by Mary K. Pratt

8 tips for improving customer experience

Aug 24, 2021
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

CX is the new IT imperative. Here's how IT leaders can staff up, get agile, and spearhead tech initiatives that deliver experiences that win over customers.

at your service customer service customer centric service bell by bgton getty
Credit: bgton / Getty Images

The vast majority of CIOs are seeing investments in customer experience hold steady or rise, testament to the importance of CX today.

Consider the figures from Adobe’s CIO Perspectives Survey 2021: 33% of respondents say investments are up while only 8% are seeing cuts; the rest are level-funded. In the US, an even higher percentage of CIOs are seeing a bump in funds for CX, with 40% of them getting bigger budgets for that work.

CIOs will have to show some good returns for all that money. To help with that, asked a dozen experts for tips on what CIOs can do to bring continuous improvement to their organization’s customer experience. Here’s what they say.

Have a dedicated team

Consumers expect good experiences from companies, and they demonstrate that with their dollars. The Customer Experience Trends 2021 report from software maker Zendesk found that 65% of customers want to buy from companies that offer quick and easy online transactions and 75% will spend more money buying from companies that provide them a good experience. On the other hand, 50% say they’d switch companies if they have even just one bad experience and 80% would switch if they have two or more.

Given such high stakes, organizations can’t afford to make customer experience a side gig for their staffers, says Joe Murray, chief digital officer of North America at technology consultancy Thoughtworks.

“Establish a dedicated team responsible for the continuous evolution of a north star customer experience,” Murray says. “Many organizations make the mistake of doing some research, create a north star customer journey map, post it on the wall, and call it done. Now more than ever, your customer experience strategy requires constant gardening and evolution if you want to obtain and maintain market leadership.”

Only a minority of companies are there. The State of Customer Experience Report in 2021 from software company Usersnap found that although 56% of business-to-consumer companies have CX or voice-of-consumer (VOC) teams, less than 20% of business-to-business companies and less than 30% of those identifying as both B2B and B2C have such teams.

And make those teams truly interdisciplinary

The Usersnap survey also found that companies often assign various departments to work on customer experience, with development being one of eight options commonly seen for CX activities. CX, marketing, sales, operations, and product departments are also in the mix, in addition to the general management and support functions.

The best CX programs bring all those together in multidisciplinary teams, says Benjamin Rehberg, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, adding that the technology department should neither be driving customer experience on its own nor be left out of the loop.

Rehberg advises CIOs to use agile methodologies, such as the DevSecOps framework, to bring multidisciplinary teams together. He says CIOs should also educate other department leaders on such processes to truly pull everyone together.

“The CIO is a critical component in making this work, but the CIO will be lost in trying to lift it on his or her own,” Rehberg says. “The organization has to play along with this and do their part to drive better customer experience.”

Get those teams up-close to customers

CX programs know that feedback is essential for developing the experiences that customers want. But experts say many companies get too little or incomplete feedback and so should develop ways to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what customers like and dislike.

“A CIO can help build the systems and processes that enable the right activities and conversations to take place,” says Jeff Gothelf, a coach and consultant as well as co-author of Lean UX: Designing Great Products with Agile Teams.

Gothelf acknowledges that CIOs and their technologists face challenges in this regard; they’re generally several layers removed from direct contact with customers and they’re often stymied by sales and marketing in their attempts to make a direct connection.

But CIOs can take steps to bridge that gap by advocating with their C-suite colleagues for more interaction with customers, having their technologists spend regularly scheduled time in customer-facing functions, and building systems that gather more accurate data about customers’ interactions with applications.

Forrester Research analyst David Truog says he has seen IT departments plan “ride-alongs” in customer-facing functions to get better CX perspectives. He has seen teams use videos of customers interacting with their apps — it’s particularly eye-opening to watch people get frustrated as they fumble through clicks. Truog notes that some teams are also now using intelligent systems such as sentiment analysis to analyze those interactions.

Invest in the right back-end infrastructure, not just customer-facing tech

Customer-facing interfaces, functions, and services rely on having modern, fully-integrated back-office systems.

“It’s not just having a website and a chatbot but having a chatbot that’s integrated with all the needed data,” says Megan Silva, manager of CX/CRM consulting at Cognizant, an IT consultancy.

