Want to know what customer experience means? Look no further than the dictionary

Updated: Dec 25, 2019

If the role of management is to measure and manage something, we really should understand what that something is before we engage with it.

For too long CX pros have followed mantras such as: Wow the customer; it’s all about emotion or customer experience is the sum of all touchpoints. Mantras that have only caused damage to the industry. Why? Because such definitions concern themselves more with selling vendor and consulting services than 'the experience the customer has'

Truth is If you want to know what ‘experience’ means and derive some principles on how to manage it, look no further than the dictionary: an independent source written by experts in word definition!

After all, the only thing we have in trying to manage experience is the word...and we should take care not to fall into folklore definitions. Lest we bind our knowledge to so-called management ‘gurus’.

So, if you accept my argument what does the dictionary say about customer experience?

I underline some key words.



1. a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something: My encounter with the bear in the woods was a frightening experience.

2. the process or fact of personally observing, encountering, or undergoing something: business experience.

3. the observing, encountering, or undergoing of things generally as they occur in the course of time: to learn from experience; the range of human experience.

4. knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered, or undergone.



1. a person who purchases goods or services from another; buyer; patron.

2. Informal. a person one has to deal with: a tough customer; a cool customer.

So, to paraphrase for the sake of time, customer experience means: ‘a buyer or someone who we have to deal with who encounters a situation whereby they personally undergo something; observe something, gain some knowledge from something’


So, experience concerns itself entirely with the personal world of the customer (the subjective) and within that:

· ‘Encounters a situation’: what is going on over time.

Olaf Hermans calls this ongoingness, the Cynefin framework explains different frames of reference encountered in a variety of situations

· ‘Personally, undergoes something’: what is contextual and subjective.

Dave Snowden talks about sensemaking and how we personally receive information and make sense of it; Oatley is a good source for understanding emotion.

· ‘Gains some knowledge’: what is important to us. Vargo and Lusch talk about value-in-use

Which indeed does include memorable moments, emotion and so forth as much as it includes cognition, relationship, ease etc..

Management Implications

Customer experience is an abstract term; hence the management of customer experience is as well.

It is not a definable ‘thing’ you can measure, poke and control. If only you buy my ___________ (fill in the blank). That is why it is so popular. It is sufficiently slippery a concept that is means anything to anyone: hence it scales and acts as a fig leaf to make the C-suite feel good.

Typical phrases used being:

· ‘when you buy my cost reducing AI thingumybob you reduce cost AND it make life frictionless for the customer’;

· ‘customer experience is all about wowing the customer, make them feel oh so emotional, delight at every touchpoint’.

For myself, I have no problem with any of this. Marketing is part of life. It's just that when we deliver, we really should not be falling into folklore definitions, we need to be more thoughtful and less prone to follow the latest management fad.

In short, and for me, customer experience is about overlaying the personal world of the customer onto what we do and looking for a value exchange i.e., we add value to the experience the customer has and in return they give value back to us.

Although I admit, customer experience says nothing about management being good bad or indifferent to the customer!

What is value? Go look in a dictionary. My argument is that at least by applying a value exchange concept we start to think in the right way and start to ask the right questions.

And the implication of this is that you need to:

· get close to the context in how you measure and evaluate customer experience change (after all sometimes its not relevant);

· ingest qualitative (i.e., subjective) approaches in your tech teams (et al);

· where relevant make decisions co-creatively. Since, expert judgement and trial and test is often (but not always) the best way to handle subjective variables. IMHO.

I do have one final thing to say:

The number of times I have heard the customer treated as an objective engineering product is ridiculous. Surprising as it may be, humans are subjective creatures and when you make business decisions, subjectivity absolutely plays an important, indeed critical role.

Even the belief that customers are purely interested and driven by the functional is a subjective determination after all!

So, when your tech and stats teams start talking about how things need to be objectified and all else is pink and fluffy, I must object. Lest I take the customer out of customer experience.

How we consider the subjective world of the consumer is for another blog, or just drop me a line. But I signpost in this post some true thought-leaders to follow on this point.

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