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

Source: Touringplans.com

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.

Lingscar.com 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. JustCapital.com provides a great wrap up of exactly what they nations “top 100 largest public employers” are doing for both their customers and employees.

Source: Justcapital.com

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.

Making Hard Decisions in Hard Times

“We’re going home,” the President of the company said.

You could hear a flea fart in the room. We were 2 hours from going in to a major pitch with a Luxury Automotive client. There was literally millions of dollars on the line and we had spent weeks preparing. People flew in from all across the United States to participate and we were down to 11th hour…literally.

It was a sunny day in Los Angeles (as most are) and everyone was on their way to work. But this wasn’t a usual day.

You see, a plane had just flown into the some tall buildings in New York City, followed by another shortly thereafter. No one knew what was going on, but everyone was freaked out. The United States, was under attack from an unknown enemy with lethal intent.

As we were meeting they were grounding planes throughout the US. There were rumors of others that might be at risk. Was there one heading to Los Angeles? What else was going to happen? No one knew.

One guy did do the right thing. He made a moral decision on what was right and wrong,

“It’s not appropriate to pitch anything today” the President stated.

And with that he and about a half dozen other suits got in their car and drove back to St. Louis.

That man’s name was Tim Rogers and he was President of Maritz Research (now MaritzCX an InMoment Company).

What he did on that Autumn Tuesday in sunny Los Angeles made a lasting impression on me. Tim was able to rise above the buzz and business imperative of his own company and make the right call under high pressure…even if it meant him potentially losing millions of dollars.

Now we have another unknown enemy we are confronting. In the days and weeks to come, we don’t know what the future is and once again, most of America and the world is seriously freaked out.

There are many articles about the greedy and altruistic behaviors of corporations toward their employees and customers. I do think people will remember what people do in this time of crisis. They will vote with their wallets and their loyalty in the months that follow. So making the right decision is very very important in the upcoming days.

Unfortunately, the right decision is not always apparent. While you will not always know what that decision is, one hint is that it will be the one that is the hardest to make.

I often think of that day with Tim and what he did. I can’t remember if we won or lost that pitch or if it ever happened. What I do remember is admiring his ballsyness and leadership. Clients sensed it too, and counted on him to do the right thing.

The days ahead are when heroes are forged and villains are unveiled. COVID-19 will pass and humanity will emerge hopefully stronger and a bit more humble. What everyone will remember and judge, is if we, as leaders and humans, made the right decisions or the easy ones.

Here’s to good decision making in the days ahead.

CX Sh*t’s Gettin’ Real…

What the recent InMoment/MaritzCX merger means and what the future holds

Just a few days after it was announced that Confirmit and Dapresy joined forces, today venerable CX solution provider MaritzCX merged with Utah based InMoment. This has in essence created one of the largest, if not THE largest in terms of market share and revenue EFM provider in the space.

It’s no secret I am familiar with both of these firms, having worked in various positions with Maritz for over 13 years (including CMO) and partnered with InMoment in the years after my departure.

The MCX/InMoment merger is a bit different than others in that, to some extent, it is a merger of equals. Both with strengths and weakness in their own right, but in my estimation two culturally compatible entities with an industry foot print that is big-foot wide.

Having been around the CX block , I can tell you they make for a formidable competitor to the more recent disruptors Qualtrics and Medallia, not withstanding the excellent soirées they hold.

Are we done with EFM consolidation? I don’t think so, but we are getting close. The big players hailing from a call center heritage are Verint and NICE. Both also have been on a buying spree with Verint mopping up Vovici in 2011, then Opinionlab in 2017 and finally Foresee in 2018. NICE decided to swoop up NPS banner holder Satmetrix in 2018 too.

A few years back MCX itself merged with Allegiance and Empathica and Mindshare merge to form InMoment.

This was all done in a race to complete a successful “solution stack” in this space. EFMs are like Mexican food; it’s essentially the same ingredients combined differently. The first who can offer the best tasting, cheapest meal with the most variation wins.

That full product stack includes: dashboards, data processing (ability to crunch big numbers fast), cross platform connectivity (APIs), text analytics, social media harvesting, predictive analytics, data capture (fancy survey builders), installation services, and expert services.

