Note: This article first appeared on Harvard Business Review online here.

Summary.  Understanding where customers are, how they navigate streams in your market, and how to interact with them in a given stream is now central to crafting a good customer experience, and that has implications. Among other things, companies need to shift from thinking about a value chain to an experience chain. The value chain is about moving products from the point of production to consumption. An experience chain starts with the customer and aligns the touchpoints inherent in omni-channel buying journeys. This goes beyond “experience marketing” where brands highlight how their products can make the buyer’s life easier or more productive. It’s about the journey from need recognition through evaluation to purchase and post-sales activities.

For the past half-century, buying has been framed as a hierarchy of effects: moving a prospect from awareness to interest to desire to action. The AIDA formula and its variants are the basis (often, the unconscious basis) for customer-acquisition activities in most firms. It’s an inside-out process that assumes buyers move sequentially through a “funnel” or “pipeline.”

But research indicates a different reality. Buyers now work through parallel activity streams to make a purchase decision. Let’s label those streams as explore, evaluate, engage, experience.

Consider buying a car. U.S. auto buyers spend about 13 hours online researching car models prior to purchase, and only 3.5 hours at dealerships. Yet more than 90% of cars are bought at dealers. But because auto shoppers can access prices, product reviews, and other information online, their behavior is changing. More than 50% will leave a dealer if a test drive is required to get the vehicle’s list price. Nearly 40% will not patronize a dealer whose website doesn’t list vehicle prices, and about 40% will leave the dealer if prices aren’t posted on the vehicles.

Information sources have changed customer expectations. Even when done with good intentions, many traditional practices unwittingly increase customer dissatisfaction. Moreover, buyers generally use online tools as a complement to, not a substitute for, sales conversations, and are discriminating in using these tools.

Understanding where customers are, how they navigate streams in your market, and how to interact with them in a given stream is now central to crafting a good customer experience, and that has implications. Among other things, companies need to shift from thinking about a value chain to an experience chain. The value chain is about moving products from the point of production to consumption. An experience chain starts with the customer and aligns the touchpoints inherent in omni-channel buying journeys. This goes beyond “experience marketing” where brands highlight how their products can make the buyer’s life easier or more productive. It’s about the journey from need recognition through evaluation to purchase and post-sales activities.

Buying is a Process of Parallel Streams

Rather than the traditional AIDA approach, buyers are more likely to interact with brands via the following (often asynchronous and simultaneous) activities.

Explore: Buyers identify a need or opportunity and begin looking for ways to address it, usually via interactions with potential vendors and information search on the internet. Activating a need can be instigated by internal triggers (e.g., a system breaks, a car or other machine wears out, a process fails, a new initiative is born). External triggers can include regulatory mandates, new technologies or markets, or perhaps advertising and sales promotion.

Evaluate: Buyers take a closer look at options while defining the need or opportunity, via a combination of search, peer interactions, and/or sales representatives from potential vendors. This activity is not primarily about determining the specific product or service they will buy, but about determining the best approach and pathway (e.g., build vs. buy, own vs. lease, etc.). Buyers are comparing multiple options, identifying the solution type, and winnowing the options to a short list.

Engage: Buyers initiate further contact with providers to get help in moving toward a purchase decision. Depending on the market and product category, this might involve downloading a form of content marketing, sending out a formal RFP (Request for Proposal) in B2B markets, or comparisons between competing vendors. One impact of websites, blogs, chat bots, and social media has been to make the seller’s organization more visible to buyers, who now interact with multiple groups and expect the firm to orchestrate those interactions purposefully.

Experience: A formal purchase decision is made, buyers use the product, and develop perceptions about its value. As services and software become more embedded in products, more of that value is what marketers call “experiential value” that only becomes apparent in actual post-sale usage.

