Customer Experience is a System, Not an Accident

Customer experience is a weird topic. When I present my keynote address to groups of executives, everyone is engaged; they intuitively understand the fairly straightforward proposition that if you treat your customers really well, your business will thrive, grow, and be better positioned to resist the competition. At the same time, CX is a big, fuzzy, complicated thing. The positive benefits are kind of vague and hard to measure, and so the first step to creating a world-class customer-driven organization isn’t clear.

Customer experience design isn’t black magic or voodoo. It isn’t something that companies just “get,” dooming everyone else to a life of mediocrity. It’s not a side-effect of charismatic leaders like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos; while it’s true that the intense customer focus of each of those gentlemen drove their companies forward, thousands of employees still had to actually make it come true without direct supervision from the man in charge.

It was easy in the good old days

Many new, small organizations deliver great customer experience based on the personalities of the founders. Desperate to compete against larger, more established firms, and with a direct personal investment in the success or failure of the company, the founders bend over backward to ensure that their customers are happy. As the founders hire their first handful of employees, the tight-knit communication of a small company helps keep the customer service level high.

But as the organization grows, communication gets harder. In a three-person company, there are only three ways to have two people talk to each other; in a 20 person company, comparatively, that number is 190. The intense focus of the founders becomes attenuated, and newer employees don’t see things the way the founders do. Senior management occasionally discovers that the company treated a customer in some horrible way and is appalled and surprised.

It takes a village system to raise a customer

Exceptional customer experience requires a system, a combination of people, processes, and technology that delivers the intended result. If you hire decent people and have a decent culture, you’ll deliver decent results. But you can’t do it at scale on an ad hoc basis, and you can’t be world-class by accident. You have to plan for the customer experience you want. You have to create a system.

At a very high level, these are the components of an exceptional customer experience system:

  • Great organizations understand what their potential customers need and want. (If they don’t know, they ask.)
  • Great organizations purposefully, intentionally, and carefully design great customer experiences in response to the needs and wants of the customers.
  • Great organizations create a system to implement and execute their customer experience design.
  • Great organizations hire and train the right people to execute that system.
  • Great organizations measure the success of the system by asking their customers how well the system is meeting their needs and wants.
  • Great organizations improve and iterate the design based on data gathered from the customers.
  • Rinse and repeat.

The system to deliver a great customer experience can’t be static. After all, customers change, your products and services change, and your competition most certainly changes. Great customer experience is a journey, not a destination, but the great thing is that the first pass around the loop can have an amazing impact at relatively little cost or effort. After all, if you’re still in business, you’re already doing something right, so designing a better experience just aligns and improves all of the things you’re already doing. You’re not reinventing the customer service wheel.

Where to begin with customer experience

Customer experience is an all-encompassing thing. After all, if your organization is doing something that isn’t making life better for the customer, then why are you doing it? Because CX design is strategic, continues far into the future, and spans the entire organization, leadership must drive the effort. Customer experience isn’t something that you stick on marketing or delivery; everyone in the company either directly interacts with the customers or supports the people or systems that do.

Given the all-encompassing nature of customer experience, it’s hard to get a handle on where to start. Do you work on improving delivery times? The customer service team? The marketing materials? Well yes, eventually. But I always start with a much simpler exercise based on establishing alignment; it’s amazing how even small companies can be rushing around in many different directions and pursuing completely different goals. I strongly recommend you give this exercise a try. Most likely you’ll be astonished (and perhaps appalled) at what you find.

The exercise: identify your common purpose

This exercise is simple, quick, and powerful. It provides a simple prompt and asks each person to fill out a sentence; that sentence describes your organization’s common purpose, the unifying mission that should describe why your company exists from the customer’s perspective. Copy and paste the text below into a word processor, print a single copy for every employee in the company, and ask them to fill it in and return it. I recommend you do it anonymously so you get honest feedback.

Our company ______________________________________ by ______________________________________ for ______________________________________.


The first blank is what your company does. No marketing fluff, no superlatives, no “premier provider” or “finest manufacturer.” Just the basic facts. More importantly, describe it in terms of the outcome or result for your customer rather than just the product or service. “We keep our customers’ projects moving”, “we eliminate the stress of tax season”, or “we help our customers grow three times as fast” are good examples.


The second blank is how you do it, especially if you do it differently from other companies. “By providing the lowest cost goods,” “by providing the fastest delivery times,” and “by providing the highest quality software” are all reasonable examples. Again, keep it to the most basic facts possible.The third blank is the audience for whom you do what you do. Fortune 500 companies, local restaurants, the defense industry, small businesses – whatever describes the people who rely on you.


Here are a few examples:


The Walt Disney company creates happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.


Wawa simplifies its customers lives through quality, convenient food and unbeatable service for people in the Mid-Atlantic and Florida regions.


HubSpot helps companies attract and engage new customers by providing a suite of integrated software applications for businesses of any size.

Even in fairly strong companies, this exercise can be an enormous eye-opener. It often shows that what management thinks the mission is doesn’t match what the employees think it is. A clear, well-communicated common purpose is essential to create a high-performing customer experience system. After all, how will you be great if everyone is pulling in opposite directions?

The solution is simple: make sure that you have the right common purpose, then communicate it like mad to everyone. Remember, it’s a purpose: it should inspire your employees because they believe in what you’re doing. Focus on the outcomes of what you do more than the product or service itself. Disney doesn’t run theme parks or produce movies, it creates happiness. What do you create?

Do this exercise today. The results can be appalling, but what you do about it can be transformative. I wish you the best.


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