Illustration by Eric Jackson

What is often missing during the development of the customer experience strategy is the main element: the customer. Making assumptions about what customers value generally leads to poor decision-making and costly mistakes. Instead of taking the inside-out approach, some forward-thinking companies are engaging customers throughout the strategy development process. Called customer experience co-creation, this collaborative approach gets customers directly involved in the process of designing their own experience through an interactive and ongoing dialogue.

“The classic view of competitive advantage was that it existed within the walls of the firm. You designed it, you controlled it—all of the value was generated by the company,” explains Francis Gouillart. “We then started to realize that there was competitive advantage in the ability to create an ecosystem that engages other people outside the walls of your company.” Gouillart is president and cofounder of the Experience Co-Creation Partnership, a privately held strategy consulting firm, and coauthor of “The Power of Co-Creation: Build It with Them to Boost Growth, Productivity and Profits.”

A co-creation strategy typically starts with the organization’s customer-facing employees, such as service or sales, Gouillart adds, and then expands to customers and other stakeholders.

What makes co-creation different from other team-based, collaborative initiatives like reengineering, work-out or Six Sigma?

The most obvious distinction is a deeper involvement of the customer during the design of the experience. Unlike customer surveys that limit the customers’ feedback to predetermined responses or one-time input offered through focus groups, co-creation brings the customer inside the company, figuratively speaking. This can be a difficult transformation for some companies, as it requires them to provide customers with access and transparency into their processes.

Traditional process-improvement initiatives are typically carried out using an ad hoc approach in which a team is assembled for a specific project or task and then is dissolved once they have achieved their goal. The co-creation team, on the other hand, is linked to a larger community of people, and they are expected to work together permanently as part of the new system.

While focus groups offer companies a chance to collect ideas and learn more about what their customers think, for customers, the input tends to be one time and one way. In a co-creation process, the feedback loop is essential, says Susan Abbott, principal customer experience strategist and researcher at Abbott Research & Consulting. “If consumers devote their time and effort to give the company their best ideas and thinking, they want to know that they’ve been heard. It’s a continual feedback loop in the design process so that it’s not just the company determining what the contact center experience will look like, rather it brings the users right into the process of creating that experience.”

The role of experience is expanded in co-creation. “Co-creation is very experience-centric,” Gouillart says. “In co-creation, we’re interested in everybody’s experience—the customers, the contact center agents and the other people who are going to become part of that system.” For instance, the typical goal in process design is to ensure that the process delivers against the specs that the customer provides with repeatability and predictability. In co-creation, the experience always comes before the process. Consider the life of a contact center agent: What is that like? How is the agent being measured? What are the internal dynamics of that call center team? How was the team created? How were the individuals recruited? How do they advance?

“The experience of the call center agent in his or her cubicle is as important as the experience of the customer,” Gouillart explains. “There is a reinstrumentation of the view that needs to take place so that you are creating a sense of empathy between the two sides. Very often, the source of imagination in co-creation comes more from the call center agent redesigning his or her own role than it does from understanding the unique needs of the customer.”

Similarly, the role of data is expanded. The communities that are set up as part of a co-creation effort are permanent, so correlations between the experiences are measured. For example, if the quality of the contact center agent’s experience increases, what is the impact on the customer experience quality score? Did it also increase? “There is a strong connection between the experiences that will allow us to generate additional data and insights,” he says.

A final point to keep in mind about co-creation: While it may sound similar to crowdsourcing, it is not crowdsourcing. The terms often have been used interchangeably, but there are critical differences in how the two strategies are defined, says Gouillart. Crowdsourcing, like the name suggests, solicits participation or feedback from a crowd of people in an open forum (think Wikipedia). It’s often used to outsource a specific task or problem. For companies, the appeal of tapping the collective intelligence of the public to solve a problem or provide input has more to do with cost savings (in terms of internal resources, capacity, marketing) than long-term customer engagement. Co-creation, on the other hand, is an ongoing engagement that includes collaboration with internal stakeholders. It’s more about the relationship than a task.