The Wabi Sabi of CX: Shoot for Authenticity not Perfection

As a child I always marveled at my mother’s recipe box (handed down from her mother). It is an overstuffed box that is an amalgam of at least three generations of culinary experimentation from parents, aunts, uncles, friends, and neighbors across the continent. From Welsh cookies to something called Syrian Pie…reviewing these recipes is truly a trip across time and space. Some recipes are scrawled on yellowed index cards, others are written on tissue-thin paper neatly folded into the box. Some are typed others are on old yellowed clippings from newspapers.

Laura Captor’s Recipe Box

On one ordinary day, for no particular reason, my mom gave me the recipe box. I started pulling cards out one-by-one and she provided some thorough explanations of their origin, other explanations were admittedly more probabilistic in nature. It was a great gift as it connected me to my past and to who I am today.

In general people like to be part of something bigger themselves. Whether that’s a family, a church, a club, a company, or any group at all, it is part of the human condition. It provides certainty of who we are and how we are connected to larger whole of society[1]. As you think about creating experiences this holiday season, there are a few lessons in this recipe box that may be useful in experiential design.

Be Who You Are

I oftentimes see people and organizations trying to be someone they are not. Take for example the Geo marque developed by General Motors in 1989. At the time GM was fighting a two-front war. On the luxury side, Cadillac was getting assaulted by European rivals as American consumers’ preferences turned to more Teutonic in nature. On the mass market size things were worse. Inexpensive and high-quality Japanese imports were cutting into their core business.

GM’s solution was Geo[2]. The goal of Geo was to get the ‘youth market’ which had turned to smaller, sportier, and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Since the GM product pipe was a bit thin, they decided to accomplish this goal by rebadging existing nameplates from Japanese manufacturers. The Prizm was a Toyota Corolla, the Spectrum an Isuzu Gemini, the Storm an Isuzu Impulse, and the Tracker a Suzuki Sidekick. Did it work? Some will argue it accomplished its goal, but according to Automotive News GM anticipated 400,000 sales in 1991 and achieved 297,000[3]. The nameplate struggled until 1996 when it was discontinued. It was an unimaginative solution to a tough competitive situation.

Image result for saturn car
1996 SC2 from Flickr Creative Commons

In 1990, rather than mimicking someone else, they did something surprising and started the Saturn brand. Saturn was a car company based on the customer experience and had a cult-like following amongst customers[4]. Saturn started from scratch; creating new vehicles, new manufacturing, and a new dealer network. Rather than putting the car at the forefront, GM decided to make the experience the centerpiece of the brand. Sure, there was some product innovation, but the dealer experience was amazing and the focus on the holistic ownership experience resonated well, in particular with younger buyers. Starved of new products for years, it marched on nonetheless until it met its demise under the corporate bureaucratic weight and bankruptcy of GM in 2008.

Connect to Your Heritage

If you ever toured the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, Ireland you will quickly conclude two things; 1) they make excellent beer, and 2) they know what they are doing. As one of the oldest breweries in the world, they have a fairly simple line up and have pride in their product. The brewmasters at St. James Gate continued their work as the American colonies proclaimed their independence and later their own country’s independence from England up to today. While they have made small adjustments to the product over that span to adjust to consumer tastes, the spirit and core product have changed very little.

If you go into any respectable Irish pub today (or perhaps any pub in general) you will always be able to get a Guinness. There will usually be Guinness memorabilia on the wall. The brand strength of Guinness is incredible and inextricably connected to an entire country’s heritage. While Guinness is taking a beating from the COVID pandemic (Guinness is enjoyed in pubs most often), I have no doubt we will be seeing that “black stuff” for years to come. [5]

Many large companies are guilty of complacency in the face of disruptiv

Image result for guinness beer
Guinness Goodness from

e competition from startups. While start-up are nimble, responsive, and sometimes more innovative than their older rivals, they many times lack two important assets: 1) a large amount of capital and 2) a heritage of success.

While many times that capital is financial, it is also can take the form of social capital. There is a ton of wisdom in many large organizations. This is a blessing and a curse. The curse is that wisdom can blind the organization to what is possible, the blessing is a basis of knowledge that startups don’t have.

Likewise, if a company has been around for a while they are, by definition, a success. It is worth asking, what made your company a success in the past? This very thing will be what will continue to make you a success in the future. It might not be the same idea or product that will make you a success in the future, but it will likely be the same competency. If your company has a history of optimizing systems, do that. If your company has a history of being excellent in sales and marketing or production do that. Embrace the past to figure out the future. The trick is not letting the past blind you to opportunities of the future.

There is Beauty in Imperfection

If you listen very closely to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Fool in the Rain’ you can hear John Paul Jones ever so slightly fat finger multiple keys in his solo (or at least it sounds that way). At the beginning of the Police’s Roxanne, you heard a slight flange of Andy Summer’s guitar, likely due to a loose recording tape[6]. Mona Lisa’s imperfect smile, Marilyn Monroe’s mole, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the asymmetric design of the Millennium Falcon, the inconsistencies in The Shining, and countless other objects of beauty are well…imperfect.

Like my mother’s motley and tattered collection of old recipes, beauty can be found in the imperfections. The Japanese call this wabi-sabi[7], which is a perspective that accepts and embraces the temporary and imperfect. It recognizes that the dogged pursuit of perfection can many times lead you to only anxiety and sadness.

While I have often written about the importance in being consistent in providing a customer experience, you can “six sigma” the beauty out of the customer experience. While consistency is important, it is just as important to have some room for improvisation. The colorful bartender in the hotel bar or the unusual swirl in the wood veneer of a coffee table or tabletop is remarkable, but certainly not conforming to perfection.

While some things you definitely want to be perfect (such as the functioning of an airliner or nuclear reactor) other things people want to have some character, something different and new, something…well imperfect.

It’s worth thinking about what the imperfections in your customer experience are today and whether they should be removed or preserved. Surely, a long wait time is something you will likely want to remove[8], but perhaps that waitress with a sassy attitude that offends 15% of your clientele and makes 85% of them smile is something you may want to keep.

Turn Liabilities to Assets

So often employees (particularly younger ones) look at companies with long heritages as slow, stuck in their ways, and lacking innovation. Sometimes these allegations are valid. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you work for a big company, you can transform your size and age from a perceived liability to an asset. These large organizations can look to their past to understand the brand essence and find inspiration to apply that heritage to the future. These companies should be wary of blotting out all of their idiosyncrasies without first finding out if they are cherished by customers. Likewise, corporate ‘resets’ rarely work. Culture is tenacious stuff, if you really want to reset your company, best to spin off a subset of it somewhere isolated from the mothership.

Likewise, if you work at a startup or younger company there is learning here too. You don’t need to be perfect to be loved. Take solace in that you too have a history, and that history is usually in the passion and infectious zeal of the founders. Use that to your advantage and don’t act how you think startups should behave. You don’t need ping pong tables and lattes or wear hoodies to work every day. Lean into the DNA of what your company is all about. At the end of the day being authentic to who you are will win the day.









[8] But perhaps not, if it is something that adds to the memorability of the experience (e.g., waiting to get into a rock concert with friends)

How to Build a Successful CX Program

Much has been made about the lack of progress in CX and the impotency of ‘Insights’ in making a meaningful difference to the business. That lack of effectiveness isn’t for a lack of effort or investment. Markets and Markets predicts that spending on CX will balloon from $8.5b in 2020 to $14.9b in 2025. There are millions of ‘CX’ programs out there…but it seems only a precious few seem to really move the needle. According to a study by Acquia in 1999, nearly half of all customers globally said that the brands they engage with don’t meet their expectations. 

While there are certainly many reasons, I think the blame for this failure may rightly lay right at our own doorstep. I am often asked to recommend if there is a good ‘starter’ manual for CX for those interested in learning more in the field. While there are many excellent books, programs, and classes that help neophyte CX professionals become more acquainted and skilled in the tactics of being in the field, I have yet to find a good definitive ‘how to’ guide on building one from the ground up. Many of the ones that attempt it, seem to get caught up in cool frameworks, principles, ‘best practices’, concepts without getting down to brass tacks; how do I practically build one? Those wanting to build a greenhouse, don’t want ‘best practices’ in building one, they want an actual plan so they can build one[i].

To fill that void, I decided to write one (on building CX programs, not greenhouses).

