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A System Framework for Improved Product Context & Understanding Experiences between Businesses and Consumers (CUEframe)
Consumers often engage with products and services in complex, changeable environments, across a series of contextual understanding experiences, and along an extended understanding lifecycle (pre-purchase, post-purchase, refresh). The author proposes a system framework for improving understanding & context experiences between businesses and consumers, one that 1) maps product and service understanding experiences across a lifecycle, 2) measures them, and 3) manages product and service understanding. Importantly, the system framework provides a foundation upon which businesses can build product and service understanding that encompass digital technology across a wide spectrum of contextual consumer usage scenarios.
Brands and businesses seek meaningful, authentic relationships with consumers (Aaker, 1997), while consumers seek products and services to help them get jobs done (Christensen, 2008). Between the two lies a gap, a place where consumers hunt for trustworthy, objective digital understanding about products and services, but producers give them traditional, industrial-era marketing content. As we shall see, the gap extends across a broad landscape – and along an extended lifecycle.
The problem is hard to solve because businesses have not adopted a systematic approach to mapping, measuring and managing the product and service understanding that they provide to consumers. Traditional mindsets, analog heritage and operational silos all contribute to the problem.
The purpose of this paper is to provide brands and businesses with a framework upon which to systematically build improved understanding experiences between businesses and consumers. It is designed to act as a structured tool that helps reveal weaknesses and opportunities and provide valuable insights for management planning activities.
Interestingly, there is little previously-published literature about systematic approaches or frameworks for assessing and improving how consumers understand products and services. Some work addresses the topic peripherally, such as Keller’s 1993 work around conceptualizing, measuring, and managing customer-based brand equity. Other work, such as contextual experience theory proposed by Gupta and Vajic, provide some background ideas that are mostly tangential, as does literature about relationship marketing from Parvatiyar and Sheth (1998, .pdf).
To fully grasp the current product and service understanding gaps between businesses and consumers, one needs to step back to take a historical look at it. Prior to the industrial revolution, an artisanal production system reigned, in which close relationships were maintained between producer and consumer. For instance, Blacksmiths once held a vital and trusted role in society, serving as subject matter experts, producing high tech products (keys, chains, pots, wheel hubs, etc), and broadly helping customers to accomplish important jobs. During the industrial revolution these types of intimate relationships were severed and replaced by de-personalized, industrial-scale interactions that mirrored newly-fragmented divisions of labor (Durkheim, 1997).
As new intermediaries surfaced along the industrial production/distribution/sales chain, consumers became endpoints in an industrial funnel through which tightly controlled analog information flowed. Information became locked down, controlled and formatted to the producer’s preference, distributed by operational fiefdoms, including sales groups, distributors, dealerships, department stores, call centers, etc.
Gaps in product and service understanding developed between producers and consumers. Advertising provided purchase-triggering information, but did nothing to optimize product usage or improve outcomes. Service operations provided baseline understanding that was not customized or contextualized to users needs. The producer system became an analog machine that segmented user understanding experiences and industrialized them into cookie-cutter units for distribution along producer channels. In the digital era, however, this approach is insufficient to meet modern consumer needs, it is ineffective in its reach and relevancy, and it is not properly structured to create better experiences and outcomes for consumers.
CONSUMERS FLEX MUSCLE
Consumers have not waited for brands and businesses to fix industrial-era problems, but moved forward independently instead. They have used forums to share understanding about products and services (Bickart, Schindler, 2001), developed shared resources for how to accomplish jobs (.pdf, Hammer, 2001), and employed search engines to hunt down trusted and objective product understanding (.pdf, Brynjolfsson, Hu, Simester. 2011). Their quest for trusted product and service information has led them to blogs, inspired them to develop new apps, and provided them with incentive to engage in entirely new consumption rituals (digital showrooming on smartphones, etc.).
As they seek product and service information, consumers look for authentic, trusted, objective understanding that is contextually relevant to solving their job. They seek the right understanding, delivered on the right platform, at the right time (.pdf, Adomavicius, Tuzhilin, 2011).
While they have made good progress unlocking product and service information on their own, consumers need producers to join in and embrace a new attunement to customer experience needs (.pdf: Meyer, Schwanger, 2007)
CUEframe: A CONTEXTUAL UNDERSTANDING EXPERIENCE FRAMEWORK FOR SYSTEMATIC CHANGE
To improve understanding relationships, producers need a strategic, systematic way to build trusted and meaningful digital relationships with consumers, one that is transformative in nature, agile in design, and repeatable in practice. The proposed system framework, called CUEframe, provides a flexible foundation from which to re-engineer and improve product context and understanding experiences between businesses and consumers.
The system is designed to be strategic in nature and tactical in execution, focused on building empathetic digital understanding relationships with consumers and closing understanding gaps between them and producers. The CUEframe system has four key components, they are:
1. Context Lifecycle: document consumer understanding experiences across an extended landscape
2. Experience Mapping: chart user understanding activities
3. Gap Review: identify and measure gaps between producer and consumer
4. Maturities Management: improve producer capabilities
Taken together, the four components comprise a discovery, planning and management system that can be deployed to uncover weaknesses and new opportunity areas, plan new activities, and help optimize outcomes.
THE CONTEXT LIFECYCLE
Much of the system revolves around the concept of a consumer context lifecycle. The context lifecycle looks across a consumer’s product usage journey in an empathetic manner.
Figure 1: The CUEframe Lifecycle
The lifecycle can be customized to document specific product usage contexts and scenarios, and serves as a baseline for planning and engineering customer experiences. Importantly, the lifecycle reflects an empathetic, design- thinking approach that looks at product and service understanding across the totality of the customer experience.
