The customer experience

Posted: July 4, 2007 in CRM

Ten years ago Joe Pine defined customer experience in “The Experience Economy” and as is typical for big ideas, it took several years for it to ferment and bubble up to the mainstream. During that time it’s been amazing to see how we’ve turned customer experience into something different from what I think Pine intended. 

I read the book back then and, though I recall the big points, over the years my recollection dimmed until I saw Pine again at this year’s Sage user group meeting in Orlando.  I take my hat off to Sage for always being willing to engage keynote speakers with big ideas.

Pine’s point was that as we have climbed the ladder of delivered value, we have gone from delivering products to delivering services and on to delivering experiences.  Pine notes that a service is really a customized product and an experience is a customized service.  Beyond the experience Pine suggests that a customized experience can be a transformative event in the life of the customer.

Now compare that with the run-of-the-mill idea of an experience we have grown accustomed to.  When we talk about a customer experience today more often than not we are speaking about something generic; the bare fact that any time a customer interacts with a vendor an experience happens, so there is a need for the vendor to make it a “good” one.  The customer experience is simply a result of the interaction and it is a decidedly lower case noun. 

Some vendors even try to put measurements on the experience determining that speed or some other predetermined value is of paramount importance and they actively survey for satisfaction along that axis immediately after the so-called experience. 

The customer experience Pine proposed — the customized service — seems to me to be a bit more than the simple result of an interaction.  It may not always be possible to customize a service in a lot of situations or the customization might simply occur — by definition — any time a vendor is dealing with an individual.  Nevertheless, to me that is a long way from a customized service.

Today we’ve turned the customer experience from something that is at least potentially transcendent to something that we need to ensure doesn’t come back to hurt us.  In the process we have debased it and made it almost unrecognizable.  Why do we do this? 

We did the same thing, more or less, to CRM.  We took an idea of getting closer to the customer to understand the customer better and commercialized it into a tool for defending against too much contact. 

Doubt that?  Consider this: I heard from someone who was there that at a recent conference to address CRM in politics that there were sessions or discussions on how to handle constituents who want to actually communicate with a politician.  They were given a dismissive name — in this case, pen pals — and the conference attendees were given techniques for dealing with them. 

Now, as a practical matter, numbers work against anyone trying to provide authenticity in interactions any time a single entity like a vendor tries to reach out to the public, the customer base, constituents or whatever label you give them.  The definition of relationship is sorely tested whenever you try to deal with such huge numbers and all of us must be smart enough to understand that a business relationship is not in the same class as the personal relationships we have with family and friends.

If we come to that understanding then the whole idea of customer experience can come into focus.  A customer might not expect a life changing experience when he or she gets on the phone with a service agent, but, at the same time, few of us want a pre-programmed, precisely measured and thoroughly market tested “experience” either.  Simple competence will do very nicely in most cases and to do that one need only listen.  Come to think of it, knowing you are being listened to can be a transformative experience all by itself.

So, what did you think?

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