The Search for a Unified View on CX
While many companies and organizations claim to have the universal definition of customer experience, the reality is different. This article reviews Larissa Becker and Elina Jaakkola’s (2020) research, which examined 136 articles about CX in eight literature fields. [i]
In my article “Customer Experience: A Tale of Two Opposing Views” (2019), I explained that despite a consensus between practitioners and scholars that a favorable CX positively impacts business outcomes, the CX concept remains foggy.
One looks at CX through one of two lenses. The organizational lens assumes that companies can design experiences and that all customers will perceive stimuli alike. The customer lens ascertains that firms cannot deliver value since the customer is always a co-creator of value. While the former focuses on organizational structure, strategy, and customer-employee interactions, the latter considers individual customer journeys, cognition, affect, and senses.
Figure 1: The CX Bifurcation
Becker and Jaakkola acknowledge the duality of CX by calling it a response to either managerial stimuli or consumption processes and call out the lack of a unified view on customer experience. The researchers rightfully see the absence of a shared understanding of CX as a challenge for theory development.
And for the practitioner who loathes theory, I’d like to quote Clayton Christensen: “We use theories in our daily lives, whether we want it or not, and whether we are aware of it or not” and John Maynard Keynes: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” [ii]
So yes, hindering theory development hinders the practitioner. Consequently, the researchers have a hard time providing the CX manager with the meaningful implications she seeks to achieve superior customer experiences.
I, for one, do not want to be the slave of some defunct CX guru, nor do I want to be exempt from intellectual influences as a practical man. If you don’t want to be either, then keep reading.
Becker and Jaakkola try to resolve the paradoxes and dilemmas in the current customer experience literature. Their objective to develop a consolidative tactic to CX research leads to four essential premises of customer experience. The researchers suggest these premises are cross-contextual and apply to any setting.
They come up with the Theoretical Map of Customer Experience, which I prefer to call the CX Bandwidth.
Figure 2: The CX Bandwidth
What the map does, is not so much consolidate two paradigms but fill the gap between the organizational and the customer lens. The chasm is not an empty pace but a bandwidth where customer experience phenomena occupy a specific area, as the combination of figures one and two illustrates.
Figure 3: The CX Phenomena on the CX Spectrum
Figure 3 clarifies why there is no consensus on a definition of customer experience—some view CX as a characteristic of a product and others as an individual’s subjective perception.
Toward a Unified View on CX
Seeing CX as responses to managerial stimuli or looking through the organizational lens assumes company control over CX. Seeing through the customer lens or CX as responses to consumption processes acknowledges multiple stakeholders and experience-inducing triggers beyond a company’s management.
In their effort to produce a universal definition of CX, Becker and Jaakkola suggest defining customer experience as “non-deliberate, spontaneous responses to particular stimuli.” The researchers arrive at this definition by separating the stimuli and the subsequent conscious evaluation of the customer’s reactions from the customer experience.
The proposed definition is eerily similar to that of emotion, as defined by the American Psychology Association; “A complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event.” [iii]
In simpler terms, an emotion is a basal response in our brain that sparks a biochemical reaction in our body and changes our physical state. They are coded in our genes and are quasi-universal. [iv] [v]
Becker and Jaakkola’s proposed definition of CX matches the more straightforward explanation above since it does not deal with the triggers or sensemaking of the responses. It is void of intention and preexisting conditions; it separates emotions from feelings, which are, in reality, two different yet linked phenomena.
A feeling is “A self-contained phenomenal experience. Feelings are subjective, evaluative, and independent of the sensations, thoughts, or images evoking them.” [vi] Feelings are mental pictures of what happens in our body when we experience an emotion and are subjective, based on our personal experiences, beliefs, world views, and memories. Unlike emotions, which are quasi-universal, feelings are cultural.
In separating feeling from emotion, the researchers bring awareness to another confusion concerning the nature of customer experiences. Marketers and marketing researchers think that good experiences are by definition memorable or extraordinary. They refer to the nature of their offerings rather than to customers’ evaluations.