All the current big players have built (Medallia), borrowed (Customerville & Clarabridge), or bought (Dapresy & Confirmit, Qualtrics & Temkin) their way to ‘full stack status’. We now have really cool state of the art locomotives. I mean these things are huge, powerful, and reliable. But they are locomotives.

In my opinion these waters are more red than an Arkansas Razorback football game and if we are honest with one another, they have been for quite a few years now. So what’s next?

Here’s what I think.

Qualtrics Provides Some Clues

First, we can certainly see in the tea leaves when SAP spent the equivalent of the GDP of Burundi on the acquisition of Qualtrics. I remember a friend of mine coming back from one their extravagant conferences and asking me “Dave, I don’t get it…they are just doing surveys right?” Surveys indeed. You would think they have created an anti-matter powered jet pack…but no. At the end of the day it is the same Mexican food, but presented really nice; buy something-get a survey-fill out a survey- report on the survey. That is the basic use case and has been for 50 years.

What’s different about the Qualtrics acquisition (other than sparking my fascination with tinted eye glasses) is that SAP has a pretty fancy CRM platform. Connecting EFM and CRM…wouldn’t that be cool. I’ve been talking about it for at least a decade, and it seems to be coming to fruition. That is part one of how to get us out of this Mexican Food Rut (although I do very much like Mexican food). CRM can help do more than prevent churn or send a carton of Bon Bons to a disgruntled hotel guest..it CAN MAKE MONEY. It’s not only about cost avoidance any more, it’s about revenue generation too.

Channel Changes

Email is dead. So much so, that I know some insight suppliers that are turning back to mail surveys to get opinions. The good news is that the fundamentals are still there; most people are inherently narcissists. They like talking about themselves and they like other people reading about their opinions. This is good.

Businesses are more thirsty than ever for the voice of the customer. They want to get smarter so they can win. Even stodgy old price leaders have pretty much come around to this realization. Customer has and always will be king. This is also very good.

What’s bad for us in ‘the biz’ is a majority of Americans have a fake email address for their ‘junk’ email and others use temp email approaches to get a gated contact, email is not a good way to do much of anything nowadays. If you get past that hurtle you have spam filters and even still…seriously? filling out a survey? The next CX conference or bar-mitzvah you go to get a show of hands from the crowd of how many people actually fill out surveys.

Unlocking how to get in contact with folks who want to be heard and giving them incentives to do so will be the key. SMS and Social Media channels show some promise, but I think it is much bigger than that.

Look to the Past to Find the Future

The largest prize to unlock is a very old one but still the most powerful. In the 1940s there was this fellow by the name of Kurt Lewin who said “hey what if we ask a bunch of people what they thought, took that information and made some educated guesses about what to do, and we just well…did it?” Thus the field of Organizational Development was born.

Companies who realize that technology alone will never make a difference and that it is really all about organizational change will win the day.

Having great golf clubs does’t make you a better golfer. Commitment and practice does. This requires a whole different set of skills that no one in the EFM space currently possesses in adequate quantities (well, I do know this one little firm in Bentonville…).

By change, I am not talking about making sure Dora got her large fries or that you were able to up-sell a cable package to an AARP customer. I mean meaningful structural change. This is very rare to witness in the current state of affairs; bringing together marketing and ops to provide one holistic experience.

To achieve enduring positive change involves working directly with organizations to help them implement change and helping them create the right culture, tools, processes, policies, products, and tools to make meaningful and permanent cross organizational change. It’s a hands-on very intimate approach that is akin to an agency relationship to an organization.

You cannot change your customer experience by correcting mistakes or cramming more stuff down their throats. Changing CX starts from within. Companies changes for the better or worse through the people who work there. The CX provider who figures out how to do this best…will win.

And for my friends at MCX and InMoment, I sincerely wish you the best on this new exciting page in CX history.

The Secret to Unlocking CX: Segmentation

“A FOUR, A F*CKING FOUR!???” I yelled at my smart phone.

I stared at the number in disbelief.

I looked at my wife who shrugged.

It was our first non-perfect score (4 out of 5) at our Airbnb and I was incensed. It got worse on the other ratings but thank god that only the overall was publicly displayed.

I took a breath and started reading. It had complaints about no live TV (we use only streaming in our Airbnb), the couch was uncomfortable, a lack of ‘grab bars’ in the shower, and ‘pricey’. I took a breath and then looked at the picture of our guest and then it struck me.

