Category Archives: customer experience

Five customer experience lessons from fringe theatre

Stage set of The Bevellers, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 2007

The fringe of experience

A long time ago, I directed a range of fringe theatre productions.

As a training ground for management or innovation, it could not be bettered. Consider what we had to do: select a cast and crew, motivate them around a vision, handle multiple egos under stress, capitalise on a diverse range of talent of every sort, generate and build on new ideas, conduct marketing, PR and sales campaigns and deliver something which we hoped would be wonderful.

And all by a fixed and imminent deadline: first night.

A Brazilian challenge

One production required that we interrogate a reformed murderer in a Brazilian police cell, have a dinner party in a Sao Paulo penthouse, attend a US evangelical revival at a jungle plantation, and have helicopter gunships attack a native village in the Amazonian rainforest.

Did I mention this was fringe theatre?  Our vision may have been limitless but our budgets were trivial. And so we struggled as the scale of our vision foundered on the rocks of penury.

A change in perspective

In first weeks of rehearsal, we focused on the script and tried to think of ways of making the production real.  But we got nowhere.  The cast was frustrated, the crew even more so.  People were fractious and unhappy.

First night loomed like an iceberg in the night, getting ever closer.

Then, in a blinding flash of the obvious, everything became much easier.

What was different? We stopped thinking about making the production real.

Instead, we started thinking about the experience which we wanted our customers, the audience, to have. What did we want them to feel? To think? To take away?

Thinking like this, from the audience in, rather than from the production out, unlocked our creativity.  Suggestion, not realism, became our driver.

  • The prison cell became one man lit by a single light in the darkness, shining through bars.
  • We painted the black interior of the studio theatre – set and auditorium – with foliage and vines like a jungle so that the audience entered the rainforest as soon as they came through the doors.
  • We placed the dinner party table on a dais in the middle of the stage and lit the background dimly so that the rainforest was only hinted in the shadows.
  • For the plantation, we lit both the dais and the rainforest, placing it in the jungle.
  • And we turned the lights of the helicopters onto the audience and played the sound of machine guns with the bass turned up to insane levels so the audience heard gunfire through their ears and felt it through the floor.

Total cost of the set? £200.

We opened on first night with a slick, professional production that was very well received.

Innovating success

Five lessons from my theatre experience have stood me in good stead in business and innovation ever since.

  • The greatest creativity comes from the greatest constraints.
    Three things govern all projects: time, cost and performance.  If time is fixed and costs are limited, then the only way to achieve breakthrough performance is through creativity and innovation.  Having limits drives creativity.
  • Think from the customer inwards, not from the product outwards.
    We only got traction once we started thinking from the audience inwards.  Our only arbiter of success is the effect on the customer, not the features of our product. What do we want the customer to think, to feel, to take away? Having these as our goals frees us to be creative.
  • Recruit for attitude and energy.
    We chose people for our production not only for their talent but for their enthusiasm and willingness to try.  We only succeeded because all of us – cast, crew and production – contributed to the creative process. As a result we generated many more ideas than we could use, so we could pick the best ones.
  • Leadership is about trust.
    The Director may have a vision for a show, even if s/he does not quite yet know how this vision will be realised.  The Director has to trust the cast, crew and production team to come up with good solutions to the many, many unanswered questions with which any production begins.   They in turn have to trust the Director to make the right decisions about which ideas will work. And it is only by trusting each other that they find ways to make them work.
  • Nothing drives creativity more than urgency.
    First night is a fixed and unforgiving deadline.  Such deadlines offer an imperative focus for a team.  Knowing that a deadline is real, and that it matters that the deadline is met, drives the delivery of new ideas better than anything else.

In my experience, when these drivers have been in place, I have only ever seen business innovation projects succeed. Where I have seen innovation failure – or deliver mediocrity, which is worse – one or more of these factors has been missing.

Always.