I hope in some small way, my upcoming book “The Customer Experience Field Guide: A Practical Manual for Getting Things Done”, will help those struggling with getting started (or reinventing their program) and help our efficacy challenge. In the book, I lay out a step-by-step process on how to get a CX program up and running from the ground up. Based on the unapologetic cribbing from my many amazing colleagues and my own experience in building these programs over the years, I broke the “Playbook” into three major stages: PlanKnow, and Do.


In the planning stage we have three important steps. First for any organization starting their CX journey getting organized and coordinated from day one is important. Provisional and permanent governance will set the stage for moving forward, eventually working my way to a discussion of the heralded Chief Customer Officer. While others have done a thorough job on discussing the topic, I tried to also advance the topic a bit by exploring the role of the CCO in the context of a larger group dynamic. It usually takes a team (whether part or full time) to make CX efforts move forward.

As Ferris Bueller once said, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you might miss it.” While not discussed much, in planning your customer experience revolution, it is good to heed Ferris’ advice and look around at what is going on by examining both what the competition is doing and what others are doing in other industries. For example, if you make bowling balls, maybe look at what other ball makers are doing…or what other “lane sports” consumers are doing. Explore the trends and potential disrupters. It’s fun and informative work and can be a great inspiration to both motivate folks and draw inspiration for CX design work. We call this an environmental scan and it is a combination of secondary and observational research sometimes supplemented by expert interviews. 

Also, in standing up CX programs sometimes overlooked is the art of communication. Getting off the block right with a holistic, inspiring, and comprehensive communication plan can make or break a CX program as it signals to the organization how serious senior leadership is about the effort. A solid internal communication plan should be run much like an external campaign focusing on the areas of education, excitement, and engagement. Even great content gets overlooked if not marketed well.

I’ve seen the “Plan” process in real-time several times and it always follows roughly the same flow. Take for example the rapidly growing Midland States Bank. The C.E.O., Jeff Ludwig, and the President, Jeff Mefford had a hunch they did fairly well on CX, but they were on an acquisition spree and had no on-going formalized method to get concrete feedback from their growing customer base. They tapped Aaron Rios, Head of Operations, to get the ball rolling quickly set up governance and a series of actions of teams.

Provisional governance was composed of people from across the organization representing marketing, operations, human resource, retail operations, call center, and other areas across their business units. They selected Curiosity to help with their overall CX playbook, provide advice on internal communications and structure, as well as their metric strategy. As of this writing, they are in the process of deploying VOC metrics across the organization by business line and already generating value from the feedback they are getting on an ongoing basis.


This section has traditionally been the heart and soul of most CX programs, so much so that for some VOC and CX are used interchangeably (they are not the same thing). We use quite a bit of ink on this topic blending traditional market research principles with design thinking approaches. 

First stop in this process is understanding the market. No one has ‘one’ kind of customer; by understanding differences amongst groups and individuals you can further fine-tune both your products and communications. Even Customerthink has many different readers; folks from VOC, Call Center, Marketing, Technologists, and so forth. Understanding their difference (and similarities) is key to designing and delivering a good experience.

Partitioning the market by common needs is achieved through the orthodox market research methodology known as consumer segmentation. With that in hand, we turn to a more traditional topic in CX; Journey mapping. While familiar territory our approach is a bit different than others in that we incorporate segmentation into the methodology and philosophically view Journey Mapping not only as a way to understand the customer’s points of pain and opportunities but also as an organizational change catalyst. The act of getting folks in a room from disparate areas of an organization and working on journey mapping initiatives can result in magic for moving the organization forward.

One initiative we worked on for a grocery delivery initiative brought together at 7 departments from across the globe. Working together on the initiative from the eyes of the customer created many ‘oh wow’ moments in understanding what others were planning for their portion of the project. In essence, it helped everyone see the whole elephant and mitigated many missteps in the limited market launch.

We also spend a fair amount of time talking about metric strategy and architecture. We answer questions such as: What is a relationship study? What is a transactional study? How should they be organized and harmonized? What about text analytics? How does text analytics fit in? These are all questions we address in great detail through my usual juvenile parables and non-sequiturs.

Many in hospitality use basic segmentation well in their VOC programs. They look at business traveler vs. pleasure travelers and distinguish amongst their gold and platinum customers vs. those who just stay occasionally. In many cases, a small loyal base can make up the majority of the volume, and this happens often in hospitality. Splitting out your sample to understand differences in both needs and evaluations is not only motivational for your front line operators but also critical in knowing what assets to allocate to improve the customer experience.


Probably the most neglected aspect of CX is, ironically, doing anything with all the great information generated. Why? Because it is really hard, and it can seem almost overwhelming to unjam an organization stuck in well-worn ruts of the organizational inertia of we’ve-always-done-it-that-way-ism.

We lay out an approach, called AgileCX® whereby change can be enacted through a series of small incremental experiments that can be run in parallel. After all the fork didn’t arrive as is in its current form out of thin air, it started as a two-pronged stick and evolved through iterations of refinement and improvement to the four-pronged wonder we take for granted today. 

We can run these experiments in the petri dish of market research concept testing or just jump right in and start messing with stuff in isolated corners of the market. This process consists of four simple steps borrowed from Design Thinking and software professionals everywhere. First, frame the problem; ensure you are solving for the right problem. People (and I noticed anecdotally especially guys) love to ‘fix things’. It takes some discipline to hold back and really identify the problem and get alignment. Not doing so can result in rework or quite possibly in failure.

Next, we dream. Brainstorm and document it. We can generate thousands of ideas for a problem, most will be bad, but a critical few will be good. We only need one. Then we move to the prototype stage. Why develop a full-blown product when you can explore a basic prototype or even a mocked-up concept for feedback? While many think of a prototype as a physical object, it doesn’t have to be. Food trucks are excellent prototypes for full-blown restaurants. Blogs are great prototypes for books. Meetings are good prototypes for conferences. Finally, you build something and then tweak it ad infinitum.

Recently we have been engaging more and more in helping brainstorm solutions. As my friend and colleague Greg Iszler commented “rather than leaving the client with a folder of problems uncovered in the research how much better would it be to leave them with a folder of solutions!” I really think this is where the emphasis needs to be placed more squarely rather than worrying about scores and return rates. Besides, it’s more fun.

Your Thoughts

While still in the editorial process I am excited about the new book and also would encourage your feedback. I hope to provide a useful go-to reference guide for the practitioner. What do you think? Did I miss anything? What would you like you or your end clients like to know more about? I am interested in your feedback and am passionate about moving efforts from an emphasis on a study of the problem, to an emphasis on creating great solutions to improve the customer experience.

[i] If interested, here is an excellent plan for building a greenhouse.

A Holiday Challenge: Experience the Day

Christmas used to be my favorite holiday. I remember it as a day of giving…or if I am honest with myself, a day of getting. As a child, I remember getting up early and trying not to look too anxious waiting for the wave after wave of gift mania to wash over our household. Grandma, then Friends, then topped off at Nana and Pop’s house Christmas eve. As a child that’s what you are concerned about. Stuff.

As I grow older, I look forward to simpler things. Things I used to hate I now enjoy. I no longer dread a five-hour car drive or just doing nothing on a rainy afternoon. I don’t mind futzing around an antique store or dreaming up things to build on a scratchpad. I try everyday to make an active choice to try and be present with my family, even though I often failed at that goal. 

That’s why Thanksgiving is now my favorite holiday. It doesn’t have anything to do with Native Americans, Turkey (the bird or the country (no offense Funda)), or burying a piece of fish on a kernel of corn. I enjoy Thanksgiving because it is a time when you can fully concentrate on yourself and those around you. It is, in essence, the quintessential experiential holiday. Notwithstanding the Canadian version, it is somewhat ironic it that it is a uniquely American holiday.

America the land of stuff. The land of things and status. The latest gadget. The newest game. The latest fashion. Ugg boots. 

Amidst this maelstrom of materialism sits this 24-hour period of reflection and introspection in the eye of the storm between candy and stuff. Hats off to retailers who restrain from tempting customers and allowing their employees a day of rest before the hectic holiday season.

