What the heck is customer experience?

What the heck is customer experience?

What the heck is customer experience, and who is responsible for it? These are two very good questions, for which I, myself, have some very distinct answers.

Let’s start with them, before I dive deeper into that topic with Praval Singh, VP Marketing for Customer Experience at Zoho, who – naturally – has some good answers, too.

You prefer the original? Of course, you can watch the complete conversation, too.

Praval Singh of Zoho talks customer experience

Here it goes.

Re customer experience, I am with Paul Greenberg and Bruce Temkin, who some years ago defined customer experience. Paul defines customer experience as “how the customer feels about a company over time” while Temkin defines it as “the perception that customers have of their interactions with an organization”.

Either does it for me. It is the customer’s perception.

This makes it quite easy to answer the second question. Who is responsible?

Answer: The customer!

Why? Because the organization cannot control how I perceive my interactions because it simply doesn’t know enough about my current context, aka situation, at any given time. Organizations regularly do not know enough about my cultural background, my current situation, or my current mood. What they can do, is taking an educated guess, based upon whatever data and algorithm or AI they have at hand. What the organization can control to some extent, is their half of an engagement. This means that the best intended engagements can result in unintended and undesired perceptions.

Customer experience is a function of the customer’s experiences, the expectations towards a brand/product/company and the customer’s mood at the time of the experiences.

Hence also my cringing when I hear something in the lines of “delivering an experience”. An experience is nothing that can be wrapped up like a parcel and be delivered by UPS.

But that’s me. What is Praval’s take?

Praval is, of course, well aware that the term is pretty overused. He goes so far as to say that it even gets misused. He defines customer experience as “what would she [the customer] talk about you when you’re not in the room. That’s what the experience is all about.” This experience is what gets established during interactions across a variety of touch points. Many of these touch points are digital. And this is where vendors like Zoho play their role although technology is only a part. Praval says that “the best of software cannot solve for good customer experience”. Additional important parts are people and process, “how you look at engaging with the customer, across all touchpoints sales, marketing, customer service.” Engagement is the crucial part.

But who is in charge then?

Within the company, definitely not a single person, as there are too many moving parts and “it takes a village” to bring a strategy, a framework, and possibly best practices to life. Touch points are very diverse. They range from digital ones “designed by a designer, built by a programmer or a developer” to physical ones like “the person who gets on a phone call or response to a chat to the salesperson who may or may not engage with a prospect. It’s everybody put together”. According to Praval, engagement is a part of experience. Even the best software cannot solve the challenge that the customer having a good experience is.

So, we need to look at people, too. And this is where employee experience comes into the picture. Employee experience, though, is oftentimes looked at as disjoint from customer experience, as a separate set of systems and processes.

According to Praval, Zoho has learnt that employee experience and customer experience have a tight connection. He maintains that “we have learned talking to customers, setting these things up internally, we see great employee experience enables excellent customer experience. And with that, what I mean is if you empower your employees with the right set of tools, the right set of authority to sort of engage with customers take decisions on the fly. All that influences how you deliver the customer experience as a company.

How can Zoho have learnt this, as opposed to many other business software vendors? Because of the breadth and width of Zoho’s integrated offerings.

And I think we’re in a position to say that confidently because we have employee experience platforms and customers for that. We have customer skills platform and customers for that. And they [integrate] beautifully” into each other.

Of course, AI plays a role in this, not only since the advent of generative AI. “It is already happening” says Praval. There are well defined use cases, where AI already helps although they are not yet overly complex. “It could be letting a salesperson know when is the best time to call someone. […]So doing simple things straightforward is already in the works. It’s happening; or helping a support representative with the right answer. It could be pulled from a knowledge base or could be intelligence based on the previous experience of the customer. But whatever it takes, AI can prompt the touch point, which is a support rep in this case, to have a better answer to a question that comes in”.

Praval sees lots of potential and many open questions, especially in the area of generative AI. It is about decisions, and decisions in context. “But what we’re talking about the nuance of it, which is where the next gen[eration] of the AI would have to learn the pattern that we’re talking about, and then not just have the insight but make inferences from it. And we’ll have to see how accurate and how valuable that is. But I think we’re talking about a fair few unknown unknowns in that path as of now. But yeah, it truly has it potential. And one thing that I strongly feel is, there’s a lot of hype, obviously, about gen AI, and, and it works reasonably well in a consumer setting. I would say if you and I are doing some research, looking in for some answers there. But where gen AI lacks, at least today is having that business context.”

Part of the problem is poor integration. Looking forward, he sees this being mitigated by bringing all relevant signals into one system instead of only integrating different systems. “This whole idea of duct taping different products to to make something deliver, I think more and more companies are realizing that that phase is behind us. So, unification over integration is what delivers the best of context and brings in the best of context. And that in turn delivers the best of experiences.”

My point of view

Praval – and by extension Zoho – is touching some important functional topics here, even without going into the challenging areas of ethics and IP. With current systems, including the hyped generative AI “solutions”, the industry so far tackles only the low-hanging fruit. There are only few gen AI solutions that provide new capabilities beyond making existing ones more efficient.

This is partly because all AI solutions suffer from the same problem: data – or rather data quality. This is a result of the need for integrating far too many applications, which causes too much noise for AI to efficiently – even effectively – work. Unified systems – suites – are one way out of this dilemma. With an as clean as possible data base AI systems have a far better chance to identify underlying patterns and to with that not only present analyses but to also provide better next best actions and explain its “reasoning” or inference. In Zoho speak this is a decision intelligence that can provide value for more than just narrow use cases.

And a decision support engine that works across a wide variety of use cases and that offers explainability is what is needed beyond the hype around generative AI.What t