Perception vs reality: Do we really understand holistic measures such as customer experience?
Over the years, academics and practitioners have been heavily debating the understanding of holistic measures such as customer experience. Whilst practitioners argue that academics complicate these measures; academics, on the other hand, think the industry is not handling such measures correctly.
Let’s take a second to understand this debate below: How many times in a day we hear the following statements in the tabloids or from a friend:
“This store has a better customer experience.”
“What? That’s really bad and weird. Maybe the staff were having an off-day?”
I had an amazing experience there – I did not want to leave.”
The debate about whether these statements are true or not can go for hours, but the real question is: Do we really understand which experience we are talking about?
From an academic perspective, holistic measures such as customer experience are multi-dimensional in nature. This means that within a measure itself, there are several embedded dimensions and each act independently. To make accurate judgments, we need to understand the influence of each dimension and specify its effect on the holistic measure rather than treating it as one big ‘thing’.
In theory, customer experience consists of several dimensions that academics introduced over the years. These dimensions include cognitive, affective, social, emotional, physical and spiritual. Theoretically speaking, each dimension can have a different effect on customer experience measure. However, we find ourselves treating customer experience as one ‘thing’.
From an industry perspective, holistic measures such as customer experience merely represent some overall impression consumers formulate about a particular thing (for example: you can rate your experience on a scale of 1 – 5).
When we deal with holistic measures in this way, we are likely to make inaccurate judgments. Therefore, the issue with the lack of detail to the dimensions of holistic measures can be explained using this store example:
You need shoes for an event you have this weekend. You search for stores nearby and you find one with 4/5 stars by 30 reviewers – and you think great, let’s go. You walk into the store and it’s beautiful. It looks good and smells nice. The flow of the store is perfect. You touch the clothes and you think “wow, this is nice,” and then you see shoes and the price is perfect (They are meant for you!!).
You look around for a staff member and see them all huddled into a circle gossiping. So you wait. And wait. Ten minutes pass by and you finally call out to one of them, but the staff ignore you. So you follow one and ask for your shoe size. They say they’ll check in the back. They go to the back, but they never come back out.
If you manage to buy the shoes, you probably might be happy with your overall experience with the store. But what if you don’t? How would you describe your experience there?
Imagine after that experience, the store emails you to rate your overall customer experience out of 5-point scale. Let’s say you give 4 out 5. The marketing team analysing these results might not really understand why you deducted a point because they don’t know which dimension of the customer experience they underperformed in. As a result, the marketing team could make adjustments to fix the situation based on what they think is right rather than what the consumers really think.
However, if you were asked about your social experience and emotional experience and cognitive experience for example, you would probably be able to provide more accurate information about each dimension of the customer experience in the store. Consequently, due to the detailed information the store received, it can work on improving the weaker dimensions.
For that reason, it is important that we understand which dimension of the customer experiences we are looking into before reading customer reviews on social media.
One can therefore assume that the problem not only resides within the dimensionality of holistic measures but also with their definitions. In academia or industry, it is rare to find a ubiquitous definition of holistic measures such as customer experience. We normally tend to find variations in the definitions based on the perceptions of people defining them. For example, when we discuss customer experience, we realise that several definitions exist in the marketing and retailing discipline because each definition was developed based on different theories (service quality, consumer behavior, marketing and retail, etc.).
Now, I want you to think of this question: When measuring customer experience for a particular store, would you rather define customer experience in this store based on each activity within the store such as search experience (such as the availability of information or customer service), purchase experience (such as queuing and paying at the till), and consumption experience (such as post-purchase services), or just examine it as a general measure ‘customer experience’ that incorporates all activities as one entity?
Which method do you think would give us an accurate representation of the reality of experience you are getting at this store?
In my view as an academic and a practitioner, defining customer experience as a specific measure would allow us to draw more accurate theories in relation to this measure. As a result, we will be able to understand the variations between the definitions in the literature and select the definition and theory that best match the context we are dealing with.
In conclusion, it is important for people to understand the nature of holistic measures and what they include. The lack of attention to the dimensions of these measures or their definitions may lead to misinterpretation of reality, which could result in ineffective decision making.
The next time you get in a debate about your experience in a store with a friend, take a minute to understand which experience you are debating and what dimensions of this specific experience you are talking about.
This Blog post was written by Majd AbedRabbo, a doctoral research student in the Marketing and Retailing discipline group. Majd is a member of the Centre for Service Management and the Town Centres research interest group at the SBE, and he can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org