Thanksgiving is a time of family. Of old traditions and political arguments. It is a time where people, for just maybe even a day, forget about their own bullshit. For just maybe a 6 second prayer or moment of silence holding drunk Uncle Mike’s hand, people think of others. We remember and mourn those who were here last year and are no longer at the table. We spend just a bit of time considering our own unique assets versus a focus on what we don’t have. Many have the ability to look at their own situation and think, ‘god damn, I have it pretty good’. Because by and large most of us do.

I like this time of year. I like zenning my brain out. Maybe taking a run. Maybe playing Monopoly or Risk with friends and family. I like re-connecting with myself and with others. I like sitting on the couch on the cusp of a long-forgotten feeling; boredom.

As I get older, somehow my parents get wiser. Quiet observations my mother made oftentimes now hold the profundity of Yoda. I think the same can be said for our society as a whole. We should look to our past for guidance in these days of kinetic impulsiveness and sectarian angst.

There was (and is) a reason for the downtime of Sabbath beyond spiritual observance. Those long-bearded guys in the desert knew that people needed a break to be mentally healthy. They thought, perhaps rightfully so, that break should come weekly. The Amish shun technology not because they are Luddites (well they are I guess), but because they believe it gets in the way of family. It puts things between people. Between relationships. 

The protagonists of Thanksgiving, the Puritans, regarded things as an abomination to God. In their view, it put something between them, and their creator. Perhaps one the worst forms of idolatry took the form of the gold coin.

While I won’t be contemplating what particular patina of black to put on my buggy or to forsake shellfish anytime soon, I will say those ancient belief systems make an important point. It is, in fact, a gift to be simple. To just take it in for a bit of time. To take a mental time out. To be here.

So, if only for a day, take a step back. Look at your life and relish it for what it is. Stop texting and for god’s sake stop looking at LinkedIn. 

Mop up the experience of today with the fervor of that croissant roll in that turkey gravy mash potato mess you made on your plate. Fling a spoonful of cranberry goo at cousin despite getting a rash of shit from your mom. This is what you will remember in the days and years ahead.  In short, experience the day…and if you can… every day after that.

Pax vobsicum.

Disco and Unstructured Data…Ya Dig?

Tony Manero is the president of the burgeoning vintage clothing store Disco Inferno. What started off as a passionate hobby blossomed into a national chain of second-hand clothing stores in just 10 years. A few years ago, sensing he could extend his reach, he launched Inferno’s, his online clearinghouse for secondhand clothes and other memorabilia from groovy decades past.

While always customer-focused, Inferno has grown to a point where Tony can hardly visit all his stores in a year, let alone talk to every customer. Although he tries to get out and talk with his customers, he feels increasingly isolated as the day-to-day demands of running a successful national chain make his time scarcer than The Oakridge Boys on the dance floor.

Talking to some colleagues, he decided it was time to start a Voice of the Customer program. In this way, he could get systematic feedback across his different channels – from retail, to online, to his call center – and that’s exactly what he did.

He worked with his team and designed and deployed short, friendly, and on-brand post-purchase surveys. In some cases, he even put a coupon for completion to double-purpose his VOC program as a retention program. When he was done, Tony had three different transactional surveys in place: retail, on-line, and call center. 

One day, looking at his dashboards, he noticed something odd. All of his Key Performance Indicator (KPIs) were green, but the number of customer complaints seem to be growing from his call-center metrics. More alarming, he noticed a slowdown in sales. He cracked open a fresh TaB diet cola and pondered his situation. 

“This makes no sense,” he thought.

Undeterred, he started reading the comments in the retail survey. The problems seemed to be all over the map. Some were about rude staff, others about return policies, still others about damaged or dirty clothing. Becoming frustrated, he reached for his hand grip exerciser and starting squeezing. With his free hand, he clicked his mouse to start reading the thousands of lines of feedback from his online survey. While intriguing, he again becomes overwhelmed with the amount and variation of feedback. 

What was more perplexing was what trends he could make out also seemed to involve other channels. For example, he saw one instance where there was a complaint about a customer returning platform shoes he bought online in the online survey. However, reading through the comment, it was obvious the store associate was unaware of how to handle the return when the customer showed up in a store to return his shoes due to bad fit. He sighed and stopped his handgrip exercises, throwing the device on the table. It was getting late, so he decided to quit for the day, go back to his pad, and get a good night’s sleep on his waterbed. “With a clear mind, I might be able to sort this out tomorrow morning,” he thought to himself.

Freaky Deaky

How to help Tony out? Here’s the skinny: what Tony needs is a common categorization framework. The goal of a common categorization framework is to standardize the coding of your unstructured data. Unstructured data typically consists of comments in your surveys, review sites, and other places where people talk about your products and services.

By standardizing feedback, you can look for trends, incidence levels, and sentiment without regard to origination. Common categorization frameworks have the following advantages over stand-alone “tags” and within survey taxonomy coding approaches:

  1. It standardizes unstructured feedback so that it is analyzable at scale

The most basic advantage for common categorization is data reduction. Most people cannot wrap their brains around thousands of comments to discern any patterns. While it is great to be close to your customers and read everything they write, it is a bit daunting to do so on an ongoing basis when responses number in the hundreds or thousands.

  1. It Is Channel Agnostic

Rather than just understanding what is going on by siloed channels, you can understand the customer from their perspective. It reduces the need to be a CX detective since the evidence are rolled up by issue rather than by functional area, although you can still refer to the channel (or channels) affected.

  1. It allows to for multiple levels of specificity

Good code structures can allow to change up or down in terms of specificity. For example, in Tony’s case you might have a code called “returns”. You could then reference all comments that were coded as “returns” and look at trends for across Inferno as a whole. Alternatively, you could look at “returns > disco balls > damaged > chain” and be able to look at the incidence of that specific product, service, or for the entire enterprise, by certain customers, and so forth.

  1. Backcasting

Say Tony starts carrying new type of wool afghan throw blanket at Inferno. He realizes a few months later that his clientele might not be as familiar with the care and cleaning of wool products which is very different from his usual inventory of velour, nylon, polyester, and suede products. Tony simply adds into his taxonomy and can backcast any issues that might have happened in months since launch regarding his afghan rug customers. Likewise, as new expectations or technologies emerge, he can add those new categories too, and then project it to the past.

Coding and Emotions

Categorization frameworks usually have two features: coding and sentiment. Coding is applying numerical values to an aspect of the business such as “service”, “fees”, or ‘delivery”. Coding is the ‘what’. Sentiment is typically the ‘good-bad’ continuum of affect. For example, if a customer is unhappy or happy this can be determined through sentiment coding. 

While the continuum for sentiment coding is usually based on a bi-polar affect (like-dislike), other methods look at a more holistic emotional framework to code comments. One such framework is the PAD framework, which was originally pioneered through research by Mehrabian and Russell. In this framework, rather than one dimension, you have three: pleasure (affect), arousal, and dominance (or control). Pleasure is essentially affect (like/dislike) whereas arousal is the activeness of the emotion. Dominance (or control) has to do with how much control the customer feels they have.

These can be arranged in three dimensions. Typically, the first two dimensions are most informative (arousal and affect). Someone can be elated (active, pleasant), depressed (unpleasant, passive), angry (active, unpleasant), or satisfied (passive, pleasant). Consumer behavior might be different considering these different emotional states.

Developing a Common Coding Taxonomy

Assuming the upfront work, including journey mapping and appropriate listening posts, has been implemented, the next step is to develop the coding taxonomy. In days of old, this was done manually. We would collect a large number of comments and then code them into a hierarchy. With advent of new technology, there is already some really good independent text analytic engines (LexalyticsClarabridgeMegaputerSAS are just a few). While these new technologies help tremendously in automating coding, they need to be properly configured and trained to be of any use. Here are the generic steps in setting up your common category framework

Step 1: Standardization of Terms

Like painting a house, the first step in creating a taxonomy is prepping the data. This involves standardizing terms. First, just simple spelling corrections are needed; it is unbelievable the number of ways people can spell ‘license’ or ‘knowledgeable’. If these are not corrected, you will have a mess on your hand. Secondly, standardizing acronym and short-cuts such as “mgr” for manager and “act” for account. This terminology tends to vary by industry, so many CX providers already have CX standards for different industries to give you a bit of a head start.

Step 2: Developing a Taxonomy

The next step is developing an initial taxonomy. Certain text analytic engines offer “trending words or phrases,” but they are limited to just that. A taxonomy is a framework that is fixed over a period of time so you can monitor changes in incidence and intensity (sentiment). The best way to set up your initial taxonomy is, of course, with data. 

