Executives From Lake Wobegon

Garrison Keillor describes Lake Wobegon as a place where “all the children are above average.”

According to a recent study from Bain, it looks like a lot of execs are from Lake Wobegon. As reported on Chief Executive:

80 percent of companies surveyed believe they deliver a ‘superior experience’ to their customers.”

Man, would I like to have what they’re smoking. When Bain surveyed the customers of these firms, 8% said those firms delivered a superior experience. Eight percent.

So what accounts for this, um, minor discrepancy? I can think of three reasons:

  1. Cluelessness — the execs surveyed have no clue what their firm’s customer experience is, or how it’s perceived;
  2. Denial — the execs surveyed know damn well their firm’s customer experience is average or sub-par but won’t admit it;
  3. Confusion — specifically, about what exactly is meant or referred to by the term “customer experience.”

My take: I think the biggest contributor is #3 — confusion. The article in CE talks a lot about customer service. My bet is that the term is being used by many of the execs quoted to refer to problem resolution or some post-sale interaction related to the sale or use of a product or service.

This is too narrow a focus. And it’s one of the reasons all this talk about the importance of “the customer experience” is so confusing. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to “the customer experience”?

What about the actual sales or buying process itself? What about the process by which prospects go about determining whether a particular firm is right for them, or which product/service is right for them? What about the errors that occur when a bank processes a loan application?

It’s quite possible that the execs surveyed were clued in and honest. Their firms might truly be delivering a superior experience — in one particular area of their customers’ total experience. The customer perspective, however, would indicate that the execs’ perspective is not nearly broad enough.

So what’s a firm to do? Before I opine on that, I’ll tell you what they should NOT do: Appoint someone chief customer experience office. I’ve said this before, I’ll say it here, and I will repeat it every chance I get: Appointing someone to be the “chief customer experience officer” is a complete waste of effort, time, and money.

The challenge is too big for one exec, and there are execs already in charge of the departments/processes that shape the customer’s experience. (Granted, they might not understand the customer’s perspective, or manage the processes and operations in a way that optimizes customer satisfaction).

But continuing to talk about “the customer experience”, while it generates a lot of press and attention from pundits, is simply not helpful in guiding firms to understand what needs to be improved and how to make those improvements.

Those of you who survived the reengineering craze of the early 1990s will groan at this suggestion, but what’s needed today is some good old fashioned business process redesign. But this time, efforts need to incorporate customer data (e.g., behaviors and attitudes) to drive redesign decisions — and not rely solely on cost and cycle time data, as so many firms did back then.

Until then, a lot of the talk about customer experience will be blah, blah, blah in the ears of many execs (although I think few would be willing to admit this).

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