I’ve worked exclusively on digital products for over 14 years, primarily in product and design-centric roles. Thinking back, it’s surprising that it was only about five years ago that I had an important epiphany that would alter the trajectory of our company’s product strategy and my career. As the Director of User Experience, our team was tightly partnered with our product management counterparts to ensure we had baked-in practices and habits that enabled all of our development teams to deliver an exceptional product experience effortlessly. And our success was evident in the feedback. Over 20% of customers took the time to praise the product’s ease of use every month in our Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys. Pat on back.
But as someone passionate about user feedback, I started noticing a trend in those same NPS responses that kept some customers from being promoters (i.e., 9s or 10s on the scale). There were hints that the onboarding ramp was steep, for example. Or, while most of the customers raved about our support team, others expressed frustration around how long it took to get a response to their support requests. It hit me by surprise but was so incredibly obvious at the same time: The user’s experience does not start and end within the software itself.
There are other aspects and touchpoints of their experience outside of our product team’s purview or control. This meant that no matter how awesome our UX practices were within the product development organization, we’d never reach our full potential without being more inclusive of other customer-facing roles. In the above examples, that meant, to make more promoters out of our customers, our experience strategy required building stronger partnerships with our onboarding and support teams.
The Product Team’s Role in Customer Experience Strategy
So, a simple realization kicked off a new era for both the company and my career, eventually leading to the creation of a new role and slightly different title from Director of User Experience to Director of Customer Experience. But I was still a member of the Product leadership team, and the reason for that is relatively simple – we were a product company and, therefore, a product-lead organization. We were the hub by which the rest of the organizational spokes organized and focused their efforts, so it was natural for the product team to kick off the Customer Experience Conversation. To meet the increasing demands of our customers consistently, we needed to develop stronger partnerships and expand our user experience philosophy and practices cross-functionally.
What is Customer Experience (CX), and Why Does it Matter?
There are widely varying definitions of customer experience. So, for this conversation, I am defining Customer Experience (CX) as how your customers perceive their interactions with your company across the span of their end-to-end journey. These perceptions are important because they inevitably trigger emotions, and emotions drive decision-making. It’s not intuitive for businesses to consider emotions as part of their equation, but make no mistake that your customers are human beings at the end of the day. Strong emotions such as anger and frustration or pleasant surprise and happiness are the fundamental drivers of whether customers will choose your product, whether they will engage with your product, and whether they’ll stay loyal to your business.
To further press the urgency of a robust CX strategy in your business, in 2019, Qualtric’s XM Institute published a study to better understand the impact of Customer Experience on business. Their research further validates the bottom-line impact that emotions can have on a business. A highly rated experience correlates to a significant increase in the customer’s willingness to spend more money with a company, trust and recommend them, and try out new features and offerings from the company. Overall, a compelling customer experience strategy adds significant value to the business over time through its impact on revenue, growth, and customer loyalty.
The problem is organizational silos
While over 80% of businesses report increased investments in improving Customer Experience, they often struggle to deliver truly exceptional results effectively and sustainably. Why? Because the operational models that serve the company well in so many other aspects are the key blockers of CX success. More specifically, the biggest challenge is in the natural tendency of organizations to create separate departments within the business. The division of functional departments inevitably creates organizational silos, a key roadblock to a successful, long-term customer experience strategy.
Divided operational oversight
By nature of having organizational silos, the business intentionally separates and distributes ownership of all the ingredients required for its ongoing success. Departmentalization has enormous benefits from a business perspective; most importantly, the ability to apply much-needed focus and investment across various efforts. But it also creates an inherent “bubble” from within each department will operate when it comes to designing processes and experiences against the bigger picture. Lack of a broader perspective introduces an increased risk of uncoordinated customer touchpoints and duplicate efforts in different pockets of the organization.
Lack of shared goals
Each department has its own set of metrics and goals that they are responsible for delivering. But what happens when there’s a separate set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) from one department to the other? Most businesses recognize the value and necessity of cross-functional efforts but fall short of creating shared goals at the executive level. Competing goals decrease the likelihood that departments will get the investment and resources they need cross-functionally to deliver effectively. So, each department’s goals are not met to their full potential, they’re also more likely to blame the other for not helping them hit the right targets.
