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The New Wave of Customer Experience and How Communicators Can Help You Catch It

Customer experience – are you focused on it? Most companies, entrepreneurs, and organizations know customer experience is vital. They also know communications plays a key role in CX. Decades ago, branding was mistakenly thought to be limited to a logo or a visual look and feel. In time, communicators helped business drink in a larger view. Branding was also about a comprehensive messaging architecture. The result was a complex framework reinforced with underlying pillars like brand promise, brand personality, brand identity, and “proof points.” Carefully developed and tested with target audiences, this behind-the-scenes work helped businesses stay “on brand.”


Whether the word “brand” appears in their job title or not, digital marketers, corporate communicators, social media and public relations managers and other related roles are all part of it. Though their methods are different, this is not exactly news. In fact, you have likely heard communicators forcefully argue the only way to achieve true branding is through consistency. We talk about integration, and how important it is to align our messaging across miltiple channels. But even this expanded, purposely broad view of brand does not go far enough. As it turns out, a key catalyst has been missing all along.


Driven by ever-higher customer expectations, customer experience (CX) completes the picture. CX has rapidly formed into its own discipline. It is a wave of change that continues to break across nearly every industry. As it crests, some of us with communications backgrounds are finally realizing opportunities to “complete” our branding work.


With CX, communicators can finally bridge the gap between whatever we have been marketing and what customers actually encounter. These disconnects break the brand promise, a source of frustration for communicators everywhere. Worse, if the gap between what was promised and what was delivered is severe or repetitive enough, we know it breeds contempt for our business. In the age of social media, we see firsthand how such defective moments play out on our screens. Customer reactions to defects in our processes, policies, products, and people’s behaviors can be fast-moving, and represent real business risk.


As 2022 gets underway, it is time to permanently expand the concept of brand to include the CX world-view. The timing seems right. In fact, various communications disciplines have been integrating for years. According to a November 21, 2017 post from the International Association of Business Communicators, “the trend toward the convergence of public relations and marketing is hard to ignore.” Earned media work (where we pitch news outlets to provide coverage of our brand) and branded content and influencer marketing are blurring traditional lines.


To further stir the pot, here is one of the best definitions of CX I have come across. It is slightly tweaked from something developed by MasterCard International. It defines customer experience as…


1. The degree to which problems are solved
2. The degree of making something easy to use (i.e. removing or mitigating pain points)
3. The degree of how it makes a customer feel


This definition should not be limited to re-engineering or to business operations. Branding purists may disagree, but in the broadest, most impactful sense, the definition can also be applied to a sweeping, more comprehensive view of what it means to brand a business. In other words, customer experience and all that it entails is part of branding.


Thought from the customer’s point of view (what forms “mind share”), it becomes even clearer. These are the three main elements of any customer’s experience with a brand. We can quickly see how inter-changeable all of this becomes.


Consider how each of these three elements applies to your business and how communicators can help “complete” the branding effort.


1. Communicating Which Problems You Solve


In making a buying decision, customers evaluate how well a business can solve a problem. When it comes to setting expectations, this is the bare minimum. You would never hire a law or accounting firm if they cannot solve your problems, right?


In your external communications, what and how does the business tell customers about its ability to solve a problem? As the typical starting point for any business, even the most unsophisticated branding effort will communicate whatever the business solves. This represents the table stakes (what the business does and your supporting messages). In other words, every business already does this, and every communicator tells customers about it, to varying degrees of effectiveness. For the larger definition of branding, it is our starting point.


With your internal communcations, are you using internal communication toolkits that help you communicate with your employees effectively? Organizations and companies have different strengths and weaknesses, so choosing the “right” toolkit for your internal communications is key. You’ll want to choose a toolkit that best meets your needs, selecting the wrong toolkit can cost you time, money and resources.


Overall, we need to communicate as one, both external and internal communications should be on the same page.


2. The Degree of Making Something Easy to Use


Many businesses never invest much energy beyond solving a problem. It takes deep customer centricity to put a real effort into making a product or service genuinely easy to use. Doing this right takes a certain level of design thinking and quality control.


