The CX Pyramid: Why Most Customer Experience Efforts Fail

It is no secret among Customer Experience (CX) professionals that most CX efforts fall flat. Forrester found that only 25% of CX professionals say their companies’ CX programs actually improve customer experience, and Avaya recently published a study indicating that 81% of organizations have seen their Customer Experience Management (CXM) initiatives fail in the last three years.

The problem is that most companies view Customer Experience as a program and not a purpose–something to be assigned to a couple of employees while the rest of the company goes about its business improving efficiency, acquisition and margins.

When one considers the hierarchy of experiences brands can furnish customers to satisfy their needs–“The CX Pyramid”–it is easy to understand why so many CX efforts fall short. Most of today’s CX initiatives focus on incremental change in existing processes, which limits those programs to solving the least important needs at the bottom of the pyramid. Finding CX gaps and fixing them with more content on websites, new training for customer service representatives or greater self-service options certainly offers benefits, but nowadays these actions are table stakes rather than ones that allow brands to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Today’s innovative companies begin their Customer Experience design in a different place–not with customer perception of existing products and services but with an understanding of consumers’ evolving needs and expectations. As we will see, the most powerful companies today simply rewrite the Customer Experience from the top of the pyramid down, leapfrogging established competitors by delivering experiences that are more integrated, robust and powerful.

Introduction To The Customer Experience Pyramid 

Before exploring examples of brands that succeed at the upper reaches of the CX Pyramid, let’s first briefly explore the pyramid from bottom to top. Each step represents a greater level of customer need that brands can solve with product and service experiences:

  • Furnish information I can use: The lowest form of CX is to give customers information so they can solve their own problems. If I suffer a flat tire, a brand may offer instructions on how to swap it for the spare. Or if I have my identity stolen, a company may provide the twenty steps I can take to recover. This sort of information is good to know, but it is a weak customer experience that does little to satisfy customers or create differentiation for brands.
  • Solve your problem when I ask: Let’s face it, most customer care nowadays is designed not to satisfy my needs but to solve the company’s issue–namely to get me off the phone or stop me from complaining on Twitter as quickly as possible. Even worse, companies like Comcast are turning their customer care employees into sales representatives, holding them responsible for quotas of new revenue-generating services and for retaining customers who simply wish to cancel. This sort of experience tells customers their needs are less important than the company’s.
  • Resolve my needs when I ask: There is a difference between handling a customer’s immediate issue and resolving their needs. If a repair service replaces my flat tire with a spare but I still have to get the damaged tire repaired, my needs have not been fully resolved. Or if my bank puts a hold on my checking account after my identity has been stolen but I still have to call the credit card company to cancel my card, the bank has not resolved all my needs. To fully satisfy customers’ needs and not just process their requests takes time and care, but it furnishes a more powerful brand experience.
  • Provide what I need without me asking: Not every company or service can do this, but providing what a customer needs before they ask is a powerful way to demonstrate customer commitment and win loyalty. When your credit card company catches fraud before you do, alerts you and has a replacement card in the mail before you even ask, that is a memorable experience. Or consider our tire example–would some be willing to pay more for a service that removes all worries by monitoring their tires, knowing when a flat is about to occur and replacing it overnight in the customers’ driveway? Providing experiences that protect customers from harm or help them to exploit opportunities before they ask furnishes brands with strong, trusting and emotional customer bonds.
  • Provide what I need without me knowing: As we near the top of the CX Pyramid, we arrive at levels of experience that can only be provided when brands rethink products in the age of big data, mobile connectivity, social media and the Internet of Things. Nest thermostats offer an Auto-Away feature that raises and lowers my home’s temperature, saving me money without me even knowing it is acting on my behalf. OnStar Automatic Crash Response can estimate the severity of a car accident and alert authorities, even if I cannot. Google Now monitors my activity and furnishes updates I may need but did not request, such as the delivery status of a package (automatically derived from an email confirmation I received) or the directions to a business (for which I recently searched). The future of CX isn’t merely reactive and responsive but proactive and serendipitous, which means the brands that will win our trust, loyalty and advocacy will solve problems or harness opportunities we do not even know we have.
  • Make me better, safer, more powerful: Much like Maslow’s hierarchy, this self-actualizing (or brand-actualizing) level is more aspiration than reality in most verticals, but there are plenty of examples to be found among the world’s most powerful brands. Apple achieved this with the iPhone and iPad, giving consumers devices that allowed them greater access and control of information and communication in a more intuitive fashion than was previously imaginable. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others have given people incredible power to broadcast information, build reputation and enhance relationships. And the rapid growth and adoption of collaborative economy companies such as Uber, Airbnb, LendingClub, Kickstarter and others is due to the way these innovative startups furnish consumers with more power–over assets, expenses, income and experiences–than traditional providers and business models can match. 

