Why Market Research has Failed and How to Fix it

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

27%.

That’s horrible.

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

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

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

1. Clearly define what you are trying to solve

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

Source: CuriosityCX Example

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

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

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

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

2. Bring Everyone Along

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

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

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

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

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

3. Create Stuff

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

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

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

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

4. Build Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

It looked like this

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

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

Making Story Boards

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

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

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

4. Test Stuff

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

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

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

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

5. Refine

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

Getting Away from Reports

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Learning CX by Doing: Reflections from our Ozark AirBnBs

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.

Bentonville is blessed with hundreds of miles of hard packed and off-road trails. As such it has become a hot spot for Mountain Bikers through the country (and world). We established the Trailhouse to cater to these folks specifically. 

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.

How Incentives Can Ruin Your CX Program

“If you don’t give me all 10s, I will get fired”

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. 

According to the National American Customer Satisfaction Index we went from a 75 in 1994 to 77 across all industries. Two whole points in a nearly a quarter century! Hurrah!

In Forrester’s Customer Experience Index they reported a decline from 2016 to 2017 in the experiences companies deliver across industries amongst 314 brands collected from 120,000 individuals. In a follow up in 2018 they recently reported no changes. None. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zero.

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.

Alarming indeed.

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.

Artist conception of Bob (SNL Nick Burns Tech Support Guy)

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”

But…but…but

“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. 

Next!

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

This article originally appeared on Customerthink

A History of CX Tech

This article is third in a three-part series on the past and future of CX with a focus on role of technology in customer experience. Read the first and second pieces on ama.org. The series is a partnership between Dave Fish, Michigan State University visiting professor and founder of CuriosityCX, and Brian Keehner, a candidate in the master of science in market research program at Michigan State University.

The term customer experience (CX) has taken on a much broader meaning than it once did. Initially relegated to post-purchase engagements and viewed as a cost of doing business, CX is now regularly interpreted to encompass the entire consumer journey. It has emerged from the backrooms of customer support to the forefront. The world of customer experience has progressed from a collection of unrelated disciplines that vary by department and company to a coordinated effort with resources and authority.

Origins of Customer Experience

We did not arrive here overnight or even in the past few decades. CX originates from sources as disparate as call center technology and marketing analytics. Clearly, CX will continue to adapt, grow and change in the future. But its origins can help us understand where it is going.

Market Research

Market research emerged in the 1920s as a way of testing and improving advertising. Psychologists such as Dan Starch and George Gallup advanced the fledgling field of market research through the application of scientific principles. Following the post-WWII consumerism boom, market research began to truly emerge as a field of its own. Rooted in advertising and marketing, demand for market research expanded to almost every sector by the 1970s.

Total quality management (TQM) and other customer-focused initiatives rose to prominence by the mid-1980s, and the concept of customer satisfaction subsequently took off. Since customer satisfaction looked like the typical “frame-measure-report-action framework” found in traditional market research, many agencies jumped into customer satisfaction.

One early adopter was Rogers Research, which was acquired by Maritz in the mid-70s. Maritz, a company founded on incentivizing employees to improve performance, used customer satisfaction scores as performance indicators, marking the start of a long and tumultuous marriage between scores and performance. The firm soon started conducting large-scale customer satisfaction studies in Detroit and still does today as MaritzCX. At around the same time, as legend has it, JD “Dave” Power knocked on the doors of Toyota Motor Industrial Equipment and soon started what was to become the quality syndicated business JD Power and Associates. While JD Power initially focused on product quality, it made the jump into the service side of the business in the 1980s.

Process reengineering and quality initiatives increased during the mid-1990s, abetted by a considerable amount of academic squabbling, and created what is often hailed as the “golden age” for traditional market research firms conducting customer satisfaction-focused work. Bradley Gale, author of Managing Customer Value, and others were shifting the discussion from customer satisfaction to customer value. Their theory was that merely ensuring customer satisfaction is not enough, but rather value had to be better demonstrated. Customer value management (CVM) expanded the world from just examining post-purchase aspects to looking at quality, pricing, communication and other aspects of the experience that drive customer value.

