What does it feel like to interact with a company? How do customers experience using a product? Walking into a store? Updating an app? Reaching out to a contact center? This is the customer experience: all the elements of a customer’s interaction or journey with a company, emphasis on all.

While experience is increasingly what defines a brand, brands today are sustained in new ways. It may sound controversial to say so, but for me, the product is a commodity or a utility. You can’t differentiate on product, because any product can be copied. You can’t differentiate on price, because somebody can always do it cheaper.


What’s left?

In the past, a brand existed in the minds of consumers largely because of messages sent them by the brand, using advertising, media, and marketing. Today, you can’t spend enough to do it that way. The way you exist today as a brand will thus emerge from the experiences you enable. How a brand manages these experiences–how it unifies them for the customer and in turn unifies its own organizational capabilities around them–increasingly will determine its success.

While companies grasp the importance of experience, few are addressing it in holistic fashion. In a recent study, Forrester and Cognizant found that while 95% of respondents believe improving customer experience is either important or very important, only 18% are prioritizing and investing in it enough to be getting real business results.

It’s an Experience Economy

We’re already in an “experience economy” whose impact will only grow with time–yet if you tried to list the brands that are competing and winning on the overall experience they enable, you probably couldn’t name more than 10. Why aren’t there more? At Cognizant, where I lead our global practice for digital experience, we think it’s because organizations are thinking about experience in a piecemeal way.


Perhaps they think experience comes from a quality product. Or they think it’s design– the way a product, website, store or mobile app looks. Or else they think experience is defined by a technical platform like CRM, or a commerce engine that offers a 360-degree view of the consumer. In fact it’s none of those things, or rather all of them. Experience is how every last one of the interactions you have with a company makes you feel.

Thinking about customer experience in this way is liberating, but it’s also challenging to companies. That’s because to achieve a consistent, predictable, satisfying ongoing experience for customers requires the orchestration of more elements than most leaders recognize.

Over half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.” That idea can and should be applied to customer experience this way: how the experience is delivered is the experience. For this reason, we at Cognizant believe tomorrow’s brand leaders will be those that systematize experience delivery. We call this “experience orchestration”–creating a multilayered ecosystem that reliably, repeatably delivers the desired experience across business units, media, devices and geographies.   

How Do Companies Look at Experience?

As noted above, Cognizant and Forrester recently surveyed over 700 business and experience leaders to identify the practices and attitudes that lead to business success through customer experience. One of the most compelling findings was that companies almost never fully own the experiences they deliver. “Employees, partners, and even customers deliver major components of that experience,” the report explains.

One of the most striking findings was how much emphasis leading companies put on the role of employees in creating customer experience. They often consider the employee’s journey as important as the customer’s and see the two as deeply connected. Such companies provide more and better tech to employees, ensure they have easy access to customer data, work to understand the mechanics of employee-customer engagement, view employee enablement as critical to customer success, and seek to use ongoing insights to improve how employees serve customers.

Employees are only one key element in the ecosystem that leads to powerful customer experiences, but their central role underscores the complex challenges of achieving success, and the need for companies to think in terms of entire systems.

Orchestrating the Experience

At Cognizant, our approach is to marry the science of intimacy with the art of industrialization – the path to which is via our experience blueprint methodology. What we call experience orchestration is the key to this industrialization. The top layer of our blueprint is the experience itself. The next layer down is employee experience. (Are employees in phase with your customer expectations and the ways they vary across the journey? Are the right employees working toward the right customer expectation points?)

Beneath that is data and decisioning. Additional layers include content, technology platforms and business processes. And underneath it all is the business organization, whose design must reflect these priorities. The pathway to scale comes from mapping those interactions down through each of those layers.

This blueprint underscores what our company is great at. We have one of the world’s largest teams of behavioral scientists and ethnographers. We have world-class design expertise. But we marry that with enormous technology capabilities and a massive team of Agile developers and infrastructure engineers. If companies can’t bring all those dimensions together, they don’t win.

Intimacy and Industrialization in Action

In just one example of experience orchestration, we’re helping a large automaker innovate the experience of electric cars. How will it feel to be an owner? How will the entire process work, from shopping through purchase through repeated recharging, even getting repairs? And by the way, what’s different about Tesla? Is it just that the cars are electric, or is it the whole experience? A Tesla is sold much like a Burberry jacket, in a high-end retail environment; most other cars are sold pretty much the same way they were in 1983.

For another client, a global pharmaceutical company, we’re using artificial intelligence to refactor content. We’re extracting content from format A, then adapting it and reinserting it into format B. That saves the company a ton of money. But at the same time, we’re working with this client on partnering with smaller companies for innovation. We’re going through a strategic exercise to help them identify the right kind of partners. And, critically, we’re also helping them design what the experience of those partnerships should be.

(In all our engagements, technology of course is indispensable, even though we believe the brands that succeed will be those that behave most like human beings. It may seem paradoxical, but artificial intelligence can play a big role in helping brands behave like human beings, and Cognizant has deep expertise in AI. To behave or act human means listening intently. It means changing your intonation based on signals from the customer. It means being empathetic. You can only do these things at scale if you employ AI and machine learning.)

The way the experience is delivered is the experience. Brands must deliver customer experience across devices, languages, continents, and business units. This multidimensional aspect of customer experience is a key driver of the CIO agenda, and also a key driver of CFO expenditure. It drives investment deep in the organization’s infrastructure. Experience doesn’t only lead to investments in front-end capabilities, it drives fundamental organizational and infrastructural shifts. I find it enormously exciting to work in an area so central to the future success of every business.