Category Archives: Stuff I like

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.

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Say it with deeds.

Chicken rhyme

The Language of Love

Words need to match expectations if we want our relationships to succeed.

Valentine’s Day reminds me how much the language of love corresponds to the business of engaging with customers.

Love is about building enduring relationships, where both parties feel like equals, where they each give and get something from the relationship. It is about two-way communication.  It is about trust. It is about wanting to invest our time in the relationship, because doing so rewards us now and because we want it to do so in the future.

For most organisations, this also describes the relationship we would like to have with our customers (and more importantly, the relationship we would like them to have with us).

But, as many of us have learned to the cost of our broken hearts, this isn’t easy.

Chores vs Candlelight

While people can say the right things, what we say through the candlelight over dinner with a nice wine can be very different to what we do on a wet Wednesday evening when the chores need doing and we’re both tired after a long day at work.

And if we can take out the rubbish without being asked, or do the dishes and still smile because we want to cheer our partner up and maybe feel a little better ourselves, then – while candlelit dinners are all very nice – it is when we stand in the rain by the bin or at the sink up to our elbows in dishwater that we don’t just talk about love, we show it.

And showing our love is what counts.

Caring is Doing

We can love our customers during the sale, as we smile and show them our brochures and we give them the pitch and they get excited that maybe the thing we are offering might be the one, the thing that they are seeking.

But are we ready to work at this relationship? To show our love rather than just talk about it?

We do so when we let them call us for help and we answer in person, not with a computer; when we design our website to make it easy for them to do what they want, rather than just get what we want to tell them; when we remember their name and know what they have bought from us and recognise that even the smallest thing can cause frustration; and when we say “don’t worry about it” and give them their money back with a smile when they tell us they aren’t happy.

The experience we offer our customers shows how we care about them much more than any words we use.

Real relationships don’t happen just because we dress up nice and say we care, they happen because the things we do in the weeks and months and years after that first date show we care.

It’s true for our partners.  It’s true for our customers.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

(Image credit: Quickmeme.com at http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/3pf2)

Customer experience without competition

Water skiers on the OzarksThe only sustainable competitive advantage

If our business has to compete in the long-term, there are (with apologies to Michael Porter and his chums in the business theory business) really only three ways to do so – and just one that endures.

There’s no point in competing solely on price because that kills margins and can’t be sustained.  And there’s no point in competing just on innovation because sooner or later everyone catches up and no-one, no matter how good, can churn out new technologies on a treadmill forever.

Which is why so many companies now choose to compete on customer experience.  It’s one of the few ways an organisation can offer genuinely sustainable differentiation and protect margins; it makes for more enduring, loyal customers; and it is very effective in building a strong, sustainable brand.

The purpose of customer experience

But most government departments don’t have competitors.  Their customers typically have to use them, whether they want to or not. So does this mean that public sector organisations can ignore customer experience? Or should they, if they want to minimise costs? After all, it’s just another management fad, right?

Quite the opposite. Competitive advantage is not the goal of customer experience – it is merely an excellent side-effect.  Let’s not forget that the main purpose of any organisation is usually to offer a product or (more usually for public sector organisations) a service that their customers value.  If an organisation can offer a good customer experience, this enables that organisation to do what it exists to do – but better.

This applies just as much whether an organisation is selling cars, building houses, collecting taxes or handling planning applications. The only difference is that in the public sector, value to the taxpayer is paramount and the purpose is service, not profit.

The return on customer experience

The benefits of offering a good customer experience have particular resonance for the public sector.  Benefits such as these:

  • Fewer people complain, so an organisation saves on resources it would otherwise spend on handling exceptions and resolving issues.
  • A good customer experience relies on consistent service delivery (how else does an organisation keep its promises?), enabling organisations to benefit from reduced variation, lower complexity and more economical  service delivery.
  • Better and more fundamental understanding of the customer, so organisations learn how to adapt and learn faster and more flexibly.
  • And organisations that offer a good customer experience are usually good places to work, so they keep good people and help them to stay motivated.

