Why you should treat customer experience as a happening

Customer Experience is not something you can design. It’s a happening: “a partly improvised or spontaneous piece of theatrical or other artistic performance, typically involving audience participation” as Wikipedia describes...

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November 2, 2020

The very moment companies try to squeeze the unpredictable and spontaneous customer behaviours into a script, they kill the essence of good CX by pushing themselves into the centre of the experience and pushing the customer out. The one-on-one interaction becomes one-to-many and personal becomes mass. Not being able to be in the lead, is the very reason why most companies have a very troubled relationship with CX. That’s because they love controllable processes and procedures and managers may even think it is their job.

Turning CX into a process, is like a broken clock: twice a day it is spot on the hour, twice a day it is pretty close and most of the time it is of no use.

The Hotel (a short story)

In 2014 and 2015 I had a extensive assignment for Microsoft in Amsterdam and I was staying many, many nights at this nice family owned hotel at the Dutch countryside where the people had started to know me and where I felt being treated like Rik and not as an object as in most other business hotels. (No, I am not going to disclose the name of the hotel, but it is a true story).

In the morning I need a warm croissants, 3 thick slices of Old Amsterdam cheese, some orange jam, a 4:30 minutes cooked egg, a double espresso and orange juice. What I do not need, are conversations. Not before my first espresso. Once I ingested it, I’m a pretty pleasant guy. But before that, I’m the equivalent of a Severus Snape who has just been forced to wear an ‘I love Harry Potter’ t-shirt, and that on an empty stomach.

The lady who took care of the breakfast area had figured that out very soon and so she started serving me exactly what I needed without asking. She made me the centre of my very own breakfast CX and I kept using the hotel, though there were more luxurious alternatives closer to Amsterdam. I even wrote a column about it for MT. That was a mistake, though.

One awful morning in the winter of 2016 was the very last time I stayed in that hotel. The hotel had being sold to a hotel chain and all of a sudden I became ‘the honoured guest Mr. Vera’ and no longer Rik. I had to check in, write down my name and passport number and leave my credit card. I did not get my usual room. And in the morning there was … the breakfast experience. The Horror.

A young student had to explain the new and ‘exciting routine’. Me and the other guests had to take a basket and go ‘to the market’. I had to go to those exciting ‘shops’ in the breakfast area and I had to stand in line, make choices and I had to talk. In the morning. The purpose of all that useless hassle, was to hand over all ingredients in my basket to ‘the wizard cook’ that would turn this into (yes again) ‘exciting breakfast plate’ I flatly refused to partake in this horrible customer journey (if you want to know why I am not so in love with customer journeys, here is why) and left the hotel to never return ever again. The hotel had just been turned from my second home into an ordinary place that was just not close enough to Amsterdam and way too expensive for the quality of the rooms. A few days later I got a message, from the breakfast lady. She explained that this (not so) amazing breakfast CX was her fault. And mine. Or rather my blog’s.

She had had a workshop with the hotel chain about ‘good CX’ and had used my blog as a case. So the CX consultants had turned my very own personal CX happening into a process, claiming that ‘we want to give that experience to every guest’. Ironically, that process turned out to be my very own horror scenario.

A Catch 22

Good CX is extremely personalised and contextual. The more one tries to scale that happening into a controllable process, the higher the chances that the CX becomes impersonal, boring or even bad. Companies seem to have this impossible choice: either they create one script for all customers (and become that broken clock and hope they do good for a few customers every day) or they write as many scripts as they have customers and specific contexts and train their people in all potential scenarios. If you have many customers, this can’t be done. But offering all customers the same CX is not an option either. It’s a perfect Catch 22.

The local record shop

Remember walking into your local record shop back in the 80’s to buy a new LP with the money you saved that month. For those that are not old enough: ask your dad or mom, they will love to tell you all about it. You will see shivers on their spine and tears in their eyes.

The guy that ran the shop did that scary thing called facial recognition: I was recognized. He knew what I had bought last time and the times before and he helped me, inspired me, listened to me to, valued me and motivated me. He even rewarded me with attention. He changed me. And he knew when I wanted to be left alone and just listen to that record before buying it.

Just imagine walking into your favourite local restaurant and not being recognized all of a sudden. How would that feel? I know how that feels: like that day in my hotel and like that day my local record shop became a chain. Chains scale happenings into processes: they connect to many, but as a customer, you no longer feel engaged.

c2M or Ei

How was that owner of the local record shop able to put me in the centre of the universe? The answer is: big data (in his head). My face and my previous purchases were stored in his memory, together with the data of many other customers, and almost all records he was selling. His head was a big data lake. That data only came into action and was being processed into information and turned into meaningful action, the very moment I walked in, with my small data (my face, my name, my history and the verbal and non-verbal happening that stared at that very moment). Based on all those data he was able to create a CX performance in which I played the central role. I felt engaged. I had the feeling that he knew me at least as well as his products and that he really cared about me making the right choice. He could do this as long as there were like 100 or maybe even 500 customers, but the processing capacity in his head was limited and so was the scalability of this customer centricity. When the local shop turned into a chain, all personalisation vanished and was being replaced by an ‘engaging’ loyalty program. More sales people did not lead to a better service, but simply meant that my data got scattered and I was being reduced to a nameless customer. I was no longer Rik to them.