What’s Wrong With Customer Experience Management Today

The CX Pyramid furnishes a lens through which to view the problem with many of today’s CXM initiatives. Too many tend to be:

  • Backwards-looking: Many CX programs strive to identify and patch problems in the existing product and service environment rather than seeking ways to significantly change that environment.
  • Reactive: CX initiatives often implement ways to improve the experience for customers who hold up their hands and ask for help rather than seeking ways to furnish experiences that proactively prevent issues or furnish solutions.
  • Tactical: Many CX programs have the ability to change tactics rather than being empowered to rethink the organization’s strategic approach to meeting customers’ most important and ever-changing needs.
  • Narrow: While there’s nothing wrong with housing the CX team within the Marketing or Customer Care departments (which four in ten organizations do), the impact is reduced when these programs only influence change within those silos rather than encouraging (or requiring) collaboration across departments.
  • Self-interested: Companies that put the customer first and evaluate CX in terms of customer perception will have stronger outcomes than those that seek to change CX only in ways that improve corporate financial outcomes. 

Companies that make profound leaps forward in Customer Experience are the opposite. Brands like Amazon, Apple, Nest, Uber, Zappos, USAA, Square and Costco have CX efforts that are forward-looking, proactive, strategic, broad and customer-centric. Their results are realized not in incremental improvements to customer care or existing products but with profoundly different experiences that satisfy a higher order of customer needs.

How Amazon and Uber Rewrite Customer Experience From the Top Down

Compare the CX approaches taken by Amazon and Borders. Whereas Borders’ CXM process sought to make the existing bookstore experience more pleasant with cafes, Amazon’s approach to CX was to start fresh and focus at the top of the CX pyramid. While Borders was achieving the top-rated CX in the country, Amazon was re-imagining the Customer Experience of shopping in a digital world. And when Borders went bankrupt, Amazon was still rising, collecting more customers and building stronger relationships.

How could the company with the top-rated CX in the country fail, beaten by the upstart Amazon? The differences in Amazon’s and Borders’ outcomes can be seen when comparing how their CX improvements fit into the pyramid.

While Borders offered shelves of its employees’ favorite books (“Furnish information I can use,” the bottom rung of the CX Pyramid), Amazon offered a recommendation engine to provide personalized selections for its customers (“Provide what I need without me asking,”) While Borders offered cafes (a move that had more to do with solving its own problem of increasing share of wallet than with satisfying consumers’ demand for still more coffee shops in the world), Amazon was launching the Kindle, a device that gave consumers the power of instant access to literature and information with greater mobility.

Borders optimized the customer experience for bookstores in today’s business model, while Amazon envisioned new products and services to provide the customer experience of the future. As today’s business models withered against digital solutions that furnished experiences higher in the CX pyramid, Borders was left with the best customer experience that no one wanted.

The same can be said for Uber versus the taxi industry. Uber did not start with the existing taxi system, study consumer complaints and launch a new livery company with cleaner cabs or friendlier drivers; instead, Uber rewrote the CX of urban transportation. Compare this to the “innovations” offered by taxi companies in the past two decades, such as card readers that allowed consumers to swipe their credit card (while earning a glare or outright hostility from the driver) and video screens that did little for riders but helped the taxi companies earn revenue from advertisers.