How about you?  If you are innovating for customers, do you recognise these? Let me know what you think.

(Image credit:  Blurredyvonne at en.wikipedia, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

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Buccaneers, banks and the customer experience.

A new market

Imagine for a moment that we make swords for a living.  We need a market for our  product.  Where are the opportunities?  After extensive market research (in our local cinema and some classic books) we find our target customer segment.

641px-Pyle_pirate_captain

Pirates.

A dynamic and exciting market.

Needs? Simple enough: a blade to carry between their teeth as they swing onboard a victim’s ship and something to parry other swords during spectacular duels.

But a standard cutlass already does this job pretty well.  If we try to compete just by selling these, then pirates will just choose the cheapest ones.  And we can’t compete on price with low-cost blacksmiths working on the Barbary Coast.

We need pirates to see our swords as better than those of our competitors. Do we need to offer a better sword?  Perhaps something incorporating the latest technology?

Perhaps a multifunctional sword?

Swiss Army Sword

We don’t know.

We need to know what matters to these buccaneers. What are their problems?  Their aspirations?  How can our swords can help them address these?  And how can they do so do so in ways which pirates value and our competitors find hard to copy?

Market insight

So we blow the rest of our market research on more movie tickets and popcorn.

What do we find? Pirates are fundamentally conservative and don’t want radical new sword designs.  They don’t want the equivalent of a sword iPad or a swiss army sword.

Other pirates would laugh at them.

Robert Newton as Long John Silver

Worse, so would their victims.

Is our venture doomed?

Not in the least.  For this finding shows us a real customer need that we can meet.

Pirates don’t just want a sword which slashes through the air;  they want to look good. A pirate has to look…dashing.

Errol Flynn as Captain Blood

They want others to tell stories about their exploits.  Sea voyages, even for pirates, are long, and stories told during endless night watches become legends told in taverns on shore.

And every pirate wants to be a legend.

A unique customer experience

And so we see that our swords have to be special.  Sharper than anyone else’s, with blades black as midnight, maybe, with handles encrusted with cabuchons and rubies and trimmed with gold.

Each as unique as its dashing and charismatic owner. Each a sword fit for a legend.

And each sword has to be challenging to get, so that each owner not only gets their sword, but a tale as well.

In short, we need to offer our pirates not only a distinctive product, but a unique customer experience.

So we select our distribution channels very carefully.   Caves on obscure islands, perhaps, or at the top of distant mountains. Then we throw in some traps, some quicksand and some fire swamps for good measure.

We prepare to go to market with a below-the-line PR budget to plant rumours of mysterious and wondrous swords in taverns, and above-the-line marketing through publication of obscure and blood-stained treasure maps (strictly limited edition).

Treasure map

And we make sure that the price for each sword is at least a treasure chest full of gold doubloons.

So now we know how we are going to get rich.

A time for thinking of risks

And it is at this point that we begin to think about the risks.

What kinds of risks? Pirates aren’t particularly trustworthy, so we’ll need to make it hard for them to double-cross us. We’ll need the ability to check treasure chests for poison needles among the doubloons. We’ll need good protection for our supply lines.

We will do all these things and more, but we do so knowing that the thing that matters is the customer experience we offer and how it meets their needs.

And while we act to address these risks, we don’t lose sight of what we are in business to do, or what our customers want, or the business model we have designed around meeting the needs of our customers by giving them a unique customer experience.

We think about our customers and how we will do business – and then we seek to manage the risks.

…And this is why banks will never get the customer experience right.

Banks begin with risk

Most businesses succeed by thinking about customers and the opportunities which these customers represent.  They look for ways to help customers overcome their problems and achieve their aspirations. They try to align what their businesses do with what their customers want.

When businesses do this well, they become customer-centric businesses; when they do this badly, they find it hard to keep customers and grow.

Most businesses – except banks.

