The Art Of War For Customer Experience Leaders

2017-10-18 7:10

This week, our Customer Experience expert Daryn Mason looks at the challenges for businesses meeting the needs of customers as societies and technologies evolve. Today he looks to the past and finds lessons for the present day.

Over 2,500 years ago a prolific Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, wrote The Art of War. This became a classic text and blueprint for managing conflicts and winning battles. It has been reinterpreted many times through the ages and its wisdom applied to more peaceful endeavours.

20 years ago, Donald G Krause wrote the best selling The Art of War for Executives, applying Sun Tzu’s wisdom to the world of business. It’s still a great read and has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years now. But recently I became curious about whether any of this ancient Chinese military philosophy could be applied to the world of Customer Experience (CX). So, just for fun, I’ve mapped them across and I think they work pretty well.

It probably deserves another book by another author, but there are some sage lessons locked in Sun Tzu’s writings.

Sun Tzu’s 10 Principles


Sun Tzu’s philosophy can be summarized in 10 core principles for victory. I reckon these translate perfectly to the domain of Customer Experience.

Art of War

  1. Learn To Fight

Understand fully your competitors and what your customers’ experience is like with them. Develop a differentiated, authentic experience that gets people talking about your organisation in a positive way.

Don’t compete for the sake of it (i.e. to score cheap points off your competitors). It just wastes energy and fuels egos. Only compete when it has relevance and value for your customers.

As with life, learn to identify the battles that you must win, and those not critical for the broader war effort. Don’t let emotions rule the fight. Loss of emotional control when competing hands a vital weapon to your adversaries!

  1. Show The Way

Leadership is critical for providing consistently excellent customer experience. CX should be a ‘top down’ strategy as well as empirical, so the culture of customer service excellence cascades through all divisions and departments.

Your vision should create a strong sense of purpose, and accomplishments should be recognized and rewarded to reinforce this.

Sun Tzu cautioned us against the five potential weaknesses of leadership: recklessness, timidity, being over-emotional, ego and obsession with popularity. These are all characteristics that can interfere with customer experience.

  1. Do It Right

My fellow countryman, Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” Meaning that even the most meticulous plan can go awry when faced with ‘real world’ situations.

By ‘Do It Right’, Sun Tzu meant that planning was important, but agility and flexibility in execution is critical to success in battle. So we should plan for great Customer Journeys, but also allow for flexibility of execution based on solid values and principles.

Sticking to a rigid plan in the face of a changing environment has led to many epic CX failures!

  1. Know the Facts

Having the right information at your fingertips is a prerequisite of delivering effect customer experiences. Sun Tzu highlighted two important aspects of this: gathering the right information, and then using it for making the right decisions.

From marketing, through to Sales and Service, having access to the right business analytics is a key prerequisite to success. But this shouldn’t be limited to your own organisation and customers. Sun Tzu was a big advocate of using agents for spying on his adversaries. In the business world, there is enough public information on competitors to see how they are behaving, so we don’t need to be quite as covert.

Today’s analytical technology and advances in ‘big data’ means that we should be able to predict the likelihood of successful customer experience strategies before we launch them.

  1. Expect The Worst

Do not assume that your competitor will not attack you. Sun Tzu counsels that we should always be prepared for an attack or other set-backs in our plans.

What does this mean for our CX strategy? We should continually undertake scenario planning so that we know how to react to competitive behaviour, or even a PR disaster. History proves that those who already have a plan in mind are more likely to achieve a positive outcome if the worst should happen.

  1. Seize The Day

You never know when circumstances will conspire to offer a great opportunity to  impress your customer and exceed their expectations. Sun Tzu suggests a ‘bias for action’ should be a guiding principle.

Even if you act and fail, you will have quickly eliminated an option and will not expend further energy pursuing it. It’s also a great way of staying one step ahead of your competitors. If you act first then they must react.

  1. Burn The Bridges

Nothing focuses the mind of your army or team than knowing that retreat is not an option. In other words that everyone is fully committed to the same goal.

In a customer experience context, this means that when you change your organisation to be truly customer-centric, ensure that there is no way that people can slip back into old habits. When you implement new processes, dismantle all elements of the old. Your staff (and customers) should know there is no turning back.

  1. Do It Better

Innovation allows an organisation to surprise customers with an unexpected level of service. Your competitors will find it very difficult to defend against true innovation. This doesn’t always mean doing something transformational. Innovation can be achieved through aggregated marginal gains (AMG) that proved so successful with sports teams recently.

Sun Tzu’s philosophy can be seen in other incremental improvement approaches like TQM (Total Quality Management) – from the Sino-Japanese Kaizen – adopted by big corporations like Toyota.

  1. Pull Together

Cohesive armies and teams win. Or in the case of customer experience, deliver an exemplary service.

This involves leadership setting the right expectations with training and coaching to match. Add a rewards system to reinforce customer excellence and you create the morale required to deliver consistently.

Individuals need to feel part of a bigger endeavour and feel empowered to deliver your organizations goals.

  1. Keep Them Guessing

Sun Tzu wrote, “What does it matter if a competitor has greater resources? If I control the situation, he cannot use them.”

By keeping your adversaries guessing about your next move and acting swiftly when opportunities arise (see Principle #6), they will have to react to your moves. This is especially true when you are a small, niche provider battling with large corporations. I have seen this ‘David versus Goliath’ battle unfold time and again.

Is Sun Tzu Relevant Today?

According to a recent report, “rapid response to non-traditional competitors” was cited as one of the biggest priorities in boardrooms today (second only to “digital transformation of the business”).*

[* Source: “Inside The 2015 Boardroom Priorities”, Constellation Research, December 2014]

In a business environment where the rate of change is accelerating, your Customer Experience army needs to be quick, agile and prepared for many eventualities. More importantly you need to be hyper-alert to the many opportunities that present themselves to provide differentiated customer experience and outwit your market competitors.

As Sun Tzu wisely observed …

❝ If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.❞

This is still true 2,500 years after it was written. Your views and comments are very welcome.

The Art of War CX

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Organically grow the holistic world view of disruptive innovation via empowerment.
OUR LOCATIONSWhere to find us
GET IN TOUCHAvantage Social links
Taking seamless key performance indicators offline to maximise the long tail.

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Copyright by BoldThemes. All rights reserved.