Key questions brands need to consider before the can truly create a differentiated customer experience strategy

A recurring theme of the programmes I run with customer experience teams all over the world is that in today’s volatile and ultra-competitive environment, good is rarely good enough to win.

brand-differentiationThe quest for brand managers and customer experience specialists is to deliver a value proposition that’s different (from their competitors), in ways that are relevant and compelling (to their customers) and will therefore influence purchase behaviour. In short, to address an unmet need by being different and relevant, and to unlock commercial value. 

The evidence suggests that while most brands espouse these principles, many have trouble converting aspiration into behaviour. So here are a few pointers from brands I’ve been fortunate to work for, or work with, each of whom has contributed something important to the melting pot. They include high street names like P&G, Hilton, Amazonand John Lewis Partnership, along with less well-known but highly successful brands who are pushing the envelope in their respective markets, including BaxterStorey, Orega, Rocco Forte Hotels and Metro Bank.

Here are 5 questions that these brands have sought to address in their journey. They provide an invaluable lens to help analyse performance and identify focus areas:

1. What do we know about our customers that our competitors don’t?

I was asked this question a couple of years into my tenure as CMO of Hilton and, rather embarrassingly, I didn’t have a good answer. We had mountains of data, but nothing that gave us a real edge. We asked all the usual “what do you need” questions but weren’t plumbing the emotional depths that reveal how to connect at a visceral level.

So we started exploring what became known as the ‘circle of pain and circle of dreams’; things customers value and hold dear, things they feel strongly about, things that frustrate and delight, things that influence quality of life, relationships and happiness.

From this insight we built a bridge between the brand and the customers that transformed performance, positioning and experience.

2. Can we explain simply and clearly what makes us different and why someone would buy us? 

Sure, it’s nothing more or less than a value proposition. It explains, with precision and clarity, what we do that makes us different and better. It helps shape answers to the crucial “which means that” questions; which means that our products have to be, our CX has to deliver, our advertising has to communicate, etc. It’s the glue that holds everything together. It’s obvious. Why then are well written value propositions that are used to guide key business decisions so hard to find, even among major brands?

It comes back to understanding what the purpose of a proposition is, and therefore what it must contain. I believe its purpose and power is to explain with crystal clarity (and brutal honesty) precisely what makes a brand different in a way that’s relevant and therefore better than the competition? That requires some hard yards to have been covered such as:

  • Have we found out enough about our customers to reveal an unmet need – something our customers, our competitors cannot do, but which we can (different, relevant and therefore better)?
  • Does our proposition focus on the single USP that we’ve hopefully developed – or does it describe all the things we think we’re good at but don’t really differentiate us?
  • Have we been honest and analytical enough about the ability of our own organisation to deliver something compellingly different?
  • Do we have the strategic and writing abilities in our marketing departments to write this kind of proposition. Do we have the operational and organisational experience to understand what the organisation must do to deliver the proposition (the “which means that” questions that are so critically important and ultimately decide whether brand experience matches brand promise)?

3. Do our people (especially our planners) think and behave competitively?

To deliver a customer experience that truly differentiates, we need to think and behave competitively – but what does this mean in practice?

Perhaps we can learn from the sporting area where successful teams analyse how each competitor plays, identify areas of vulnerability and figure out how to use their own strengths to exploit these weaknesses. It’s a calculated process of investigation, analysis and planning – real strategy in action.

Here are 3 questions to help assess your own competitive mind-set:

  • How much do you know about your competitors’ main vulnerabilities?
  • How do you convert this insight into advantage through applied planning?
  • What do you then do to ensure you’re equipped to exploit these vulnerabilities?

Like I said earlier, if good isn’t good enough, the challenge is to be better… where it matters.

4. Are people in our business inspired and encouraged to bring individual flair to their job? 

I’m always hearing clichés like “Our people are our best asset”, “We hire for attitude” and, best of all, “We’re all about empowerment”. But what I see are structures and processes that inhibit individuality, flair and spontaneity – the very life blood of service experiences that customers rave about.

There’s no simple 3-step answer to this challenge, but surely our role as CX leaders is to challenge the traditional command and control ethos that feels comfortable to accountants and operators but de-humanises our brand experience.

There are numerous examples of strong brands who harness the flair and individuality of their people as a feature of their experience, just look at John Lewis, Rocco Forte Hotels, Apple, First Direct and South West Airlines. Perhaps it’s a good time to take a closer look at the ‘blockers’ that inhibit individuality in your organisation.

5. Does the way we work encourage or inhibit the speed and flexibility customers want? 

Increasingly, the name of the game in customer experience is speed, flexibility and agility. Responding to customers on their terms, where, when and how they want. A wonderful aspiration that many organisations are simply not equipped to deliver, constrained by legacy systems and infrastructure, clunky planning and decision process, departmental structures that inhibit collaborative working, and an approach to learning and development that doesn’t deliver the required behavioural change.

There are no simplistic answers to a complex challenge but I’ve found that a powerful starting point is a deep and systematic investigation of the organisational issues that surround each pain point in your customer journey. In my experience the solutions are rarely obvious, easy or cheap to fix, but doing the hard yards to develop solutions invariably produces transformative results.

The key for CX specialists to realise is that developing and delivering these solutions depends on taking a truly collaborative, cross-company approach.


So, 5 questions to ask yourself to help develop a truly differentiated customer experience. Heard some or all of it before? Of course you have….Tried to implement some of it with varying levels of success? Highly likely. Hoping for a simple panacea that makes all the pain go away? Same here, but in my experience it doesn’t exist.

However, brands like those mentioned above and a handful of others are showing us the way, if we’re prepared to do the hard yards within our own organisations.


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