Customer experience is one of the leading ways that brands seek to differentiate themselves today. But what does CX mean exactly?

Ahead of ‘Econsultancy Live 2021: What’s next for CX?’ – let’s explore the concept and take a look at some research that can help bring it to life.

CX for the win

2020 once again brought customer experience back into focus, as Covid-19 created shifts in consumer behaviour. As Econsultancy and Adobe’s ‘Digital Trends 2021’ report explains, “new customers arrived in record numbers to sites and apps, creating new journeys and behaviours to be understood. At the same time, existing customers behaved less predictably.”

This new landscape also highlighted the disparity between companies that have already adopted a focus on customer experience and those that haven’t.

According to the report, over 70% of CX leaders – defined as organisations that have shown a strategic commitment to CX in the past five years – outpaced their sectors and were three times more likely to have ‘significantly outpaced’ their sectors than mainstream organisations.

So, what are CX leaders doing to generate this success? Most definitions describe CX as the sum of all the interactions that a customer has with a brand. Consequently, customer experience as a strategy or part of a wider strategic goal aims to improve all aspects of the customer journey (meaning CX leaders typically put the customer at the at the centre of everything they do).

The concept of customer-centricity

Putting the customer first – or being ‘customer-centric’ – means gaining a deep understanding of the customer. This includes more than just basic demographics, and extends to their needs, joys and frustrations (relating to your brand or product), and pain points that they often experience in their customer journey.

Econsultancy’s ‘Future of Marketing’ survey (of 812 marketers in May/June 2020) found that understanding the customer remains a key priority for many organisations. In fact, ‘improving the understanding of the consumer’ was cited as critical for 30% of marketers who chose it as one of their top three priorities.

Amazon is perhaps the most famous example of a customer-centric company. Jeff Bezos, its CEO and founder, has famously championed a culture that centres around aligning with the customer’s needs. Amazon’s approach to product development, which is known as ‘walking backwards’, encapsulates this, enabling employees to make a business case for new ideas that is built from how it can create more value for customers.

Econsultancy’s ‘CXM: Best Practice Guide’ suggests that there are three key actions for creating a more customer-centric company. First, to make communication within the business as natural as possible, by “creating a flatter organisational structure or establishing cross-disciplinary teams.” Essentially, this refers to people with different skillsets who work together towards an over-arching goal.

Secondly, as Amazon demonstrates, it the importance of ensuring the customer is always represented in conversations. The report cites Virgin Trains as good example; the company sends its employees a weekly report of its overall performance from the previous week, which includes customer comments about their experiences. This enables teams to organically bring the customer into business meetings.

Thirdly, companies should strive to open a direct line with the customer in order to gauge how they are responding to products or services. Atom Bank, for example, interacts with an active customer panel, from which it generates direct feedback. Lisa Wood, CMO of Atom Bank explains:  “We can send them prototypes of journeys and get them to walk through those journeys,” she says. “We give them tasks to do, and can track, monitor and get their feedback every step of the way so we know whether or not we’ve improved a journey or we’ve made it more complicated.”

Start by mapping the customer journey

In order to further build on the concept of customer-centricity, organisations need to start thinking about how they can embed CX into organisational strategy. As the ‘Future of Marketing’ report states, this often starts by “structuring teams around the customer journey and taking a data informed approach to marketing activities.”

A good starting point is to map the customer journey, as this can help to break down the silos that can lead to a poor customer experience – particularly given the now vast amount of both physical and digital touchpoints a customer can have. Mapping a customer journey can also help organisations anticipate behaviours before they happen or come to exist.

While there are many types of maps that can be used, the basic format typically follows a visualisation of the processes an audience persona goes through in order to accomplish a specific goal. For example, the path to purchase. Within the map, the persona’s behaviours and emotions are also mapped along with their actions. So, for example, their initial expectation, points of friction, and what channels or touchpoints they interact with.

According to Econsultancy’s ‘Walking in Their Footsteps: The Business Case for Customer Journey Mapping’ report, journey mapping isn’t industry standard yet – despite the fact that 85% of companies that have applied the strategy cite it as a competitive advantage. Of the 456 brands in a study, only half said they were actively engaged in customer journey mapping (CJM), and among those, only one in four companies are proficient. The report states that “lack of senior buy-in, having the right data, technology and tools and confusion about internal ownership and integration are all barriers for take-up.”

What about ownership?

When it comes to ‘ownership’, it is important to ensure that CX as a function is centrally owned – or to implement strategies that allow the entire organisation to take ownership.

Like with the aforementioned example of Amazon, customer experience should also be seen as a part of culture, and something that is advocated throughout the business.

In the CXM Best Practice Guide, Alex Barker, Head of User Experience at Edo, explains the dangers of silos, and how this can lead to a fractured customer experience. He says, “If you have a group of people in marketing, for example, and they all understand the customer need and they empathise with the customer, and no one else in the organisation does, then they’ll see the customer as marketing’s job.”

Fundamentally, customer experience should be the glue that binds various teams together – spanning sales, marketing, and data & analytics etc. – not something that is restricted to a single part.