This isn’t our usual customer.

Our customers tend to be 30-50 somethings who are traveling to Northwest Arkansas to mountain bike or for business meetings. They tend to be affluent, active, and tech-savvy. Their priorities are ease of check in and check out, quiet, good parking, distance to city center and Northwest Arkansas’s trail system. We’ve had close to 100 guests so far and only perfect scores.

This customer who dared to give us a 4 out of 5 was 60 something older women from a neighboring town in Arkansas. She doesn’t watch Hulu, doesn’t mountain bike, and is apparently not too steady on her feet. What she does want is a comfortable couch, a low price, and the ability to watch American Ninja Warrior on live TV.

It was a mismatch thus our ‘low’ score.

This happens all the time. This is also why many syndicated studies that publish ‘lists’ are of limited value. If you served a meat lovers pizza to a vegan, of course you are going to get low marks. Young people want different things than older people. Families have different needs than singles. Mountain bikers want different amenities than pinocle players.

The Danger of Hiding Behind Averages

An old market research research joke goes… “on average, humans have one breast and one testicle”

This of course is true in the aggregate, but I wouldn’t call it an accurate depiction of human beings. To understand customers, we can’t view them a uni-dimensional, we have to understand individual differences and provide services accordingly. We also need to measure the experience in this way.

Unfortunately, the CX world has largely ignored this and favor of monolithic NPS and other “indices”. Using indices to mindlessly benchmark yourself to others is misguided. My favorite example of this come from the intrepid mystery shoppers at Pied Piper with their ‘Prospect Satisfaction Index’. In this study of auto dealers, they found that Tesla ranked dead that purported to report on which brands were ‘most helpful’ in shopping to customers. 

Here’s the problem, most dealerships jump on customers like they are the last slice of pizza after a Phish concert. This PSI index measures such things such as if the sale person asked about the customer about visiting the dealer website or if the salesperson had to get ‘best price’ from management. Things that can frankly annoy some customers but can help sell cars. But…that’s not Tesla’s model. They simply let the customer shop and answer questions if they have any. 

Tesla took the news of their last-place position in stride….

Segmenting Your Customers

So how do you go about parsing your customers (and non-customers) into categories. What the CX world needs to adopt is a technique used in traditional marketing research since the 1950s: Market Segmentation. Let’s do a quote shall we?

Market Segmentation involves viewing a heterogeneous market as a number of smaller homogeneous markets, in response to differing preferences, attributable to the desires of consumers for more precise satisfaction of their varying wants” (Smith, 1956)

I think we can all agree if we could customize an experience on an individual level that would be ideal, but it is usually not practical, so we split the difference and focus on (fairly) homogeneous groups. We can then adjust both the experience for each group accordingly. Here’s how you do it.

Step 1: Understand Your Customers

Let’s pretend that instead of two houses, the Trailhouse brand (our Airbnb) had 100 locations. Let’s also say we regularly collected customer experience data. We first might conduct a brief study among past guests and find out a few things; why did they visit, what things are important to them about staying in an Airbnb for that stay, and how was their experience, and some profiling variables (age, gender, family etc.).

If you owned your own booking platform (we don’t) you could capture the reason for the trip at the time of booking. You could capture their overall experience upon check out. This leaves you to gather up things important to them about their stay either at check out or at a later time. Many booking platforms require a ‘profile’ which is another place to gather up this one-time information. With this data in hand, you can move on to segmenting your customers.

Step 2: Segment Your Customers

There are many methods to segment your customers. Segmentation masters Michel Wedel and Wagner Kamakura provide a great framework in their aptly entitled book “Market Segmentation”. In segmentation, you have two things to consider; your ‘base’ or what you going to segment on, and how you plan to classify folks. Your base choices vary on observable/no observable and general vs. specific.

In our case we would probably want to focus on “unobservable” and “specific”; aspects of their stay that are important to them. We would also want to pick some profiling variables that could be used as surrogates for our base. That way we don’t haves to re-ask questions on an on-going basis.

As far as classification approach we have a variety of methods to choose from based on the nature of the data and the technique. In our example we would probably want to understand what is driving certain customers to like or dislike the Trailhouse experience. To predict drivers and cluster groups simultaneously we would use Clusterwise Regression or Latent Class Analysis

Here’s what the output might look like.

