Here's a horror story that's sure to scare the pants off most business executives: I recently spent a wonderful evening at a fancy, new restaurant in the city. (That's not the horrible part; it's coming.)
Later that night, I searched the Web to learn more about the establishment, send my compliments, and offer a minor menu suggestion. In a matter of minutes, I'd found the restaurant's webpage, its blog, its Facebook page, and its Twitter handle. But here's the scary part: none of these digital assets remotely reflected the essence of the in-store dining experience. The tone, the look and feel, the copy, and the colors were all different—so different, in fact, that I wondered if these online properties were even run by actual employees of the restaurant.
What's worse, the menu suggestion that I so generously took the time to formulate and email ended up receiving no response or acknowledgement. And yet these splendid folks did somehow find the time to add my personal email address to their daily (sometimes hourly) promotional mailing list.
How could an online and a remote customer service experience be so deeply at odds with the actual product they supposedly represent?
In a few short minutes, I'd completely forgotten about the positive elements of my in-store dining experience. Instead, thanks to a host of aggravating and incongruous digital missteps, I was left wondering if I'd somehow overrated the dining component, and if I'd ever dare to press my luck with a return visit.
Scared yet, execs?
Hope, Spelled CEM
It's hard for most companies to believe, but my story isn't the slightest bit uncommon. Every day, customers with preexisting positive brand associations see that good will strained or completely obliterated by clunky, thoughtless online engagement platforms. And if business owners are really up for a scare, they should try thinking about how poor digital experiences might affect customers with preexisting negative in-store associations!
Fortunately, there's a rapidly maturing discipline called Customer Experience Management (CEM) that presents a systematic strategy for tackling these very issues.
Strictly speaking, CEM is the methodical measurement and understanding of the complete customer experience (as it pertains to a brand, organization, or product), and the application of this understanding throughout all customer touchpoints.
Said another way, it's more than just a method of monitoring transactions or conversions; CEM is learning and responding (in a positive and meaningful way) to the sensory, emotional, intellectual, and social wants and needs of the customer.
CEM's purview is broader than just interactive digital channels. Applied correctly, CEM extends across all customer touchpoints, including call/contact centers, print, direct marketing, Web, email, social media, etc. In this article, I'll focus primarily on the digital aspect, but in almost every case, the best business results will stem from coordinated, consistently optimized customer experiences, both online and off.
But focusing on the interactive digital experience is almost certainly the most sensible and cost-effective starting point for a CEM initiative. Digital experimentation has a number of advantages: it's faster (in some cases, testing can even be done in real-time), it's more flexible (easily supporting multiple variables and instantaneous reconfigurations), and it captures more user data.
In fact, digital testing is typically so efficient and thorough that it serves as a natural proof-of-concept when building the case for optimization of additional UX channels.
The Experiential Trinity
I'm a psychologist by training, and I see the world through the lens of human behavior. I've come to rely heavily on my scientific and analytic training to help me understand and improve how individuals and groups sense, feel, think, act, and relate to a wide range of digital stimuli. So for me, developing an ideal interactive customer experience begins with collecting data on three overlapping experiences:
- The existing digital asset (website, mobile application, social media tool, etc.)
- The desired digital asset, as seen through the eyes of a company
- The desired digital asset, as seen through the eyes of a customer
Understanding how these three components intersect (and diverge) is the qualitative and quantitative framework for building an Experience Platform (EP)—a statement dictating what every user experience must entail, and why—which can serve as a touchstone for the entire design and development process.
As in the movie Rashōmon, our goal is to cobble together a single, representative description from all of the subjective and objective facts available.
1. The existing digital asset
Start here: how are current visitors experiencing the digital property in question (which is different than asking how they're using it)?
Measuring outcomes or conversions requires only quantitative data (i.e., objective observations which can be measured mathematically). But to measure an experience, it's necessary to capture qualitative data as well (i.e., subjective observations which must be felt or sensed).
As one progresses through the CEM development process, there will be a gradual shift from primarily quantitative to primarily qualitative data collection. Thus, the first leg of our journey—evaluating an existing digital asset—is chiefly an exercise in quantitative analysis.
From there, our goal is simply to mine that information for patterns, gaps, and unexplained phenomena—markers that might indicate fertile ground for our eventual qualitative investigations.
For example: using analytics, one might discover that a cluster of commonly searched keywords has been triggering little (if any) relevant content within one's corporate website. Investigating further, we might find that the exit rate from these pages is unusually high, or that users are frequently exiting to a competitor's URL.
Though it can't describe what these customers were sensing, feeling, or thinking while taking these actions, the quantitative data alone reveals a significant portion of the story.
