• March 1, 2008
  • By Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal, Beagle Research Group

The Longitude of Experience

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Not long ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Joe Pine. If that name sounds familiar but you can't quite place it, that's probably because Pine's name is often paired with James Gilmore's on book covers. The Experience Economy is one example -- you probably know that book had a lot of influence on the CRM industry in recent years. These days, you can't swing the proverbial dead cat in the CRM world without hitting the notion of customer experience and associated ideas such as customer centricity. In several conversations recently, Pine and I discussed the life cycle of an idea in the marketplace -- specifically how, through use and interpretation, an idea can be molded and sometimes distorted beyond its original meaning. We were talking about the customer experience and here's part of what Pine said: "So many folks who claim to have read The Experience Economy
missed -- or act and talk as if they missed -- the main thesis: that experiences are a distinct economic offering, as distinct from services as services are from goods." He went on to clarify that statement: "So many glom on to the language of 'customer experience' or 'experiential marketing' rather than truly design and stage experience output." In many cases, we have opted to think of the customer experience as the de facto result of an interaction: You can't help but have an opinion of that interaction -- your "experience" -- so a vendor tries to ensure that the opinion is a positive one. A lot of vendors try to cookie-cut this or that customer experience to make it predictably wonderful -- only to follow up with inane customer service surveys that ask such questions as, "Was your call answered instantly/within so many rings?" This would seem to violate the central idea that experiences are distinct and staged uniquely for customers. To a degree, every vendor needs to have standards against which performance should be measured. How else can anyone hope to improve? But dragging customer experience into that mix simply degrades the idea and potentially leaves the customer feeling cheated because she wanted more -- a real experience. But we need to refocus on what it truly means to stage a real experience: Many of us need to come to terms with the fact that not every encounter needs to be a staged and transformative experience. Many of the examples provided by Pine and Gilmore were taken from a retail perspective -- a restaurant, for example, or a theme park, places where you spend a specific amount of time for a specific purpose. The idea here is to stage a discrete experience that will resonate with the customer for a long time, even after the customer goes home. Think of it longitudinally: Over the long haul, experience takes on a different meaning. In fact, in everyday life, that's how customer experience is built up: through the slow accretion of (hopefully) mostly positive encounters. The courteous help you receive from customer service might not remind you of the exhilaration you felt when you made the initial purchase, but taken together with many similar interactions -- or experiences -- it will go a long way toward making you a repeat buyer. This "drip" experience is much closer to real life than any one-time experience found at a theme park, no matter how memorable. Pine and Gilmore recently took their ideas further with a new book, Authenticity: What Customers Really Want, which deals with the difference between what's fake and what's real. (See Required Reading, November 2007.) In the reality outlined by the book, everything is "fake, fake, fake"; only the human mind can determine what's authentic. So how do you achieve authenticity? The ideas of experience and authenticity nicely dovetail. Pine says a company or an offering achieves authenticity by "being true to itself, and being what it says it is to others." All the more reason to reconsider what we mean when we talk about the customer experience. Denis Pombriant is the founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. He can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.
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