Customer First: a guide to improving your omni-channel customer experience

Introduction: the customer experience imperative


“The customer experience is the next competitive battleground.”

Jerry Gregoire, former CIO, Dell Computers


Imagine the following. You’re in line at an airport check-in desk. You’ve arrived on time and standing at the check-in desk is a cluster of six airline check-in staff. But they are standing with their backs to you, resolutely ignoring the line of customers waiting to be checked in. They’re laughing and joking. Your queue-colleagues look at each other in disbelief and start checking their watches. Throats are cleared. One person reaches for their smartphone, and then another, and another. One takes a photo. You do the same because, frankly, what else is there to do? You open the Twitter app on your phone. What do you write?

Never before have customers been more empowered, knowledgeable and connected. Driven by heightened customer expectations and demands, companies worldwide have realised that, in order to remain competitive, they must focus their time, energy and investment on improving and maintaining the quality of the experiences they offer their customers. This global movement is what Forrester Research has dubbed the ‘Age of the Customer’. 

But is preventing negative comments on social media enough of an incentive to invest your limited resources into customer experience improvement programs? Probably not. So why should you invest in customer experience (CX)?

  • Customers judge you by the quality of their interactions with you. Positive experiences pay dividends in customer loyalty and advocacy. A recent Accent survey found that customers having a positive experience with a brand are 80% more likely to make an additional purchase and 79% more likely to tell family and friends. 
  • Your current customer experience quality is nowhere near good enough. Forrester Research produces an annual index of customer experience quality across multiple industries. In the recent UK results, only six of 28 companies listed had a score of ‘Good’ while the majority spanned the range from ‘Very poor’ to just ‘Ok’. Not a single company achieved an ‘Excellent’ score.
  • Customer experience is a top priority for most other companies. Temkin Group research found that 82% of respondents think that CX will be more important to their organisation this year than it was last year, and 66% of respondents expected that their company will spend more on CX this year than it did last year.

Customer Experience improvement is not easy, but it is critical.

Improving the quality of customer experiences is not an easy job — in fact, sometimes it feels too big and complex to even try. But we think it’s not only worth the effort and investment, it’s critical to make customer experience a top strategic priority.

Temkin Group’s research reported that 42% of respondents think their CX efforts had a moderately or significantly positive impact on the business in 2014 and 78% expect it to have a positive impact in 2015. But, more importantly, is the unknown cost of being left behind, of being perceived by your customers as not meeting their minimum expectations. And then the inevitable cost of losing those customers to your competitors.

This is the customer experience imperative for change. It is not the ‘next competitive battleground’, because the battle is already well underway. The purpose of this book, therefore, is to outline an effective ‘battle plan’ for engaging with the challenge of competing in the ‘Age of the Customer’.



Customer experience is a thing. Experience design is an approach.


“People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou, Poet

So, what is customer experience anyway?

The term ‘customer experience’ has become increasingly commonplace and is now beginning to appear alongside heavy hitting confusers like ‘big data’ and ‘gamification’. Even though the term is now as likely to come from the mouth of a CIO as a CMO, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what customer experience actually is, and – crucially – how this emerging discipline can produce real positive value for a company. Forrester Research – a trailblazer in the research of customer experience practices and strategy – defines customer experience as simply:

“How customers perceive their interactions with your company.” 


While this definition cuts through much of the clutter, we’ve observed that, in practice, the term ‘customer experience’ is used in three different ways:

  1. To represent an ideal or aspiration of how products and services should be offered to customers, to give them consistently positive experiences and encourage loyalty. For example, “we want to offer a great customer experience”.
  1. To describe a set of problems or obstacles that a company suffers that impede reaching this ideal. For example, “we struggle with our customer experience”.
  1. To describe a set of (often quite ambiguous) skills, approaches and tools that a company can use to tackle the problems and obstacles. For example, “we are working on a customer experience program”.

“The master strategist is a designer.”

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy


‘Experience design’ combines customer insight with pragmatic design.

We think that complex customer experience transformation and strategy problems are design problems. Design problems that require a customer-centric design thinking approach.

One famous example of this approach comes from the world of digital user experience. When asked by a journalist to provide an example of positive business results achieved from a simple customer insight, Jared Spool replied: “You mean like $300 million of new revenue?”