In the rows have the attributes and, in the columns, we have data-derived clusters. First, we see are largest segment are “Outdoor Actives” followed by “Active Family”. We also have some business users, and finally Value Minded Pensioners. The clusters were derived from the data (the base variables). 

We can see they have very different priorities and preferences with the darker shades of blue being more important and lighter shades less important. For example, business traveler strongly values flexible booking and cancelations while young families need more space. We can also see most folks like the Trailhouse with some weakness amongst Value Minder Pensioners.

Step 3: Apply the Algorithm to Your CX Tracker

Where possible, I advocate very short surveys, especially in transactional programs. These are the surveys you get in-app after your Uber ride or after calling the call center via SMS text. In this circumstance, we could perhaps ask two questions via text or email (or in-app if there is one).

  1. What was the reason for your trip? (select that all apply)
  2. How was your overall experience?

We might also ask if there is a need for a follow-up and comment box. We now can use the reason for their trip as a proxy (statistically derived) for their segment. This could also be achieved by asking a subset of questions and using modeling to predict their segment. Now you are not looking at all your customers the same. Your dashboard could look like this.

We can see that we rock it with business customers, but they are a smaller part of our business (25%). We don’t do too well with value-minded pensioner, but they are a smaller share of guests, and they are not on target, so we probably don’t want to be something we are not, and our best bet is to steer these folks to another property.

Step 4: Make Changes to Your Experience

This is the most important part of the process; using the data to make strategic and tactical changes and then observing what, if any impact, it had on the experience and business outcomes. 

For example, if we looked at this in January, we might be concerned about our Outdoor Active Singles. Perhaps we mined the comments and found that lack of storage for bicycles was an issue in some locations and decided to install smaller bike lockers on-site in those locations. 

Now we can see the result of our investment. In March things start picking up for this younger outdoor group. In this way, you could separate your target customers from your non-target and also developed segment-specific tweaks to their experience and observe it made a difference.

Making Data Work for You

I always tell my daughters to keep their eyes on their own paper when comes to grades. I think the same advice is worthy to follow in CX measurement. While it is good to know where the competition is at and if possible, learn from them, ultimately you need to focus on delivering on your value proposition for your customers.

Developing and implementing a segment based CX system will help you do just that. The good news this isn’t new. Marketing and product development folks have been doing this for decades to very good results. It’s time to move away from the monolithic one score one customer mindset and look at customer differences as they relate to the experience you are delivering.

2,000 Customers’ Hopes and Fears from 2019

By my reckoning I had the privilege to talk with over 2,000 complete strangers this year. 

I talked with Wanda, a furloughed federal employee in Washington D.C. who couldn’t afford to buy a new furnace in the cold of January. I talked with Doug a former C.E.O. of a defense contracting firm in Dallas who sheepishly admitted that he likes to drive really fast. I talked with Billy a self-taught artist from Tupelo, Mississippi who is also a community organizer.

I spent time with a soft spoken and inspirational architect who dedicated his life to create better communities. I talked with an off-road enthusiast whose hobby was to swim with sharks…without a cage. I chatted with young entrepreneur from Southern Italy whose father sold his grocery stores to return to farm the land of his father and grandfather.

An elderly affluent Persian-American in Palo Alto shared his admiration for the craftsmanship of the stitching in the seats of his car. I had casual chat with a Turkish taxi driver in Hamburg who nearly got us all killed because of my incessant questions. A debt free handyman who lives on 900 on acres in the Ozarks took time to share his insights on technology.

We chatted in groups, on the phone, through video conference, in cars, in parks, at work, on farms, in garages, on trains, and in folks’ homes. I had conversations in 28 states, 8 countries, and at all times of the day and night.

Beyond finding out why people do what they as part of my job at Curiosity, I also started uncovering some trends that transcended my formal assignment. I thought I might try to fit those puzzle pieces together and share them here.

The Destroyer of Worlds?

In my conversations about why people buy this or go there, people oftentimes express an underlying yearning to connect. We have moved away from each other some say. The country is divided they say. There is a sense of profound existential loneliness amongst many.

Many point to social media as the malicious gremlin mucking things up. My stranger-friends through the year pointed out that everyone seems to be staring at their phones rather than talking to one another at the dinner table… that is, if they have dinner at the dinner table at all.

