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Much has been written and discussed about the failings of the Obama Administration’s highly touted website.  Most of it focused on the politics or the challenges of large-scale software projects.  There has been some talk about the frustrating consumer experience that accompanied the bungled launch, and different ideas for fixing it, but there is one thing that I think could have changed the course of the launch, despite the technical glitches: a well-architected customer experience, including what would happen if things went wrong.

The site has a myriad of well-documented problems -- from poor development practices to insufficient testing -- but the biggest problem is that the consumer was forgotten until launch day.  Now, I’m sure there were UI designers who worked heroically to make sure the screens were friendly and easy to use, but it takes more than a nice UI to deliver a great experience.  You have to walk a mile in the consumer’s shoes to understand their expectations, and it’s clear no one bothered to do that.

Even worse, it appears that no one thought to consider the damage that would be done if the consumer had a bad experience.  In marketing there is the notion of earned media; doing or saying something so interesting that other people devote media time and talk to your topic. The goal of earning media is to build positive sentiment for your brand at very little cost.  The problem in this instance is the government has earned a lot of media -- but it’s all bad.

Had the government mandated that the customer’s experience be the first consideration, the news would be different today.  Despite technology failures, would have been in the headlines for a week and then it would have been over.  But because the failure reinforced the public’s perception that the federal government -- and by extension, the current administration -- is incapable of responding to citizen needs, the engine is continuing to run with all kinds of satire and political infighting and dirty laundry being aired.  And while the politicians are busy bludgeoning one another, consumers are still trying to figure out how they will provide medical insurance for their families. The implications are far reaching.

So what can business learn from this debacle?  If you haven’t thought through how to create a seamless customer experience from the first time they encounter your brand through post-sale service, you are setting yourself up to earn negative publicity and potentially serious damage to your brand.

Let’s look at an example.  Ask anyone what they think of their wireless phone carrier and chances are you’ll hear answers ranging from apathy to downright anger.  Why?  Because dropped calls, billing issues and poor customer service combine to deliver a customer experience that is below expectations. 
But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Companies can design the experience so that even when things go sideways, they can ensure that the experience remains intact.

A great example of this is T-Mobile USA, the fourth-largest wireless carrier in the U.S.  When it launched the iPhone on its network, T-Mobile took an outside-in approach and leveraged social media analytics to understand how people used their iPhones, and what they liked or didn’t like about their service.  And on the day of the launch, the carrier applied its “listen, engage, resolve” strategy to monitoring social networks in real-time to spot trending customer service issues (activation problems, long lines at retail locations, etc.) and proactively solve them.  That translates into a great customer experience in an industry not known for it, engagement with its nearly 4.7 million Facebook fans, tons of positive earned media -- and one million new customers and a 5% gain in share price.

Is T-Mobile perfect?  No.  But the beauty of this is that you don’t have to be perfect to win, you just have to be better than average, because so many companies are doing a less than average job. There’s a lot of mediocrity when it comes to customer experience. So there is a lot of opportunity for companies to get it right.

Think about the customer’s experience through their whole journey with you.  Design their whole experience first, with an outside-in approach, and you’ll reap the rewards. Ignore the customer, create operational and technical silos, and let office politics drive your agenda and you’ll end up like -- in desperate need of a reboot.