Is transformation doomed?

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The very nice folk at HP Business Value Exchange asked to me write a piece on transformation.  What emerged wasn’t really what they (or I) expected – but, very sportingly, they posted it anyway.

Transformation – to take advantage of Big Data or introduce cloud-based CRM or adopt Lean thinking or any of the other fashionable buzzword bingo terms –  is big business.  If we embark on a transformation initiative, we should be clear about whose agenda we are following if we are not to enter a world of pain.

Read more here. I’d really like to know your thoughts, so please add your comments there when you read it.

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Why our customer experience is damned

Hellfire and Damnation

You can please some customers all of the time.
You can please all customers some of the time.
But you can’t please all of your customers all of the time.

(With apologies to Abraham Lincoln and John Lydgate)

Here’s the thing: I hate to be helped in shops. I don’t like it when an assistant approaches and asks “Can I help you?”  That’s just me. Maybe it’s because I live in England.  I want to make up my own mind and seek help from an assistant when I want it.

My friend, on the other hand, likes an assistant to help him. He resents it when he sees staff standing around, not offering to help. He wants them to come up and ask.

What’s a shop to do? The customer experience they offer is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Many companies try to please everyone. They try to cover all the bases. They attempt to offer an experience that handles their main set of target customers and the others, the exceptions. Result? The experience they offer is confusing. They serve neither set of customers well and both groups of customers become unhappy and leave.

In our businesses we want to avoid this. We must analyse customer data to get insight into what matters to our target customers. We must combine this insight with our own understanding of what we are good at, to think about the experience we want to offer.

Then we must choose to provide the experience that works best for the customers we want to get and keep.

When we do, we know that such an experience won’t work for all customers. But we accept this because we will be confident that it will work for the majority of those we want to serve.

The customers we lose are the price we pay to enable us to offer a great experience for our target market. Why is it worth paying?

Because if we can truly offer a great experience for their target market, then we have a real edge over the competition. We will secure a greater market share. And we can seek higher margins as our customers accept that higher value justifies higher prices.

Even better, we save money. We won’t waste time, resources and attention on exceptions and variations for customers whom we are not targeting and from whom we will get little return.

Of course, the bright reader (and all my readers are bright) will have spotted what has happened here. The quality of customer experience we offer corresponds directly with the quality of our business strategy.

If we have made clear strategic choices about the customers we want to serve, we can confidently provide an experience that they will value.

If our strategy is unclear? Then we can only offer a confused or ambiguous customer experience.

So yes, our customer experience is damned. But it can happen in two ways. It can be damned because we choose to serve our target customers brilliantly and with confidence because we know who they are. By doing so, we are willing to accept that some current customers won’t value the experience we offer and may leave. And we accept this cost, because the payoff for our core customers – and for us – is so great.

In this case, our customer experience is a clear expression of our organisation’s strategic intent.

But the second path to damnation is far, far worse. It happens when we try to please everyone, because we don’t know (or are unwilling to choose) which customers we want to serve. Then we can’t offer a winning customer experience because we have to compromise to try to keep everyone happy.

In this case, the customer experience we offer is equally an expression of our organisation’s strategic intent. But what it expresses is ambiguity and confusion.

Keeping everyone happy may be a good intention, but it is also the road to Hell.

So maybe we have to accept that our customer experience is damned. But let’s choose how we want it to happen. For when we do, we give ourselves a chance to give our customers an experience that will make a real difference to them and to us.

(Image credit: Hellfire and Damnation by Jocelyn under Creative Commons License)

The art of customer experience

Jete - statue at Millbank, London

“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

(Steve Jobs’ pitch to John Sculley, then CEO of Pepsi,
to persuade him to become CEO of Apple in 1983).

Every day for the past few months, I have walked past this statue of the dancer, David Wall, by Enzo Plazzotta. You can find it outside a block of upmarket flats on Millbank in London. The title of the piece is Jeté, a ballet term that refers to a leap.

Honestly, for about a month, I hated it.

David Wall’s face is set almost in a pout and his hair – well, it would do well in American Hustle.

But I am a sucker for excellence. It grew on me.  I noticed the precision that the sculptor used.  I started to look at the figure of the dancer himself. 

The sculpture, magically, captures the dancer in the air.  His leading foot turns, just so, to maximise extension and clarity of line.  His rear foot also turns, but differently.  

His fingers, at the end of his immaculately extended arm, are all where they need to be. His trailing hand makes the line of his leap perfect.

This figure in metal, like, I imagine, the figure in the flesh, transforms from something lumpen and heavy to something free, elegant and apparently effortless.

Which, I know, is the exact opposite of the truth.

EVERYTHING about this leap is deliberate. The turn of the ankle, the angle of the leg, even the spacing between the fingers.

Everything.

Deliberate effortlessness like this is only possible through untold hours of training, development of technique, feedback and coaching, just to produce an instant in the air which, were it not been captured in sculpture, might go unnoticed.

The purpose is not just to make the leap, but to strive to make it perfect, even if the only person who knows that it is perfect is the dancer himself.

This is, I suppose, what art means: to conceive of what might be right and then set oneself to achieve the impossible standards that it demands.

And the same applies to business. The best businesses, the ones we love, the ones we welcome into our lives, exist because the people behind them want to do something, to achieve something, to make a difference.

They focus on doing the right things, as well as they can, to the best of their ability.  They might be making cars or phones, or flying planes or driving trains, or making television programmes – or the ads that come in between.  What we perceive, as customers, as buyers, as people, is a sense of excellence.

And so we buy.

And we enjoy buying.

And we keep buying.

Because these companies exist to make things better for their customers and they, and we, succeed when they do.

Do these companies make money? In the main, yes.

But that is not what they are in business to do. (and which is why, sometimes, their investors get grumpy).

The money they make is a side-effect.  They make money because they are doing the right things.  Because they (and their customers) in what they do.  They believe that taking infinite pains to get things right; taking deliberate care about every last detail; and striving for a vision that has meaning, are things worth doing in themselves.

But, like an artist who prostitutes himself for money, as soon as a company forgets this, its art suffers.

I was once asked by the CEO of a multi-national tech company what I thought might be the difference between a ‘good’ company and a ‘bad’ one.  I said that I thought I could see one core difference.  A ‘good’ company’s primary concern is its business and how it can do better; a ‘bad’ company’s primary concerns are ‘the numbers’ and how it can make them better.

And companies that focus on their numbers aren’t focused on the customer.

Customers don’t buy numbers.  They don’t experience numbers. They don’t want numbers.  They want the stuff that a company does that solves their problems, gives them value and makes them feel good.

My months of walking past Enzo Plazzotta’s sculpture have taught me something about business. The simple delivery of business, doing it better and making some cash – this is the craft of business.  But striving to create and run a business which customers enjoy, which employees want to drive to greater heights and which makes a genuine difference to people’s lives – this is the art of business.  This makes being in business worthwhile.

It’s open to all of us. If we can conceive of greatness, if we take deliberate pains to get it right, and if we set and meet impossible standards, then we too might create something wonderful.

I believe that, if it wants to, any business can achieve wonder.  Can make customers want to be part of their adventure. Can have their people achieve amazing things just to be able to say, “…we did that”. Can have customers enjoy, and value, what they buy.

This is why I spend my time with organisations to make the customer experience better. Because it is at the point when customers experience what we say and what we do, that, perhaps, we make masterpieces.