While taxi companies were largely ignoring their CX problems or providing solutions at the very bottom of the CX pyramid, Uber went from unknown startup to $40B company by starting at the top of the pyramid. Uber’s mobile application, with its real-time driver location data, ratings system and integrated payment platform all provided solutions that fit into the upper portion of the pyramid. But the real killer attribute of Uber is found all the way at the top of the CX Pyramid–the ability to immediately call a taxi to my current location. Giving that power to consumers has made standing in the gutter waving at passing yellow cabs seem as hopelessly outdated as the horse and buggy. Uber’s on-demand service is an example of how the Customer Experiences that really matter are ones that “Make me better, safer, more powerful.”

Whether one compares the top-rated and bottom-rated companies in Customer Experience, or the brands that are most rapidly lifting their brand equity versus those that are not, or the most trusted versus the most distrusted companies, it is easy to see how the brands that succeed do so by providing experiences that solve higher orders of consumer needs. The future belongs to companies that understand that CX is the most powerful force for building brands in the era of splintering media, diminishing consumer trust, empowered consumers and powerful WOM.

In the future, brands will not succeed because they have CX programs. They will succeed when CX is driven from the top, is integral to company culture, guides the behavior and actions of all employees, spans silos, and ensures that products and services satisfy consumers’ most important needs. Tomorrow’s success stories are today focusing at the top of the pyramid, while the future Kodaks, Borders and Radio Shacks of the world are all anchored to the bottom.

United Breaks Another Guitar and the Social Media Hype Cycle Comes Full Circle

It was one of the first stories any of us heard about the power of social media and how it was changing brands. In Spring 2008, Dave Carroll got off his United Airlines flight and found his Taylor guitar damaged. He spent nine months trying to get the airline to make it right, and in frustration he wrote a catchy tune and produced a funny YouTube video recounting his story.

The rest is history. Or is it?

Is “United Breaks Guitars” a lesson in how consumers are wresting control from brands, or just an entertaining tale?  Has Dave Carroll’s saga been repeated so often because it is a powerful omen of how brands must evolve or because that story proved to be a successful sales device, raising fears and encouraging the purchase of social media services?

I have been asking these questions for years, but I think I finally got my answer Friday night at a terrific Ellis Paul concert where he described how United broke his beloved Taylor guitar and is refusing to pay for repairs. Déjà vu! We have come full circle, from one identical event to another. This furnishes us an opportunity to reexamine the “United Breaks Guitars” tale and what it really means to United Airlines and your brand.

The United Breaks Guitars Fable

Before we get to Paul’s recent experience, let’s revisit why Carroll’s 2009 YouTube video became such a legendary social media fable. You already know the story, I’m sure; if not, search “United Breaks Guitars” for the 1.8 million(!) articles and blog posts on the topic. Each recaps how United refused to do right by Carroll until faced with an avalanche of bad PR in both social and mainstream media. It was only then that the airline was embarrassed into offering Carroll compensation.

Had the story ended there, the moral would have been concise and accurate: One individual, given enough talent and creativity (plus, let’s face it, a great deal of luck) can cause so much pain that a brand must take action.

But that is not where the tale stopped. To professionals in the nascent field of social media (including yours truly), Dave Carroll was not just a skilled and creative guy whose unique talents and situation permitted a special way to elevate his gripe. He became, instead, a powerful everyman, effortlessly wielding free social media tools in the same way every consumer can.

This single consumer’s actions were inflated into an apocryphal lesson: “United suffered grievous brand damage thanks to the new power of Word of Mouth (WOM), and your brand will face the same fate unless you change (and buy our listening/strategy/consulting services)!”

Did “United Breaks Guitars” Break United?

For years, I have sought evidence “United Breaks Guitars” represented something more than one guy’s creative solution to a customer service problem. Yes, United eventually acted to make the situation go away, but was the company really harmed and transformed due to social media WOM? If so, there is little proof.

For example, the Wikipedia page for “United Breaks Guitars” suggests that United’s stock dropped in the four days following the video’s release. Of course, it is ridiculous to correlate a few days’ stock variation to a single cause, and if you instead evaluate United’s stock over a longer period, you find that in the six months following the release of Carroll’s video, United’s stock outperformed competitors’ by more than 100%.