While working on behalf of a $25 billion US retailer, Spool discovered a curious customer behaviour. Most customers didn’t want to register for an account on the site – they just wanted to make a single purchase without forming a long-term relationship or having to remember another username and password. His recommendation? Change the button from “register” to “continue” (without requiring the creation of an account). After the change, the analysis concluded that the number of customers making a purchase increased by 45% and the retailer would earn $300 million of additional revenue from that one simple change.

Not all stories produce such extraordinary results. But the key to this story is the combination of a structured investigative approach, a surprising customer insight, a pragmatic design change and the foresight to analyse the results. The most effective customer experience programs combine pragmatic strategy, holistic thinking across the entire business, and a disciplined approach to research and design that focuses on real customer needs and wants.

Wikipedia offers up an interesting definition of experience design.

“Experience design (XD) is the practice of designing products, processes, services, events, and environments with a focus placed on the quality of the user experience and culturally relevant solutions. An emerging discipline, experience design draws from many other disciplines including cognitive psychology and perceptual psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, architecture and environmental design, haptics, hazard analysis, product design, theatre, information design, information architecture, ethnography, brand strategy, interaction design, service design, storytelling, heuristics, technical communication, and design thinking.”


But our take on experience design is much simpler. It is:

“A set of interrogative approaches and techniques used to deeply understand the real needs of customers, and an intentional design process for creating experiences that meet needs and exceed expectations.”


So while customer experience is the thing being described or a set of problems to be fixed, experience design is an approach to solve those problems and create new, improved experiences.

Exercise: Are we speaking the same language?

Marc Stickdorn, one of the authors of This is Service Design Thinking, says: “If you would ask ten people what service design is, you would end up with eleven different answers — at least.” The same is true of the terms we’ve defined above.

Next time someone uses the term ‘customer experience’, think about this exercise. Who is using the term? What is their job role, and how might that affect how they use the term? Are they talking about a set of problems, or a ‘strategy’ that the company is working on? When they’re talking about it, what is their mental/emotional positioning? Frustration? Confusion? Clarity? Excitement?

Now think about your relationship to customer experience. Is it different?


The power of a digital mindset


“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”


Albert Einstein

What is a digital mindset? Let’s start with what it’s not. Digital mindset is not defined by the technology you have, the websites you’ve developed, or the mobile applications you think you need. And it isn’t related in anyway to how much your CEO tweets.

A digital mindset is a working culture that enables an organisation to respond proactively to the impact that digital technologies have on their business. This includes products, services, markets, supply chains, employees and, especially, the customer.

So, the term ‘digital’ isn’t just describing work done on the web anymore. It’s about how we work and how we think. Digital is the context for change. It describes a new approach to how businesses create value and how people need to work. It’s about being agile, quick to respond and highly accountable for achieving measurable results. But it’s also about design thinking, strategy, creativity and innovation. We call this approach to work ‘digital mindset’. And it applies to the whole organisation – across all channels, products and services – not just to the web.

When we combine the idea of ‘digital mindset’ with experience design, we unite a highly structured and effective toolkit for generating customer insights with an approach that drives pragmatic, measurable action.

When thinking ‘digital’, everything we do in experience design:

  • directly addresses known problems or pain
  • creates tangible and pragmatic actions
  • is based on simple frameworks and methods • returns value quickly
  • is measurable and reproducible

In our experience, customer experience problems can be distilled into one of the following four statements:

  • “We know there are bad experiences everywhere, but we don’t know what they are and where to start.”
  • “We have done planning and strategy work, but now we just need to do something.”
  • “We have a plan but we don’t have the budget to do anything.”
  • “Our people and systems are obstacles to making improvements to our customers’ experience.”

We need an approach like digital mindset, because many companies are poorly equipped to operate at the pace that digital demands, or to tackle such difficult customer experience problems. Having a digital mindset is a competitive advantage.


Getting started: think like a customer


“The old logic of wealth creation worked from the perspective of the organisation and its requirements. The new logic starts with the individual end user. Instead of ‘What do we have and how can we sell it to you?’ good business practices start by asking ‘Who are you?’ ‘What do you need?’ and ‘How can we help?’ This inverted thinking makes it possible to identify the assets that represent real value for each individual. Cash flow and profitability are derived from those assets.”

