It’s always possible to have a bad digital customer experience if you lack the skills or investment to create one. But it’s equally possible to create bad experiences even if you have good people and plenty of funding. In fact it happens often, thanks to organizational blockers. It’s time to redesign the organizations themselves.

A consultant friend recently asked me to put together a questionnaire for a discovery workshop on digital customer experience. So I started writing questions: Who is your target audience? What are your business goals? How do you gather customer feedback? And so on.

As I wrote these questions, I started to feel depressed. I’ve asked questions like these many, many times and then led projects based on the answers. Far more often than I’d like to admit, these projects achieved the kind of “success” in which you highlight anecdotal improvements and discretely avoid mentioning what the original goals were. I’ve had this experience despite working with talented experience designers, content people, and developers.

It’s not that those are bad questions; in fact, they’re essential. But there is another set of questions, rarely asked, whose answers influence the customer experience more. Here are the questions I added to the questionnaire:

  • Is there an overall owner of your digital presence?
  • Who are the owners and approvers of
    • drive-to?
    • experience design?
    • content?
    • technology?
    • production?
  • Are there different owners/approvers by business unit? By country?
  • How well do these owners/approvers work together? How easy is it to make changes?
  • Where do you [the client] fit into the model?

The answers to these questions reveal organizational silos – which can be the greatest barrier to good customer experience. Here are some examples that may sound familiar:

  • Each business unit owns its own part of the company’s website. Any global change requires buy-in from the business units.
  • Advertising teams create ad banners and landing pages that aren’t integrated into the organic experience.
  • Critical tools that are shared across business units – analytics tools, registration systems, customer databases – are deprioritized and treated as “infrastructure” (a cost center).
  • When a project fails, everyone blames someone else and it’s hard to say whose fault it really was because authority was so fragmented.

To some extent this is the nature of human institutions – but there’s a lot you can do to improve it. Here’s what you can do, at both the team level and the organizational level:

At the team level

Get baseline metrics. Make sure you have good analytics tools in place, and that you have accurate data on the current state. I know: you don’t have the right tools, and gathering data takes time, and you just want to get on with the work, and your execs are breathing down your neck. But without data, you will fail. Okay, maybe you’ll limp along. But if you’re trying to drive real change, you will fail. Read on to see why.

Start small. This one’s easy: do something small, that you know you can do, and that you think will improve the experience. Small things can make a big difference: anyone who’s done A/B testing knows that something as simple as changing the wording of a call-to-action, or the color of a button, can greatly increase click-throughs.

Prove that it works. This is by far the hardest part, for two reasons. First, you didn’t actually gather those baseline metrics, did you? So even if you made a huge improvement in customer satisfaction, you can’t prove it. You have nothing concrete to show your stakeholders or senior executives, and they have no reason to trust you with anything bigger.

Second, maybe your great idea actually didn’t work. But as long as you have the data, you’re okay: You learned something, and the change you made was small, so you didn’t waste too much time on it. Plus, when your next hypothesis turns out to be right, the fact that you admitted you were wrong the first time will give you credibility.

Build from there. Now you’ve made one good (small) change, and you proved that it moved the needle. What’s next? Do another small thing, and another. Then start doing bigger things, but still in small steps. That is, be agile: go through the Build – Measure – Learn cycle in rapid iterations.

A boss of mine used to say, “Herding cats is hard. But if you make good cat food, they’ll come to you.” By building a track record of proven accomplishments, you’re creating an environment where people will want you to take on bigger and bigger things…up to a point. Which brings us to the other half of the equation.

At the organizational level

Insist on data. If you’re a senior leader, you have to demand that your teams (all of them) bring you hard data. If they can’t, ask them why not. What’s the blocker? If they don’t have the right tools to gather the data, invest in the right tools. If they don’t have time because they’re too busy executing (blindly), help them decide what to deprioritize while they focus on getting the right tools in place.

Use agile methods. Agile is about small, dedicated, empowered teams working in rapid iterations. The marriage of data and rapid iteration is why agile is sometimes described as “a learning system”: you’re continually making small, incremental changes, gathering data on the results, and evolving.

What this means for you as a leader is a different (and better) focus. You’ll probably be more engaged in setting priorities and answering strategic questions about outcomes; you’ll be less involved in reviewing and approving outputs (deliverables).

Create a team that truly owns the website. Unless you have retail stores, there’s a good chance that most of your customer interactions take place on your website. It’s highly visible and accessible 24 hours a day. It’s your most valuable communications channel – so treat it that way. Create one team and give them the authority to really run the site.

That means that the site’s experience design, functionality, code base, production, and tooling should be owned and managed at the corporate level. Business unit and product teams should provide content, drive execution, experiment with new ideas, and submit requirements for design and functional updates to the company-wide management system. The system can be as flexible as it needs to be – but it’s one system.

Creating one central web team gives them power — but also accountability. And because the model you built is data-driven, there’s also no ambiguity about success or failure.

If you have agile, empowered teams working within a streamlined organization that’s driven by user data, you have the environment to create exceptional customer experiences.