While the marketer sees her offering as extraordinary, the customer’s perception of it can be very weak or very strong. Also, a customer can have a fantastic experience as a response to an ordinary offering. The proof of the eating is in the pudding, after all.
I find the definition of CX proposed by Becker and Jaakkola too simplistic as a definition because it reduces CX to a basal response to any trigger ─which can be a person’s thought or an external event─ without the feeling that describes the bodily reaction. However, I believe it is the perfect starting point to understanding the customer experience, be it as a researcher or a practitioner.
Another merit of the researchers is their visualization of the CX bandwidth, the triggers that occupy its frequency range, and how service design bridges the schools of thought.
What’s more, Becker and Jaakkola propose a conceptual CX framework that puts the opposing views on CX into one dynamic complex system, acknowledging the limited control of a company over the system. The researchers designed the framework based on the four fundamental premises they formulate.
Becker and Jaakkola’s Fundamental Premises
Table 1: Fundamental Premises. Becker, L. and Jaakkola, E., (2020).
|Premise 1.a.||“Customer experience comprises customers’ non-deliberate, spontaneous responses and reactions to offering-related stimuli along the customer journey.”|
|Premise 1.b.||“Customer experience ranges from ordinary to extraordinary, representing the intensity of customer responses to stimuli.”|
|Premise 2.a.||“Customer experience stimuli reside within and outside firm-controlled touchpoints and can be viewed from multiple levels of aggregation.”|
|Premise 2.b.||“Customer experience stimuli and their interconnections affect [the] customer experience in a dynamic manner.”|
|Premise 3||“Customer experience is subjective and context-specific because responses to offering-related stimuli and their evaluative outcomes depend on customer, situational, and sociocultural contingencies.”|
|Premise 4||“Firms cannot create the customer experience, but they can monitor, design, and manage a range of stimuli that affect such experiences.”|
Becker and Jaakkola’s fundamental premises underwrite CX as a dynamic complex system that reaches beyond a firm’s control. The researchers ask two pertinent questions:
- How can a company design touchpoints that are adaptive to external touchpoint stimuli?
- How can a company influence customers’ responses to external touchpoint stimuli?
I agree with Becker and Jaakkola to ground customer experience management models in research (and practice) in a sophisticated understanding of experience. This agreement explains why I see the researchers’ proposed definition as a perfect starting point for both the scholar and the practitioner.
CX as a Dynamic Complex System
What Becker and Jaakkola see as their conceptual framework of customer experience, I see as a to-do list for every CX practitioner. Trying to emerge a good customer experience is not enough. Identifying and naming the intended customer experience is what matters. Achieving the intended CX in the customer’s perception is the name of the game. The researchers’ framework sheds light on how to be in pole position as a practitioner and researcher.
Figure 4: CX as a Dynamic Complex System
Despite the perception of speed we have in our so-called VUCA world, customer experience as a concept is relatively young. Its study and practice bifurcated at one point leading to two primary schools of thought. Neither school encompasses the full spectrum of CX.
Becker and Jaakkola set out to reconcile the two dominant views on customer experience. They managed to produce four premises and a framework that allows both the academic and the practitioner to take the next step.
The primary outcome of the researchers’ work is the identification of the CX bandwidth and the phenomena that lie in its frequency range. Their best advice is to ground a sophisticated understanding of experience before venturing into customer experience management models.
Jef Teugels is the CEO of MarketCulture Europe. He assists entrepreneurs and organizational leaders in developing and realizing sustainable growth.
[i] Becker, L. and Jaakkola, E., 2020. Customer experience: fundamental premises and implications for research. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 48(4), pp.630-648.
[iv] Ekman, Paul; Cordaro, Daniel (20 September 2011). “What is Meant by Calling Emotions Basic”. Emotion Review. 3 (4): 364–370. doi:10.1177/1754073911410740
[v] Plutchik R (2002). “Nature of emotions”. American Scientist. 89 (4): 349. doi:10.1511/2001.28.739