On September 19th, my co-author Harley Manning and I delivered two webinars outlining the concepts in our new book, Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business.

We received so many questions that we couldn’t answer them all during the webinars. So we split them up, and we’re answering them (in brief) in two blog posts. Harley posted Part 1 yesterday, and this is Part 2.

How can you develop a customer experience strategy before you know your customers?

You can’t. In the webinar, I described how Holiday Inn developed a customer experience strategy that led to a completely new lobby experience. (You can read more about this in one of my recent blog posts.) It’s important to note that the reason Holiday Inn’s strategy was so successful is that it was rooted in a clear and accurate understanding of who the hotel’s target customers were and what they needed when they were traveling. If you don’t know your customers, it’s nearly impossible to create a customer experience that will meet (or exceed) their needs and expectations.

How does social media affect the ability to understand the customer experience?

To create a complete picture of your customers, you need to conduct three main types of customer research. You need to solicit customers’ input through vehicles like surveys, you need to gather unsolicited feedback that comes in through channels like social media and your contact center, and you need to go out to where your customers live and work to observe and talk with them one-on-one.

Social media is a critical part of this puzzle, and companies that skip social media monitoring are missing out on a rich source of customer insights.

I am a member of a customer service team at a software startup. My teammates and I are on the frontlines with customers every day and get the most exposure to customer feedback. However, we have no process in place to take what we hear and learn from customers and spread that to the rest of our company. Do you have any suggestions?

I've got good news: You’re not alone. Companies large and small struggle to share customer insights. What you need is a voice of the customer (VoC) program, a systematic approach for collecting customer insights and incorporating them into business decisions. While you should tailor your specific VoC activities to your company’s unique situation, all VoC programs need the same ongoing cycle of activities:

  • Listen. You need to identify key customer listening posts across channels and departments and then collect feedback through methods like surveys, social media, emails, and phone calls.
  • Interpret. VoC teams must analyze feedback to identify useful insights and make them relevant and accessible for employees across the company.
  • React. You need to act on customer insights to get value from them. These actions might include responding to individual customers, coaching employees, or changing experiences systemically.
  • Monitor. VoC teams also need to track the results of their efforts over time, from internal progress on action plans to the business results achieved through VoC-initiated actions.

The other good news is that there’s an entire class of technology vendors in the enterprise feedback management space — like Medallia, MarketTools, and Allegiance — that exist to help companies like yours get customer insights to the places they’re needed.

(If you have access to our research, you should check out these two reports for more information: "Executive Q&A: Voice Of The Customer Programs" and "The Forrester Wave™: EFM Satisfaction And Loyalty Solutions, Q3 2011.")

How do you approach the customer understanding stage once you have determined the key brand attributes?

Actually, I wouldn’t say that these two activities flow in a linear order. The reason: Customers may interpret your brand attributes in ways that you wouldn’t expect. For example, Virgin Mobile Australia thought control (one of its brand attributes) meant giving customers options to modify their contracts based on their individual needs. To that end, the company was about to move from 19 standard billing plans to a system where customers could slice and dice hundreds of different plan features any way they wanted, like some kind of giant telecom salad bar. But an online diary study indicated that infinite options weren’t what customers wanted at all. To customers, control meant having a greater understanding of a smaller number of choices. (You can read more about this case study in my blog post: "Customer Understanding: Do You Really Know What Your Customers Want And Need?")

The insights that you gather from your customer research should feed into your brand definition and overall corporate strategy. More specific to customer experience, they should be the launching pad for your customer experience strategy and should provide focus for your experience design process. Keep in mind that every single customer request shouldn’t necessarily become a design requirement — you’d go out of business that way. You need to balance the needs and wants of your customers with your own business objectives.

How can you apply customer experience to what happens before people actually buy?

Customers have many interactions with a company as they discover that the company has products or services they’re interested in and evaluate those offerings. Consider learning that Zipcar obviates the expense of owning your own car and then going to zipcar.com to learn more. Or consider walking into a big electronics retailer to get help picking out a new DSLR camera. Each of these interactions needs to meet your needs (and provide some value to you), and the interactions should be easy and enjoyable at each step of the way. In order for that to happen, you need to intentionally design that prebuying experience.