The six pillars of CX

Econsultancy’s ‘Walking in their Footsteps’ study found that 87% of companies doing journey mapping at any level say that it helps them identify the gaps between what customers want and what they’re getting. In other words, journey mapping helps uncover actionable insights for organisations, ranging from gaps in customer service to improvements on product development.

To understand the benefits of customer journey mapping (and CX as a wider strategy) in a more general sense, it is helpful to use KPMG Nunwood’s ‘Six Pillars’, which outlines the six key principles which act as the building blocks for success, and that provide a framework for CX measurement.

Let’s explore the pillars, and some examples of companies that successfully use them as part of a customer-centric culture.

1. Personalisation

It’s an entire topic in itself, but in the context of CX strategy, Nunwood suggests that personalisation can be achieved through “knowing your customer, remaining alert to their needs and preferences, and tailoring experiences to their unique circumstances.” An example of this could be how retailers have aligned their in-store experience with customer’s new expectations around Covid.

Christian Selchau-Hansen, the CEO of enterprise software company, Formation.ai, highlights how during the pandemic airlines have been tailoring their communications based on the customer’s willingness to travel. “For someone in a higher risk profile with a lower willingness to travel, this means making sure that the communications coming from United are far more educational as well as infrequent and really, again, tailoring it to this need,” he told Econsultancy in November 2020. “In contrast, someone who has a much higher willingness to travel should be starting to get more information about how they can continue to do it safely, what precautions the airlines are taking, and how they are making it safe and effective.”

2. Integrity

Integrity means to build trust in consumers, and to instil the belief that a company is acting in the customer’s best interests – and that they can be relied upon.

Customer journey mapping can uncover key moments of distrust, such as conflicting information at different touchpoints or – in the context of online retail – withholding information such as delivery costs until the point of checkout. Moments like these can immediately create a poor customer experience, and therefore decrease loyalty.

3. Expectations

Meeting and exceeding the rising expectations of consumers is a challenge, particularly given that consumer expectations have never been higher. According to a 2020 study by Salesforce, 66% of consumers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations, while 52% of customers expect offers to always be personalised – up from 49% in 2019. A good barometer, which Nunwood suggests, is to avoid the tendency to over-promise and yet under-deliver on a product, service, or value. If a company communicates what they know they can deliver from the get-go, then it is more likely to result in a positive experience for the customer.

An effective way to determine customer satisfaction is by measuring it with a metric like NPS (net promoter score), which determines how likely a customer is to recommend a product or service. Slack is one brand that consistently uses NPS as a way to measure the success of its marketing and sales teams. Speaking to Jill Soley, Slack’s CMO, Bill Macaitis, explains how NPS can also help to quantify customer experiences. “If you truly believe that brand is the sum of all these little interactions that a prospect and customer have with your company then marketing, sales, support, legal, product, they’re all influencing that overall experience and that overall net promoter score. So I like that one as a guiding North Star.”

4. Resolution

Of course, things won’t always go as expected, as not all elements of the customer journey are within a company’s immediate control. In this instance, it is how quickly and efficiently the problem is resolved that will make or break the customer experience. Interestingly, how companies react can also help to create a positive experience and actually enhance customer loyalty.

One example of this comes from beauty brand Glossier, whose customer service team (also known as gTeam) responds to customer messages and comments on social media channels. Often, it will be in order to resolve a specific issue or complaint, but other times it will be to surprise and delight customers, and to create a memorable experience for an individual.

5. Time and effort

Time and effort refers to the level of “convenience and efficiency firms can provide on every customer transaction and interaction.” In other words, companies should strive to create a customer journey that is seamless and consistent across channels.

Here, journey mapping can help to uncover any points of friction, such as inconsistent messaging on different channels, or moments where online users have to re-enter or re-iterate information that they have already given.

6. Empathy

Finally, there is empathy, which is where a company goes above and beyond for its customer in order to show a deeper understanding of their needs, as well as factors that are more emotion-driven such as their fears or values.

Covid-19 has brought empathy back into focus, with brands changing both their marketing and product or services in response to the pandemic (and new consumer behaviour and/or need). As Sebastian Jespersen suggests, “[Consumers’ aren’t interested in corporate platitudes or self-serving ad campaigns. They want to buy from brands that show their humanity and have their best interests at heart.”

Another example of empathy within customer experience is what is known as the ‘Thoughtful Marketing Movement’, which involves a number of big brands (including Bloom & Wild) asking customers whether they want to opt-out of marketing on dates that some people find difficult, such as Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. In 2020, Bloom & Wild also re-considered marketing around ‘pay day’, due to many customers facing the negative financial impact of Covid.

The tip of the iceberg…

It goes without saying that there is much more to CX than discussed here.

From approaching CX through specific channels (such as social media), to the technology required to enable companies to generate data and fuel personalisation – the topic is vast. But hopefully, the definition is now clearer.

One thing we also simply sum up, too, is that there are huge advantages that come with a focus on customer experience, particularly as we look back on a year of intense upheaval and digital acceleration.

Econsultancy Live: What’s Next for CX? Will take place on 27-28 April. Visit the website to book your ticket and explore the full agenda.