Maritz and JD Power became key players in the customer experience arena and were joined by other firms including Gallup, Burke, iSky and Walker Research. At the same time, titans of market research such as Synovate (later acquired by Ipsos), TNS and GfK began gobbling up smaller firms around the world.

In the early days, customer experience research was largely conducted via phone or direct mail. Paper reports were initially used to present findings. With the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s, research companies began transitioning to outbound e-mail and built tailor-made reporting portals. These portals were largely customized for individual client needs and moved paper reports to tabular, web-based reports, which proved to be an easier and more cost-effective way to disseminate data.

Clients quickly became interested in customizing their web reporting sites, and research companies, who were used to accommodating ad hoc requests, happily obliged. This practice resulted in each client essentially having its own highly customized personal reporting website; but these sites were expensive to build, initially plagued with quality issues and required perpetual care and development as new technology and security concerns emerged. It also effectively locked out smaller client organizations that could not afford the hefty price tag associated with these large custom enterprise systems.

It was around the late-1990s when new competitors began appearing from other ad agencies and applied a new approach to the problem of capturing the voice of the customer. The industry leaders were initially dismissive of these new upstarts, as is all too common in industries facing change. Little did they know how this emergence would foreshadow disruption.

The Tech Startups and EFM

In 2001, Esteban Kolsky, then a Gartner analyst, began writing about customer feedback systems, which soon became known as enterprise feedback management (EFM). In the mid-2000s, several tech startups began appearing in Silicon Valley, Salt Lake City, Vancouver, Toronto and parts of Europe.

Early players included Service Management Group (1991), Confirmit (1996), Mindshare (1997), Empathica (2001) (now part of InMoment), Medallia (2001), Qualtrics (2002) and Allegiance (2005) (now part of MaritzCX). While their approaches all varied slightly, the common value proposition was this: We can deliver 80% of your needed functionality in near real-time for a fraction of the cost of bespoke solutions, and we are able to integrate multiple data sets.

Most were able to deliver on the promise of a fast, basic approach to customer feedback gathering and dissemination, but the boom of customization came at a cost. Early players set the stage by creating the demand for ad hoc programs. Firms found the high price of building customized platforms less fiscally prudent than repurposing existing programs that could produce a similar end result.

For a while, large traditional research players were selling high-end custom solutions tailored to large enterprise clients. The new EFM upstarts, in contrast, were selling standard solutions out of the box to small and medium-sized businesses. These differing approaches allowed both to occupy their own respective niche.

Each player seemed to follow the practice of picking their own area of specialty and largely preoccupied themselves with pursuing dominance of that respective vertical. Beyond tradition industries like travel, hospitality and business services, EFM systems have been applied to human resources (e.g., Namely, Workday and ADP), health care (e.g., Access and Perigen) and the nonprofit sector (e.g., Vovici and Ruffalo Noel Levitz).

This started to change dramatically in the mid-2000s. The EFM firms now became mortal threats to the entrenched research firms. But it wasn’t just the EFM players who sensed opportunity and wanted a slice of the action.

Call Centers

Call centers were logical places for customer satisfaction feedback systems to take root and flourish. With large transactional volumes, typically younger and/or less experienced agents, and a strong emphasis on performance metrics and coaching, call centers were aching for the insight voice that the customer could provide. Companies like ResponseTek and others sensed this desire and offered a platform that could handle the complexities of systems with many agents and organizational hierarchies that changed almost daily. It was only a matter of time until call center software companies would design their own EFM platforms.

Sensing opportunity, call center software providers added value to their existing technology. Verint is a very large call center, customer engagement and surveillance technology provider. With sales surpassing $1 billion in 2017, it has also created customer feedback software systems that many of its customers use in addition to their own EFM software application.