To help Tony, we would grab a cross-section of Inferno’s voice of the customer verbatims and go to work with text analytics. As mentioned, many CX providers have industry “head starts” that you can use, but it is always wise to develop yours organically as well. Afterall, Inferno is completely different from other retailers and even different from other clothing stores, so some tweaking is required.

The output from text analytics often looks something like the illustration below. This is just a sample of the suggested coding structure around “return”. The links indicate common associations (or co-occurrences). The more co-occurrences, the closer they are together. In this way, you have the data drive your coding structure rather than imposing a structure arbitrarily. You can see clearly that too small belongs to size and size belong to returns.

This is stage is not done automatically by the machine, though; it requires the involvement of analysts and business owners working together iteratively to refine the code to get one that is both actionable and consistently repeatable (i.e., reliable). In the end, this approach results in data that is more consistent with Tony’s customers’ ways of viewing the world and is much more accurate and consistent than machine coding. Better, in fact, than what human coders could do. Far out.

Step 3: Implementing Automated Coding

With your coding in hand you are now ready to apply it to your database. As mentioned, these coding structures are typically hierarchical in nature with some coding taxonomies. Most coding structures have at least 3 levels, with some having eight or more. Those are usually very technical coding structures such as quality studies with highly technical products. 

Once the data is coded, you can also do some really helpful analyses. For example, driver analysis is common in customer experience to understand what aspects are more (and less) important to customers. This can also be applied to coded text, where the codes are the predictors and the dependent variable (what you are predicting) can be something like NPS, retention, or some other important business metric.

You can see here from Inferno’s results that price is the most important, followed by quality, and selection. We can also see the subcodes’ relative impacts within category. For example, “clean/stain free” is a big part of quality and is a bigger driver than even rebates in the pricing category. You can also slice and dice this for sentiment and by channel, or even geography. In this way you don’t have to go the retail survey and then the web survey and other sources to get a picture of what is going on. It’s all together. Also, once trained, well design taxonomies can be coded consistently and fast. Best of all, once implemented, they are fairly inexpensive to maintain.

Step 4: Revisiting and Updating the Taxonomy

Once your taxonomy is rolling, you should revisit Step 2 from time to time. How often? Well, of course it depends, but, usually every few years, unless you are in a rapidly changing industry – then once a year or even more frequently. The hard work of building a common categorization frame is the initial set up. Updating and running the program is a relatively small investment.

A Move Toward Unstructured

The world of CX has slowly been moving toward unstructured data for a few reasons. First, it is easier for customers to just say what they want and put the burden on codifying that information on the analysts. That means more people responding and better-quality data. Secondly, computer power and sophistication in text analytics methods have matured to the point where they are reliable, inexpensive, and produce high-quality results. Do we ditch structured questions? Nope. They still have a place in our VOC programs, but text continues to take a stronger and stronger role in providing insight to businesses and CX professionals. We know Tony is digging it. Peace out. Catch you on the flip side.

Authors note: In writing this article I am indebted to the brilliant dance moves and expertise of Brion Scheidel of InMoment, Mike House, formerly of Maritz Research, and Randy Brandt of Northern Kentucky University for sharing their thoughts and giving me the skinny on this topic with me over the years.

Why Market Research has Failed and How to Fix it

The biggest failing of the market research industry over the last 100 years is in its impotency in exacting meaningful change. Sure, it has it wins here and there. It help deliver the World’s Most Interesting Man and apparently was integral to the conceptualization and launch of YouTube. But according to the 2019 Insight Practice Grid Report only 27% of research buyers are completely or very satisfied with “suppliers ability to recommend business actions based on the research”. That’s tied for dead last in satisfaction.  Now read that again slowly. Ability to recommend. Not to do anything about the issue but even have the ability to recommend.


That’s horrible.

According to Greenbook the industry was about $29 billion dollars in total size in 2019. Does that mean the industry wasted $21 billion dollars on in-actionable research? Maybe.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way.

Over the years I have collected, learned, and refined some useful techniques that can help increase the odds of your insights to be used. Below is a rough roadmap.

1. Clearly define what you are trying to solve

You can’t achieve a goal if you don’t know what it is. I have waxed on about this topic ad nauseum so I won’t spent too much time here. Needless to say; defining the problem is job one. I have found the Dr. Leticia Bristos Cavagnaro’s “stakeholder >needs >insight” tool to be immensely helpful in that endeavor. Here’s a simple example from a mass transit project we worked on a few years ago.

Source: CuriosityCX Example

First, we start with the customer. Who are we designing this solution for? Many times engineers design stuff for engineers and don’t always take into account the customer. This helps get some focus on the end user and other stakeholders.

Second, what are we trying to solve? This can seem straight forward until you start thinking about it. In this example it wasn’t just moving people around, it was getting them to and from their doctor’s office without having the indignity of waiting for hours in a waiting room to be picked up.

Finally, we put the two together to get the insight. Presto. This is a great time to argue and debate. Albert Einstein once said, “If I had had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solution”.

Einstein was a smart dude. Get to your problem statement and get alignment on that before going any further. You can’t solve what you haven’t defined and agreed upon as the problem.

2. Bring Everyone Along

Never view your initiative as a “research project”. Research projects are done by the market research group and get ignored or discarded. They are nice to knows in many cases. You are working on a change effort and, in the case of CX, that is usually an organizational change effort. 

Second, get people involved from day one. The worst-case scenario is the client writes a check, the supplier does market research, and then the supplier presents a 60 minute PowerPoint while everyone checks out their Facebook and Instagram feeds.. That’s a recipe for certain failure. Avoid that.

First, as the CX leader or researcher you need to get very invested. Not so invested you lose your objectivity but invested in the domain to be investigated. I have done projects on everything thing from candy to luxury yachts. Lawn tractor tires fascinated me. I learned all about elevators and holiday light sets. Get interested. Get invested. Get curious. If you can’t, you probably need to pass on that project.

You also need other team members invested and participating in the project. The most successful projects I have ever worked on are ones where 1) where there is a very high level of engagement from all stakeholders on the client side 2) there is a relationship of trust and respect between team members (this means client and supplier side), 3) where there are clear roles defined, and 4) there was an implicit or explicit expectation that change would be the outcome of the project.

One way to make sure this happens is holding sessions that aren’t just customer feedback report outs but also problem definition, creation, and testing phases. As the CX or Insights person, you don’t need to quarterback everything. Tag others in as you manage the process. Nothing pulls a team together like a common goal of building something

3. Create Stuff

So, you spent a bunch of time finding out what customers want and what the problem is, now it’s time to solve it. It’s time to create. The fun stuff. It’s also the stuff that makes people super nervous. Nervous about exposing their own brand of crazy on the world or anxious they aren’t creative. Pfft. Nonsense.

Everyone can be creative. It’s not only the domain of guys with sleeve tattoos and purple hair who can doodle like Degas. You just need to give people a chance to be the wonderfully true weirdos they all are. Some people feel that being creative is the frivolous domain of children. It is. But without creativity, we would still be living in holes in the earth and eating bugs with a long stick for breakfast. No one wants to eat bugs for breakfast.

Creativity (and of course the associated curiosity) is what defines us a unique species. We are the only species that can improve on the solutions of others. The best other animals can do is let the ones who can’t adapt die off. Rather than adapting to our environment…we change our environment instead. 

The tools you use to get creative isn’t super important. There are many great brainstorming platforms…but essentially all you need is a platform where you can ideally 1) see each other 2) talk to one another and 3) have a place to doodle and put ideas down collaboratively. I recently have been using Mural. It has a bunch of great features like voting and timers and is pretty intuitive to newbies…but there are many others as well.

4. Build Stuff

Now it’s time to take it over the hump of where most traditional market researchers get a bit nervous. Building stuff. This is clearly out of the traditional domain of the voice of the customer and market research, but there is no reason why the research team shouldn’t be front and center and this is a mandatory role for any CX leader to be involved with.

In this stage you start developing concepts. These concepts can vary in their fidelity from sketches and “paper prototypes” to working prototypes. The goal here is to start to get real. I had my students create all kinds of zany stuff using cardboard and plastic borrowed from milk cartons. They felt silly at first but then really got into it.

