Guest Post: Three Things Every Business Needs to Create Great Customer Experiences

“Why do I think this bicycle looks cool?” 
“Why do I love this cafe so much?”
“What annoys me about this website?”

In the early stages of my career I analyzed my interactions with brands, products or services, looking for common themes — a crazy-making activity that eventually led to my first book, The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences. In recent years, however, I’ve pondered a different question.

What makes creating great customer experiences so difficult in practice?

Why is it, for example, that people can instinctively do things that make a friend, partner, or even a total stranger feel special or welcome in their personal lives, yet in a professional capacity — such as staff on a shop floor or contact center agents, for example — those same people often cannot do the same for customers?

And why is it that many small businesses are capable of providing exceptional service, yet many large companies with far greater resources at their disposal find this impossible?

The truth is, while large enterprises have many advantages over small ones — bigger budgets, professional training, and subject matter experts among them — they also have disadvantages. And as a business scales or an individual switches from a personal to professional context, they typically lose three things that are essential to creating exceptional customer experiences: psychological proximity, autonomy, and skin in the game.

Three Things Every Business Needs to Create Great Customer Experiences

1. Psychological proximity

Developing a rich and nuanced understanding of customers’ needs is easier when we run a small business because we tend to interact with them more closely.

This psychological proximity diminishes as an organization grows and decision-making becomes analytic rather than empathetic, making it harder to anticipate or satisfy customer needs and the customer experience suffers as a consequence.

How can we regain this psychological proximity?

Easy. More qualitative research with real customers, less gazing at dashboards of metrics. Less time behind a desk, more time in the field. Cultivate an innate understanding of customers’ needs and you’ll be far better placed to serve them.

2. Autonomy

When you run your own business you have much greater autonomy. You can improvise, respond to unique needs, or take advantage of unexpected opportunities to surprise and delight — just as we might do if we’re hosting a dinner party.

For employees within most large organizations however, it’s a different story.

On a recent flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen, I asked a member of the cabin crew for a cup of milk for my three-year-old son. I figured my chances were good — they had an open bottle of milk in their hand at the time.

Alas, my request was denied — they were not allowed. Yep. A fully-functioning, professional adult, responsible for the safety of hundreds of passengers hurtling through the sky in a compressed metal tube could not pour a cup of milk at their own discretion.

By contrast, employees at some notable tech companies are encouraged to spend a proportion of their time working on their own projects — Gmail started life this way, for example — and Ritz Carlton employees are encouraged to seize the initiative when opportunities to elevate the guest experience present themselves.

These businesses recognize that empowering employees allows them to do a better job and makes their work life more enjoyable.

Everybody wins: the customer, the company, and the employees themselves of course.

3. Skin in the game

Anyone who runs a small business is exposed to the consequences of their decisions — good and bad. The same is true in our personal lives. What goes around comes around.

Yet within large organizations people often experience little downside from doing a poor job, nor any tangible upside from exceptional performance. Unless there is already a strong cultural precedent to follow, how can we expect employees to appreciate the importance of providing a great customer experience if they remain unaffected either way, or worse, still are incentivized in other ways?

This is a broader, more challenging issue to address and has broad implications for leadership, culture, hiring, remuneration, training and performance measurement among others. But a good starting point is to consider what behaviors are currently incentivized, how their performance is measured, and how well they align to our customer experience goals.

With these insights in hand, we can consider how we might close the gaps.

If we can encourage the right behaviours, empower employees to seize the initiative, and cultivate a deep, empathic understanding of our customers wants and needs, we may find that our CX ambitions take care of themselves.

Good luck, and Happy New Year!