The Best Practices Trap

Over coffee a few days ago, I got to listen as a client leader reflected on his organisation’s journey using customer experience to drive performance. It was a fun conversation, because over the last two years a groundswell of positive change has occurred. Satisfaction is up. Dollars have been freed because activity that customers didn’t value was purged. And the organisation has been able to sustain what was already heady growth.

Employees have a clear line of sight between their individual and team jobs and the customers they serve — and there is a lot of mutual self interest between customers, employees, and the organisation.  There are most certainly still challenges, but in the words of Jake, “Life is Good.

The phrase that never came up: best practices.

Well, it actually did come up after his story – as a description of the approach his organisation did not use. You see best practices are, by definition, things that have been proven to drive results many, many times, for many, many organisations. “How would we know what was uniquely US?” my coffee partner said. “How would we know what was right last year will be right for our organisation and our customers tomorrow?”

How indeed.

Best practices can be a slippery slope. They are a good reference point, just as any mountain or corner Starbucks offers context when we’re finding a new place. But they are not the new place.  If we confuse the signpost for the destination, we fail.

(Not restricted to customer experience, best practices can mislead for other strategies as well. Ask Prasad Setty, who declared “We want to understand what works at Google rather than what worked in any other organisation” as he discussed why Google invested a bundle to develop their own definition of the a successful leader.)

Covey was right. Begin with the end in mind.

Rather than starting with best practices, the leaders in this organisation started by defining a shared vision for an ideal target experience. Steven Covey-style (remember the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?), they started with the end in mind.

Leaders from across the organisation created a shared vision of the target customer they’ve chosen to serve. They defined her demographically, and they got honest about what motivates her behaviours. They figured out the triggering need – common to all their target customers – that causes them to act. And they confirmed that solving this need for this customer was a way to operationalize the mission and strategy of the organisation. They called it “Bringing their promises to life.”

Outside in, using a customer point-of-view, they carefully mapped what would ideally happen and what customers should ideally feel, as they realised a need, learned about options, tried them out, made a choice or purchase, used the organisation’s products and services to solve the need, and even as they evolve to another need over time.

Using the organisation’s view, they decided what should ideally happen in order for the organisation to earn consideration, demonstrate why they are the best option to solve their customer’s need, protect them as they buy, solve needs, and anticipate how customers will change over time.

With the ideal end in mind so clearly defined, the most important actions in every area – from operations to web sites to product strategy – became easy to see. Best practices pursued by others were noted, but noted only. By the time my latte was gone I realised there is no confusion between the signposts and the destination with this group of leaders!

Passing the “cover the logo” test.

Like copying your competitors, implementing best practices without understanding their contribution to your customer experience is a stairway that leads to nowhere. Think about it this way: take out a piece of paper with your company logo. Write down the top 5 to 10 things that fundamentally define your customer experience, or your top 5-10 customer experience goals.  Now, cover up the logo but leave the list in the open. Look again. If the list you see could have the logo of any of your competitors at the top, you’ve likely fallen into the best practices trap.

Pass the test? Excellent!  If you aren’t happy with what you see, you may have fallen into the best practices trap. To get out – or stay out – do what my coffee partner did. Build a shared end in mind of your target customer, the need you can solve for them better than anyone else, and the ideal or target customer experience that can uniquely deliver on that promise. Use this ‘end in mind’ as a guide in every decision made every day across your organisation. Watch customer experience get stronger. Register performance gains. Be happy.

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