Source: NASA and JPL (flagged for reuse without modification )

Even rocket scientists regard low fidelity prototypes as serious business. For example, NASA and JPL created a collapsible robot scout paper prototype inspired by Origami.

I prefer to use a storyboard approach before going to prototype. They are cheaper, quicker to make, and relatively easy to alter. They are also very portable. The other nice thing about storyboards is… well you can tell a story. 

In the Cohen brothers film The Hudsucker Proxy, the mailroom-entrepreneur-wanna-be protagonist Norvell Barnes had a great idea for a new innovative product. Excited to share his great invention he would sketch it out on a napkin and show to people.

It looked like this

He would smile and say then “you know, for kids”. Every thought him to be insane hayseed from Muncy, Indiana. His lack of connection stemmed from sharing how it was used and from whom it was for. Norvell’s invention was a Hola Hoop and it went on to be smashing success for the fictitious Hudsucker Industries. Folks “get” innovations when provided context of why they would be useful. As a species we have been telling stories long before we could read or write, so it is an intuitive way to communicate information quickly.

There is also a reason why humans started adding graffiti to cave walls long before writing…we are an extremely visual species. Studies reveal that more than 50% of the cortex is devoted to processing visual information. In writing and reading, there is a fair amount of encoding and decoding that must occur. This places more of a cognitive load on the viewer and is just…well…harder. Seeing pictures interpreting information much easier. That’s why kids generally prefer comic books to regular old boring books.

Making Story Boards

The first step in making a storyboard is to create a narrative. I usually do this by creating two columns. The first column is the “dialog” and the second is labeled “visual” and I list a suggested picture or scene to show. If you have even a little bit of drawing talent (I don’t) you can do it yourself. 

At Curiosity we are blessed in having a cadre of incredibly talented folks who can make something that is presentable for customers to view. The finished product is usually 3 – 8 pane storyboard. There are a variety of choices from black and white sketch to the use of vector graphics. We have also on occasion done short videos and animations for more complex concepts that require 3D or movement.

Source: CuriosityCX presented June 10, 2019 at CX Talks in Dallas

4. Test Stuff

With your prototypes and/or storyboards in tow, it’s now time to test stuff with real customers. Please don’t just use your buddies, they won’t want to spend to the social capital to tell your ideas stinks. Worse yet, your buddies are probably similar to you and may like your ideas just for that reason.

For that reason, it’s important to go out and do some actual research. For concept development I generally recommend a qualitative route…if you are fairly far along on refinement you can also move to quantitative, especially if you are testing smaller variations or require a “bake off” of concepts. This approach can cost anywhere from a few thousand bucks up to hundreds of thousands depending on what and how many things you are testing.

If you can’t afford more formal and rigorous market research, you should minimally go out and do a bit of field research with users. I find when designers get in touch with the end users something magic happens; empathy. They start to understand what their end users want. 

Famed electric guitar inventor Les Paul knew what guitarists wanted because he was one, albeit one with a bit of vision where he could take it. Leon Fender, on the other hand, couldn’t play a note. But he hung out with a ton of guitarists and he listened very closely. He made a damn fine guitar (and in fact beat Gibson to the punch in launching a successful electric guitar).

5. Refine

If you are of a particular age you will remember the first mobile phones. They were large, had very little battery life, worked in only certain areas, and the fidelity was quite poor. In short; they sucked. However, if we didn’t have those, then flip phones, then Blackberry’s and iPhones gradually evolving over the years we wouldn’t have the pleasure of our kids complaining how they can’t stream YouTube videos for more than 8 hours on their phone on a single charge. Products and services like species evolve over time. Sometimes that evolution is gradual and sometimes it is discontinuous, but it is always a journey…usually one of two steps forward and one back.

Getting Away from Reports

When I was on the client-side, I remember a supplier asking me “so how many pages should the report be”? I knew then, I didn’t want that company doing my reports. That “research by the pound’ mentality is thankfully less prevalent today than in the past but persists in some of the more remote bywaters of the market research industry. 

It’s time for the industry to evolve. Those in the CX and Insights business need to move away from viewing themselves as passive collectors and disseminators of information. First, we need to get better at communicating (also tied for last in the Greenbook report at 27% somewhat or very satisfied amongst insight buyers). Large boring text-heavy reports with no narrative or story are dead. More visual and dynamic reporting is now required. People like beautiful things. Make your information beautiful.

Second, and more importantly, the industry needs to move to a more active stance as creative change agents armed with data. Otherwise, we are going continue lack of efficacy and a loss of interest in customer insight, not because it isn’t relevant, but because nothing is done with it.

I am optimistic. Design thinking and agile approaches such as the ones I reviewed here on are on the rise in practice. More forward-thinking creative agencies are starting to invest in data and strategists versus just fulfillment. Likewise, some emerging boutique research firms are also crossing the aisle to engage in brainstorming in prototyping versus just slinging data on both supplier and client-side. I think this is a great step forward and hope to see it continue.

What You See is What you Believe: Experience and Mask Adoption during the COVID-19 Pandemic

As is the case with so much of the world, my life has changed dramatically since COVID-19 swept across the globe. For the last 20 years I have been on the road or in the air at least 2 times a month, usually much more often. My personal habits have changed dramatically too. We don’t go to the few restaurants that are open, we don’t go to outdoor concerts, we don’t do team sports, and we usually don’t travel farther than a few miles from home. We, and many other, have seemingly become of nation of hermits.

Retailers too have change dramatically.  Walmart recently put into play a mandate that requires customers to wear masks, and was quickly followed by Target, CVS, Kroger and other larger retailers.  In our small town, home of Walmart Headquarters, my observation has been consumers have largely been voluntarily compliant. 

In March it was a rarity to see someone wearing a mask in a store. By the end of June, it was typical to see most shoppers at any given store wearing masks voluntarily. My working hypothesis was that as people viewed others wearing masks, they felt more comfortable doing so, to the point where not wearing a mask was almost socially unacceptable as lighting up a Pall Mall in the cereal aisle.

I assume this was a “new normal” for the country

We’re Not in Bentonville Anymore

Last week we were passing through a rural town in Oklahoma where I had to run into a local store to pick up a few things. I masked up and went into the mass merchandiser to quickly conduct my business and was surprised to find not a single customer  wearing a mask or face covering. Moreover, employees with masks on had them pulled down around their necks while talking with customers. This was completely different from my hometown experiences and what was portrayed on the nightly news. However, everyone shopping in the store looked content. Their experience of reality was the one they had created and reinforced for one another.  

Cloistered realities are not confined to the square footage of rural mega marts.  As has been documented elsewhere social media serves to reinforce our own worldviews with powerful validating feedback loops by similar others.

This was brought home to me when I started following my state and local government social media feeds. It turns out these feeds attracted all manner of citizens, along with their disparate world views. Perusing comments in response to the governor or local official I observed a non-trivial number of people who were not only strongly opposed to wearing masks, some had indicated that they thought the whole pandemic was exaggerated or even a hoax.    

I could not foot my reality with what I was seeing and reading. What was the true general public sentiment about the pandemic and what were consumer attitudes around wearing masks?  In other words, were these attitudes aberrant outliers or more common than I thought amongst the general public

I took to the internet and could not find much recent information on consumer attitudes.  The Pew Research Center conducted a study on mask wearing in retail setting in June (prior to most retailers requiring it) and found that 65% of Americans wear a mask “most of the time” while in stores or other businesses. However, as of this writing 28 states now have requirements for their citizens to wear masks under a variety of circumstances.

I was interested to learn what was the public’s behavior given the new urgency of wearing masks and what do people really believe about the pandemic in this new media swirl of conflicting reports about the pandemic? So on July 23rd, CuriosityCX conducted a study to find out.  Using a nationally representative sample, Curiosity conducted a poll of 1,914 people between the ages of 18 and 86 in United States.  Here’s what we found.

The Results

It appears most of the country believes that the pandemic is not a hoax. A full 97% of Americans believe that this pandemic is legitimate (i.e., ‘real’).  However, there is varying degree of belief in the veracity of claims around the pandemic.  About a quarter of the population think the threat of pandemic is exaggerated (27%), slightly more than a quarter think it is accurate (28%), but a plurality of the nation believes it much worse than most people think (43%).

Individual differences in beliefs are also telling.  Men more than women think the threat is overblown and Latino and Whites much more so than Asians and African Americans, the latter of which has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in the United States.  Education also plays a role in differences of opinion, with the more educated having a much more concerned view of things than the less educated.  There is little relationship between income and perceptions of the threat of COVID-19.