Depending on your type of business, communicators can be an essential source for help in making something easier to use. I do not necessarily mean R&D or pure product design, though sometimes they can help that way too. Among highly technical experts, communicators are often the laypeople. They are typically not theoretically trained as a scientist, physician, engineer, chemist, lawyer, and so on. This happens to make communicators excellent internal candidates to test products and services. How better to tell your story than to experience it personally, as a customer might, without technical insight? If your organization does not have a CX team in place, how better to improve things than by turning to those paying the most attention to voice of the customer?


Think about it. Communicators are often at the front lines of what customers say about your business. Many are in charge of social media or online digital content. Many have created a reputation management program by administering customer surveys or by tracking and responding to online comments. It is not difficult to expand this kind of brand protection and promotion into CX. They are already familiar with what it takes to learn as much as possible about customer preferences. A reasonable next step is to also do something about customer comments. For communicators, why not get involved in improving the customer experience to mitigate negative comments or to keep encouraging the positive ones? With this kind of on-the-job experience, and the ability to craft data analysis, info-graphics, executive presentations, communicators are easily able to articulate the vision and culture change needed to engage a workforce toward positive change.


Communicators are also comfortable asking questions to more deeply understand. They are typically well-versed in collaborating with others. Even if they are not coding software or testing new chemicals in your secret sauce, these are all needed traits to foster the internal process change your business needs to make your products and services easier to use.


3. The Degree of How It Makes a Customer Feel


The sequence of the elements in our definition are important. Again, you need to solve a problem, and ideally, focus on becoming easy to use, or to experience. However, few businesses take the time think through how every moment – up to the use of the core product or service – and afterward – makes their customers feel. This customer centricity can also be applied in other, non-traditional ways, including your own HR processes. Think through each defining moment of what your job candidates experience.  We always stress this with our HR Executive Search department.


How does your current process make job candidates feel about your brand? Borrow from “Voice of the Customer” ideas and consider asking your recent “joiners” to form an internal focus group. They can help you define what they liked best about their first day or week on the job. Encourage honesty, and be sure to ask them what was missing, for example, from orientation. Was their first training day too technical, or too long? Did they want to be assigned to a mentor? What could you have done for them before they even started? You would be surprised what they will share when asked. It’s the ideal feedback to start thinking “outside in,” and approaching key business processes like a journey. Whether you call it this or not, it already is a Candidate Experience. Better to design it than just let it happen according to the way it’s always been done. Do candidates think you are easy to do business with? Did the process come across as innovative — assuming this is a brand attribute your organization actually has or wants?


Identify each defining moment in the journey – from start to finish and get to work designing something that aligns with your organizational brand, corporate values, and expectations you need to set when it comes to creating distinctive customer experiences. Extending a job offer is an easy, defining moment. But what about when you decline to move ahead with a candidate? What does that feel like? Seeing yourself through the eyes of others should not be owned by the marketing department. It is actually everyone’s responsibility to “live the brand,” which is another way of saying fulfilling your mission.


Start down this road and find a few wins, then keep going. After your new hires start their positions, think through what you want them to feel? Huddle with your in-house marketing and communications team and define it – with a deeper definition of “branding” in mind so everything is aligned. On your recruiting pages online, how do you transmit your corporate values? Do you simply list them, or do you feature examples? What better way to let candidates self-select in or out if they do not match who you are as an organization. Enlist the help of your own communications experts and share the “outside in” mindset — or find a CX practitioner who communicates well and co-design a new Candidate Experience and Orientation & Onboarding Experience. Aside from hiring for attitude not aptitude, adopting this mindset and taking action may be one of the single most effective things you can do to enhance performance, especially when you explicitly connect it to your organization’s CX goals. After all, you only get one ‘day one.’


When I attended The Disney Institute’s Employee Engagement course, I was joined by our chief HR officer. Together, we saw a powerful and very intentional design for all of this up close. We saw that Disney and some of the smartest companies in the world have been applying this kind of design thinking to each of their journeys, and it shows.