In fact, people are very social in social media. Facebook, Instagram, and yes LinkedIn have done a terrific job of compelling you to compulsively check your account, making it as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth or chasing the neighbor’s cat off your lawn.

But these tools that were created to help connect the world has had the Oppenheimeresque side effect of further metastasizing already galvanized world views into tighter and tighter non-communicating groups. Whether it’s politics, religion, healthcare or sports teams we are moving into tighter and tighter idiosyncratic tribes, turbo charged by the innate psychological principles that compel us with evolutionary zeal to prefer familiar others in the first place. 

We get so far from the other side that we can’t even fathom how they got their world view in the first place, let alone empathize with them. Many us throw up our hands and close the door rather than open it for those who think too differently from ourselves.

The Prisons We Create

It is not just social media and technology that are driving forces; we have literally built our own prisons of isolation. Since the 1950s Americans have retreated from their churches, their social clubs, their close-knit rural communities, and even their families to join planned sprawling developments where they can roll out of their closed garages and commute to their jobs in the isolation of their own private vehicles. House sizes have tripled in 50 years all the while fewer people live in them.

Local shops in sleepy town squares were replaced by super stores and outlet malls far from where people lived in the 1960s through the 80s. Once upon a time you visited a family doctor at his own small office, and you knew each other by name. Now you take a number and get in line for the first person available. 

From the end of World War II, we have moved from small communal nomadic tribes to one enormous isolated and sterile body politic that is aching for the hammer to be thrown through the movie screen.

A Change is Gonna Come…

The hammer has been thrown in my opinion. We are at an inflection point. The folks I talked with seem to want to return to community. People want to know their neighbors. They want to be a part of a greater sense purpose, beyond generating wealth and buying material possessions. 

For the first time the average home size has started to shrink in size. People are spending more on experiences than they are on things with people preferring to use things as they need them rather than owning everything. 

The large mega mall is dead with small businesses flourishing and driving an economic expansion. An increased appreciation and nurturing of nature as grown from a side bet to the only bet. The citizens of Ethiopia planted more trees in an hour than there are residents in the United States. A return to craft at scale is well underway, and I for one am grateful that…especially the beer.

Everyday People

Walking away from a year of talking with folks I am also left with few other conclusions. First, I must agree with Luke Bryan; people are basically good. That’s a weird thing to say from a psychologist who shouldn’t make sweeping value-laden generalizations, but I found it to be largely true. 

Most folks were just trying to live their lives in the best way they could. They want the best for their families, and others and generally not understanding why others did not act accordingly They want happiness. I’m sure we have encountered our share of jerks in our professional and personal lives, thankful their share of humanity seems rather low based on my travels.

Smarter than you think

The second thing is that people are generally quite bright. Most of my stranger-friends were quite thoughtful and rational in how they arrived at their conclusions. However, the rationality was bounded by facts that, on occasion, were of dubious quality. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised, and greatly humbled by how much people think about their decisions and views. Much has been made of the sophistication of modern consumers. I think most companies have woefully underestimated our humanity’s intellect.

Bounded Rationality

The last thing I will leave you with is that sometimes people have no idea how or why they make the decisions that they do. As researchers who like cause and effect relationships this can be frustrating. People stick with shitty services and will pay a premium for nonsensical features they never use. The point is; no one thinks about your products and services as much as you do. As practitioners in this space we have be a bit less narcissistic about how our do-da or widget fits in with their life. Most of the time, you are just not that important.

The Future

So, there you have it. We are a species who wants to be together but have built tools that thwart the fulfillment of that need. Technology and where we created to live are the 21st century Promethean gift they we must adjust, dismiss, or destroy if we are ever to come together.

While the divisiveness across the Western world concerns me for the sake of humankind, I do take some solace and seeing the seeds of change beginning to germinate. There will be a time perhaps when people of different beliefs and world-views can at least have a conversation….there is no need to agree. I think George Orwell said it best…

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first one is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” – George Orwell

As for me, I look for to speaking with thousands of more in 2020 and beyond and practice both conviction and compassion. Happy New Year.

