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Does Anyone Really Understand Customer Experience Management?

Understanding a problem is the most crucial step in solving it.

So wrote Clayton Christensen in his famous 2000 Harvard Business Review article, “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change” (co-authored with Michael Overdorf).

A legitimate response might be: “Well, duh.” The necessity to properly frame the problem before proceeding to the solution is the kind of thing that most of us learned from mathematical story problems in elementary school.

And yet, the obviousness of a truism does not make it any less true.  So we ought to consider whether Christensen – the university professor, prolific and award winning author, and designated “most influential business thinker in the world” – isn’t rather choosing and placing his words very carefully.

For example, the word “crucial” seems to have two different but related implications. First, understanding the problem is crucial in the sense that it is indispensable. The understanding of the problem provides the foundation on which the solution can be erected.

Secondly, however, crucial means critical, as in a medical condition that could go either way. It is possible to mis-understand the question – that is, to do some work on the problem and to arrive at an (apparent) understanding – which, however is incorrect, in that it misrepresents and misapprehends the (real) problem. (The powerful seduction of such a mis-understanding is what many people find so aggravating about mathematical story problems!)

The mis-understanding does indeed provide a foundation for solving the problem – but it is either a faulty and inadequate foundation, or it is a solid foundation for a different problem.

Let 1000 CEM Flowers Bloom

So my question is: Do we (practitioners, vendors, service providers, analysts) understand the problem of customer experience management (CEM)?

The 1000s of CEM software solutions, the flood of reports and articles about the CEM Imperative, the proliferating development of new CEM programs and platforms from agencies and service providers, and – certainly not least of all – the priority increasingly given to customer experience by CXOs – all of this furious activity would seem to indicate that the answer is yes. We have evidently not only understood the problem, but have also mapped out the solution and are diligently working to implement and execute it.

Then again, the sheer number and variety of the available solutions and approaches points in the other direction. I recently attended dmexco in Cologne, where over 800 providers pitched products to some 40,000 prospects. If you assume that what the vendor offers is an expression of how they understand the problem of CEM, then an afternoon at dmexco will leave you wondering whether CEM is about web content management, or call center optimization, or personalized email campaigns, or interactive online surveys, or programmatic ad buying, or live chat, or data collection, or mobile video, or VR, IoT, and S&M.

They can’t all be right – or actually, they can be, if you think of each provider as offering a single piece of the overall puzzle. But then, by definition, none of them is in a position to help you see the big picture and conceive of a complete, systems-level solution for CEM.

In any case, spend a day at dmexco or any similar mega-trade fair, and you’ll begin to formulate a Grand Unified Theory of CEM: Customer experience management is whatever helps companies sell more stuff.

(“Companies” meaning both the providers and their end-user customers. And whether the interests of the provider or that of their customer take priority depends upon which vendor you have in mind. Also, you’ll notice that in this sales-driven approach, the customer’s experience has no place.)

Onward, Comrades

In early November, I have the pleasure and the honor of keynoting the JBoye15 conference in Aarhus, Denmark. The motto this year is “Making it work.” Janus and his team have cleverly left the “it” undefined, so it could mean CEM, intranets, enterprise collaboration, WCM, organizational change, or even good old fashioned capitalized IT.

The motto reflects not only the desire to provide and share useful advice at an event such as JBoye, but also the business world’s “just get it done” mentality. Since organizations exist in order to produce value, they necessarily emphasize production, activity, making something happen. Each paying attendee at this conference was likely asked, What will we get out of it? How can we use what you learn there? Similarly, every analyst report, according to my training, should end with Actionable Recommendations. Every conference presentation should clearly state What You Can Do When You Get Back To the Office.

I’m reminded of the famous business analyst Karl M., who said (roughly), “Some dudes are happy to ponder what’s happening, but we’re in business to actually do something about it!” (“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”)

The capitalist business enterprises’ fetishism of praxis (executing the plan) over theory (understanding the problem) exposes them once again as the prime example of actually existing Marxism.

The Value of Reflection

And yet, however you get there – with whatever justifications, cost-benefit calculations, and ROI projections – the actually existing and very practical benefit of an event like JBoye15 (and good events in general) is that you will find yourself, willingly or not, stepping back from, if I may say so, the practicalities of making it work, and you have time, in reflection and dialogue, in workshops and presentations, in (certainly not least of all) social encounters and interactions, to ponder your understanding of the problem of CEM.

As Christensen reminds us, that’s a prerequisite to any meaningful, sustainable improvement in customer experiences. Which is exactly what’s missing. Regardless of how you date the advent of CEM, companies have been talking about it, and prioritizing it, and buying tools to support it for years — and yet according to Accenture, customer experience metrics are not improving, and customers are less loyal than ever.

In my keynote, I’ll argue that if we want to avoid inadequate or mis-understanding of the problem, we need to start from zero and (re)consider the meaning (and limits) of every term in customer + experience + management. I look forward to our discussions in Aarhus, and in other analog or digital locales.


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