Stop Using Customer Metrics to Live in the Past

Admit it, we all do it. I’m talking about how whenever we post something online, we can’t help but check back later to see how it was received. Thumbs up, likes, retweets, comments, downloads, page views. We all love metrics, whether it’s just “did anyone like the picture of my cat I posted on Instagram yesterday” all the way up to complex reports about web traffic, journey flow, click-through rates, and all that good stuff it takes a data scientist to sift through. We have so much data available about customer interactions that the true meaning is often forgotten.

The problem is that most of the metrics record what someone did in the past — typically an interaction with your content by either clicking a button or following a link. They don’t tell us why the person did what they did.


And knowing why is the most important part of understanding the customer journey.

Getting to the why (and why not) of customer behavior

There is an excellent video from Adobe entitled Click, Baby, Click that shows how reacting to clicks without knowing what is driving them can lead to an incorrect interpretation of customer demand. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching it — it’s a fun lesson you won’t forget.

So if action-based metrics don’t provide the information you need, do time-based metrics give a better picture of what’s driving customer behavior? They are probably a step in the right direction, but they have the same underlying issue — they still reflect past actions. You may now know how long someone interacted with your messaging but not why. For instance, time-on-page can be a false indicator: is someone engaged because your content is good and they enjoy reading it, or is it so obtuse that they have to keep plowing through it to find the answers they want?

Most people come to websites or interact with apps for one of two reasons: to get answers to questions or to complete a transaction. So maybe we should be measuring how well we achieve those two things. Instead of having page-based analytics, shouldn’t we be focused on content and transaction-based analytics combined with search analysis and time reporting to determine how easily, or quickly, customers achieve their goals?

On top of wanting to know what people do during a customer engagement and why they do it, it’s equally important to know why someone didn’t do what you wanted them to do. Why is no one clicking on that beautifully designed call-to-action button? Why isn’t anyone finding high-value content that would help them? This is where tools like heat maps can help you track where people engage with your designs.

Understanding intent

So if the current metrics are a snapshot of past physical actions, how do you realign for a future where interactions migrate from the physical to the digital or to even more esoteric forms of interaction?

Think about the growing use of voice-based assistants such as Siri and Alexa. How will you measure audio interactions?

In many ways we already do, but for a different need. When you call a telephone helpline or get passed to a call center representative with a message that says “your call may be recorded for training purposes,” chances are high that training is low down on the list of why the call is being recorded. Call centers have long used technology to record, index, and analyze customer interactions not just for what was said, but also for the way it was said in terms of tone and inflection.

Sentiment analysis may drive the next generation of metrics for voice-assistant-driven interfaces, not only allowing you to understand what a customer asked for and wanted but also, with the application of machine learning, allowing you to start to understand not just how someone feels about an interaction but also what it was they were hoping to achieve in the first place.

Once you understand intent, as opposed to past actions, you can start to deliver predictive customer experiences and look forward instead of backward.

How can we help you?

The only true indication of a successful customer experience is whether you helped the customer do what they needed to do in a quick, intuitive, and helpful way? Did you make their day easier or answer their question?

The more you remove friction from the customer experience, the more likely those customers are to return and want to engage with you again.

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Are You Measuring Part or All of the Customer Experience?

“A satisfied customer is a happy customer.”

That’s a well-worn saying — one that carries a degree of truth. But how do you know whether your customers are truly satisfied? Measuring something as emotional as an experience can be as much of an art as it is a science.

Why do people do what they do?

Sure, we have tools and metrics — surveys, Net Promoter Scores, the number of likes and followers — as well as behavioral analytics such as time on page and click-through and abandonment rates. And we use them to try and determine satisfaction levels. These are indicators of what some people do, but they don’t tell you why they do it.

Are you measuring based on what you believe your customers want as opposed to what they actually need?

Customers don’t come to your website or digital platform actively seeking out your latest marketing messages. They come because they have things they need to do. Those things can range from making a purchase to setting up an account to changing account information to paying bills. Therefore, efforts to measure the success of a customer experience must be based primarily on how easy it is to accomplish those tasks, with less of an emphasis on how often users click your call-to-action buttons.

