Climbing the Everest of Customer Experience Excellence

Mount Everest

At the 6th annual Clarabridge Customer Connections conference in Miami last week, Megan Burns of Forrester Research compared achieving customer experience excellence to climbing Mount Everest. “Mount Everest has become a metaphor for getting to our most audacious goals,” she said, “but some people want to get to the top of Mount Everest literally. We recall the first two people to get to the top and make it back alive, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, but there were a lot more people on that expedition with them: 20 Sherpa guides and 362 porters. They didn’t show up at the base of the mountain and say, ‘let’s go climbing!’ but they planned for months, mapped the route across some of the most treacherous terrain, and sent up advance teams to set up equipment so they wouldn’t have to stop but could keep moving.”

Nowadays, Megan pointed out, 500 to 520 climbers make the trek every year: so many that a recent headline read “Mount Everest is Too Crowded“! Too many people who have never hiked before think, “I’d like to be a mountain climber. I will start with Everest.” People show up wanting to climb who are unused to even basic mountaineering equipment. “It seems utterly ridiculous to think you could climb the mountain at once, yet there are people trying the equivalent in the customer experience space.”

A Forrester survey of 100 customer experience professionals revealed that 47% want to differentiate their company from leaders in their industry, and another 13% wanted to differentiate their company from leaders in any industry – “the beloved company set of USAA, Zappos, Disney.” Like first-time climbers headed to Mount Everest, these firms are not doing what it takes to reach the goals that they have set for themselves. In fact, 79% of those surveyed don’t train employees on how to deliver the target customer experience: “like climbing Everest with no GPS.”

Of the 175 brands scored in Forrester’s 2014 Customer Experience Index, only 11% are rated excellent, scoring 85+ points out of 100. Obviously, every company wants to be excellent, but what path to take?

To determine this, Megan did a survey of best practices. Her expectation was that there would be multiple paths to customer experience maturity, some starting with strategy, some starting with measurement. Achieving customer experience maturity is defined “as the extent to which an organization routinely performs the practices required to design, implement, and manage customer experience in a disciplined way.” To Megan’s surprise, there is only one path to customer experience maturity that works. It has four phases, and companies need to move through each phase in the right order to achieve customer experience excellence:

  1. Repair
  2. Elevate
  3. Optimize
  4. Differentiate

Repair Phase

The primary objective of the repair phase is for the company to develop “a systematic approach to stop the avalanche of bad customer experiences.”

Key practices of the repair phase include:

  1. Identify bad experiences
  2. Prioritize fixes
  3. Coordinate implementation
  4. Measure results

“This is a closed loop. It comes first, because it is familiar and there is not a lot of resistance to adopting something like this. It has seeming simplicity—but it is hard. Hard because the process needs to be across the enterprise, because that is how customers see you. Ad hoc repair processes are not enough – you really have to make it systematic.”

A great example of mastering this phase is Verizon’s Broken Promises program. The company systematically identified 14 issues driving most of the customer complaints across the organization. The short-term business value of fixing these problems is between $200 and $300 million. The long-term value comes from improved customer perceptions, gaining traction, and developing a better customer experience relationship.

“The repair phase is the equivalent of getting to base camp at Mount Everest. It is really, really hard. Climbers stay there to acclimatize themselves to the altitude. Yes, you got there, but there is a lot of climbing you have left to do.”

Elevate Phase

What comes next after the repair phase is the elevate phase, with a whole new set of practices. The goal is to make good CX (Customer Experience) behavior the norm. “The repair process is a safety net,” Megan said, “but we want to have fewer things that we need to repair.”

The key practices of the elevate phase include:

  1. Screen candidates for customer-centric values
  2. Integrate CX thinking into core processes
  3. Leverage employee knowledge to inform CX
  4. Reward good behavior across the enterprise

For instance, Citibank has rewritten hundreds of job descriptions, whatever role it is, to highlight the aspects of that person’s job that are about helping the company deliver the right customer experience. “They used to focus just on hard skills – prior work in a call center, knowing banking.” Now the candidate’s attitude towards serving customers is as important.

Optimize Phase

While “prevention is great, we don’t want to just be not bad,” we want to excel, said Megan. The optimize phase gets you to adopt a more sophisticated customer experience toolkit, to use more advanced analytics, and to embrace more strategic thinking.

The key practices of optimize include:

  1. Model the connection between CX and revenue
  2. Include impact to CX in investment decisions
  3. Manage the CX ecosystem more deliberately
  4. Adopt a human-centered design process

A customer experience ecosystem is a complex interconnection of employees and partners. “It’s hard and complicated, but if we don’t do this, we will not be able to optimize the experience.”

A great example of mastering the optimize phase is Delta Airlines. They are optimizing the customer experience based on analytics. “You don’t need sophisticated analytics to understand that canceling a flight is a bad idea, but you can use analytics to predict when such events might happen, to be more proactive, to predict mechanical failure. For instance, they invented a sensor to predict when a fan will break and repair it first: annoying 250 people because a fan is broken doesn’t make a ton of sense.”

Why is adopting a human-centered design process in phase 3 rather than earlier? “There are bits and pieces of this that start in early phases, but you may experience organ rejection if this is introduced too early.” Individual practices that different departments perform Megan calls “bright spots”, but she advises systematizing them in the appropriate phase.

Differentiate Phase

Differentiation is what propels companies to customer experience excellence. “You have to rethink the nature of what you do,” said Megan.

Key practices of the differentiate phase:

  1. Reframe customer problems
  2. Reveal unmet customer needs
  3. Rethink the entire CX ecosystem

These are hard things to tackle:

  • “You can’t accept the definition of a problem on face value.”
  • “It is really, really scary to rethink the ecosystem, but it is part of completely rethinking who we are and what we do.”

The shining example of mastering this phase is Amazon, who leads Forrester’s retail category for customer experience. Jeff Bezos says, “If you’re competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering.”

With the Kindle, Amazon “morphed its CX ecosystems.” The company asks itself, “What else can we do with our customer skills? What do our customers need and what skills do we need to get?” Amazon wasn’t a hardware manufacturer, yet became one to deliver the Kindle.

In a more recent example, Amazon took the idea of Apple Geniuses and embedded it into the Kindle Fire itself. The Mayday service brings a “Genius” to you, without you having to go into a store. “Where phone experience has not been so great, it takes traditional tech support experience and brings it to your device.” For the first time, Forrester broke out the Kindle from Amazon in general in its survey for CX experience in 2014.

The Kindle’s debut Customer Experience Index score was 91, making it the #1 in any industry.

“For our organizations, we are the Hillary and Norgay of the customer experience climb,” Megan said in conclusion. “What do we do next? Where do we go from here? Our organization needs us to do the planning, to identify the tools and resources we need. Give the rest of the organization time, but you need to be thinking ahead, so that when the rest of the company gets there you can provide them what they need. Have a nice trek!”

Mount Everest Base Camp entrance

Jeffrey Henning, PRC, is president of Researchscape International, which provides “Do It For You” custom surveys at Do It Yourself prices.  He is a Director at Large on the Marketing Research Association’s Board of Directors. You can follow him on Twitter @jhenning.

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