Rethinking Customer Experience’s Role in Business

by Joost Holthuis

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Too many companies think they’re customer-centric without ever having spoken to a single customer. Thinking about your customer isn’t the same as asking about their experiences, and that’s what makes the difference between a successful project and wasted money.

The necessity of user-centricity in projects is clear for everyone. Building something without having a full picture of the customer is risky. Your chances of failure are much higher if you don’t meet the needs of your target audience.

Nevertheless, we still notice that many businesses don’t conduct enough customer journey research, resulting in pseudo-insights. Business-centric gets labelled as customer-centric and, as a result, the developed product doesn’t fit the needs of the customer at all. Henry Ford’s famous quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” doesn’t apply here; you don’t ask customers for a solution, but for pain points which you can solve with a new or improved product or service. The customer wanted to be able to move faster, so Ford invented the car.

Customer experience as a management function

The technology already exists to collect and analyze customer data in order to create customer journeys, so that’s not the problem. The need to be innovative seems to have finally gotten through to businesses, too. What’s still missing is someone on management level who’s responsible for the customer experience. And when a project’s budget threatens to be exceeded, customer research is the first thing to be left out.

I personally know of a big organization that has built an app without ever seeing a customer. As a result, the app has an incredibly complicated menu structure, preventing the customer from getting the complete product experience.. This organization has no idea what their customers’ reality looks like; they work in silos with everyone working on a different part of the customer journey, so they miss out on the big picture. There’s no budget for insights that could serve the greater purpose, which is why in situations like these the product doesn’t work effectively or, in the worst case scenario, at all.

When the dots don’t connect

If you only develop separate products you lose sight of the underlying problem. A traveler coming to Schiphol by car isn’t just trying to find a parking spot. They also want to know whether the plane will be on time and how long it takes to walk to the terminal. It might seem enough to just show them the way to their reserved parking spot, but you’re not optimizing the customer journey. It’s important to look beyond the possibilities of the available data.

You’d expect that lots of small parts would make a whole, but if you optimize a lot of small things without bringing them together, you’re offering an inconsistent customer experience — which only causes annoyance.

If the complete customer journey is clear, you’ll come up with solutions you wouldn’t have thought of before. We were involved in improving the boarding procedure for NS and ProRail. Travelers want to find a seat quickly, so the solution for NS and ProRail seemed obvious: an app providing information on which train compartments are the least busy. But someone running to catch a train won’t open an app, match the division on the screen with reality, and go looking for the least busy compartment. Instead we developed and implemented an LED-display above the train platform that informs travelers where the train will stop and which carriages still have seats available. The result was happy customers, ones whose annoyances were acknowledged and solved.

Overly complicated business structures

Some companies do have a complete picture of the customer journey, but can’t seem to convert it into action. The existing structure gets in the way of solving customers’ problems and pain points. Let’s take Schiphol as an example here again. They wanted to improve the parking flow, but the same type of parking is sometimes called Long Parking, sometimes Smart Parking, and sometimes P3. That’s way too complicated for users; communicating your product in three different ways to someone who visits the airport maybe twice a year is bound to go wrong. It means the base product should be changed. Thorough research provides a good foundation to help you break through the barriers of the present business structure.

Keeping money in your pocket

Innovation starts with realizing how much worth real customer insights have. The next step is to bring customer experience to a high level within the organization and make financial resources available for use in the right way. This step is vital — only then is it possible to roll out user-centricity into projects. If you don’t do all of this, it’s better to keep the money in your pocket. Admittedly the shift in thinking required to achieve this is easier in lean organizations (where it’s simpler to switch than in big traditional companies) but doing nothing isn’t an option; you’ll lose to both your competitor and the newcomers who acknowledge your customers’ pain points and find good solutions for them. Because who would you rather be: Netflix or Kodak?

Image created by Jael Koh.

Originally published on Emerce (in Dutch).

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