Oedipus CX: What Is The Tragic Flaw In Your Customer Experience?

Once upon a time, a handsome young prince with a limp paid a fortune teller for advice. Unfortunately, instead of, “You will meet a beautiful girl, have 6 mighty sons, and die old and in bed,” he learned that he was destined to go down in history as a father-killing, mother-loving weirdo who wasn’t his own grandpa, but who managed to be dad, grandfather, and brother to four children who were simultaneously each other’s siblings, nieces and nephews, and aunts and uncles. This family would have benefitted from the “It’s Complicated” setting for Facebook relationship statuses.

By the time his mother had hanged herself, he’d blinded himself, and his sons had killed each other fighting over the throne while his daughter was buried alive, Oedipus was probably wishing that he’d failed to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx. At least that death would have been quick and relatively drama free.

Oedipus tried to avoid his tragic future, but because of what he didn’t know about his own situation, he became a byword for tragic ends. He ended up blind, exiled, and with a Freudian complex named after him, all because a rash decision made with too little knowledge led him down a path of patricide and incest.

As a small-to-medium-sized business (SMB), you’re in the same situation as Oedipus. You think you know who you are, where you came from, and who your customers are, but there’s a good chance that you’re tragically mistaken.

The Oracle’s Warning: Gnōthi Seauton

When Oedipus approached the Oracle of Delphi, he would have seen a temple with the Greek phrase, “gnōthi seauton” etched above it. “Know Thyself.” Without accurate self-knowledge, the oracle’s words were worse than useless, they were dangerous. Oedipus assumed he knew who he was and who his parents were, so his efforts to improve his future led to tragedy.

Corporations fall into the Oedipus trap all the time. Take Comcast. (Yes, I know I pick on Comcast a lot, but they’re a target-rich environment, and too many friends and family members remain trapped in areas where Comcast has a monopoly on internet service). Comcast is finally waking up to the fact that their customer experience (CX) is terrible, that their customers hate them, and that some of their longest, most reliable subscribers are eagerly awaiting the day that there’s a viable alternative to Comcast internet so that they can jump ship for someone honest and reliable. So, what has Comcast decided to do?  Well, since everyone complains their customer service is lousy, they plan to hire more customer service agents.

This “change of strategy” will probably make the customer experience even worse for the poor souls trapped in the Comcast underworld. Comcast’s executives think they know what their customers want: shorter wait times. However, if you talk to actual Comcast customers, their biggest complaints are sneaky increases in fees, frequent outages, and customer service scripts that make it impossible to resolve issues. Quicker bad service won’t actually resolve the problem. Meanwhile, Comcast will be sure they’re set, just like Oedipus figured if he married that nice, slightly older widow, he’d avoid marrying his mother.

Moving Beyond Your Personal Mythology

The sort of accurate self-knowledge required to deliver an excellent CX isn’t automatic. When you’re totally immersed in an environment, you lose the ability to have an objective perspective on your work.  Oedipus grew up in a loving home, so it never occurred to him that he was adopted. Comcast employees never talk to themselves on the phone, so it never occurs to them that most customers would rather walk to Hades and back than try to resolve a billing dispute.

According to the Harvard Business Review, companies lose sight of who they really are when they assume that customers think about their products all the time, when they blind themselves to their customers’ actual needs, and when they assume everyone is an expert in the field.

This lack of self-knowledge is what led to the Windows 8 debacle. The fact is, no one wants to have to think about their operating system. Customers want it to be seamless and unobtrusive. Microsoft also assumed there was a huge market for a system that worked equally well on tablets and desktops, even though different people use devices for different purposes. And finally, the makers of Windows overlooked the fact that most users of Windows machines aren’t experts. They didn’t want to have to construct elaborate work-arounds to make Windows 8 back into Windows 7, they just wanted to keep Windows 7.  

To recapture an accurate sense of CX, Windows needed to learn about the experiences of outsiders who were not experts, and they needed to look beyond their best customers to marginally attached customers, ex-customers, and non-customers. (The jury is still out on if they succeeded with Windows 10. I’m hearing mixed reviews from friends and family, and, in the meantime, I’ll just let my laptop keep running 7, thank you very much!).

Oracles that Actually Work

The Oracle of Delphi was famous for its fuzzy advice that led to tragic results. (Some historians have noticed that the more money one donated to the oracle, the better predictions one received. Perhaps Oedipus should have been a better tipper). As a business owner, you have access to fortune tellers that can give you clear, honest insight into your customer experience, and you won’t even have to build a treasury and stuff it full of gold.

Put Your Friends and Family to Work. The people you care about don’t have inside knowledge of your company, your development team, or your internal memos. However, they do have an interest in seeing you succeed with customers, and they won’t be afraid to tell you when your CX is awful. Enlist the help of friends and family. Have them test your website, your customer service hotline, and your brick and mortar experiences and give you detailed feedback. You’ll find out how your company is alienating non-experts who aren’t deeply invested in your project.

Call Up Your Exes. Your ex-customers left for a reason, and you need to find out what that reason was. Contact them, and ask for feedback. Just refrain from drunken 1 a.m. texts, don’t tell them you’ll always love them, and don’t ask for another chance to make things work. Your goal in these interactions should be gathering feedback so you can improve, not getting a pity date.

Go Behind Enemy Lines. Some people happily use your competitor’s products. It’s not because they’re ignorant, but because your competitor is doing something right. Try out competing products and try to look at them with unbiased eyes. Survey the people who use the products and find out which features attract them and which features irritate them.

Some of the feedback you get from these outside sources may seem hurtful or unhelpful. But remember, it’s not them, it’s you, and you need an accurate self-image so you can improve your CX for the customers you have and the customers you hope to attract.

Avoiding the Oedipus Trap

Amazon, for all of its employee relations issues, is a company that avoids the Oedipus trap when it comes to its customers. The company is receiving accolades for the new Amazon Prime Now service. Before Amazon rolled out Prime Now, industry watchers wondered if same day delivery could work. After all, didn’t people just see Amazon as an easy way to order online? Surely they wouldn’t be interested in using it to replace normal shopping trips.

While it’s true that some people love going to the store, Amazon listened to its customers and realized that a huge number of them are people who see shopping as an unpleasant chore, not a hobby. For these customers, the ability to order online for later-in-the-day delivery is worth paying for. Suddenly, Amazon’s competitors are realizing that there’s actually a fairly large market of people who’d rather not spend time purchasing groceries and household goods, even in MidAmerican cities like Indy and San Antonio.

My local ISP also knows how to avoid being Oedipus. It’s a small, regional company that covers four or five mostly rural counties, but it successfully competes with Comcast and AT&T. The local firm’s prices are actually a bit higher than the big names, but what they lose on price they make up for with speed and service. Their techs don’t use scripts, the people who make service calls show up when and where they say they will, and if you have a billing issue, you have the option of walking into a local office and getting instant, friendly, resolution, along with a lollipop for the kid and an apology for the inconvenience. It turns out that people will happily pay an extra $20 a month to avoid outages and to deal with real human beings who care about your opinion.

What Oedipus Could Have Been

Imagine a different Oedipus Rex, one where he left the oracle and shared the bad news with his parents, who then explained that he was adopted. In this story, Oedipus finds a nice, slightly younger girl to marry. (No chance that she could be his mother!). He inherits his adoptive family’s kingdom and lives happily ever after. Sure, the Sphinx would have had a longer run, he’d be unknown to high school students across America, and Freud would have lost a complex, but he’d be happy. Just like you’ll be if you avoid the Oedipus trap.


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