Banks begin, not by understanding customer needs and aspirations, but by considering customers as risks.  They begin by assuming that customers will lose the money that banks make available to them, either through fraud or theft or poor money management or bad investment.

So when they consider the services they offer or the customer needs they will meet, banks start by seeking to minimise the risk which their customers pose.

So they make it hard for customers to become customers, because each new customer is a risk.  They make it difficult to change between products as changing products carries a risk that something will go wrong.

Where possible, they try to offset such risks, usually through fees or charges.  In effect, they ask customers to pay to cover the risk of their own untrustworthiness.

And they love being in the middle of deals as this enables them to offset risk at one end against risk at the other (and doubles their fees).

Bankers are proud of this. Speak to them and they tell you that a bank’s core competency is the quantification and management of risk. A key element of this is customer risk.

And so banks are hard-wired against innovation, because innovation requires both leaps of faith and a willingness to consider new ways of working with customers. These are, by definition, risky.

And, unlike the customer-centric businesses to which we refer to earlier, banks, because of this mindset, cannot align their businesses with their customers; instead they require that customers align their businesses with the bank.

A matter of trust

Banks can’t help being like this.

It’s not their fault.

It’s just that no matter what they do, they can never become customer-centric.

This is the effect of beginning with such risk thinking.  It means that banks, unlike every other business, start thinking about what they do from a different first principle:

Do not trust the customer.

This is why, for example, banks find it so hard to offer good customer service when things go wrong. As their business is predicated on pushing risk and liability onto the customer if something has gone wrong, the working assumption is that it is the customer’s fault.

And when things go systemically wrong (LIBOR, PPI, money-laundering, credit card insurance) it is only after huge fines and new laws that banks  accept that maybe it was their fault and that the customer might have been right after all. (Although they don’t really believe it).

Banks aren’t bad.  (Most) bankers aren’t evil people. They are trying to do the right thing, most of the time.

Pushing uphill

But when your business is designed from the ground up on the assumption that you can’t trust customers, making your business better by aligning yourselves better to customers is going to be difficult.

And so while there are now many people all over the World in banks doing great work to try to make the customer experience better, their prospects for long-term success are limited.

Because no matter what they do, the customer experiences they create can only be an overlay on a business designed not to trust customers.

Any successes they have can only be maintained by rigorous and sustained attention to the customer experience.  And when cost-cutting, new regulations, new systems or some other stress hits (as routinely happens in banks), their eye will leave the ball and the fundamental customer attitudes which underpin the banking model will kick back in and all their good progress will inevitably unwind.

Because, under stress, we all revert to the behaviours where we feel most in control and have greatest comfort. For banks, this is thinking about the customer as a source of risk.

A choice of experience

As far as I am concerned, I want to make things better for customers.  So, in the main,  I think I’d prefer to be in the sword business, selling to pirates.

And, thinking of the customer experience, wasn’t it a pirate who made famous the line: “As you wish*” ? – which is as perfect a customer experience philosophy as is possible in three words.

Yet for the life of me, I can’t think of any famous quotes from bankers about customers at all…

For a video of our target market, see here:

or here:

* Dread Pirate Roberts, in The Princess Bride.

(Image credit: Swiss Army Sword by Glenn Roberts, http://dribbble.com/shots/1207517-Swiss-Army-Sword?list=users)

4 steps to customer performance

Today, I am very pleased  to present a guest post by Jim Lucas of Lucavia.

US Army gym workout

Top performance is earned

Music, math, foreign language, computer programming. Have you ever wondered whether subjects like these can be learned or if you simply have to be “born with it”? A brief query shows a usual pattern. You’ll find a debate about the role of hard work and dedication versus natural talent, and then a consensus emerges. It takes hard work and dedication to become proficient or to master a subject (think: Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule). But to achieve at the highest levels requires more of the same plus a generous helping of natural talent and luck—where only the truly gifted achieve genius.

From a management point of view, simple knowledge of a subject is not interesting; only its application and performance matter.