Phases of the lifecycle include:
· Pre-Purchase: consumer understanding about product performance promises, optimized understanding via showrooming search and crowdsourced information
· New Users: introductory usage understanding that is context-sensitive including mobile understanding units
· Use Optimization: specific understanding that enhances product usage and moves users forward into advanced-user category
· Upgrades: enhanced product and service provision logic (Vargo, Lusch 2004) and new business models to focus on new service logic for products and marketing
· Sunset: understanding activities turn to product lifespan extensions or end-of-life product service
· Refresh: assisting through the process of refreshing the product, recycling, etc.
Additional elements can be charted on the lifecycle to match major understanding experiences and events (in-store visits, online interactions, mobile interactions, etc.).
Using the lifecycle as a starting point, specific activities and opportunities can be mapped. These activities may include new consumer consumption behaviors, unmet consumer needs, or previously undefined actions that can enhance understanding or context-specific outcomes at targeted phases of the lifecycle.
Figure 2: Consumer needs mapped across the lifecycle
Variations of the map can be constructed to create fresh views around other contexts and perspectives, including customer touch points (enterprise, partner, etc), competitor strengths, brand authenticity measures, etc. The potential applications of mapping efforts around customer understanding is limited only to the imagination of those who are exploring the topic, and represents a fresh field of pursuit in the quest to systematically understand consumer needs and motivations.
GAP REVIEW: THE GAPS BETWEEN CONSUMER & PRODUCER
Charting and mapping consumer understanding can reveal fertile ground across the lifecycle for developing hypotheses and testing new ideas to optimize product use and improve outcomes. Using the chart to map gaps (see chart abstraction in figure 3) the desired state of understanding is a neutral, equilibrium position along the axis, representing balanced understanding. Where there is an overabundance of product context or understanding, a surfeit exists and is shown in scale above the axis.
Figure 3: Gap Analysis
The idea of surfeit understanding may seem counterintuitive at first, but it is vital to gap analysis activities. Surfeits may exist in traditional, industrial-era focal points (Oliver, 2010), and can overload or confuse customers with too much information that contributes to negative brand attribution (Walsh, 2005). An example might include the 30-page user manual that comes along with a new TV (and is instantly thrown out).
As shown in the chart, deficits are located below the equilibrium line. Deficits in product and service understanding can have various attributes, but usually relate to:
– Things about a product or service that are under- explained
– Things that are confusing or confound consumers
– Areas where the consumer does not trust the understanding delivered by the producer
– Adjacency topics that are vital to outcomes but not provided by producers
– platform-specific deficits (i.e., mobile, etc)
Variances between the desired neutral state and the apex of the surfeits and deficits constitute the gaps. Those seeking to prioritize gaps for attention can do so by applying numerical weights to specific activity areas along the lifecycle.
The entire CUEframe system can be evaluated through the use of a Capabilities Management Model (CMM) that identifies key characteristics and enables businesses to appraise their ability to provide consumers with deeper understanding and context about their products and services (.pdf, Paulk, 1993). CMM models are frequently used in software development to help mature organizational capabilities around complex engineering efforts (Dooley, Subra, 2001).
Applied to CUEframe, the model establishes a yardstick against which to measure an organizational capabilities and processes.
Figure 4: The Maturity Model
The model charts 5 levels of maturity on an ordinal scale that is used to describe performance characteristics and behavior related to core activities in a number of ways. They are:
The model tracks and measures maturity across key dimensions, providing a continuum for improvement across a wide spectrum of activities. The key dimensions proposed are:
· Cross Functional: Operational silos are broken down to provide unified user understanding experiences
· Adjacencies: external information related to user activities is aggregated and synthesized
· Upgrades: enhanced value unlocked progressively to match usage
· Contextual: understanding delivered at exactly the right time and place
· Sponsorship: executive leadership supports project, measures progress
· Open Models: initiative open to new product and service models, new forms of contributions by users
· Dialog Optimized: two-way communication with consumers
· Outcomes Focused: system improves user experiences and outcomes
The key dimensions of the model can be modified or refocused to meet specific needs. They are valuable in a generalized way, especially the components that represent consumer views (cross functional, outcomes-based, dialog-optimized), and new product opportunities (upgrades, adjacencies). Sponsorship is also a crucial element, especially in environments when competing fiefdoms compete to control consumer understanding in traditional ways.
DEPLOYING THE FRAMEWORK
CUEframe can be used used by various business groups to improve customer understanding. They include:
Strategic corporate initiative teams charged with spearheading customer experience improvements
CMOs seeking to rationalize customer understanding across various domains
CIOs looking to extend digital relevance into customer areas
Brand Managers who see extension opportunities and new reach across adjacencies
Strategic Planning groups interested in service business models
While specifications for overall system deployment are out of scope for this document, some baseline requirements are commonly shared across various types of implementations. For instance, executive management sponsorship is required (see the “Sponsor” axis in Figure 4 of the capabilities model), as is a dedicated project manager who can assemble customer information, coordinate team activities, customize metrics and track progress.
The proposed system provides a robust and flexible framework upon which to build improved understanding experiences between businesses and consumers. It represents a flexible, managed approach to building stronger bonds with consumers, and provides brands and businesses with broad new ways to look at how their products and services are used. Specifically, the solution:
Is cross functional in nature. It serves to rationalize customer experience efforts across companies and break down silos that divide customer experience efforts
Is highly customer focused and facilitates an outside-in view of customer needs
Encompasses the totality of customer experiences across an extended lifecycle
Can be used to identify unmet customer needs, identify product and service extension adjacencies, and chart user contexts
Can help foster new, service-oriented business models
Is outcomes-oriented and aligns to the jobs customers want to accomplish
This paper has outlined the basic structure of the system and some of its rudimentary operations. As with any tool, creative use will amplify its value. Additional development and enhancement of the concept by others is highly encouraged.
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