Customer Experience: What It Is, Why Companies Fall Short, and How to Satisfy Expectations

July 25, 2018

The Art of Winning

Far too many B2B buyers are frustrated by their buying experiences – and companies are leaving money on the table as a result. Talk of delivering the ideal customer experience can seem intangible and pie in the sky. But plenty of companies have mastered the art of delivering a customer experience (CX) that sets them apart. And they are wise to do so as many predict that the customer experience is now the most important factor in business. Read on to understand what defines the customer experience and how your organization can deliver an indispensable one.

What Is Customer Experience (CX)?

While the concept might seem vague, customer experience is the combination of every interaction each customer has with your business – and how they perceive those interactions. The experience starts well before prospects purchase and continues through their entire time with your company.

Prioritizing the End-to-End Customer Experience

What exactly is a customer experience? Consider these Merriam-Webster definitions of experience: something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through; or the act or process of directly perceiving events. That means a customer experience is something your customer personally encounters, undergoes, lives through, or directly perceives as they interact with your company.

Though many in the B2B world grasp this concept at a high level, they often trip themselves up by thinking of customer experience as a set of disconnected touchpoints. In reality, few would define an experience as discrete, disjointed moments. A customer experience is actually a continuum of connected events that occur at every stage of the journey, from buyer to new customer to – ideally – loyal advocate. Understanding customer experience from this angle is critical because to get it right, you need to remove friction from start to finish with every interaction.

How CX is Different From Customer Service

Customer service is about reacting once a customer expresses dissatisfaction. On the other hand, customer experience is focused on proactively optimizing the end-to-end customer journey to avoid any dissatisfaction.

Why Is Customer Experience Important?

Your company is now and forever will be compared to every experience ever. As buyers interact with your company – whether through emails, content, ads, at events, on phone calls, via text messages – their experiences with Amazon, Netflix, and Uber color their perceptions of you. They’re comparing their experience with your company to their best brand experiences, and they reward the companies that satisfy their expectations with purchases and loyalty.

Customer Experience is Contextual

At the heart of outstanding customer experiences is the sense the company knows the customer so well that it practically anticipates the person’s needs and wants as it creates meaningful interactions. To be as contextual as possible, these interactions should be based on the information, needs, behaviors, and preferences at hand – including all interactions to date. Personalizing interactions this way is how companies elicit delight and deliver a seamless experience across channels.

Here’s an example to bring this to light. A cloud technology vendor could offer a form on their website that asks late-stage prospects to enter details about their contact center to compare the total cost of purchase and return on investment. As the vendor displays the requested information to the prospect, it would feed the prospect’s responses into its centralized customer data repository. From there the information would filter down to other systems, including Marketing Automation software and the CRM tool. The Marketing Automation system could be configured to send a follow-up email offering a guide on how to make the business case for a cloud-based contact center. At the same time, the CRM system could trigger an alert for the right sales rep to follow up by phone. By seeing all content the prospect has consumed to date and interactions with the company, the rep could immediately engage the prospect in a compelling conversation.  

Why the Customer Experience Gap is Neglected

So why do far too many companies fall short in delivering this type of experience? Well, it’s a major undertaking to understand each customer in this way, requiring the right culture, processes, technology, and strategy.

Too Much Money Already Spent On Crm

Some companies believe they are already delivering on customer experience because they’ve invested in customer relationship management (CRM) software. But customer experience and CRM are not the same.

CRM is how you manage your interactions with prospects and customers and capture what you know about them, such as history of inquires, purchases, and product returns; customer experience is about delivering an exemplary experience from introduction to purchase to retention.

In other words, CRM is largely concerned with the sales-related portion of a customer’s interactions with the company. However, customer experience is about all interactions with a company, across channels and departments.

Dreading The Data Revelations

If it were easy to deliver on customer experience expectations, every company would be earning accolades. However, it’s not so easy; it takes fortitude and commitment to succeed. It also requires that company’s act on all the data they’re collecting.

According to a Harvard Business Review Analytic Services Survey, 50 percent of companies say they act on some of their customer data, and 20 percent act on most of it. The remaining 30 percent act on little or none of it. Some companies choose to say they are customer-focused rather than take a hard look at what the data is telling them when comparing a company assessment to a customer survey.

Executives fear that they won’t be able to deliver what customers want. But that’s exactly where the opportunity lies. The mythical “white space” that every company wishes to find and fill with their product or service.

Who Owns Customer Experience Management?