Another claim repeated time and again is that people who saw this video lost trust in United and chose competitors’ flights. That is the standard WOM assertion following any and every social PR “crisis,” but is it true? It turns out it is very easy to get people to watch funny videos or retweet brand-shaming tweets, but it is much more difficultto change buying behaviors. In presentations over the course of years, I have stood in front of thousands of people and asked a simple question:

As a result of seeing the “United Breaks Guitar” video (and not because of your own personal experiences), have you ever opted for a more expensive or less convenient itinerary to avoid flying United? 

Not one person has yet fessed up to altering their purchase behaviors as a result of seeing the video. You’re not surprised, are you? After all, you saw the video and did not change your airline purchasing habits, either. In the end, we all buy airfare the same way, choosing whichever carrier offers a route from Point A to Point B that is cheapest, easiest and provides the right loyalty miles. If we hate and avoid United, it is because of our own experiences and not because of a YouTube video.

There is no sign that “United Breaks Guitars” impacted consumer behaviors or hurt the airline’s business, but did that video affect changes within the company? That is the claim oft repeated: United learned its lesson and transformed itself! As conveyed in the book “Empowered” by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, “United has changed its policies. Baggage claim agents now have a little more discretion with customers whose special situations warrant the company looking into the claim more closely; United uses Dave Carroll’s video in it’s training.”

By repeating the story of how United had learned and transformed, were people like Josh, Ted and I (and many others) redefining the way companies must operate in the social era? Or were we merely cogs in the United Airlines PR machine, helping to turn an embarrassing brand situation into a positive corporate message? Ellis Paul’s recent United experience makes it clear which is the truth.

United Breaks Guitars, Part II

Ellis Paul is one of my favorite music artists. I regularly listen to his folk-pop music while working and commuting. Paul is a terrific storyteller, an amazing songwriter, and he performs with a passion and wild abandon that I find breathtaking. His songs, such as Maria’s Beautiful Mess, have appeared in more than 50 compilations and movie soundtracks such as “Me, Myself, and Irene” and “Shallow Hal.”

Last month, Ellis was flying to a show in Portland. He got off his United flight and found that his expensive and beloved Taylor guitar, nicknamed Guinness, had been cracked in transit. Paul did what any of us would do in the same situation; he posted on Facebook, filed a claim and wrote the president of United. In response, Paul received a call from someone in charge of baggage handling in Portland, but all he offered was an apology. United will not pay for the repair, which Paul estimates will run around $1,500.

This is not a mere possession to Paul. He didn’t find Guinness; the guitar found him. Paul borrowed it while performing at the legendary El Reno Vintage Guitar Shop, and you can see his first performance with the magic guitar on YouTube. As he tells the story, he had no choice whether to buy the expensive, beautiful instrument. Even though it is now damaged, Ellis continues to perform with Guinness, duct tape covering the crack caused by United’s baggage handling. That will do for a while, but it must eventually be repaired.

Where’s United’s Social Transformation?

Paul’s 2014 situation could not be more identical to Carroll’s 2008 United issues, and the airline is dealing with it in exactly the same way. If United learned a lesson, changed its policies and revised its training, there is absolutely no evidence. Given the chance to prove how it transformed, United has failed. Just as it did five years ago, the company is “handling” the situation, not resolving it.

With Ellis Paul’s United Airlines disappointment, we have come full circle in the social media hype cycle–two duplicate events separated by six years–only this time we do not have to buy the hype. We may have believed that Carroll’s experience transformed United, but Paul’s experience demonstrates otherwise.

The most provocative question is not whether United was transformed by social media, since it clearly was not, but why not? As social media pros hype the transformative powers of WOM, one of the things they conveniently omit is that offering better service to customers costs something. In many cases, investments in better service and improved WOM will provide a return, but that opportunity is far from universal for every brand in every category.

United could immediately pay every damage claim (or offer more legroom or give every flyer a free alcoholic beverage) and generate a lot of positive sentiment in social media, but that would also increase costs and prices. It really comes down to financial calculations: By treating customers better, will positive social media attract more customers despite higher prices? By treating customers badly, does negative WOM result in lost customers despite lower prices?

