There’s no doubt about it, for today’s customer experience professional, the current shiny objects in the room are called Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence – they are the belle of the Customer Experience (CX) ball! Personalizing a customer’s journey with the use of these technologies comprises essential parts of more contemporary, digitally born companies and organizations. For traditional direct mail or direct response companies, it’s often a stake on the horizon towards transforming the organization and shifting to a more digital experience. However, before you can leverage technologies like ML and AI, there are often challenging gates to pass through, which may not be immediately apparent:

Culture – First and foremost, does your organization have the will and maturity level to break through current business and operational processes, belief systems, and tribal knowledge to place the customer in the center of every decision? Cultural change can be difficult, and there are times when long-tenured employees would rather remain in their comfort zones, relying on muscle memory to perform their jobs. Shifting the culture to become more customer-centric depends heavily on the entire organization, demands full participation and buy in from the C-suite and leadership teams, and amplifies the calls to action needed for our most precious assets, our customers.

Setting CX Expectations – CX can be a new theme for an organization; many people will want to engage and learn, and some won’t. So it’s ever so important to form a CX vision, a strategy to support that vision, and a 3 to 5-year roadmap to execute on the strategy. Define CX principles that cut across the organization, at every level. Don’t use fancy CX nomenclature and terminology, speak in everyday terms that are easy to remember, that resonate with your employees and convey your vision. The more that people can connect the CX dots to their specific role and function, the more rapidly you will be to deliver a great experience. Focus on some of the more tangible ‘quick wins’ to provide ROI to the organization, and also to gain confidence. However, leave a bit more time for the longer term ‘breakthrough’ fixes, since that’s when this CX stuff gets much harder. Thus, the importance of the ‘quick wins’…a tactical versus strategic balance. Shifting incentives, storytelling, and discrete C-suite signaling can also help drive culture change.

Challengers versus Enablers – As you spelunk across your organizational caverns, and probe about certain practices and customer treatments, you’ll start hearing some consistent challenges as to why people are engaging in activities that may fly in the face of a great experience. Often it’s a matter of their behavior being driven by goals, metrics and incentives that are tied to more business or operational metrics. Another challenge could be an “open field running” approach for communication governance, meaning anyone can trigger a campaign or engage with a customer segment at any time. Business units don’t always coordinate to optimize the overall experience. This could also be driven back to goals, metrics, and incentives, so this is actually a ‘two-for’ (note: pronounced ‘two-fah’ in Boston). Data and technology can also play in as challenges, especially if ownership of your technology platforms is spread across the organization, and there are disparate data sources across the enterprise. You probably see themes similar to your CX situation, but the point here is don’t try to work around these challenges, optimizing and shuffling the deck chairs over and over. Flip employees into ‘Enablers’ and build the execution of an Enabler Strategy into your multi-year roadmap. This will also help turn the organization into a more customer-focused one, with an environment to match, since all of the Challenges/Enablers cut across the organization.

Establishing a CX Ecosystem – The balance of providing excellent experiences for your customers while simultaneously blazing an advocacy trail within your organization can sometimes feel like you’re the youngest child in the Wallenda family, stepping onto that tightrope for the very first time. It sometimes is a very fine line to walk, placing the customer first at all costs, while leaning into certain internal problem areas. The mixture of the two sometimes creates a giant pressure system, and when you’re applying pressure in one area, something else expands or contracts. So, having a foundational CX ecosystem, where you’re listening to the Voice of the Customer (VoC), applying strategy, prioritizing, using human centered design and iteration, and thoughtfully implementing every design project is critical. It’s difficult for bystanders to argue when customer pain points are prioritized against all findings. Re-design from the customer’s view, implement thoughtfully, and these actions will leave the customer in a better place. If you can parlay those customer wins into positive internal financial outcomes, that’s the CX brass ring.

Jim Pendergast is AARP’s Senior Vice President of AARP Experience, responsible for the implementation and oversight of the member experience ecosystem, amplifying the voice of AARP membership and consumers across the organization to drive relevance, value, and growth. Jim has been focused on customer experience and success for enterprise software companies for the past 15 years. He has a long history of relentlessly working across organizations, bringing teams together, and driving significant improvements resulting in financial success, customer and employee loyalty, and upward key retention metrics.

Previously, Jim held customer experience and operational leadership positions at Yahoo, IBM, General Electric, Openwave Systems, and most recently Sage Software. He regularly speaks at professional customer experience events and was recently the recipient of the 2014 Consortium for Service Innovation (CSI) “Innovation Award” for his contributions to CSI.