It Was, Is and Always Will Be about Empowerment

Does anyone pay for mobile ring tones anymore? A few years ago it was usually the first thing I tried to do when I got a new mobile.  Now I can change my ring tone in seconds and choose from my own music catalogue.

Does anyone still rent DVDs? We’ve moved from watching films in a cinema, to watching them at home, to being able to choose from a catalogue of movies and TV programs and stream them on demand. Each step has been about increasing consumer choice and providing more options about what, how and when we choose to consume.  The music industry has followed a similar journey of increased consumer choice. Successful IT companies don’t deliver new features; successful IT companies give customers more choices. The iPhone would have been just another expensive phone were it not for the explosion in choice driven by the App Store.

Chocie = EmpowermentEmpowerment is the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. As humans we’ve always searched for empowerment. Whether its civil rights, politics, medical care or in our personal relationships it’s a basic human instinct to try to strive for right to make choices. It seems that with choice comes personal freedom.

While empowerment is a hot topic in the IT industry to date almost all of the focus has been on the customer rather than the employee. There are no shortage of analysts, consultants, speakers and quacks out there ready to bore you to death and tell you what you already know, that consumers are more powerful and connected than ever before. Yes we all know it’s never been easier to research buying decisions or switch suppliers. Yes we all know that a single tweet or review can have a long term negative impact on a business. Yes we all know that our customers are increasingly using mobile as their first choice system of engagement with organizations. We get it. Enough already.

We read much less about employee empowerment. Why, because at heart most businesses still view many of their employees as a cost center rather than as a value center. Yes even those zeitgeisty new technology firms with pool tables and bean bags all over the foyer are quick to reduce the cost of their service desks by focusing on a web only strategy that funnels all customer problems down the same fixed process. Chances are you’ll struggle to find their call center number.

There are few, if any, business processes that don’t have exceptions and that’s when you need your employees. Your employees fill the gaps business processes can’t reach.  At some point customers will engage directly with employees. However what’s the point of spending all that money optimizing digital customer engagement channels if when the customer reaches an employee they are greeted by a person who is disengaged, demotivated and tied to inflexible business processes. All that work you’ve done to address the needs of the customer goes up in smoke. It is estimated that 70% of us are disengaged at work, using business processes and software applications into which we have had no input and which may not suit our working style.

Employees Fill The Gaps Your Process Can't Reach

Employees Fill The Gaps Your Process Can’t Reach

Most of us are both customers and employees.  It was thus inevitable that our personal quest for empowerment would extend to how we use information technology in our work environment. Trends such as the consumerization of IT and the rise of enterprise app stores are the manifestation of the desire for employee empowerment. Tech savvy knowledge workers are no longer prepared to wait for or accept IT driven business software and hardware decisions and are bringing their own hardware and software to work. Increasingly we’ll do the same with business processes. We want the same choices and experience in our business IT environment as we have in our personal IT environment. Personalizing the color and layout of our home screen is no longer enough. Instead we want to be able to choose both the hardware, software and the business processes we use to carry out our work.

Understanding the business user need for empowerment is essential for the successful future adoption of new products, services and business processes. If you are looking at transforming customer experience within your organization avoid organizations that focus only on the needs of the customer and ignore the needs of the employee. Look for products features that provide new choices for employees and recognize that how work gets done within an organization varies between employees. Evaluate new products not on features but on the choices they provide for both your customers and employees because the IT industry was, is and always will be about empowerment.

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Does Customer Experience Exist?

I had the great misfortune of visiting the UNIQLO clothing store in Paris a couple of weekends ago. Dragged into the store by my other half on a Saturday afternoon what greeted me was pretty much man hell. The store was stuffed to the gills with shoppers. The aisles were too narrow. Lines for the changing rooms wound around the store and queues for the tills were about 20 deep. People were having sex just to make more room. (Ok I made this bit up.) Even my wife, who could shop for Ireland, gave up after a few minutes and suggested we leave.  Rather than simply walk out it felt like we were guided to the exit by human peristaltic movement and defecated from the store. On any customer experience metric this failed big time. Yet the store was packed?

