Customer Experience: Training Beyond the Course

Training-beyond-CourseIn 1999, Pine & Gilmore released The Experience Economy. In it, they argued that our business models have gone from agricultural, to product, to service.  And they argued that the next transition was the ‘experience economy’. Here, people are focused on not one aspect of a product or service, so just the food at a restaurant or just the device when purchasing a product.  Instead, it’s the sum of all aspects of engaging: the advertising, initial exposure, company, customer support, etc.

The prime example might be Disney.  They create a total experience, from your first visit to their websites purchasing the passes and accommodation, through the thematic coherence of the accommodation, to the actual theme park itself.  Waiting in line has been considered, with themed entertainment as you wend your way through the lines. They even theme the transportation from the airport!

Pine & Gilmore suggested that this perspective was important, as was the execution against it.  The consideration here is to consider why, how, and what’re the implications for L&D.

Why Experience

The argument for experience is pretty simple: customers don’t think about your business from the silos you have created to deliver. Efforts like Net Promoter Score, while flawed, reflect that customers are likely to view you from their total interactions with your organization: sales, product/service, support, etc. Even the company’s reputation can play a role!  While you likely have separated out your marketing, sales, support, etc., they see their experience with your company as a monolithic whole. It’s their experience that determines whether they’ll purchase from you again or recommend you.

It’s recognized that retention is easier than recruitment, and experience is what dictates whether you’ll retain a customer.  Will they continue to pay for their subscription, purchase the next version, or use you again? From their perspective, it’s about the overall experience. Does it fit together, and is the overall experience positive relative to the alternatives?

And it’s easy for different elements to be not only be in competition, but to be in conflict.  Sales may be pushing other aspects than what marketing says, customer support be emphasizing reducing costs instead of increasing customer satisfaction, etc. It’s about alignment, ultimately, with the separate elements mutually aware and sharing a core set of values. And it’s not necessarily easy to make this transition.  To do so requires breaking some organizational barriers.

Crossing Boundaries

To make an experience, you need to ensure that the component elements are working together to make a coherent whole.  This requires transcending the usual organizational silos and working together. Representation from all the business units need to work together to develop a shared understanding of what the unique customer experience is going to be.  This then guides figuring out how each part works in synergy with the others. And it’s not straight forward.

Most importantly, it’s about breaking down the typical business segments. I once read that business reorganizations have to happen. Organizations work for efficiencies by segmenting the business units and streamlining operations. Eventually, customers get fed up with falling through the cracks, and the company has to reorganize to sort out customer experience. Then, inefficiencies creep in, and the cycle repeats. Whether a customer experience organization can be successful may depend on the ability to move from a hierarchical model where the few think for the many, to a more networked structure.

In a client engagement, I was tasked as an advisor to the ‘training’ component of the customer experience. Here, the organization had dedicated themselves to providing an ‘experience’ as the customer-facing relationship.  A five day workshop was organized that brought in relevant stakeholders from other related units to redefine what training meant in this context. And it felt like my role the whole week was to keep them from going back to ‘courses’!  They would recognize that ‘how to’ videos, technical communications like job aids, and the like, were all perceived by customers as much a part of a support perspective as much as courses were. But then they’d revert to thinking about the separate business model around courses instead of viewing support as a coherent whole.

The necessity is to think beyond the course.  

Customers don’t want to think about service contracts separate from training separate from documentation. For them it’s about “how do I get the best use of this product/service”?  That means, you want to think about their whole experience. How can training reduce service costs, and documentation supplant training? It’s a cognitive analysis and a performance design situation. It’s about designing from the customer’s total experience.  It’s applying design thinking from the user’s perspective!

As an underpinning, what’s required is a clear vision of what the customer experience should be. In terms of your product or service, what would you like customers to come away thinking?  How would they like to view their experience with you? Hearty? Friendly? Edgy? It will depend on your organization and your customers, but it takes a process to explore the possibilities and understand.

Putting this together: a clear vision, cross-organizational understanding, and aligned elements is what it takes. It’s not easy, but it’s desirable. It requires more deep engagement with customers, greater integration and communication internally, and of course the ever-challenging ‘change’. Still, with the increasing transparency of the internet, it’s liable to be a business necessity. If customers communicate, you’d like them communicating about who helps them accomplish their goals in a coherent way.


Interestingly, Pine & Gilmore suggested that the successor to the ‘experience’ economy would be the ‘transformation’ economy.  Here, the experiences change you (in ways you want to be changed). That is, you would pay for products or services that increase your abilities and understandings. You could have new perspectives, new skills, and new connections.  This could be the next step and arguably a better focus.

In her book, Badass, Kathy Sierra talks about the product instantiation of this.  It’s not about people liking the product, it’s about people liking who they can become because of the product. It’s a critical distinction that can drive a whole customer rethink.  Importantly, she talks about how the learning experience creates a manageable slope from first touch to where the customer is achieving the goals they had dreamed of.  

And, whether product or service, this to me is the goal.  And, the role of L&D! To truly make a product that makes customers awesome, you have to understand what customers dream about being able to do (in your area), and facilitate them (between your product/service and your customer experience) to that level.  If they’re absolutely thrilled with what they can do, they’ll like what you have to offer. It’s not about you, it’s about them!

Customer experience is a focus with clear upsides. Learning is a critical component of the whole, but it must mesh with the rest of the elements of the experience. However, it can also be key to taking that concept to the next level. Are you ready to escalate?