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I’m often asked to advise organizations and individuals who are seeking to improve the customer experience of using their products and services. One of the most common questions is:

Where do I start to make improvements to the customer experience?”

Typically there’s a huge list of issues - frustrated customers, inconsistencies across services, and a desire to create joy with new initiatives.

Alongside the wish-list, there's limited time, little money and few resources to work with.

And all the while, the organization you are in, keeps moving forward, like a ship sailing into a storm.

Sirens: The Seductive (Ineffective) Short Cut To Improve Customer Experience

Solutions to all these customer experience problems can come from many places:

  • Quick wins.
  • Requirements lists.
  • eature backlogs.
  • Product roadmaps. 
  • Consultant decks.
  • Innovation labs.
  • Executive off-sites.
  • The Shower.

Solutions are seductive: They can often be clear, actionable, achievable, and attractive.

You can just start delivering, right?

But be careful - some solutions are sirens, and their songs can lure the unwary to their demise! Siren solutions seduce you, draw you in, and quickly suck away your time, resources and efforts, all the while the ship you are on keeps heading straight towards the rocks.

If you know what you're looking for, you can spot sirens in the waters ahead.

In short, solutions that cannot or will not articulate how they can deliver business value AND customer value are the sirens - Do not listen to their songs!

Sirens come in many forms:

  • Pet sirens - These cute little solutions seem simple and harmless. They just sit around, offering to fill idle time while teams are waiting for something bigger. They are often initiatives driven by senior leadership, or tenured staff who are getting bored with their lot. A pretty, interactive annual report, a new set of icons for the intranet. Junior teams are often overwhelmed by these: They need to be kept busy, they cannot yet be trusted to add real value, and they aren't able to ask the right questions.
  • Vanity sirens - The most beautiful solutions often wear disguises. Perhaps a sheen of innovation - a new technology that no-one quite understands but really must be important. AI! IOT! Blockchain! BleepTwig! It's unclear what business or customer problem they are solving, but that's how start-ups work, right? Marketing teams are often buried in these, as their boutique agencies can only stay current by spending clients' money.
  • Zombie sirens - These hideous solutions just keep coming back to life. They are projects that seem to be complete, but then they rise up again. Process improvements often fall into this category - offering no discernable customer value, yet requiring continuous resources and time.
  • Groupthink sirens - The most dangerous of all, these solutions come at you in large numbers, and often from the top down. Organizational restructures, technological modernization, and HR fantasies can all lead to disaster if the action is not towards a clear, valuable outcome for the business and it's customers.
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Lighthouses: The Challenging Reality Of Improving Your Customer Experience

You can implement strategies and software to manage your customer experience. But to focus beyond the sirens, there's four lighthouses that can guide you into clearer waters:

Lighthouse 1: See the things you do that hurt your customers

Have your customers shine a light on your organizational design problems.

Observing and listening to real customers on a regular basis will shine a glaring light aspects of the customer experience that can be tied directly back to organizational or operational design issues.

A great way to develop your research here is to focus on the different kinds of gaps that can result in poor experiences:

gaps that contribute to poor experiences infographic

From here, a service blueprint can be a useful guide to communicate issues, and inform future change. A service blueprint connects the core foundations of your business with the surface experience of your customers. It shows the interconnectedness between the organization’s vision and intention, systems, processes, people, and customer touch-points, and how each interaction is enabled (or not!) by your organization.

simplified service blueprint components infographic

Importantly, working in this way avoids getting buried in internal politics and fiefdoms.

It's not about you. It's about the customer.

If you look close enough, there should not be one single part of an organization that does not impact the customer experience - otherwise, why do they exist?

Lighthouse 2: See how much unhappy customers hurt your business

Illuminate the business value that can be gained by making experience improvements.

If you’re not sure how to prioritize your improvement efforts, remember this:

It’s vastly easier to get existing customers to buy from you again.

So start by focusing on the issues that affect your Customer Lifetime Value. A combination of keymeasures such as: revenue-per-customer, churn rates, and advocacy scores.

(Watch out for the other sirens of vanity metrics. Likes, shares, reblogs, page-views, bounce-rates - even conversion rates - these can all lead you astray if you don't look for the real impacts.)

This can feel like a scary area to tread, but in my experience it’s often surprisingly simple to map an operational inefficiency to its impact on a real metric, and you may not need razor-precision if that's what is holding you back. If it's apparent that the impact of a change is in the region of 10X or 100X the cost of the fix, then clearly it's worth doing. And if your CFO can see the cost of NOT making a change in these terms, this is a more compelling motivator than an expensive-sounding project budget request.

In short - keep the customers you already have.

Lighthouse 3. See that your people are the only ones who can make customers happier

An organization is only as good as the people that power it. So find the people who can make changes and enable them to do the right thing.

Focus your efforts to improve where there’s the power to change, the means to change and the people who can own the change. Then find specific, achievable projects. Start small, work fast, track improvements and communicate wins.

How to find the projects worth doing first:

  1. Contained - Ensure the project falls within the team's responsibility to deliver. Without a clearly contained project, it can be tricky to keep momentum going to get things done.
  2. Desirable and valuable - Look for a customer experience and customer service improvements that can measurably drive the biggest multiplier of business value compared to the cost of the solution. Aim for 10X.
  3. Doable - The project can be delivered with the time and resources you have available. (See3.)

It's hugely important that the vision comes from the top, but in my experience whether you’re the CEO or the leader of a small team, if you set out a clear vision that ties customer experience quality to business value and you can enable others to realize that vision with clear guidance and resources - you’ll get results. 

It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s far easier to guide people to change themselves than it is to force a change from the top down. 

(Related to this, a great example of guidance to drive results are the design principles from the UK government, a powerful guiding light for teams working to shift citizens to online services that are cheaper, simpler and even preferred over their offline counterparts.)

Lighthouse 4: Show others how making happier customers makes better business

Gaining momentum is critical to instrumenting wider organizational change, so this lighthouse you have to build yourself. As a leader you need to light a path for others to follow.

Once you've had a win, be sure to communicate success outwards and upwards in your organization.

Whether it takes the form or report, an executive dashboard (watch for sirens here too!), a presentation or a simple conversation, the key is to always frame successes in terms of how a better customer experience drives a key business impact.

They say a rolling stone gathers no moss - Well, in my experience it's also true that people tend to get out of the way of rocks that are large, and rolling with enough momentum!

Enough about rocks. Back to the nautical metaphor - Full ahead!

Plain sailing

Although it’s a wonderful feeling to truly make customers happy, remember that customer experience matters because it makes your organization more valuable in an increasingly competitive world.

If you use these four lighthouses to guide you, you'll avoid the call of the sirens and focus your efforts on solutions that make customers happier AND drive business value.

By Warren Anthony

Warren is a design leader working to improve our experiences with products, services and systems by putting people first. He leads the Experience Design practice at EY Vancouver, working with clients including the City of Vancouver, the Government of Canada and Microsoft. He's an active contributor as part of EY's Global Future Consumer and Future Cities teams. In previous lives he led strategy, UX and digital design teams at DDB London and FCV Vancouver scooping major awards for work with Hasbro, Volkswagen and Philips.