There’s one other important aspect to all of the interactions and communications that happen at the beginning of the customer journey. They set customers’ expectations for how the rest of their interactions will go and therefore shape their perception of those interactions. For more on why that’s important, check out my recent article in Forbes: "Making Promises, Keeping Promises: Building Brands Through Customer Experience."

How different is online customer experience from the end-to-end or multichannel customer experience?

All of the concepts that we talk about in Outside In are equally applicable to online customer experiences as they are to the end-to-end or multichannel customer experience.

There are, of course, specific nuances to the online experience, like how customer interactions should be designed, the type of analytics you need to implement, the types of agencies and vendors you need to partner with, and the underlying technology. (For my advice on how to improve the online experience, see my recent blog post: "Top 10 Ways To Improve Your Digital Customer Experience.") But overall, the mindset and activities that lead to a great overall experience will lead to great online experiences, too.

Given that the line between online and offline is becoming more and more blurred, what should companies be watching out for?

You’re right. Websites and other digital touchpoints are no longer isolated channels, and customers move naturally from the Web to the contact center to their mobile device to the store and back again. Experiences that aren’t designed to support this multichannel customer behavior will fail.

So, rather than watching any particular technology change, my advice is to keep a vigilant eye over shifting customer behaviors and needs. As I said above, you need to go out to where your customers live and work to observe and talk with them one-on-one. This will help you understand how they move among channels and what their needs are at each step of the way. Then you need to document your insights in customer journey maps that you can share with the rest of your organization.

Creating this shared understanding about the holistic end-to-end customer journey is the first step toward helping your organization break out of its silos and work as a whole to deliver a seamless customer experience.

Any thoughts about linking customer experience to incentive schemes for employees?

Our research finds that linking customer experience to employee incentives can help employees understand (and get excited about) their own role in delivering a great customer experience. In Outside In, we talk about a number of companies that do this in different ways. For example, at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, no one with below-average scores on the Enterprise Service Quality index can move up to senior management. Maersk Line, one of the world’s largest container shipping companies, ties employee bonuses to Net Promoter Score targets. And insurance company Allstate ties its 401(k) match to a customer loyalty index for 80% of the company.

By the way, the jury is still out on some of the finer details of employee incentives. For varying viewpoints on whether or not you should compensate frontline employees based on their individual customer feedback, see my blog post: "Connecting Frontline Staff To Customer Experience: Two Conundrums."

I work for an airport, and we’re developing and implementing a series of services based on service design work that we did. The services seem to be well received by the passengers, but our biggest problem is to get the frontline staff onboard. Any suggestions?

The incentives that I discussed in the previous question are a good start, but informal rewards — like certificates, prizes, and perks — can also be powerful. They celebrate customer-centric behavior and don’t typically take a lot of time or money to plan or execute. For example, phone representatives at Circles, a concierge service for corporate employees, can accumulate points based on customer satisfaction surveys and redeem them for prizes, including additional time off.

I’d suggest a combination of training, storytelling, and rituals as part of a broader plan to further socialize the importance of customer experience and help change employee behaviors. I’m also impressed by companies like John Deere Financial that have created programs that encourage employees to take ownership for customer experience within their own departments. (You can get more info on John Deere Financial’s “Champions” program in this blog post.)

For future projects, I’d recommend co-creating new customer interactions with some of the employees who will ultimately be responsible for delivering them — and that can mean frontline staff and behind-the-scenes folks. This ensures the buy-in of key employees early on in the process, and they, in turn, can evangelize both the design process and its resulting outputs on your behalf.

How do you get upper management to walk the talk on getting onboard with becoming customer centric?

We recommend taking a two-pronged approach that combines both logic and emotion.

The first line of attack is to lay out the numbers-based business case for improving the customer experience, as we did in the webinar. You should make your point by drawing tight connections between customer interactions and increased revenue, reduced service costs, increased loyalty, and any other specific metrics your execs are focused on.

In parallel, you need to help them understand who your customers really are and what their major pain points are today. Have them listen to customer service calls, attempt to complete a customer task on your website, or — better yet — attend a workshop where you bring in customers for a hands-on working session. I often run into execs who have never actually spoken to a real live customer before, and this approach is incredibly effective at opening up their eyes and helping them understand why they need to drive change.

