My Manifesto: Great Customer Experience Is Free

Here’s a replay of a post of from September 2007 with a few updated links. I thought it was still relevant and worthy of a replay…

Here’s my new quest: To dramatically increase the focus on customer experience within companies by getting everyone to understand that great customer experience is really good business.

Great customer experience is not only free, it is an honest-to-everything profit maker. In these days of “who knows what is going to happen to our business tomorrow” there aren’t many ways left to make a profit improvement. If you concentrate on improving customer experience, you can very likely increase your profits.

Good customer experience is an achievable, measureable, profitable entity that can be installed once you have commitment and understanding, and are prepared for hard work. But I’ve had a great many talks with sincere people who were clear that there was no way to attain great customer experience: “The engineers won’t cooperate.” “The salesman are untrainable as well as too shifty.” “Top management cannot be reached with such concepts.”

So how do I plan on igniting the great customer experience is free movement?

First, it is necessary to get top management, and therefore lower management, to consider customer experience a leading part of the operation, a part equal in importance to every other part. Second, I have to find a way to explain what customer experience is all about so that anyone can understand it and enthusiastically support it. And third, I have to get myself in a position where I have a platform to take on the world in behalf of customer experience.

That’s really what I believe, but I must confess that those aren’t all my words. Just about everything written after the first paragraph came directly from the book Quality Is Free: The Art of Making Quality Certain by Philip B. Crosby. I’ve made minor edits and changed references from “quality” to “customer experience,” but those are Crosby’s words from his book that was initially published in 1979.

Why did I “borrow” Crosby’s words? Because I see a lot of similarities between today’s need for customer experience improvements and the 1980’s quest for quality in the US. I was actually involved in the quality movement in the late 80’s and early 90’s — running quality circles, developing process maps, running workout sessions at GE, using fishbone diagrams, etc.

Here are 7 critical areas in which the great customer experience is free movement can learn from the quality is free movement:

  1. Nobody owns it (or the corollary, everybody owns it). In the early stages of the quality movement, companies put in place quality officers. Many of these execs failed because they were held accountable for quality metrics and, therefore, tried to push quality improvements across the company. The successful execs saw their role more as change facilitators — engaging the entire company in the quality movement. Today’s chief customer officers need to see transformation as their primary objective — and not take personal ownership for improvement in metrics like satisfaction and NetPromoter.  
  2. It requires cultural change. Many US companies in the 1980’s put quality circles in place to replicate what they saw happening in Japan. But the culture in many firms was dramatically different than within Japanese firms. So companies did not get much from these efforts, because they didn’t have the ingrained mechanisms for taking action based on recommendations from the quality circles. Discrete efforts need to be part of a larger, longer-term process for engraining the principles of good customer experience in the DNA of the company.
  3. It requires process change. Quality efforts of the 1980’s grew into the process reengineering fad of the 1990’s. As business guru and author Michael Hammer showcased in his 1994 book Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution, large-scale improvements within a company requires a change to its processes. That perspective remains as valid today as it was back then. Customer experience efforts, therefore, need to incorporate process reengineering techniques. That’s why these efforts must be directly connected to any Six Sigma or process change initiatives within the company.
  4. It requires discipline. Ad-hoc approaches can solve isolated problems, but systemic change requires a much more disciplined approach. That’s why the quality movement created tools and techniques — many of which are still used in corporate Six Sigma efforts. These new approaches were necessary to establish effective, repeatable, and scalable methods. A key portion of the effort was around training employees on how to use these new techniques. Customer experience efforts will also require training around new techniques. Here are a couple of my posts that describe this type of discipline: Four Customer Experience Core Competencies and The Six Ds of a closed-loop VoC Program.
  5. Upstream issues cause downstream problems. This is a key understanding. The place where a problem is identified (a defective product, or a bad experience) is often not the place where systemic solutions need to occur. For instance, a problem with a computer may be caused by a faulty battery supplier and not the PC manufacturer. A bad experience at an airline ticket counter may be caused by ticketing business rules and not by the agent. So improvements need to encompass more than just front-line employees and customer-facing processes.
  6. Employees are a key asset in the battle. The quality movement recognized that people involved with a process had a unique perspective for spotting problems and identifying potential solutions. So the many of the tools and techniques created during the quality movement tap into this important asset: Employees. Customer experience efforts need to systematically incorporate what front-line employees know about customer behavior, preferences, and problems as well as what other people in the organization know about processes that they are involved with.
  7. Executive involvement is essential. For all of the items listed above, improvements (in quality then and in customer experience now) require a concerted effort by the senior executive team. It can not be a secondary item on the list of priorities. Change is not easy. To ensure the corporate resolve and commitment to make the required changes, customer experience efforts need to be one of the company’s top efforts. Senior executives can’t just be “supportive,” they need to be truly committed to and involved with the effort.

