I gave a talk at last week’s Customer Experience / Digital Leadership event in London, and had some very interesting conversations about the priorities for digital transformation in customer experience.

It fascinates me that products are changing so much faster than the organisations that create them. We work ‘on’ our products all the time, but we seem to only work ‘in’ (not ‘on’) our organisations and don’t pay enough attention to whether or not they are fit for purpose. Products are becoming smarter, connected, innovating more rapidly and following changing customer trends and tastes. But whilst firms are investing heavily in digital marketing to acquire new customers, the growing gap between their smart, connected brand promise and the reality of how they function internally is becoming a major risk factor. Modern, digitally-led customer experience is not just about your company’s website, apps or online chat, but all aspects of the support structures, internal functions and people who are part of the process of creating value for customers.

Conway’s Law reminds us that organisations are destined to produce products and services that reflect their own internal communication structures. Remember early corporate websites, where the front page and navigation bar looked like the result of a bar fight between competing internal functions? The design and UX of websites may have improved, but the seams are still showing elsewhere, such as on transactional websites involving different functions (looking at you British Airways!) that see to be many different systems joined together by a veneer of front-end code. You can also see the seams in the hand-off between super-friendly public engagement on Twitter and the formal customer service channels that we still need to use to get things done.

Social media and digital engagement changed the game for customer experience in so many ways, but I suspect that we are now in a period of diminishing returns in this area – there are only so many cupcakes and cats one person can see on Facebook before they no longer want to ‘engage’ with a brand. Part of the problem relates to what Jon Willshire encapsulated in his critique of advertising when he said making things people want is better than making people want things. Digital agencies jump on every new trend or tool and make marketers and customer experience teams believe they must have a strategy for each one (see all the articles screaming “What is your Yo/Jelly/Chat Roulette strategy?”), when perhaps more focus should be on improving the end-to-end customer experience, which means tackling the limitations of the organisation and its ability to genuinely engage, as well as improving the product or service itself.

Connected products need a connected company, and no matter how shiny your customer-facing apps, if you don’t reform the organisation you will eventually be found out.

Many large organisations are are too divided to really succeed as a digital enterprise, and this often reflects in poor or fragmented customer experience. Reforming organisational structures and practice is a key goal of digital transformation, not just adding smart tech to dumb structures. We have plenty of examples of new approaches to draw on, from Spotify’s tribes and guilds to WL Gore’s lattice structures to the recently popular circle structures that some firms are trying. But what stands in the way of established firms adopting these methods is primarily a combination of management culture, calcified central functions and processes (e.g. planning and budgeting), but also an over-reliance on hierarchy as a means of coordinating work.

At the event, our closing panel discussed one obvious example of why a divided organisation held together by hierarchy and reporting lines cannot deliver connected customer service, which is the proliferation of engagement channels that brands now need to use. With so many channels – web self-service, online chat, IVR, chatbots, telephone, etc – it makes sense to think in terms of underlying engagement services that support multiple user experience interfaces, rather than build each as its own vertical system in separate stacks. But with marketing, customer service, IT and other functions all responsible for different elements of customer experience, firms often end up with systems that reflect these divisions.

The most effective solution for this, and the best alternative to hierarchy for the coordination of work, is to build a shared service platform as the first step towards becoming a truly service-oriented organisation. Business-as-a-platform is where many high-performance firms are headed, and this requires a strong focus on building shared capabilities and services that connect the organisation horizontally, rather than continue operating a divide organisation that is only connected (vertically) at the top of the pyramid. A platform that manages core services, services, processes and rules, whilst providing a common spine for the coordination of information and data, is capable of supporting many different CX channels in a consistent and connected way.

This model of core services organised in a (tightly managed) platform supporting a variety of (more flexibly managed) user experiences via apps is becoming a universal design pattern, from our smartphones to our car entertainment systems, TVs and other devices. It is likely to become the norm for how we run our organisations as well.

Applying a service-oriented mindset to how we build self-service channels could help us give a lot more choice to customers. As Matt Ballantine mentioned in our panel discussion, why can’t we choose how much customer service we want in our price plans, ranging from self-service (e.g. GiffGaff) to velvet glove concierge support (e.g. Vertu), rather than price-in an average support cost? More and more people want to use self-service channels, but without automating and orchestrating core services, this is not always easy to achieve.

So where to begin? What are the most important digital transformation goals from a customer experience perspective? A good starting point is to ignore the internal functional divisions that are  currently holding us back and to engage everybody in a conversation about what needs to improve. For example:

  • Run a distributed digital strategy exercise to confirm what digital tools and capabilities the organisation already has that could be better or more widely used. You would be surprised how many parts of a large organisation use tools or services that other teams may not even be aware of, or provide specific services to customers that others could also use or perhaps extend.
  • Involve people in a diagnostic process to see where they think customer experience is being held back by organisational issues. What processes, pain points or bureaucratic blockages are standing in the way of people creating value for clients, and do they have any ideas how to fix or improve them?
  • Let your workforce suggest new capabilities that should be goals for digital transformation. Based on what they know about your market and your strategy, what new superpowers do they think the organisation will need to succeed, and what new capabilities or services might be needed to meet changing customer expectations and behaviours?

This distributed approach to setting transformation goals is more effective and robust than either working on hunches about what to build, or being too trend- or agency-led in making new technology investment decisions.

In taking this approach, the organisation also has an opportunity to identify and support its emerging digital leaders – those who are confident with technology and passionate about using it to improve the organisation. As you move forward with transformation, these digital guides (some call them change agents) constitute a vital network through which you can influence and accelerate change, and their distributed, emergent leadership is at least as important as the formal leadership at the top of the pyramid.

To really make customer experience everybody’s job, we need to give everybody a stake in thinking about how to improve it, and as we move further into a world of everything-as-a-service, we need organisations that can deliver this and support increasing self-service preferences. I realise that the brands I like the most are those that let me organise my groceries, coffee beans, banking and clothes as services without needing to go through old-style scripted customer support on the telephone or in a store. Perhaps the ideal combination for me is 90% self-service with brilliant, personal service for the 10% of things that are exceptions to the norm (First Direct do this very well in banking). To achieve this, organisations need to orchestrate and manage the services they provide, internally as well as externally, rather than continue to muddle through a messy world of disconnected departments and functions held together by a thin veneer of brand consistency.

To find out more, check out De-mystifying Digital Transformation.