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Despite the rapid advances in digital and AI technology, most companies fail to deliver superior customer experiences. That's the conclusion of a recent report based on a survey of 680+ executives by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services.

What to do about this widening customer experience gap? Respondents identified four characteristics of the 15% of organizations that rate themselves as "very effective" in this area:

  1. They have a customer-centric culture.

  2. Management and leadership buy into a shared vision of delivering superior experiences.

  3. They have tools that provide visibility into and understanding of the end customer experience at every stage.

  4. They have a clear and widely communicated customer experience strategy.

Let's break these characteristics down one at a time so your organization can begin delivering at the same level as your industry's top performers.

 

1. A Customer-Centric Culture

 

Even small companies can find it tough to make meaningful changes without cultural support. Accordingly, HBR's survey found that 90% of executives believe a "customer-centric culture" is a necessary precursor to developing and delivering superior customer experiences.

Commenting to HBR's researchers, the president and CEO of a U.S. credit union described it as part of the DNA of his company and its business partners. "Customer experience ... has to be built into the organizational culture or it can be set aside when other priorities emerge," he said.

Practically, this sort of commitment can range from putting off everyday admin purchases so you can invest more heavily in customer service tools and skills, to training new employees on how to deliver a superior experience. A customer-centric culture leaves nothing to chance when it comes to serving customers quickly, efficiently, and in the manner they expect.

 

2. Leadership Buy-In

 

Customer-centric cultures require a bottom-up commitment, but the work doesn't start there. HBR found that 88% of executives believe top management engagement with the customer experience process is essential to success.

Engagement can take different forms. Sometimes it means setting strategy. Other times it means shaping processes and checking in on progress. Or it can be both. What matters is commitment. "Our leaders have resolved that the future of our industry is our customer," said the chief customer officer at a multi-billion dollar institutional investment and benefits provider.

If that sounds familiar, you may already be working for a customer experience leader. According to HBR's survey, what sets the leading organizations apart is an executive team that treats the customer experience as a top priority now versus an area to invest in over the next two years. Leaders know they can't wait. "Customer demand is growing and the need for speed is increasing," the credit union CEO said.

 

3. Tools for Understanding the End Customer Experience

 

Nearly as important as leadership buy-in, 87% of polled executives said having the technology and infrastructure to study customer experience is crucial to making improvements and delivering at a high level.

Notably, three-quarters of organizations studied in the HBR research aren't able to fulfill this requirement. Why? They lack the technology for uniting systems that collect social, mobile, and ecommerce data to produce a single and directly accessible source of customer intelligence. Leaders insist on integration.

"We need to make sure that our customers have an optimal experience across various silos and products from start to finish," said one leader at an international financial services company that's navigating a global reorganization aimed at improving customer outcomes.

 

4. Have a Strategy and Communicate It Widely

 

Breaking through silos to capture and analyze data about experiences at every touchpoint is crucial to making lasting improvements. But how do you know which technology to choose in support of those efforts?

Strategy is key, 86% of respondents said, because strategy precedes software decisions. These executives say their organizations must have a specific customer experience strategy that's clear and widely known. Usually, that takes time and effort.

A senior vice president of strategic analytics for a marketing software firm told HBR the process can include everything from "a well thought-out data strategy," to plans for integrating databases to expose a single view of each customer, to staff training.

"When such an exercise hasn't taken place, customer experience becomes a 'temperature-checking' exercise without the ability to quantify how improvements in key engagement areas translate into improving customer experience ... and [then] to connect those gains to economic results," he said.

Transforming organization to deliver superior customer experiences takes time, experience, and good advice to yield the greatest long-term benefit. Download the full HBR report to get further advice for closing the customer experience gap in your own organization.