Born out of the Israeli intelligence community in 1986, NICE systems now has revenues more than $1 billion as well. With a pedigree for security, surveillance and call center software, NICE built its own EFM software initially for post-call center satisfaction. NICE recently acquired Satmetrix to further establish itself in the CX technology space. Another player of note is Convergys, who also operates in the EFM space and has a call center technology heritage.

The NPS Effect

The seminal work of Fred Reichheld, Bain, and Satmetrix appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 2003. Called the Net Promoter Scores (NPS), it was a simple way to take on two major problems in the CX world at the time: complexity and ROI.

First, many of the voice-of-the-customer systems at the time had complicated weighting systems and indices which were difficult for users to understand. In contrast, NPS was understandable for executives and front-line employees alike. It is a simple, 11-point scale that subtracts brand “detractors” from brand “promoters.” As is the case with many popular ideas, the simplicity of the idea made it appealing and aided in adoption.

Second, client companies were investing millions in CX, often seeing little in return for their efforts. While others have demonstrated the link between customer experience and business outcomes, none did so as eloquently as NPS.

While there is still much controversy around the NPS concept, no one can debate the impact it has had on the industry. When asked whether it helped or harmed the industry, Customerthink editor Bob Thompson said, “I have to edge to ‘helped’…NPS is a key reason that people are interested in CX and why it’s become a boardroom issue.”

Not long after, in 2011, the CX discipline was further advanced with the founding of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) by Bruce Temkin and Jeanne Bliss. This created an intellectual home for people from many different disciplines and reinforced the legitimacy of the field of CX.

Where We Are Today

Despite repeated claims of EFM’s death, both the term and the application are very healthy and growing, albeit under alternative acronyms, such as CFM. Likewise, CXPA appears to be healthy and growing with close to 14,000 followers on LinkedIn.

Today, the definition and purview of customer experience continues to grow, with many looking at the “C” in CX and wondering if it does not capture an end-to-end experience. After all, the CVM work of the 1990s was looking at aspects of the experience outside of post-purchase (to a limited degree), but never really established a beachhead into acquisition, the traditional province of marketing. Today, with a call to “bring down the silos” inside organizations, CX is finally starting to break the bonds of post-purchase experience to be more inclusive of the entire journey, from catalyst to disposal.

While there are many different types of organizations in the CX space, the EFM firms who have infused technology into domain expertise form the basis of the industry. Their increasingly large footprint in the CX space has them poised to continue to redefine the industry. These firms vary considerably in the size of their business and the scope of their CX management solutions, but they have a wide global reach. This global presence is supported with myriad office locations, predominantly throughout North America and Europe, which support customers in more than 50 countries across the world. Who will be on top in five, 10, or 20 years is anyone’s guess, but here are today’s key players (listed in alphabetical order).

Clarabridge
Reston, Virginia
Clarabridge is an experience management and text analytics software provider.

Confirmit
Oslo, Norway
Confirmit is a provider of voice-of-customer and market research software.

Customerville
Seattle, Washington
Customerville is a customer experience-focused survey software provider.

InMoment
South Jordan, Utah
InMoment is a customer experience-based management company.

Market Force Information
Norcross, Georgia
Market Force Information specializes in CX management solutions that are designed to deliver location-level customer feedback.

MaritzCX
Lehi, Utah
MaritzCX is a customer experience-focused company.

Medallia
San Mateo, California
Medallia is a provider of SaaS customer experience management solutions.

Questback
Oslo, Norway
Questback is a provider of online survey and feedback management solutions.

Satmetrix
San Mateo, California
Satmetrix specializes in customer experience management software.

Qualtrics
Provo, Utah
Qualtrics is an experience management software company.

ResponseTek
Vancouver, Canada
ResponseTek is a provider of enterprise customer experience management solutions.

Service Management Group
Kansas City, Missouri
SMG (Service Management Group) is a CX technology and insights company.

