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How do you solve a problem like... telling your client their CX sucks?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

March 9, 2022 | 11 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

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How much delicacy should agencies use when approaching potential new work?

Next week, we’ll be digging into the details on customer experience (CX) with a fresh series of features and opinion. Ahead of our Deep Dive, we asked agency readers how they tackle a thorny problem within the sector – how to break the news to clients that their current set-up isn’t up to snuff.

Clients care about and understand CX far more than they did 10 years ago, but that doesn’t mean agencies are waiting for brands to come to them. Diagnosing a client’s business problems can be a way of creating new opportunities. A brand’s onboarding systems for new customers might be rubbish, and you might have the answer to fixing it, but how do you convey that without sounding dismissive?

How do you solve a problem like... telling your client their CX sucks?

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Karen Boswell, EMEA chief experience officer, VMLY&R

Sucky CX is something clients often already realize, but ignore because they can’t quite put their finger on a root cause. I find the kindest way to help them identify what needs to change is by finding out what they don’t know. What data dots need connecting? What questions are they asking themselves?

Nine-in-10 seek business-first resolves, such as ‘how do we get customers to buy our stuff?’. But this is the wrong question to ask. Instead, reframe their business goal into a customer-centric one and ask, ‘how might we do things differently to empower customers to do something they couldn’t do before?’ Reframing will flip the CX model to put emphasis on customer problem areas that lead to business opportunities for growth.

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Patti Alderman, assistant vice-president, Zone and Cognizant Digital Experience

CX is complex, so exposing the gaps in a customer experience requires you to look beyond surveys and digital journeys. So starting with the customer is essential, but you must follow the thread all the way back to employee experience, business process and, ultimately, the business culture. Direct customer feedback goes a long way, especially quotes, however pictures also paint a powerful message of the reality of an experience.

Video of actual store experiences or recording a digital journey can quickly paint the scene of how the experience is in reality – not how it looked on a process map – from the customer-side and the employee-side.

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Ben Ingle, business director, Stink Studios

From our experience, clients often know when their customer experience could be better, but there could be several reasons why this hasn’t been resolved – more pressing challenges, legacy systems, lack of available budget etc – so it is important to sympathize and not put down. At the same time, it is our job as external partners to challenge our clients in the pursuit of a better customer experience.

To do this, we find it’s important to frame the challenge within a wider context, state the opportunities, share a vision and show how it can add value. It’s not rocket science, but providing clear reasons to invest is often the most helpful approach.

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Niyi Duro-Emanuel, senior vice-president and UK strategy lead, Merkle

Problems can be scary, especially with an understanding that a customer’s total experience with a brand is influenced by multiple factors, multiple teams and multiple functions across the business. Providing clients with a clear assessment of exactly where their customer experience is broken and giving a step-by-step roadmap of how to tackle their challenges often helps to soften the ’your CX is rubbish’ message. At Merkle, we have a framework called the ’Customer Experience Blueprint’ that gives clients a clear roadmap, linked to an end state vision of what their ultimate CX should feel like for their customers.

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Laurie Jarzemsky, experience strategy director, Barbarian

In short, pin it on the customer to deliver bad news. As a foundation for every project, my approach is to establish a shared understanding of a customer’s holistic real-world journey, agnostic of the client’s brand. I build current state journeys to synthesize and contextualize research and use them to facilitate and neutralize these conversations. Layering the client’s existing CX journey over the user’s real-world context reveals the tensions and gaps in an objective way. The exercise produces a framework and vocabulary to hold all accountable throughout the process and often surfaces opportunities for innovation beyond the original scope.

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Conrad Rasmussen, head of experience, Wunderman Thompson

The truth cuts through when the research is meticulous. Accuracy matters if you plan to make a real difference. The best leaders already know that their brands are falling short. But no matter how open we are to feedback, it still hurts to hear just how bad things might be.

So it’s important to remember that positive change comes when people see how change is happening for them, not to them. We are in this together. Side by side, we’re highlighting the problems so we can start solving them – bridging the gulf between customer expectations and reality. It hurts but it needs to, so we know what to fix.

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Sian Brereton, senior account director, Engine Transformation

Firstly, be respectful. There’s a high chance your client once was proud about their work and some of it may still be in use, so acknowledge this. Secondly, collaboration is key. Your client is an expert in their brand and you are an expert in your field. Leave the ego behind and bring these skill sets together to create cohesive practical solutions that empower your client and elevate their program to be class leading. Finally, use data. Take away the fluff and share impactful and tangible findings. This will make them more likely to want to go on the journey with you.

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Zoha Zoya, creative director, R/GA London

Our role as a client partner is to bring the customer to the front row of their business. When kicking off a project, we go through extensive research to understand how business priorities align with the customer mindset. This goal is to help clients understand challenges while showcasing opportunities to improve CX and differentiate. We have to be honest and transparent during this process, often with difficult conversations, but ultimately clients come to us for our expertise so that enables us to give constructive feedback if we feel their current CX is not what it should be. We just need to talk with empathy and understanding, humanizing the tech side of the discussion.

Ultimately, the goal is to make every interaction across the customer journey meaningful and memorable by shifting the experience from transactional to relationship driven.

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Jane Austin, chief experience officer, Digitas UK

You don’t tell them. You let their customers tell them. In the new CX economy, an agency should not act like some wise guru dispensing expertise from on high. Instead, an agency should shape research, harness insight and tell brands a story about themselves they rarely hear, distilled into actionable insight: a story about how their customers see them and how to respond. Insight and response is key. Agencies add value by shaping and prioritizing insight so clients can distinguish the wood from the trees, urgent from important, and help clients take the next step by helping them understand what to fix first and how. Insight, prioritization and solutions that focus on customers not on internal politics are agencies’ superpower.

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Roxanna Larizadeh, commerce lead, Starcom

We focus on improvements we believe our clients should make, rather than things that are wrong. For instance, instead of saying ’your product page experience is inconsistent across your e-retailers’, we say ’by setting guidelines for your product pages on all e-retailers you will help customers have a seamless online experience with your brand’. We also show clients how we can help them improve their CX, such as ’we can streamline your digital storefronts across platforms so that customers can view more items/check out faster/find what they are looking for easier’ instead of ’your storefronts are not user friendly’.

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Sophia Teixeira, managing director, Loop

It’s important to remember that clients look at agencies as experts and guides. How you tell the client and what you tell them are equally important. The ’how’ is diplomacy. You have to deliver feedback in a respectful way without watering it down. Constructive feedback is better than criticism.

Back the ’what’ up with facts and data. Go through your client’s CX for real examples of why something isn’t working and how it can be improved. When working with clients, we map the CX journey at various points. What makes us and the client successful is an ’outside-in’ perspective.

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Zeina Farha, vice-president of experience design, Somo

Data, data, data. When it comes to convincing clients that their CX needs help, there’s nothing more compelling than evidence-based arguments. Data, in this case, can offer a host of different pain points: the volume of calls to a call center about a particular issue to analytics that highlight drop-off points along the customer journey. Even without formal testing, a case could be built by testing with friends, family and colleagues to highlight the pain points customers experience. Companies that are serious about customer centricity and delivering great customer experiences should not be hiding from these eventualities but welcoming the opportunity to act on what the data is telling them and continually improving.

Want to join future debates? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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