Last month it was my pleasure to host Forrester’s Forum For Customer Experience Professionals EMEA in London. The theme for the event was “boost your customer experience to the next level,” which we picked because we know that attendees of our events are at widely (sometimes wildly!) different levels of customer experience maturity.

What is “customer experience maturity”? We define it as the extent to which an organization routinely performs the practices required to design, implement, and manage customer experience in a disciplined way. In other words, does the organization apply the same level of business discipline to customer experience as it does to well-established business practices like marketing, logistics, and accounting?

In our study of how companies become mature at the practices in the customer experience discipline, we’ve discovered that successful firms all follow the same path, which passes through four phases:

  • Repair. Companies find broken experiences, fix them, and measure the results.
  • Elevate. Firms start to adopt practices that lead them to deliver sound experiences in the first place.
  • Optimize. Companies become systematic at customer experience practices.
  • Differentiate. Firms reframe business challenges in the context of unmet customer needs, connect innovation ideas to their customer experience ecosystem, and infuse innovations with the brand.

The speakers at our CX Forum EMEA illustrated how this progression is playing out at their companies. Because half of our attendees said that their companies are in the repair phase, let’s start with the example of Gary Sharples, group complaints and transformation director at Barclays Africa Group. Barclays Africa could be the poster child for repair phase excellence.

The company started on its CX repair phase effort because a rising number of customer complaints proved that it had a problem. In January 2013, Barclays Africa received 18,330 customer complaints, 18,270 of which were rejected or closed not in favor of the customer. Were most customers complaining unfairly? No — when the customers with rejected complaints escalated to an ombudsman, on average 50% of the complaints were decided in the customers’ favor. What’s more, the cost of resolving an escalated complaint ran as high as ZAR 7,500 (about $720).

Imagine if just half of those 18,270 rejected customers appealed to the ombudsman, and the average cost of their appeals to Barclays was just half of the maximum amount ($360). The bank would be looking at a run rate of more than $3.2 million per month to cover the cost of the appeals process alone!

The company concluded that it was generating too many complaints, not handling the complaints effectively, wasting money, and making customers unhappy in the process. Lose, lose, lose, and lose.

Barclays’ solution to the problem centered on a disciplined approach to customer experience. It conducted customer-centric research and applied diagnostics to the results. That generated insights that let it to understand the root causes of its problems. It also gave the company the raw material needed to create customer journey maps, touchpoint maps, and environment maps that made the nature of the problems clear to employees — as well as what they needed to do in order to solve those problems.

Finally, Gary and his team hired training firms Blue Sky and Trainiac to change employee behavior. The employees were receptive: For the most part, they wanted to do right by customers but simply hadn’t known how.

The ongoing effort is paying off. As employees learn how to take specific customer-centric actions, Barclays has already measured a 36% year-over-year reduction in customer complaints and a 44% year-over-year increase in compliments.

In future blog posts, I’ll write about some of our other European speakers and how they illustrate other phases of the path to customer experience maturity. For now, I’ll end with a few pieces of advice for all those companies that are in the repair phase of the path to customer experience maturity.

  • Start with a disciplined approach to understanding your customers. Don’t just settle for data (even big data). Go out into the field to interview customers, observe them, and discover what’s really bothering them (and how much).
  • Conduct root cause analysis to discover the things that you do that cause those problems. You’ll probably get a surprise. For example, a complaint about an inaccurate bill is often caused by an accurate bill presented through a poorly designed interface — whether paper or online — that the customer didn’t understand.
  • Measure, measure, measure. Unless you know how big a customer experience problem is and how much money it costs your firm, funding a fix is an uphill battle. And when you do launch a fix, make sure you measure the results. That not only keeps you honest but also builds up a store of data you’ll need to get support when you enter the much more challenging next phase: elevate.