Attitudes also vary by age, with younger people much more suspect of the veracity of the pandemic vs. older people.  While a sense of invincibility is not uncommon amongst youth, the other factor at work is that they are not as apt to get seriously ill for the illness vs. older more vulnerable populations. 

Looking to regional differences we see more lax attitudes in the South, an area more rural and only recently impacted by the full force of the pandemic. More concern is noted in the Northeast, many of whom have already weathered the storm and are have maintained a tenuous grip of continued spread. 

Supporting our hypothesis there are large differences based on where you live. In rural areas, where people are less likely to have first-hand evidence of the threat, there is much more doubt.  In Metro areas, it is much higher as they see more evidence of the pandemic every day.

What about wearing a mask or face covering?  Based on our data it appears only a small fraction of the nation is refusing to wear one under any condition (3%). About a quarter (24%) only wear a mask because a store or other entity requires them to but for most of the nation they are worn except when they can’t social distance (27%) or all the time (46%).

We see some similar patterns in the data with males less likely to wear masks, except when compelled to, Whites, in particular ,are less likely to wear masks unless required and those with higher degrees generally being more likely to wear a mask under all circumstances.  Lower income groups also are less likely to wear one.

While youth are more likely to doubt the threat of COVID-19, they do not vary much in their conformity to mask wearing.  The notable difference in age is in the tendency for older people to be more conscious about wearing masks under most circumstance.

Wearing masks varies by geography with South and Midwest more begrudgingly wearing face coverings on a consistent basis than the rest of the country. If we look at the relationship between urbanicity and beliefs about the pandemic, we can see a clear relationship.   The more urban an area is, the more likely the population will have more views consistent with the pandemic being a threat and compliance in wearing a mask.

What you see is what you believe

As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was fond of saying “all politics are local”.  The same seems to be the case for consumer behavior regarding beliefs about the coronavirus and wearing masks.

The human species is distinct in that they are likely the only one that has the ability to think in abstraction.  However, in times of crisis we tend to revert to our more basic extinct of being devout empiricists. If we don’t experience it or know some who has first hand, it must not exist. This bias is turbo charged by the politicization and confirmation bias which ultimately results in these divergent attitudes and resultant behaviors.

What is the bottom line for businesses and policy makers? It’s a tough nut to crack as entrenchment on the issue for some is intertwined with political loyalty and self-identity.

If we look to past successful social policy on how to influence consumer behavior we can look at the United States’ succession attempt to at smoking cessation which is now at an all-time low (14%). A combination of sharing consistent scientific data from legitimate sources, organized and orchestrated changes in national and regional public policy, public-private collaboration, and time brought smoking from 45% of the population in 1965 to 14% today. It took the nation nearly 50 years to quit smoking.

With a vaccine likely not available until 2021 we have limited tools and time to manage the pandemic but much at stake.  A study by Victor Chernozhukova of MIT, Hiroyuki Kasahara and Paul Schrimpf of the University of British Columbia’s School of Economics concluded that a national mask mandate would have save 40,000 lives in April and May of 2020.  According to a recent study from Goldman Sachs lack of mask adoption nationally would wipe 5% off our Gross Domestic Product by year’s end or about $900 billion dollars, slightly more than the entire GDP of Turkey.

What federal and state public policy will ultimately be is unclear and so therefore so is our future.  Based on our data it does appear, however, there is a high degree of (self-reported) of compliance in wearing masks and a belief in the seriousness of the pandemic by the majority of Americans.

Unboxing: The Forgotten Gift in CX

It was Easter morning. My wife always tries to make things special for our two little girls. Today was no exception as she prepared to have her favorite chocolates delivered in advance to our home all wrapped up as a big surprise.

Easter morning our chocoholic girls (9 and 11) bounced down the stairs to tear open their Easter baskets. They ripped through the packaging to reveal the content of the box.

“Gross! “said my oldest opening up the box.

Her wrapped chocolate set look like the Vulcan from Star Trek who had a transporter malfunction. It was one melted mess. 

“Ack!” said my youngest. Same melted mess.

My wife looked utterly devasted. I realized the store screwed up, but I didn’t know how bad they screwed up in the eyes of my wife. To me it was melted chocolate, to her something much more profound.

For her there was meaning behind this brand of chocolates. They were connected to her childhood memories of when her rather health-conscious Aunt and Uncle gave this same exact same high-end brand of chocolates as a rare treat to her during a difficult time in her life.

The melted chocolates were symbolic of a special and emotional moment in her life. One that was sullied by the molten mess before all of us that morning.

When it comes to out of the box experiences you can’t un-ring the bell.

Great Boxes and Broken Boxes

Many companies unknowingly completely blow it through just plain neglect. This results in disappointment, lack of use, and in some cases, outright defection from the brand.

It’s a shame, as this is a critical moment of truth that when done wrong can flush millions of R&D, marketing, and distribution efforts down the drain with one wrong mishap.

The “unboxing” experience has long been well researched and respected in CPG, but much less attention has been paid in other industries. Apple is one of the masters of the unboxing experience. Their packaging looks high-end, it is simple, and you are up in running very quickly after opening the package.

Others such as Stitch Fix make the unboxing experience the experience; even more prominent for some customers than the contents of the package. Perhaps not accidentally, this also creates a nice social media buzz and free media.

The unboxing experience is not relegated to hardline and softline goods, but can also be applied to experiences. Disney Resorts does a fantastic job of getting their guests excited for their vacation by providing a Welcome Package


Other verticals have floundered. For example, it is not unusual to buy a $50,000 automobile and have it delivered with a 20-minute walk around tutorial from a salesperson with little fanfare, leaving customers confused and a bit let down. With the increasing amount of technology piled into a new vehicle, this can become a real issue in usability and adoption as well.

The most expensive items you will buy in your life — your education and your home — also can have a dismal on-boarding experience. Newcomers approach these large and complex purchases for the first time and must interface with a half a dozen different unique entities to complete their purchase. They are unsure of the flow or the people involved. Intermediaries such as agents and registrars can help, but even their oversight is inadequate in creating a seamless experience.

So, how do we make the out of the box experience better? Here are a few hints.

Do your Homework

This may surprise you, but I would recommend the first thing you do is try and really understand your customer. This involves two preliminary steps: understand your different customer personas and then understand their journey. For example, this is a generic and simplified journey for typical traditional college student.

Looking at this journey, first ask: How might this journey look different for those engaged in distant learning, for working students, and non-traditional students. Is it the same journey or slightly different? Are the steps the same or are their additional ones or ones that are skipped.

Secondly, identify where things can be made better by persona. Where can we eliminate ‘friction’ or provide an opportunity for the client that benefits both the University and the student. 

As I have written in the past, this does not need to be an arduous prolonged process. A good plan acted upon is better than a perfect plan that takes months. There are better and worse ways of doing this, but the main point here is this; get it done.

Reduce Complexity and Clutter

Which of the following packaging is more appealing to you?

I have asked this question at conferences all over the world. Guess which one people prefer by a 5 to 1 margin? It’s not hard, but it’s amazing how many very large companies are just plain bad at it.

Likewise, don’t just think about the appearance, layout, and information displayed, it is also about opening the package itself. Ever try and open a well-engineered blisterpack? While it does keep the product well secured, it is a maddening enterprise to open and almost an impossibility for the very young or the very old. It’s not only annoying, some estimate this clever packaging result in nearly 6,000 trips to the emergency room in the US every year.

Finally, think about waste. In this day of delivery and fear of damage during transit, there is a lot of packaging waste. How can you minimize the amount of packaging required? For example, do we really need to wrap up fruit when it is already encased in god’s own wrapper?

There are many good strategies for reducing waste such as using bio-degradable and recyclable materials. The best strategy to reduce waste, however, is to reduce packaging material.

However, keeping it simple isn’t limited to just product packaging and modulars, but also very much applies to websites. is infamously bad. While few approach Ling’s sensory onslaught, there a numerous UX experiences that certainly approach that level of visual mania.

When it comes to ‘out of the box’ or onboarding experiences, less is more. Figure out ways to very simply communicate how to people the information they quickly and effectively. 