One area with a long history of helping customers get stuff done is the customer-support call center. In recent years, I’ve heard many companies talk about a customer-experience success metric as being the number of calls that get deflected from the support center to a self-help portal on the website. That doesn’t measure customer-experience success; it just measures a process change. If you don’t have the right content on the self-help portal, and if that content isn’t easily accessible and navigable, then you may be delivering a worse experience when you send people to the self-help portal.


The word deflected makes me shudder because it implies (at least to me) that the company is actively avoiding engaging with its customers.

Customers want answers

This is especially worrying when research shows that what most customers want when they engage with a company are answers to questions. For instance, research by the Search Engine Journal showed that the top five content types that customers look for on a website can be summarized as follows:

  1. Answers to the five W’s (who, what, when, where, and why)
  2. How-to guides or instructions
  3. Definitions (especially of complex terms)
  4. Product comparisons
  5. Prices and cost breakdowns

That research confirms that customers want easy access to answers from any part of your organization. It’s no longer true (if it ever really was) that marketing provides one type of information and customer support provides another.

In the business-to-business environment, there is strong evidence that customer-experience needs are driving cross-functional convergence of content. A leading software company reported that over three-quarters of the visitors to its main websites want to look at technical content about the use and implementation of its products. Therefore, they now include metrics for what were traditionally seen as support functions in their overall customer-experience reporting.

Take a holistic approach

Do you measure in isolation as opposed to holistically?

In general, the metrics used for measuring customer experience still tend to be the indicators of success (or failure) for individual operational departments or groups. Rarely, if ever, are they looked at in a holistic way to provide an overall measurement of customer satisfaction. It’s possible that you could be scoring highly in specific categories but still delivering a poor overall customer experience because the journey is disconnected.


By looking at customer-related metrics as part of an overall ecosystem and not as separate performance indicators, you can develop a clearer picture of a customer’s overall journey.

Machine Learning Isn’t Rocket Science

Take two astrophysicists, an Apollo engineer, a guy who designed parts of the International Space Station, a professor of robotics, and a random science fiction writer, and what do you have? It sounds like a dream sequence from the TV show, “The Big Bang Theory,” or the start of a science nerd joke. In fact, it was the make-up of a talk panel at a recent science fiction convention where I was one of the guests. The panel was ostensibly meant to be a retrospective look back at the days of Apollo, but like many such conversations, it soon turned to thinking about the future, which led to the subject of machine learning (ML) driven artificial intelligence (AI) and its current capabilities.

I expected an enthusiastic discourse, and so I was surprised when most of these actual rocket scientists seemed more ambivalent about the technology and its potential impacts.

A couple of observations caught my attention enough to tweet them out at the time:

“ML is great at recognizing patterns but not much else.”

“ML assumes tomorrow is going to be the same as today.”

Yet it seems these technologies are being received more enthusiastically elsewhere. Nearly every customer experience discussion and the majority of CX projects my team is engaged in these days includes some mention of machine learning and artificial intelligence (and often the two are used synonymously although they are different). Which got me thinking, how do the somewhat downbeat observations of a panel of space experts play into the world of customer data, and the ways we try to infer context from it?

‘ML Is Great at Recognizing Patterns but Not Much Else’

Machine learning is usually defined as “a set of algorithms and statistical models that computer systems use to perform a specific task without using explicit instructions.” It’s a subset of artificial intelligence that relies on patterns and inference to drive conclusions. In other words, as the scientists observed, it’s great at doing what it is meant to: Pattern recognition.

That means it can see what is happening in a data set, but not why it’s happening. That still (at the moment anyway) needs human interaction to derive context based on experience, knowledge, and a degree of intuition.

Machine learning can greatly reduce the workload and automate the process of recognizing patterns of behavior in large sets of customer data, but it is not a magic panacea for developing an understanding of why customers do what they do.

‘ML Assumes Tomorrow Is Going to Be the Same as Today’

The data we get from machine learning is a reflection of what happened the day the data was captured. For the purpose of pattern matching, there is an underlying assumption that the next set of data is going to be similar enough for the patterns and models it recognized to still be applicable.

