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Always Human, Sometimes a Customer: The Distinction That Could Be Undermining CX | Opinion

My career in CX began unintentionally when I tried to answer what seemed a simple question: Why don’t people do as we expect or tell them to?

At the time, I was in the Fire and Rescue Service, and we wanted to understand why people did not follow our advice when they encountered a fire in their home. It was the start of what has now been a 12-year ongoing fascination with understanding the human experience, in situations ranging from emergencies to citizen services to commercial transactions.

During that period, I have seen how the desire for organizations to ‘know their customers’ has driven various and increasingly sophisticated means to identify specific traits and profiles that would provide this insight. In fact we have reached the point where it has been said that certain companies now know us better then we know ourselves. The sheer amount of data and incredible technology available suggest this is, or could be, true. But I disagree and think that there is a fundamental error in how customers are understood, with wide ranging impacts.

What is a customer?

The term ‘customer’ is a good place to start. According to the Collins dictionary, “A customer is someone who buys goods or services, especially from a shop.” There are other definitions of course but they have a similar meaning. So, using this definition we are all at some time or other likely to be an active customer, sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity. But how much time does the average person spend in any given day ‘being a customer’. It depends and varies of course, but it is unlikely to be a major component of most peoples’ time. Whether you consider being a customer an activity or role, it is at best a small part of our lives. In fact if you asked someone to describe themselves, they may reference their job or their social/family status, but it is very unlikely they would self-describe as a customer.

But the concept of a customer is clearly a useful one. For the customer, it gives them a temporary and recognized status to navigate any interaction with a company. As a customer they can be given certain general rights and safeguards as well as creating their own expectations or needs as an individual.

For organizations, it provides a standardized and distinct label for one of the many stakeholder groups that they will need to consider. For individual organizations, it also means that they can use their resources effectively by focusing their efforts on retaining or attracting the specific persons or groups that are likely to be a customer with them.

Part of this will include using various data and insight sources to know their customers specific needs and expectations sufficiently well to be able to create a journey and experience that perfectly aligns the brand and customer requirements. And if the brand believes it knows their customers and can control the experience they provide them, then it logically follows that the results of any customer metrics should provide a direct correlation with the planned experience and can be analyzed without overly worrying about external variables.

All in all this presents an intuitive and compelling proposition. The idea of a defined, stable, and therefore predictable customer profile has an obvious appeal for business. As a result, segmentation and customer personas have become a core component of most CX initiatives.

So overall, the concept of a ‘customer’ represents a mutually valuable and common meeting point between parties that often inhabit different spaces, whether B2C or B2B. In doing so, it means there are some overarching rules and language that enable individuals or organizations to set expectations, participate and compare their experience between any brand regardless of sector.

Being human

So what’s the problem? The answer to that is in the almost unstated assumption that when someone becomes a customer, they can somehow be detached from the far more complex state of being human. As opposed to customers, humans are far less knowable and very prone to variation in their behaviors. As humans there are multiple dynamic influences constantly affecting different aspects of their life and in turn their moods and behaviors.

For example, health, finances, employment, relationships, or major life changes can all be the cause of increased joy or distress, both individually and in combination. The peak end rule does not just apply to planning a single CX journey but, as a human, is a cumulative, fluctuating, and ongoing influence running through every day. Receiving very good or bad news prior to engaging with a brand will normally change the baseline from which the customer assesses their experience. Heightened or suppressed emotions may also alter how they interact with the brand (and in turn how the brand responds) and the feedback they provide on their experience. At an individual level, the presence and influence of these ‘human’ influences will nearly always be beyond the knowledge of the brand, and as such it is difficult to modify feedback results to allow for their effects.

As well as the role of general life issues, another feature of being human is that we are by nature very adaptable to our immediate circumstances. Context and circumstances matter. It is unusual that someone’s behaviors and experience is not directly influenced by the context in which any event takes place. These include internal factors (e.g. thoughts) or external, for example whether you are alone, with friends, work colleagues or family members (and which ones).

What all of this points to is that there is not a single and knowable version of an individual human. Throughout any given period, different influences impact and change their behaviors and mood. For short functional transactions this may not matter too much, but as the complexity or length of a customer process increases, it will. But few companies are designed to cater for this level of uncertainty – ’I don’t know’ is still not a popular answer in traditional companies. And yet when it comes to understanding humans, or customers in human terms, it Is very much the reality. A case of working with ‘as is’ rather than ‘as imagined’ (or desired). To keep pretending otherwise creates a false certainty and misses the opportunity to really connect with and meet your customer’s needs.

Consequences of designing for customers and not humans

This distinction can be better understood by briefly considering some consequences of current thinking and practice.