Corporations removed major quality defects in the 80’s, re-engineered business processes in the 90’s, and now it’s time to take on the next big challenge for corporate America:  Customer experience.

It’s critically important, it’s broken, and fixing it can be very profitable. So don’t settle for the status quo! It’s up to you.

As Crosby said in his book:

You can do it too. All you have to do is take the time to understand the concepts, teach them to others, and keep the pressure on.

The bottom line: The great customer experience is free movement is officially underway. Join me!

About Bruce Temkin
I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, marketing, interaction design, customer service, and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

6 Responses to My Manifesto: Great Customer Experience Is Free

  1. Bruce, I think the title of your post does all CX professionals a disservice.

    Great customer experiences are _not_ free. They require focus and investment (as you outline in each of your 7 points). To suggest this effort is free is a mistake.

    I like the points themselves, and agree with the premises and practice. But (respectfully) your attention-grabbing title misses the mark.

    • Bruce Temkin says:

      Andy: Thanks for the feedback. I think that the title is accurate and is true in the same way that Crosby used it to describe quality. CX is free because the returns can quickly and overwhelmingly outweigh the costs. I am confident that anyone who reads this post, or any of my other posts, won’t think that great customer experience comes without effort. Hopefully, not too many people draw a bunch of conclusions from just reading the title of this post. If they do, then they likely weren’t interested in what I really had to say anyway, no matter what title I used.

      • Thanks Bruce.

        To me the most compelling benefit of investing in CX is that the ROI of benefits are tremendous and can ripple through an organization in a way that other initiatives can not.

        Keep the good posts coming!

    • Guy Letts says:

      Andrew – I note your point and you’re clearly committed to the cause, which is great. However I think Bruce is correct in principle and the headline is shocking but not misleading.

      If I’ve understood correctly, the point is not that zero cost and effort are required, but that if you consider the alternatives, they are equally or more costly. Not focusing on customer experience (as with quality) costs through (avoidably) lost customers and because extra sales and marketing spend is required to achieve an equivalent return.

      Strictly speaking I suppose it may be more correct to say ‘great customer experience has no incremental cost’, but it doesn’t have quite the same impact.

      What goes hand in hand with this approach is that *every* member of the team has to be a ‘CX professional’ (again, as with responsibility for quality) and that forms part of the change in mindset that’s required at every level of the organization.

      • Guy, thanks. I agree the alternative title wouldn’t have grabbed my attention. You’re right that _every_ member has to be engaged. Strange how this basic truth is well-known and the lifeblood of smaller companies yet so rare at larger organizations. (The tipping point seems to be when companies look at experience/service initiatives as too costly vs. invaluable.)

  2. mcgntr says:

    Hi Bruce,
    What a great slogan to sell to the executives! As I have been reading and writing about customer service – it strikes me that many have lost the way to search for excellence and the meaning of quality — focus too much on making money. Yet, those old search for excellence company examples from ‘back then’ discovered the way to profit was paying attention to the customer and delivering just what the customer wanted. I think what is challenging today may be to really understand your customer and how the internet has changed how customers think and react. Additionally, the internet provides opportunity for new and “other” customer profiles than the profile that a company may cling to. Liberate the profile. Free service from old strictures. Customer Service is free because it is part of the cultural value. Thanks Ann

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