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Designing for better client experience

Book Review: Concept goes way beyond good customer service

X: The Experience When Business Meets Design. By Brian Solis. Book design by Mekanism. John Wiley & Sons, 247pp. X: The Experience When Business Meets Design. By Brian Solis. Book design by Mekanism. John Wiley & Sons, 247pp.

I begin with an apology to the author.

I was wrong.

I was guilty of judging this book by its cover. Its slick, cool, edgy, and millennialistic cover.

The objective of the book, as stated by author Solis on the front jacket, didn’t help: “This isn’t your ordinary business book. It was actually designed to be a sensational experience.”

This created a perception in my mind that this was yet another book written in “consultant-speak,” using the latest buzzwords and which would have little or no practical application.

I was wrong and I encourage you to not make the mistake.

Yes, it has those “consultant-speak” moments. Overall though, this book is deeper than I initially thought, offers valuable insight and is a handy “how to” guide in understanding, designing, and planning your desired customer experience.

Are you “experienced”?

What is client experience and why does it matter?

Solis begins by offering this definition:

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“Experience is the new brand. Experiences are the new branding.”

He then delves deeper and expands this by stating that Client Experience (CX) or simply Experience (X) is about “creating such memorable moments for your customers through every encounter they have with your brand—all day, every day.”

This latter definition, which forms the focus of the book, is more readily applied. It is the recognition that every interaction between you and a customer is an opportunity to either reinforce the reason they chose to do business with you or a moment that inspires them to begin or deepen a relationship with you.

These interactions are also opportunities that can be lost—or worse, they can act as reasons for a customer to not choose to begin or deepen a relationship with you.

Beyond what you know

As you read this, you might be thinking “Isn’t this simply customer service?” And to an extent you would be right.

However, Experience thinking is broader than customer service for three important reasons:

1. In today’s digital economy, it is more common that people experience your brand, before they are your customer.

2. Another by-product of the digital economy is the importance of peer reviews and social media influence. The sobering fact is, you are not always in control of the client experience.

3. Traditional customer service thinking doesn’t include how potential customers learn about you, nor how they decide to buy from you.

Experience thinking, then, takes a much more holistic view of the entire customer lifecycle.

This importance of Experience thinking is especially relevant in mature industries like banking, where most products have been commoditized.

What are customers buying?

In banking, it is extremely difficult to create—and even harder to maintain—any competitive advantage based on product alone.

This matters, as Solis contends (and I agree): “Experiences are more important than products now. In fact, experiences are products.”

Throughout his book, Solis provides examples of how companies are taking this recognition and creating differentiating experiences. Some, like Apple, Disney, Nike, and Coca-Cola will be familiar. Others like Chuck E. Cheese, Google’s Nest, LEGO, and Rail Europe will be fresh to you.

However, through these examples and step-by-step case studies, Solis provides several visual models that can be applied to any industry and any company.

Tacitly, this “productization” of the client experience is how financial institutions are now trying to compete. Unlike the companies highlighted by Solis, many are not consciously aware and fully committed to designing the desired client experience. However, they recognize that they need to be more than about rate if they wish to remain relevant with today’s consumers and small businesses.

Here lies the opportunity for FIs; making the leap from that tacit understanding to explicitly planning and delivering upon the desired Client Experience.

Power of empathy

The first step in making this leap is knowing which customers you’re targeting; what it is they value; the journey they take in making purchasing decisions; and how they continue to engage with you and your products.

This is a point Solis reinforces effectively throughout the book. You can’t design a winning experience if you don’t understand customer expectations and their needs. And you’ll never achieve the ultimate goal—being able to successfully anticipate client needs (even those they didn’t know they had).

Solis touches upon the common ways to know customers’ leveraging data, the power-of-observation, and surveys. But what I liked about the author’s approach is that he goes further. One example is his emphasis on the power of empathy.

Empathy, Solis contends, is the secret ingredient in designing a meaningful experience. Having empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is critical in truly recognizing what is important to clients and in not letting our own biases interfere.

The value of knowing your customer and having empathy is summed up nicely by a quote that Solis includes from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

You’ve looked, now leap

In truth, you can never stop looking, researching, and understanding customer needs, as these can and will change over time. In the spirit of never letting “perfect” be the enemy of the “good,” there comes a point when you need to put that customer knowledge into practice.

This is where Solis’ book really shines. It is an instruction manual; a how-to guide for putting into practice many of the tools and techniques which have been developed to assist companies in this effort.

Solis deliberately walks the reader through case histories of companies and the tools they’ve used to document the customer lifecycle.

Examples included by Solis include a Customer Journey Map by Oracle, which addressed a dynamic familiar to many financial institutions, an organizational preference to prioritize new client acquisition over retention.

Other tools and case-studies, such as the Young Families Health Insurance Purchase Journey Map shared by Solis, can also be templates that financial institutions can use in documenting their own customer experiences.

Look in the mirror

Armed with the insights garnered working through the process of developing your maps, you’re now assured of your ability to create that differentiating client experience, right?

Wrong. In fact, most Client Experience efforts, just like most change efforts, will fall short.

Solis cites as evidence the findings in a report by Oracle in which 93% of Senior Executives from companies across industries stated that improving the Client Experience is one of their top 3 priorities, while only 37% have actually stated to move forward.

Why is this? Solis offers three reasons:

1. Conflating Client Experience with Marketing.

2. Companies focus on scaling and optimizing existing practices.

3. Client Experience truly isn’t a priority.

I believe the second and third reasons are related and represent a trap to which many companies fall prey. They underestimate the level of commitment necessary to effectively plan and manage a change that asks organizations to think and act fundamentally different.

The result, according to Solis is a condition he terms the “Circle of Rife.” This is where, despite stated intentions, the messages and reality of client interactions can feel disconnected and even work against one another.

X factor

If you’re one of the 93% who recognize the importance of building a differentiating client experience and especially, if you’re one of the 37% who haven’t started yet, I recommend you read this book.

The case-study-heavy approach taken by Solis provides excellent models and examples that can be leveraged by anyone.

There are also helpful references and explanations of such current “buzzwords as “Human Centered Design” that are starting to creep into everyday use by folks without a solid understanding of what they mean.

My only complaint with X: The Experience When Business Meets Design is the sole emphasis on digital channels.

It is undeniable that the advances in the digital economy are influencing client expectations and presenting firms with new opportunities and challenges.

What can’t be lost though, is the importance of applying these principles across all channels and in service of all customers.

Solis’ assumption is all firms need to compete on client service. This is true, but excellent service has many dimensions, including price.

Even in the digital economy, the important things don’t change. Identifying your customers, how they can be reached, understanding their needs, and offering them a compelling reason to buy are just as valid as they ever were.

Brian Higgins

Brian Higgins is first vice-president–digital, payments & innovation for First Financial Bank, a $8.7 billion-assets community bank headquartered in Cincinnati serving Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. He is a frequent contributor to Since joining First Financial Bank in September 2012 Higgins has leveraged 20 years of financial services experience to bring a fresh perspective on the challenges faced by community banks. Previously Higgins worked for Vantiv Payment Solutions and Fidelity Investments, serving in a variety of roles in business leadership (Operations, Product, and Marketing) and strategic planning. Contact him at
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