Shoshana Zuboff, Creating Value in the Age of Distributed Capitalism

This will seem like really basic advice, but we think that going back to basics is a great way to reset and cut through the complexity and sprawl of large transformation projects. And one of our most powerful tools in experience design is also one of our most basic – and one that pretty much everyone can do with almost no additional skills or training. Our advice is to think like a customer – to simply pause, listen and learn.

And we think the best way to do that is to utilise a set of people, skills and approaches that are present in most companies already. That is the user experience team.

Is user experience the same thing as customer experience?

Simply put, no. Many people use the terms user experience and customer experience interchangeably, maybe with the notion that ‘customer’ is just a nicer way to talk about our fellow human beings than ‘user’ (which it is). But, these terms actually refer to two quite different fields of study and work. They are complementary and overlapping, yes, but they are also staffed by two quite different sets of people, working in quite different ways, and delivering on different types of projects.

User experience is a user-centred design methodology. Do research, ask questions, talk to and listen to real customers, and then design products or services to really connect with those needs. But it is also a strategic and interrogative approach that is rarely ever used in its entirety. The reality is that most executives think that user experience (or ‘UX’ as it’s commonly known), is just the production of website wireframes and the testing of those wireframes with end users. The untapped potential of the UX discipline is the highly pragmatic and effective methods that have been developed for generating customer insights – regardless of channel, product or service – and the subsequent design, test and improvement cycle that those insights inform.

The people who wield these powerful tools and techniques are a massively under-utilised resource for any customer experience transformation programme. Their involvement can generate insights about your customers’ behaviours, needs and wants in a quick and cost effective way. At Brilliant Noise, we’ve worked with a major luxury automotive manufacturer for many years on numerous projects. One of these projects involved providing the strategy for the redesign of the websites for all of its UK dealerships. Using a user-centred research approach, we first surveyed and held interviews with a large number of the dealership owners and senior managers. We found that the dealerships wanted websites that showed the individual personalities and experience of the staff and of the dealership.

We could have stopped there (as many researchers might have). Instead we took advantage of the fact that the company offers ‘track days’ for owners to experience the cars on a real race track. We chatted with the owners while they were drinking coffee and waiting for their go. In a few short hours, we determined that what real customers wanted from dealership websites was simply the ability to get in touch quickly, easily book their cars in for a service, to see what new and used cars were available, and to book a test drive. This was a surprising insight, and one that was different to the findings from the dealership management. As a result, we were able to focus the new design on helping customers achieve a small number of critical tasks.

Exercise: Think like an experience designer

We have a tendency in our busy urban lives to zone out, to get focused on our mobile phone screens or commuter newspapers. One positive side effect of experience design thinking as an occupation is that practitioners tend to notice details that others don’t. Door handles on the wrong side of doors, elevator buttons that don’t make any sense, unusable coffee machines. But we also notice people and their everyday behaviours.

Next time you’re in a crowd, perhaps commuting on a train, or waiting in line to board an airplane, or sitting in a cafe on a Sunday morning, look around you. Notice the people. How are they dressed? How old are they? What is their emotional state? What are they trying to do? Are some of these people your customers? If so, what do you imagine they might need?

Pay attention to this flow of goals and needs around you. Do you suddenly notice customer experiences gone wrong? Or are they going really well? What’s the difference? What do you think could be done to improve things? Or, if it’s working well, what could you learn and apply to your own work?


Take a structured approach: maps and models help crystallise thinking


One of the cornerstones of both good strategy and experience design is the use of structured frameworks and methodologies. These ‘maps and models’ help visualise and classify large amounts of information, allowing us to simplify, clarify and produce valuable insights.


The Customer Decision Journey

At Brilliant Noise, we have adopted McKinsey’s ‘Customer Decision Journey’ model to visualise customer-first experiences. The model outlines the different phases a customer goes through with a company, from consideration to buying, bonding and advocating. This helps us consider the different needs and emotional states that customers have at different stages of the journey, and allows us to consider content, functionality and the quality of the experiences at all stages.


Why is this model useful? Because it helps us consider the whole customer journey, not just one stage. Good customer experience correlates positively to the most potent business metrics: consideration of another purchase and likelihood of making a recommendation. Conversely, a single negative interaction in the customer journey can mean that a customer considers switching to a competitor or stops using a brand’s products or services altogether.

