February 7, 2019

Market Analysis

The hidden challenges undermining the customer experience

This article was originally published on CIO.com.

Creating a breakout customer experience is not about technology, but there is also no question that it is often the little technical details that are the difference between it being just a phrase or something that drives meaningful value for your organization.

He traveled all around the world and everywhere he went

He’d use his word and all would say there goes a clever gent

—Lyrics from “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”

In the movie Mary Poppins, everyone’s favorite nanny shared with the world “the word to say when you don’t know what to say.”

Today’s business equivalent of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is “the customer experience.”

The phrase seems to be on the tip of every tongue as the answer to seemingly any question. Just say, “the customer experience” and you’ve got a lot to say!

There are two problems, however, with the way enterprise leaders and industry observers are bandying about this term. First, many of its utterers are using it either amorphously to mean anything and nothing, or they are using it as a synonym for the buying process.

But even if they are using the term correctly, as I’ll explain in a moment, most enterprise leaders are severely underestimating the technical challenges involved in actually delivering the type of differentiated customer experience that we all now expect.

While I will be the first to say that creating a breakout customer experience is not about the technology, there is also no question that it is often the little technical details that are the difference between “the customer experience” being just a word to say and something that drives meaningful value for your organization.

The customer experience is about much more than the sale

The reason that enterprise leaders are so eager to talk about the customer experience is that it is now a primary driver of perceived value in the market.

According to a recent Gartner report, “Eighty-one percent of marketing leaders responsible for customer experience (CX) say their companies will mostly or completely compete on the basis of CX in two years. Yet only 22% say their CX efforts have exceeded customer expectations.”

As the report alludes to, it’s one thing to understand the importance of the experience and another to deliver it.

Part of the problem is that too many organizations see the customer experience as nothing but another name for the buying process. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

As Brian Solis explained in his 2013 book, What’s the Future of Business, the customer journey is now a perpetual cycle that moves through four “moments of truth” that begins with discovery, continues through acquisition and consumption, and begins anew with a customer sharing their history and opinion with others, which often intersects with someone else’s first moments of truth.

The buying process is neither the beginning nor the end of the customer experience.

This fact becomes essential as organizations seek to compete based on the experience — and lays bare some of the challenges with delivering it. When the customer journey transcends every aspect of their engagement with you, the technical stakes become monumental.

The technical complexities of delivering a breakout experience

While there are elements of the customer experience that happen in a non-digital manner, the number of interactions that don’t have some digital component is continually decreasing.

The challenge, however, is that many enterprises see the customer experience as a non-technical discussion and isolate them from the technical conversations about delivering various elements of an enterprise’s services.

When we recognize that the experience is, in fact, a cyclical journey that encompasses all four moments of truth, the challenge with this divide becomes clear.

With the customer experience transcending the purchase and extending throughout the consumption life cycle, even arcane technical nuances can become relevant to it.

For instance, consider domain name services (aka DNS), the Internet’s distributed directory of domain names that DNS servers translate into IP addresses. Most organizations see DNS as nothing more than a binary, on-or-off service. Everyone knows that if DNS fails, no one can get to your site using normal domain names (exhibit A: the Dyn DNS outage in 2016).

But what about DNS performance? Can it have it have an impact on the customer experience?

You bet.

According to its recent Global DNS Performance Report, network intelligence firm ThousandEyes makes the case that the selection of an organization’s DNS provider, which is often a technical decision made deep in the bowels of an IT team, can have a meaningful impact on the experience.

“DNS is still a bit of a ‘dark art’ that many IT practitioners and leaders pay little attention to, not understanding that its performance and security can significantly impact digital experience,” explained ThousandEyes’ Angelique Medina.

The report found that many enterprises are relying on a single DNS provider, leaving them vulnerable to a significant impact in the event of a DNS failure. More than the question of resiliency, however, the report also found considerable disparity in DNS resolution time between providers.

As several recent studies have found, each second of delay at any point of interaction now has a potentially negative experiential impact. As a result, even something as technical and mundane as DNS resolution now matters.

Now multiply this scenario across hundreds or thousands of these minor technical nuances and the potential negative — or positive — impact to the customer experience becomes meaningful.

The cloud is not an experiential panacea

Thinking through all of the technical details that can impact the customer experience can you give you a headache — and it’s only getting more onerous as the complexity of the enterprise technology stack grows.

It’s natural, therefore, for enterprise leaders to want to offload some of this headache. The most logical way of doing that, it would seem, is by moving production workloads to the cloud.

On the surface, it makes sense.

Cloud providers like Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure have huge teams dedicated to optimizing their infrastructure and, the logic goes, will be able to do so across the massive number of customer touchpoints better than any enterprise team.

The cloud, therefore, equals modern. And modern must equal a better customer experience, right?

Probably not.

Even if an enterprise re-platforms its entire application stack to make it cloud-native that will not necessarily create a better experience. Moving to the cloud, in and of itself, is experience agnostic.

And while moving to the cloud offers many advantages — including optimization — it comes at a price: you no longer control the full experience. Another report from ThousandEyes, for instance, showed wild discrepancies in latency between cloud providers, and between different regions of the same providers. The reason: cloud providers chose when and where to hand-off traffic.

As reported by The Register, AWS has even introduced a service called Global Accelerator that enables you to keep traffic on their network, giving you this control, but at a cost.

In addition to losing a certain degree of control, the very nature of the cloud can introduce another set of experience challenges, if left unchecked.

The ability to rapidly instantiate, deploy, and then, just as quickly, turn down environments, and even full application stacks, offers organizations a significant amount of flexibility and agility. But without effective management, this transiency can wreak havoc on the customer experience as it complicates integrations that are the threads that connect the various elements of a customer’s journey.

This potential lack of rock-solid business, process, and technical integration is neither the fault, nor responsibility of cloud providers. It does, however, point to the fact that merely moving to the cloud does not improve the customer experience, and can even hurt it if you aren’t paying attention to the details.

The key to customer experience nirvana: the details

Organizations must transform themselves around the customer experience. This much is clear.

If there is one thing that will undermine that effort, however, it will be that they underestimate the undertaking.

To begin with, a customer experience transformation must occur across multiple dimensions. It demands the reimagining of business models, the reshaping of corporate culture, and the willingness to overturn long-held management approaches to reorient them around this new driver of value.

Underlying each of these, however, is a technical mosh pit that is at once becoming more complex and more critical.

Moreover, just as we must see the customer experience as a series of interconnected experiential moments, the ability to deliver and sustain that experience from a technical perspective will demand that enterprises pay attention to each of the hidden, little details that may impact any of these moments in even the smallest way.

It is not for the faint of heart.

But for all of the intricacy that delivering such an experience demands, it offers, in return, a massive opportunity for those organizations who can master it across its technical, organizational and cultural dimensions.

The question merely becomes, will you use the term “the customer experience” as just that thing you say when you have nothing else to say. Or will you do the hard organizational, cultural, and technical work of bringing it to life?

[Disclosure: ThousandEyes is an Intellyx client.]

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