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What Is Customer Experience Design And How Can You Approach It?

Customer Experience (CX) is all the rage these days. Even though nobody can agree on what it means to “do CX”, that doesn’t keep business leaders from saying they’re fully on board with the program. 

If that makes the whole thing sound like TQM, open-space offices, and delayering, you could be excused for approaching the concept with skepticism, as with any latest LinkedIn-driven trend.

But let’s talk about actually doing stuff and taking a more real-world and, dare I say, engineering approach to the discipline of CX. 

In other words, let’s talk about customer experience design.

What Is Customer Experience Design?

Customer experience design is the process of intentionally designing experiences throughout the customer journey. It takes explicit and deliberate effort to create just what you want to happen, at all points of customer interactions, in a specifically designed system of operational CX meant to drive better customer engagement.  

Yes, that’s going to entail a function within your company that’s dedicated to ensuring you deliver on your brand promise.

But don’t worry, there’s actually a way to “do CX” that is quite executional in nature and has moving parts that produce results.

You can apply this throughout your organization and address service design, UX design, digital experience, user experience, and customer experience management… the entire customer ecosystem. 

I’m talking about a no-kidding customer experience strategy. All these components that are necessary to create a holistic customer experience are tougher to wrangle if they’re done willy-nilly, or by each of a few different departments staying ‘in their lanes.’ 

That’s why it’s good to have an overarching, strategic approach that will guide the efforts of all these organizations and teams.

But you’ve got to start in the right frame of mind because you won’t get another bite at this apple if you get it wrong.

How To Approach Customer Experience Design

Designing the customer experience takes an organization-wide effort. It involves mapping out the customer journey from start to finish (customer journey mapping), listening to them, putting yourself in their shoes, and figuring out how you can meet customer needs and eliminate pain points at each touchpoint.

This treats the customer experience as a product in itself, to be worked on by the entire organization. 

Therefore, to truly design a great customer experience, it’s worth taking a little time to determine why you’re “doing CX” in the first place.

Brand Alignment: why you’re doing CX in the first place

So, I’m either going to bust a myth or totally annoy (perhaps both) right out of the gate here with a frank statement: if you’re “doing CX” because it’s been proposed as a golden key to driving sales and revenue, you’ve got it wrong before you’ve even begun.  

There are several reasons why, and I’ve outlined a few of them in the book I wrote on the topic (which, unironically, is titled, We’re Doing CX Wrong...And How To Get It Right). 

But the most glaring is this: if someone (likely an outside consultant or someone in your marketing department) had to convince you as the leader that you should “do CX” by telling you that it’ll bury you in cash, guess what? You’re going to turn into a hypocrite.

That’s because you’re about to turn around and tell your whole company something along the lines of, “we’re instituting this ‘huge CX thing’ because we value and treasure our customers first and foremost and above all other things!” 

Really? 

You just admitted you’re doing it because it’s going to drive cash into your accounts.  

Love your customers?

Of course, you do, but only because they’re the ones with the money. 

At about 4 pm every day, my dog has a similar outburst of ardor and affection for me; a bowlful of kibble later and it’s back to chasing squirrels.

What’s more, if the whole ‘huge CX thing’ is predicated on some sort of magical promise that simply “doing” it will turn you into Scrooge McDuck diving into his piles of coins, probably any series of meaningless initiatives and handwaving will convince you you’re doing...well, something CX-ish. 

Stack it up there with TQM and all the rest, and don’t be surprised when it pays off just as well.

But here’s the sticking point about CX design: to get it right, you have to start with your purpose for doing it in the first place.  

And that purpose is just as fundamental to your corporate strategy as everything else you do, from engineering to accounts receivable to HR to, yes, marketing.

You have a set of corporate values and principles, a place you endeavor to hold in the lives of your customers. Your purpose, if you will. Tie your CX efforts to that purpose (and unhitch them from the bottom line) and watch them flourish.

Let’s be honest, the theory behind the money-grubbing reasons for “doing CX” is actually pretty solid. 

Take care of your customers and they’ll be back, probably buy more, and possibly bring their friends. 

I’m not going to pretend I’ve busted that myth. But there’s an old saying that, if you want to change perception, start with changing reality. 

Be customer-centric for its own sake (y’know, because you believe in it), and they’ll realize it at each of your customer touchpoints throughout the entire lifecycle. 