The Role of Data and Technology

Changes in buying mean that data is crucial. Technology can help, especially in the following areas:

Content management systems

Businesses have hired chief content officers to create blogs, email campaigns, white papers, and other materials designed to attract prospects to a web site and download information. This practice recognizes that the explore and evaluate stages of customer experience may be triggered by relevant content about a problem or opportunity. But an estimated 70% of this content is never used due to difficulties in accessing and organizing the materials, and most leads generated this way disappear into what some call the “lead black hole.” What starts well has a better chance of ending well, but the initial stage of customer interactions is fraught in many firms.

Sales enablement (SE) technologies help to address this issue. Content management tools from Highspot, Showpad, and other firms organize and update the content, decrease time and other transaction costs for salespeople, and enable personalization of the content for different segments. Many of these tools also generate reports on how salespeople interact with the content, indicating what collateral is used, how often, and even how long a rep spends with the content — data that can initiate a continuous improvement cycle in production and dissemination of content. In turn, frontline people can use these tools to present and track content used by customers and have better information for timely and relevant follow-up — activities central to customer experience.

Channel management software

Buying is now a process where customers also touch multiple points in the distribution channel. Hence, crafting a compelling customer experience usually means working with partners before and after the sale. Make it easier for partners to interact with your firm. If you sell through broker channels, for instance, low friction and easy communication are as important as commissions in getting brokers’ attention and commitment to your products. Too often firms ship products to a partner, but the materials needed for effective selling are not provided. As a result, the cost of selling is higher, the percent of sales capacity available is lower, and the customer experience is damaged.

The means for establishing partner sites that provide papers, case studies, online demos, deal-registration data, and other materials are decreasing in cost and increasing in scope. Channel marketing software enables partners to leverage your content, messaging, and demand-generation knowledge in their customer-contact and order-fulfillment efforts for your products. Pandora, the music streaming service, sells media on its stations to local advertisers, small businesses, and corporations. Its 500+ salespeople are in 35 cities in the U.S. and, in selling to diverse companies and agencies, work with a variety of channel partners. Customer experience from prospecting through closing to billing and post-sale service is a process that crosses multiple functions as well as hand-offs to different sales and channel groups. In most companies, this is a recipe for siloed behaviors and customer confusion. But at Pandora supporting technology helps reps to pitch or run a campaign for a client with a channel partner. Lead information is captured in the system, as is updated content from marketing, interactions between sales and channels, as well as channel commission payouts and billing information.

In the media business, moreover, orders are custom built to run at selected times and stations in the future. Billing (and sales commission) only happens when the ad is delivered. Pandora’s system increases buyer and channel trust, freeing up time for customer focus rather than checking that client service and incentive payout have occurred accurately.

Experience measurement and alignment

Improvement requires feedback which can be used to promote alignment of the parties and touchpoints responsible for the experience. But traditional survey methods for feedback about customer satisfaction are limited and often misleading in an omni-channel buying world. Surveys generate data about attitudes and preferences, not behavior, and there’s a difference between what people say and do. In a survey of more than 1,000 companies across industries, for example, respondents said their most important purchasing criteria were price and product features. But follow-up analysis indicated that services and the sales experience mattered more in their actual buying behavior. The same is true in online interactions.

Technology can help to provide more relevant and timely feedback. Platforms from firms like Qualtrics, Medallia, inMoment, and others are faster means for gathering feedback than traditional methods. Others provide technology that pulls in data from multiple outreach sources (e.g., email, inbound marketing, content downloads, etc.) to help identify interactions as well as the ROI of each source. Tools from firms like Centah allow for lead tracking from initial interest through delivery; GetRev provides such tracking while using predictive AI algorithms to improve lead generation. InnerView has a tool, InFront, which is particularly relevant to firms that sell through intermediaries. Its “Brand Transfer Score” helps to assess whether the brand’s intended experience matches that of distribution partners, which locations and individuals are positive or negative brand ambassadors, and on-going data for tracking the effect of any changes.

Ongoing discussions with customers are another, often overlooked source of insights to improve the experience — what some call “conversational intelligence.” Firms like CallMiner, Chorus, NICE, TalkMap and others apply real-time natural language processing tools to capture and analyze call recordings, chat transcripts, and product documentation from call centers, sales conversations, and customer support groups. These technologies help to stay up-to-date with key determinants of customer experience and, equally important, their first-party data captures the “voice of the customer” in their words, not that of the engineer or brand sloganeer. Growing privacy regulations, and restrictions on customer data by Apple and others, make this input increasingly valuable.

