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Expert commentary: Closing the CX Gap between Customer Expectations and Business Reality

The value of excellent customer experience (CX) is no secret, nor are the aspects needed to deliver it – and yet many organizations are struggling to deliver on consumer CX expectations.

In Acquia’s Customer Experience Trends Report surveying over 6,000 consumers worldwide, only 10% strongly agreed that ‘most brands meet their expectations for what they consider a good experience.’ While this finding is a damaging reflection by itself, it gets worse still. In the same report surveying 600 marketers of director-level and above, 82% believe they are meeting CX expectations. So not only is there a monumental consumer dissatisfaction in the quality of CX that they’re receiving, but those providing the experience are largely oblivious to this judgment.

These findings are worrying for organizations across the board, especially those who appear to be investing heavily in the tools to deliver excellent CX and are failing to keep pace with their customer’s expectations.

An Intentional Experience by Design 

One of the things organizations can do when faced with customer feedback indicating expectations are not being satisfied is reevaluating their approach to customer experience management. Instead of working harder using the current organization model, reassess the path to customer experience management and clarify what expectations to set with your customers that you can reliably and consistently deliver.

There are three distinct approaches for a customer experience management program. One approach is to chase customer expectations, another focuses on operational efficiency, and the third is an aligned outcomes approach to customer experience management.

customer experience management

Chasing customer expectations may seem like a reasonable or necessary thing to do, but can your organization actually do it? Many of the expectations customers have of your brand arise from their interactions with other brands. For example, using Amazon for its convenient one-click checkout feature creates an experience of what easy looks and feels like, becoming a kind of de facto standard that customers could use, whether subconsciously or entirely consciously, as a gauge during their online experience with your organization.

Even simpler things like queue management and the differences between how Apple manages their lines during a new iPhone launch and the way a cinema or a nightclub works their lines of customers can set a sort of broad, general standard over time that customers can use to elevate their expectations for that particular type of experience.

While investing in a CX program that attempts to meet or exceed these expectations seems reasonable, this can be a Sisyphean effort. As customer expectations for speed, quality, friendly service, and personalization, for example, creep upwards, an organization focusing on these expectations needs to keep pace. This is a reactive approach to the erratic shifts in customer behavior for many organizations, offering nothing new and distinct but merely chasing the new normal expectations.

However, some organizations embrace this approach, investing just enough to not be in last place among their competition in the markets they serve. While seemingly sensible, this approach does not generate the customer experience innovation or transformation needed to lead in the industry. It also risks complacency amongst aggressive competition that can change fortunes very quickly.

Some attributes of an expectations chasing approach to CX include:  

  • A tradition-bound or change-averse culture in the organization. 
  • The organization may lack clear business and brand strategies that define the purpose, operating model, and brand promises for the market it serves. 
  • There is confusion about erratic changes in customer preferences and price sensitivity, leading to losing sight of what is valuable to customers. 

An operational efficiency approach to CX can be a very inside-out approach to designing and delivering products, services, and experiences to customers based on policies and profits. This approach may work well for organizations with a monopoly or market superiority in their industry. Generally, this approach values the efficiency of the operation over the quality or differentiation of the customer experience it offers. One symptom of this could be a customer who is quoted an organization policy to explain why they cannot get what they want.

Some attributes of an operational efficiency approach to CX include:  

  • A focus on defining success using KPI metrics (internal fixation) with little or no inclusion of the customers’ jobs-to-be-done needs (external focus).  
  • Employees quote organizational policies that prevent doing what the customer is asking for, rather than empowering employees to get a mutually satisfactory resolution or an empathetic explanation.  
  • Products, services, and process designs are for the ease of the organization or to accommodate system limitations, not to customer preferences.  

An aligned outcomes-based approach to customer experience management combines the setting and management of customer expectations through brand promises with a clarity of purpose on what the CX program intends to do for the business. We are no longer chasing the fickle trends of customer expectations set by so many other types of experiences, nor is the organization solely focused internally, but the perspective shifts to being outside-in and values customers’ reasons for choosing the brand.

