Amazon solved the customer experience puzzle. Can you?

Scott-Maxwell-500 by

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Inc. here.

One of the biggest mysteries in business right now is why so many companies pay lip service to the customer experience, but don’t practice what they preach.

Brands undo millions in advertising spending by often intentionally making their customer service as unpleasant as possible. Surly staff undermine top retail brands. Product manufacturers continue to print long user manuals that no one reads. Things take weeks to arrive by mail when Amazon would have shipped it in two days.

Such common failures are one reason that Amazon, Apple, Uber, Expensify, Calendly and Nest, to name a few, stand out. In an attempt to catch up, the industry has quantified many aspects of customer experience. As a result, companies with terrible or mediocre customer service can make big improvements. But the leaders tend to be companies run by fanatical people who are obsessed with the issue.

Why most Customer Experience programs fail

The success of customer-focused leaders like Amazon hasn’t gone unnoticed. In addition to reaping the rewards of providing a great customer experience, each have raised the bar for everyone else. Some 64% of customers now expect brands to respond and interact with them in real time; for B2B customers, the figure is 80%. Forrester has found that customer experience leaders enjoyed average growth of 17% on a CAGR basis versus 3% for laggards from 2010-2015.

Even so, companies that try to catch up often fail. Despite the growth of the chief experience officer and increased focus and attention on the issue, Forrester found that the customer experiences for most companies plateaued or declined in 2017. Forrester predicts that 30% of companies will see further falloff in performance in 2018.

Programs designed to improve customer experience often fail because it’s such a broad area – you might make great strides in customer service, for instance, but still have a clunky product. Improving it requires persistence and attention to detail that most can’t muster.

The power of a fanatical leader

So who excels? Tony Fadell, the man who designed the first prototype of the iPod for Apple and invented the Nest thermostat, once got so excited talking about a product that he broke a chair. Steve Jobs was so detail oriented that he once criticized a colleague’s business card because its kerning was off. (He was right.) Jeff Bezos often offers scathing put-downs to his employees, including “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” and “Why are you wasting my time?” all in the service of his vision of a “relentless focus on customer experience.”

What the four have in common is a passion for customer experience, even though they go about translating their passion in different ways.

Great customer service requires great empathy. To achieve it, everything is organized around how the consumer will experience the brand. (Ironically, this sometimes means that great leaders aren’t very empathetic bosses.) Jobs even agonized about what hue of grey to paint the Apple store bathrooms. This sense of mission has led some to dub them cult CEOs.

Can everyone else catch up?

Most companies’ leaders don’t think that way. Though they may talk about the customer experience, most CEOs display other qualities, like the ability to charm press, a focus on financial results or give their business a global perspective.

If your company isn’t run by a cult CEO though, there’s still hope. Hiring a third-party consultant can help leaders to understand how consumers see your brand. A consultant can also offer solid advice for addressing gaps in your program. Companies serious about addressing such gaps can make progress. Office Depot, for instance, turned its customer experience around by re-orienting its stores to meet customers’ needs. That included adding more fashionable items to attract women. Cox Communications reorganized its customer service into one group, led by an SVP of consumer operations.

To offer an extraordinary experience though a company really needs to be obsessed with it. If you’re looking for a role model, consider Tony Hseih, the founder of Zappos. Hseih merely decided that great customer service was the company’s best form of advertising and stuck to that vision. Hseih’s realization wasn’t groundbreaking, but his determination was. Now that the market has realized the value of providing a great customer experience, other leaders will need to find that level of determination too.