NCA on why creating customer experiences is the new commercial art
A view from Rob Curran

Creating customer experiences is the new commercial art

Understanding CX is now key to communications, according to Rob Curran, co-founder of New Commercial Arts, the agency start-up which aims to unite brand and customer creativity.

Customer experiences aren’t good enough. That’s the unpalatable truth for the majority of brands and their customers. We know it to be the truth statistically, anecdotally, and intuitively.

And they aren’t good enough for many reasons. So often, we see the challenges posed by legacy IT systems, siloed client organisations, regulators, investment constraints, the list goes on.

However, these are all logistics, they can always be overcome. The more fundamental barriers sit above them, and they are the challenges that brand owners and their agencies have unfortunately created for themselves.

We think these can be grouped together into three buckets. The first is that clients often think their brand’s customer experience is much better than it really is.

The second is that agencies are in the business of making promises that many brands just can’t keep.

And the third is that customer experience isn’t seen as being particularly important, little more than a recent bolt-on to the CMO’s responsibilities and to the services their agencies offer.

Let’s look at these in turn:

1. Customers are screaming at us silently

There is often a breakdown between how brands view the quality of their experience, and how customers do. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from clients that “our NPS is really high, actually”.

That’s great. The customers who you are asking are saying they might recommend you. However, there are a great many customers you aren’t asking.

And you aren’t asking because they actually aren’t customers. They could have been or used to be, but your CX drove them away. They didn’t tell you, they just disappeared, to a competitor.

They didn’t fill in the survey (who really does?), and they didn’t complain (where’s the motivation?).

They tried, you failed, and you have no idea it ever happened.

Companies need to hear the sounds customers make: the sounds of eye-rolling, sighing and being mildly underwhelmed. They must hear the sound of a potential customer’s mind being changed thanks to a string of irritating pop-ups that have made the brand’s website unusable. The sound of annoyance, the sound that the thought “I was expecting better” makes.

Businesses used to hear it, but don't anymore.

Some do. It tends to be owner-run companies, for whom the experience the business offers is a personal reflection on their company, its quality, its culture. They know that if they listen carefully they can tweak things, and get it just right.

And at the other end of the spectrum, it’s the world’s greatest businesses that have shaped themselves around these hard-to-hear noises. They listen intently.

While we appear to be getting ever more sophisticated with measurement, our dashboards habitually neglect the most influential thing in business  the feelings customers have.

Worse still, many companies have built ways to hear just the lovely reassuring noises. The ones that say “good job”, and “we’re hitting our objectives, again!”  the dashboard of satisfaction metrics designed only ever to be green.

At NCA our customer experience work aims to turn the volume up, high. We’ve designed ways to listen for the things that are really hard to hear. A customer rolling their eyes and clicking off to a competitor's website is silent, you can’t hear it with a survey or a focus group, and it doesn’t turn up in complaints.

Hearing the emotions, the perceptions, the subconscious thoughts, the judgement and latent desires of your customers... that’s what brands need to hear. Those sounds point you in a different direction, the right one.

2. Brands are writing cheques their bodies can't cash

In our industry we’re in the business of setting expectations as high as we can. We craft our brand promises into beautiful, innovative, creative, famous, award-winning promises. And then we routinely neglect the substance, the experiences that we’ve been vouching for so strongly.

This used to be OK  not great, but you could get away with it. People might see an advert for your soap powder or car and then maybe buy it at the weekend or visit your dealership a few months later, when memories and expectations have dulled.

Today, however, they see your ad, and go straight to your website or app before the next ad has even started. They see your promise and they test it, right there and then. And all too often the promise of the comms and the performance of the experience just don’t match up.

There is a difference between a brilliant communications idea and a brilliant organisational idea.

In the past, I’ve often been handed a brand platform that the ad agency has sold to the client, but that the other agencies simply have no idea how to execute across the customer journey.

It might be a promise of speed against a customer experience that demands customers complete five forms before they start; a promise of humanity in a business that is completely automated; a promise of personalisation for a brand years away from having the tech to keep that promise.

And the agency that sells the promise doesn’t give this a second thought. They have done their job, crafted their brand onion and made their key visual, the rest is another agency’s problem.

And so, at NCA we never sell a brand promise unless our CX team acknowledge they know how to keep it. It makes life much harder for us. But if it’s not hard it’s probably not worth doing, and aligning a brand’s public promise with its customer experience is absolutely worth doing. 

3. Customer Experience is everything

Customer experience is fundamental. It’s not “something we should build into the 2025 strategy” or “an exciting potential investment area” for your business. It is your business  it’s every business.

The oldest company in the world was registered in 587  it built temples. If it had a competitor down the road that had a better customer experience (better services, staff, delivery times, etc), it would have lost customers to them. It has always been thus, and always will be.

Allow me to state what should be blindingly obvious, but seems to have been forgotten. As I’m told Amazon's Jeff Bezos once put it: "Businesses exist to sell things to customers. If customers like the experience your company gives them, the business will thrive. If they don’t, it won’t."

That’s customer experience, and that’s business. It’s the whole ball game.

It’s not that complicated, and it’s not a lot of other things. It’s generally not PR-worthy, or flashy. In fact, it’s sometimes been dismissively referred to as “the plumbing”. It’s also hardly ever a sudden big reveal. It’s never the work of a single genius. And it’s rarely exciting to anyone but the customer who’s using it.

I won’t be sending Campaign a press release when we improve the Password Reset process for one of our clients. But I will care about it, and so will the thousands of customers who use it and find it (and therefore the brand) to be better than it was before.

Brands are part of the fabric of our lives, and so customer experience is the thing that makes the lives of millions of people flow more easily, less stressfully, and more enjoyably. It’s gritty yet transformational. It’s the stuff of buying  and therefore of business and commerce.

It’s also the really big things: the new products, the propositions, the touches that make brands famous and loved. It’s the difference between loving a brand vs. tolerating it. It’s the removal of disorder and the creation of distinction and differentiation. It dictates the flow of popularity, and the true fate of companies.

We believe in a new commercial art: bringing together brand and customer experience creativity to create a more compelling whole. And we work for clients who believe in unifying the process of making and keeping promises.

We think (and we would, wouldn’t we?) that we are the only way any meaningful marketing services agency can be going forwards, and that we might just get there a little quicker, because we have been born, not built, that way.

Rob Curran is co-founder of New Commercial Arts