Once they internalize both the left-brained and right-brained arguments for customer experience, most execs start to walk the talk.

For an agency that has clients who in turn have their own customers, how best do you define the “customer”?

This is a question that many B2B2C companies struggle with. Of course, your immediate client is your customer, and you should work to ensure that your customer has a great experience working with your agency. You’ll be even more effective at helping your clients, however, if you also take into account their customers’ needs (or, if you’re B2B2B2C, your client’s customers’ customers’ needs).

And, just in case it’s not obvious, the business benefits of customer experience and the frameworks you need to be successful are very similar for B2C and B2B companies. Harley wrote a longer answer on the topic of B2B in his Part 1 post yesterday.

I work in information technology, and we’re trying to improve our internal customer experience (our relationship with other employees in other divisions). Is there a difference in how we should approach this objective?

Just as customer experience applies to both business and consumer customers, it also applies to serving internal customers. You can do research on what they want and need from your organization, you can design better interactions, and you can measure how well you’re actually delivering.

Since you’re all working under the same physical or virtual roof, there’s absolutely no reason not to involve your internal customers in the experience design process. I’d also suggest building some camaraderie around customer experience. Show them that you’re in this together and that you ultimately want to partner with them to improve your company’s customers’ experience.

You gave us a link to your customer experience maturity assessment. Will the assessment results remain confidential?

Yes. If you assess your company’s customer experience maturity with the tool we’ve provided at http://forr.com/cxmaturity, the results are yours and yours alone. And, of course, we never share the results of any company that does a maturity assessment as part of a paid consulting engagement with Forrester.

You mentioned three phases on the path to customer experience maturity: Improve the current experience, transform the organization, and sustain the culture. What are the perils of moving to the transformation phase without first setting up a governance discipline in the improve phase?

The practices in the governance discipline supply the referee and the rule book for the game plan you set out in your customer experience strategy. It’s hard to truly transform your organization — and ultimately keep bad experiences from going out the door in the first place — if you haven’t got that referee and rule book in place. To understand why this is so important and to see how this works in practice at the software company Adobe, please check out my blog post: "Governance: The Key To Customer Experience Management."

In large organizations, how do they decide who owns the customer?

Ownership of the customer experience is tricky, because every single person within an organization is responsible in some way for the quality of customer interactions. However, firms that get serious about customer experience soon realize that this isn’t a job that can be done on nights and weekends. They decide that they need to have one or more people looking over customer experience as a full-time gig, and they build out a centralized customer experience team and appoint a chief customer officer (CCO) to take the reins.

In many companies, the CCO acts as an advisor who helps people throughout the company develop customer-centric skills and behaviors, and in other companies (like USAA), everyone who directly touches the customer or creates customer touchpoints reports up to a CCO.

So the big question is: Who becomes CCO? That depends on the organization. Rather than hiring a CCO from the outside, most companies appoint a senior leader from marketing, operations, sales, service, or IT who has already established trust and accountability within the company.

What are the career opportunities related to customer experience?

As I just mentioned, many companies are building out centralized customer experience teams to help guide and advance new customer-centric ways of working across their organizations. So if you’re into change management or just have a passion for customers, a role on a centralized team — anywhere from an individual contributor up to the CCO — might be a good spot for you.

Organizations also need people with more specialized skills to head up customer experience training programs, run VoC programs, design customer interactions, and oversee measurement programs. Sometimes these folks live on that centralized team, and sometimes they’re spread out in various business units or geographies.

Aside from that, anyone in any organization can put a customer experience lens on their own work. If you’re in human resources, finance, legal, or IT, the actions and decisions you make every single day ultimately ripple up to the customers. (You can learn more about how this works in my video about the customer experience ecosystem.)

For a listing of some open customer experience jobs, you should check out the job thread on The Forrester Community For Customer Experience Professionals and the job board of the CXPA.

If you’re interested in watching the recorded webinar and joining the conversation, you can visit forrester.com/outsidein-webinar and then come back to post your questions here.