Machine learning is not a predictive tool. It is a great way to analyze a lot of data and an efficient way to learn about repetitive behavior. But that’s it. The danger can be we take that baseline and believe that is how things will always be. Our customers acted that way yesterday, so they will act the same way tomorrow. If that was truly the case, to paraphrase Henry Ford’s observation, we’d still be riding horses. ML does not take into account the impact of disruptive social or technological influences. Overreliance on technologies like ML without understanding their role in developing a broader understanding of our customers can be just as much a blocker to delivering a good customer experience as any older system or technology.

We’ve Got a Long Way to Go With Machine Learning

When my wife and I get into my car on a Saturday morning, the ML system connected to my phone that analyzes my movements assumes we are heading for our favorite local diner. While that’s true around 80% of the time, on the odd weekend we head off in another direction, and the phone and GPS literally get lost for a while.

We have a long way to go (both figuratively and literally) with machine learning before it drives a true artificial intelligence-driven customer experience.

Customer Experience Isn’t About Fixing Discomfort, It’s About Preventing It

“Welcome back, Mr. Porter. Great to see you again.” 

Those were the first words I heard as I walked into my hotel after a day on-site at a client’s office. It’s always nice to be greeted in a hotel, especially one where you stay on a semi-regular basis. The greeting got me thinking, is there any better example of ‘baked in” customer experience than the hospitality industry? It is literally the key ingredient of the business (although I’ve stayed at my share of hotels where you’d think otherwise).

Technology Isn’t a Band Aid for Bad CX

How can we take the hospitality mindset and thread it through our digital transformation projects? I recently came across a sponsored post on my Twitter feed that declared, “Experience is everything,” and that we should “know what your customers are feeling so we can turn discomfort into delight.” It was of course a campaign to promote yet another experience management platform.

First, we need to realize that applying new technology isn’t the key to improving the customer experience. It should be an enabling tool, but if we don’t have the customer service culture in place, it’s a waste of time and resources.

But the Twitter campaign did get two things right: yes, experience is everything, in fact, it’s the key area of competitive advantage in today’s marketplace; and yes, we need to lead with empathy. But if you are starting with the assumption that your customers are already in some sort of discomfort when dealing with your company, then you have a systemic issue. Applying technology as some sort of band-aid will not improve the situation.

With Customer Experience, Actions Speak Louder Than Words 

Like the hospitality industry, thinking about the customer experience has to be woven into everything a company and its employees do, irrespective of their job-title or function, and it must come from the top. I once worked with a company where there was a lot of talk about “the customer” but very little seemed to be done to actually address known product issues. In fact, they had a reputation for ignoring their customers. The internal dialog seemed at odds with the external perception. Until one day someone said, “you do know what the CEO means when he uses the word customer? He means the shareholders and analysts, he means his personal ‘customers.’ He doesn’t mean the people who actually use our products.” That was like a lightbulb going off — it explained everything about that company’s culture and business model.

Compared this with another company I worked with. On the surface, it lacked the various functional roles you would expect would be necessary to deliver on the promise of customer experience. There was no customer support desk or call-center, no customer engagement manager, etc. In fact, no one had the word ‘customer’ in their job-title. Yet it has a top-ranked reputation for service with the people who actually buy and use their products. In fact, it also has a minimal marketing staff, because its customer’s word-of-mouth recommendations are such an effective marketing tool. The reason is that the idea that everyone in that company is part of the customer experience is central to the company’s culture, communicated from the CEO outwards.

That CEO understands you don’t have to be actually directly interacting with a customer to impact the experience. If the company has a customer-led culture it will be reflected outwards. Working in the accounts department sending out invoices? Think about how those invoices read to the customers. How easy is it for them to pay their bills? Designing a product? Think about how easy it will be to use. Putting together a website? Do you understand what your customers want to do when they engage with you online?

Customer engagement is a holistic experience. The customer’s don’t know, nor care, who works in what department. The response to any customer engagement, no matter where it originates, or where it’s picked up, should never be “Sorry that’s not my job.” It’s everyone’s job. If an individual can’t immediately help solve an issue, then build a culture where they take the details, find the person to solve the issue, and then follow up. (Never underestimate the power of following up.)

The Foundations of Customer Driven Cultures

I’ve outlined before what I believe are the three essential parts of planning any CX-related transformation project. They still stand as the core to baking in a leading customer-driven culture that will avoid the discomfort:

  • Know your customer.
  • Follow your customer.
  • Understand your customer.