Finding the Right Language to Unlock Culture Change and CX Value: Personal Lessons Learned


How else can communicators help CX? They can help businesses find the right language to unlock change. Like a decoder ring, identifying the right code can make or break a CX effort. Given their instinct to think about audience segmentation, communicators are fluent in what it takes to define the effort internally. In some work cultures, the CX effort may be more successful if it’s called something else.


Some of the most potent lessons in “code switching” to achieve a desired result comes from a personal example. Long before I worked in CX, I was at a top medical school and research university in Baltimore. At the time, the administration asked me to work with faculty leaders to brand a large research institute. My initial efforts to engage the faculty did not work. Until I learned to “code switch,” the business-heavy term “brand” held little value to academics. Their number one audience was their own peer group, and not the donors, media or general public I also wanted to reach. When I re-framed our need for a distinct “academic identity,” the door was open to meaningful change. Looking back, I held the same set of conversations with these world-class thinkers, with very different results.


I applied the same lesson to my initial CX work for a very large public company in healthcare. In that setting, CX was called patient experience (PX) when interacting with physicians and nurses, and both PX and employee experience (EX) when interacting with business line leaders. Before the C-suite, our effort was about PX, EX, and enhancing performance and reputation management. These added codes were effective, and I can firmly say lessons learned from my days in traditional communications informed the approach.


The same is true when it comes to thinking through who should deliver the message for the most impact. In the world of big law, our CX strategy became our change management and communications strategy, and vice versa. We kicked things off by asking some of our firm’s most influential clients to explain what a distinctive client experience meant to them. They talked about the table stakes, then the moments that made them truly loyal. Their comments were captured on video as we launched the effort, complete with a new rallying cry, graphic identity, training, process upgrades, more meaningful touch-points for clients, and new metrics. In this way, we have not seen any lines between CX and the concept of brand. They are the same, all driving to the desired result.


A newer tweak involves a code switch tailored for corporate lawyers and litigators. I am beginning to re-frame CX as a client loyalty and retention initiative – something our culture will better understand and appreciate.


Whatever your industry, a communicator can help think through your CX strategy as an extension of your brand, including how to decipher your culture’s code.


Late to the Party


The field of CX is fortunate to have attracted innovative professionals from many backgrounds. CX has drawn competent stars from the worlds of HR, organizational development, customer service, consulting, market research, and (sometimes) user experience design. How many? In late 2017, seven years after it was founded, the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) reported nearly 3,000 members in the United States and another 1,000 worldwide. Nearly 60 percent of its members identified their job titles as a full-time CX practitioner. By contrast, just 11 percent of members identified sales or marketing as their primary job functions. With such a wide-ranging category, it is difficult to say how many of the marketing/sales members represent traditional communicators. However, we do know that as CX grows there are many communicators to recruit. Citing 2016 data, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists 249,000 jobs in the very broad category of advertising, promotions, and marketing managers. It may be more telling to review membership data among the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and American Marketing Association (AMA), just to name a few of the leading associations. Together, their data suggest there are at least 70,000 active professionals in the United States.


In Summary


Of course, we know that working full-time in CX means more than storytelling. It involves the hard work of culture change, and the employee engagement and significant collaboration with various levels and types of stakeholders that comes along with that.


To truly complete a brand, we must install a virtuous cycle – in the right sequence. We must find the right resources and people to articulate a vision and set the expectation for how a business will set itself apart through a distinctive customer experience. For something still so new, we must win allies. We must launch prototypes and pilots, reward desired behavior, and conduct much internal change. We must learn from our customers and ask them to guide our transformation to be truly customer-centric in every decision we make. Only then should we take what we have become (or are in the process of becoming) to market. Only then should we figure out what our brand really represents, extending the brand promise to customers to ensure accountability. There is truly much to do.


With their specialized training and experience, communicators can represent the next cohort to join the CX wave. Recruiters should be encouraged to find the best communicators, particularly the ones willing to expand their view of branding.


The groundswell of customer expectations shows no sign of fading. The faster communicators catch on, the better.


Edwin Bodensiek is the first CXO for an AmLaw 200 law firm. Ed began his CX career while he was head of brand and communications for a public company in healthcare. His background also includes higher education, recruiting, and public service as a presidential appointee.

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