A recent survey, conducted by Accent, found that customers that have a positive experience with brands are:

  • 80% more likely to make additional purchases
  • 79% more likely to tell family and friends
  • 36% more likely to write online reviews
  • 32% more likely to subscribe to email updates
  • 27% more likely to join a loyalty programme

Truly customer obsessed brands know that brand is a fragile thing, and that it is at risk from the most empowered generation of customers ever known. These are customers who have instant access to always on instantaneous broadcast channels (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) to make their true unfiltered feelings known when they have a poor experience. A model like the Customer Decision Journey will help you visualise and quantify how customers are really engaging with your products and services at every stage of the journey

Customer journey mapping

One of the most effective customer experience techniques is customer journey mapping. Mapping how a customer uses your product or service, across all channels, can be illuminating and surprising. It is sometimes completely different from the way that companies assume that customers behave.

Example: an energy company in New Zealand found, through a customer journey mapping exercise, that customers changing their address during a house move sometimes had to call the company as many as six times. Financial analysis revealed that each of those calls cost the company $8, meaning each address change could conceivably cost the company $64. With more than 100,000 customers moving house each year, this was costing the company a considerable amount of money.

But the success of the customer journey mapping exercise is often not the creation of the map itself, or even the insights that come from that process (although these are critical). One of the greatest benefits is the collaboration between senior representatives from every area of the organisation. In practice these people rarely work together. Often, they have never met. Through this process, they share moments of insight, and collaborate on possible solutions to customers’ problems. This interaction is gold and platinum combined.

Exercise: Think about the Customer Decision Journey

Download the diagram below and annotate it according to the journey of your own customers. Add a percentage to reflect the amount of time your company spends on each area. Write down some typical projects or services that fall naturally into one of the categories.

Are you spending the majority of time in the pre-sale and sale area? Where do you think your customers would want you to spend more time? Where are your customers most likely to experience problems? How could you create more enjoyable experiences?



Keep improving: constant, incremental change



“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’.”


Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

It’s human nature to get overwhelmed. Our brains can only handle so much information and so much complexity at any given time. Our natural reaction to mental overload? Shut down. In user experience language, we call this ‘analysis paralysis’. When we apply this concept to large complex customer experience transformation programs (or any culture change initiatives for that matter), we see well-intentioned efforts stalled or stuck because the change needed feels too big. We think Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’ story captures this phenomena perfectly.

The Brilliant Noise take on ‘Bird by Bird’ is constant improvement. It is so important to us that we have encoded it into our company’s values and principles. “We learn by doing.”

  • The approach is simple and straight-forward.
  • Identify a problem that needs addressing
  • Work with relevant stakeholders to design possible solutions
  • Agree on the course of action that is likely to have the biggest impact
  • Take a benchmark of metrics before the test begins
  • Run the test
  • Repeat the benchmark on completion of the test
  • Document the results as a case study
  • Use the results to secure investment and approval for a series of other pilots
  • Repeat and scale up

The key message of this approach is that you don’t have to solve everything in one go. In fact, companies that attempt to solve everything in one go are more likely to fail. Companies that succeed are those that have a more agile approach, and take it ‘bird by bird’. They identify a key issue or challenge, develop a pilot to address this challenge, design a pragmatic solution, measure the results, and do it all over again as a disciplined and systematic approach.

One powerful example comes from a major mobile services provider – a well respected global brand with a solid market share. In 2010 its mobile phone network became unreliable – customers experienced dropped calls and outages for hours, sometimes even days at a time. Angry customers defected in their hundreds of thousands.

In 2012, the brand’s new CEO decided to tackle the problem. One of the first things he saw was a workforce that was demoralised from all the negative sentiment, and a headquarters staff that were completely insulated from the problems and cares of their customers. His response? Stage a fictional office ‘break-in’.

Staff arrived one morning to see chairs upended, flowers and papers strewn on the floors, and messages written in lipstick on windows and elevator doors. It was as if an angry ex-lover had broken in to vent their anger. But to whom? The message to staff: “Our customers are breaking up with us and we need to do something about it.”

