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Customer Experience vs. Service-Product

By Denis Pombriant CRM Buyer ECT News Network
Sep 2, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Last week, I made the suggestion that we have overdone our reliance on customer experience as a customer intimacy tool -- something that I stand by. The idea of customer experience looms large, and there is no denying its power as a theme in CRM. But if our interpretation of customer experience is off the mark, as I think it is, then what is the right approach?

Customer Experience vs. Service-Product

First, by way of review, customer experience has come to mean a literal experience had by a customer with a vendor, product or service rather than a product or service cultivated -- through value add -- to be an experience. The customer experience as we know it today is a method of establishing customer intimacy, and it is only one of several intimacy strategies that we should consider using -- along with product line extension, product enhancement and marketing. All of the other intimacy strategies require some greater knowledge of the customer, especially understanding customer attitudes, which can be gained through communities and other social media whose focus is information gathering rather than message or idea elaboration.

The Service-Product

What separates customer experience, in my mind, from other intimacy strategies is that all the other strategies deal with "the thing itself," either a product or a service. Customer experience is a meta-intimacy strategy because it operates at a level of abstraction above the thing itself.

It strikes me that when we talk about the customer experience, what we really mean is our service-product. That might seem like a distinction without a difference, but it is not. The hyphen between service and product is deliberate. In conjoining the words, it emphasizes an idea that might not be strange to us, but it is often subliminal.

Customer experience is generic, a thing to be achieved through prescribed processes within an organization, an outcome with few inputs. A service-product, on the other hand, is more open-ended. It takes whatever shape a customer gives it, and it is different from brand to brand, person to person. A service-product also has this key difference from an experience -- it captures or ought to capture customer input well beyond the hoped-for conclusion of satisfaction. A well-executed service-product looks for root causes, captures data and influences future company decisions about product and brand.

The 'Experience' of Invasive Oral Surgery

Replacing a customer experience orientation with a service-product idea will do several things for any company. As I have tried to say elsewhere, the current description of customer experience amounts to little more than the "ordinary care" that hotels owe guests. But no one competes on ordinary care because it is so easy to supersede.

We try to develop customer experience as a way to differentiate, and while that may be a good thing, some products and services simply cannot be cultivated into customer experiences. Consider root canal. It is a service that will never be cultivated into an experience -- except for the pain killers, as one experienced patient told me recently. If we attempt to convert a service like this into a customer experience, we run headlong into a wall. Far better to look for ways to improve the service-product than attempt to make it something it is not. Also, since only some services can be cultivated into true experiences, it can relieve managers and line of business people from the contortions necessary to attempt to achieve a customer experience.

A true service-product orientation is an instant differentiator. Like any other product, a service-product can be differentiated based on customer input. In contrast, a pre-determined customer experience is a playbook to be executed, and the customer is almost a bystander.

Getting the Terminology Straight

The good news is that many companies already approach the customer experience as a service-product, and they are highly successful at knowing their customers as well as ensuring their satisfaction. Notwithstanding this success, I believe it is critical to get our terms right, to focus on the service aspect rather than sticking to the literal meaning of experience.

If we fail to get our terms coordinated, we risk ignoring real opportunities for innovation in our businesses. And at some point an ossified customer experience idea will fail to meet the needs of those whose need is for service-products. When that happens, we will wring our hands and ask how and why CRM failed us. Of course, it won't be CRM that failed, but our vision.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.

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