Opinion is not knowledge

For example, think about retail customer service. Virtually every businessperson claims to know all about customer service and yet the quality and depth of customer service varies wildly between companies—and even within the same company from store to store and from experience to experience. So, why is it that customer service is so well understood and yet so poorly performed?

The answer is that most retail businesses do not have knowledge of customer service; they have opinions. What’s more, instead of performing customer service they constantly improvise, both as organizations and individuals. It is little wonder when an organization uses their 10,000 hours, practicing customer service 10,000 different ways, that customers perceive it as chaos.

Four steps to customer performance

The remedy to this situation is, as they say, simple to understand but difficult to master.

The first thing is to define customer service from your customer’s point of view.

The second thing is to write down the steps in your customer service experience including the standards of performance you demand for its proper execution.

Thirdly, systematize how you present this information to your staff—and be careful to select candidates for their aptitude to learn and to be passionate about delivering it.

And, finally, rehearse. One doesn’t become an Emma Kirby by performing only in front of a live audience at the Royal Opera House. You have to train, refine, and improve offstage to earn your standing ovations.

Jim Lucas and Lucavìa Consulting are located in the San Francisco Bay Area. They believe entrepreneurs need partners to help them turn their ideas into businesses.

(Image credit: Susan Huseman (USAG Stuttgart))

How to do customer experience: 3 ways to beat the grumps

Grump Street

Beware of the Grumps

When we want to change anything in an organisation, we will meet the Grumps. Grumps are colleagues who appear to support the project (and who may actually believe that they are acting in the project’s best interests) but whose presence is toxic to success.

The most telling sign that someone is a Grump is to note their effect on the energy of others.

If their presence adds to the energy of the team – if they are ‘radiators’* – then they are probably not Grumps.

If, however, their presence sucks the energy from the room – if they are ‘drains’ – we need to be careful.

How they speak is often a giveaway. Grumps are people on the ground who reveal themselves in meetings and emails and water-cooler conversations when they say things like:

“…I’m not saying this is a bad idea, but…”

“…We’ve tried this already and…”

“Let’s be realistic, here…”

“…we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater…”

Or (as I have genuinely heard in more than one company):

“…we have to be careful not to trust customers too much…”

…and similar statements which have the facade of reason but really reflect fundamental antipathy.

Grump damage

Grumps slowly strangle customer experience projects.

They raise seemingly legitimate objections which are never about the intent of the project, always about the implementation.  Before long, the team is spending more time and energy managing concerns raised by Grumps and less in delivering the project.  Slowly, imperceptibly, Grumps force us to move our focus away from making things better for customers to trying to keep the Grumps happy.

And so the project fails – or more typically, fades away, as the effort needed to deliver something good gets brought down by the drag of managing the Grumps.

How to beat the Grumps

These three steps can help us beat the Grumps:

  1. Get them off the bus**  We don’t let a Grump be a member of our project team. It doesn’t matter how technically or managerially skilled they are, the drain on energy and time will not be worth it.  Much better to work with less-skilled colleagues who are radiators with the energy to succeed than let Grumps drain everyone’s momentum.
  2. Don’t give them a veto  It is a mistake to seek a buy-in from a Grump (or anyone else for that matter) unless their approval really matters to the success of the project.  For if they object, as a Grump will, we now either (a) divert resources and time to overcome their objections or (b) ignore their objections and go ahead, alienating them even more.  And if their approval is not needed, why did we seek it?  (Sigh: So many companies get this one wrong).
  3. Surround them with success  When we change to make things better for customers, the Grumps come last.  We begin by making the changes work with colleagues who are prepared to give them a go, ignoring the Grumps.  Once we have proven that the changes make a difference, then we make it work with the Grumps.  Grumps seek support for their belief that the project won’t succeed.  Proven success defuses such support.