After this, all the HQ staff were provided with a simple tool: an app on their phones that would allow them to help a customer – any customer – who expressed frustration with the company. So, if a someone started to relate their frustrations with the service (an all-too common occurrence), the staff member could pull out their phone, hand it to the other person and they would be immediately connected to a dedicated team given powers to sort out the customer’s problems in a single phone call.

The challenge? How to make your staff really connect with customer problems. The experience design approach? Research to identify and articulate the challenge, followed by a bit of ‘shock and awe’, and then provide a simple tool to empower staff members to become part of the solution. This pilot was then scaled up to include widespread cultural change efforts, social media sharing of customer success stories, and mandatory HQ staff days in retail shops.

The takeaway is that little things can make a big difference. Your staff are people first, and their network of relationships could be used to help reach out and fix problems. The lesson to staff: their friends and family are customers too, with real problems.

Exercise: Just one thing

We’ve talked a lot about birds and pilots, because we believe this approach is the most effective way to achieve quantifiable success.

What would your pilot be? Here’s how to start:

  1. What’s a challenge that is present in your organisation? Choose something that you can tackle.
  2. How would you describe the challenge to someone outside your organisation? Can you do it in one or two sentences?
  3. Thinking about a specific customer, how would they describe the same challenge?
  4. What one thing could you do in less than a week to make a positive difference?
  5. What would be required for your one thing to happen?
  6. What help do you need to make it happen?


Conclusion: requirements for success


“If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we get.”

Stephen Covey, Author, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

We’ve outlined an approach that we think will help organisations begin to make improvements to the quality of their customer experience. But what we haven’t overtly said is this: customer experience transformation is difficult. The associated changes in culture required to become truly customer-obsessed are even harder to make. If it wasn’t, more companies would be getting it right.

This represents an opportunity, but one that will not be on the table for long. The market has already begun to turn. Pay attention to how many companies are now advertising their customer experience or service offerings, rather than talking about price and products?

One such brand is first direct, the UK’s “most recommended bank”, winner of the ‘Which? Best banking brand 2014’, and the first ranked of 250 UK brands in Nunwood’s Customer Experience Excellence League. No small feat.

In its television advertising, a talking lizard character chases a pizza delivery guy down the street for delivering the wrong kind of pizza. “I hate bad service!” he yells. No mention of interest rates, or financial products, or special offers. The message is: if you want a good experience, do business with us.

This is emphasised on its website: “We offer you all the usual banking services, like a current account, savings, cards, mortgages, loans and insurance, but where we’re different is the way we offer them. We listen, we have a conversation and we recognise that it’s your money, not ours.”

EasyJet’s current television campaign focuses on the quick check-in offered by its new electronic ticketing smartphone app. No more paper tickets, and not a single hint of its brand promise: “Our mission is to manage and extend Europe’s leading value brand to more products and services, whilst creating real wealth for all stakeholders”. This is not a customer experience brand vision, and yet its advertising is now all about how easy it is to fly with easyJet.

Requirements for success

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.”


Steve Jobs, founder of Apple computers

So what are the requirements for success? We’ve outlined an approach to customer experience and experience design that is, above all, simple. Our closing recommendations are equally simple – not easy to implement necessarily, but to be competitive in this Age of the Customer, we think these things are essential:

  • Seek to create ‘instances of change’ not revolutions
  • Commit to creating meaningful customer interactions, and learn from them
  • Know that improving customer experience requires changes to your culture
  • Support transformation from the top down and across the entire business
  • Invest in people and process, not technology or products
  • Forge a simple, but disciplined approach to the work
  • And, last, to quote Apple’s famous slogan: ‘Think Different’

Next steps

We’ve talked a lot about using simple pilot projects to test concepts and break through analysis paralysis. In the previous pages, we’ve offered a number of ways to do this, but we believe the most effective entry point is to begin with a self-contained one-off project that produces immediate value. For example, we often kick off projects by:

  • Conducting an expert review of your website, social media or mobile presence (this is simple, straightforward and cost-effective, producing high impact and actionable findings).
  • Undertaking a digital strategy, culture, content, brand or experience audit (including best practices and approaches that work by using frameworks and ways of thinking that create immediate value).
  • Customer journey mapping – a simple and cost-effective way to truly understand how your customers are trying to engage with your products and services (and often failing).