The 4th Annual Global Mobility Study

Check out our 4th installment of the Global Mobility Study with our international set of presenters; James Carter of Vision Mobility, Becrom Basu of L.E.K. Consulting, Rahima Yakoob of HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management, and Neha Katdare of the Broad School of Management at Michigan State University. Come find out what’s going on in 9 different countries with new forms of mobility from e-scooters to autonomous vehicles. The deck can be found below or you can just watch the webinar broadcast December 5th below…

The Final Journey: CX and the Death of my Dad

My dad passed away last January. A lifelong insurance man, Roger was well organized, well-liked, and, I think, a well-respected community member. He was a tenacious fellow who, when confronted with even the bleakest scenario, always managed to claw his way out. This time he couldn’t muster that final climb and, while it is never easy to lose a loved one, at 78, he’d had a pretty good run.

You never really think about this aspect of life until you are faced with it. After the funeral and friends disperse, you are left with the reality that Dad is no longer here. However, what you might not expect is the twisted bureaucratic latticework left in the wake of their passing.

Dad was a very organized person. Everything had its place and nothing made him happier than a well-filed cabinet or an organized dishwasher. A dedicated jig-saw puzzle fan, he left a number of difficult mysteries behind for us to piece together. There were usernames, passwords, accounts, and agreements… to which we had no access. Passwords and accounts were scribbled and crossed-out a dozen times on an old yellowed index card he had used to keep track of his accounts. Gaining access was difficult, but that was only the beginning.

In working through all of this, what was surprising to learn was the wide range of preparedness, or lack thereof, of companies in dealing with this relatively common situation. Some were good, most were bad, and some were horrendous, but let’s start with the good.

The Good

Dad passed away in the middle of a large research project I had. While driving down from Boston to my hometown in Pennsylvania, I had to start switching airline flights, car rentals, and lodging to accommodate this new sad curve ball life threw at me.

Driving down I-84, ever watchful of my speed and the state troopers, I dialed up Delta Airlines. I was eventually connected with an older call representative with a rich baritone voice and the clipped articulation of a military officer. I was reminded of Lt. Richard “Dick” Winters of the 101st Airborne from Band of Brothers fame.

The real retired (and deceased) Major Richard 'Dick' Winters
The real Lt. Winters of the 101st Airborne

“How can I help you today sir?” asked Lt. Winters.

“Well I need to change my airline flight and I am hoping you can help me… because I know this is last minute … but my Dad recently passed away and … and …”

Right there I totally lost my composure and got a bit choked up. I don’t know why. I think it was just reality setting in.

Sensing my discomfort, Lt. Winters cut in. “I am very sorry to hear about your loss Dr. Fish, I lost my father a while back, so I know how you are feeling. We will get you taken care of…”

It wasn’t a fake empathy. This guy meant it.

He went about changing my flights, waving whatever charges he could, and wished me the best with a verbal man-hug. I am fairly confident he bent more than a few rules on my behalf. He was a brief warm light in the cold January sky on that lonely highway.

CX Tip #1: Be Like Lt. Winters

It wasn’t a process really; it was his sincere willingness to help a vulnerable stranger in a tough spot. The lesson here is that your everyday representatives, waiters, checkers, tellers, and salespeople will all run into tough life situations that their customers are going through. While I’m not sure you can train for that, you can prepare them. You can also hire good caring people-centric people. That’s the basic ingredient to CX even in the darkest hours. I will always remember the kindness of Delta’s Lt. Winters.

The Bad

Financial security is one of the first things people start to worry about when a spouse of 50+ years leaves this planet. In the case of my mother, this was no exception. While she is all set now, the uncertainty of the moment added stress to an already overwhelming experience. The key to reducing this anxiety for your customers is to remove that uncertainty as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that is not what had happened.

My Dad was insurance man for 40+ years, as his dad before him. He had a number of policies with his own company which he touted his entire his life as being ‘the best’. One would think that, if any organization would have a good process for the death of their customers, it would be an insurance company; particularly when the insured was an employee. Unfortunately, one would be very wrong in this case.

In trying to get answers as to what policies he did and did not have, we were moved around from department to department to get a straight answer over many weeks. While we were doing that, the local agent (or someone) had informed the parent company that my father had passed away. In response, they promptly stopped payment. No warning, no letter, no nothing…just no direct deposit. They just cut off my 78-year-old mother’s income completely.

