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 united.com, 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).