Knowing that the customer experience spans channels and departments, it seems to defy logic that a single department should be responsible for managing it. Yet Marketing often shoulders the responsibility, likely because companies see it as a natural extension of their customer-facing roles.

We’ve already established that optimizing the customer experience requires collaboration across the business. The best customer experiences are born from insights revealed in cross-company data, ones that drive changes across the organization.

For instance, imagine a company selling a self-service, SaaS-based solution to SMBs and an on-premise solution to enterprises. By documenting and assessing the customer experience, it might see that SMBs are getting bogged down by unnecessary steps in the company’s one-size-fits-all sign-up process.

At the same time, it might discover that enterprise prospects need far too much hand-holding to complete the process. The company could then design one customer journey aimed at streamlining the process for SMBs, and another focused on better guiding enterprise customers through the process.

More companies are recognizing the need to take ownership of the customer experience in this way. According to a Gartner CX study, a growing number of companies have a chief customer officer (CCO), chief experience officer (CXO) or both.

Creating an Integrated Customer Experience Strategy

You need a strategy to guide your customer experience initiative and activities. Since CX equates to the sum of every interaction a customer has with your business, your CX strategy needs to define how you’ll deliver a superior experience. Think of it as your framework for customer experience.

Understand Your Customers and Their Journey

According to McKinsey, it’s critical to shift from uncoordinated efforts within organizational silos to an integrated operating model organized around customer journeys. So your first order of business is understanding your customers and their end-to-end experience with your company.

Who are your customers by demographics, psychographics and firmographics? Identify them at both the company and individual level. Categorize companies by their industries, size, geography, and any other important characteristics. Segment individuals by role within their companies and within the purchase process, as well as by details such as their influencers, information sources, buying biases and preferences, motivations, emotions, etc. In essence, these are buyer personas. For more guidance on understanding your customers, check out our post on how B2B Sales and Marketing can align around their target audience.

Now detail the buying path as a timeline customers take to purchase your product or service. Remember this experience spans departments, digital and non-digital channels, and might even include third parties, such as your partners.

Gather knowledge about the customer journey directly from your customers. Understand the process from their point of view, noting friction and inconsistencies wherever they appears. By focusing on the most critical customer journeys in this way, you get a true sense of their experience and what it takes to deliver on it at every turn and can determine where to focus your efforts.

Redesign the Customer Experience

It might seem strange to think you can design – or redesign – the customer experience, but it’s exactly what you can and should do. Otherwise, you leave it to chance and your customers will almost certainly suffer frustration and dissatisfaction through interactions that are irrelevant, inconsistent, lacking context, or -- the very worst -- downright insulting.

Since everyone in your company is responsible for the customer experience, create a shared vision of what the ideal experience looks like. Either bring on a chief customer officer (CCO) or chief experience officer (CXO) to spearhead this initiative, or convene a task force. In either case, the vision starts with an understanding of what matters most to your customers and then tying that back to your business objectives.   

This vision serves as your organization’s touchstone, helping everyone stay on track. By then capturing customer feedback, you can assess how well your company is delivering on the mission. This feedback also guides future tweaks and redesigns.

Cultivate a Customer-First Culture

Your front-line employees are the ones who will be interacting with your buyers and customers, so make sure they understand the vision. Educate, train, and support everyone on the front line on why the customer experience matters and how to bring your vision to life.

Perhaps nothing works better than putting employees in your customers’ shoes. Whenever possible, allow them to go through the experience of becoming and being a customer of your company. At some companies, some or all employees are given free credit or access to the company’s product or service and asked to use it and report on the experience as if they were a customer. This exercise will open their eyes while providing your organization with invaluable feedback on how to improve the experience.

As you hire new talent, make sure they’re aligned with your vision for the customer experience and exhibit empathy – that is, the ability to see others’ perspectives and relate to their experiences. We recommend building customer experience training into your onboarding processes, meaning HR will have to buy into this vision, as well.

Equip Employees to Succeed

To enable your employees to put this vision and shared understanding of customers into action, your organization needs to equip them with orchestrated processes that get everyone working as one.

All departments need to be aligned every step of the way to ensure consistent, contextual interactions. Your employees can only deliver a superior customer experience by working in sync throughout the customer journey. The key is to eliminate the artificial divisions between departments and instead align each to the same view of the customer journey from start to finish.

Measure ROI and Optimize

Like anything you want to measure, you first start by defining your goals. Once you’ve decided how to associate the goals of your customer experience program or strategy with your business goals, you can choose metrics that connect the two.

