Between Design and Execution

While companies have always understood the necessity of knowing their customer, today’s millennials are often more educated about your products and services due to the wealth of information readily available online. This savvy consumer is looking through product reviews, and reading through Reddit blog posts about other customers’ experiences before even engaging with any frontline employees. With a combination of this knowledge and the millennial cries of entitlement, creating differentiating customer experiences is a core focus for a growing number of Fortune 500 companies, if not all.

In many organizations I work with, there is an ongoing unspoken and sometimes unacknowledged battle between a company’s ambitions for a best-in-class customer experience, and what they are able to deliver. Given the size and scale of many of these organizations, pivoting as quickly as possible toward new or emerging technologies and management practices has been a challenge. Reasons for this could be lack of concerted coordination to establish customer experience as a discipline in the organization, and/or a design that fails to acknowledge key inputs, such as cultural dynamics.

The approach taken by many organizations can be described as looking from “outside in” or “inside out.” The “outside in” approach typically starts with designing the ideal customer experience and then understanding out how to operationalize it. “Inside out” begins with first understanding back-end business processes in order to optimize the customer experience. Both these approaches can work in specific scenarios. The ideal approach, however, combines elements of both: where business and experience design are concurrently developed ensuring balanced decision making. Combined with top-down support, effective design and execution can provide a more consistent experience that resonates with customers. Let’s deep dive on each one.

From Outside In: The External Approach

Design looks for inputs by understanding the ideal customer experience: tracing the current journey, identifying break points, sourcing inspiration from current business practices as well as creating new experiences based on the discovery of unmet needs. Once the ideal customer experience is identified and approved, the challenge lies in operationalizing this ultimate experience.

The current business processes and functions are identified to retrofit the new customer experience into the current state. Unfortunately, all too often, the ability for a company’s current infrastructure, cultural dynamics, and management practices to change and align in order to produce the designed experience as it was intended can be a monumental challenge. Trade-offs are made and, at times, the final implemented design bastardizes the original intent so much that it may inadvertently create new pain points for the consumer.

This scenario tends to happen when the primary focus is the customer experience – typically, driven by marketing or service design teams. It enables an organization to set a customer experience north star by designing the ideal tenets, frameworks, tools and journeys. Based on the proposed future state vision, it is up to the decision makers and change teams to understand how much they can control or allow poor infrastructure and internal politics to impact their ability to deliver a differentiating customer experience – or risk providing fodder for a competitors’ local marketing team.

From Inside Out: The Internal Approach

With an internal view, design looks at the current business process or structure to understand internal business method of work, roles, and functions. Typically, customer insight is not effectively collected, relying on only business proxy or consumer insights (e.g., market research or generic customer survey results) intended for a different purpose. The future state design is delivered, but the ideated experience is confined by the identified business constraints. While design is purposeful and attempts to understand the consumer’s point of view, the ability to uncover unmet needs and innovate is restricted by the lack of stimuli to fuel ideation and inspire creative disruption. The change team’s circle of knowledge is almost too wide (focused on the internal view), as their full understanding of the business capabilities (or lack thereof) can limit creativity.

Even with an expert implementation team, the lackluster design doesn’t carry enough inspiration to energize consumerfacing frontline teams. Activation becomes an uphill battle for the most seasoned change teams to motivate employees to live and breathe a new mindset or way of working with any conviction. Despite exhaustive training, encouraging employees to live new corporate values and demonstrate a customer experience vision is a challenge. Without understanding the customer tenets, journey, and needs, the design fails to address employees’ current concerns, help them meet their objectives, or clarify how it should be applied to their daily lives.

Typically, this type of scenario occurs with internal business process design work, or when there are regulatory requirements to be satisfied. In these cases, customer experience is a secondary consideration – even though other areas of an organization have the mandate to elevate the overall customer experience. As large organizations have many projects in progress and in the pipeline at any time, there may not be the involvement or understanding to focus on impact of design on the customer experience.

Resolving Challenges

With a view of both the organization’s plumbing and the customer’s perspective, ideation and design can benefit from an understanding of the full range of possibilities and limitations. Through parallel design, the customer experience journey and internal business processes can be transformed in lock step. A key advantage to this method is that the impact of business decisions on the customer experience is more thoroughly understood, whereas decisions made during design or execution is more often with an internal view. In this way, trade-offs are informed choices, reducing post-activation changes or errors that may cost more to fix than the original execution.

It is the ever-present silos within companies that make designing and maintaining a differentiating customer experience a challenge. With scale comes complexity, and many systems, processes, and geographically dispersed teams can impact the customer experience. A concerted top-down effort is an effective starting point to overcome the effect of silos and firmly root the desired customer experience principles. Managing and maintaining the experience as leaders and employees come and go, and through multiple channels, requires a thoughtful and purposeful approach – not just a grassroots concentrated effort.

Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue.

Stephanie Wan is a senior innovation strategist at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.


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Stephanie Wan