The 6 Disciplines Behind Consistently Great Customer Experiences

If you think memorable and positive customer experiences just come together without thought or strategy, think again. Then use these standard practices to make it happen, every time.

Mature companies routinely perform a set of sound, standard practices that result in a high-quality outcome. It's true for manufacturers--they don't get up in the morning and start pondering how they'll produce high-quality widgets that day. Similarly, retailers have practices for keeping their supply chains flowing and their shelves stocked, and media companies have practices for getting the news online and into print. That's how grown-ups do business.

Companies that want to produce a high-quality customer experience also need to routinely perform a set of sound, standard practices. These practices fall under six high-level disciplines: strategy, customer understanding, design, measurement, governance, and culture.

Strategy

The strategy discipline is your game plan. It's a set of practices for crafting a customer experience strategy, aligning it with the company's overall strategy and brand attributes, and then sharing that strategy with employees to guide decision-making and prioritization across the organization.

The customer experience strategy defines the intended experience. For example, the experience at Costco--a warehouse store in the United States where customers push giant carts through huge aisles stacked high with value-priced products--is very different from the experience at an Apple store, where customers see a comparatively sparse selection of pricey products and get expert assistance with picking the right one. Costco's experience aligns with its overall strategy as a cost leader; Apple's aligns with its strategy of innovation.

The strategy discipline is critical because it provides the blueprint for the experience you design, deliver, manage, and measure. Without it, you, your employees, and your partners won't know whether to deliver an experience like the one at Costco, at Apple, or somewhere else entirely. Worse, you could deliver a Frankenstein experience of mismatched parts, like putting an Apple genius bar in the middle of a Costco store where customers wouldn't care about it but would worry that prices were going up to pay for it.

Customer Understanding

The customer understanding discipline is a set of practices that create a consistent shared understanding of who customers are, what they want and need, and how they perceive the interactions they're having with your company today. In other words, it's the thing that replaces everyone's best guesses about customers with real, actionable insights about customers.

The customer understanding discipline is bedrock. Without this level of insight, you're liable to frustrate and annoy your customers with your well-intentioned efforts to serve them. When Geek Squad, the U.S.-based computer services company, interacts with its customers, it deals with them differently, depending on which customer archetype they correspond to. A customer could be "Jill," a suburban mom who uses her computer and other information technology daily. To her, technology is like plumbing and Geek Squad is like a plumbing company that she calls when she wants a leak fixed.

However, a Geek Squad customer could also be "Daryl," who loves getting his hands dirty but sometimes gets into trouble when one of his tech projects goes awry. Trying to engage a Jill in the same way as a Daryl would be disastrous. When Geek Squad is at Daryl's house he enjoys chatting about the gory details of the latest innovations, a conversation that would bore Jill senseless.

Design

The practices in the design discipline help organizations envision and then implement customer interactions that meet or exceed customer needs. It spans the complex systems of people, products, interfaces, services, and spaces that your customers encounter in retail locations, over the phone, or through digital media like websites and mobile apps.

Design weeds out bad ideas early and focuses your customer experience efforts on changes that really matter to customers. By leveraging expertise and ideas from customers, employees, and partners, it encourages creative solutions--and helps avoid missteps by grounding those solutions in reality.

To envision and define the store experience his customers want to have, Office Depot built a "planogram lab"--a prototype store in a nondescript office complex near company headquarters in south Florida. That lets CEO Kevin Peters bring in customers to help design the shopping experience that's just right for them, and then test those designs out on other customers. Everything from the amount of floor space to where products appear on shelves to where employees stand when they stock those shelves was designed from the ground up.

Measurement

The measurement discipline is a set of practices that let organizations quantify customer experience quality in a consistent manner across the enterprise and deliver actionable insights to employees and partners. This is how you put customer-experience metrics on par with traditional-business metrics, such as sales and profitability.

The customer experience team at technology giant EMC has a sophisticated measurement framework. It first identifies the aspects of the customer experience that drive the most loyalty, like ease of doing business. It then prioritizes those drivers based on customers' satisfaction with each driver and the impact of each driver on the overall experience. That tells EMC which things to fix immediately, which to improve over time, which to maintain at current levels, and which to promote as strengths.

Governance

The customer experience governance discipline is a set of practices that help organizations manage customer experience in a proactive and disciplined way. If your customer experience strategy is your game plan, then the governance discipline supplies your referees and your rule book. It does this through a mix of assigning responsibilities and changing business processes.

The governance practice is essential because it holds people accountable for their role in the customer experience ecosystem and helps keep bad experiences from getting out the door. It also gives a boost to initiatives that improve customer experience.

Processes help force customer experience concerns into the mix when making day-to-day business decisions. For example, Canada Post requires all funding requests from any department to answer 10 customer-focused questions in the business case. This ensures that all leaders think not just about how their projects will affect the bottom line, but also about how they'll impact the customer experience.

Culture

The culture discipline consists of practices that create a system of shared values and behaviors that focus employees on delivering a great customer experience. You might think of it as the way you shape what your employees do when you're not in the room.

The culture discipline is perhaps the most powerful of all the disciplines because it embeds practices from the other five disciplines into employee DNA. Companies like Disney, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton, and FedEx all point to their customer-centric cultures as key to their success. That's because this discipline turns customer experience excellence into a habit and makes future change easier by creating an ecosystem that's receptive to customer experience improvement efforts.

It's Commitment Time

This is the age of the customer. You're not going to succeed through manufacturing strength, distribution power, or information mastery--those have all been commoditized. If you want to succeed, you have to roll up your sleeves and do the work of building competence in these six disciplines. That may scare you. But what should scare you more is the thought of becoming irrelevant to your customers, which is what will happen if you don't take action.

Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine are coauthors of Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business.[/i] Harley launched the customer experience practice at Forrester Research and has led it for 14 years. He is currently a vice president and research director. Kerry is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research and the creative force behind the customer experience ecosystem, a framework that helps companies diagnose and fix customer problems at their roots.

[Image: Flickr user Mustafa Khayat]

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5 Comments

  • Kerry Bodine

    Hi Patrick,

    Erin is right.  Megan, Harley, and I all work together at Forrester Research.  Our team has conducted customer experience research for more than 14 years and we all share the ideas we’ve developed during that time.  Megan wrote her piece for UX Magazine in 2011 after publishing a report called Customer Experience Maturity Defined, which outlined the six disciplines.  My co-author Harley edited that report.  At the same time, Harley and I were turning those same six disciplines into the backbone of our book Outside In, in which we've got an entire chapter devoted to each discipline.  The article here on Fast Company is actually an excerpt from Chapter 4 of our book, which introduces those subsequent chapters.

    I hope this helps clarify the similarity in these two articles.

  • Erin Schulte

    Hi Patrick, 

    I edit stories for Co.Lead; thanks for bringing this to our attention. You're right that the articles cover similar topic areas. That is because they are both based on research done by Forrester. The authors of both pieces are analysts/researchers at Forrester and happen to cite the same study and its six-point results. However, the examples they give supporting their theses are unique to each article.

  • Hertighr

    The sophisticated measurement framework from EMC is a ca 40 years old correlation analysis concept. Result is a portfolio of 4 relevance-/ satisfaction quadrants. A satisfier-/ dissatisfier analysis can be integrated to further pinpoint actionable criteria and customer segments. It is however decisive to rely on real life experience and behaviour based criteria rather than the usual abstract "satisfaction" items. So the key success factor is not the statistical analysis but the identification of the loyalty drivers.

  • Amber King

    The most important is customer understanding. Learn what you can about what your customer, their buying habit, their wants, needs and their attitude.

    Thanks for sharing these.