Silva says many companies are trying to catch up now with big investments to modernize their CRM systems.

She points to the healthcare industry as case in point. Many medical institutions rushed to enable telehealth in 2020 in response to the pandemic but often didn’t have the capabilities needed to enable their patients to book follow-up appointments or pay for services while logged on for their sessions.

“There should be ‘Here’s the link to schedule,’ ‘click to pay the bill,’ but instead you have to call or you’re filling out the same form repeatedly. It’s still a clunky experience,” she says, noting that companies in other industries are in the same boat. “There are companies who are just not set up for customer experience. They might have 30 tools but nothing is integrated, so they’re going to have to completely transpose what they have because they know some startup can roll in and take them down.”

Don’t ignore nondigital channels

In its Tech Trends 2021, Deloitte highlights how “physical and digital are blending to create hybrid user experiences.”

This new environment requires IT to implement technologies that enable the organization to seamlessly and securely meld in-person and online services to create one coherent experience for their customers, says Scott Buchholz, who as managing director with Deloitte Consulting serves as government and public services CTO at the firm and its national Emerging Tech Research director.

“The pandemic forced many of us to get more comfortable with digital interactions than we were two years ago, and that’s impacting customer experience because people are rethinking what’s the right balance of human and digital interaction,” Buchholz says. “So as a CIO, I have to ask, ‘How do I use the fact that people are going to go to digital and physical channels in new ways? How do I leverage technologies like AI to make sure people are happiest and to make interactions easy and intuitive?’”

Get the right skills

Your multidisciplinary team should also have targeted expertise, Buchholz says. He points to his own experience: As a developer, he was good at coding but he wasn’t as strong at building user interfaces.

“User design and design for customer experience are actually skills that need to be trained,” he says. Don’t assume your technologists possess them innately. “It’s important to recognize that the expertise to design for fellow humans is often not in the enterprise.”

The organizations most successful in CX understand that, and consequently they have either full-time specialists on staff or have trained some of their technologists specifically on these design skills to lend them as needed to their CX programs.

Rehberg, too, stresses the need for CIOs to cultivate the right skills on their teams, saying he sees the need to shift workers from a developer mindset (where they work to specified business requirements) to an engineer mindset (where technologists devise ways to use code to solve problems). “Developers need to be taught and trained to work differently,” he adds.

Use the right metrics to evaluate staff

To win at UX, CIOs must move away from evaluating and measuring their teams on traditional productivity metrics (e.g. how many lines of code produced) and instead evaluate IT workers on how well CX programs achieve targeted business outcomes, says Josh Seiden, principal of Seiden Consulting and co-author of Lean UX.

For example, if a company is trying to boost the completion rate for online loan applications from 10% to 80%, then CX teams should be measured against that objective.

“The measure then isn’t ‘Did you built what I told you?’ or ‘Did you build what you said you would?’ but rather ‘Are our customers having a better experience,’” Gothelf says.

Go all in with agile principles

The 15th State of Agile Report, released in July 2021 by tech company, found that more than 90% of respondents say their companies practice agile. Moreover, most said that either the majority or even all of their company’s teams — and not just its development staff — have adopted agile-related methodologies, tools, and processes.

But Seiden says he has found that many organizations do not fully embrace agile principles and, as such, don’t have the customer contact and user feedback necessary to build a program of continuous CX improvement. “That feedback needs to be done not after 18 months of marching through battle but every week,” he says.

Baiju Shah, chief strategy officer with Accenture Interactive, agrees. That involves more than truly integrating customer feedback, with Shah saying organizations must fully embrace modern ways of working if they want to deliver exceptional customer experiences on an ongoing basis.

“Both technology and customer expectations are continuing to rapidly evolve. Before making a decision on what is the best fit for their organization, CIOs must understand how to effectively and responsibly use the technology to ensure it is the right fit for their people,” he explains. “It is also essential to modernize their way of working, enabling organizations to keep up with the rapid pace of change while also adapting as they go. This requires organizations to move away from functional siloes and optimize individual experiences to overhaul their systems, structures, and operations, with tech underpinning it. This puts the entire business in service of their experience, which is what we like to call the ‘business of experience.’ For this to be successful, CIOs must engage with employees and other stakeholders throughout the process.”

More on customer experience: