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).
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.
“Oh, look there Bob! There’s something for sale. I like things on sale!”
“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”
“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?
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?
Julius Caesar once said, “experience is the teacher of all things.” Sadly, those that are experienced don’t always teach and more worrisome is that those that teach aren’t always experienced.
We have consultancies advising large corporations on how to launch CX systems that they have never launched one before. There are institutions of higher education providing classes in entrepreneurship with professors who never worked in a real company let alone started their own. In some cases, we have software companies providing tools to solve problems they never have (or still haven’t) solved themselves.
In short, we have people pontificating and providing guidance on topics where they have enormous theoretical expertise, but very little in the way of practical experience.
I have to admit; it’s been a while for me too. While I can talk indefinitely about CX in B2B from my business experience, if I’m honest, the last time I dealt with a retail customer was around 1989 delivering pizzas to drunken college kids.
I recently took corrective action for this blind spot with the acquisition of a couple of Airbnbs. It hasn’t been easy, but we have learned quite a bit along the way. I wanted to share these learnings as they are equally applicable to both small startups and large global companies.
1. Design Your Experience for Your Customer
Bentonville has a surprising number of visitors for a small town in Arkansas. Some are business visitors, some are visiting family, some are in the midst of a relocation, and some are just people needing a place to stay for a while. While we have and do cater to all these categories, we wanted to focus in a specific visitor; the mountain biker.
We made sure there was a bike stand out back for repairs, a place to secure bikes inside the house, a tool set, a hose to clean bikes and place to chill. Acknowledge our guests as newcomers, we also provide an extensive hard copy guidebook with brochures tailored to that adventure mindset persona.
2. Listen to Your Customers
To know your customer, you must listen to them. Ironically, my best source of feedback is not from Airbnb (although it is a good source), it is from asking my guests just one question “What’s missing that would make your experience better?” This has yielded some good insights.
First serious mountain bikers have many of their own tools and pump, so that’s a nice to have. Bikers do like having a secure place to store bikes (inside) so bike stands are helpful, having some wash rags and a place to hose off their bike is helpful, and a gas grill is a must. Things will get dirty, so invest in some durable towels and avoid carpet if possible. Customer feedback doesn’t need to be hi-tech to be effective. It’s listening and taking action that helps improve the experience.
3. Create a Brand
While it might seem odd to create a brand for a few small homes in Bentonville Arkansas (we have our eye on expansion though), it has worked remarkably well in creating a modest but noticeable buzz amongst our guests. I am lucky enough to have some very talented creatives in my life who were kind enough to create a logo for us. From there we created stickers, floor mats, and other collateral to help promote our brand. Ever the researcher, I even tested several logos before arriving at the winner.
Sound expensive? Not really, there are many resources such as Sticker Mule, Vista Prints, and others that can make this happen relatively. While the Trailhouse has a website (bvilletrailhouse.com) via WordPress (we are upgrading now, don’t judge us too harshly), Airbnb also has an easy to use and simple interface to help us market the Trailhouse brand. Also, while Airbnb does offer photo services, we spent a few dollars to have professional photos shot, which helps us stand out in the lineup.
4. It’s Not A House, It’s an Experience
This was our guiding principle in establishing the Trailhouse brand. Some hosts just post their condo on Airbnb or VRBO and list the facts…this many bedroom rooms…this many bathrooms, etc. We don’t do it that way.
We are not providing a place to stay; we are providing the experience of being in an incredible community and ensuring our guests get the most out of the short time they are with us. We are helping find them the right trails, right restaurants, right museums, and right stores to go to. We are recommending grocery stores or places to go swim or kayak. We are helping them make steaks on the BBQ or just relaxing with some beers after a day of hiking, biking, or just exploring the area.
We have customized the inside of our homes to have photography of local landmarks. We have games for kids and adults. Guests can spin a few old school LPs on the vintage turntable. We have a variety of guitars hung throughout the property and amplifiers which we encourage guests to play. In one location we have a few skateboards and bikes to ride gratis.
The point is; its more than a nice bed to lay your head. We provide a place to live.
5. Be Responsive
Erin and I respond to all inquiries usually in minutes. People have many choices in where to stay. I have found that if you are quick to answer questions and inquiries this results in bookings. Also, avoid robo-responses if possible. People have specific inquiries, you want them to understand you know them and are responding to their specific questions.
This isn’t just for booking, guests have simple and complex questions during their stay. Make sure you are on top of it. They are strangers and that lag time between problem and resolution, no matter how small the issue, is a source of anxiety. Anxious customers are not returning customers. Be fast, be personal, and be helpful.
6. Don’t Skimp on the Little Things
The secret of great customer experience is that it is not usually the big things that matter. It’s the little things. With an average booking of around $300-$500 per stay, we can afford to spend a few bucks on our customers. For multi-day customers, we try and provide little surprises upon arrival (a trick we picked up from the Four Seasons and the Palmilla). Bunch of dudes coming = 6 pack of local craft beer waiting in the chill chest. Gal’s get away = some local chocolates from our local chocolatier Kyya. These are items under $10 that remind them of the great time they are going to have and also offer a nice surprise. This small investment can provide some degree from the inevitable problem
7. Manage Problems Aggressively
Which leads us to problem resolution. Things will happen. Our first tenant we had a bit of plumbing issue. I got notification late at night and was over there in the morning. I was mortified, the toilet had backed up and things were not good.
Our tenants (about 8 20 something girls) were very gracious and understanding. After unsuccessfully trying to remediate the problem myself, I got a plumber over there to resolve. I refunded the full amount of their stay without them asking. To me, it was worth it.
They were extremely gracious and appreciative and rated us thusly (preserving our perfect score!). Bad things will happen, its how you deal with it that counts. Get there fast, be empathetic, get a short-term solution, and do everything you can to make it right.
8. Create a Trusted Network Of Partners
I have a new appreciation for hotel and property managers. There is a LOT to do. Fortunately, we have orchestrated a reliable set of folks to help us out. While we do much of the day to day stuff ourselves, we have outsourced lawn care, cleaning, and maintenance to others and are in constant contact with schedules and compensation. We pay them well and we get consistent high service in return. Takeaway: Don’t skimp on your partners. Treat them well and they will treat you well.
9. Trust Your Customers
Starting off we were nervous about people rallying the house or stealing stuff. To date, this hasn’t been a problem. In fact, it has been quite the opposite. People regularly leave behind their unused bottled water, clean up after themselves, and generally leave the place in great condition. One younger guy even took it upon himself to organize a storage shed out back. If you provide a great experience and people feel part of your brand, they will not only not damage it, they will sometimes take steps to improve it.
Good CX Does Result in Business Success
To date, it has a been a great experience for us. Sure, we could make more money if we didn’t provide little gifts or skimped on branding. In the end, the investment has more than paid off. Many of the learnings above don’t cost you a nickel to do well. You just need people who care about your brand.
While we aren’t getting rich, our efforts have resulted in some KPIs any hotelier would be envious of; we have 75%+ occupancy, perfect customer ratings, and revenue above average for our market. That’s after 6 months of business.
For years many clients in large organization have been anxious to see hard and tangible proof that CX results in strong business outcomes. As odd as it seems I have met people who simply didn’t believe investing in customer experience was worth it. Now I can tell you as a practitioner andproprietor; it works.
In 1936 Union Pacific Railroad had a client problem.
They saw their customer experience problem as a need to help their mining clients more quickly and cost-effectively get consumables and lumber in and ore and coal out of the mountainous Wasatch range.
Existing railroad technology didn’t cut it, so Union Pacific turned to their long-term partner the American Locomotive Company with their big problem. ALC responded by offering a humongous solution; the 4-8-8-4 steam locomotive also known as the “Big Boy”.
The 4-8-8-4 was a monster even by large rail standards. At nearly two stories tall and 1.2 million pounds, it had 32 drive wheels to drive the monster and 16 more to guide it. It could reach sustained speeds of up to 80 mile per hour and traverse steep grades other engines could not, all the while hauling 7.2 million tons of freight in nearly two miles of laden rail cars behind it.
While the envy of every railroad line at the time, the Big Boys useful career was cut short, going out of production after 4 years. General Motors’ E-85 was a diesel-electric locomotive that marked the extinction of the Big Boy specifically and steam locomotion in general. Costing almost a third less than the Big Boy, its annual maintenance costs were a fourth, demanded less human guidance and didn’t require water operate.
But the story doesn’t end there. The advent of the United States’ interstate highway system in the early 1950s eradicated nearly all rail passenger traffic and put a significant dent in short and long-haul cargo hauling. If that didn’t put the iron horses out to pasture the emergence of the DC-10 in the early 1970s did.
Asking the Right Questions
Did Union Pacific make the right call in 1936?
Probably not. They thought of themselves as a rail company, not a cargo transit company. I doubt they investigated diesel-electric options back then (even though they existed at least a decade before), let alone more far-flung solutions such as rigid airships and other emerging technologies. No, I am certain the train guys at Union Pacific talked to the train engineers at ALC who were more than excited to build them a King-Kong train.
Union Pacific was stuck in their steam locomotive framework and rushed to a technological solution they were comfortable with, rather than what was optimal. In short, they rushed to a solution without a strategy. As Albert Einstein once said, “given one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution.” Good advice.
History is littered with companies who thought they had the right solution, only to realize they didn’t appropriately define the problem in the first place. Smith-Corona typewriters, R.I.M. Technologies’ Blackberry, Kodak’s Polaroid, and even more recently Microsoft’s “Zune” music service are all lessons in misdiagnosis and a rush to a cure.
Today, many CPG companies are struggling for relevance with consumers more interested in fresh and locally sourced foods. For example, a cereal company might think their problem statement is “how do we get more people down the cereal aisle?” while their real problem statement should be “how do we rethink breakfast?”
It’s an easy mistake to make. We feel uncomfortable in the ambivalence of uncertainty and powerful psychological forces push us to closure. We are encouraged to have a “bias for action” sometimes skipping any CX strategy in favor of action.
Furthermore, powerful social-psychological make us prefer harmony amongst the tribe; even if that is not in the best long-term survival of it. Finally, there is enormous pressure for managers to “fix it” when their organization is faced with an imminent external threat. They regularly short cut the important first step of problem definition in favor of getting to the business of solving the problem.
Tip to Stop Solving the Wrong Problem
How do we hedge against bad problem framing? Here are a few tips that can help prevent your organization from trying to solve the wrong problem.
1. Ensure Diversity in your leadership
It’s not just an altruist thing to do. Diversity is critical for innovation and not getting blindsided by too narrow view of the world. In much the same way you would not put all your investment in one stock or one industry you should hedge your intellectual worldview by making sure diversity of thought is a priority for your organization.
This does not just include racial and ethnic diversity but functional, attitudinal, and personality diversity as well. Homogeneity is the enemy of innovation, but it feels oh-so-good when everyone agrees. A study by Boston Consulting Group found that those companies with diverse senior management had almost twice the amount of innovation related revenue of those who did not. The risk of lack of diversity is bad decision making. Having yes-men and yes-women are great, but it’s sure fired way to go out of business fast…or get people killed.
Takeaway: Ensure you have functional and individual diversity in your problem-solving teams. If you feel uncomfortable than you are probably on the right track.
2. Persistent in asking ‘why?’
It seems rudimentary, but there is a dearth of asking “why do we do it that way” in organizations today. Don Hull refers to the lack of second loop learning in organizations as organizational inertia.
The way we do business creates ruts in the road that are hard to pull out off. Past success of one approach makes us double down on that approach in the future. Managers make commitments to courses of actions whose initial purpose is no longer there. Relationships get in the way of logical decision making and organizational values transform into dogma. People crave certainty and construct mechanisms to create the illusion of permanence. This is detrimental to the long-term prosperity and survival of the organization.
Furthermore, the tools we construct to solve problems enact a certain part of reality and shape how we frame the problem in the first place, thus censuring our ability to solve it. Surgeons like to perform surgery. Cobblers like to repair shoes. Both can solve a lower back pain problem. It’s taking a step back to find out what the problem is in the first place.
Perhaps no industry has deeper ruts of “how-we-do-things” than banking. However, some progressive banks are reframing the 150-year-old canon of how retail banking works. For example, Citizens Bank is rethinking the physical layout of banks. Acknowledging customers’ growing preference for digital interactions they are creating more self-help kiosks, cross-training employees, and reducing the space the needed by 50% in retail branches
Rather than the teller-behind-the-window format used for centuries they are opening up the floor to bring bank employees and customers together by eliminating physical barriers and making it a more friendly and less austere environment. Citizens are removing traditional customer irritants such as overdraft fees for small amounts, even though they are large revenue drivers. Some banks are taking this further and eliminating these fees altogether.
Takeaway: Challenge your organization as to why things are done the way they are. Has the environment changed? Are there better ways? In essence, it is wise to stay curious.
3. View the world like a child
My 8-year-old daughter just got a fish tank. You would think I created life out of sand and water by the wonder in her eyes. “Why does the silver fish swim on the top and the Mollies swim in the middle Daddy?” she asked. No idea. I didn’t even notice that.
The wonder of a new fish tank
This is the essence of human-centered design. Experience the world as a child or a visitor in a strange new country. If you take a moment to get Seinfeldy you will notice all kinds of things. Why do people tend to spread out in elevators? Why do people cram to get on an airplane that takes off at the same time for everyone? Why is my kid so infatuated with slime?
One progressive hotelier took this human-centered design approach to heart. Situated in the heart of Silicon Valley they experience more international visitors than many other hotels. As such, things we might take for granted; such as using a key card to gain entry into a room, might be a bit novel to someone traveling from far away. Through an empathetic understanding of their customers, they decided to be proactive in educating guests on how to gain access to their room through a demonstration model of a hotel door card reader at the check-in desk. Reception can easily show new guests how it works, without even uttering one word of English to achieve that understanding.
This is the key to insight. Be aware. Take on the viewpoint of others and be empathetic to their needs.
One exercise I use that brings to this light is taking on the persona of your customers. Make your executives go and buy the hamburgers you sell, open a banking account, or buy one the vehicles they manufacture. Take on the persona of a teenager, a busy mom, the elderly or someone with a disability. Every time I conduct this exercise it is much more powerful than any focus group or quantitative study can provide to move your executives to action. Be your customers for a while. You will be surprised what you find out.
Takeaway: Take your executives shopping or have them use your product and service over a period of time. Assume a new persona when experiencing it.
4. Explore analogs
To properly frame a question, it is often helpful to look across industries and occupations to see how they deal with a problem. My colleague John Palumbo CEO at Big Heads refers to this as “cross pollination” and think it is a fantastic idea for getting to both the proper question frame and potential solutions. He likes to mix unlikely people to help shed light on defining the problem, before actually solving it.
For example, say you are a grocery store and have an efficiency problem at check out at peak times. You might look to how F-1 Pit Crews move so fast. You might talk with beekeepers who work with one of the most efficient organisms on earth. What would beekeepers have to say about your queuing problem?
It also helps to look across industries. How does Disney Theme Parks deal with wait time and queuing issues? How do high-end hotels and airlines? What do top-notch waiters do at 5-star restaurants?
In looking at the problem of wait time at check out the answer many larger retailers have arrived at is to simply eliminate it. Rather than just self-check-out where there is still a line, retailers such as Walmart, Kroger, and Amazon are experimenting with ways of tracking items as they enter the cart through various new in-store technologies. When complete, customers simply pay and walk out. No lines, no wait time.
We take a general problem frame and then look for analogs across as many diverse domains as possible. Within there, can lie the problem that someone has already solved for you.
Takeaway: Look for other occupations, teams, and organizations that are trying to address analogous problems. Talk to them. Find out how they are framing analogous problems and gong about solving them.
5. Be flexibly disciplined
Psychologist Karl Weick related a story of an Italian army lost in the Alps. They used a map to finally get back to camp, albeit very late. When the Captain asked the company commander what happened, the wayward Lieutenant said “well, we were lost, but this map helped us make it back to base camp”. The Captain took the map and looked it over. He was surprised to find It was a map of the Pyrenees, not the Alps.
The point is, in a bind, any plan will do. But having a plan is having a direction. It’s having a way out. But one must be willing to re-forecast that plan as things change.
One tool I have found very helpful in getting groups aligned on a common goal is something developed by Dr. Leticia Bristos Cavagnaro and her colleagues work in design thinking. It is a simple exercise whereby you identify three things; stakeholders, their problem/need and then the insight. You describe stakeholders in the most descriptive way possible, describe problem/needs with verbs, and the insight should answer the “because” of the other two statements. This leads to a good problem statement that can serve as a true north for the workgroup and/or organization.
Our problem statement might be “We need to create a way to help business people who are new their CX role quickly learn and apply CX concepts to their own organizations that have immediate an immediate and demonstrable payoff.”
Takeaway: Make a plan using the problem statement format above. Get consensus from your team before moving forward to ideation and solutions.
More Focus on Problems
Unfortunately, most academic and corporate training focuses on finding solutions rather than problems. Noted psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi once lamented “Most schools, all you learn is solving problems; then you get out in the real world, you feel lost because nobody’s telling you what to solve.” I often find the same in my teaching. If I am very specific about the problem that is to be solved most students can get it. However, if I leave the problem ill-defined, it creates a source of both angst and poor class evaluations. In my mind, this angst is natural, and we should spend much more time finding the problem…then finding the answer. But perhaps I need to study the problem a bit more to be sure.
If you facilitate meetings on a regular basis you usually have situations where you need to create ‘break-out groups’. While sometimes these are pre-assigned, very often they are random groups of people that are roughly equal in size.
The problem facilitators run into is that while they know the number of people they may want in each group, they don’t always know how many in total are actually going to show up to the session.
One solution is having participants count off by the number of groups you want. So if you want 5 groups you have people count off by 5s going around the room (1,2,3,4,5, and then repeat 1,2,3,4,5, etc).
The downside of this approach is that it takes a fair amount of time in a larger group and if they are not arranged in a classroom style it can be awkward to tell who is “up” to say their number. Also, I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked “what is my number again?” after uttering it seconds before.
One solution is to divide people by last name. In this way you can eyeball the group in attendance and just divide them up by the number of groups you want or the number in each group you want.
As you can see Millers, Smiths, Browns, Clarks, and Williams dominate, while Ingrams, Quinns, Underwoods, Xiongs, and Zimmermans are relative rarities. To solve for this we can divide them into n-tiles and if we trust our 200 level statistics class, we can then infer that this distribution will exist in the population in your next destination.
You can use the tables below to divide your groups into 3, 4, 5, or 6 roughly equal groups. Since the letter breaks are exactly on the desired percentile cut point, they are not exact. This also make dividing groups larger than 6 a bit dicey.
Now, there will be exceptions to this. For example, locations that are heavily skewed to one ethnicity may not conform to this distribution. It also not likely work in countries outside of the United States as well. That being said, it should work fairly well in most circumstance. Good luck and let me know how it goes!
Bentonville, Arkansas based CuriosityCX today unveiled its revolutionary new competitive offering Quintuple Closed Loop™. This new technique for identifying and resolving customer problems fundamentally changes the way CX is done in the industry.
“You know some people talk about their “close loop system” or even “double closed loop” they’re fine if you are into average, but they really don’t get the job done anymore” said Curiosity’s CEO Dave Fish.
“Your typical Silicon Valley or Silicon Slopes tech company would have said ‘hey, let’s take an agile approach and iterate our way to a triple closed product on our product roadmap.’ Not us. We said ‘F- it’ and just skipped triple and quadruple offerings and went straight to Quintuple” said Fish.
Double Close Loop is so 2018
In a normal closed loop process customer are
contacted after a transaction to ensure everything went smoothly. If they didn’t then a ‘hot alert’ is opened
and the organization attempts to resolve the issue. In a normal “double closed” loop scenario the
issue is then validated by third party as being resolved, thus the ‘double’ in
the double closed loop.
But do you really
know that problem is resolved?
Closed Loop™ customers are hounded for months on end by agents hopped up on discount energy
drinks and diet pills who contact customers at least five different times after
the transaction. This ensures the
problem is unequivocally addressed.
“We check in and then check again. Then we check in again and then one more time. And for good measure to really ensure things are to the customers satisfaction we recommend that fifth check in. Without that 5th check-in your CX program really isn’t world class”, explains Curiosity’s Chief Experience Officer Kate Barker.
“They really just won’t let me alone,” commented customer Hugh Ecclestein of Youngstown, Ohio. “I mean I just bought a fishing lure at the local hardware store and made an off-handed comment that I wished I bought it and in blue rather than green. Now they just keep calling and emailing me” McMurphy said in a recent interview.
apparent to me that they really really care [about my complete satisfaction]” noted
McMurphy and then added “can I go now?”
Quintuple Closed Loop™ is just one of many future innovations being incubated in the CX labs at Curiosity’s state of the art facility in Bentonville. “I think we can really push this to something much bigger in the future, who knows where it will take us” noted Fish. CuriosityCX plans to introduce additional fictitious products and features every April 1st in the future.
The young saleswoman at the luxury automotive dealer then politely smiled at me.
I was silent for a moment and then drew a deep breath.
I explained to her I was in the business of customer experience and, in fact, my firm at the time, ran the very customer experience system she was trying to influence.
I went on to express my concern that, while she did an excellent job, she seemed more interested in her rating than my experience.
“I understand, but I need you to give me all top box … or I could lose my job,” she motioned to the glass office behind her momentarily losing her composure and then her wide smile returned, like hostage who doesn’t want to upset her captors.
I wish this was an exception or something new. Sadly, this has been going on for over 20 years. While it is probably most pronounced in automotive, I have seen it everywhere; from telecommunications to moving companies to health care. Cooking the CX books isn’t new and doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
How Did This Happen?
It happened, as Brett from Pulp Fiction would say, “with the best of intentions”. Folks at HQ needed to find a way to hold people accountable to not just sales, but also in providing a good experience to customers. On a winter’s day in 1982 (okay I am taking some liberties here) some smart fella or gal said, “well hey, we hold salespeople accountable for sales, why not hold folks accountable for customer satisfaction?” Then some other smart person said “yea, let’s put some teeth in it”. Then the head mucky-de-muck said “do it!”, and on that day incentivizing experience scores was born.
People ate this idea up like Data Scientists to free Pizza. The Net Promoter Score (NPS) only added fuel to an already growing bonfire. Before long, entire industries were on the CX incentive drug. While it did put a big focus on customer satisfaction (now called CX), like all addictions it had (and has) some dire side-effects when implemented thoughtlessly.
Side Effect 1: Those being incentive involved mostly hate it
Go into the next retail outlet you find and ask the salesperson two things; 1) if they are incentivized for their customer satisfaction ratings and (if yes) 2) what they think about it. I have yet to find one waitress, technician, salesperson, pirate, or call center rep that likes customer satisfaction linked to their compensation. The practice is universally hated by those being “motivated”. They complain that it is unfair. Some are measured on things completely out of their control or worse, the side effect of bad corporate policy.
A telecommunications installer complained to me he is held to the “would recommend others to a friend or family’ metric when many of the problems that customers have are because of the service provider, not his installation. Incorrect information, bad promises, and faulty equipment are oftentimes the culprit, not the person. The net effect is, instead of “motivating” employees, many are loathed into being compelled to chase numbers instead of focusing on helping customers.
Side Effect 2: Customers Hate It
You have a great experience and then are asked to barter for a good grade. That’s leaves a bad taste in the mouth of anyone. Sometimes, we hear stories of retailers harassing or threatening customers into giving a score. You feel kind of guilty or dishonest depending on which way you go in your evaluation. Think about it, you may be paying big bucks for a system that actually negatively impacts the customer experience? Ludicrous.
Side Effect 3: It Doesn’t Work
After 20 years of trying to incentive retailers and employees to be better at customer experience, customer experience ratings haven’t really budged.
Forrester Chief Research office Cliff Condon was quoted as saying,
“Though brands are catching on to the fact that high-quality customer experience correlates with business growth, it’s alarming that progress on improving CX has stalled for the third year in a row.“
After literally billions of dollars spent on incentivizing end users what we do have to show for it? Did it sell more cars or booked more hotel rooms? The evidence isn’t really there. We have to find a better way.
So, should we give up on CX?
I think not. Listening to your customers is a good thing. Companies that do so and act on it are better. That is clear in the data.
After a 20+ year frontline view of the industry, I believe the problem is not in the concept of CX, it is in trying to incentivize behaviors of those who may be indifferent to the concept. We need to move away from pushing the horses to the water to finding horses who are thirsty and smart enough to drink in the first place. We need to stop incentivizing CX scores as the default approach and reallocate funds to areas that will actually make a difference. Wonder what they are? Thought you might ask…
1. Hire the Right Horses
Gallup is spot on here, you are what you eat… or in this case getting the right raw material into your organization. Not everyone is cut out for customer service. Let’s take Bob as an example. He’s a genius technical guru. If you have a programming glitch or data problem, he will burn the midnight oil to find out the problem and fix it faster than a rack of Apache servers with huge buffers and 36-bit quantum processors. However, he is the last person you want talking to customers. Bob lacks that special human je ne sais quoi and is, well, perhaps a bit too direct for the average bear. Should we fire Bob? Hell no. Should he be talking to customers? Hell no. Point is, put the right people in the right places. Hire and promote the right people into the jobs they are good at. Great companies like Disney, Four Seasons, and USAA know this and practice it.
2. Look in the Mirror
In doing this for a long time, I would guesstimate more than half of customer experience problems can be traced back to shortcomings in the three Ps: process, policy, or product. There are very few malicious jerks out there just wanting to make your life miserable by screwing up your reservation or fast food order.
Most employees honestly want to do right by customers and are dismayed when they can’t. Many times, it is a ridiculous or untimely return policy, a process which ping-pongs people around 10 different departments, or substandard product that make people angry. Can it be an incompetent employee? Sure sometimes, but the company also has a very large (and often ignored) role here in improving things.
3. Fix Problems AND Look for Opportunities
Yea yea yea. If you fix a problem for a customer she will come back again if you don’t, she will tell 10 others about how much you suck. This is more than CX folklore having been consistently been shown to be a CX fact. Though a bit of ‘old news’ CXOs and COOs love this stuff and eat it up.
That being said, it doesn’t exactly light the world on fire for the CMO or CSO. They don’t want to hear about loss avoidance, they want to hear about growth. They are interested in getting more customers and selling more to existing ones.
CX can do that. Why not? Instead of just worrying about fixing customers, let’s worry about fixing prospects. Irritation with the ordering system is not any different than irritation with the return system, you are just a different status. If we reframe the problems from just retention to sales and retention that will get much more attention from your C-Suite
4. Use the Tools
There are so many great tools afforded by both EFM, ERP, and CRM companies nowadays. There are single and double loop follow up tools, action planning, learning management systems, workflow, expert system, and knowledge management systems.
Many of these systems have become very affordable and very powerful. Some are also integrated into existing systems. Sadly, these tools aren’t used as often as we would hope. First, they are not always emancipated from the clutches of headquarters or an elite few who have access to them, second if they are, no one knows how to use them, and third they often poorly integrated.
Hmmm…. if there was only some firm that could help integrate all these things…. while you ponder that (hint: it’s us) I think there is one other big change that has to made to make your investment in CX fruitful, but it’s a hard one because it is cultural.
5. Stop Being a Parent and Start Being a Partner
Once upon a time the trajectory of the average professional worker in the United States was linear. You went to college, earned a degree, enrolled into a trainee program worked for one company until retirement upon which time you were given a gold watch and retired to Boca Raton to play golf, worry about the lawn, and turn a rich bronze hue. In these halcyon mid-century days, the company was seen as the benevolent parent figure and the employee as the vulnerable and (hopefully) obedient child.
No longer. In our new economy, both young and old tend more often to be-bop from job to job as the venerable ‘employment contact’ between worker and employer gives way to the ‘gig economy’.
Yet, many corporations have failed to change their view on retailers, outlets, and front-line employees to match with the times.
To some in HQ these stakeholders are just hapless idiots who are a necessary evil in order to sell their amazing product, not the self-sufficient and entrepreneurial that they really are.
And lest my rancor be wasted on HQ, some franchisees and field personnel view HQ as a hive of mindless sycophantic drones who are out of touch with the realities of getting shit done. The truth is neither one is right… and both are.
The solution to breaking down this stereotype can be found in social psychology, which has been working on a way to mitigate this in-group/out-group dynamic that is hardwired into our DNA. Using simple approaches and application of theory (e.g., contact theory, jigsaw approaches) we can break down walls bigger than Mr. Gorbachev.
Sure it isn’t easy, but as my grandad would say…”if it was easy you probably did it wrong”
“Oh but Dave, if we remove incentives no one will care about the customer anymore!” some might protest. While some would dismiss as poppycock (whatever that is), this argument does hold some water.
I’ve seen CSAT first hand dip after incentives were removed from large CX systems. But you have to ask; was it a decline in the experience or a decline in the measurement of it? I would argue the later. You are now just getting an undistorted picture of what is going on.
If you are just going through the motions for money, you are probably half-assing CX anyway. We have all had all experienced the difference between an I-really-care-empathic follow up call vs. a DMV-style going-through-the-motions type of follow up call. It’s akin to making your child apologize to their sibling. They will do it because you are making them, not because they are really sorry. Any successful business owner instinctively knows that their success is lays in making sure the customers loves what they do.
Incentivization merely creates the illusion of caring by spackling over the underperforming retailers who really don’t. It’s a big lie that no one on the supplier side wants to talk about because of the money at stake.
If you can’t trust your employees or business partners to do the right thing by your end customers, you should get rid of them. If you are so out of touch with your end customers that you don’t know, perhaps you should find new employment as well
There Are No Absolutes
Only the Dark Side believes in absolutes1. I, my friend, am no Sith Lord. So, I will tell you this; incentives tied to CX aren’t ALWAYS bad. There are instances where incentives are entirely appropriate. Conditioning new behaviors is a great example. “How do I get people to care about CX in first place” is a common problem statement in nascent CX organizations. In those cases, to get people to engage you’ve got to give a little of that juice. But trust me, you will want to ween your organization of the incentive drug quickly, before it becomes an unbreakable and destructive habit.
Need help in recovery? Let us know.
1 In case you are wondering what I am talking about here, please reference one of the several fine Star War films by Lucas Films
That’s the life priorities in my small hometown of Berwick in Northeast Pennsylvania. When alone, some locals will confide that their priorities are, on any given day, in a slightly different order.
There are scores of pizzerias in the area but in a recent completely unscientific poll on Facebook of more than 600 local citizens and ex-pats, three pizza places separated to the front of pizza peloton; Stuccio’s, Tuzzi’s, and Dalo’s. Each is very different and each share some very common features.
The front-runner, Stuccio’s (33% favored), is a very thin crust pizza with tons of cheese and a sweet sauce. As of this writing, Tuzzi’sand Dalo’s are in a statistical dead heat for second (24%). They too are unique to the area.
Tuzzi’s pizza has a thicker, bread-like crust with cheese spread out throughout. Dalo’s has a more concentrated placement of cheese but is also thicker; reminiscent of the
‘Old Forge’ variety served up the road outside of Scranton. Tuzzi’s and Dalo’s are excellent a day or two after served cold. Stuccio’s not so much.
All three are unusual in that are served in rectangular “sheets” or “slabs” rather than the conventional “pies”.
Locals are extremely loyal to one or more brands of pizza. It is not an Eagles vs. Steelers kind of thing; there is respect, and near veneration for each brand even if you are not an advocate. Folks are rabid fans with ex-pats having it delivered all over the world.
To outsiders, these regional iconic delicacies are often met with a shrug. To them, they seem similar, a little weird, and occasionally not to their liking±. After all, most folks think of Pizza as something you order form Dominos or Pizza Hut, it is round, thin, and sometimes with Pepperoni on top.
Those places don’t do so well in Berwick.
In fact, despite the Big 3 Pizzerias doing no advertising (Stuccio’s doesn’t even have a website) they absolutely trounce powerful national brands such as Pizza Hut and Dominos for preference by locals (80% vs. 1.2%).
So why are the locals so fanatical? Why do national brands get annihilated?
Sure, the local pizza is good. But there is something more.
Something much deeper.
More than a Recipe
Recently I have been seeing many charts in CX presentations where the speaker talks about product experience or user experience or service experience. They delineate amongst those disciplines as if customers do the same. This view may have unintended consequences, as customers do not think in terms of partitioned off pieces of the experience, but as a whole.
In some cases, the presenter then goes on and says something like, “these need to be connected together to create an omnichannel experience.” Yup.
Still others will say “there needs to be a unifying vision that connects everything.” Again, spot on.
But there is something beyond good governance, vision, and effective cross-functional collaboration that can deliver true enduring brand loyalty.
But what are they? I think we can again, of course, look to pizza for answers.
In Berwick, the iconic halls of mozzarella and tomato sauce have been frequented by folks for generations1. Stuccios, Tuzzi’s and Dalo’s have been operating in Berwick for a nearly a century or longer2. As such, each pizzeria became deeply connected to the social fabric of the town. People eat local pizza for every day occasions such as lunch and dinner, but it is also to celebrate a special event or as a treat.
People remember eating it at birthday parties, the big high school rivalry football game, Christmas Eve, as a reward for the struggling student’s improved report card, or before homecoming. It is a reward for folks who have had a particularly bad day at a, particularly hard job. And yes, you can even find these square treats at weddings and wakes.
While the local pizza is delicious, they are not just selling pizza.
They are selling home. They are selling a sense of identity and pride. Pizza is a common ground that you can argue without about without hard feelings. In fact, they aren’t ‘selling’ anything as it is part of the culture. In their own small-town way, the Berwick pizza syndicate represents extremely powerful brands; certainly, more recognized locally than disruptive brands such as Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify combined.
