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Article 5 min read

Break the fourth wall to transform customer experience

By Brian Solis

Last updated December 10, 2020

Customer experience (CX) is now all the rage. It’s a hot trend and long overdue. But the truth is, like with all trends, CX is celebrated best by those who believe in its value. It is not yet fully embraced by the influential enterprise stakeholders who find the ROI of CX to be rather elusive. But customer experience is not a thing; it’s a movement. And this movement is driven hard by connected customers, who demand business become personal again.

Companies that don’t genuinely adopt the customer experience movement will find themselves replaced by those that do. Intentional investment in CX as a competitive advantage is necessary to deliver greater value, services, and experiences.

The challenge is in motivating executives so that they can empathize and feel what customers hope to achieve. To do so requires businesses to break “the fourth wall” of customer experience. To live the brand the way customers do or are forced to, and engage customers as people–transparently and sincerely, rather than transactionally and at arms-length. Too many businesses are a little too good at being one-sided: taking more than receiving, talking more than listening, and serving at scale, rather than engaging for long-term relationships.

Transform Customer Experiences into customer communities

What is the fourth wall and what does it have to do with service, support, or community?

On stage, television, or the big screen, the fourth wall is the space that separates a performer or performance from an audience. It’s a conceptual barrier between any fictional work and its viewers or readers. Businesses have much to gain by appreciating the significance of breaking down the fourth wall. It’s a reminder that performers and audience members (companies and customers) work best with mutual understanding, communication, and unity.

Every time Ferris Bueller speaks to us through the camera, he breaks the fourth wall. He makes us part of the story.

Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) breaks the fourth wall throughout the 2000 film American Psycho. Every time we hear his inner-thoughts, it gives us insight into his brain and helps us understand, even sympathize, with his maniacal character.

In Fight Club, Edward Norton’s alter-ego “Jack,” talks directly to us, breaking the fourth wall and helping us get to know his imaginary partner in crime, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). But this, we’re not supposed to talk about it.

By breaking the fourth wall, businesses pull people closer to the brand. Companies can define their mission and vision, and drive their customers to a common purpose, interest, and outcome. Breaking the fourth wall is about community. And community is more than just belonging to something; community is about doing something together–something of collaboration and value– that makes belonging matter.

That’s the secret to delivering exceptional customer experiences. Bring people together around needs and aspirations, and help to create bridges between them.

CRM Really Means Customer Retention Management

Doc Searls, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and author of The Intention Economy once described CRM as a mechanism for scale, efficiency, and churn. “Customer relationship management [today] is about [marketing] and sales and not about the relationship. It’s about deflecting customers and minimizing contact.”

If it’s about deflecting customers, then why bother getting to know and serve customers at all?

Companies often use technology and even outsourced resources to handle customers through a philosophy known as “customer retention management.” Who wants to deal with a company that bases the entire customer experience on retention management? No one. And no one wants to do business with a company that is more concerned about marketing than customer appreciation. But that’s largely the reality these days, and why the future of customer experience is heralded as a formidable competitive advantage.

People are tricky beings. They have experiences, and they share them. In a connected economy, those shared experiences live online for others to discover and rely upon to make decisions. So why wouldn’t companies invest in CX?

Ladies and Gentlemen, It’s Time to Raise the Curtain

It’s time to break the fourth wall of business. It’s time to build relationships and inspire communities. Companies willing to do that are building incredible cultures and loyal populations of employees and customers.

Freshbooks, a small business finance management platform, requires all executives to spend time on the customer service front lines. Here, they learn where to improve businesses processes and understand what product features matter most to customers.

GM’s top executives actively spend time in their call centers and on social media talking to customers. They inspire change through the company’s Global Connected Customer Experience (GCCX) efforts.

GE built a workforce that is truly customer-centric, utilizing a bottom-up leadership approach and reverse-mentoring programs. Millennials exchange roles with different levels of management in order to broaden perspective and engender empathy.

Zappos celebrates customer community by instilling employee and customer happiness into its culture, rewarding people who deliver delight in all they do.

By investing in the fourth wall of CX, you have much to gain beyond the hearts and minds of customers:

  • 40% of customers have purchased from a competitive brand because of its reputation for good experiences
  • 55% are willing to recommend a company due to outstanding service, more so than product or price
  • 85% would pay up to 25% more to ensure a superior customer experience

It’s simple: great CX translates into strong customer retention. And meaningfully shareable experiences. When companies break the fourth wall to engage people, CX not only lifts retention, but also drives customer acquisition. Who knew?

Breaking the fourth wall needs to be the way of doing business. It’s a new genre of performance that engages people from both behind and in front of the screen. More so, genuine engagement also requires that people, your customers, know that they’re heard and recognized. After all, relationships are defined by the mutual value they offer now and over time.

Break down the wall. Take a bow.

Thoughts inspired by the power of experiences, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design by Brian Solis, author, digital analyst, anthropologist. Brian can be found on Twitter: @briansolis

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