How are you different from your competition?
It is the nagging little question every business leader must address. It is the question that emerges when you find yourself in a ‘sea of sameness’ alongside your competitors. It is the question that, though small, can exert an outsized influence upon the thinking of your organization. It becomes a rallying cry to channel creative energy toward ideas. And while this question can yield action, it is, unfortunately, the wrong question to be asking.
Chasing different is actually quite easy. If your competition uses the color red, choosing blue isn’t that hard. But that decision won’t win you customers. So business leaders find themselves adopting ideas that promise differentiation, in the hopes that ‘speed to market’ will allow them to take the lead—at least for a while.
For manufacturers facing commoditization in the 1990s, product design was heralded as the differentiator. Volkswagen’s Beetle, Apple’s iMac, and the explosive array of multi-colored, ergonomic toothbrushes were all examples of how manufacturers leveraged product design to propel them to profits and segment leadership. Similarly, brand had its moment as the latest differentiation trend. Where products are easy to copy, brands—with their potential to inspire communities of loyalists and establish emotional affiliations—are not. You can knock off a motorcycle’s design, but how do you re-create the Harley Davidson brand? So brand too became the differentiator, at least for a while.
Both of these differentiation trends ultimately became table stakes because they were but discrete parts of the customer’s larger decision-making calculus. Each failed to address all of the other factors that influence a customer’s choices or affect their experience. While design focuses on delighting users, and brand on expressing a company’s values and essence, neither considers the entirety of the experience for the people they serve. Realizing this, business leaders have set their sights on a new differentiator: Customer Experience.
Customer Experience (CX) is best defined as the practice of placing the customer at the center of organizational thinking, and considering the entirety of a their interactions with the organization over time:
It’s stunning to think that the concept of CX took so long to emerge as a driving framework for business. Customers are why we are in business, right? A great brand may connect with a person’s values; a great design may help sell a product or service, but what happens if that person calls customer support and their experience is miserable?
CX sees every way in which a customer can form an opinion of (and ideally a bond with) a company as an element to be designed. This level of comprehensiveness is precisely what makes the CX framework so valuable to businesses. When done right, CX leaves no weak links. It doesn’t over-index on one part of the experience, leaving another to create headache. It builds intimacy, trust, and true loyalty that grow over time.
Given that CX is the most comprehensive framework we have seen to date, it is not surprising that it is being hyped as the next great competitive advantage. But those who see CX simply as a differentiator will be sorely disappointed. Just like previous differentiation trends, everyone is after it. But not everyone will win it. The same complexity that makes the CX framework so effective is also what makes it so difficult to do well.
Designing and executing the best customer experience requires a cross-organizational collaboration model that, for many companies, is unprecedented. Functional units need to cooperate, share, and work in ways that will feel uncomfortable. And there are external challenges as well. Organizations must meet a bar set by the best customer experiences in the world, regardless of industry. Customers demand to know why you aren’t more like Uber—even if you are an enterprise software company. Not to mention, customers have no reason to stick around if a better experience comes along. How hard is it to delete an app forever?
The winners at customer experience will not be those who ask how is our CX different from our competitors, but those who ask, how is it better? Thinking about how you are different focuses you on your competition. Thinking about how you are better focuses you on your customer. Once you start asking the question of how the experience of your product or service can be better, you begin along the path of understanding what “better” means to your customers in particular.
No one ever said being the best is easy. But it begins easily—by asking the right question. The better question. It’s not about being different from your competition. It’s about providing the best experience for your customers.
So roll up your sleeves. May the best customer experience win.