CX Strategy (3) – You need a strategy

Welcome to the third article in my series on how to develop and implement a customer experience strategy. You can find the previous articles in the series here.

Why bother with strategy?

The reason you need a strategy is simple: you do not have unlimited resources and never will. The word comes from the Greek strategos and means ‘generalship’. Its origin is in how to deploy your scarce troops, equipment and diplomatic resources to win battles and wars. It is all about defeating the enemy. No general ever won a battle by saying, “I don’t care where the enemy is, or what they are doing. I am going to line up my army three deep all across this open battlefield. I don’t care what weapons my army has nor how they compare to those of the enemy. I don’t care about the weather today or tomorrow. I don’t care what my allies are doing. I have given my troops their top 20 priorities. We will just walk slowly forwards and I am sure we will win.” Sounds ridiculous? It should. Unfortunately, this is what most companies’ customer experience strategies look like.

Your enemies are outside your company

In business, your enemies are your competitors. The purpose of any customer experience strategy should be to do things differently or better than your competitors so you can win. The strategy should be articulated in terms of three to five priorities or initiatives that are easy to remember and make the biggest difference. The number of priorities is important. George A. Miller of Harvard published The Magic Number is 7, plus or minus 2 way back in 1955, suggesting that most people find it reasonably easy to remember about seven things. I find that teams in modern businesses cannot spontaneously remember more than five priorities. Think about this in terms of being able to list your priorities on the fingers of one hand.

Quick start

If you are just starting and don’t have a strategy, here is how to go about generating one quickly. What follows is adapted from Willie Pietersen’s book Reinventing Strategy and his lectures that I attended at Columbia Business School. I have used and improved the methodology for many years.

There are five steps and the following chapters cover them in detail:

  1. Situation analysis: understand what is going on and what will change.
  2. Make your strategic choices.
  3. Secure the necessary sponsorship and investments.
  4. Implement and experiment.
  5. Start again.

What follows below are some things I have learned about the nature of strategy.

Resource limitations

As Pietersen explains, chess would not be an interesting game if you had unlimited resources. “Ah, you took my queen? Never mind, I have plenty more queens.” The whole process is about using your resources as efficiently as you possibly can. Translating this to customer experience, statements like “We need to exceed customer expectations in every interaction they have with us” are both wasteful and unachievable. You don’t have unlimited resources. You should not bother trying to exceed expectations on things that don’t matter. Most customer touchpoints don’t matter. It takes work to find out which ones do, and which ones can give you a competitive advantage. What matters for you will differ from what matters for your competitors. There are no universal answers.

The concept of hygiene factors

There are plenty of areas of customer interaction that are what I call ‘hygiene factors’. The old explanation is to think about them like taking a shower. Nobody will thank you for taking a shower but everyone will notice if you don’t do so for a long time. What this means is that there are things that just have to be ‘good enough’, but making them better will be a bad investment. Remedial phone support is an example. You need to be good enough at answering the phone and solving customer problems. Creating the capability to talk to them about past problems, or their birthdays and favorite sports teams does not add any relevant value. Similarly, delivering a product when a customer expects it is a hygiene factor. Delivering it early may be counterproductive and not worth the effort.

Just as standards of human cleanliness have changed over time, hygiene factors are evolving too. Yesterday’s ‘wow!’ factor, like being on Twitter, may be today’s basic requirement.

Never combine strategy and planning

A note of caution: never combine strategy and planning in a single exercise. ‘Strategy and planning manager’ is a common corporate job title. It has been my title in the past. When you combine strategy and planning into a single job, only planning gets done. When you start to do your strategy work just before the budget submission is due, your working team members will quickly start to say, “Forget this… just give me the spreadsheet to fill in.” Strategy is a creative divergent process. By its nature, it is about doing things you are not currently doing. Planning is a convergent process. It takes what you want to do and creates order about doing it. Divergent and convergent thinking are diametrically opposed and should never be combined. Make sure you work on strategy at a time of year when planning deadlines are not creating pressures that will prevent you doing anything other than making minor adjustments to your current strategy.

Tactics can change, strategy should not

Once you have established a customer experience strategy, you must give it time to work. Just as marketing produces its results in the mid-term, the same is true of customer experience. This can be a challenging dynamic in businesses that are driven to produce results each quarter. Maintaining sponsorship for your work is both difficult and critical. Sponsorship is the subject of a section of this book. If you are creating a strategy where none exists, you will be under pressure to demonstrate results. The pressure is as much self-imposed as it is from other parts of your organization. The section on sponsorship includes advice on how to ensure your work continues in times of cost pressure, as well as times of growth.

You know you have a strategy when the screaming starts

Deciding what you will not do is just as important as deciding what you will do. Ensuring you have the necessary resources will probably involve stopping existing work and transferring people and budgets to new work. It is inevitable that the people currently doing that work will be upset about the choices. Plan on this, and only be satisfied that your strategy is clear when the pushback actually starts to happen.


Next time

The next article will be the first covering a relevant behavioral economics topic: What you see is all there is.


As is often the case, the above is an edited version of a chapter in one of our books; in this case Customer Experience Strategy – Design and Implementation.All of our books are available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon stores worldwide, and from your better book retailers.