Several months later, after we had procured the right documents and contacted the right people in the right departments, and after several three-year-old type meltdowns I had with their reps, we finally got it resolved. What they did right was to escalate this issue until I finally got to talk to a human being who could do something about it. What they didn’t do right is have any process for the death of an employee in this situation…in this case, their own salesman.

CX Tip#2: Communicate with those Alive

Journey map the situation that happens to millions of families every single year. Your customers will literally die. Figure out what you are going to do about it and make it easy for the survivors. Have a consistent process, a consistent communication approach, and keep people informed. My father’s company had either not done this homework or failed to execute it. Also, remember that communication in a crisis situation is critical. It doesn’t change anything, but at least it gives perceived control to your customers, which is a welcome port in that sorrowful storm.

The Reprehensible

My mother has a car…which was registered in my father’s name. In retrospect, this was a catastrophic mistake. It turns out that the captive finance company responsible for the lease were not at all prepared to deal with the very common process of changing ownership from a spouse who has died.

While I won’t bore you with the details of our 3+ month adventure in trying to get this simple task accomplished, some of the highlights include:

  • Dealership personnel knowingly misinforming my mother of a procedure because it was “complicated”
  • Call center personnel not knowledgeable of their own policies or reasons for those policies
  • Lack of follow up, issue tracking, and case management
  • Being passed around from department to department
  • Losing important, confidential documents (like my father’s death certificate – twice!)
  • Sending physical documents to the wrong location after the address was updated
  • Losing faxes transmitted minutes beforehand
  • Only being able to communicate via inbound phone or fax (no email, no direct numbers)
  • Making it necessary to hold a séance to get the password for his online account

It wasn’t until I escalated this issue in a Twitter rant that I finally was contacted by someone from their executive offices to help. She was excellent; she helped and did so with professionalism. Having my mother’s credit app finally approved, she wished me well, as all that was left was to pay a $75 transfer fee. Unfortunately, as of this writing, this issue is still not resolved, as they could only take a physical check mailed to their location. Fingers crossed!

 switch board lady

This company lacks the tools, policies, training and the processes to handle a fairly common situation effectively. This could almost be excusable if it wasn’t for one other important element: empathy.

With the exception of the specialist from the executive office, the default position was that I was the cause of the issue. I had entered the wrong policy number. I had mailed it to the wrong place. I had not followed their procedure. I did not understand their policies.

Worse, when I explained my situation for the 20th time, almost every call representative would say “I’m sorry for your loss” in the same way a fast-food employee might say “you want to super-size that?” I am not expecting a moment of silence or psychotherapy. Perhaps just the common courtesy of giving a rat’s ass.

CX Tip #3: The Right People, The Right Team, The Right Plan

First, hire the right people, develop the right process, train them, and ensure they have the right tools to do their jobs. Second, in crisis situations, have a dedicated team to deal with these issues. It is in the best interest of everyone to resolve these situations quickly.

Finally, do not train your customers to use social media as their last resort. I was happy I got attention, but this “squeakiest-wheel” approach is not only dissatisfying to the customer (why did it have to come to public shaming?), but most likely also hugely disruptive to the company. What could have been resolved in one letter or phone call for a few dollars, took 20+ contacts and what I assume was a great expense for the company.

Also, I have been kind and haven’t revealed the company in this article, but I can assure you it isn’t the first time I have related this experience and have not afforded the same courtesy in its telling. Do it right the first time.

The “One” Thing: Empathy

The real differentiator in all of this is what matters in any job: giving a shit. Call it commitment or engagement or whatever, but if your employees don’t care about what they do and don’t care about their customers, you will suffer the consequences in high servicing costs, high acquisition costs, high turnover, and high customer churn.

Don’t overlook those less frequent but highly emotional times in your processes and procedures. In these cases, your company will either shine or fall precipitously from grace, never to recover.

As for my Dad we all miss him, but life moves on. I think he might have liked it that I wrote an article about how to persevere, correct processes, and advocate for human empathy; virtues that he both loved and lived. Perhaps a small tribute to a great guy. See ya, Dad.

Photo by Dave Fish

The Romance of Story Telling

For Sale:

Baby Shoes,

Never Worn

So goes the alleged shortest story ever written. It is poignant and mercilessly economical; a hallmark of Hemingway’s writing style. Writing is a tricky business, one I have grown to appreciate.  So what makes for a good story?