So what is the difference between good CX and boring CX or even bad one? Engagement.

The choice in the pre-digital age was simple: either companies had a limited number of customers and you could engage them, or you had many customers and you could only connect, but no longer engage, as you were forced to go for a one size fits all approach. Good CX was a matter of luck.

O yeah, we all tried to come up with solutions and despite all the efforts we put into implementing them, in retrospect we can see that their real impact was limited. It was like your mom kissing your knee to stop the pain. It helps, because we believe it helps. Not because it actually makes any difference. We created ‘customer segments’ and then we created ‘personas’. We truly believed it made a difference. I am guilty as hell. I did perform these strange rituals as well. It only shows that we knew that this scaling was wrong and that we realised we had to do better.

The stone-in-the-water model

The logical question now is this one: ‘ok, if we put the customer in the centre of the business model, do we have to build as many companies as we have customers? And how do we do that? ‘

No, you don’t have to build as many companies as you have customers. And of course you don’t have to write millions of scripts that enable your people to deal with every single customer in every single context possible.

The only way to act is to change the mindset. Stop trying to design and manage the customer experience. Start to perceive CX as a happening. I you don’t remember Wikipedia’s definition, here it is again: “a partly improvised or spontaneous piece of theatrical or other artistic performance, typically involving audience participation”.

  1. Partly improvised and spontaneous (so not fully scripted)
  2. Performance (that is your company acting)
  3. Involving audience participation (you are NOT in control, it is not CRM, but CMR as in Customer Managed Relationship)
  4. Artistic (it is an art, not a craft)

One doesn’t need a business model that puts the customer in the centre, but one needs to know that every happening should start with the customer in the centre and that the rest of the performance happens as a result of that interaction. The customer is the stone in the water, causing circular waves. Take my breakfast as an example (I really hope hotels read this blog).

  1. It all starts with the desired CEX (Customer Experience): me and my preferred breakfast
  2. As the interactions can’t be scripted, one can only give the performing actors instructions on what one can do and can’t do (value driven behaviour versus scripted behaviour). I guess that the lady had no official authorisation to prepare that breakfast for me. But she did, because she believed that this was the right behaviour and the owner trusted she did right.
  3. Of course, that needs to be reflected in the company culture. A process driven culture will ruin the spontaneous character of the performance, and that is what happened on that horror morning.
  4. And in between company culture and what you actually ‘sell’, there is management. Is that supporting the customer centric mindset, or is that controlling? One can only control processes, not performances. Hence, control and customer centricity are opposite forces. The only ones that can judge the performance is…the audience.
  5. In the end the product, services and concepts offered are NOT the starting point, but the end result of the happening. The breakfast lady improvised on top of the products and services in place.

The roots of good CEX lie in the TREE principle

1. Technology first

In come big data, AI and robotization.

Take Spotify. Spotify does more or less what my local record shop did for me and even better: creating my very own music universe, recognising me, listening to me, inspiring me,… I feel engaged. I would miss Spotify as much as I missed my local record shop. My Spotify is there for me and is different than yours, I guess. Spotify is able to do that for millions of customers. They are able to crack the magic formula: connect to many and still engage individuals. At the same time.

The more customers, the more data, the more data, the better the AI is being trained and the faster it becomes very good in doing clever stuff for me, using my small data: c2MxEi. Segments of one is no longer a dream.

Start collecting data. Do you have many customers? Do you have many interactions with them? Count your luck. Those customers and those interactions not only bring you money (I hope), but they also feed your company with loads of data. Every day, that you are not yet optimising the collecting, storing and processing of those data into information and actions, is a day lost.

2. Red Ocean Strategy

Do not in the first place try to focus on new products and new customers in new markets, but focus on your existing customers and try to optimize their CX. Make them the centre of the interactions and apply the stone-in-the-water model. That is what disrupters do: they position themselves in the model in between your ‘perfect solutions’ and the desired CX. Don’t let that happen by just playing that part yourselves.

3. Engaged Customers

The difference between bad and good CX is engagement. Engaged customers buy more, buy more often and stay loyal. They serve as your sales and marketing department as they will tell others how good you made them feel. It wrote that column remember.

4. Ecosystems

Only if you transform your business model into a ecosystem, you can create those constant performances with customers and crack the formula c2MxEi. I am writing a book on ecosystems called “Little book of ecosystems”, in which I not only refer to the usual suspects (the platform giants), but to how my local recordshop had all the 5 ingredients of an ecosystem and how data driven ecosystems can scale those ingredients into sustainable organisations that can c2MxEi. Of course I will publish more about this in due time.


Engagement is the difference between good and bad CX. CX is really hard as it cannot be tamed in processes. Every customer interaction is a happening and the customer is an active participant. Companies can only scale these happenings if they use technology to the max to crack the magic formula: connect to many and engage individuals and if they apply the TREE principle. CX is a mission. Don’t go on that mission on your own. Find others that want to achieve giving their customers the ultimate CX as well.

If you want to learn more about creating fantastic customer experiences, join me and my co-host Steven Van Belleghem on our Mission CX program, in which top CX innovators like Brian Solis, Duncan Wardle (ex-Disney) and Blake Morgan will share all the latest trends, tips and tricks in the matter!

Rik Vera
Rik Vera
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November 2, 2020