The public sector payoff

Any organisation would value such returns. So would their customers.  And for public sector organisations, these translate into two other, distinctive benefits.

First: any public sector organisation that delivers services well, efficiently and in ways which its users value – this  immediately reflects well on the elected officials responsible for it. This political dividend has unique value in the public sector.

And second: we are all invested in public services, as taxpayers and users – so when a public service delivers an excellent customer experience with all the return that we see here, we all benefit.

And that has to be a good thing.

This is slightly revised version of a blog I originally posted at Business Value Exchange; a site well worth a visit.

(Image credit: Ralph Walker, Commerce and Industrial Development Collection, Missouri State Archive, Public Domain).

 

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).

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

The qualia of customer experience

Red rose in snow picWe cannot truly understand what our customers experience. But we can understand how they behave. If we want to make things better for them, we will be better off observing what customers actually do, not trying to work out what we think they are experiencing. 

I can’t get into Joe’s head

My friend Joe cannot see the colours red or green – he is colour blind. My colour vision is normal. Science explains this by saying that some of the cone receptors at the back of Joe’s retina are different from mine.

But when I try to understand what Joe sees when he looks at, say, a grassy meadow, I am unable to do so.  His experience of the greenness of the grass is different from mine.   I cannot put myself into his head.

Qualia are what we experience

Philosopher Clarence Lewis in 1927 coined the term qualia to describe the distinct subjective experiences we each have when, for example, we smell a rose, see the white of snow or taste a lemon.

Qualia (singular: quale) are the essence of experience.  They are also pretty much inexplicable by science.  Science – cognitive psychology, neuroscience, physiology – has pretty much nothing to say about what Joe experiences when he sees a blue sky and how that compares with what I experience when I see that same sky.

If you don’t believe me, imagine trying to explain the greenness of a meadow to someone who is blind from birth.

Scientific methods

This is, in part, why understanding the customer experience is tough.  Each customer’s experience is different. If we ask them about their experience – to describe the qualia of buying – we can only get a limited understanding of what they experience.

How does science address the problem of qualia?  It ignores them. Instead of seeking to understand what we experience, scientists instead focus on what they can observe. In particular, they focus on behaviour.  Rather than investigating what  people experience, scientists explore instead what people do when they experience X or see Y.

This is a good principle to adopt when working on customer experience.  Trying to understand the experience of customers is likely to be less valuable – and less effective for guiding our actions – than observing what they actually do.

The perfect, but useless, manuals

This is shown by the PC manuals fiasco. A few years ago a major PC manufacturer took great pains to consult with customers so that  the manuals for new users to set up their PCs were as well-written, user-friendly and accessible as possible. For several years, users rated the manuals as the best in the business – they even won awards.

But it wasn’t until the company undertook some studies into what new PC users actually did that the truth emerged.

More than 95% of users never opened the manual at all.

They turned on their PC and assumed that the start-up process on-screen would take them through set-up. And if it didn’t, they got very unhappy indeed.

The company had made the mistake of asking customers what they thought, instead of  observing what they actually did.

The colours of marketing

Leo Widrich of Buffer.com has written a great article for Fast Company on the science of colours in marketing. In it, he explains how colours can influence customer behaviour.  He also describes an experiment by Hubspot to understand if customers prefer to press a red or a green button on-screen (read the article to find out which button won :-)).

The folks at Hubspot just needed to know which colour encouraged more customers to press the button. They did not need to know why.

As Leo Widrich says in his article: “…data always beats opinion, no matter what.”

And if we are to make things better for customers, it is probably best for us to adopt the same attitude. Let’s worry less about understanding the customer experience and worry more about observing the things customers show us they prefer.

(If you want to find out more about qualia and why they pose a problem for science, the best source is Daniel Dennett, a terrific writer on philosophy and cognitive science.  His 1991 book, Consciousness Explained is a good first port of call; a more technical discussion can be found in his article, Quining Qualia, (in A. Marcel and E. Bisiach, eds, Consciousness in Modern Science, Oxford University Press 1988)).

(Image credit: Paulis under Creative Commons Attribution license)