The Future Of Customer Experience Management

Christopher Meyer and Andre Schwager’s February 2007 Harvard Business Review article “Understanding Customer Experience” brings, perhaps for the first time, the topic of customer experience management (CEM) to the senior management plane. While, overall, the article is quite good, one thing stuck out like a sore thumb — the authors’ definition of the term:

[CEM] captures and distributes what a customer thinks about a company.”

We used to call that market research.

But I’m not here to argue about the definition. Instead, I see this definition as a milestone and potential turning point in the evolution of customer experience management.

In their 1994 book Beyond The Hype, three Harvard b-school professors postulated that the strength — and weakness — of many management techniques was that they could be defined in different ways to suit different purposes. Case in point #1: Reengineering, which was originally conceived as the redesign of cross-functional business processes and later, as it become more ingrained (and infamous), as synonomous with layoffs and downsizing. Later on in the 90s, knowledge management similarly meant many different things to different people.

From my perspective, management concepts go through a predictable cycle of four stages. They: 1) begin to dot the management press with articles from early proponents; 2) gain strong acceptance when credible case studies highlight the superior performance firms realize from deploying the concept; 3) fall out of favor as copycat firms begin to over-use the label and apply it to initiatives that shouldn’t be funded (but get funded anyway because they have the label); and then 4) become part of the fabric of management if — and only if — they’re truly a worthwhile management concept.

When CEM first started appearing as a term a few years ago, I thought it was the perfect antidote to reengineering. Whereas reengineering was about process redesign from the firm’s POV (reduce cost and cycle time), I thought CEM would evolve to be about process redesign from the customer’s POV (reduce cycle time IF it resulted in higher satisfaction, add cost IF it resulted in higher satisfaction).

But that hasn’t really happened. David Raab recently commented on the variations of CEM frameworks, and the inherent differences they wrestle with regarding function vs. emotion, moments-of-truth vs. all experiences, static vs. interactive experiences, and expected vs. actual experiences. In many firms, the term customer experience has been hijacked by the Web site designers and applies only to customers’ online experiences.

So whither CEM?

CEM has labored in stage one for a while now. But whereas Michael Hammer’s HBR article from long ago helped kick reengineering into stage two, I doubt that Meyer and Schwager’s article will do the same. It failed to pull together the conflicting perspectives of the CEM frameworks that are out there, and, just as importantly (if not more so) it failed to provide the high-profile (and credible) case studies that demonstrate the radical and/or transformational impact CEM might have on a firm.

The heydays of management techniques like reengineering, knowledge management, or CEM don’t last forever — they get anywhere from two to five years to gain accpetance, and if worthy, become part of how future managers run their organizations.

Customer experience management is probably in the middle of that lifecycle. If proponents don’t come together to reconcile the conflicts in their frameworks and provide credible high-profile case studies that capture the attention of senior execs — before the end of 2008 — then CEM won’t be a term we’ll hear a lot about come 2010.

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