Customer experience is a top priority for executives – 89% of companies expect to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience, and by the year 2020 customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.

And yet, many organizations don’t have a clear strategy for how to create a cohesive, robust customer experience strategy, one that looks beyond touchpoints and even customer journeys to think strategically about where to make investments of scarce time and resources that pay off in business results.

One of the biggest problems is that customer touchpoints live in many different siloed parts of the organization. The call center, physical store, product design, advertising – each department interacts with the customer in a different part of the lifecycle and has tools, data, and touchpoints optimized for that particular touchpoint. What suffers is the seamless customer experience, something that all too often lives only as a glimmer of a dream.

My belief is that we can, and should, do better on behalf of our customers. There are three major components to creating a customer experience strategy, one that makes strategic trade-offs to drive business results.

Understanding Your Next Generation Customer

The first component of the customer experience strategy is to understand your customers’ objectives, continuously and at a granular level. The key here is to understand what those objectives are today – and also how they will change and evolve in the future. Your customers never stand still, and neither should your understanding of their objectives and journeys.

This means that customer research is done on a continuous, rather than episodic, basis. Traditionally, customer journey mapping has been difficult and tedious, so we tended to do it sporadically and only for a few personas that represented different types of customers. But with plentiful data available, we can take a different approach, one that not only taps real-time data to understand the context of a customer experience but also understands it at far greater granularity, down even to the individual level.

Take for example the task of customer journey mapping. Surveys, interviews, ethnographic studies, etc. all play an important part in understanding the decision making process. But observing behavior, especially online, provides even more insights. For example, Jumpshot, an audience analytics company, tracks what people do not only on a particular site, but also the 99% of the time they spend elsewhere on the Internet. With panel data going back years, they can also analyze how journeys have changed over time, and what influences played a role in that change.

Another powerful approach is to understand the underlying beliefs – the narrative – that drives behavior and decisions. Protagonist uses machine learning to help digest huge amounts of user-generated content (blogs, posts, comments, tweets, etc.) to distill common relationships and identify the underlying narratives. While the actual narrative analysis is done by humans, machine learning takes that analysis and helps identify when similar narratives are being used. Understanding the narratives of your customers allows you to identify gaps, creating the opportunity to better align with those beliefs. It also helps identify how narratives are changing and in transition.

For example, patients used to be incredibly loyal to their physicians. But there is an emerging narrative with some patient groups where convenience and availability of care are more important than seeing the same doctor. Understanding how the narrative around doctor-patient relationship is changing is crucial if you want to build a robust strategy for your next generation customer.

Relationships, Not Journeys Or Touchpoints, Define The Strategy

The second element of the strategy is to look at customer experience through the lens of relationships, rather than individual touchpoints or even journeys. In my research, I’ve found that this is the only way to link customer experience strategy to brand strategy, and ultimately to business strategy. You are what you measure, so when you measure customer experience on how it adds or detracts to the overall relationship, it provides a connection (albeit, sometimes indirect) to business results.

Here’s an example: Optimizing a call center interaction to 1) minimize wait time, 2) minimize total time on the call, or 3) maximize customer satisfaction will create three different sets of outcomes and decisions on investments, respectively 1) hire more people to reduce wait times, 2) invest in training or technology to reduce call time, or 3) empower call center staff to do whatever it takes to make customers happy. You can go broke creating a customer experience if you optimize on any of these three experiences!

If instead you optimize based on the lifetime value of the customer, customer satisfaction, or Net Promotor Score (NPS) – which all reflect the value of the relationship – you get a different perspective that considers how experiences add up over time to impact the customer relationship. It puts a premium on consistency and forces you to look at the entire customer experience, across journeys, and over time.

Focusing on relationships also has the added benefit of aligning goals, metrics and measurement against business objectives. A key part of the strategy is a set of guiding principles that can serve as a guide for making strategic trade-offs. Do we invest in the call center training or develop a mobile app? Without those guiding principles, decisions are made based on which department advocates the most for their particular touchpoint. Good customer experience objectives clearly align with brand and business objectives, and clarify how day-to-day activities and decisions roll up into the overall strategy.

Prioritizing Easy

The third part of the strategy is identifying and prioritizing the initiatives that you will do to accomplish your customer experience objectives. And just as importantly, clarifying what you WON’T do. The most difficult part about this is that there are SO many bright shiny technologies we could use to create unique, compelling experiences – virtual reality, chatbots, hologram kiosks, robots… the list’s ever-growing and seemingly endless.

The reality is that customers simply want things to be easy. The Economist Intelligence Unit found that the two most important elements of the ideal customer experience were 1) fast response to enquiries or complaints; and 2) simple purchasing processes. These are basic table stakes – if you don’t do these two things well, then nothing else you do matters.

But what about ‘delighting’ customers? In my research, I looked for examples of strategies that create experiences that bring joy, happiness, and delight to customers. What I found was that customers experienced joy, happiness, and delight from things being easy. There was a sense that the organization had mindreading skills and could anticipate the next action that would make things easy for them.

For example, a friend recently described an experience with United Airlines. He is an elite frequent flyer and was signed into, trying to book a trip. Unable to figure something out, he called United on his mobile phone. The agent answered, “Hello, thank you for being a Mileage Plus 1K member. I see that you were recently on our site searching for a trip. Are you calling about that trip?”

My friend was floored and I was too. What United did was to prioritize this particular audience (high value frequent fliers) with a particular scenario (moving from Web to phone) that required linking two data centers and systems, as well as the call center scripts and procedures. This isn’t an overwhelming difficult integration to make, but it is hard to execute because it requires cross-department and cross-channel coordination. They knew they couldn’t break down the silos so instead, they created little windows just big enough for the right data “light” to move back and forth.

Silos and their competing agendas are what makes prioritizing easy seem simple, but is extremely difficult to do. Which “easy” do you do first to maximize the relationship? With which audiences? For this reason, customer experience strategy must sit with the most senior executive who can pull together the departments and groups needed to execute the strategy. In one organization I interviewed, the CEO created a new position and had all customer-facing departments (Marketing, Sales, Service, Product) report into the Chief Customer Officer. Absent that role, the logical owner of the customer experience strategy is the CEO, who can ensure that it supports the overall business strategy.

This is not as far-fetched as it seems. CEOs already recognize that their fortunes could rise or fall from a single customer experience. United Airlines may have delighted my friend, but much of that goodwill was erased when Dr David Dao was dragged off of his United flight. Guiding principles, created with the customer relationship at the center of the strategy, may have helped prevent that incident from ever happening.


A next generation customer experience strategy must understand and address the objectives of a dynamic customer who is ever changing. Traditional organizations hoping to keep up with these fast-moving customers will need to define and align the strategy and governance around the customer relationship. Technologies will come and go. Experiences will fade into the background. And all that will remain is a customer relationship, a feeling and belief that the organization will be there for you when you need it.