Customer Experience happens… one way or the other.

by Tom Davis
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Customer Experience strategy and how companies get it wrong.

Don't make customer experience a shell game.

I hate starting off with a negative headline, but the experience that sparked this post was a lot more negative.

The other day I was calling my home Internet provider, AT&T, about why my monthly bill increased for a second time in the last three months. When the well spoken "radio style" voice answered, it assured me that AT&T wanted me to have the best "customer experience" possible. I guess the word "possible" should have been a clue. 

I had already called before to learn the first increase was when promotional pricing ended. After a year you then pay the "regular rate." Apparently that is what "with a one year contract" means on their website when they show a price.  I had looked on the website to see what the regular prices were, but I could not find anything alluding to a real price. (I did find such a page at Time Warner Cable, though it was not easy.)

However, to my surprise, my rate went up again two months later, hence my most recent call. The rep stated that I had been getting a $5 discount and the discount expired. I was now being billed the regular rate. I thought the last rep said I was paying the regular rate then... I guess they don't even know what "The Regular Rate" is.

From my point view as a customer, AT&T clearly has no idea how a great customer experience is acheived.

“You keep using that word, I don't think it means what you think it means.”
Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride

Customer Experience is getting a lot discussion as a business strategy. Of course, every CEO wants to have happy customers — so there must be a strategy for that. But good customer experiences are a result (or goal) not a strategy. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that companies have a lot of strategies and they do not always work toward the same goal.

Customer Experience is not a strategy, it is a result.

Smaller companies or small stores usually understand that everything they do has to contribute to create a positive customer experience. These companies are not so overtly "strategy driven." Because they are small, the owners can see (and hopefully control) the end-to-end effects of how they operate their business. This is where big companies like AT&T most often fail. I use AT&T here because it is the company that sparked this blog post. The list is just about endless.

Larger companies have all sorts of pressure on them to perform in many different ways. The CEO sees investor demands for higher profit, internal demands for bigger budgets, employees want higher salaries, competitors are always prowling around, and customers are always wanting something unreasonable.

All this presents a huge problem for large companies. And it all comes down to management. You can blame any business condition you want on any external factor you want, but in the end it is how well it is managed. This is a fact of life, and there are many "environmental factors" that color a company's ability to manage these things effectively.

The lesson I learned from my “customer experience” with AT&T.

When you have an incredibly complex pricing strategy combined with a overactive promotional strategy, you have already shot yourself in both feet when it comes to a positive long-term customer experience. You may have made a positive short-term customer experience, but that strategy left a mess that spoils the deal in the end.

I believe this is why phone companies and cable companies are consistently at the bottom of consumer rankings. Let's not be like them.

[Addition ( 6/12/2015): This article appeared on Ars Technica last night.  The article provides a different view into the problems that AT&T will always face with customers and their insincere goal of a positive customer experience. They over promise, under deliver, and use market power as a carrot or threat to get more market power from the government — thus alleviating the need for real customer service. ]

To achieve a positive customer experience, build it into all of your strategies.

Start by having some integrity. Treat your customers with respect and don't game them.

Promotions and discounts are great tools to make waves in a market, just make sure that customers can find long term pricing and features. Be transparent for those who care. It helps them to know what to expect. You might lose a few conversions, but why alienate a customer that will never be converted again?

If all your strategies and tactics understand and respect your customers, you will achieve the goal of happy customers — or die trying.

Think of Customer Experience like a chain. Any link that breaks causes the whole thing to fail. Of course, anything that fails in life can be repaired. But that just adds cost and the repaired version is never quite as good as the original unblemished version. Here is an excellent old TED talk that explains this well.