The cash model of “customer experience”

Here’s the handy thing about cash: it gives customers scale. It does that by working the same way for everybody, everywhere it’s accepted. Cash has also been doing that for thousands of years. But we almost never talk about our “experience” with cash, because we don’t need to.

Marketers, however, love to talk about “the customer experience.” Search for customer+experience and you’ll get 35+ million results, nearly all pointing to stuff written by marketers and their suppliers. Even the Wikipedia entry for customer experience reads like an ad for a commercial “CX” supplier. That’s why a big warning box at the top of the article says it has “multiple issues” (four, to be exact), the oldest of which has persisted, uncorrected, since 2012. Try to read this, if you can:

In commerce, customer experience (CX) is the product of an interaction between an organization and a customer over the duration of their relationship.[1] This interaction includes a customer’s attraction, awareness, discovery, cultivation, advocacy and purchase and use of a service.[2][not in citation given] It is measured[by whom?] by the individual’s experience during all points of contact against the individual’s expectations. Gartner asserts the importance of managing the customer’s experience.[3]
Customer experience implies customer involvement at different levels — such as rational, emotional, sensorial, physical, and spiritual.[4][need quotation to verify] Customers respond diversely to direct and indirect contact with a company.[5] Direct contact usually occurs when the purchase or use is initiated by the customer. Indirect contact often involves advertising, news reports, unplanned encounters with sales representatives, word-of-mouth recommendations or criticisms.[6]
Customer experience can be defined[by whom?] as the internal and personal responses of the customers that might be line[clarification needed] with the company either directly or indirectly. Creating direct relationships in the place where customers buy, use and receive services by a business intended for customers such as instore or face to face contact with the customer which could be seen through interacting with the customer through the retail staff.[7][clarification needed] We then have indirect relationships which can take the form of unexpected interactions through a company’s product representative, certain services or brands and positive recommendations — or it could even take the form of “criticism, advertising, news, reports” [7] and many more along that line.[7]

Wholly shit. Do you — or anybody — have any idea what the fuck they’re talking about? Did you even try to read more than a few words of it?

Why would an industry big enough to put 35 million documents on the Web not have one comprehensible document in the only place where it would make full sense?

Here’s why: the industry is talking to itself. It’s one big echo chamber, and most of the sound inside is BS.

But let’s dig into it a bit, because (bear with me) we actually can fix this thing.

Basically, we have two problems with CX: complexity and perspective.

First, complexity.

Company promotions tend to be complex, because they’re gimmicks. Meaning they are come-ons to customers, and change all the time. And, because promotional gimmicks are temporary and provisional, they also tend to have a bunch of moving parts. Even coupons, the simplest of promotional gimmicks, require that the company mint its own currency, for conditional uses, for limited periods of time, with restrictions on eligibility — and lots of other kinds of cognitive and operational overhead for everybody: the company, its partners, and customers.

Here’s a good example.

This morning I got a promotional email from T-Mobile with a promo that looked interesting to me: an hour of free Wi-Fi from GoGo In-Flight. When I went to T-Mobile link for the promo, I found these instructions:

Before you board

  • Have a valid E911 address on file and a T-Mobile phone number.
  • To get your hour of FREE Wi-Fi and unlimited texting, make one Wi-Fi call before you board.
  • If you don’t have Wi-Fi calling, you can still get FREE Wi-Fi for one hour and use iMessage, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, and Viber all flight long.”

Each of those bullet points contained deal-killing conditions:

  • I don’t know if I have a “valid E911 address.” In fact, I didn’t know what one was until I looked it up in Wikipedia, 30 seconds ago.
  • I think I know what they mean by a “Wi-Fi call,” but my experience of that (or what I think it is) with T-Mobile is with making normal calls on my T-Mobile phone over Wi-Fi where there is no T-Mobile cellular coverage. Would I have to look for a place at an airport where there’s no cell coverage but there is Wi-Fi? Am I making a Wi-Fi call when my phone says “T-Mobile Wi-Fi,” but I’m also getting a signal reading on my phone? I don’t know, and I don’t want to take the time to find out.
  • I have no interest in getting a free hour of Wi-Fi that limits me to four services I don’t use.