United doesn’t need to wonder the answer to these question; it got its answer back in 2009 when you, I and everyone else watched “United Breaks Guitars” and changed absolutely nothing about the way we purchase travel. The fact United has not changed its practices is not because it does not care but because we do not. Social media changes nothing by itself; if consumers are not willing or able to change their spending habits, then social media crises like “United Breaks Guitars” will always be more smoke than fire.

This is not to say that WOM is never powerful, but that its power is not uniform. How often have you searched for customer ratings of airlines in the past year? And how often have you sought customer ratings for hotels? Your very different answers to these questions are why hotels thrive or struggle based on WOM and airlines do not. Because consumers probe online reviews when making lodging decisions, WOM matters; one study found that if a hotel increases its rating by one point in Travelocity’s five-point rating system, the probabilities of being booked increase by 14% and price can be increased by up to 11% without affecting demand. There is the power of WOM for you!

For too long, we have used “United Breaks Guitars” as a blunt weapon to put the fear of WOM God into brands, but looking back with clarity and hindsight, we can see the real morals of this story are:

  • Social media professionals need to stop believing every story told by brands and bring greater critical thinking to our field. “United Breaks Guitars” was not a social transformation success but a PR success: Dave Carroll became an author and public speaker, and United’s PR team turned a painful PR problem into a wonderful–and fictional–story of transformation and customer commitment. The fact “United Breaks Guitars” was inflated into an endlessly repeated cautionary tale for every brand says more about the social media industry than it does about WOM.
  • The way brands treat customers in the real world has far more impact on WOM than what they do in social media. United’s problem was not that it failed to reply appropriately in social media but that it did not treat Dave Carroll right from the start. Once he launched that video and it began to accumulate hundreds of thousands of views, it was too late for United–no social media strategy or program could save the company at that point.
  • Listening and responding to customer needs in social media isn’t transformative but business as usual. Any brand of sufficient scale will see hundreds of tweeted complaints; that is business as usual, and those tweets need a business-as-usual response, the same as you would manage the same inquiry via email or on the phone. Social media can prove transformative for companies, but only if it changes the way they operate. Merely responding to consumers on Twitter is not a transformation; it’s just good, smart business.
  • There is an exception to every rule, and that exception sometimes demands special treatment. Every now and then, a single customer can rise above the noise and generate enough attention to force a company to take special action. The reasons may have less to do with WOM damaging business and more with the fact these rare situations increase customer service costs, consume time from PR executives and interfere with the company’s ability to deliver its intended PR and marketing messages.

    This is no different than in the past–businesses have always treated important or influential customers differently–but today someone can gain influence through the right combination of skill, talent, creativity, luck and perseverance. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are littered with millions of customer gripes, and not all demand the attention that Dave Carroll got. He was not a famous musician before “United Breaks Guitars,” but United made him a star, and that’s why he eventually got more attention from United than many others who have since attempted the same thing.

Help Make Ellis Paul One Of Those Exceptional Situations

If you are so inclined, please tweet @United and ask them to do right by @ellispaulsongs. With your help, we can get United to do right by one musician and get one guitar repaired.

I have no illusions that spurring United to action will mean anything more than an appropriate resolution to one customer situation. If they respond, it will not represent a new paradigm, nor will it mean United has become a new and better company. All it will mean is that one worthy musician got what he deserved from a large corporation.

And if you will not do it for me or Ellis Paul, then do it for United. Ellis knows Dave Carroll and is preparing his own YouTube song with the hopes it becomes “United Breaks Guitars, Round 2.” Perhaps a few tweets of pain now will prevent United from a great deal more pain later. Better United hears from you on Twitter today than read about it on CNN or HuffPost a few months from now!

. @united @ellispaulsongs went thru normal channel; got apology but no offer to pay for repairs. Do you really want United Breaks Guiters 2?
— Augie Ray (@augieray) May 31, 2014

Déjà vu? @united broke but won’t repair @ellispaulsongs’ beloved guitar. If you think they should, please RT.
— Augie Ray (@augieray) May 31, 2014

Please RT to let @united know they should repair @ellispaulsongs’ guitar. Why is doing the right thing so hard for some brands?
— Augie Ray (@augieray) May 31, 2014

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