Some attributes of an aligned outcomes-based approach to CX include:  

  • Understanding customers’ jobs-to-be-done with your offerings and why they buy. 
  • Focuses on how customers’ expectations were formed and delivering the outcome the customer wants. 
  • Invests in and improves the quality of the channels that customers use.  

Closing the Delivery Gap

The aligned outcomes approach to customer experience management, built intentionally to align with and deliver on the organization’s brand promises and set customer expectations, is a way for organizations to address the ever-shifting expectations of their customers.

Listening to your customers and understanding why they buy from you can produce some very counter-intuitive insights. This is table stakes for any customer experience management operation, but the struggle within the organization is where the real work is needed. Using your customer insights to convince product managers, service delivery, or marketing that customers value something other than what the organization offers. One example of this is when you travel around the Boston area in the US; you might see four Dunkin’ Donuts shops at a major intersection. This is because customers value the quick service of their favorite travel beverage on their commute to work, and the location offers enough traffic to support four franchise stores.

Gathering operational data is essential to gain insights on what is valuable and irritating to customers and should be done throughout customer service operations. However, while most large organizations collect operational data, many face difficulties with experiential data, which measures emotions and intentions rather than observable and objective stats. AI helps gain the former by collecting real-time customer feedback and analyzing the intent behind the words. Organizations can drive product and service improvements at scale with operational and experiential data at hand.

Set the expectation whenever possible. While customers are waiting in your call queue to speak with a live person or waiting online for an agent to come to the live chat, it is an opportunity to inform the customer of how long it will be before they interact with someone. It is not enough to say that “there are two customers ahead of you,” or even “you are next,” as this is not enough information to manage the customer’s expectations. Next could be another nine-minute wait, but a customer may interpret “next” as less than a minute longer to wait to speak to someone.

Developing a metric based on your customer’s values is another way to align the organization’s delivery to the customer’s expectations. One such metric is the First Call Resolution which provides the mutual benefits of being efficient for the business and effective for the customer. Some metrics do not take what customers value into complete account, offering only lagging indicators of aggregate performance. These metrics can include Net Promoter Score, customer satisfaction, and customer effort scores and provide the business an internal barometer of performance.

However, this performance is generally aligned with internal goals, not customer expectations. It is typical for a company performing well against its internal metrics to encounter customer feedback that indicates dissatisfaction. This is a common cause of the delivery gap described in Acquia’s Customer Experience Trends Report.

Building Agility into your CX Program

Because customer expectations are so dynamic, almost whimsical, challenging to foresee, and even more difficult to keep up with, organizations must embrace the idea that customer experience management is a continuous improvement program, not a one-and-done silver bullet project. A CX program needs to be intentionally designed to meet the business’ brand promises and go-to-market and align with the expectations set with customers. Leaders must be ruthlessly honest within their organization about how front-and-center customers are in every decision, operation, role, and customer interaction.

The old chestnut statistic from a 2005 Bain study revealed a “delivery gap” where 80% of companies believe they provide superior proposition, but only 8% of those companies have customers who agree. That delivery gap exists in your organization and the hard work of rooting it out over years of focused effort is what the mission of a CX program should be.

This article was based on and included excerpts from the Customer Experience Management Field Manual: The Guide For Building Your Top Performing CX Program by Jeff Sheehan. 

Jeff sheehan

About Jeff Sheehan

Jeff Sheehan is a customer experience practitioner, active member of the global CX community, and author of the book, Customer Experience Management Field Manual: The Guide For Building Your Top Performing CX Program. Jeff accrued his CX bona fides working with large, small, and international customer service organizations, supporting a wide array of enterprise and middle-market customers across industry sectors. Jeff is recognized as a Top 50 Global Thought Leader & Influencer on Customer Experience and Business Strategy. He is also a founding member and Ireland’s Ambassador to the European CX Organization and a judge in the European Customer Centricity Awards.