Delivery de-Grumped

Good customer experience projects are all about leverage. They seek the places and strategies which yield maximum results in the fastest time. Grumps kill leverage, by forcing us to consider their objections instead of the customers, slow us down by distracting our attention and diverting our resources, and kill our projects by slowly sucking out our energy and momentum.

But if we can identify Grumps early and adopt the right practical strategies to prevent the damage they can cause, we remove one of the biggest barriers to customer experience project success.

Have you had the misfortune of working with Grumps?  What Grump warning signs have you seen? Let us know in the comments below.

*The idea of ‘Radiators’ and ‘Drains’ comes from Julian Fellowes in his book, Past Imperfect. I came across it cited in an article in Gretchen Rubin‘s blog, The Happiness Project.

**’Getting them off the bus’ is a CEO strategy recommended in Jim Collins’ excellent book, From Good to Great (p.56)

Image credit: David Stowell, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Radiator image courtesy of Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Drain image courtesy of Winond / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4 pillars of customer experience

PIllars of Creation, Large Magellanic Cloud, NASA

Four pillars

I set up MikeAndTheCustomer to help companies to make things better for customers.

Four principles which would drive what we do here.  I consider these to be the most important factors in shaping the customer experience.

To me, they pretty much describe the whole customer experience ball game.

  • Do what matters.
  • Do it right.
  • Do it fast.
  • Do it honourably.

Let me explain why I chose these principles to guide what we do.

Do what matters

In my view, no matter what business any of us are in, the customer experience we offer is determined by what our customers value and how we choose to address these.  These are the things that matter. Some examples:

  • If customers value getting in and out of a grocery store fast, then this speed of purchase matters to the customer experience
  • If customers value having a chiropractor talking with them to understand their issues, then perhaps understanding the customer matters more to the customer than speed.
  • And if hungover customers are buying their first coffee of the day, then maybe a quiet transaction with minimal conversation matters more to them than a cheery shop assistant who loudly wants them to have a great day with a bright smile.

This principle means not trying to make every customer experience brilliant, or memorable. It means instead paying attention to those that make a difference and figuring out how make these good for the customer.  And, after all, isn’t this what motivates many of us – to make a difference?

Do it right  

Whatever we do – buy, sell, deliver, support – we have to do it right.  Who determines what is  right? The customer.  Our customers are the arbiters of what we do, and if we do it right, we deliver the value which they expect.

This means that when our customers change, or evolve, or want new things, we take the trouble to learn with them so that we continue to do it right.

To do so, we have to be with our customers, learning with them, and about them, as much as we can.

Doing it right also means doing it as efficiently, consistently and systematically as possible.  That way we minimise error, we minimise costs, we maximise speed and we maximise the ability, as we grow, to have colleagues do it right as well.

Do it fast

I honestly believe that speed is the single most important factor in turning customer experience into a competitive advantage.

If we can deliver what the customer wants, instantly, then that means we can impress the customer with our service, we can find out from them straightaway if we are on the money and if we are not, we can fix it immediately.

The speed with which we deliver is the speed at which we learn.  The faster we do both, the better we will be, and the better will be the customer’s experience.

Do it honourably

This one needs a little more explanation..

I wanted a way a capture the spirit of good customer experience that did not involve telling stories about the virtues of  Zappos or Nordstrom or John Lewis.  Unless we work for one of these paragons of customer service (or, sometimes, even if we do) the effect of such stories is just to make the reader feel guilty that they aren’t doing better

The more I thought about it, and the more I recalled the companies I knew who really try to make a difference for their customers, the more I realised that the essence of good customer experience is about one thing. It is about being honourable.

