The Wabi Sabi of CX: Shoot for Authenticity not Perfection

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

Laura Captor’s Recipe Box

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

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

Be Who You Are

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

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

Image result for saturn car
1996 SC2 from Flickr Creative Commons

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

Connect to Your Heritage

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

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

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

Image result for guinness beer
Guinness Goodness from Pixabay.com

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

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

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

There is Beauty in Imperfection

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

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

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

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

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

Turn Liabilities to Assets

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

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

Notes:

[1] https://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html

[2] https://www.makesthatdidntmakeit.com/geo

[3] https://www.autonews.com/article/20111031/CHEVY100/310319911/identity-crisis-geo-gave-dealers-an-import-that-wasn-t-or-was-it

[4] https://www.forbes.com/2010/03/08/saturn-gm-innovation-leadership-managing-failure.html?sh=1d4fcafa6ee3

[5] https://www.irishpost.com/news/sales-of-guinness-in-ireland-down-following-sharp-decline-in-demand-190390#:~:text=Guinness%20sales%20were%20down%20across,halved%20to%20%C2%A32.1bn.

[6] https://www.treblezine.com/27339-10-great-songs-with-mistakes/

[7] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/between-cultures/201701/the-beauty-imperfection

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

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.

God. Family. Pizza.

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.

Creating Memories

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.

Coda

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.

Photo by Dave Fish

Notes:

1. None of the “big 3” deliver…and a few only accept cash…and all have limited hours of operation

2. Dalo’s was founded in 1910, Tuzzi’s in 1919, and Stuccio’s in 1948.