We spend a lot of time talking about customer experience design. There is some value to it, but there is also great danger (and arrogance) in it. We cannot possibly design the customer’s experience, we can only design how we engage the customer for those parts of their experience that involve us.
The customer experience is theirs, and it’s different for each customer (individual). The customer experience is not isolated to “this buying decision” or to their experience with us. The customer’s experience started years ago, perhaps even before they even became aware of us or our company’s existed. The customer’s experience will continue long after “this buying decision” has passed, regardless of whether they do business with us or not.
How an individual buys is a complex process that reaches back into time. It’s a combination of their past buying experiences-all of them, their experience and understanding of products and solutions in the same categories as ours. Impressions they’ve gotten directly and indirectly. Things that we may have never been involved in, but which shape their experiences and their perception of their experience with us.
Take an example. I hate dentists–not as people, but I hate going to the dentist. I can trace much of my attitude back to a terrible experience I had when I was 19 years old. It’s been influenced by my wife, she had a series of very bad experiences with a dentist 15 years ago, in another city. It’s further reinforced by things I read, what I’ve heard, and so forth. So I hate the whole experience of dentists. A few years ago, we switched dentists. The previous one wasn’t bad, I just never liked the experience-not because of what he was doing–it was just cleaning my teeth and examining them. But the baggage I brought shaped my experience with him created no loyalty to him–despite what he was doing.
So my first appointment with the new dentist. I got there because my wife had gone through some complex procedures with this new dentist and loved him and the staff. Several friends also said the same thing. I go to the appointment, I sit down in the chair, he walks in and says, “Hi Dave, I’m Dr……, How are you?”
Shy as I am, always reluctant to let my feelings or opinions show, I replied, “We’ve never met, but I hate you, I hate this experience, let’s just get it over with!”
Not put off, he asked, “Tell me about your past experiences.” We went on and talked. He asked great questions about my history with dentists. I told him how that experience when I was 19 years old shaped my worldview of the dental profession. I told him how my wife’s experiences 15 years ago reinforced them. He asked about my experiences with dentists since 19. I said they weren’t great, but weren’t bad. We went through everything.
We talked about the experience I was creating now, he knew that I was already biased, we talked about changing the experience. He knew I was shaping the experience in a certain way. He was engaging me, trying to influence and change the experience I was creating. He told me how he worked, he asked me to help him improve my experience, We talked a lot about what the ideal experience could be and how he and I could create it.
So that was several years ago. I still hate dentists–but I love this one and his staff. I actually look forward to my semiannual checkups and teeth cleaning. The experience we have created with each other has been fantastic. I recommend him without hesitation. And I will use this dentist forever–even if it means I have to fly across country to see him. How’s that for loyalty?
What was different? Well he engaged me in thinking about the experience I was creating. Working together, we created a great experience. If I reflect, my visits aren’t a whole lot different from those with other dentists, but the experience is profoundly different. A major part is that he realized my “experience” was not just limited to the visits to his office. Rather, they had to do with all the experiences and views I had of dentists to date. He had completely changed the context of my customer experience.
We can design how we engage our customers, but they create and design their own experience. Possibly the largest part of the customer experience may have nothing to do with their direct involvement with us–but we are more effective when we understand their whole experience. As we start thinking about the customer experience we have to think about: What past experience have they had (directly or indirectly), what other experiences are they having which impact their experience with us right now—what are they hearing from others, what experiences are they going through with our competitors, what are they seeing on the web, and so forth?
Customers design their own customer experience. We can just influence a part of that experience, but we can still create positive experiences in the parts of their experience that we touch.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.