You are here


Managing the Experience

Take control of marketing trends to deliver a superior 'customer experience.'
University Business, Apr 2009

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO I WROTE A COLUMN FOR UNIVERSITY BUSINESS that introduced the idea of brand as experience. I opened that column with an unsettling statistic from Bain and Company: “80 percent of organizations believe they deliver a superior customer experience, but only 8 percent of their customers agree.”

I have no doubt that this statistic is right. In fact, in tough economic times, I think that experiences, as a whole, have gotten worse. The question that occurs, however, is pretty basic to organizational integrity: What separates the small number of organizations that deliver a superior experience from the large number that do not?

The difference, I believe, is one of intent. Many organizations simply let experiences happen. Others seek to manage those experiences. This article will focus on the idea of experience management.

Before we begin, however, I want to make something very clear. Experience management is not the same thing as customer service. Experience management is much more strategic and begins with a big question: Are we offering the right experience?

Experience management recognizes, and even capitalizes on, a couple of significant marketing trends. First, customers, including students and donors, want greater input into the experiences that they buy and in which they participate.

Second, sociologists use a phrase, “a galloping psychology of entitlement,” to describe today’s teens and young adults. Theirs is a generation of people who are used to getting their own way.

Third, organizations are rewarded for being customer-centric. Kevin Roberts introduced the idea of lovemarks to describe higher-order brands. Lovemarks, he said, represent organizations that customers are simply unwilling to live without. Apple is a lovemark. So is Cirque du Soleil.

Experience management is not a new concept. In fact, its DNA is entwined in the AMA’s definition of marketing as an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating, and delivering lifetime value to customers and for managing customer relationships (or can we say “experiences”?) in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders.

Experience management is not the same thing as customer service. It begins with a big question: Are we offering the right experience?

Let me give you another perspective. I am often asked what it is that colleges and universities sell to students. What schools sell, at its most basic, is the sum of all the experiences that a student has and the opportunities he or she has after graduation.


There are wheels within wheels here. The student college experience includes the academic experience, the campus life experience, the resident life experience, the athletic experience, and myriad others.

Perhaps the biggest question that arises from this is: Are colleges and universities successfully managing those experiences, or are they just happening?

Answering this question brings us to the idea of experience management. By definition, experience management is an organizational commitment to identifying and managing, to a specific end, the key touchpoints that define an experience that a customer has with a product or service.

Developing an Experience Management Strategy

Experience marketing has seven components:

— Garner political support ? Identify your customers

— Deconstruct the experience ? Refine the experience

— Engage, equip, and empower your experience deliverers

— Commit to Kaizen ? Reward right

As with any change-oriented activity, developing an management strategy begins with garnering the necessary political support. Those of us who have worked at colleges and universities know that while change in theory is valued, change in fact is not. For this reason it is important to make sure your president and senior team are deeply and vocally behind the undertaking.

Next, identify the customers who are going to be impacted by the experience. For this discussion I have focused, somewhat broadly, on students. Of course, because the methodology and steps largely remain the same, you could also design experiences for donors, staff, faculty, alumni, and others.

While I have been talking about students in general, it is helpful to be as precise as possible. For example, are you looking at students who are talented and gifted, minority, women, full-time, commuter? The reason for this precision is simple: Solid experiences are built on solid audience segments.

Now that you have carefully defined your customers, it is time to deconstruct the experience that you want to improve. This typically involves a series of in-depth focus groups and individual interviews with your target audience in which you ask such questions as:

— What elements contribute to this experience?

— Of the elements you have identified, which are “deal-breakers”?

— From your perspective, what elements of the larger experience do we do well?

— What elements do we not do so well?

— Can you point us toward some institutions that you think do a better job than we do on a particular experience?

With the insights from interviews, focus groups, and research in hand, and the larger experience deconstructed, it is time to refine the experience you want to deliver. Refining your experience involves four discrete activities:

— Visually mapping and prioritizing individual touchpoints

— Gathering best-practice data from other colleges, universities, and organizations

— Developing measurement baselines and metrics

— Assigning responsibility for managing those touchpoints and rewards for improved performance


Let me offer a couple of insights about this step. First, while the research will help you deconstruct the larger experience into its component, interrelated parts, it should also tell you which sub-experiences are most valued. Spend premium time and money on those sub-experiences that matter most. Of late, Stamats Communications has been asked a number of times to help clients refine the overall academic experience they deliver. We discovered that the students at one client college identified 13 sub-elements of the academic experience:

1. Class availability

2. Flexibility of class scheduling

3. Advising

4. Honors

5. Registration

6. Classroom and lab experience

7. Wireless access (technology)

8. Internships and co-ops

9. Study abroad

10. Academic assistance/tutoring/remediation

11. Library

12. Career planning and placement

13. Grad placement

These same students placed the greatest emphasis on four of those touchpoints, and improving those experiences dramatically enhanced their overall academic experience.

One reminder: It is important when viewing a list such as this to remember that not all students ranked these sub-experiences the same way. For part-time students, for example, flexibility is key. Full-time students, however, place a premium on advising.

When mapping your touchpoints, pay special attention to the boundaries between touchpoints. It is the overlap areas—when more than one office is involved—that often slip through the cracks. For example, who is responsible for cleaning up a room after a meeting? Is it housekeeping, catering, or even the office sponsoring the meeting?

Second, one of the most remarkable qualities of higher education is the willingness of colleges and universities to share best practices. There is little need to invent, but there is often great need to borrow.

Third, remember that if it cannot be measured, it cannot be managed. It is critically important at this stage to develop firm metrics that define the current experience and help you determine whether or not you are making progress in enhancing the experience. For example, as part of delivering a great financial aid experience, one client put a customer service kiosk immediately outside the financial aid office. After completing their business, students were asked for their overall level of satisfaction with the experience.

Finally, assign responsibility and authority of each touchpoint to a single individual. Of course, a team will likely be involved in delivering that touchpoint, but a single person needs to be in charge, and that person’s overall performance, ideally, should be tied to some sort of reward system.

Now that you have refined the overall experience, it is time to engage, equip, and empower the providers of that experience. Experience providers need to completely understand the importance of the touchpoint and how that touchpoint fits into the larger experience. They need to be fully trained, completely resourced, thoroughly managed, and held accountable for their performance. Because the idea of accountability is a relatively foreign concept to higher education, there may be some pushback on the idea of holding people accountable.

The next issue—committing to Kaizen—is not so much a step in the process as an attitude about the entire process. Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that focuses on continuous and incremental improvements. A commitment to experience management assumes a commitment to continual improvement. No matter how well received the new experience might be, it must be continually improved. Some organizations—and the individuals who inhabit them—grow weary of continual improvement. However, successful organizations—and the professionals who work there—do not.

The final step in implementing an experience management strategy is the creation of a reward system for individuals who significantly contribute successfully. The idea of merit awards is relatively new to higher education. But failing to reward performance sends the signal, at one level, that the performance is not valued.

One final reminder: Rewards aren’t always financial. One college offered to pay the costs for a graduate degree for key employees. Another gave high-performing employees release time to pursue specific projects of interest. A third reduced the number of committees employees sat on. It is important to take the time to design a unique reward structure for the employees you value most.

Robert A. Sevier is a senior vice president at Stamats Communications ( He can be reached at