A lot of big organizations, explicitly or implicitly, divide their systems and processes into two big buckets: front end (customer-facing), and back end (everything else). The front end is shiny; the back end is dusty.

But as customer experience gets more and more important – becoming the sole source of competitive advantage in many markets – the best performers are discovering that greatness often relies on back-end systems.

It’s one of the major advantages of the hot start-ups disrupting so many markets: They have no legacy systems holding them back from delivering simple, elegant and intuitive customer experiences. And, because their back end systems aren’t calcified, they have the flexibility to make the adjustments they need to stay responsive.

But no one sees the back end, right? Who wants to put energy and resources into something no customer will ever be exposed to? Let’s answer this way: In a recent study, Capgemini found that 60 percent of customer dissatisfaction begins in the back office. The back end is what makes the front-end work.

Back-to-front
A customer calls customer service and validates her credentials in the interactive voice response system. Then the machine passes her to an agent and she has to validate all over again because the system can’t share the validation with the agent’s system. The customer is frustrated, the agent is slowed down — and they haven’t even started on her problem yet.

Wasted opportunity
A shopper on an ecommerce website falls in love with a set of golf clubs. He goes to check out, only to find they’re out of stock. If the back end system had been talking to the front end, the shopper would have been presented with – and incentivized to buy – alternative options first. Makes for a better experience (and a more likely sale) through better back end integration.

These are snapshots of inflexible or poorly integrated back end systems. And they’re so typical, they’re almost the rule rather than the exception.

But the thing is, customer expectations are changing fast. What was business-as-usual up until now just will not fly anymore.

So What Does a Good Back-End Look Like?

As we engineer better ways of working for our customers across big and small enterprises, healthcare organizations and governments, we see this “back end to front end” impact all the time.

So we have some strong beliefs about what a good back end – one that’s optimized for customer experience – looks like:

  1. Integrated – so your front-end systems can get the data they need, and post the data they collect.
  2. Flexible – so it’s possible to change as the world changes – no hard-coding.
  3. Scalable – so you can manage the growth you know is coming. Big Data and the Internet of Things are giving back-end systems much to do.
  4. Fast – so your new data can support real-time business needs – low latency, high throughput.
  5. Database agnostic – so the system aggregates data from numerous legacy databases with disparate formats, including unstructured data. (Easier said than done, but the best systems do it.)
  6. Supporting ad-hoc analysis – so your power users really have power.
  7. Redundant – to minimize the risk of down time.
  8. Secure – to give your customers every gold-standard assurance that the information they share with you will not be misused.

But building this robust back-end system required more than just IT expertise. It may quickly blossom into a major customer experience issue.

Airbnb Invests in the Back-End

The do-it-yourself lodging service that’s disrupting the hotel industry has seen it first-hand. As founder Brian Chesky said, “It’s about people and experiences.”

Every customer sees the elegant Airbnb user interfaces on the Web and mobile app. But what is Airbnb doing with its back office system? Investing in it and evolving it as fast as possible, including:

Building a new generation advanced machine learning indexing system for real-time search and other back end functions.

Rebuilding calendaringto support advanced scheduling rules and allow hosts to express their goals and preferences in the most flexible way.

Mastering demand prediction to detect spikes for different types of accommodations in all markets and to inform supply acquisition initiatives.

Aggregating and serving information for in-session personalization for every user.

Understanding social connections with a service to calculate second degree connections across a variety of dimensions and build trust and personalization.

That starts to paint a portrait of the kind of vigorous back end systems that enable market-changing customer experiences.

The Bottom Line

It will always be true that back end systems drive front-end customer experience. And it’s eminently clear that back end systems are going to have to manage a massive increase in data and interactions.

The best systems will easily flow the data to the front end where it becomes usable – and valuable – information. And the best systems will always empower people to provide the best customer experiences.

Henry J. Kaiser, an American industrialist, said, “A problem is an opportunity in work clothes.” For today’s companies, every customer interaction and every back end system that supports it – is an opportunity in work clothes, too.

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