What do I mean by honourable?  I mean this:

  • Honourable is about good manners and courtesy.
  • Honourable is about only making promises we can keep, and keeping them – as people used to say, it is about keeping our word.
  • Honourable is about doing our best for our customers (and our colleagues, and our suppliers).
  • Honourable is about being honest about what we will, and what we won’t, do.
  • Honourable is about respecting our customers, our colleagues, our suppliers and our competitors.
  • Honourable is about being proud of what we do, about what our colleagues do, about what our company does and the experience our customers receive.
  • Honourable is about caring when things don’t go well and doing our absolute best to put things right.
  • Honourable is about admitting we got it wrong and saying sorry – and making sure that it won’t happen again.
  • Honourable is about celebrating when our customers, our colleagues or our suppliers succeed.
  • Honourable is about selling honestly and pricing fairly.
  • Honourable is about helping.
  • Honorable is about holding ourselves to high standards because they are the right things to do.
  • Honourable is about aspiring to be better, all the time.

Honourable offers the key test when we think about doing a new thing: is what we are thinking of doing, and the way we are thinking of doing it, honourable?  Unless it is, then the answer is simple: we should not do it.

I believe that an organisation which follows these principles cannot help but offer a great, trusted, customer experience. What is more, they will continue to do so as customers, markets, technology and people change.

But this is just me.

What do you think?  Do you agree with me?  Or is there something I’ve missed, or with which you disagree?  Let me know.

This is important to me, and I would really value your comments or thoughts.

Thanks.

Mike

Image credit: The Pillars of Creation in the Large Magellanic Cloud, NASA

Sports Direct: the Ryanair of the High Street?

Sports Direct store in Crown PointPile ’em high, sell ’em cheap

Ian Golding, the customer experience consultant has an enviable CV and an excellent blog (which I strongly commend). Last month, he posted a great article about the customer experience offered by Sports Direct, a UK budget sporting goods store.

The point of his post was that Sports Direct offer a poor customer experience because, in effect, their goods are so cheap the customer experience doesn’t matter.

Ian also suggests that Sports Direct are effectively playing the same role in high street retail as Ryanair play in air travel.

A conscious choice

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have written about the Ryanair customer experience here and here.  I think that there may some significant differences in the ways in which they think about the customer experience when compared with Sports Direct.

I suspect that the biggest difference is that Ryanair understand the things which make the biggest difference for their customers.  As a result, they manage their customer experience to be good along a very few dimensions (on time, seen to be low-cost) and explicitly limited in others (no refunds) in order to to support its business model.

Sports Direct, however, appear not to manage the customer experience, but instead to allow it to be an unconscious side-effect of their low-cost operation.

Is simply cheap sustainable?

Because they seem to compete solely on cost, Sports Direct may be vulnerable to another company offering a similar cost proposition with a better customer experience.  Ian muses if Sports Direct’s low-customer-experience is sustainable in the face of new competition such as that offered by French sports shed operator Decathlon.

Ryanair, on the other hand, I don’t think are so vulnerable to attack on this front.  Two factors argue for this.

The first is that Ryanair actively manage their customer experience and know which aspects of the experience make the biggest difference to their customers.  As a result, if they needed to dial elements of the key parts of the customer experience up or down, I am sure they could.

The second factor is more pragmatic. As I mentioned in my post, Ryanair: Kings of the Customer Experience, Ryanair compete as a low-cost airline because their business model is ruthlessly designed round the limited customer experience they choose to offer. Other operators do not seem to have the single-minded strategic will to make similar choices – and so they live with business models which are intrinsically more expensive to run.

What you pay attention to, you get

The takeaway, I think, is this:  every business, whether it thinks about it or not, offers their customers an experience which reflects the things to which the company pays attention.  If a company focuses solely on least cost supply and appears to pay little attention to the customer experience, then customers get an experience akin to the ‘dark cave’ which Ian describes as being offered by Sports Direct.

Such companies are vulnerable to competition from others which do pay attention to the customer experience and design their low-cost operation around the experience they actively choose to offer.

In short, if we don’t pay attention to customer experience in the boardroom, we shouldn’t surprised if, in return, customers stop paying attention to us.

Image credit: Betty Longbottom under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.