Fragmented technology investments
One potentially significant and unintended outcome of silos, especially for software companies, is an uncoordinated suite of customer-facing technology platforms. Adding digital touchpoints is a culmination of not sharing oversight or goals across business functions. When one department is unable to obtain internal investment to solve a particular problem or need, they’ll leverage their budget to seek it out externally. For example, marketing probably has a separate website, and Customer Support probably has a platform for help documentation and service requests. However, if you’re in the business of a technology-based product customers will not differentiate these disparate experiences from the product itself. That puts all the hard efforts your product teams put into building great user experiences at risk of falling short in the bigger picture.
5 Ways for Product Teams to Drive an Exceptional Customer Experience Strategy
As I previously mentioned, I’m a firm believer that the product team in a software organization is perhaps the best positioned to help catapult a successful Customer Experience Strategy for their businesses. For starters, product teams are at a strong advantage because their role is already cross-functional. In coordinating their efforts across the organization, the team has critical access to observe the subtle differences in focus and processes that might put their customer’s experience at risk. Additionally, the product team is naturally poised to drive end-to-end experience improvements since user experience is already (or should be) a top priority of their efforts. This unique perspective and experience-driven oversight put the product team on the front line of driving change in various ways.
1. Become Intimately familiar with the customer journey
To be successful, this is more than just familiarity, rather, intentional curiosity. How intimately do you understand your customers’ interactions across each phase of their journey with your business and by the different departments in your company? One surefire way to get on the same page is to conduct a cross-functional Journey Mapping Workshop. Journey mapping forces outside-in (customer-centered) thinking by each department, who instinctively design their processes from an inside out (business-centered) perspective. The activity and resulting visual artifact is a powerful tool to promote internal awareness and alignment and to generate actionable insights on key areas of opportunity for the business to rally cross-functionally behind.
2. Share and advocate the journey
Understanding the customer’s journey deepens your understanding of user context, it’s critically important to the long-term success of new features and improvements to the product. Share this context diligently with your teams, and paint the picture of the broader perspective as part of your planning and kickoff of new efforts. Sharing context challenges your team to consider aspects of the experience they otherwise may have overlooked and ask essential questions outside of the immediate product purview. For example, what’s the best point along the journey to generate awareness of this new feature to achieve peak adoption? How can the team partner with their CS counterparts to understand the impact the feature may have on current and future support offerings? It can even expose more complicated nuances where upsell and value-added features are involved, like how to craft an experience that doesn’t complicate or create confusion for customers in the way they are billed for your product services.
3. Broaden cross-functional conversations
Product Managers notoriously have busy schedules meeting with other functions across the business; most of these are driven by a need to align other departments to the product strategy, goals, and roadmap. As the leader of these meetings, make time in the agenda to ask stakeholders to also share their initiatives. Ask them what challenges they are facing and how you might help. Get curious—better yet, involved—where appropriate. Of course, this may require some additional time investment on the front-end. The investment is minimal compared to the costs a business can incur in the long term due to the dangerous pitfalls of uncoordinated efforts.
4. Approach cross-functional relationships as partners, not inputs
It’s all too easy for the product team to become the sounding board for all the other departments vying for their resources; after all, your team owns and sets the product strategy. The endless stream of things a product team could do is why it’s vital for them to constantly develop their skill in the art of saying no. Although your team is ultimately responsible for the product vision, there’s no reason that it needs to be a black hole and can’t be more strategically collaborative. Consider up-leveling conversations that involve people in other departments in setting product strategy. Exposing other departments to the myriad of difficult decisions you face every day not only empowers them to bring more relevant ideas to the table but also provides more understanding (and less disappointment) behind your “no”.
5. Make CX a vital component of your product strategy
Successful execution of a businesses’ customer experience strategy requires investment from each functional department, and product strategy is no exception. Partner across the organization to set shared goals and KPIs around CX, for example NPS, support request volume, time-to-value within the product or for engagement of a particular feature, etc.
Aligned goals and metrics ensure space can be made on the product roadmap to address product-related issues that drive CX challenges, such as usability improvements. It also ensures continuity with 3rd party systems so the product can remain the single digital customer touchpoint.
It’s not your product team’s responsibility to deliver features to your customers, rather to craft an exceptional product experience that drives the loyalty that keeps your customers engaged and makes your product an easy sell for future customers. However, in this day and age, that experience is hardly ever isolated within the product itself but spans in purview across the different organizational silos of your company. Getting genuinely curious – and involved – in the company’s customer experience strategy is the best way to succeed in ultimately delivering a truly exceptional product.