Spotlight on CX: Sam Stern, Principal Analyst, Forrester

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In our latest series of interviews, we’ve set out to truly understand customer experience, to establish where it is now, and find out where it will go next.

This week we’re speaking to Sam Stern, the Principal Analyst serving customer experience professionals for Forrester.

Hi Sam, how did you end up specializing in CX?

Forrester has been covering this area for 20 years so when I joined 14 years ago I managed to familiarize myself with CX quite quickly. I initially started as a consultant, and then worked my way up to Principal Analyst, focusing on organizational culture, and employee experience.

Part of what I do is help clients filter everything they do through a CX lens, even if they work behind the scenes because we think all employees should be aware of the impact they have on the overall customer experience.

It is only normal for a person to want their CX personalized, natural and with a slight human touch. But if employees had to do that every time and for all their tasks, it would become exhausting, overwhelming and saturated with variability. People don’t need or expect customized touch points for everything, and in some areas, standardization is actually good.

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What do you think have been the most significant advances in CX in previous years?

I would say there are two things which have massively pushed this industry forward. The first one is understanding the importance of emotion in CX - the fact that we make decisions based on a myriad of irrational reasons and then ascribe rational benefits after the fact to justify our decisions.

A good example would be when you buy a car because you like the way it looks, but afterward, you rationalize that decision using some other reasons, like the great deal you got or the engine’s efficiency etcetera.

What’s very interesting is that most of the research on emotion has come from outside of the CX bodies, but it has huge implications on what we do in CX, because it helps us understand what motivates our customers. Sometimes they might not even be aware of their own desires, even if you ask them.

The second big one that I’ve seen relates to the varying and increasing degrees of commitment to CX. Many organizations have moved past paying lip service to the idea and are much more attentive compared to 5 years ago when I still had to explain what CX was and why you should care for it.

Of course, there are still some companies stuck in that box ticking phase, but a fair majority is on record saying it’s important that even having that level of commitment (which isn’t much) is a benefit to CX professionals and other interested parties.

The main challenges around CX can seem obvious at the moment -- what do you think is the most under-acknowledged challenge that brands are facing?

A huge one I keep running into relates to culture change or the challenge of getting people to commit to a seamless CX delivery.

Think about the fact that something like 90% of people believes they are above average drivers. The same positive self-perception applies to CX. Employees think everything is intuitive (being nice to others or treating customers well), and that therefore they are good at experience delivery.

It’s very difficult to challenge this type of mindset directly and work with people who already think they’re doing all the right things because they will feel like you’re attacking one of their core beliefs or undermining their position.

The best way to address this issue is to look for evidence that matches their positive self-perception, show them where they are good at experience delivery, and use the positive reinforcement as an opening to suggest to them to do it more consistently, or with some small improvements.

How do you regard the struggle around interrupting customer experience and ensuring customers get the help they need?

Great question. That is indeed a challenge of moving past automatized standards and exploring the human element.

Companies have been quite thoughtful about this, trying to remove scripts or guidances from the parts of the experiences where there should be more human judgment involved. People are realizing this doesn’t always work though.

A great example is Hertz, who initially had some very scripted counter interactions set up at their rental locations, and this was leading to counterproductive, stilted conversations between the employee and the customer.

For instance, I’d walk in carrying a single bag, clearly traveling for business purposes, and the script would force the employees to ask me if I wanted to upgrade to a family size car. Situations like these create an uncomfortable feeling, especially for the business customer who is forced to say “no”.

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What are the best examples of innovation in customer experience that you have seen?

One of the things I’ve recently noticed is companies trying to assign as much decision-making authority for the CX as possible to the individual employee - this is extremely innovative because it relies on the workers to use their best judgment and also incentivizes them.

Nordstrom, the retailer, has an entire formulation around this. Their guidance to employees is to “use good judgment in all situations”, and they are always going to great lengths to enable workers to think for themselves.

From the customer point of view, this initiative gives the impression that the employee is capable of figuring everything out by himself and encourages a good relationship with the staff.

Another example would be the concept of the mystery shopper secretly evaluating other employees. I really like this idea because it reinforces the power of direct observation.

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Pret a Manger does weekly mystery shopping visits to all their stores and they pay out a weekly bonus based on those evaluations. In another context, Cleveland Clinic in the United States isn’t allowed to do any mystery shopping in the hospital, so they train their own nurses to do it, giving them the permission to offer feedback. Peer assessment is valuable, especially when it's in the moment, and it helps other nurses to make their services more valuable.

Where do you see CX growing and evolving in the next 5x years?

I believe that the function of Chief Customer Officer is going to disappear in the next 5 years. Truth is, despite our excitement at Forrester, CCO grew but it never exploded as we once predicted.

What I’m starting to see more and more is companies having that role for a while and then transitioning it into more junior positions so it doesn’t feel like a threat to other senior executives.

Also, both the CEO and the COO of the company are now putting more focus on CX than ever.
People are finally realizing that any serious matters or implementations related to CX have to come from the top of the organization in order to be properly enforced.

I think that what we might see at the end of the next 5 years are companies casting out for the next thing to differentiate. At the moment, there’s a great deal of CX expertise acting as a key differentiator, but as we get better at it we need to ask ourselves “What do we do next?”.

What I find fascinating about CX is that if you’re very insights driven and serious about your customer’s behavior, you should be able to derive the next features that stand out and differentiates a specific client.

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