While Cox Communications has some challenges in other aspects of their CX, I have found their installation guides to be simple and easy to use. This has the benefit of saving Cox the expense of sending a tech out to do something 95% of Americans can do and doesn’t require the customer to sit around waiting for that tech to show up in a 12-hour window. With available call in support techs, this approach likely reduced cost while increasing CX.

Always keep in mind the key question; what is the customer trying to do? Then make it simple for them to do it.

The Art of Surprise

One day I observed my then 8-year-old daughter spend about 6 hours watching other children opening cheap plastic eggs on YouTube. Besides mulling over the fact that I will never win the Parent of the Year award, I also reflected on the trance-like state it put my normally loquacious daughter in. She’s not alone, these short 5-10 minute videos attracted views in the billions. Billions of views of a low res, amateur video of other kids unwrapping eggs. 

What can we learn here?

First, we might conclude our society is going to hell in a handbasket. Setting that fact aside, we might also conclude that people really, really, like surprises. In fact, research shows that it is an emotional turbocharger, creating much more pleasurable feeling than when just presented with something pleasant that is expected. Why do you think you find so many people at the gambling table late at night in Vegas? It’s not just the free booze folks, it’s to get that one last gambler’s high feeling of winning. An unexpected blackjack or a serendipitous roll of the dice. That’s what makes Vegas…Vegas.

Ask yourself; how can inject that surprise into the out of the box experience? Put a pleasant variable element into your delivery. Some use a gift, but that’s kind of boring and really has no surprises associated. Why not do what stitch fix does and build the surprise into the offering. Own a lawn service? Maybe some customer randomly receives other ancillary services with having the overall cost structure built-in across customer to minimize risk.

At our AirBnBs, we throw a random six-pack of local craft beer for some of our guests…and local chocolate for others. They don’t expect it, and it’s a small expense…but it sets us apart in a highly competitive environment.

Consistently Deliver

An unpleasant surprise is equally unwelcome as we opened with. You MUST meet the minimum requirements for out of the box usage very consistently. Delivery services rarely lose packages but when they do, there is hell to pay.

Before working on simplifying packaging and creating surprises, you first must ensure that basic blocking and tackling is covered. Products cannot be damaged, they shouldn’t be late, and they shouldn’t be out of stock. Even small incidences of this can seriously damage a brand and the related deleterious consumer behavior consequences.

Thinking Out of the Box for Out of the Box Experiences

If you haven’t thought about how people first interact with your product or service, you should. First impressions are powerful and will predict whether you win or lose that customers business in the future.

There are many simple ways to make the out of the box experience better. From simplifying the process to making it more celebratory and fun for the customer. However, whatever you do, don’t screw it up and melt the chocolate. Good luck on your out of the box reinvention.

The Heroes and Zeros of COVID-19

With unemployment predicted to reach 30% caused by a pandemic of truly biblical proportions, panicked human beings are drawn to their basic instincts of fight or flight instincts. Stand for what’s right or retreat to what is easy. This instinct translates into the leadership of governments, non-profits, and for-profit organizations. The response by organizations have been varied as it relates to CX and EX. 

Author Robert McKee I think best sums it up the current state of affairs…

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure. The greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature”

Over the past few days and weeks, we have seen the true nature of many has been revealed. Some are surprises, most are not. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly as to how companies treat both their employees (EX) and customers (CX) during this global crisis.

We Do Need Another Hero

Sticking to their brand principles, Disney has prioritized guest health over profits. As an early mover closing parks and resorts before most states had even issued stay at home recommendations (much less shelter in place orders) the company is also readily refunding the costs of unused vacation pre-paids, such as resort reservation costs, prepaid meals, and special event tickets. The Disney Vacation Club has also proactively refunded any points scheduled for use during the closure period, which has now been extended to indefinite duration. The CEO and other top execs are foregoing salary this year as the corporation seeks to keep customers and employee’s whole, as much as possible. Email communication from the company has highlighted that they want to help their guests get through this hard time without having to call to cancel plans and request refunds. The proactivity and integrity are very much on-brand with the Disney resort experience.

Global retailing juggernaut Walmart has announced over $25 million in grants to frontline responders. As the world’s largest grocery store, they are relied upon by their 265 million customers who visit weekly to stay open and in-stock for their communities. Walmart has kept to its everyday low price (EDLP) policy and they also used their buying influence to ensure suppliers keep their prices from inflating due to increased demand. They have deployed social distancing floor decals in their store, provider “elder hours” to help older customers shop first, closed stores at night for thorough disinfecting, provides wipes and sprayers for carts and now are checking employee temperature every day as they report to work and making gloves and gloves available to associates who request them.

Amazon has delayed delivery of non-essential products, prioritizing products essential to health and wellness, such as medical supplies and household staples which are very important for homebound customers and those at greater risk of exposure in public markets.

Others are helping folks out financially by providing relief and avoiding defaults. For example, ToyotaFinancials Servicesis offering payment relief, lease-end support for current customers and 90 day payment deferrals for new customers. Hyundai, GM, Nissan, Chrysler, and Ford are also digging in with their own approaches to soften the financial blow and reduce defaults.

Most Internet Service Providers (Comcast, Cox, Verizon, etc.) have removed data caps and increased speeds for customers during this crisis since most customers are at home and the Internet is the primary avenue for work, education, entertainment, and social interaction during shelter-in-place orders. We live in incredible times when some of our most fundamental needs can now be satisfied by virtue of our ISPs.

In fact, most of the nation’s largest companies are reacting in a pro-social and responsible manner. provides a great wrap up of exactly what they nations “top 100 largest public employers” are doing for both their customers and employees.


The Ugly

On the flip side, we have seen some poor choices made by organizations in the context of this disaster. 

For example, many were critical of the Florida’s state government for being slow to close beaches to spring break revelers, potentially making a bad situation worse. Understandably the Florida economy (and especially the beach cities) are heavily dependent on tourism dollars. However, putting money over health may cost many people their jobs in the future and sadly for some, it will cost their lives. There is data to indicate that this decision may have also contributed to accelerating the spread of the disease across the nation as spring breakers return back home.

Hobby Lobby probably also did itself no favors, having reputedly have retaliated against its employees for speaking out it policies and staying open during epidemic. While closing down, there are documented cases that indicate the store continues to defy state-mandated lockdowns by reopening stores, unnecessarily endangering both customers and employees…and well apparently just breaking the law. While people do need toilet paper and food, Styrofoam shapes, hope chests, and pre-made birdhouses are not business-critical items. This PR will not help them when the dust settles.

While Amazon is trying to do the right thing by its customers, it looks like some of their employees have a different point of view. As of March 31st Whole Foods workers have walked out and demonstrating over lack of personal protection in the workplace. To make the PR mess a bit worse, the organizer of an Amazon warehouse walkout was fired. To some this validates Amazon as a great place to shop…but a horrible place to work. These incidents are not going to help them shake that reputation.

Likewise Instacart’s workers felt the company’s response to their safety concerns may have been a bit tone-deaf as a growing number of their workers are getting sick or risk of getting sick. Some of their workers are saying the company hasn’t done enough to safeguard them against the illness, prompting a walkout. Being ‘gig’ workers Instacart workforce are not afforded insurance and so getting infected makes them particularly susceptible to devastating economic and health consequences. They are demanding “hazard pay”, a minimum tip amount, and two weeks sick leave. So far, some of the demands have been made…but workers are still striking.

Another perhaps well-intentioned mishap is when Yelp and GoFundme started to auto-enrolling businesses into a compulsory fundraising campaign. While the intent is laudatory; trying to help local businesses being devasted by the effects of COVID-19, the execution was poor in that it did so by making participation compulsory for those same ravaged businesses and making opting out very difficult. A good idea poorly executed.

The Pivot

Some companies were able to adapt to the new situation; both keeping their employees…well …employed and helping to do social good in the fight against the virus. This obviously is the best solution…to find the white space and adapt quickly to new circumstances.

Ford, GM, GE, 3M, Chrysler and others quickly moved on the opportunity to manufacture Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs) like masks and respirators to supply front line medical professionals with necessary gear to continue safely treating patients.

Ever shrewd marketers, Hyundai dusted off their “Assurance Job Loss Protection” guaranteeing up to six months of payments for a new vehicle in the event buyers lose their job due to COVID-19. This creates peace of mind for new buyers and pulls forward sales that people might have put off until after the dust settled.

