A Look Inside the CX Toolbox

When you have a great hammer everything looks like a nail. When you are invested in a certain way of thinking, you tend to want to solve problems from that perspective. Surgeons like to cut, internists like to prescribe, and therapists like to do…well…therapy. It’s only natural, that’s what role specialization is all about. Still, this focus can create opacity to other, potentially useful, points of view.

The same is true in the world of Customer Experience (CX). I have had the privilege of looking through the lens of many different CX perspectives over the years. What is striking (pun intended) is that these different approaches are all very effective in their own right, but lacking in other ways. There is no one best way, it is a tool box of solutions each with their own strength and weakness. From banks to bakeries from dealership to discounters, I have seen many approaches to cracking the CX nut. Here has been my journey thus far, looking at seven tools commonly (but usually independently) involved in designing great customer experiences.

The Right People

In my first professional role one of my tasks was to find what made for rock star producing loan consultants. Looking at the top decile of producers’ profiles, we could find no clear biographical commonality. Some were old, some were young. Some were career sales people others were not. Some were experienced consultants, but our biggest slugger worked on an oil rig in Alaska as his last gig.

We decided to dig deeper and what did we find as common thread? They were all individuals that naturally engendered trust in their clients and colleagues and were persistently relentless. To this day I find this the hallmark of great sales people everywhere.

The insight: you must have the raw material first. You can usually train to the rest. This is also true in finding people good at working with customers.

The Right Product

Next, I had the privilege of working for a highly lauded automotive company. They were obsessed with data and insights about customers. No detail was too small to consider in creating an amazing product. I remember one study that was focused on engine covers; something most customers don’t even see. Another focused on getting the ideal number hash marks on the speedometer. Still another we joked about to this day was designing the right kind of tire valve cover. They were dead serious about this stuff.The point is; product obsession makes a big difference. People notice the details in creating an amazing experience and products are a big part of that. When you use a product every day you quickly become aware of its strengths and shortcomings. Products are instrumental in delivery big part of the overall experience, but they should be confused with the experience itself.

The Right Rewards

Later I became involved in using metrics to incentivize behaviors among franchisees. It is a common, if not endemic, practice to this day. Why? Let’s face it classical and operant conditioning works. We work for rewards; whether they are intrinsic or extrinsic.   Configuring these rewards judiciously can yield large results. Sadly, all too often in CX (and elsewhere) these rewards structures are not done well and are abused, with people chasing numbers rather than outcomes.

My learning was incentives can be incredibly powerful if configured correctly and incredibly destructive if done poorly.  Knowing the difference can make or break a CX program.

The Right Tools

Somewhere in the course of working on these programs I also partnered with a few organizations that specialized in education and training. This need for partnership was in response to the rather obvious fact that well selected, well-motivated people, cannot be successful if the do not have the right tools and knowledge to get things done.

“Field of dreams” programs do not work nor do “fire and forget” approaches. Every major CX initiative must have an educational component that is not a flash in pan, but enduring. Moreover, front line personnel that were never trained  in doing their jobs properly are going to fail. Those companies that really buy in to CX as a differentiator put training and education to the forefront and do not treat it as a cost of business…but as a differentiator.

The Right Process

My next assignment was a return to my OD roots. Here I had the pleasure of building tools that help organizational units systematically solve their own problems. First by developing my own action planning tools and later adopting the work of Randy Brandt’s multi-step system. We also create other tool sets to directly impact the customer experience quickly.

It was great to see how these tools could really be put to good use in solving systematic problems. While they were hugely effective, what we found was two things. First, we needed to provide a tool set that was easy and intuitive to use. Second, we needed to help the users find immediate small victories so they adopted the process. Deploying software without any training or self-sustaining incentive resulted in lack of adoption and no results. That’s no bueno.

The Right Message

As part of my current role we spend a bunch of time thinking about how to say the right things, to the right people, at the right moment to influence behavior.   This is hugely impactful in influencing customer behavior. This “message” is a broad form of communication from what the retail environment looks like, to how products are organized, how associates look, what they should say, and what to say in store through digital and analog means, and how and where they say it.  This transcends being the “wrapper” of the experience to being part of the overall experience itself. These are powerful tools that direct impact the customer experience; whether in store or online…or both at the same time!

The Right Leaders

Above all I have seen that the right leadership is essential for any of the above to matter. I worked at and with organizations with incredibly inspiring customer focused leaders and others who seem more principally concerned with financial outcomes. In every instance, great customer focused leadership triumphs in achieving long-term business results. This is one of the few aspects that the average corporate bear cannot influence greatly, but without it, all CX initiatives are doomed to fail. We see it time and time again in the data.

Using the Entire Toolbox

My recent epiphany and firm conviction is that any of these tools by themself can have but a partial impact on creating an amazing customer experience. Without a coordinated effort the impact of change will quickly fizzle.

Incentivizing behaviors with employees who are unskilled or unsuited in their roles is not going to help you. Motivating untrained and therefore unskilled associates is a kamikaze run. No amount of inspiring communication is going to overcome a poorly designed product. Finally, unless the CEO can look his or her customers in the eye and with conviction and consistently do that right thing…it just isn’t going to work.

