Monitoring the online customer experience, by Mark Hurst.
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Top Sites' User Experience Teams and Their Challenge

Monday, July 21, 2003
by Mark Hurst

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Last week I finished up a 10-day tour of user experience teams up and down the west coast of the U.S. Visiting over a dozen companies, which run several of the top 10 websites in the world, I saw the challenges faced by product developers, marketers, user experience practitioners, executives, and others who work with online customers.

      We're all facing the same issues.

Across all of those companies, the issues were strikingly similar. Despite the different business models - e-commerce, content, software development, search, etc. - team after team recited the same few issues that they are now trying to address.

In short, it comes down to what I'll call the "integrated customer experience." Increasingly, in order to fulfill their online goals, customers interact with the company in a way that cuts across internal teams, and even questions how the company is organized.

As one site manager told me, "We're finding that customers don't think of us in terms of separate business units. They think of us just as [company name], as one place to get their questions answered. So when they come to the site, and we can see this in the traffic logs, they go from one area of the site to another, across channels and business units."

To customers, this makes perfect sense. Why should they conform to the way the company is organized internally? After all, the website is there for customers' use, not for the company to show the world its org chart. So of course the customer will take any necessary path through the site.

To the organization, this presents several challenges, especially if it hasn't yet addressed this issue strategically:

- Business units take care of their own part of the website, not caring how other business units manage their area.

- Usability teams tend to work on tactical, task-based issues, and have little or no impact on strategic issues.

- There's no company-wide customer experience team with the mandate to manage and improve the integrated customer experience. (Or if there is, the various business units don't listen to that team.)

- Management doesn't get it. There's no financial model to calculate the lifetime value of a customer, and hence the executives don't understand the financial value of investing in the customer experience.

Clearly, managing the integrated customer experience isn't something that one user experience practitioner can take on. Customer experience is a strategic issue. Managing it has to be a company-wide effort, bringing together several assets:

- A centralized customer experience team, with a clear mandate.

- Expertise on that team. (This must encompass much more than tactical usability: corporate strategy, marketing, financial modeling, data analysis, and political savvy are all tools in customer experience work.)

- Buy-in from the other business units.

- Support from management.

And that's not the end of it. In the long run, companies must "bake it into their DNA." Customer experience work, if taken to the logical conclusion, eventually reforms the company's entire organization around the customer's needs - not around business units and sales channels.

If this seems daunting, remember the good news: even the best websites in the world are dealing with this issue. Now is a good time to engage this issue within your company.

(P.S. If you're at a top site and didn't meet with me, drop me a line - let's talk.)

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