It’s summer in Wisconsin – you know, that season where we Cheeseheads emerge from our homes, reacquaint ourselves with our neighbors, and admire how tall each other’s kids have gotten after 6 months of hibernation. This also means that my family and I try to get out for an evening walk on those rare nights we aren’t down at the local Little League baseball park. Last Sunday night during our walk, as my boys sped ahead on their bikes and my husband pushed our daughter in the stroller a few steps ahead of me, I saw something that gave me pause. Across the street and walking our way were my elderly neighbors…holding hands, heads tilted into one another, she talking with a smile on her face, he throwing his head back in laughter and then returning to meet her eyes. And as I turned away, not wanting to invade their private moment, I admired the strength of their love after over 50 years of marriage – hopeful that my husband and I would be in their shoes many years down the road.

As it (thankfully!) always does, Monday came around, the workweek began, and my mind turned back to writing this blog post. My topic at hand was the maturity stages of Align and Enculturate, the two highest stages of CX maturity in the MaritzCX CXEvolution maturity model. Try to focus as I might, my mind kept drawing me back to the image of the elderly couple walking together the previous night. As I sipped on my iced coffee (why, in the few months we DON’T live in the cold, do we insist on drinking cold coffee is beyond me), I started to analyze how such a successful marriage comes to be.

In the beginning of any relationship, the phrase “all you need is love” seems to ring true. Excitement, the fun of learning about each other, the experiences of doing things together for the first time…heck, the idea that there’s any work involved in the relationship is virtually non-existent. Then, there’s the settling in, the building of a life together. This can be tricky; life gets complicated, and often, bigger than just the two of you. Suddenly, demands from all sides seem to hit at the same time and you work desperately to keep up, to stay ahead of it all and, oh yeah, to keep focused on sustaining a healthy marriage. Before you know it, life calms down; the kids have left home and begun their own lives, and you and your spouse have again entered a new phase of life.

Ideally, your effort to maintain a connection with your spouse over the years – albeit small at times – pays off here, and you leverage it in growing your marriage into what my elderly neighbors displayed. Admittedly, this is an extremely abbreviated and romanticized story of a marriage, but I don’t think it’s entirely wrong either. As I thought about it in this way, I began to question what triggered movement from one stage of a relationship to another, and what the key factors were that really mattered along the way. And that’s when it hit me: there are remarkable parallels between a long, healthy marriage and the relationship companies have with their customers when they achieve a level of Align or Enculturate on the CXEvolution Maturity Curve.

Our CXEvolution research, incorporating insights from over 5,000 participants in more than 60 countries worldwide, tells us that high-performing CX companies do well on six key underlying dimensions –Information, People, Customer, Structure, Processes, and Culture. This research also shows us that organizations at the highest stage of maturity, Enculturate, are THREE TIMES more successful in achieving significant year-over-year business improvement than those in the bottom three stages.

Colleagues of mine have previously shared what these six key dimensions look like at each of the other maturity stages: Apathetic, Investigate, Measure, Respond, Standardize, and Solve. So what do these dimensions actually look like at the top of the maturity curve?

Information: I’ve learned that my husband hates the way I load the dishwasher, AND that he’d rather I leave the dishes on the counter than attempt to load it and make him have to redo it all. In a marriage, it’s vital to know what matters most to your partner – as well as what doesn’t. It’s critical to understand their needs, likes, dislikes, and pet peeves. It’s important to realize that these preferences and needs can change as well – and to know what prompts this, and when it happens. Without this information, each partner lacks any sense of what they should do to build the relationship.

The same is true in business. Organizations at the highest levels of maturity measure and leverage CX scores to drive behaviors and manage performance. Their VOC information is not only gathered on a regular, systematic basis; it is integrated with other customer data, communicated broadly across the organization, linked to business outcomes, and used to plan and prioritize strategic business initiatives. These companies know what their customers’ needs are, track them for changes over time, and then leverage all they know about their customers to plan what they want the future of their relationship with the customer to look like.

Customer: While at times in my life it seems as though the “customers” in my marriage are my children, the reality is that when I say “customer,” what I really mean is our response system – how we engage with each other when things go right, when things go wrong, when we need to come together to solve a problem. And so with this perspective, customers in a marriage really are spouses. And, in the most successful marriages, providing a great experience to our spouse is also in how we proactively predict and address our spouse’s needs – which takes practice, time, and effort. For example, last night I was helping my husband install a new chandelier in our foyer. As he grunted and growled, I could see he was frustrated. Ten years ago, I may have made a snarky comment; last night, I simply asked him if there was anything else I could do to help (after a period of time with very few growls, mind you). I have learned over the years not to “poke the bear,” and instead anticipated what would help the situation improve.