I have found these seven tools must be configured in a carefully choreographed fashion in order to have the maximum impact. To achieve this coordination, they must be not being designed from the functional lens of the product manager, the marketer, human resource consultant, or the merchandising manager alone. We must start with the customer view first; designing it with them in an agile and iterative way. From there we figure out where to apply the “Right Stuff”. Only then will organizations realize the true potential of what a great customer experience can be for them and gain their just financial rewards in so doing.

Design Experiences, Not Products

Product. Designers think they are building it, marketers think they are promoting it, and sales people think they are selling it.  They are all dead wrong.


“The Product”

I shudder when corporate denizens refer to the goods and services of their organization as “the product.” It’s so clinical and distant. It’s as if they are embarrassed by what it is. It’s like referring to “the wife” or “the kids,” a little denigrating but mostly indifferent.

We should be proud and passionate in the value we are delivering to customers. We must believe in it for it to be successful. As fictitious shyster attorney Saul Goodmen once said,“I once told a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it.”  If you don’t believe in your brand, your customers won’t either.

Are You Experienced?

Putting aside dispassionate terminology, the truth is that people don’t buy products, they buy experiences.

BMW M3 is just a hunk of metal and plastic, an inanimate object. A well-engineered, beautiful, and expensive hunk of metal and plastic, but one nonetheless. Now when you get in it, hear the confident thunk of the door closing, fire up it up and hear the growl of the Teutonic engine and push it through a twisting road and feel the road as the low profile tires hug the macadam with g-forces pushing you back in your seat. Now that’s what you bought. You bought an experience.

Products are a means to end. Customers are buying the experience, the product delivers or purports to deliver.

I am in awe of the mechanics of children’s toy advertising. It really hasn’t changed much in 40 years since I was a kid yearning for that evasive TCR race track. It’s always a bunch of kids playing with cars or dolls on some sound stage in Southern California with kinetic slapstick onomatopoeic banners and frantic soundtrack that seems inspired by the 1960’s version of Batman.

But boy is it effective. Having two young kids at home myself, I can tell you they instantly want that object. Not because of what it is, but because of what the object promises to deliver as an experience. They think they will be smiling and howling once they get that doll or racetrack. It. Will. Be. So. Awesome.

As designers, product planners, marketers, consumer researchers, sales people, and customer experience professionals it would serve us well to think in these terms. It isn’t about features at all; it is about what those features can deliver asan experience.

What Kind of Experiences?

The features of a product or service drives the experience, hopefully in the anticipated manner. While there are a number of theories about drivers of experience, most typically agree to at least three basic forms.

  • Hygiene Factors – these are things that do not increase one’s happiness or satisfaction if present, but will instantly negate all other experiences if not present. You crank the key on that BMW and you expect to start. Are youhappy it does? Not really, you expect it. Are you unhappy if it doesn’t? You betcha, and even the softest leather seats will not make up for it.
  • Satisfiers – also known as one-dimensional quality or “attracters,” theseare things that the more you have, usually the happier you are. If you get 35 mpg rather than 25 you are happier. If you get 45 mpg happier still.
  • Delighters – these are drivers that do not necessarily let people down if they aren’t there, but go “over and above” in driving delight. For example, back up cameras in modern vehicles are typically delighters—for now. Unfortunately, as people become accustomed to this features it falls into the“hygiene” category over time as people see it as table stakes for the category.

Dr. Noriaki Kano, inventor of the “Kano model” also threw in two more. Those attributes people feel indifferent about and those that as they increase actually decrease satisfaction, so called reverse quality elements. Obviously we want toremove this from the experience design.

It’s All About the Customer Experience

So, don’t get caught up in the weeds of your service attributes or product features. Think backwards from the experience in service and product design and ask yourself; what are table stakes, what would drive an amazing experience, what is detracting from the experience, and what can I remove without any negative impact to the experience? As marketers and sales people we should remember, its about what your products and services do that count not the functional attributes. Paint a picture or better yet; show them what it does. And if you aren’t passionate about it, you probably are in the wrong organization or the wrong job.

Approach-Avoidance Strategies in CX Design

“Oh sh*t!” was my first thought.

Our family and some friends were spending the afternoon paddling on the pristine Buffalo River in rural Arkansas. While canoeing is the main activity, it is fueled by snacks and perhaps a few adult beverages. We were pulled up on the shore swimming in the shallows and catching minnows when two uniformed officers paddled their canoe over to us. The universal response to this setting is anxiety.

We weren’t doing anything wrong that I could see…but I was going through my mental pick list of where we might be in non-compliance.

“How’re y’all doing today?” the first officer asked.

My wife and I look at each other sheepishly and said “ahhh… fine(?)”  The second officer procured a tablet from his vest and start writing up what look like a citation.  We chit chatted for a few minutes and then the officer looked at my 6 and 8 year olds.

“I’m going to have to give you a ticket today” the officer in the front of the canoe said while the second officer continued to scribble in his tablet.


