Forrester Customer Experience Forum, Day 1: CX Imperative Equals 'Survival'

NEW YORK — "Without the right mind-set—without the ability to challenge institutional assumptions about what customers need, [and] what they desire, it's almost impossible to transform your business and put your customers at the center [of it]," John Dalton, a vice president and research director at Forrester Research, said to kick off this year's Customer Experience Forum at the Midtown Hilton.

And throughout the day, speakers echoed Dalton's sentiments: "There really is a customer experience imperative," Harley Manning, a vice president and research director at Forrester Research, stressed during his presentation. "It's called survival. Whatever you were doing in the past that was successful—you cannot count on it making you successful in the future. Instead of taking the short view, you have to play the long game."

Manning said that approaches and strategies need to evolve over time, as they tend to hit their expiration dates and lose their power over time. Walmart's strategy of offering unbeatable low prices has begun to fail, for instance, as the company recently announced they would be closing hundreds of stores, as well as laying off thousands of its employees. While it may be surprising, "customer experience leaders can also be price leaders," Manning said. "Take Amazon—not only do they have low prices," but they consistently rate higher than Walmart in CX. Similarly, monopolies break, and companies with competitive advantage can lose it thanks to unexpected developments in the climate. "It's not whether to transform customer experience, it's when and how," Manning emphasized. "You have to play the long game."

And the "long game" involves staying in tune with customers by closely studying their preferences as they morph, speakers agreed. Tony Costa, a principal analyst at Forrester, illustrated this point with a brief sketch of General Motors' trajectory. While the automobile manufacturer dominated 50 percent of the U.S. market share in 1956, it holds only about 17 percent in 2016. "The assumptions that led to their success over time became ingrained in the company. As they succeeded year after year, [they] became a part of how they did business, who they were, what they were about, and eventually those became unchallenged assumptions—they forgot why [the assumptions] were there in the first place."

Costa advocated constantly working to understand customers as individuals, not as segments or demographics, while conducting research that involves ethnographic field studies and diaries. He listed a few companies that have employed such methods, as well as the results their efforts have yielded. John Deere, for instance, has learned that in India, customers use their tractors not only as farming tools, but as forms of transportation for their entire families. The manufacturer responded by adding multiple seats to accommodate them. Similarly, Costa pointed out the example of Adidas, which has understood it needs to tweak its decades-old philosophies. Rather than catering to an audience that engages in sports for competition,  people are increasingly practicing sports such as yoga for their own physical well-being, so Adidas rebranded itself accordingly by pairing up with women's designer Stella McCartney to provide a new fashion line.

Elena Ford, vice president of customer experience at the Ford Motor Company, spoke about how the carmaker is responding to changes in its industry, in particular by embracing customer demands. "There's a huge opportunity to talk to customers in a different way, but also service them in a different way with our dealers, and it's all wrapped in giving them an incredible customer experience," Ford said. The company has introduced its FordPass platform, which embraces partners who support parking services and car sharing. "We're looking for all types of partnerships, and we don't rule anybody out," Ford said.

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