Guest article by Yasin Sahhar, finalist of the 2023 SERVSIG Best Dissertation Award.

It is a privilege to be among the finalists for the SERVSIG Best Dissertation Award – I thank the flourishing SERVSIG community for this recognition. My profound gratitude also goes to my supervisors, Jörg Henseler and Raymond Loohuis, who signposted me through my doctoral journey. My Ph.D. research is entitled Understanding and Managing Customer Experience in Practice – A Phenomenological Inquiry.” I was invited to share some reflections on my research, and I will do so in two parts. Part 1, this blog post, focuses on understanding experience in practice. Part 2 follows soon and zeros into managing it throughout the customer journey.

Customer experience is firmly established in business and academia

Customer experience is at the heart of service and is considered the future for and of marketing. Unsurprisingly, the notion of customer experience has become deeply rooted in contemporary business landscapes and academic discussions (Jaakkola et al., 2015). Typically spearheaded by service research, customer experience is conceptualized as customers’ subjective and lived experience in their lifeworld and is dynamic, fluid, and temporal in nature. 

The field faces difficulties in maturing

Despite increasing attention, customer experience is oftentimes not adequately understood (Becker & Jaakkola, 2020) and managed without a reasonable comprehension of what it entails (De Keyser et al., 2020; Thompson, 2018). This creates palpable concerns. The field of customer experience faces difficulties in maturing. Comprehending and successfully managing customer experience remain daunting. A decent understanding of how customer experience manifests in practice and how it should be managed over time is missing.

The complex character of customer experience

I attempted to fathom customer experience through profound scrutiny rooted in phenomenology. I chose phenomenology because it provides a solid footing for investigating experience in practice, grounded in the subjects’ lifeworld. Phenomenology is the study of essences through describing and interpreting lived experience (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Van Manen, 2016). Equipped with this lens, I empirically disclose the phenomenological, dynamic, and multidimensional character of customer experience. In addition, customer experience can independently emerge, be erratic at times, and occurs reflectively and unreflectively. These insights add more depth and granularity to the nature of customer experience and are vital for deeply comprehending the concept.

Customer experience cannot be treated in a vacuum

A core argument in my dissertation is that experience can never be treated in a vacuum. Instead, if we genuinely want to understand experience phenomenologically, experience should always be understood in relation to (and with) practice. What we, being a customer, consumer, or whatever kind of actor unreflectively or reflectively experience in our lifeworld is intimately interwoven with what we do. Conversely, we do things based on what we experience. In more marketing-related terms, customers experience while they conduct practice bundles to fulfill jobs and goals, and vice versa. These practices drive resource integration in value co-creation (positively valenced) and co-destruction (negatively valenced). Here, we witness the inevitable link between customer experience and the dialectical relationship of value co-creation and co-destruction.

Three spaces illuminate how experience manifests in practice

So in what forms do unreflective and reflective experience manifest in practice? I was inspired by the philosophical work of Martin Heidegger, following a nondualistic, intersubjective tradition in which experience derives from our engagement with the world through everyday practices rather than emerging in a social vacuum. Findings in my dissertation disclose three distinct yet interrelated spaces demonstrating how unreflective and reflective experience occur in value co-creation and co-destruction practices mediated by interruptions in such practices. Most commonly, customers, individually and collectively, experience things unreflectively while co-creating value. Minor and major interruptions in the customer’s lifeworld are key switching mechanisms, altering how and what subjects experience. The figure below presents this in further detail.

Figure 1. Spaces of value experience in value co-creation and co-destruction.

Final thoughts for service research and practice

Insights into the experience and creation of value, including their relationship, serve as a vital source for service innovation and competitive advantage (Helkkula et al., 2012). The starting point for organizations is to consistently center the customer’s phenomenological lifeworld, allowing the fine nuances of experience to be illuminated. To that end, managers must transcend the persistent notion that customer experience can be managed in a vacuum.

Instead of treating customer experience in isolation, I believe that customer experience should always be considered in practice. Practice involves the interplay with value co-creation and co-destruction. The relationship of experience on the one hand and the co-creation/co-destruction of value on the other hand becomes immanent. By focusing on this relationship managers enjoy a better grasp how experience relates to the customer’s intentional practices (i.e., the actions and activities related to attaining goals) that contribute to the customer’s well-being.

At the same time, the spaces in which experience manifests in practice suggest that customer experience is primordially unreflective. While perhaps the most fundamental insights for service innovation emanate from most mundane everyday life, customers are, in their most basic modus operandi while co-creating value, unaware of service offerings or adjacent characteristics. Consequently, service offerings may fade into the background while customers aim to fulfill their goals. Ergo, customers may take service offerings for granted. I believe that being aware of this ‘value paradox’ is paramount for service researchers and managers. Overcoming this value paradox will be uncovered in the upcoming blogpost.

Sharing the ‘researcher experience’

Although I am still grappling with some facets of the bewildering phenomenon of experience, attempting to continue to fathom it is gratifying. Like one of my favorite philosophers once stated: “To put oneself on a journey, to experience, means to learn.” (Heidegger, 1971, p. 143). I would describe a doctoral journey – or perhaps in a broader sense – life in similar terms. In this vein, I would be delighted to share experiences and exchange thoughts with service scholars or anyone interested in the wondrous concept of experience.

Please read our article published in European Journal of Marketing entitled “Characterizing the spaces of consumer value experience in value co-creation and value co-destruction” (Sahhar and Loohuis). Glad to hear your thoughts!

Yasin Sahhar
Assistant Professor in Marketing & Service Research, University of Twente

Source image: Freepik.