By Dr Andreea Antonescu
The concept of Customer Experience has become quite popular lately and it is used in discourses, storytelling, advertisement campaigns, business strategies, and research cross-disciplines. Therefore, at Institute of Customer Experience Management (ICEM), we decided to take a closer look at the concept and try to deconstruct it in order to generate a better understanding about its composing elements and attributes.
CX becomes HX: The Human Experience
The questions we asked ourselves were at first of an epistemological nature and slowly shifted into more operational ones. So what is an experience? Is it something only customers live? How do we create extraordinary, memorable experiences? We formed our opinions by understanding the different answers to these questions given by academics and industry professionals. Here is what we learned.
In a service context, customer experience is a long-term relationship between two people: the customer and the employee representing a company. It is a living thing: a human interaction! It isn’t JUST business, it’s VERY personal. Every interaction is personal and unique. And, as the following figure shows, it’s not just about the customer. The employee plays a very important role in this encounter and the experience is co-created with the customer.
The Human Experience
We can see this interaction playing in multiple touchpoints throughout time and space. This process is often called the Customer Journey and it is useful to study it. The customer, often not alone but accompanied by friends and family or in the presence of other customers, is a unique individual with specific needs, perceptions, and values that can change over time. He or she has different past memories about his/her experience within a company and can compare with other companies. This is why having information about those specific needs and values is crucial in creating successful CX. People change with time and if we do not form close relationships with them through consistent communication and meetings, we can lose sight about who they become.
As unique individual, personality traits are also an important element as his/her moods and attitudes toward the company, people, experiences etc. It goes the same way for the employee with the difference that he or she needs to perform towards an extraordinary meaningful experience. In order to do so, the employee is usually trained to develop cognitive skills and emotional agility to be translated into a specific behavior with the customer. This behavior should align with company’s values and DNA, and should also correspond to the customer’s expectations and needs. While the customer is learning about the company and its specific know-how, the employee also, through active listening and observation, can learn more about the customer’s needs and personality. This is often referred as Customer Intelligence.
Towards meaningful, transformative experiences
At the end of the day, Customer Experience is a two-way street; a shared moment, a co-created encounter which happens in a given touchpoint situated in time and place. If we’re looking at a physical touchpoint, like a store or manufacturer, it should reflect the company’s DNA and values in every way: from every little detail of the objects displayed to staff behavior. These attributes can be called brand essentials and need to have a consistency over time at all touchpoints. At the same time, the quality of the objects displayed and interior design should match the quality of the products sold.
Sometimes, in this evolving and elevating relationship, a peak moment would be reached by the customer, but also by the employee. This peak moment can be understood as a “wow” in a given context and time, or as a meaningful and unforgettable experience which can be a more gradual process and can take time. It’s a moment in time that creates strong positive memories involving curiosity, awe, ecstasy over an experience. Both ‘essential elements’ and ‘peak moments’ contribute to the overall experience. Therefore, consistency is key! And peak moments are often the outcome of constant and resilient hard work. They are perceived as a process of thought transformation through interpretation, learning, unlearning, relearning and the willingness to see the world from different perspectives while developing emotional agility.
So, what kind of experience do you want to create for your customers, students, patients, guests or tourists? One answer we hear again and again is that leaders want them to experience something they will never forget, an extraordinary moment, one that will be shared year after year with friends and family; one that will have a profound impact on them and thus on the relationship formed with their institution or company. This means an experience which will be remembered as meaningful and transformative.
Another key word here is “remembered”. Because each and every one of us is nowadays bombarded with information and tasks to be done, our attention and memory tend to be very selective. So, those are two crucial components of CX for which everyone is fighting. As the authors of the Experience Economy, Pine and Gilmore say: “ If you do not create a memory, then you have not offered a distinctive experience.”
Moreover, distinctive or peak experiences happen when your worries and problems seem to fade away as you disappear into your work or activity. Everyday frustrations are removed from your attention. This brings a great sense of relief as you operate fully in the present moment. This is why as customers or employees in our daily experiences, we should “pay attention to our attention”, as organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, recently stated. He argues that our scarcest resource is not our time, it’s our attention! It’s because our best work or leisure activities flow from paying undivided attention to what’s in front of us and important.