So I went on Twitter, and tweeted what I hoped would be some good feedback to @T-Mobile and @GoGo. Here’s that tweet, with responses from both companies:

Before we go forward with the lessons from this example, I want to make clear that I do appreciate what *NikosP, *RudyG and ^Joe are all trying to do here. I am also clear that there are many thousands of other good people doing “social CRM,” or whatever its called this week, genuinely caring about customers and trying to give them the best possible experience.

The problem for me, as a customer, is that getting this free hour of Wi-Fi on a plane isn’t worth the trouble. The problem for T-Mobile and GoGo In-Flight is that it’s probably not worth the trouble for them either.

Many years ago the great Jamie Zawinski uttered the best (and perhaps only worthy) critique, ever, of Linux. He said, “Linux is only free if your time has no value.” You can swap any promotion you like for “Linux” in that sentence. For example, “An hour of Wi-Fi on a GoGo equipped plane is only free if your time has no value.”

As Don Marti often puts it, customers are much better at applied behavioral economics than any of the companies trying to make customers fall for promotional come-ons.

So I’m wearing my applied behavioral economist hat when I decide that my time is worth more to me than whatever sum of it I might spend getting one hour of free wi-fi on a plane some day, even with all the help being tweeted to me.

I am also noticing that my time would be spent on this thing, and not invested. Worse, it would all be gone in one hour. Worse than that, it would be gone on a plane, where the working conditions are not ideal.

I have no idea how much time and money T-Mobile and GoGo In-Flight are spending on this promo, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the internal and external costs turn out to be higher than whatever they would get out of investing the same amount of money and effort on simply making their services better.

So that’s complexity. Now lets look at perspective.

All of the CX perspective — 100% of it — is anchored on the corporate side. Not the customer side. Worse, in every CX case the perspective is of one company. And each different company does its own kind of CX to “deliver” an “experience” that is exclusive to them. In fact, that’s one way they compete.

The problem with this perspective is that it makes the customer’s experience different for every company she deals with. She has no scale.

Worse, she has to spend non-recoverable time and effort trying to figure out what’s going on with each of the different companies imposing cognitive burdens along with promotional bargains. (With the latter, returns are diminished as promotions add up, so what look at first like bargains add up to savings far less than $0, if the value of the customer’s time and life are factored in.)

If we remove the complexity, and take the customer’s perspective, we see only two ways a company can “deliver” the best possible “experience” to customers:

  1. By making it as simple as possible to deal with the company; and
  2. By offering better products and services than competitors. That’s it.

For example, my wife and I have T-Mobile phones because we travel a lot outside the U.S. T-Mobile, alone among U.S. mobile phone carriers, provides free data and texting in something like 200 other countries, plus just 20¢/minute for phone calls. We also like not worrying about data usage, because T-Mobile has relatively high data allowances for that. So we don’t worry about going over. To obtain those simple graces, we put up with T-Mobile’s inferior coverage outside metro areas in the U.S. (though, to its credit, is catching up fast). No promo brought T-Mobile our business. And customer service, on the rare times we’ve needed it, has been good.

Our 19-year-old son, on the other hand, doesn’t travel much outside the country, so his phone is on Ting, which has outstanding customer service and the simplest possible usage pricing, with no promotional gimmicks. So both company and customer have low cognitive and cost overhead to deal with.

Which gets me back to cash.

For customers, cash is a simple, easy and near-universal CX tool. She can use the same cash with every company she deals with. She isn’t busy thinking, “Gee, I need to use Walmart’s money at Walmart and Burger King’s money at Burger King.” The cash in her purse gives her scale across every company that accepts it. Cash also gives her the same leverage across all her credit cards and other instruments of intermediation. It’s a great CX model.

Is there hope we can wind down the BS in CX, and bring something with cash-like scale into the portfolio of tools customers have for dealing with many different companies?

Yes, there is.

A number of VRM developers are now working on CX, mostly by helping companies welcome help from customers, and learning from it. There are also some CRM companies starting to look toward VRM as a way of giving customers cash-like scale across many different companies as well. (The jlinc protocol, for example, has a lot of promise in that direction.)

That work, and other developments like it, give me hope that “Markets are conversations” will finally mean something, in less than two decades after marketers were first inspired to talk about it.

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The original version of this post ran in Doc Searls Weblog on 16 August 2016.

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