This has a strong parallel in the business world. Organizations at the top of their CX game know who their customers are and what their needs are, and they use predictive analytics to anticipate future customer needs. They understand how their customers will feel and react to certain decisions they make as a business, and they take proactive steps to communicate this to their customers and to address any concerns they anticipate their customers will have. They don’t wait for their customers to come to them with questions or concerns.

Structure/Processes: I think back to when my husband and I bought our first home. We literally sat down and line-itemed out who would take on which responsibilities. He volunteered for the outdoor stuff – lawn mowing and weeding – while I said I’d take the indoor stuff such as cleaning and laundry. (I promptly went out, began interviewing house cleaners, and found one I still use, 11 years later!) While we laugh now about our formal “agreement,” the reality is that life has changed – and so have our roles. As life got busy, the roles that had worked thus far needed to change: I now help with weeding and raking, while he is just as likely as I am to throw in a load of laundry. And we both understand how each of those tasks should get done to meet our need – a well-functioning household. In an effort to efficiently and effectively maintain our home, we now ebb and flow in our roles in a way that fits our lifestyle together. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, it took a lot of dialogue, discussion – and yes, even some documentation – to make sure we were on the same page about how things got done and what constitutes a “quality job.”

In fact, this is exactly how things work along the CX maturity curve as well. Once companies achieve a level of Align, they have typically established roles and designed organizational structure and processes in a way that enables functional areas of the company to eliminate silos and collaborate for the benefit of the customer. By the time they achieve a level of Enculturation, many of the formal roles have dissipated, as everyone “gets it;” they understand that their ultimate goal is to meet a customer’s need, and they know how their role can contribute to this purpose. There is a true customer-first approach to developing, housing and training business processes to their employees. By the time companies reach the level of Enculturate, employees no longer even need to reference processes documents, as everyone simply knows “this is how we do it to best satisfy our customers.”

Culture/People: Generally speaking, a strong foundation in any marriage is not only a shared set of beliefs, values, and principles, but a joint commitment to each other to live by this shared set. Early in our engagement, I purchased a “Book of Questions.” I pulled it out at dinner one evening, and started in from page one, asking my future-husband all about his philosophies on money, religion, raising kids, politics, etc. If the area was “touchy,” I touched. Over time, we actually made it through the entire book of questions. While admittedly, I was slightly neurotic about it, it was important to me to ensure we saw eye-to-eye on the big stuff. There were certainly things about which we disagreed, but they were things with which we could work. It might take my husband teaching me how he liked his pants folded, or disagreements about how often the toys should be put away, but we’d work that out over time. (And for the record, over time, both our positions have flipped on pant-folding and toy-picking-up!) Where it started, though – our commitment to each other around a shared set of values and beliefs – we were in lockstep.

So what does this all have to do with business? In high-performing CX organizations, you hear phrases like “hire for will, train for skill.” What you hear leaders say about commitment to customers you also see them demonstrate every day in their actions. Fundamentally, a company achieving Align or Enculturate has committed to a customer-first approach, reinforces it every day, and hires those who desire to learn and grow in their roles within this. These are the ones that “get it.” Think Disney, Zappos, or JetBlue.

Returning to my elderly neighbors, they have what many of us think of as marriage at its best, at the top of its game. But, being a very competitive person, I’ve learned two things about being “at the top” of anything:

  1. It’s easy to fall. Being “at the peak” is, by nature, a very precarious position in which to be. No one’s been there before – there is little already establish from which to build. What’s there, you’ve had to create. People want to be where you are. They will work just as hard as you did – if not harder – to not just get where you are, but to do even better. Which brings me to my second point:
  2. “The top” is a relative position. What was the top spot today will most certainly NOT be the top spot tomorrow. So those that reach the top know they must continue working harder than they have before to maintain their ever-evolving “top spot.”

And that’s what this couple knows. To many of us, they may represent what we define as “the marriage we all dream of.” But to them, each day means a new opportunity to practice getting good at it, and staying at the top of their game.

So it goes with CX: Those organizations that have reached the level of top performance in the CX space, the CX maturity levels of Align and Enculturate, understand what it takes to not only build, but to also sustain a healthy “marriage” to their customers.