What lessons are there in Berwick Pizza for creating a powerful brand?
Be The Rock
First, in the forty odd years I have been noshing on my local pizza (I am a fan of Stuccios and Tuzzi’s for the record) and washing it down with a refreshing Yuengling beer, it has not changed. Not. One. Bit.
We don’t like our traditions messed with. Coke learned this the hard way with “New Coke” which was a foible lauded as marketing genius. There was a near riot when Twinkies were supposed to go out of business. There was mass protest and a run on grocery stores when Siracha was going to shut its door due to neighbors in Irwindale complaining about the smell. General Mills did a quick course correction turning Trix cereal back to its original neon colors after trying purge non-natural ingredients for its product line up due to the demands of loyalists. In psychology this is called ‘Reactance’; people just don’t like their freedoms institutions messed with and will act out in response.
While brands have to evolve, sometimes you just let something good…be good. So often we think we need to “disrupt” an industry to be a memorable brand. It’s not true. You can be memorable by delivering a consistently excellent, but unique, offering in the marketplace.
There is magic in being manically consistent. As I have written before, there is a vast amount of research that we, as species, HATE uncertainty. It is the definition of fear; the unknown. It is better to be consistently bad than great one day and horrible the next. Be consistent in what you are delivering. The only time inconsistency is good is when you deliver it consistently. For example, a scary movie, a haunted house, sky diving…you don’t know what to expect. But you expect that.
You don’t have to be a giant brand to be consistent. In fact, the smaller you are the easier it is. The first thing to do is to document your processes. The second is to ensure you are doing it consistently. Ideally, these processes are customer-first following what the customer wants versus what is easiest for you as an organization.
Know Thy Customers
Second, these pizzerias know their customers’ preferences and keep it simple. Each of these shops knows their customers, and their parents, grandparents, and sometimes their great-grandparents. It is generational customer intimacy and resultant loyalty. Venerable brands such as the Ford F-150 and Ram and Chevy Trucks have long used this to their advantage and achieve repurchase loyalty rates above 70% … consistently.
Remember to start with the customer first. Human-centered design is a central tenet of design thinking which I think is the absolute right way to solve problems and innovate. However, make sure, you are not accidentally re-siloing on the basis of the experience by dividing it up into pieces again; this time based on the journey rather than by functional areas.
Connect yourself to the community and your customers. This involves what design thinking folks call empathy. While as species we are pre-wired to naturally sort people into categories, strive to take an “us” perspective vs. a “them” perspective, despite having the psychological deck stacked against you. Be part of the community you serve not an outsider.
As a medium or large business, the lesson here is twofold; resist hubris and really understand your customer. Warren Buffet once said, ““In the world of business, the people who are most successful are those who are doing what they love.” Don’t invest yourself in enterprises that you don’t personally believe in. Also, make sure you are truly trying to understand your customers by not only relying on quantitative methods. Get out and talk with people. Really try to understand them and most of all respect them.
Embed Yourself (before you wreck yourself)
Find ways to embed yourself as part of day-to-day experiences people have in life. Connect the experiences you create to events and occasions. Coke figured out how to sell millions of bottles in India, by repositioning their product as a ‘special occasion’ drink. It sounds cliché’ but great experiences do create memories…big and small.
Finally, make your brand a habit. Facebook has been incredibly successful in having millions of users consult their application as their first task of the morning. Amazon’s Alexa is in the habit business, with people depending on it for news and weather while they go about preparing meals. Make the experience you provide a habit; if not a necessity.
Through journey mapping and ethnography figure out where you might fit into the day-to-day life of your customers and potential customers. Understand what they like and don’t like about the experience you provide. Understand where you can make yourself indispensable… or at least welcome. Ideally this is done before you start down the product development path in the first place.
As for me, I have to watch my pizza consumption nowadays. It is delicious, but not particularly healthy for you. That said, I do make an exception to call in my order early, stop in and pay my $7.75 in cash for a half sheet (they don’t take other forms of payment) and sit down with my parents to enjoy the pizza. And the memories.
1. None of the “big 3” deliver…and a few only accept cash…and all have limited hours of operation
With the pending acquisition of Qualtrics by SAP the stage is now set for what has been a long time in coming; the merger of CX, ERP, and CRM. While I’m no Nostradamus, I have been talking about this for some time…and frankly I’m surprised it took so long. For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about let me explain.
Qualtrics first cut their teeth in self-serve traditional market research software. It was doing well by all accounts, but probably not growing as fast as they would have liked. About 2-3 years ago Qualtrics made a hard right turn and starting skating straight for the EFM big guns like Medallia, InMoment, and MaritzCX to name just a few. I think folks were kind of surprised. I know I was. Why? The world of CX is vastly different than traditional market research.
First the level of analytical sophistication for the typical CX user is not as high as what is needed in MR. Most end users running a retail outlet want to know what their customers are saying and would rather endure a week long colonoscopy marathon than deal with discrete choice models using multivariate logit modeling. After all, they just need to solve for a few pretty simple use cases:
What’s my score (and will I get rewarded or punished)
That’s about 99% of all use cases in CX. However, from there it gets more complicated. There are some really unsexy issues that great CX providers have to be good at. The ‘slop factor’ in traditional MR where we can remove one respondent here or there is no bueno in CX. People are getting paid on those scores many times. Every return is sacred.
However, the CX industry is big and once you lock in a client switching costs can be high. That’s great for recurring revenue models which VC software folks are very keen on. But there’s more.
With one little tweak to the traditional CX canon, the giant world of CRM opens up wide. That tweak? The inclusion of prospects as well as customers.
Rather than helping customers, you might be helping prospects find what they want. Rather than redesigning a service experience, you are tweaking the path to purchase to optimize conversion. Super simple, on paper at least.