My kids looked at me puzzled…they didn’t know what that meant.  He went on to explain they were being given a ticket for wearing a life jacket (as they should) and were both handed a bright yellow piece of paper.  He further explained that those tickets were redeemable for a free ice cream at the local ice cream chain.  I looked at the citation and there were check boxes for other positive safety behaviors.

They wished us well and paddled off.

The unexpected appearance of a law enforcement officer invariably stirs strong emotions…usually negative ones. We have been trained to view their presence preceding something bad happening. It is basic classical conditioning.   What this law enforcement agency chose to do to change this perception was genius.

Lessons Learned

First, this agency is working to undo perceptions by associating their appearance with something positive, both socially and through a reward structure.  Repeated exposure will slowly change perceptions.  Second, they are focusing on children, the people who are most impressionable and who need to trust law enforcement for their own safety.  Finally, I have not been in law enforcement, but have to believe that delivering mostly negative experiences most of the day (tickets, warnings, etc) has to be kind of a downer.  I am sure they gain some satisfaction handing out rewards.  It’s not Ed McMahon prizes, but making a 6 year old girl in pigtails smile can certainly brighten anyone’s day.

This approach can be applied in other contexts as well.  There are many approach-avoidance conflict situations consumers confront every day.  These are situations we don’t like, but we know we have to do it.  Going to the dentist, visiting the accountant, the physician, the attorney, and auto mechanic are experiences that create some degree of anxiety when we think about them.

How do we decrease this anxiety in these situations?  Here are some tips.

1. Re-Prime the Experience

When we repeatedly have an experience that is negative, that becomes our expectation.  Change this negative expectation by providing something positive in addition can help neutralize the negative feelings.  A warm, friendly, and buoyant office environment can help reassure patients. A dental hygienist offering positive reinforcement for hygiene habits and highlighting the future end state can help reshape attitudes.  Police officers handing out citations with positive consequences will change perceptions.  This all helps to reshape the experience

2. Reduce Uncertainty

A had a professor once that said that the definition of fear is the anxious anticipation of anxiety.  What makes a scary movie scary and freak us out when an official starts writing on a notepad?  We don’t know what is going to happen next.  Humans don’t like the unknown. There is a reason for that…the unknown has a habit of getting us killed. The best physicians and nurses know that informing the patient of what is going to happen before, during, and after an experience greatly reduces anxiety.  Keep your customers informed even if it doesn’t really serve any apparent benefit.  Knowing where your package is in the delivery process doesn’t make it come any faster, but it sure relieves anxiety about its status on its journey to you.

3. Perceived Control

Psychological research has long shown that if you give people control of situation they like it much better.  In a classic experiment by Glass and Singer, two groups of participants were exposed to an unpleasant noise and told to do some busy work. One group was given a button and told that they could turn off the noise when they want, but were encouraged not to because it would ruin the experiment. The second group was not given a button. Guess which group had lower stress levels?  If you said the one with the button, you are correct. Here’s the kicker; this was true for those who didn’t even use the button. Give people the perception of control, even if it isn’t a real. It reduces stress, enhances performance, and gets people to stick around longer.

4. Transparency

Another method to reduce anxiety in these situations is through ensuring transparency. Flood light into that black box. A mortgage company clearly specifying what is going to happen at each stage and revealing any and all fees up front is going to create a happier customer.  Simple, easy to understand, mobile phone plans help customers understand how they are going to be charged.  Allowing a customer to view their vehicle as it is being serviced gives customers a sense that there is nothing nefarious going on.  People what information as to what is going on.  Millennials demand it.

5. Consistency

As a general rule, consistency is critical in creating good experiences.  This is especially so in situations that are deemed negative. People hate it when things are changed up with no guarantee that they will not be changed again.  Life is impermanent, but most people would prefer not to think about that.  They want certainty that each time they get to that rental counter that things will go down the same, no matter where they are at.  Research consistency shows that people would rather have something consistency mediocre, or even bad rather than different each time.  We want to be certain about what is going happen in the future.

6. Removing the Unpleasantness

I once asked a colleague who has spent much her career in hospitality what are some of the best practices in removing the unpleasantness of wait times in hotels.  She rattled off a few but said the best thing you can do is “remove the wait”.  Many hotels removed both check in and check out since it was a source of irritation for customers.  Advances in pain management makes trips to the doctor and dentist much better than 20 years ago.  The best way to reduce negative perceptions of experience is by removing that aspect altogether. While I am on it, can we please make a dentist drill that doesn’t make that noise?   It’s 2016 for the love…

Free Ice Cream

Free ice cream does not solve all problems, but experiential design is not about silver bullets and quick fixes.  It is about the little things that when working in concert create big changes.  Those were only two officers in one canoe in a river in Arkansas.  Imagine if this type of positive community policy was scaled up state wide or nationally?  Thebenefits are many and powerful.

Have you identified those approach-avoidance experiences in your customers’ journey today?  Are you using any of these strategies to counteract them?  I would also be interested in hearing about any other strategies that you have seen to be effective.