Furthermore, it establishes an obvious starting point for our qualitative exploration (e.g., interviews, natural and lab-based observations, emotional response measurements, etc.), through which we'll seek to uncover those missing emotions, frustrations, and desires.
Taken together, these two forms of research can produce a highly accurate understanding of any existing digital asset's core user experience. Best of all, it's an understanding grounded in observable fact, and augmented with sensory and emotional context.
2. The desired digital asset, as seen through the eyes of the company
Now that we've gained a thorough understanding of the current user experience, it's time to approach the more difficult question: what's wrong with it?
The trouble is, problems—just like experiences—are subjective.
From a company's perspective, the problem is almost always that their digital experience doesn't result in enough sales (or leads, impressions, etc.). Company stakeholders will often emphasize transactional objectives and metric-based goals, while completely ignoring the thoughts, feelings, and social needs that motivate transactions (and, even more importantly, customer loyalty).
Since there exists no "ideal" website to analyze, our quantitative research methods are somewhat hindered at this stage of the CEM process. Instead, it's our qualitative techniques that must provide the lion's share of experiential insight.
On the bright side, this type of qualitative research can be a real eye-opener for companies trapped in a myopic, transactions-obsessed ideology. And yet our mission is not to disparage those transactional business goals, but rather to demonstrate how sensory and emotional facets of the user experience can ultimately serve those very same objectives.
Done effectively, this is often the impetus for significant business process reengineering, far beyond the realm of mere digital assets.
3. The desired digital asset, as seen through the eyes of the customer
Having examined a digital asset's existing user experience, and having articulated its failings from a corporate perspective, it's time to uncover what customers are consciously, and sometimes unconsciously, seeking from the experience.
Because this stage of the CEM process is customer-guided, our inquiries are likely to cover far more territory than a single product or brand. In fact, experiential insights concerning the broader product category (and its larger social implications) can be among the most valuable we collect.
Here, the method of generating data must remain open-ended. At times, it may even be necessary to bring customers directly into the investigative process.
"Collaborative design workshops, for example, provide a structured environment, but allow for intense probing of the sensory, emotional, intellectual, and social drivers that impact real customers," suggests Rand Kramer, Siteworx' VP of Design.
Three phases, three investigations. Now, it's time to transform these individual perspectives into a comprehensive, 360-degree snapshot of the ideal customer experience—the Experience Platform (EP).
Inherent in any successful EP is a precise encapsulation of a product or brand's positioning (i.e., what customers believe a brand or product stands for), its value proposition (i.e., the benefits a customer expects to receive), and its implementation theme (i.e., the sensory, emotional, intellectual, and social components of a digital asset that spur customer engagement).
Marketers may well recognize those terms, but that doesn't mean they're the same old marketing concepts.
On the contrary, a product's value proposition (for example), when viewed through the lens of interactive customer experiences and deduced using the CEM process, is likely to bear little if any resemblance to the traditional marketer's notion of "value proposition."
In a more practical sense, synthesizing the three perspectives begins by crafting a guide statement that satisfies all three viewpoints. Chipotle, for example, masterfully combines elements of all three perspectives in its famous guide statement: "It's not just a burrito. It's a foil wrapped, handcrafted, local farm supporting, food culture changing cylinder of deliciousness."
In fact, Chipotle's statement was so successful, it now functions as a customer-facing marketing message, in addition to being a CEM call-to-arms.
Once a guide statement has been perfected, our next step is envisioning and developing digital assets that meet and exceed the deepest, most subtle customer expectations we've managed to articulate.
If—in the end—we've succeeded in our CEM initiative, we'll have fundamentally changed the way we perceive and encourage customer interactions. Best of all, because we've come to understand the mechanics of the customer experience, we can align our digital channels to accurately reflect—and even enrich—the very best attributes of our literal environments.
There will be no horror stories for the CEM-savvy business executive; no immediate, profound disconnections for the customer; and no limit to the affinity and loyalty that exceptional user experiences can create.
- Schmitt, Bernd H. (2003). Customer Experience Management. Wiley, Hoboken, NJ. [back ^]
- Shaw, Colin (2007). The DNA of Customer Experience: How Emotions Drive Value. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY. [back ^]
- See Schmitt [back ^]
- Drego, Vidya L. (2010). How to Craft Your Customer Research Plan: Pick the Right Techniques to Improve Online Experiences. Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA. [back ^]
- Stanhope, Joe (2010). How Web Analytics Will Emerge as a Cornerstone of Customer Intelligence: Using Site-Based Intelligence to Drive Multichannel Marketing Improvements. Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA. [back ^]