How to Fire Proof Your Burning CX House

 

Exhausted and disappointed…and a bit baffled. That’s how I felt when I walked out of a trendy Indianapolis-area hotel last Sunday. I’d had maybe three hours of sleep and was facing a five hour drive home, which was plenty of time to reflect on my experience and how it could have gone better.

The hotel had lived up to its online image, looking very much like a Restoration Hardware catalog come to life, so we were pleased when we checked in just before Midnight. Long story short, by 4:00 a.m., I’d had multiple direct chats with rowdy hall-partiers, called the front desk twice, and not yet slept. When I checked out in the morning and recounted my experience to the guest services manager, he responded without averting his gaze from his computer screen, saying

“Well, I wasn’t here last night, so…”

What did I want him to do?

All too often, customers complain in an attempt at recompense, hoping for some form of compensation for their pain and suffering, so it stands to reason many employees would assume that is the end-game of any disgruntled customer. When an employee is not able or empowered to provide relief, he or she might feel powerless to offer anything other than an apology. But who walks away satisfied after receiving a tepid apology (or worse, a lethargic blame-dodge)?

Think of it from the perspective of a personal relationship; someone you know does you wrong and you decide to talk to them about it directly. Do you expect that person to pull out his wallet and offer you $50 for your suffering? Or did you hope that person would make a sincere commitment to avoid repeating the behavior, and then hold true to that promise? If an apology is the end of the interaction, with no commitment to improvement, why would I risk interacting with you again? Fool me twice, shame on me.

Translating that to business, customers with no emotional engagement with your brand have even less motivation to return. If they see your house is on fire, why would they run in? If you are not providing multiple channels by which employees can share customer feedback with appropriate leadership, if you aren’t taking that customer feedback and using it to improve operations and related processes, if you are not creating a culture of active improvement over apologies, your house is on fire and you’re letting it burn while you keep busy doing other things. If you are constantly offering refunds, price adjustments, or other forms of compensation to angry customers, your house is on fire and you just threw your wallet in for good measure.

Fire Proofing

Here are some steps that can help you move from house-fire to hero.

  1. Man the sirens. Establish communication channels for employees to relay customer feedback. Make it easy for your employees to capture feedback through sound files or quick transcription so they can relay it appropriately. Make it easy for your employees to do that. Email, a central listening post, an application made available at point of sale; find a solution that works for your business and your employees.
  2. Train your firefighters. Establish triage processes. Empower employees to resolve the immediate issue with the customer. Emphasize that customer feedback should be shared through the established communication channels. Enable employees to make a commitment to action, rather than an apology statement.
  3. Conduct the arson investigation. You’re receiving customer and employee feedback. Read it. Listen to it. Think about it. Make it a discipline to review customer feedback as frequently as possible.
  4. Identify the source of the fire. Think systems, not isolated interactions. The fire has already been put out. Now it’s time to think about the underlying systems, resources, and processes at play in creating that fire in the first place.
  5. Make your customer experiences fire-proof. Once you ascertain the root cause and impacted elements, follow through. Address what is broken, improve what can be improved, practice the discipline of keeping the commitment made to the customer.

If your brand promise does not involve repeatedly burning your customers, maybe give this approach a try. Reflecting on my own experience, had the guest services manager looked me in the eye, thanked me for voicing my experience, and expressed his commitment to sharing that feedback with his leadership so they could find better solutions going forward, I would have walked away smiling.

Maturity Models: Being Human vs. Being Mature

I came so close to dropping the ball on my husband’s birthday.

Let me tell you, he’s a guy who absolutely deserves to be celebrated on his day. However, it’s unfailingly difficult to think of a gift for my husband, who claims he already has everything he wants. With only two days to go and no ideas, I turned to my sister. She is one of those people with the gift of gifting. Not a Christmas nor birthday passes that she doesn’t make half of us cry with her thoughtful, insightful, personal presents. She was to be my savior in this birthday debacle; after five minutes on the phone lamenting my dilemma, she casually tossed out the most perfect idea and I ran with it. Some people were just born to delight others; they know how people want to be treated.