Remember: the customer experience is not a static, one-dimensional, single-channel event. You can account for this by measuring customer behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions around their initial and ongoing interactions with your company. For instance, perhaps you track the Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), and Engagement score for customer experience, and customer lifetime value (CLV) for your business. You could even track bounce rate and new vs. returning visitors using Google Analytics to measure the online customer experience.

For benchmarking purposes, know that 15 percent of all companies fall into lowest stage of customer experience and achieve an aggregate customer NPS score of -20, according to The Global State of Customer Experience 2018 report. Fifty-four percent are in the second stage and see an aggregate customer NPS score of -1%. Twenty-eight percent are in the third stage of the four-tier maturity scale, with an aggregate customer NPS score of 25%. Finally, just 3 percent are in the ideal stage and see an aggregate customer NPS score of 59%.

Building a stellar customer experience isn’t easy, but for the 3 percent who do, the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of customers is immense. Don't forget to continuously iterate as you go. From the best to the worst, there is always room for improvement.

Easy Wins for Optimizing Your Customer Experience

While you will never “arrive” at the ultimate customer experience since moving parts will change over time, you should monitor and report on your continued progress. When first starting out, communicate and celebrate early wins to show the value of the approach to your organization. Doing so will motivate everyone and drive program momentum. To encourage early success, focus your efforts on these four critical areas.

Realize Customers Don’t See Your Business Silos

Silos are the natural by-product of most company structures. They come in the form of discrete departments as well as divisions within a single department. For example, in marketing, one team might be responsible for social ads, another for email marketing and landing pages, and yet another for the website.

While silos in and of themselves are not evil, they are often the reason information doesn’t get shared and employees struggle to embrace an outward-in (i.e., customer) perspective. Silos are also a common source of frustration for buyers and customers who suffer due to a company’s disconnected processes and information.

We’re not saying you need to eliminate these silos – that’s not realistic. But you do need to understand that customers don’t see your business as siloed…so they’re not going to forgive you for the negative effects of that structure. Your goal is to make the customer experience so seamless and smooth that the thought of silos never enters your customers’ minds.

Centralize Customer Data

One practical way to minimize the impact of silos is by creating a centralized repository for shared customer data. Here’s where you store all customer-related information from across the organization. You establish a unified view by first determining the channels your organization uses to interact with customers. These channels are how you capture customer data. Then you map those channels to the systems that store the data you’ve captured – such as your Marketing Automation, CRM, invoicing, and customer service tools – and standardize the data. Your people, processes, and technology can then call upon this to understand each customer holistically, arrive at actionable insights, and deliver contextually relevant experiences.

Embrace Personalization and Trust

The best companies design the customer experience around personalization and trust. After all, these are the hallmarks of a company that understands its buyers and cares about their experience.

It’s a given that consumer experiences have impacted the way B2B buyers think about their business experiences. We’ve all been conditioned to expect the same levels of personalization we experience when shopping on Amazon and watching Netflix. B2B companies are satisfying these expectations by executing Account Based Marketing (ABM) using platforms like LinkedIn to personalize at the account level.

Consider the example of Spigit, which offers an idea management software platform helping businesses tap into the collective brainpower of their employees, partners, and customers. Using LinkedIn Sponsored Content, their marketing team set up six campaigns, creating original case studies, eBooks, and webinars tailored to six specific audiences.

These campaigns have far exceeded LinkedIn benchmarks, achieving an overall lifetime click-through rate (CTR) of 0.517%, with an engagement rate of 0.567%. One of their vertical marketing campaigns is achieving results nearly 2x LinkedIn benchmarks, with CTR and engagement rates of 0.759% and 0.809% respectively. As a testament to the power of personalization, the team discovered ads that drove fewer leads sometimes converted to opportunities at much higher rates.

Prioritize Consistency

Buyers don’t like surprises, which helps explain why customers value consistency when interacting with your business. They want to know what to expect and be confident that reality will satisfy their expectations. For most organizations, the best place to tackle consistency is in the information shared across channels. Make sure every communication and content asset about a topic is harmonious.  

As customer experience becomes the key differentiator in a crowded marketplace, it’s wise to prioritize your organization’s focus on delivering indispensable customer experiences. Doing so will inject your business with a renewed sense of purpose while giving you a competitive edge that is tough to replicate.

For the ultimate resource on how to align your sales and marketing efforts for a seamless customer experience, download The Art of Winning guidebook.