This experience also reminded me of a recent article about Richard X. Bove, a noted bank analyst, who pulled his money out of Wells Fargo Bank because of poor customer experience and went on to trash the bank via social media. The very same Richard X. Bove however in his capacity as a banking analyst said, “I am struck by the fact that the service is so bad, and yet the company is so good”. The bank retained a strong financial status in sharp contrast to the poor customer experience it was providing. Bove continued to recommend the bank as a safe investment to his clients despite the fact that Bove himself would not keep his own money in that bank as a customer.

So here we have two examples of businesses where customer experience stinks yet both businesses are thriving. We could easily come up with others. We are told by customer experience evangelists that businesses must make every customer interaction count. That customer experience lip service just doesn’t cut it anymore. The examples above appear to reject this theory.

There are a number of ways we could try and interpret this. Is customer experience just another victim of the recession as more and more consumers are becoming more and more price conscious? Does price alone explain why Uniqlo is packed to the rafters?

Is customer experience simply irrelevant in some markets for example financial services? The Richard X Bove example above can be easily explained by the focus of many banks on their investment rather than retail arms. Why would Wells Fargo invest in an improved retail banking customer experience when it will have little impact on their bottom line?

Finally and more controversially does customer experience even exist? Are we not talking about process excellence here? UNIQLO for example focus on process execution as their key differentiator;

UNIQLO has established a SPA (Specialty store retailer of Private label Apparel) business model encompassing all stages of the business–from design and production to final sale. By continuously refining this SPA model, UNIQLO successfully differentiates itself from the competition by developing unique products.

Apple and Amazon are often cited as customer experience leaders but both also excel in process execution and supply chain excellence.

Many organizations are doing perfectly well without focusing on customer experience. So does customer experience even exist? Is customer experience really just process excellence?

Is Customer Experience Really Business Process Excellence?

Customer Experience is a strange term for companies that basically execute their processes properly. The word “Experience” gives the impression that you enjoy using the product or service yet in our day to day lives we engage with the majority of businesses on a transactional basis. We are looking for efficiency and delivery rather than enjoyment. Failure to understand this has led many organizations down the wrong path of trying to deliver customer experience rather than what they should be focusing on, process excellence.

In part the cult of Customer Experience has been driven by lifestyle brands such as Apple, Disney, Nike brands we enjoy using because they are associated with leisure experiences. For the majority of businesses I engage with on a regular basis; banks, retail outlets, dentists, utilities all I want from them is efficiency and delivery on their commitments. Nothing more. I certainly don’t want my bank to start giving me discounted hotel bookings (they do), my ISP to give me tickets to the football (they did) or my dentist to give neck rubs (not yet).

Is it possible to have a customer experience at the dentist or with the company you’ve hired to unblock your drains? I go to the dentist to have a problem with my teeth fixed and I’ll return if they do their job properly and efficiently. Same goes for my bank. At the moment my own bank in the UK is so dysfunctional I’m impressed if they can switch the lights on in the morning. I’m currently in the process of switching bank because they failed in basic service delivery not because they failed to deliver an experience.

When I change banks I don’t want an experience with my new bank either. In fact considering the state of my account the less interaction with my bank the better. I don’t need coffee or some faux joviality from the agent when I’m in the bank. Like the dentist I want them to execute their processes as painlessly as possible.

In many cases I think that companies that are defined as leaders in Customer Experience really deliver Business Process Excellence. I’m not denying that Customer Experience doesn’t exist. Yes there are brands and companies that deliver process excellence and who are enjoyable to do business with but these tend to be lifestyle brands. For many businesses struggling to handle the double whammy caused by web retail and the recession and being seduced by Customer Experience I say forget about it. Focus on your business processes first.