In the same vein, applied to relationships and experiences with a company or institution, Grant states that our “deepest connections come from listening with rapt attention to the people who matter to us.” Therefore, if we look from a logical perspective, people (as employees) are working towards meaningful transformative experiences for people (as customers).
Design to guide not to control
The less obvious answer is how to create these peak experiences. People are unique and have different needs and expectations in different situations. That is why knowing your customers is a crucial element when designing an experience. Depending on the targeted public, we want to lay out the appropriate conditions for elements to include: novelty, surprise & serendipity, playfulness, pleasure (activation of the 5 senses), understanding & learning (‘aha!’ moments), poise, freedom and loss of time and space, enchantment, fun, joy and other positive emotions. The appropriate selection for the right segment is crucial. Easier said than done!
There is a lot of advice on how to create extraordinary peak experiences. In their book, “The Power of Moments”, the brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, propose a four element framework. We can build these defining moments starting from one or more of the following elements:
Elevation. Moments of elevation are experiences that rise above the routine. They make us feel engaged, joyful, surprised, motivated. To create them, we can boost the sensory appeal; raise the stakes; and/or break the script. Research suggests that organizations dramatically under-invest in building peaks, choosing instead to fix problems.
- Pride. Moments of pride commemorate people’s achievements. We can use three strategies to deliver pride: (1) Recognize others. A small investment of effort yields a huge reward for the recipient; (2) Multiply meaningful milestones – reframe a long journey so that it features multiple “finishing lines.”; and (3) Practice courage by “preloading” our responses in advance, so we’re ready when the right moment comes.
- Insight. Moments of insight deliver realizations and transformations. To produce moments of insight for others, we can cause them to “trip over the truth” by revealing (1) a clear insight; (2) compressed in time; and (3) discovered by the audience. To produce moments of self-insight, we must stretch, placing ourselves in situations that involve the risk of failure.
- Connection. Moments of connection bond us together. Groups unite when they struggle together toward a meaningful goal; they often begin their work with a “synchronized moment”. In individual relationships, it’s responsiveness that deepens our ties. A responsive interaction can bring people together very quickly.
It is important to remember, transformation is a personal journey. It cannot be controlled and it’s an internal process we experience through our senses, emotions, thoughts, actions and, most importantly, through interpretation of facts and events. This is why the meaning we give to an experience is unique and personal. Moreover, leaders and managers cannot control this process, but can guide and pave the way to it.
Pay attention to people
Customer Experience is not just about customers, it’s about employees too. It is a human interaction. Under certain circumstances some interactions become meaningful and transformative. If you’re a leader or manager who wants to improve CX, then pay attention to people, because attention can lead to peak moments and those moments lead to a long-lasting co-creative relationships which in turn will pay out in terms of sales, loyalty and advocacy. Really listening to people’s stories, their wants, needs and aspirations can give you important clues for designing unforgettable experiences. How? There are many ways to do it. But, transformation begins with you, the leader, and the others will follow your example. Here are a few key takeaways in our experience:
- Start creating an experience mindset throughout your company. All employees participate directly or indirectly to customer experience.
- Empower your employees to act and deliver a meaningful experience on the spot. Surprise and serendipity are time-bound to specific moments and cannot wait for an approval from management.
- Maintain the ‘Essential Experience’ through consistency in all your touchpoints.
- Strive for peak moments whenever possible through elevation, pride, insight and connection.
- Learn more about your customer and employee values and preferences, and build your Intelligence database.
- Create a culture where failure IS part of the innovation journey and where emotions are central to our well-being and transformation.
The best way to do all of the above is through tailor-made research studies directed to better get to know employees and customers, and by observing the actual interaction happening in different types of touchpoints between the two stakeholders. This is our expertise and what we propose at ICEM for our clients.
In the end, people are emotional beings and decisions are taken based on how we remember things and events in our lives, and how we felt in those particular moments. This represents one core dimension of CX. As the great writer and poet, Maya Angelou, wrote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”