Your profits will follow, but don’t degrade something as meaningful as, oh, I don’t know...living up to your values and principles by insisting that they yield a defendable ROI through proven “customer loyalty.”

Make improving your Brand Promise Alignment, the reason you’re doing CX, and it’ll drive not only the following operational functions but also provide a North Star when you need to make decisions that impact your customers.

Insights—where it all begins

I wrote in an earlier article that there really are two steps to CX:

  1. Figure out what you’re screwing up
  2. Fix it. 

I’ll get to that second step in a minute, but it’s kind of hard to fix things if you don’t know where you’re going wrong. So customer experience design starts with customer insights.

Conversely, lots of folks will institute a Voice of the Customer (VoC) program and call it a day. 

Whew, boy, doing CX is a lot of work... look at all this great customer feedback and user research we have! Check out these customer satisfaction numbers!  

As I’ll demonstrate in a bit, that’s a huge waste of your money and your customers’ time.

But let’s also first acknowledge that a lot of people consider surveys the only source of customer insights.  

Gathering insights, it’s more than just surveys

In certain circumstances this over-reliance on surveys is the worst choice a brand can make. Depending on the customer or client base, surveys may not even make any sense.

If you’re a B2B organization and you’re sending out surveys about your service to your clients, how do you know that the person responding is even someone with experience with your brand?  

My point is, look for other ways of discovering your customers’ perspectives on how well you’re delivering on your brand promise. 

When you move from “doing CX” for the sake of simply doing CX (yeah, and those piles of money that’ll inevitably fall on you), and open yourself up to the purpose of the whole endeavor, you’ll likely come up with all sorts of creative sources for your customer insights.

I can rattle off a few of them (interviews, focus groups, social media listening, secret shoppers, walking in the customers’ shoes, etc.), but it’s even better to let your curious sideshow.  

Keep in mind that what you’re looking for specifically are ways in which the things that you do get in the way of delivering on your brand promise in the eyes of your customers. 

I guarantee you that, if you think about it for more than ten minutes, you’ll easily come to the conclusion that Net Promotor Score (NPS) or C-SAT are not going to work for you. 

As far as surveys go, I invented the Brand Alignment Score (wherein you ask your customers more explicitly how you’re doing there). But, even then, it’s just a top-level KPI and doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about why you’re missing the mark or what you can do to improve.

If you’re doing CX because you want to drive (that’s a verb, so hold that thought...) brand promise alignment, your customer insights program takes on a huge and more impactful meaning.

Process engineering—baby, you can drive my CX program

Okay, that driving.

Like I said if you’re “doing CX” either because it’s what everybody’s doing, or because you’ve been promised a deluge of new revenue, it’s likely you haven’t really thought enough about it for it to make much of a difference.

That’s why there’s an unending parade of brands so wedded to NPS or C-SAT that it keeps afloat a cottage industry of CX consultants who’ll gladly take tons of money in order to plot a new dot at the end of a graph every week for consumption by leaders who then move on to the next slide.

These CEOs will pat themselves on the back and take congratulations for “doing CX” and being just so very customer-centric. 

But in reality, they’re not doing anything, least of all not with their beloved “metrics.”

Taking the insights you receive from your various VoC endeavors and then putting dedicated effort into moving them to a better place—by changing what you do to better align your brand promise with your customers’ experiences—is the whole engine of a deliberately designed CX program.  

Process engineering (wherein you can leverage Six Sigma, Lean, Design Thinking, Kaizen, Agile, and every or any other tool you’d like) is where the rubber meets the road.

Anything less is a half-baked, hand-waving attempt to make believe you’re doing something.

Analyze your VoC/insights data and dig to find out the most common or most dramatically impactful way in which what you do is distracting your customers from why you say you do it. 

Determine the ways in which your current policies, processes, rules, and even entire systems are interfering with your brand alignment. Then get some Six Sigma Black Belts, Lean experts, Change Management gurus, and your whole cadre of doing business better practitioners and set them loose to improve how you do business. 

For that matter, integrate these insights into your overall design process.

What’s funny is that, in doing this, you’re actually saving resources. 

For all the money, time, effort, and energy some brands put into their VoC programs, it’s heartbreaking to see so many of them waste it all by sitting on the insights that come out of it.

If you’re not doing something from a Process Engineering (PE) perspective with the output of your customer insights system, your CX program is a waste of money and your customer’s time.

