Customer Experience Leaders Obsess Over Customer Needs

Last week, I took you through the top scorers in this year’s Customer Experience Index by industry. But 13% of customer experience professionals said that they aim to differentiate across all industries. Which brands do they need to beat to reach that goal? Let’s start with the “meets needs” category (I’ll cover the other two in future posts). High scorers on this criteria in 2012 were:

  • USAA (bank): 92%
  • 91%

What jumps out at me right away is that both of these companies were founded on the principle that putting customer needs first is the best path to business success. They don’t view customer needs as competing with business needs; they live in the space where the two intersect.

A letter Jeff Bezos wrote to shareholders in 1997 laid out six principles he felt would make successful. Principle No. 5 was “obsess about customers.” And in a 2008 article in The New York Times, Bezos was quoted as saying: “The reason I’m so obsessed with these drivers of the customer experience is that I believe that the success we have had over the past 12 years has been driven exclusively by that customer experience. We are not great advertisers. So we start with customers, figure out what they want, and figure out how to get it to them.”

It sounds so simple, and yet — as we see by the range of scores on this criteria (the low score was a 51%) — it’s so hard to do.

USAA’s success is due in part to the fact that it actively recruits military veterans and spouses to serve its target market of active-duty and former military personnel and their families. Their firsthand knowledge of military life has helped USAA identify unmet needs and pioneer experiences for its geographically dispersed population that might never have occurred to other companies like the ability to deposit a check via mobile phone.

Contrast that with the way many companies think they meet customer needs. For example, most health insurance plans will tell you that checking claim status is one of the top reasons members come to their website. Plans show the claims status on the site and . . . done, right? Nope. The member doesn’t want to look up claim status. The member wants to find out why she got a bill for $400 when that procedure was supposed to be covered. The site doesn’t answer that question, so the customer walks away empty-handed even though the company thought it met that person’s needs.

I have my theories about why so many companies have this type of disconnect, but I’m curious what others think. Why do so many well-meaning companies — even those that do tons of customer research — still fall short on this most basic of customer experience principles?


I think it has to do with

I think it has to do with 'forest for the trees' syndrome. Companies get caught up in data and details and forget the user experience in the process. Bezos' obsession with customers is expressed in simple yet thorough ways. Their attention to customer detail is second to none and this is why brand loyalty is so high. Another factor: customer happiness isn't cheap. Amazon spends a lot of money and time training CSRs to efficiently and effectively respond to customer needs. This investment has paid off for them in brand loyalty.

Usually inward-focused

Hi Megan,

Thanks for another great post! You've touched on one of my pet-peeves with your example of the health insurance plan not giving its member a good experience. My opinion is that experiences like that happen most often because the company mindset is inwardly focused instead of outwardly focused on the customer.

Examples abound both online and offline as well, Often it shows up in places like user's manuals that are organized by the functions that the device performs because the product managers/engineers wrote the manual. In that case, if the user is having a problem (usual reason for opening the manual), they need to hunt around to try to find the answer.

I've explored a similar theme in my own blog more broadly applied to marketing in relation to "relevance." But I think the idea is the same. If marketers want to be relevant, they need to put the extra effort in to know what their customers want and how they want to be communicated with. From a customer experience standpoint, if you want to deliver a positive experience, you need to stand in the shoes of the customer and understand the steps they need to take to get what they need.

"putting customer needs first

"putting customer needs first is the best path to business success"

You're exactly right about it being easier to say than do. There are so many people invested in a business and each have different end goals. Making the customer the first priority is a hard pill to swallow for some.

Become the customer

I think that many companies fail because they ask their customers what they want rather than BECOME a customer themselves. I had one client whose customer base was saying how hard their manuals were to decipher. They took that feedback to their technical team, looped in some people with marketing backgrounds, and rewrote some things. They didn't really get how much of an overhaul their documentation needed until their CEO decided to get to the bottom of things by picking up a manual and attempting to follow the instructions himself. After hours of time spent attempting to follow the manual, he understood that throwing some marketing folks in the mix wasn't going to fix it. The manuals needed to be revamped completely.

Understand the Consumer Type

My two cents is that it is not all about putting yourself in the consumers shoes. Because unfortunately there are alot of different shoes! I think where the disconnect could come is in two areas. First, the design is not focused on the actual problem. I think this was alluded to in the post. Before you design anything, you have to have the data to back up what problem you are trying to solve and then go about trying to solve the problem. The healthcare example is a great one because obviously that company was trying to solve the wrong problem. The data was telling them one thing and they tried solving a different problem. So first off, get the data and figure out what the problem is.

Then the next thing I think that companies struggle with is trying to design an experience that takes into consideration the different consumer types that will be trying to find the information. I think they can be split up into three buckets, Frequent Users of a Site, Moderate Users and Infrequent Users. The challenge with the Moderate and Infrequent Users is that even if they are digital natives and are familiar with the web experience, they may not be famiilar with YOUR web experience and so that needs to be taken into consideration when designing to solve a problem. These are going to be the people that need the most hand holding on the site to find the information they are looking for and thus this must be the foundation or the lowest common denominator in your design thinking.

Just my thoughts....

Hi Megan, A very good post..

Hi Megan,
A very good post.. just my thoughts on this....

Keeping the dynamic nature of customer behaviors and preferences in mind, the frequency of market research or customer checks is a key aspect.
The stakeholders back the right priorities; data to showcase tangible ROI benefits for a customer experience strategy will push its case.
Currently this is a challenge, as customer experience contribution to the bottom/top line performance of a company is not always clear or available.
The customer experience leader’s role here is to balance this aspect of maintaining the stakeholder’s interest with data; at the same time not to lose sight of the initiatives in play.
This is where a setback is faced frequently, as effective implementation of agreed actions and continuous review to check for success and failures is missed.