It depends who you ask.

Recently, I attempted something different in a presentation. Rather than blurting out the main point in the first two sentences as is customary, I attempted to lure the reader into a narrative web instead.

“You buried the lead!” was the reaction of one of my respected colleagues. Bury the lead you say? Hmmm.  That got me thinking; perhaps story telling is more of a romance then a smack in the face. So I persevered and tried subtlety for a change.

This was not my first literary experiment.  When I first entered the business world I had to undo a decade of academic writing habits. In academic writing you are trained to be objective. The writer is to be invisible so the evidence can speak for itself. We were trained to write linearly. Background, design, experiment, results, and discussion is the social science journal formula. 

The writer is trained to clinically report in the passive 3rd person tense.  Skilled obfuscation and arcane words are seen as a sign of genius. There is growing evidence to indicate that perhaps this style of communication, in some instances, is not the most persuasive nor captivating approach (Fish, 2019).

Kidding aside, I struggled out of that 3rd person passive voice through the pedagogy of some of the major hitters in the field such as Ernest HemingwayStephan King, the Heath brothersRobert McKeeJohnathan Gottschall, and a few others.

Academic writing smothered me. I wanted to write how I thought…

“Cooper, Graham, and Smith (2005) found evidence that pet ownership was strongly associated with subjects’ high locus of control. That being said, their methodology sucked, but they tortured the data and used Structural Equation Modeling so they managed to get published in this fringe B rated journal.”

Ahh…that felt good. I found myself writing blurbs such as this and then deleting them in my graduate school days.  

Wading into the business world I was taught that if you are writing an article you better grab the reader hard by the collar in the first two sentences and get your point across.  Otherwise, you will lose them. I embraced this approach.

It didn’t matter if it was a white paper, a blog, or a presentation.  Lead with the lead.  If you read any newspaper you will see the same thing. The first few sentences in almost any newspaper is in essence ‘the story’, it is ‘home base’.

Recently, I saw Ira Glass speak at local venue. If you are not familiar with Ira, he is a master storyteller for NPR who creates amazing human-interest stories. They grab you and suck you in. His formula is sublime.

In his presentation he advised that in story telling you should first start with the “dead body”.  Next, you move the plot along. You keep moving the plot along until you get to the major “aha” moment.  The BIG idea.  

He said that years ago he thought he discovered something revolutionary in this approach.  He was quickly disabused of this revelation by a friend who pointed out that every preacher worth his crucifix and robes used the same exact formula.  In fact most story tellers use this same exact recipe. 

If you look at Hemingway’s extremely short story, it follows suit.

For Sale:

“Oh, look there Bob! There’s something for sale. I like things on sale!”

Baby Shoes,

“Baby’s shoes. Oh, they are so cute! I like those little shoes they remind of my kids when they were little. Cootchy cootchy coo”

Never worn

“Wait. What? What the? OH MY GOD! That’s crushing. Shame on you Mr. Hemingway! You’re a bad bad man for leading me down this dark path!”

In fact, all great stories follow some variation on that formula. “Baby dead, couple doesn’t need shoes anymore, they might be sad” doesn’t bury the lead, but I think we can agree it doesn’t create a very good story.

Think of your favorite story. One of mine is the original Star Wars (Episode IV).   In the opening few minutes of the original Star Wars, did we see the Death Star blow up?

No.

We saw a hottie Princess Leia record some mysterious message in a mobile garbage can while some maniacal telekinetic bad ass in a black cape and helmet  was running amok on her spaceship. 

Now that’s a great beginning! They buried the lead right down the center of the Death Star in the form of a torpedo in last few minutes of the film.

So I am revising my style a bit.  I will still need the hook to get the reader interested.  The trick is to be compelling enough to get your reader to the next paragraph, and then to turn the page, and then to chapter 2, until they can’t put the book down. If you made it this far, I am going to call it a success.

I think good story telling is not just whacking the reader over the head with news; it is feeding them a story.   You need to lure readers into your story restaurant. Once there, you better to feed them well with a plot that continues to move along. Make sure all courses are delicious and evocative.  Oh and they will be expecting dessert in the form of a compelling idea at the end. And it better be good.

 Of course, I am but a student and would be interested in your thoughts. What do you think? Do you like good desserts? Did I bury the lead? Should I care?