But if you do find there are the occasional instances of discomfort (and to some extent they are inevitable), then rather than throwing technology at it I’d add a fourth and fifth edict:

  • Help your customer do what they need to do.
  • Follow up and build a relationship with your customer.

When Personas Go Wrong or, The Search for Fluffy

The woman on stage proudly told the conference audience how her team had spent three days to find just the right kitten for Emily.

Emily was a single working mother in her early 30s who lived with her 4-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom apartment. She was on a limited budget and often pressed for time. She also loved cats. Hence the search for the perfect kitten. The thing was, Emily didn’t exist. Emily was a persona dreamed up by the marketing team. The aim of the team was to create a series of recipes that used the company’s products — a series of recipes just for Emily. And they spent (wasted) three days looking for a photo of a kitten to accompany a made-up person.

I’ll be honest. I have a few problems with Emily — and others just like her.

Personas with too narrow a focus

By focusing on an individual as a persona you can narrow your focus too much and miss a large percentage of the customers and prospects who might benefit from your message. By creating messages “just for Emily,” the team was ignoring a wider need for anyone who wanted to create quick, nutritious meals on a limited budget. Personas should be focused on addressing customer needs, not on developing fictional characters.

It’s a marketing point of view

Often, as with Emily, personas are developed by the marketing team with little or no interaction with actual customers. Marketing teams are often organizationally isolated from everyday interaction with customers, which can lead to personas that reflect what the marketing team thinks customers are looking for, rather than what customers actually need and how they go about finding information. It is essential that your marketing team take into account real-life customer experiences and needs.

Customers are changing

I have seen many personas documented along the lines of “Emily goes to the website to do initial research, checks reviews on mobile, and uses the app to purchase.”

The customer experience evolves rapidly. I know my digital behavior patterns have changed over the last 12 months. You need to keep up with these changes. How often do you review personas to ensure that they keep up with new technologies and changes in how customers interact with your brand?

Still part of the “Sell and Forget” model

Historically, personas have focused on the buying behavior of a given set of potential customers. They are designed to drive people along the traditional sales funnel from awareness to lead to prospect to sale. But that only represents a small part of a customer’s overall interaction with a company.

How do personas fit with the continuous customer journey?

Once prospects become customers they shouldn’t be forgotten and neither should the relevant personas. How do your personas interact with your brand from delivery of the product through owning, operating, and getting support? Do you understand the full customer life-cycle of your personas and how their journey across every interaction with your company is connected and mapped?

Get that right and the satisfied customer persona can be your best advocate to generate even more business.

Was the kitten really necessary?

When you are developing needs-driven personas to help you understand customer behavior, your process needs to be systematic, efficient, and based on data. Building an emotional backstory for a character is all well and good if you are working on your latest novel, but it can be a time-consuming misdirection in developing effective customer-driven personas. How many customer interviews could that marketing team have done during the time it took to find the perfect photo of Fluffy?

Not Another @#$&! Survey

We all do it. Come on, admit it. I do it a lot.

You’re at the store and while giving you your receipt (which is probably three times as long as it needs to be), the cashier grabs a pen, circles or highlights a QR code or website address, forces a smile (if you’re lucky), and asks you to take a survey to “Let us know how we’re doing.”

Do you take those surveys? Probably not. I suspect that most people do what I do: toss the receipt in the nearest trash can.

Considering that I earn my living in the customer experience industry and like to think of myself as a customer advocate, it seems a little disingenuous of me to ignore those attempts to capture my voice as a customer.

Survey fatigue

The problem is that those sorts of surveys actually contribute to poor customer experience. Why should I provide a retailer with feedback and information that generates no tangible value for me?


I suspect that most customer surveys just add to a stockpile of data that no one looks at. This is just data collection for the sake of data collection, an exercise undertaken so someone can check the box when asked if the company has a program for capturing customer feedback. And when every retailer does it, the impact is the same as it would be if no one did. The surveys become meaningless. We have reached a point of survey fatigue.

Stop asking, start listening

When the average response rate to customer surveys tops off at around 10 percent, isn’t it time to stop doing them? Or at least stop doing them the way we are? If we really want to develop effective strategies for capturing the voices of our customers, it’s time to stop asking questions and start listening instead.

