August 23, 2021
Last week I was fortunate to be involved in a discussion about customer service and technology led by the Marketing Society here in Singapore. It was a positive example of professionals sharing their perspectives. Over the following days, my thoughts on that discussion reorganised themselves as follows:
In a world that’s increasingly service driven, customer service feels to me like it’s getting worse. To my great relief, it’s not just me. Customer experience means very different things to different people, and technology either is the answer or has a lot to answer for, or both.
I wondered if I could develop a more general definition of customer experience. If so, could I use this definition to describe the relationship between customer service and technology? And if I could, would it help?
I’m certainly not going to solve any problems in a blog post, but perhaps I can prepare the ground in some way by generalizing some definitions, drawing some distinctions and sharing some insights.
The inspiration for this post came variously from a math class, gaming, and from Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. Maps, topologies, and landscapes are similar things. They are a good way to simplify and visualize systems with lots of dependent relationships in multiple dimensions. Seeing the title of Harris’ book on the shelf connected the dots that resulted in this little thought experiment.
Every experience is a point on a landscape, with highs and lows of physical and emotional satisfaction (life here is better or worse) and value (it was or was not worth the cost of getting here).
We move through life in a quest for higher ground. As we move around the map, we rise and we fall, sometimes we feel like we’re atop the highest mountain, sometimes in a chasm of despair. The standard physical rules of the real world apply – sometimes it’s tough to see where you’re going, and the grass is always greener, just over there.
Customer experience is the path described by the all the interactions between a person and a product, service or brand on this landscape.
You see a great ad for an eGadget: You get excited, this is satisfying, and has taken you up a hill. You walk into a store and see the eGadget. The people in the store are trendy or helpful. Intangibles like “trendy” or “helpful” move you left or right (i Value), the cost ($ Value) may move you forward or back to a different hill and up or down a little further.
Now, you get it home and realize the eGadget requires a FML cable that you don’t own and isn’t in the box: you’ve slipped and start rolling down… you get the idea.
In essence, the higher you are on the experiential landscape the more satisfied you are with the brand. For ease let’s assume that as satisfaction increases the likelihood of purchase, repeat purchase or advocacy also goes up.
Customer service is what business does to fulfill, increase or extend our satisfaction or add value to the customer’s experience of a product or service. It is a point on the landscape at which we have very direct communication with the brand itself. Consequently, it has a huge potential to elevate our brand experience or drop us into a consumer chasm.
The more satisfied you are the more value you receive and the more likely you are to repurchase, recommend or whatever.
Traditionally, customer service was a human being in a store or an office or at the end of a phone who was trained and/or resourced to help. They listened to the customer’s story and provided support when the eGadget did not deliver the expected value return. Good customer service is a high point on the landscape where a positive interaction and/or outcome increases overall satisfaction, driving us upward even further. This investment in customer service returns value for the brand in market share or growth or whatever, which is good because customer service is expensive and hard to do. Put a pin in that for later.
Time passes and the landscape moves through it, and nothing stands still. Values and tastes evolve, things become less relevant or functional and the satisfaction we get from them changes, moving us constantly around the map. Innovation, globalization and the disposable lifestyle drove down costs and created new hills of novelty and variety, veering us away from mountains of quality and longevity. This had the effect of both expanding and flattening the landscape. More mountains and chasms that are closer together. Cruelly, innovation is even more expensive than customer service and driving down costs produces things that no amount of customer service can elevate.
Marketing is great at increasing overall satisfaction and perceived value. It does this by finding or creating new terrain, then pointing us to these new and exciting areas of the landscape. The jargon is “value creation.” Marketing can’t troubleshoot a bug in your eGadget, but it can offer a sense of purpose, self-esteem, or a community of advocates and users – one of whom may have posted instructions for a workaround in a subreddit. Crucially, this community will tell you how amazing the new model of eGadget is, and look at how much fun I’m having and don’t forget to smash that like button!
When the highest peak of your customer experience was standing in line overnight to buy the eGadget, that was marketing. It’s more efficient and scalable than customer service. It’s also possible to argue that marketing can take us to higher peaks in the experiential landscape because it necessarily satisfies higher order needs.
Think of marketing technology as an experiential GPS system. It’s a convenience, a guide to every possible experience that, to be even more useful, tracks you across the experiential landscape. Every piece of data is a record of where we are in the landscape in one or more dimensions at a given time. These are used both to pinpoint us in real time and infer where we might like to go next – what and value this might have to us. The more dimensions the technology can track, the better it can guide you, suggest other places you might like to go, and inform the product marketing about developing new experiential paths.
I mentioned earlier that customer service is expensive. To the chagrin of many and the delight of some, this data is also used to build up models of behavior and libraries of past experiences that allow businesses to replace expensive customer service people with bots.
To be fair, bots are a bit like customer service people. Some are good, some are bad, and all of them are only as good as their training.
Imagine that your customer experience with the eGadget has brought you to a precipice. You are looking over the edge. You’ve invested a lot in the brand getting to this point in the landscape, and if someone doesn’t help you right now, you’ll jump.
Bots cannot empathise. Bots cannot interpret the noises you make when you can’t describe the sound that the damned eGadget is making. Bots can’t say sorry and mean it. Bots cannot talk us back from the edge of a cliff. Is this how the customer experience ends?
This is all to say that, customer service is simply not the only or the highest peak on the landscape anymore. However, in an increasingly service driven economy, replacing it almost entirely with technology could leave customer experience on the brink. Marketing’s ability to broaden the landscape and create value could help if, but business will need to align its tactics and its technologies, so that everything points the customer in the same upward direction.
Now I go away and continue using this framework and others like it to approach and hopefully solve some brand problems, or at least break them up into smaller, easier problems and solve those. Future posts might look at more specific problems and case studies and discuss how I build out these frameworks for analysis and experience design.
If you have a hot take, another point of view, or if you’d like to know more, please get in touch.