6 Disciplines of Customer Experience

virgin mobile
“Outside In” author explains how businesses of all sizes can develop innovative customer experience


Editor’s Note: This article is part one of a two-part series.

If you’re a small business owner then you already know “intuitively” the basic principles of customer experience. You know that you have to offer products or services that meet your customers’ needs. You know that you have to make it easy to find and buy your products and services. And you know that if you’re cold or nasty to customers, you’ll send them a signal that you don’t want their business and they’ll get that message and leave.

But guess what? Not only do you know these things, so do your competitors. That means that knowing what to do won’t get you a competitive advantage. You also have to know how to do it better than the guy down the street (or on the Internet or over the phone). How can you do this, and do it in a way that will stick for the long term?

In our new book, “Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business,” my co-author and I document the practices of companies that succeed by delivering a superior customer experience. These companies span a range of industries as different as financial services and healthcare. Yet all of them adopt the same fundamental practices, which they tune to their specific needs.
Whether they’re large or small, companies that want to produce a high-quality customer experience need to adopt six disciplines that result in a great experience:

    • Strategy


    • Customer understanding


    • Design


    • Measurement


    • Governance


    • Culture.


In today’s article we’re going to focus on the first three disciplines, which taken together help companies create innovative customer experiences.


What kind of customer experience do you want to deliver?

Think about the experience at a value-priced Costco warehouse store compared to the experience at a high-priced Apple boutique store. What if Costco tried installing Genius Bars like the ones you see in Apple stores? It would confuse Costco customers and drive up costs like crazy.

To avoid implementing a Frankenstein experience of mismatched parts, first decide what your business stands for. Is it high touch like my local True Value Hardware store, where the employees walk me around the aisles, put exactly the right product in my hands, and then walk me to the cash register? Or is it about self-service in return for low costs, like that Costco store? There are no right or wrong answers here but there are choices that you have to make – and communicate to your employees – if you want to keep them working together to deliver a consistent experience.

Customer Understanding

It’s not enough to think that you know your customers; you have to actually know them. The customer understanding discipline is a set of practices that replaces everyone’s best guesses with real, actionable insights.

Large companies do this by conducting observational research studies. For example, Virgin Mobile, the largest wireless services provider in Australia, has “control” as one of its key brand attributes. Executives thought that giving their customer more control meant going from 19 wireless service plans to literally hundreds of choices that customers could mix and match. But when Virgin employees studied their customers, they quickly discovered that they really wanted was a smaller number of plans that made more sense–the idea of having hundreds of options scared them.


virgin mobile

“We weren’t interested in being up to par with industry standards, we wanted to create a differentiated customer experience: one that was uniquely Virgin”
-Matt Anderson, Former COO, Virgin Mobile

Jet Blue reaches out to customers to learn their preferences through points of contact including email:




Small businesses can get the same types of insights on a budget by adopting a few simple practices. For one, talk to a few of your customers specifically about what it’s like to be your customer. Ask them, “Did we meet your needs today? Was it easy to do business with us? Did you enjoy doing business with us?” And then always follow up with “why- or -why not.” Just keep in mind that you should only ask these questions after they’ve completed their goals, like buying something or getting service. Before that point you’re likely to hear, “No, because you interrupted me.”
And if your business has gotten too big for you to interact directly with customers, be sure to set aside time to talk to your employees who do. Customer-facing employees – like people in sales or service – talk to your customers every day. They hear the questions your customers ask, their problems and their frustrations, as well as what ultimately satisfies their needs. They pick up on problems, see patterns and get ideas for solutions, ideas they‘re dying to share if only someone would ask. So ask.


Design isn’t about making things look pretty. Design is a repeatable problem-solving process that incorporates the needs of customers and employees.
When executives at Office Depot realized that their customers – mostly small business owners – wanted to get in, find what they were looking for and get out, it led them to redesign their stores. Everything from the amount of floor space to where products appear on shelves to signage has been changed to make it easier to find the right products.

Design isn’t just limited to physical spaces, either. You can redesign processes, human-to-human interactions, websites – whatever. We see this happening all over the world, not just in the U.S. One of the U.K.’s biggest water utilities designed the end-to-end process for installing water meters, and Norway’s largest insurance agency designed a “conversation guide” for its claims agents.

How can start using design in your business? Try a simple version of something called co-creation: Bring together a couple of your employees and an equal number of customers. Describe a real problem you’re wrestling with, for example, customers complaining about getting the wrong bill. Then ask everyone to suggest – and discuss – possible solutions.

Take one of the most promising suggestions and try it out. Be sure to track results. For example, does the new approach really reduce the time to solve problems? How do employees like the new approach? How do customers like it? Based on your feedback, refine the solution and then keep on tracking results. When you’re sure you’ve solved the problem, you’re done testing and iterating – but keep on tracking results to make sure the process doesn’t break over time.

More to Come

In part two of this series, I’ll outline the role of measurement, governance and culture in helping companies create innovative customer experiences.

Harley Manning is Vice President & Research Director, Customer Experience Practice, Forrester Research. Harley is the co-author of Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business. He founded Forrester’s customer experience research practice when he joined the firm in 1998. Today he leads a team of analysts that cover enterprise-level customer experience topics ranging from strategy to metrics. At Forrester, Harley has authored many top-read reports. His first report, Why Most Websites Fail, launched the firm’s Website Review methodology, which has now been used to evaluate more than 1,500 sites. In subsequent reports, he created Forrester’s methodologies for evaluating website brand experience and for modeling the ROI from customer experience improvement projects. Harley is the founder of Forrester’s annual Customer Experience Forum, which he hosts and moderates.



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