Beyond SAP being “kind of big deal” in the Ron Burgundy sense, they also just happen to have a pretty good CRM and ERP systems already built. Well shucks! All they need is a nifty snap-on of a CX solution and they are off to the races. Look out SFDC and Dynamics 365!
The value proposition is great; why buy a bunch of unrelated systems when you can buy one whiz-bang integrated one? Why are you talking to prospects with one system and customers with another. Who is that cool guy wearing at flat rim hat? Still reading? Just checking.
Now anyone who has been in this business for more than a week knows that technology integration isn’t easy and I can tell you first hand that cultural integration is harder still. The world will be watching this acquisition to see what they bring to the market. What does it mean to other EFMs? What does it mean to CRM? What about those research companies. All very interesting!
Not withstanding countless prognostications (including my own), the future of the industry is far from certain. However, two things are very clear to me; 1) I need to start wearing a hat more often and 2) the future of CX is clearly in the integration of CRM and EFM.
Grab some popcorn, it’s going to get more interesting.
“Sir please take your shoes off!” the TSA officer commanded.
The befuddled elderly man was rightfully confused… everyone else in line had their shoes on as they proceeded through security.
He looked around one more time as he unpacked his toiletries on the belt. Why was no else unpacking theirs?
“Sir!” the TSA officer continued moving toward the man.
“Ok ok!” he said as he struggled liberate his beige tasseled loafers from his feet.
He didn’t realize that in this regional airport they had expedited TSA-Pre passengers in the same security line as normal passengers. Expedited folks didn’t have to take their shoes off…those who weren’t did. It would confuse anyone. His experience was led by social cues, not the official rules, which were invisible to him.
Surprises are No Good
As a species humans hate surprises. The unknown is the central source of fear and anxiety. Where will I go to school? What will interest rates do? Will I get that job I want? When will Starbucks have Pumpkin Spice Latte available?
We much prefer certainty. With certainty comes the comfort of knowing what is going to happen next. We like that. It allows us to plan and make contingencies.
Psychological research is replete with examples of the human need for certainty at the individual level, from uncertainty-identity theory to organizational level processes such as Mintzberg’s plea to “protect the technical core.”
Our entire financial system loves certainty and rewards investors for it. Scary movies are scary precisely because you are uncertain about what is going to happen next. Research in psychology has long demonstrated that uncertainty makes unpleasant situations much worse.
Your Customers Hate Uncertainty
Your customers also crave certainty in their day-to-day experiences. When you pull up to that Starbucks drive-through you expect a certain sequence of events to happen. When they do, you are happy. When they don’t, you are not.
A study conducted amongst 964 CX executives last year found that organizations who consistent in the processes perform 172% better than those organizations that have inconsistent customer facing processes. In fact that data showed it was better to have no processes whatsoever than ones that are inconsistent.
The Fear of Becoming Forgettable
Some would say that if we make everything “frictionless’ you end up creating a forgettable experience. An interesting hypothesis, but one with which I disagree. Creating a great customer experience is about making the “pain” of the experience disappear but figuring out how to turbocharge the good. Countless companies have figured this out and is the chief source of blowing up and disrupting the most entrenched legacy competitors.
After all, people who are annoyed and don’t come back if you force them into an experience they don’t like, especially if there are other alternatives. We don’t really want to remember the pain of applying for a home loan and hauling your laundry to the dry cleaners. So, in that respect, the bad aspects of great experiences should be made less memorable…or extinguished completely. The removal of the negative makes the contrast of that new home or fresh dry cleaning that much more memorable. And of course, after you take care of those hygiene factors you can continue to look for ways further enhance the good aspects.
So how do you get good at consistency fast? Follow these five steps to get your organization on its way.
Step 1 – Perform process triage
Any process consistently executed is better than chaos. Therefore, the immediate imperative is to get folks to execute consistently on existing ‘folklore’ processes. Make those latent processes that some of your processes have been doing for years explicit. Get them written down and everyone doing it the same way. Anything is preferable to randomness. Document existing processes, train to them, and then making sure people are executing to them. This will patch the hole in the dam and you can then turn your attention to the hard work of developing more customer-centric processes.
Step 2 – Uncover the current journey
The next task after getting some semblance of consistency on core processes is to understand the customer journey as it is today and what customers want it to be ideally. This is accomplished by conducting internal and external journey mapping workIf you don’t have time to do the full journey (recommended) then pick a known ‘spur’ which is known to be troublesome today.
Step 3- Find out who is responsible
Once we understand the customer journey as it is today we are well positioned to redesign the processes that influence it. This is often called blueprinting: mapping back to the people, departments and policies that are influential to the process. Once you know who is responsible we can get folks together and get to work.
Step 4- Redesign the process
Business process reengineering was a great idea, but was often focused on redesigning processes around what was best for the company, not the customer. We always need to create efficiency, but not at the expense of losing customers. Ideally, you should start with what’s best for the customer and then determine how to get as close as possible to that ideal.
In redesigning processes, you want to remove the areas that are negative and irritating customers and add in those that add extra value. This is the essence of the thinking behind Blue Ocean Strategy. This redesign effort also goes beyond just process to things like communication and introducing toolsets, so process is often not the sole source from which to requisition solutions.
Step 5 – Start small and iterate
Don’t try to take on too much all at once. Experiment and figure out what works and doesn’t work. Your journey work should help you figure out what to tackle first, but that should be tempered by the technical complexity of getting it done. A good enough solution today is better than a perfect solution next month…or next year.
Moving Quick to Get Consistent and Stay Memorable
First, get consistent and do it quick. People hate the unexpected. Then focus on the customer journey and take out the bad and amplify the good. Do it based on the customer preferences and most of all do it consistently. Take away that awful fear of the unknown. And if you see someone struggling in the TSA line…help them out and maybe buy him a Pumpkin Spice Latte.