That doesn’t mean that surveys can’t be a useful tool. If used correctly, they can be a great way to start a conversation with your customers.
When engaged in a consulting gig, I often use surveys as a way to develop an understanding of how people feel and what works (or doesn’t) with the processes and technology the organization is using. These surveys get response rates of 60 to 90 percent and provide a lot of useful insights. Rather than blanketing a large group of people with generic questions, I target the surveys to discrete groups, with questions that relate to their day-to-day activities and that demonstrate an understanding of what the respondents are trying to accomplish and the challenges they face.


Surveys and voice-of-the-customer strategies should not just be about answering the question “How are we doing?” They should ask, “How can we improve things for you?”

Know the customer, help the customer

Every time you reach out to customers, you should demonstrate that you have listened well enough to know their needs and that you can help them. As a minimum, to demonstrate that you know the customer, tailor the conversation around the following topics:

  • What products they use.
  • What interactions they’ve had with your organization.
  • What’s important to them.

Then you need to demonstrate that, if they provide you with feedback and share information, you can add value and help them in the following ways:

  • Making their lives easier.
  • Reassuring them and/or directing to them more information.
  • Teaching them things that might be helpful.
  • Rewarding them.

Gathering useful information and opinions from your customers requires you to do more than simply gather data. The purpose of the exercise should be to develop an understanding of their needs and challenges. By responding in ways that add value, you demonstrate that you understand your customers, which will help you capture their true voice.

Are Your Customers Shouting Into The Void?

Many years ago I ran the support organization for a small software company. We had a whiteboard on the wall opposite the area of the office where my team sat. Everyone walking into the break room could see it. It showed the number of customer calls or emails we had each week, how many support tickets were still open, and how many we had resolved.

Above it sat another sign that said, “We are not a black hole.”

Don’t ignore customers

While the figures on the board were what we reported to the CEO each week, it was that simple informal sign that became our mantra. We didn’t want our customers to feel as though their requests for service were disappearing into a black hole. Let’s face it: no one likes being ignored, but more often than not ignoring people is the standard operating procedure of many support organizations. Even if it isn’t intentional, that’s often the way it appears to the customer.

It used to be easy to monitor and listen to your customers. They either called, emailed, or even wrote actual letters (remember those?) when they had problems. There was really no excuse for being a black hole and not responding to them. Today, providing support is much a more complex undertaking. There are an overwhelming number of channels that customers can use to communicate with you, and while you may be able to monitor most of them, it is almost impossible to capture them all — especially when customers come up with new, unofficial channels to make themselves heard, like the gentleman who was so unhappy with a company that he painted his complaints on the side of a van.

In my experience, companies respond to the voice of the customer in one of four ways:

  1. Ignore it.
  2. Capture it and do nothing.
  3. Acknowledge there is a problem but take no action.
  4. Acknowledge the problem and provide a solution.

Unfortunately, the response to any given request too often depends on when and where within the organization it was received and handled. This leads to an uneven experience. Companies do better when they treat customer input as a single unified data set.

Empathy first, followed by action

So how do you go about using that data set to deliver what the customer needs? The first rule of thumb goes back to not being a black hole. Acknowledge that the customer has a problem. Do that, and you’ll be way ahead of most companies. However, while empathy is all well and good, customers prefer action to empathy.

How do you enable your teams to take actions that help customers?

Give your customer-facing teams access to intelligent content.[fn: For more on Intelligent Content I recommend Intelligent Content: A Primer by Ann Rockley, Charles Cooper, and Scott Abel. (XML Press) 978-1937434465. ] Content is an expression of everything a company does, and it needs to be valued as an asset across a company. To solve customer problems and provide positive actionable feedback, you need to be able to tap into that pool of content in efficient ways that allow the right pieces of knowledge to be pulled together to provide personalized responses. That content can come from knowledge bases, technical documentation, support articles, operating schedules, customer profiles, or machine-learning chatbots. Match that content with current marketing campaigns and offers, and you can pull together positive customer experiences that help solve problems, further engage the customer, and continue to build brand engagement.

This comes down to taking a holistic, strategic view, this time in regard to your content. Look not only at what your content was created for but also at where else you can use it to answer customers’ questions. That is not a quick or easy task, but it is one that increases efficiency, leverages your content assets, and allows you to respond to the voice of the customer in the best possible way.