These measurement tools help to identify root causes of satisfaction or dissatisfaction: Did the response hinge on the product, service levels, channels issues like dealer or retailer locations, the web site, or some combination of these elements? Trying to do this without supporting technology is an unnecessary handicap.

The Role of Leadership in CX

Data and technology are important but by themselves never an answer to a management issue like customer experience. Interpreting data and the implications are leadership tasks. Effective leaders help people in their firms to deal with changes and thus increase their contributions and productivity. To do that, leaders must complement vision or purpose with good organizational plumbing in areas like priorities, people, and process.


Communicating priorities to the frontline is highly correlated with business performance. Priorities are about the competitive choices a company makes. Some choices are explicit and put in a plan or in KPIs. But many choices affecting customer experience are implicit in daily decisions about resource allocation. For example, any budget involves choices about who and what gets more or less of available resources. Where is customer experience in your firm’s budget priorities? Any sales model makes choices: Money and time spent pursuing and servicing account A are resources not available for accounts B, C, and so on.

It’s leadership’s responsibility to make and communicate priorities. A vague or unarticulated set of choices cannot be tested as market conditions change. People talk in abstractions (“We are committed to customers!”), while daily behaviors enact the sunk-cost fallacy: throwing good money after bad. If priorities remain implicit in the intuition of even a gifted leader, then the alignment required for a compelling customer experience is only as strong as that leader’s reach and as weak as the weakest link in the organization.

Without clarity about priorities, people only pick up random cues about strategy and over time the company becomes good at many different things relevant to customer experience, but not especially good at any particular things. And the essence of competitive advantage is being very good at things your target customers value and that others find hard to imitate.


Globally, technologies are transforming the nature of work, and the frontline groups most involved in customer interactions — sales and service — are no exception. One study examined more than 95 million online job postings in the U.S., categorizing as “flagship jobs” those with postings of 10,000 to 1 million per year. In this category, “sales reps” experienced double-digit growth, as did “customer service representatives.” Similarly, among the skills most in demand during the period of this study were “general sales practices” (9% annual growth), “general sales” (8%) and “basic customer service” (11%) — cumulatively the most desired skills, by far, in job postings. Without attention to these core customer-facing jobs, talk about talent management and “the future of work” is just talk.

Senior leaders establish the foundational conditions for talent development in their organizations. For talent to stay relevant, companies must have hiring and training initiatives linked to the desired customer experience. For example, as explained above, selling now often means working with channel partners in omni-channel buying journeys. But when reps have channel as well as selling tasks, the individual contributor must also become a manager — someone who gets things done through others. Those skills are rarely taught in most sales training programs. How often are those issues part of business reviews in your firm?


A compelling customer experience is a set of processes, not a teamwork speech. At a minimum, it requires ongoing customer information and then, in execution, relevant performance management processes. Consider pricing: Actual price realization means linking price, value, the customer experience, and frontline behaviors. Does your sales compensation plan provide incentives for the behaviors required to do that? Do you have the data required to link price with the drivers of customer experience? How often do senior leaders discuss what the data means for framing value throughout customer journeys? In most firms, quarterly financial results are tracked closely. But the information needed to examine a key driver of customer experience and bottom-line outcomes — how frontline people frame and deliver the value proposition — is often lacking. Or even worse, the incentive system undermines the desired experience. If a leadership team can’t make these crucial connections, it can end up pressing for better execution when the firm really needs a more market-relevant strategy, or changing strategic direction, with great expense and disruption, when it should be focusing on these selling basics.

Leaders can’t afford to leave this process to chance. Their oversight is as important here as in the capital budgeting process. Leadership groups who do not stay engaged with how buying processes impact customer experience will inevitably share the fate of companies where “customer focus” is a perennial slogan but not organizational reality.

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