The Root Of Most Customer Experience Problems

I recently read a story about the butterflies in Zion National Park. Apparently, there aren’t as many of them as there used to be. And after decades of research, scientists have finally figured out why.

Zion National Park was developed in the early 1900s — and with that development came an influx of tourists. Scared off by human foot traffic, cougars retreated from certain areas of park. And with no natural predators, the deer population exploded. These cute (but ravenous) animals became unstoppable in their quest to devour everything in their path — including cottonwood tree saplings. And with fewer cottonwood trees reaching adolescence and maturity, the streambanks lost their primary source of erosion protection. Soil erosion made it difficult for wildflowers to bloom — and fewer wildflowers meant fewer butterflies.

Natural ecosystems, like the one in Zion National Park, comprise complex interdependent relationships that change over time.

A customer experience ecosystem is quite similar. It encompasses a complex set of relationships among a company’s employees, partners, and customers — and it’s these people’s decisions and actions that collectively determine the quality and characteristics of all customer interactions. 

Unfortunately, most companies don’t approach customer experience from a systems perspective. Customers have specific needs as they discover, evaluate, buy, access, use, and get support for a company’s products and services. But rather than view their work as it fits into the context of customer journeys, most employees and partners focus on just the channel or function that they’re responsible for. For example, the website owner at a major retailer recently told me that she hardly ever speaks to the execs heading up the call center or retail stores. And marketing departments, together with their ad agencies, often make promises without first determining whether the rest of the organization can deliver on them.

To make matters worse, executives place too much of the burden for customer experience on frontline employees like retail staff and call center agents. In reality, behind-the-scenes employees can have an equal or greater impact on customer interactions. Take, for example, the seven — yes, seven — pages of ticketing fare rules on, which are full of unintelligible pseudo-sentences like: “PROVIDED - COMBINATIONS ARE FOR CARRIER CO/AC/LH/UA IN ANY RULE IN TARIFF IPRA - BETWEEN USA/CA-AREA 2/3 AND GUAM-AREA 2 FOR TRAVEL VIA THE ATLANTIC.” You can tell that United’s legal eagles had their hands all over this — and I’m guessing United’s IT folks had something to do with FORMATTING ALL SEVEN PAGES IN ALL CAPS. In contrast, Southwest’s lawyers made the very humane decision to put fare rules in plain English — like “lower fares may be available” — and the company’s web designers formatted the rules in short, easy-to-scan bulleted lists.

Indeed, all parts of the customer experience ecosystem are interconnected. Tweaking one small part of the ecosystem — like a return policy or sales incentive — can have massive consequences somewhere else.

Many customer experience initiatives don’t meet their full potential — or worse, fail completely — because internal employees and external partners don’t see the connection between their work and customer interactions. That’s why customer experience professionals need to bring together cross-functional teams to identify all of the people, actions, and decisions that influence the customer experience.

If you’re interested in learning more, please join my teleconference on Wednesday, July 13, 2011, 1:00 p.m.-2:00 p.m. Eastern time (18:00-19:00 UK time).


Turning to organic structures for business metaphors

Great post Kerry!

This is a wonderful use of organic metaphors to explain how aspects of the business world work. For a long time we've examined business through the lens of a machine metaphor that has resulted in the type of siloed organizations you mention.

But information doesn't flow through a business the way gasoline flows through an engine!

We seem to have reached a point where more and more folks are turning to complex adaptive systems & organic structures for guidance and inspiration in designing business systems and business software. Many people have perceived and defined this change only as the new use of social software within and by companies. But it's more than just "social."

GORDON ROSS wrote two amazing and articles on the topic as it relates to social intranets:

Also, I wrote a post that aims to break down the "social business" concept a little:

Mechanistic vs. organic

hi Ephraim,

Thanks for the link to the Gordon Ross post. A great list of resources on organizational theory! I especially liked his detailed contrast between mechanistic and organic organizations and this particular distinction: "'a mechanistic management system is appropriate to stable conditions' whereas an 'organismic form is appropriate to changing conditions, which give rise constantly to fresh problems and unforeseen requirements'".

And I love your post, too. "Social business" simply is people-centered. Yes!

Fantastic advice that's oh so

Fantastic advice that's oh so true. It takes a full team effort to really pull off great customer service. As this video ( points out, middle managers can be as crucial to service as the front line staff.

Middle management

hi Julie-Ann,

Yeah, middle management is often overlooked in the customer experience ecosystem. We all tend to focus much more on garnering the support of top execs and changing the behavior of frontline staff.

It's a shame, because middle managers are in tough positions. They often lack direct customer contact and so are less connected to core customer issues -- and they're also often not high enough in the organization to affect major change outside of their immediate group. We should all focus on helping these folks more!

Stocks and flows!

Nice article! Your Customer Ecosystem Model I'm guessing will help visualize the various stocks and flows that result from the relationships and interactions. There are good stocks (e.g. customer satisfaction, tolerance, social capital, etc.) and bad stocks (e.g. dissatisfaction, delays, animosity, errors, rework, etc). You've already alluded to systems thinking and "massive consequences" of actions through causal loops and the need for visibility and control across internal and external parts of the chain. Very important point that you make.

Personally I believe, the distinctions between mechanistic and "organismic" are superficial and a casual mixing up of metaphors. What matters in the customer ecosystem is the structure relationships (statics), activities, events and interactions, (dynamics), the feedback loops, the filtering mechanisms, the sense-making and of course the response. Metaphors are simply transport mechanisms between alternate world views, if one is fastidious about them :-)