Also, if, as the leader, you’re not acting on the insights you gain from your VoC work, you’re also sending a very clear message to your team: “I don’t really believe in any of this crap... I’m merely talking the talk.”  

Which leads me to...

A customer-centric culture: here’s a T-shirt

Designing your CX systems also takes the right mindset. You have to develop a truly customer centric culture as well. 

I rail all the time on t-shirts and mousepads and other culture paraphernalia. 

These sort of outward displays of “loving our customers!” and “providing a positive experience for our customers!” are useless and even a bit cynical if that’s the entirety of your CX program. 

Tossing out keychains, and paying some CX guru five figures to come to your all-hands meeting and deliver a 20-minute harangue about how you have to “WOW!” all your customers at every touchpoint, is a sorry substitute for proper customer experience design in line with your brand promise.

Yes, these things have their place, as do your own admonitions to your team to put customer experience at the heart of everything you do. Sure. 

But you also need executable ways of developing a truly customer-centric culture. 

The way to do that has three components: Enablement, Empowerment, and Encouragement.

Enablement

You know the frustration of placing phone calls to a customer support help desk and the person there simply doesn’t have the capacity, knowledge, or even the tools to help you.  

In fairness, sometimes your need is a bit more specialized and, naturally, brands require a Level II and Level III support capability not in the front-line workflow.  

But, if you are looking for tracking on a package you’ve ordered, in need of a credit card refund, or making a simple billing inquiry, the first person with whom you speak representing that brand should be able to do these simple things for you.

For that matter, if CX is truly everybody’s job, then every member of every team throughout your organization should have all the tools at the ready required to do his or her job of delivering that Brand Promise to your customers. 

If you’re pouring money into your insights and PE programming, and not finding the time to simply provide everybody with the proper tools, take a step back and consider how much easier all of this can be if everybody had what they needed. 

And no, it’s not just about automation.

Empowerment

It’s said that possession is nine-tenths of the law.  

Sure but, in the world of delivering on your brand promise, simply having the right tools isn’t nearly enough if your team members aren’t authorized to use them. 

Your contact center agents may have the greatest tools they could wish for but, if every incident requires an escalation, you’re surely wasting money on licenses for software. 

But it’s not just about them, keep in mind, we’re talking about culture here. If your engineers and product design teams are not led by customer-centric people, efficiencies and cost savings are probably more important to them than conceiving of new designs that make your product or service more amenable to delivering your brand promise. 

If new ideas in these departments, born of a truly customer-centric desire for better brand alignment, are shot down by upper management (or worse, never see the light of day thanks to a stifling environment), don’t kid yourself: you’re not running a customer-centric organization.  

Tell everybody what’s what when it comes to your brand promise (and how that’s your goal for “doing CX”), and then get out of the way and allow everybody at every level to deliver for your Customers.

Encouragement

That sort of walking-the-talk approach goes much farther in encouraging your teams to be customer-centric, and deliver a great customer experience than all the balloons or half-day workshops with beer in the afternoon could ever deliver.  

As the leader, after all, people listen to what you do more than to what you say. Simply prioritizing your PE efforts, based on where your brand alignment gaps are, speaks volumes as to what’s important to you and your company. 

Highlighting the wins in that arena also plays a huge part. And yes, there is a legitimate role for the banners and t-shirts in this program. But they’ll have an even more impact (and people will likely actually wear those t-shirts and mean it) if they’re backed up by action and not simply symbols.

Get Out There

Customer experience design takes a concerted effort throughout an organization.

I’ve built this framework (Brand Alignment, Insights, Process Engineering, and CX Culture) because there’s a lacking in executable structure to “do CX” out there. 

This may not work for everybody, but it’s at least a start. You may not need an entire division with VPs and directors and all the overhead. 

It’s totally scalable, however, and even more importantly, it’s deliberate and designed to perfect your Brand Experience and align those customer expectations with what you say you’re all about.  

And it’s doing something based on a true CX strategy.

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By Nicholas Zeisler

Nicholas “Z” Zeisler is a Fractional Chief Customer Officer and principal at Zeisler Consulting. His experience includes having been a Fortune-100 CX executive, an independent consultant, keynote speaker and author. His clients have ranged from tech to insurance to healthcare to fashion and retail. When he’s not kicking ass and ruffling feathers in the CX domain, he’s serving the US Air Force Reserves as a professor of Statistics at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

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