If you’re a tech entrepreneur with a strong background in technology, chances are you’re looking at the world from the inside out – in other words, you probably made technology the core of your business and might expect the world to align with what the technology does. However, what really matters is the “outside in” view.

For entrepreneurs building their businesses, I strongly believe that the quality and consistency of the customer experience is what makes for a successful business. Consider this:

  • When you go to a McDonald’s anywhere in the country (or the world), your dining experience will be near identical (low cost, standard menu items, quick service). You don’t really think about where the beef for the burger came from.
  • When you board a Southwest Airlines flight, you know what to expect (no assigned seating, peanuts for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and maybe a comedy routine thrown in if you’re lucky). You don’t think about the aircraft model you’re in.
  • When you turn on your iPhone, you expect not just the device to be on; you also expect instant 4G connectivity,  your Facebook app to be working, and your cell phone reception to be clear and continuous. You don’t think about the patented technology that went into building the device.

Let me suggest something here: Technology is a commodity.

In today’s hyper-tech world where everyone is using all manner of digital products for their most mundane day to day experiences, it’s important to realize that the technology doesn’t form the experience. Do you ever to stop to think of how cool the iPhone technology is, or how many patented inventions it carries inside the device?  If you’re like me, you care about the intuitive user interface and the ease of navigation, the range of apps you can download and run, and – oh, yes- how well the cell phone reception works.  No amount of technology will make me buy an iPhone if the cellphone reception sucks. Which brings me to an important distinction here:

Customer experience is not UX.

Most entrepreneurs will devote a fair amount of time to UX, as they should. However, the product is never used in a vacuum – which is to say, the product is used in a certain context (home, office, mobile device etc.), and very often, in conjunction with other offerings in the market that are essential for the customer to enjoy the experience. The iPhone example illustrates that even if the device was the coolest toy on the planet, the customer experience would be ruined if the user couldn’t get 4G access to post Facebook updates on the go.

Constructing a positive customer experience requires building and managing an entire ecosystem of touch points that will contribute to the experience. These touch points may be internal (e.g customer service) or external (e.g wireless network).

Let’s simplify the notion of customer experience into a couple of statements. Creating an optimal customer experience is about 2 things:

  1. Making a promise that the customer cares about
  2. Keeping the promise

Making a promise that the customer cares about:  When you take your offering to a customer, you’re making a promise.  If you are building a platform that enables a customer to enjoy the experience of using your specific product or offering, the promises not only include what you’re willing to stand by in terms of what you build, but also an implicit promise around an ecosystem of dependencies that enable the customer to experience your product. All of this has to take place within an agreed commercial framework of pricing for the promised experience.  When you buy an iPhone, you buy a network (i.e. AT&T, Verizon), great customer service (sales assistants with hand-held devices for speedy checkout), and a fantastic customer care plan (which includes a wipe-down of lost or stolen devices).

Keeping the promise:  What if you can’t keep the promise, due to neglect or poor design?  Doctor’s offices, restaurants, and airlines routinely overbook customers. If you’ve ever showed up on time for a restaurant reservation and had to wait for 30 minutes to actually be seated (haven’t we all been there?) you know what I mean. If the actual experience is less rewarding than the experience that has been promised, you will lose your customers.

While the success or failure of Siri won’t determine the fate of the iPhone, a poorly executed customer experience can be serious for cash constrained start-ups struggling to build their businesses. Uber realized this recently when their regular customers found themselves being charged several times more for a fare out of midtown Manhattan than for a fare coming in. The reason this happened was that cab drivers took advantage of demand-supply imbalances to charge more during rush hour. When your entire customer experience is based on a service provided by an entity not in your control (in this case, independently owned cabs), you must pay close attention to how you will manage it if you don’t want your business to run into trouble.

Constructing the user experience can be easier than consistently maintaining it.

The notion of constructing the customer experience applies in the context of enterprise-level B2B offerings as well. For instance, if you’re selling analytics software, you have to construct an experience that includes software installation or delivery, training, data preparation, and so on.  How all of this will come together determines the ROI as well, and the customer is unlikely to sign up for just the software without having end-to-end visibility to the experience.

One last comment: Most businesses think in terms of acquiring new customers. The successful ones think equally hard about retaining their customers. This ultimately translates to building an initial experience that meets the promises made, and maintaining that promise throughout the relationship lifecycle. Of course, periodic modifications have to be made to account for changing customer preferences (anyone remember Digg or MySpace?).

So, go out and build your awesome product. But, don’t forget to build an awesome customer experience to go with it.

Photography: Flickr