Why CMOs Must Learn to Understand the Customer-Experience Ecosystem

Two-thirds of Consumers Report Lackluster Interactions With Brands

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Companies are waking up to the business value of customer experience. Many have made customer experience a strategic priority and have dedicated teams to oversee customer-experience efforts. Yet consumers report that their customer experiences with roughly two-thirds of U.S. brands range from just OK to downright bad. Lackluster interactions plague every industry and every channel.

The root cause of this dilemma? Tunnel vision.

Many organizations place too much emphasis on top-of mind channels such as the web and social media, ignoring hundreds of touch points that influence customers' perceptions of the brand -- such as call-center conversations, retail displays, product packaging, shipping invoices and physical receipts. In addition, companies place too much of the responsibility for customer service on front-line employees -- but in reality, behind-the-scenes employees from departments as diverse as finance, legal and marketing can play an equal or even greater role in determining the nature of customer interactions. Take Sprint's marketing department as an example. Because this behind-the-scenes team did not promote the benefits of Sprint's network in their ads -- and competitors' marketing departments did -- customers perceived the Sprint network to be lagging, regardless of the actual network performance they experienced.

The net result is that in most companies, no single person or group has a complete picture of what the end-to-end customer experience actually looks or feels like -- or the complex interdependencies that go into creating it. And with this incomplete picture, organizations are set up to fail when it comes to designing the right customer experience for their customers.

How can organizations break out of their tunnel vision and make significant improvements to the customer experience? They need to understand and take control of all of the moving parts in the customer-experience ecosystem, an idea I'll introduce this week at Forrester's Customer Experience Forum. The customer-experience ecosystem comprises the intertwined and ever-evolving relationships among a company's internal employees, external partners and customers. It's ultimately the actions and decisions of all of these people that determine the quality of all customer interactions over time.

The first step to creating a healthy customer-experience ecosystem is systematically uncovering and documenting the ecosystem's hidden dynamics. Forrester calls this process ecosystem mapping. For CMOs, this means understanding how their marketing teams affect the customer experience -- and not just while customers discover and evaluate your company's products and services, but throughout the entire customer journey.

To start, marketers should partner with their company's customer-experience team and any other internal research groups to learn as much as they possibly can about the customer journey. Forget focus groups and surveys for this particular task -- they're just not going to cut it for the depth of insight that 's required to truly understand the end-to-end customer experience in all of its detailed glory. Instead, use research techniques such as one-on-one interviews and in-home ethnography that are more effective at uncovering customers' hidden needs and behaviors. For example, FedEx conducted interactive interviews with customer-facing employees, package recipients and package shippers before mapping the ecosystem surrounding its signature package-delivery service.

Once the customer journey is truly understood, CMOs need to help their teams take an honest look at how they influence each touch-point along the way. How do the actions and decisions of every person in the marketing group affect -- either directly or indirectly -- customers' interactions with your company?

In addition to understanding their own roles, marketers also need to understand how other internal employees and external partners influence the customer experience, and what that customer experience really feels like for customers today. Why? Marketing communications of every shape and size set your customers' expectations about the types of interactions they're going to have with your company. If those expectations aren't aligned with your company's actual ability to deliver on them, your customers will be disappointed at best -- and furious at worst. In either case, their perceptions of your brand will drop. By participating in ecosystem-mapping exercises, marketers can gain a deeper understanding of the types of promises they should make in ads and other marketing vehicles.

Of course, redesigning a customer-experience ecosystem is not an easy feat. It requires teams that are not directly in contact with customers to think about their jobs in a new light, which can spur resistance at first. For CMOs, embracing a cultural shift toward the right customer-experience strategy will mean shifting away from out-of -context advertising blasts. With a deeper understanding of the hundreds of potential touch-points through which they can interact with customers, marketers will be able to craft meaningful and context-relevant ways to promote products and services.

American Express already does this. When call-center agents hear that a customer has a specific need or situation, they'll quickly explain relevant card benefits and features -- essentially marketing the card by helping customers get more value out of it. American Express customers who receive such help show an average increase of more than 10% in "Recommend to a Friend" scores. This approach -- the right message at the right place and time -- will lessen marketers' dependence on out-of -context messages delivered through vehicles such as TV ads and direct mail, and bolster marketing's role within the customer experience ecosystem.

Kerry Bodine is principal analyst at Forrester Research. Follow her on Twitter at @kerrybodine.
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