I waited until the last minute to get my car inspected this year. It was a Sunday, so my usual service station was closed. Luckily, the Firestone near my house was open and had availability. I was happy just to find a place, but the folks at Firestone made me happier by delivering a positive experience from end to end — clean store, polite service guy, clear expectations about timing, and a call to make sure I wanted to replace a rear brake light bulb. Then, when I went to pay, a message on the self-pay screen reinforced the idea that I had gotten a good experience. It read, “Committed to providing a positive customer experience, every time.” Naturally, I was glad to see the company making this commitment — and actually living up to it. I also got a chuckle out of the message, imagining the boardroom discussions that led to it appearing in front of me. And that got me thinking . . .

What does it mean when companies use the term “customer experience” when they’re talking to actual customers?

I’ve noticed this happening more and more over the past year or so, not in my research but in my life as a customer. Firestone’s not alone. AT&T uses “customer experience” on its website. Amica uses it in a TV ad. What does this trend mean? To me, two things:

  1. More companies are interested in customer experience. We already know that customer experience is a growing area of focus for companies, but seeing the term seep into marketing and advertising is just more evidence of this phenomenon. At the very least, it shows that companies think that their customers desire good experiences — versus just low prices or good products — and that companies feel the need to address the desire somehow.
  2. Many companies are missing the point. If customer experience is just a marketing slogan, that’s obviously a problem. But, for now, let’s blissfully assume that the companies citing “customer experience” externally are sincerely committed to it. Those companies are still missing the point. Everyday customers don’t use the term “customer experience” — not in my experience, anyway. When I tell people I work in this area, they say: “So is that like marketing?” Me: “Not really. I help companies understand and improve the way they treat customers.” Them: “So like customer service?” Me: “Yup.” Then we move on . . . Unless I’m dead wrong and customers actually do think about their “customer experiences,” the companies using this term externally are still thinking inside-out. They’re taking their own internal ideas and pushing them out to customers. And that’s a problem.

To deliver great customer experiences, companies need to change how they think and act, approaching issues from their customers’ perspectives. The appearance of “customer experience” in marketing and adverting is a sign that companies haven’t made that change. It might be well intentioned, but it’s not customer-centric.