When we ask organisations which business areas are most important for process improvement, we see strong consistency in responses: the areas which touch the customer. Organisations are realising that their current CRM investments haven't enabled them to deliver the customer experiences they want to deliver. There's growing realisation that an "outside in", customer-focused view can yield valuable insights and highlight opportunities for improvement in a way that the "inside out" perspective typically taken by yesterday's CRM implementations couldn't.

Customer experiences and customer journeys

"Customer experience" sounds like a very sensible concept at a high level, but it also has a lot of potential to be a woolly term that means nothing. A good way of thinking about the idea of customer experience, to make it more concrete, is "the sum of all experiences a customer has with a supplier of goods or services, over the duration of their relationship".

The argument inherent in this viewpoint is that looking at customers' experiences from the perspective of one-off transactions is only going to take you so far. What can appear to be a series of one-off transactions from a supplier's perspective is actually part of a journey from the customer's perspective – and that journey can be intensely frustrating for customers, even if individual interactions within that journey pass off without problems.

OK – so how can you start to analyse whether what your organisation delivers today provides a foundation for good customer experiences? One great place to start is to explore the concept of a "customer journey".

A customer journey can be seen as the series of touchpoints that a customer goes through as they seek to do business with your organisation – but it's important to focus beyond a simple sales cycle. If you do this, the danger is that you quickly begin to slip back into "inside out" thinking that doesn't put the customer at the centre of things. The idea is to map out the journey that different kinds of people will take as they seek to do business with you, and look for points in that journey where the experience breaks down from the customer's perspective.

The important thing to remember as you consider the structure of a customer journey is that the journey may well traverse multiple brands, venues, and channels. It may also include interactions with third parties (one trivial example would be interactions with delivery agents).

So what does it take to deliver a great experience for customers as they take these journeys?

Three levels of customer experience delivery

We see this as a "hierarchy of needs" with three parts.

The foundation of delivering a great customer experience is to deliver consistency and continuity of service – across brands, venues, channels and so on. This alone is not trivial – it requires you to integrate policies, procedures and systems across brands, departments and channels at the "front edge" of the organisation. Sometimes those policies, procedures and systems will be tools that employees use to deliver service; in other areas they'll actually be automated in software. Even across the software-human divide, consistency and continuity are paramount.The second piece, which builds on the foundation of consistency, is to make it easy for customers to work with you. Making it easy for customers is about ensuring that wherever possible, common request patterns can be addressed quickly and with little or no work repetition or handoff. It's about bringing key touchpoints with core processes and potentially even the processes of "back edge" partners to the front edge – to the customer.The pinnacle of customer experience delivery is what I call "going the extra mile".

Fundamentally this is about being prepared to not only integrate and pull processes to the front edge of your organisation where they can be presented to customers; but to actually make customers part of these processes – to open up key processes to customers in ways that allow them to act as peers to internal people and systems (in certain circumstances).

To illustrate this last point, think about an online shopping environment. Most such environments do a decent enough job of allowing customers to select products, quantities and configurations and "checking out". This is, after all, the "happy path" that makes the supplier the money. But not so many make it easy for customers to cancel an order once it's been placed. Some do, but it's not as common. And what happens if, after placing an order, a customer realises she needs to change her preferred delivery date for purchased goods, or change delivery location? How many online shopping environments really keep customers up-to-date with the progress of orders and notify them of any problems in a timely, customer-friendly fashion in ways that enable customers to make sensible decisions (like, for example, cancelling a delayed order?)

Many of these features may seem like fringe benefits but they're all ways to really go the extra mile and potentially make all the difference for customers. And crucially, implementing them requires the realisation that customers' lives don't fit into neat "happy path" transactional boxes. It requires you to think about how you can let customer behaviour directly drive events into existing processes that lead to managed exceptions or alternative process flows.

Where does BPM fit into the picture?

Business Process Management (BPM) initiatives are a central enabler of great customer experiences – they act as an engine for progressing at all three of the levels in our hierarchy.

BPM initiatives
are ideally suited to doing the groundwork that enables not only consistency and continuity of customer experience, but also providing the foundation for processes and relevant information to be integrated and pulled through to the "front edge" of the organisation. Additionally, a programme that focuses on process efficiency, integration and so on should provide you the foundation for building automated flows for managing exceptions and handling two-way notifications between customers and processes. The key here is to use technology that enables the right kind of process flexibility.

Successful BPM implementation also gives your organisation the ability to not only deliver consistent service but also make cast-iron service promises around processes. This level of value – which as I mentioned before involves thinking about your processes as if they were products – is also where you're likely to get into managing and deploying process variations for distinct customers or segments, geographies and so on at the same time as basing delivery around one central process foundation for consistency and continuity.

Getting started

If you're intrigued by the notion that BPM can help you improve customer experiences, then you might be wondering about the best way to get started.

Before you do anything, create a customer journey map – this will guide priorities and scope in your project. At the same time, you should make sure that if there are customer experience measurement practices in place in your organisation, you refer to them and make those part of the scope of your work. Proceed with caution if they don't exist: if no-one is measuring this stuff already then you may find this a "hard sell". Look for people tracking metrics like First-Call Resolution (FCR), channel completion rates, Net promoter scores (NPS), or customer turnover rates.

When setting the terms of reference for your work and starting to talk to people about what might be possible, find ways to link this work to business strategy. This is really important if you're going to get crucial senior business buy-in. Remember that a process integration and consistency foundation is likely to be key to your efforts, but it shouldn't be where you start. Start with getting a clear understanding of current customer journeys and what kinds of improvements can be justified.

The one overarching thing to remember is – walk in your customers' shoes. Start with their reality and keep returning to it.

For more information

MWD's new Insights event Reinventing Customer Experiences with BPM, which combines a keynote from Neil Ward-Dutton with a number of in-depth BPM case study interviews, is available to view online now at http://www.mwdadvisors.com/events/bpmcxi/