Customer experience: Lessons from the real world

CX expert, Rich Toohey, a regular contributor to this column does something important again by pointing to the value of design when it comes to customer experiences.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

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Rich Toohey has contributed to this column more than once -- and there is a reason. Aside from his rich history in loyalty when he served as the VP of Marriott Rewards for the (duh) Marriott hotel chain, and his current status as the President of Resolvere Insights LLC, he is an Expert with a capital "E" in customer experience strategies which, of course, if properly done lead to advocates and loyal customers. Each time he writes, there is a new set of insights that businesses can take to the bank. So, here we go again.

You can read his past posts here, here and here.


The adage 'hope is not a strategy' is often attributed to legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. I can envision him saying this to his team while reinforcing the need for their rigorous preparations and practices. This maxim came to mind recently after a very frustrating interaction; I imagined the organization adhering to this approach as they 'designed' and 'executed' (visualize a gesture of air quotes around both words) customer-facing processes.

Then later that same week, an interaction with another organization, the exact opposite in terms of effort and outcome, offered clear evidence of a well-designed experience. Perhaps more significantly, these two interactions collectively highlight customer experience (CX) ideas that matter regardless of category or industry.

A Tale of Two Experiences

The first interaction involved our Health Savings Account (HSA) that's hosted by a firm specializing in these health-related spending and investment accounts. We needed to transfer funds from the HSA investment balance to the HSA bill-paying balance. Establishing the ability to invest some of our HSA funds had been simple enough on their web site -- I just selected an investment choice and an amount to transfer electronically. My expectation was that this subsequent transfer-transaction would be just as easy ... not exactly.

I signed in to our HSA account on the firm's website, but the transaction would not complete. 'System error; try again later' was the response on four separate occasions. Plan B: a call to customer service. After explaining my problem, the rep told me the error was likely due to an issue with the internet browser being used. I agreed to attempt the same transfer transaction on another laptop using a different browser. Same 'system error; try again later' result. The rep then shifted to the blame game saying, "I think it was probably user error." Suffice to say that her 'pour gasoline on fire' approach did not help the situation. After some back and forth, she finally 'fessed up' that she didn't want to bother their Tech Support team until all options the user (me) could do were exhausted; believe me, I now was exhausted ... with this process!

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Fortunately, my experience-karma quickly improved. Interaction number two started with a higher-than-normal bill from one of my mother's service providers. I handle all of Mom's financial-related matters, so I signed in to her account on the provider's website and quickly determined that an expiring rate program led to the increase. I compared two packages that appeared to meet her needs. As there were a couple package details that weren't completely clear to me, I called customer service. The rep efficiently answered my questions and I selected a package. Check. More than that, her answer-approach plainly conveyed how much the service provider appreciated and valued Mom's business. Check plus. The final step: electronically confirming the transaction via email or SMS. The rep asked my preference (SMS), I reviewed package details, and sent a confirmation message. Easy and done. Check plus plus.

What CX Success Looks Like

With all the focus on CX in today's market, what does it really mean? According to acknowledged expert Bruce Temkin, customer experience is the perception that customers have of their interactions with an organization. Building on that, a customer's brand view, including whether they'll make future purchases or become 'loyal', is largely determined by the experience they perceive. Innovation and competition have combined to create an astounding number of choices for consumers' product or service needs. The result: more organizations have realized the importance of preparation and practice in delivering well-conceived experiences for both complex and everyday interactions. Furthermore, customers now regularly compare the experience delivered by an organization to that provided by the very best provider regardless of category or industry.

Considering this context, what should an organization focus on as it designs and executes customer-facing processes? Start with the intent to understand and act on customer needs. Then add the ability to make customers feel valued for their business as well as deliver truly connected experiences so that regardless of channel used, a customer perceives a seamless experience and receives consistent information. Lastly, an organization's CX goal should be to consistently and easily allow customers to achieve their desired outcome -- not to 'wow' them though that will occasionally happen -- as that end-in-mind utility is why customers have interacted with your process.

Lessons Learned?

The two examples above could be described as relatively ordinary 'nothing-to-see-here-keep-moving' interactions yet both illustrate CX lessons worth remembering. First, customer-desired outcomes are the core of customer experience; more specifically, the less effort a customer must expend with your organization (and any associated processes) to achieve their chosen outcome, the better. Attempting to complete my HSA task required way too much effort including a throw-up-my-hands-in-frustration moment; in comparison, the service provider interaction process was easy to navigate from start to finish.

The second takeaway is that the presence (or absence) of a connected experience contributes significantly to the customer's effort perception. The HSA interaction felt (was) disconnected and difficult to navigate; conversely, choosing the right service provider package involved a unified process that was intuitive and easy to complete. And a third lesson: customer treatment really matters. Think of this as the golden rule ('do unto customers as you ...') of interactions. The service provider rep exhibited this understanding throughout our dealings; the HSA rep ... not so much.

By applying these lessons, organizations can deliver customer-desired outcomes on a consistent basis while leaving customers with the feeling that their role was easy ... though there's also nothing wrong with choosing to hope for positive CX outcomes.

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