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Who Owns the Customer’s Experience? It’s Complicated

In a recent blog post, Doc Searls commented on an article about the ownership of customer experiences.

Who Owns the Mobile Experience? is a report by Unlockd on mobile advertising in the U.K. To clarify the way toward an answer, the report adds, “mobile operators or advertisers?”

The correct answer is neither. Nobody’s experience is “owned” by somebody else.

True, somebody else may cause a person’s experience to happen. But causing isn’t the same as owning.

We own our selves. That includes our experiences.

I think Searls is ultimately right, but the matter is far from simple or straightforward. In fact, understanding that and why experiences are complicated is, I think, crucial for the success of any customer experience management (CEM) effort. Conversely, taking an overly simple view of what it means to create and/or influence experiences is a significant factor in the failure of CEM.

The three vectors of experience

Some ten years into the so-called “experience era,” the concept and phenomenon of experience is still not well understood. The best analysis I’m aware of is a 2011 dissertation called “For the Love of Experience,” by a woman named J.M.C. Snel.

Snel explains that experience consists of three registers or vectors:

  1. The environment: This is the thing that is experienced – e.g., Disneyland, a city park, a meal, a movie, a mobile web page.
  2. The encounter: This is the interaction of an individual with the environment.
  3. The effect: This is the result of the encounter, a judgment or attitude held by the individual. (Which is significantly influenced by prior expectations.)

In short, I have or form an experience (in the third sense) when I experience (in the second sense) an experience (in the first sense).

Snel stresses that all three elements are necessary for a full understanding of (an) experience – and also that most parties in the so-called “experience economy” (which includes CEM practitioners and vendors or CEM products or services) over-emphasize one element at the expense (or even the complete ignorance) of the others.

We own the environment, but act like we own the effect

Getting back to Doc Searls’ post, it would in fact be justified to say that the operators/advertisers “own” the mobile experience – but only in the first sense.  The combination of content and ads displayed on the screen makes up the environmental vector of the experience. (This is assuming that the operator is not just a dumb pipe delivering content from Facebook,, etc.)

The problem exposed by the report is that operators/advertisers (like most companies trying to do customer experience management) think that they own – and, worse, control – the experience in the third sense. They state with confidence that the consumer’s attitude is “positive” after the encounter with the environment they have created. It’s not surprising that the surveyed consumers contradict this confidence. For of course, the mental state of the consumer is the last thing that can be owned, controlled, or “managed.” (This is one of the reasons that I say customer experience management is impossible.)

Turning attention to the encounter

In short, “doing” CEM for most companies actually means building experiences in the sense of environments, such as web sites, apps, customer service centers, in-store encounters, content marketing campaigns, etc. Yet we (the CEM industry – practitioners, vendors, service providers, and analysts) frequently act as if we’re determining the effect.

What gets overlooked is the encounter, which is the time and the place in which the experience actually “happens.” (The environment is built in anticipation of a future; the encounter is the present; the effect concerns the past.) In my view, the encounter is only marginally more manageable than the effect – but companies can increase the likelihood of a positive outcome by understanding the consumer’s needs, desires, and expectations.

That understanding means that you can better predict what will matter to a given consumer, how they might react to the interaction, and thus what kind of environment (e.g., particular content, messaging, offers) will meet or exceed their expectations, answer their questions, overcome their reluctance, and encourage them to form a positive evaluation of the overall experience.

Understanding what consumers want to do, more than who they are

There are many ways to chase such an understanding. The most popular today depend upon gathering as much (personal) data as possible about an individual. Such “maximum data” approaches:

(My latest paper – freely available here – discusses “maximum data” in more detail and charts the turn to a “minimum data” approach exemplified by the GDPR.)

A better and more reliable way to achieve the desired customer insight (and the one that provides a causal foundation for a commercial exchange) is to have the consumer tell you what they want and expect. This can be achieved in several ways:

  • A face-to-face encounter, as in “What may I help you with today?”
  • A digital platform that enables consumers to store their data and desires, and share them with providers on their own terms. This is the basis of the Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) project that Doc Searls and others have been working on for several years. (It’s called VRM in parallel with the CRM systems used by vendors.) The idea is to provide for “intentcasting” – the transmission of a consumer’s desired purchase and/or relevant personal details to a select group of providers. Practical examples of VRM(-like) systems – such as,, and MyWave – are coming into use, but a comprehensive solution is probably a few years off.
  • The “jobs to be done” approach described by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Solution (2003). In a recent article revisiting this approach, Christensen and his co-authors write:

The focus on knowing more about customers has taken firms in the wrong direction . . . What they really need to home in on is the progress that the customer is trying to make in a given circumstance – what the customer hopes to accomplish. This is what we’ve come to call the job to be done.

Face-to-face conversations have limited application. VRM is still immature. The formal jobs to be done methodology is extremely powerful, but it can also seem a bit daunting, involving very specific and detailed interview techniques.

But CEM teams can get much of the effect – and gain insights that improve the encounter aspect of the experience – by simply switching their attention from who the consumer is to what they are trying to do. This could also shift data gathering activities from personal data (which enables you to identify a person and their characteristics) to impersonal data about their goals and the paths they take to achieve them. In the age of the GDPR, reducing the amount of personal data you need to collect and process could be a significant advantage.

In short, companies improve an environment – a better app, a slicker order process, a redesigned display case – and tend to leap to the conclusion that this equals an improved effect, i.e., a more positive evaluation from the consumer. But what matters to consumers is the encounter, not the environment as such. And, to return to Christensen’s terminology, the question they’re asking is, “Does this help me accomplish the job I need to get done?”

That question should also be the primary test for CEM teams.

Contact us to discuss your CEM strategies and technologies, or to learn more about our GDPR workshops.


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