Within CX literature and presentations there are frequent references to creating the customer experience. There are of course many aspects of this that the brand can control, these include the physical or digital environment and architecture. And if it believes it ‘knows’ its customers, then it will see them as another largely known and controllable element. The result is that the brand will believe it has removed any significant uncertainty or variables and can manage the experience customers have with them. That can generate some of the following problems

Measurement

Measuring and quantifying remains a core requirement in many organizations and CX is no different. Whether to chart progress or quantify the ROI, there is ongoing debate about the application and efficacy of the various metrics. However, most are underpinned by a desire to structure and quantify in some form as this feeds more readily into most corporate processes. But if in understanding customers as humans, and an acceptance of the presence of unknowns and uncontrollable factors, then the debate may need re-framing. New solutions that better recognize the customers influence on how they experience the brand will be required.

Customer rationality

Another consequence of the customer model is that when customer behavior deviates from the expected ones, they are often blamed. Recent examples include customers being accused of panic buying and bad behavior. As mentioned, understanding why customers did not behave as expected was the focus of my research. Our finding was that in fact people are rarely irrational but often act in relation to influences not known or considered by the organization when it sees them only as a customer, and not as a human. Effectively the brand has failed to understand its customer sufficiently. Or potentially there has been some change (internal or external to the brand) that they are responding to.

Another version of blaming customers is the recent commentary that they are becoming more demanding. There is undoubtedly some truth in this (mainly because brands keep raising the bar), But it may also be true in many cases that their expectations have not significantly changed but they have just become frustrated by brands that are not delivering, despite all the investments. Even now, many organizations are still telling customers that it is due to the pandemic. After nearly two years, customers quite rightly don’t expect to hear that as an excuse for poor service.

Rather than blaming the customer is rarely a positive or helpful strategy. A  better solution is usually to be found by looking upstream at the service design, messages, or other cues that a brand puts out.

Personalization

For many brands, personalization is seen as a key strategy and potential differentiator. And yet, it has many facets and may mean different things to different people. But certainly it operates along a scale which at one end may tend to require general market knowledge to provide a range of standardised product or service options for the customer to freely select from. Here the brand focus is in some ways consistent with a human-centric approach and personalisation is enabled through enhancing the information, options and decision-making architecture. The customer can then apply these to their own circumstances.

At the other end, the focus is on building an intimate knowledge of each customer to allow the brand to provide a very tailored offering reflecting and influencing the individuals’ perceived preferences. This very much sees them as a ‘knowable’ customer with consistent behavior. But when understood as a human the reality is that there will be a lot of contextual influences which will always remain beyond the knowledge of brands. At worst these can make personalization feel intrusive or inappropriate for the customer.

Summary

CX is enjoying a welcome increase in prominence within brands and yet amongst CX professionals there is much debate about why it is failing to deliver in many areas or has to some extent stagnated. It is likely to be a combination of reasons and topics such as tools and metrics readily attract much debate. But to unlock the ability to advance the profession it may also be necessary to go much deeper – to make explicit and review some of the underpinning assumptions. Does the current concept or definition of a customer work or is it appealing more to the needs and desires of the brands themselves (knowledge and control) rather than reflecting the reality of the world as it is (changeable and with high levels of uncertainty)?

If so, it may take require fundamental changes to the mindset and methodologies available to CX or Human Experience (HX) professionals. It should be better appreciated that both the brand and customer contribute to experience. Brands can control many of the inputs such as creating an intentional and consistent environment for interactions with them. But they do not, and cannot, own the experience derived from it. The customer does, and they bring to it a complex and unknowable state which may to varying extents influence their interaction. It is important for brands to know what they can and can’t control or measure. If not, false assumptions can quickly become embedded as ‘industry knowledge’ and undermine progress.

In closing, I return to the question that began my CX journey – why people don’t behave as expected? My research and experience suggest that in nearly every case, it will be because the brand has failed to understand their customer to some extent. It is likely that rather than seeking to know them as customers, we should try to know them differently. As humans, who sometimes buy things. And designing for humans requires different approaches to designing experiences for customers. Making that change could unlock new possibilities for CX.

We remain always human and only sometimes a customer.

About the author

David Wales
David is the Founder of SharedAim, a boutique international consultancy that specializes in service design and customer experience, created for humans. Prior to this, he had a distinguished career in the fire and rescue service, leading a pioneering study of human behavior and being appointed as its first CX manager. A multi-award-winning professional, David remains a sought-after advisor to the global crisis and humanitarian sector, combining this with his CX work. David is currently writing a book on what a human-first approach means, and why it will be essential for organizations that want to thrive in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. He welcomes contributions and to get in touch, or just connect, please use LinkedIn.

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