Custom Experience Design: Lessons from Startups

28 Nov

From traditional management consultancies to boutique design firms, everyone seems to acknowledge the role customer experience plays as a point of differentiation in today’s increasingly competitive landscape. For the most part, thought leaders agree that customer experience management requires leadership alignment in order to foster a consumer-centric organization, as well as tools and processes to continuously measure and refine the customer experience. However, the key element that seems to be missing in today’s literature around this topic is how to actually design the customer experience.

So, how does one actually go about designing a compelling customer experience that builds a loyal fan base, provides a layer of differentiation and drives revenue growth? Ask a startup founder.

Identifying pain points in the customer journey

Interview just about any successful startup founder or CEO, and more often than not you will hear some variation on the following sentiment: “I was frustrated with the current offerings, and realized there had to be a better way.”

Trunk Club CEO Brian Spaly articulates his startup’s reaction to the shopping experience for men’s clothing: “The big challenge for most guys today is the overwhelming amount of choice on the internet and the unattractive environment of the retail store. We solve that problem by sending an edited, personalized assortment.”

For Dwolla founder Ben Mine, the customer experience of dealing with merchant interchange fees needed revamping: “I got really obsessed with interchange fees and how not to pay them.  Every time a merchant gets paid with a credit card they have to give up a percentage.  In my case, I was losing $55,000 a year to credit card companies.  I felt like they were stealing from me — I was getting paid and somebody was taking money out of my pocket. So I thought, how do I get paid through a website without paying credit card fees?”

In these cases – as well as myriad others in the startup world – a pain point in a customer experience led to a flash of insight, around which a business was designed to circumvent the pain point.

Defining the target customer segment

When identifying opportunities for improvement in a customer experience, regardless of the industry, you cannot forget about one crucial variable: the customer. One only has to look at the headlines for retailer JC Penney to see what happens when you ignore your core customer when designing the “ideal experience”.

After retail star Ron Johnson was brought onboard as CEO, he tried to revamp the storied brand of the struggling retailer and reinvent the customer experience. The problem, however, is that Johnson designed the new “ideal experience” for a higher-end, upper-middle class customer rather than for the value-seeking customers that had been loyal JC Penney shoppers for years. Johnson’s attempt to apply his magic from Target and Apple – retail experiences he previously designed – to  JC Penney illustrate the extent to which you must design the customer experience around your most important customer segments, or risk alienating those that delivered your success in the first place!

Again, startups provide a valuable learning experience in this regard. Men’s retailers Bonobos and Trunk Club offer experiences for fashion-conscious, time-starved men, while Daimler’s car2go is designed for on-the-go urban dwellers. These companies have thrived because their services solve the problems of a specific customer, instead of trying to be everything to everyone.

Redesigning Your Customer Experience

Who are your customers, and what does their customer experience look like today? As the startups previously discussed illustrate, customer experience design is not interchangeable with customer service improvement; instead, analyzing the customer experience can lead to insights that drive completely new services and businesses. If you want to drive loyalty and create a differentiated experience, borrow a page from the startups’ playbook and turn a pain point into a point of differentiation.


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