garden is up to you.

Benchmarking is natural behaviour but surprisingly it was not until the early 1980s that businesses began to appreciate the value of entrenching benchmarking into their processes.


Necessity is the mother of invention

Xerox pioneered the photocopying market in the early 1960’s. Unopposed, the company grew to create a virtual monopoly in their field, quickly becoming an international household name. 

However, by the 1980s its share of the market had slumped to around 35% as new entrants such as IBM, Canon and Kodak developed technologies more suited to the modern consumer. It became clear that Xerox’s management had failed to look outward to their competitors and were guilty of self-congratulatory navel gazing. 

Whilst busy staring at their growing financial bellies, Xerox was overtaken by competition that was leaner, hungrier and working to deliver a greater level of customer satisfaction. 

Management realised they had to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ so they devised a process to benchmark the company against the competition, and also began benchmarking internal processes.

The results were dramatic; leading to a marked increase in output and a decrease in production cost. 

Hence, benchmarking was adopted throughout different industries and became a crucial part of the business world.  

Limitations with digital benchmarking

Since the 1980s internal and external benchmarking has become a standard business practice for all organisations, but the dawn of the digital age has made benchmarking a process that is even harder to complete. But, why?

Firstly, organisations have no reliable financial metric with which to benchmark the digital experience.

Using increased website sales as a metric for success is flawed since, in general, consumers are going online to spend their money. With the internet, online banking and the smartphone it has affected everyone’s spending and as the saying goes ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.

In this case, using the previous month’s sales as a benchmark of success would be inaccurate; they would likely increase anyway. 

Secondly, gathering behavioural data of site visitors does not establish a reliable benchmark. 

Software such as Google Analytics and Adobe Site Catalyst and Webtrends can measure visitors’ online behaviour but, since the information only shows visitor behaviour, it is hard to evaluate the positive from the negative. 

For example, a long site visit time may mean there’s a real interest in the site’s content or be down to the consumer’s inability to find information they are looking for.


Thirdly, consumers have hundreds, if not thousands, of digital experiences every day delivered by a multitude of diverse organisations. 

It has been covered before; how the consumers’ expectations of a digital experience is constantly shifting – consumers are not just omni-channel they are omni-digital. 

Managers at Xerox were able to benchmark a process because the product, the consumer and the consumer’s journey were linear. Today’s consumer is nomadic, with higher expectations and more exposure to competitors who exist just a swipe or click away. 

So is there a way to externally benchmark your customers’ experience of digital channels?

Understanding the experience

For companies to improve and evolve their digital properties they need to understand their customers’ experiences and benchmark them against the improvements of competitors.  

The key to internal benchmarking a digital experience is very hard to do well but really quite simple; ask the customer the right questions.

We speak to lots of companies every day and surprisingly few world class organisations are able to measure and benchmark their digital properties on customer feedback. 

Since you can’t manage what you don’t measure, this makes it impossible to evaluate how your customer really feels about a new feature on your website, compared to the features on your competitors website.

Once companies have started to internally benchmark their digital properties, the next step is to benchmark themselves against the wider world.  

Universal benchmarking

The traditional method of just benchmarking yourself against others in the same industry is outdated. The organisations that use cross-industry benchmarks to improve the experience they deliver are the companies that will prosper.  

One of the most successful usages of universal benchmarking for us has been a UK high street bank. They have been comparing themselves against the UK’s retail sector score, not the UK financial industry benchmark, for over 12 months. It makes sense that, in reality, customers are comparing their bank’s website (and their experience of it) to the likes of online retailers such as Amazon, Apple and eBay.

Likewise, one of the largest telecoms company in the UK prefer to benchmark themselves against the Banking industry, specifically in online account management experience. 

As a consequence of this wider benchmarking there is a need to attain a higher level of customer satisfaction.

The businesses that raise their game as a result of universal benchmarking will have a leg-up on their direct competitors.

Reliability and consistency

Now, more than ever, it is important to use reliable metrics to benchmark your customer’s experience. Though, without sufficient data the method of benchmarking you use could be inaccurate or misleading. 

Asking the right questions to your customers will ensure your business is accurately represented in your data and will produce the best results for comparing your customer journey with others inside and outside your industry.

Asking the same questions allows your business to benchmark against a constant scale – avoiding all the problems associated with a skewed benchmarking process. 

Developed with Matt Twist at Foresee Results ltd.