Anheuser-Busch is making and donating hand sanitizer, relying on the Red Cross to direct donations to reach front-line medical professionals where the need is greatest. According to the New York Post, “The sanitizer was shown in containers similar to those usually holding its beers — which also include Michelob Ultra, Stella Artois and Hoegaarden — and the tagline, “It’s in all our hands to make a difference.”

Making a Difference…Locally

You don’t have be as large as Amazon, Walmart, GM or 3M to make a difference. Just like every long journey begins with one step, every big and enduring change starts with just a few good people doing the right thing. 

You can see it right here in my local community in sunny Northwest Arkansas. For example, tiny distillery Fox Trail has quickly changed from making high octane booze to life-saving hand and surface sanitizer. Tiny Trash Creamery has been sponsoring free ice cream (at responsible social distancing) in exchange for donations which are donated to local charities battling the COVID – 19 epidemic.

Hang in There

It is comforting to see so many companies stepping up in these hard times. As a CX practitioner it’s wise to make the right decisions today for customers and employees versus ones based purely on economic gains or losses. It’s painful but customers AND employees will remember what you did (or didn’t do) when they really needed you. This is the very definition of how to create customers and employees for life.

The good news is everyone can do something and do it now. The other good news is that there will be an end to this pandemic. Judgment day will be here and you should ask yourself; will your company be judged a Hero or a Zero?

How to Measure Internal CX

Being an unusually warm Super Bowl Sunday, the citizens of the tiny town of Bentonville, Arkansas were out and about before the big game.

My daughters (9 and 11), always scheming for a way to score a buck or two, took advantage of the weather and downtown foot traffic to set up a lemonade stand. The venture took off immediately, requiring the youngest to produce more product and the oldest to eventually get more lemons.

While working together unusually well, I did hear grumblings from both sides on the inadequacy of their performances or the perceived in-balance of the workload. I generally try not to play referee but hearing from both sides I could understand their views. Afterall, you only see what you do not what others do.

Modern companies are not so different. We all have our ‘go-to’ person in some other part of the organization who gets it done and we all know that guy who never responds to emails. These underperforming areas exist due to lack of competency, tools, or resources. 

Under performing departments on internal CX are not only an inefficient organizational nuisance, they can also cost you customers. Long processing times, cumbersome and unnecessary red tape, and general unresponsiveness internally will also always be manifested in the front line not being able to serve their customers as effectively.

Wouldn’t your organization want to move away from internal performance hearsay and gossip as a method to gather this important information and get to a more disciplined and actionable approached? 

Measuring Internal Service Levels

Back in my days of working in organizational development (OD) we worked with a bank to conduct a survey of associates. While they had their normal employee engagement work, we also developed and fielded quarterly an inter-departmental survey. The results were then tabulated and sent back to each department as to how they did. It was also a point of discussion in business planning and used as a barometer of leadership competence. 

In the end it made everyone accountable for customer experience and was great way to bring it to the forefront of the culture. We made it very easy to complete and we did all the leg work in reporting. It also helped bring teams together in much the same way a hotel or other organization focuses on their external CX measure.

Interested? Here’s how we did it.

Step 1: Determine what matters in your culture

Each culture is a bit different in determine what makes for good customer experience. While various tools of yesterday year have been developed such as SERVPERF andSERVQUAL you really need to make it your own. You should try and have a standardized battery of no more than 5 questions in your survey. I generally recommend the following domains:

Easy to do business with – do other departments throw up roadblocks or is easy to get things done with them? Do they respond in a timely manner?

Domain Competence – do they have the skill set to do their job effective as a department and are they able to render internal services effective? Can they get done what they are supposed to getting done?

Empathy – do they treat me as an important customer and understand the needs from my point of view, or they focus on their viewpoint only in providing service?

Others may be things such as trust, value, quality, range of services, and relationship but if you ask something along the lines of three above you will get to core of what makes for a good customer experience in most internally. 

If you have to make it your own, so make sure these are dimensions are ones that everyone can live by. I usually recommend a series of short group discussions with different parts of the organization to get both the concepts and the proper language identified. It’s goal setting 101: if you are going to be held accountable to some kind of metric, it’s best to have buy in on what that metric is.

Step 2: Determine what the core deliverables are for your department

If you are in corporate accounting, you keep track of budgets. If you are in marketing, you help promote your company’s products and services. If you are in HR you are recruiting, selecting, onboarding and engaged in employee relations. You get the idea. Pick the big 3-5 deliverables for which your department is responsible and ask people to evaluate how you are doing.

You may also want to swap certain measures in and out as you experiment with new initiatives or services you are providing; or perhaps just how you are delivering. You want to maintain some continuity so you can figure out if you are improving or not, but there is some flexibility here to change and adapt to the changing needs of the department.

Step 3: Develop a Departmental Taxonomy

Not all departments interact with all other departments all the time, so it will be important to get a departmental list together. You will have some decisions to make. What level of specificity do you want to go to? Do you want to have corporate communications, digital, brand, product, and retail marketing all rolled up together or separated? The trades off are if you get too specific it becomes a vary burdensome survey for respondents. You go too high it becomes watered down. Generally, we find that units of 5 or more are a good rule of thumb to be a minimum and units larger than say 75-100 should be broken apart if possible.

Step 4: Decide if you want transactional or relational measures

In the CX world a transactional survey is exactly what it sounds like. It happens right after the interaction and asks specifically about that interaction. Relational studies, on the other hand, ask about things in general with the department. There is no one “best” approach, and in fact, in customer CX programs we often times do both, with the transactional informing the relational studies. 

How to decide? If most of your departments have a ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ point to an interaction or if they have a logical trigger, then transactional is going to be more actionable. Many times, that is not the case, and services are rendered on an on-going basis. In this case the relational approach might be better. If there are many small interactions, you may also want to go the relational approach to avoid everyone spending their days filling out surveys on one another.

Relational measures are generally done in waves. For example, in my banking example we did it quarterly. In the case of a transactional survey it down after the transaction; a completion of a report or project. The key here is making sure you are asking the right questions and not too often.

Step 5: Deploy

This is where you are going to need some technology. I would not recommend trying this with Google forms or freeware, you will get hopelessly entangled to the complexity of who to whom and customized content by area.

You will need a tool to conditionally display questions. Also, you need to do a sample load so you can tie back individual departmental responses and limit multiple responses from individuals. Paid versions of self-service platforms will fit the bill (AYTM, Qualtrics) if you want to do it yourself (like I said it can get complicated), or if you want to leave to the experts there are many out there (MaritzCX, Medallia, InMoment, Confirmit, Customerville, etc). Some platforms do both.

The general structure so be to ask about what departments with which individuals interacted. Then the general questions (from Step 2) and then the departmental specify question (from step3). You may wish to limit the number of departments they have to evaluate to ensure the survey doesn’t get too lengthy, but in many cases, you will find most people only interact with a handful of other departments, so this might not be a concern. You may also want to offer up a comment box where people can hand out praise or productive criticism.

Step 6: Analyze

Again, there are many great analytic platforms out there that can be used in the analysis of data. Typically, the best approach is through dashboards. Self-serve platforms have dashboards usually built in, or you can simply import it into Tableau or other data visualization platforms. The CX vendors all have dashboards pre-built with access level restriction built in to make it easy for you.

Step 7: Doing

This is the most important step. Taking the information and using it. This can be used as a rallying cry for the team to focus on a specific area. While there are many approaches to this, the formula that have seen work best is the following:

  1. Figure out what the right problem is to start with
  2. Determine what processes, resources, tools, and policies may be causing it
  3. Figure out who would be involve in solving it
  4. Get in a room with those people and brainstorm ideas
  5. Pick one, build an MVP, and test it
  6. If it worked great! If it didn’t was it 1) not the right problem 2) not the right solution, or 3) bad execution

Lemons into Lemonade

In the end my kids mopped up, even encouraging a neighborhood competitor to literally pitch their tent around the corner with a competitive offering (market intelligence reported the offering to be “too sour”). With only two of them it doesn’t really make sense to evaluate one another, but in much large organizational contexts where there are even low churn rates many people are leaving and joining the organizational daily. Getting a read on who is doing well and who is not doing well in delivering will help you understand both work flows as well areas for investment and coaching to improve their performance. This, in turn, will help your organization deliver a better experience to those who are paying the bills: your customers.