Models, models everywhere…

A colleague recently asked me about the customer experience maturity model and its relevance in the modern CX space. I recalled the numerous maturity models I’d participated in creating over the past two decades and found myself feeling, well, tired; tired of talking about it, tired of iterations, tired of heralds proclaiming the best new model, and tired of witnessing those models lead nowhere far too often.

Ten or fifteen years ago, I was working on the front line of designing and building huge, global customer feedback programs and simultaneously building out the business processes to support them. In those days, customer experience maturity models seemed so clever. Something in me embraced the science of understanding the difference between my small-scale forklift-manufacturing client and my Big 3 auto client, and their distinct approaches to customer experience, and the concept of maturity kind of worked. Since then, though, I have fallen out of love with the maturity model. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate it. I think the model can be useful in some cases. However, I think it’s long past time we got honest about something.

The model is academic; it’s rigid, linear, and theoretical. It implies that maturing is a sequential process that must be completed step-wise, mastering one level of maturity before passing through the gate to the next. Forrester’s model describes a “path to CX maturity.” Gartner’s model recommends that a company should “head for higher levels of customer experience maturity.” There is, inherent in this thinking, the notion of a system or set of processes, experiences, or decisions by which maturity can be acquired or achieved. If we do the right things, in the right order, and with the passage of time, we can bring about an organization’s CX enlightenment.

With all due respect to those who have authored models over the years, this is bullshit, and we all know it.

It seems many of us forgot or never knew that the model is a tool to help organizations understand how behaviors link to results at discrete points in time. Maturity isn’t what shifts organizations to a customer-centric culture; maturity isn’t what drives front-line employees to enjoy delighting customers; and maturity isn’t what attracts and retains customers who are loyal, life-long, promoters.

It’s not difficult to think of upstarts (Cards Against Humanity, Trader Joe’s, Tesla, 1-800-FLOWERS) who were born with a knack for customer experience and can delight customers without tensing a muscle. It’s also easy to recall decades-old brands that provided exceptional experiences in the past, but are lagging now (Carmax, Applebees). But if it’s not maturity, what is it?

The Right People Doing the Right Things

In my experience, great customer experience reflects the extent to which a company identifies, creates, and fulfills opportunities for extraordinary CX. The companies who practice this principle exceptionally well are those with access to at least one person who has a high degree of empathy, insight, and creativity.

Empathic, creative, inspired people:

  • Reach into the customer journey, experience, and feedback to discern what matters;
  • Listen to employees and work to understand their challenges in delivering on the brand promise;
  • Stand back from the noise and ask what CX & EX opportunities are unmet;
  • Scope up and down through this holistic insight to prioritize opportunities and a recommend a plan for action;
  • Keep it simple.

If you’re not already working with a person or team who can drive your CX strategy based on these talents and insights, hire one. Stop reading this blog post and do it now. Find a human being who is particularly good at being human, who understands people and can analyze information, who is probably a fantastic gift-giver, and hire them.

Regardless of what a company is doing today, no matter the subjective maturity ranking, any company can see rapid benefit from the presence of an empathic, creative, inspired individual or team if it is willing to commit the necessary resources. Look at the influencers you follow on LinkedIn, look at the disruptors and those companies that raise the CX bar – what do they have in common? It isn’t maturity, it’s leaders who understand what customers want and how they want to be treated. Then they put customers first, trusting that shareholder value will follow.

It isn’t about maturity. It’s much more spiritual than that, you see. It’s about perspective and willingness, inspiration and resourcefulness, honest self-appraisal and actually putting customers first – not just saying you do. Most likely, most of what you need is already available to you. Perhaps someone has told you that you must pass through the next three levels of maturity and the Candy Cane forest before you reach the summit.  Perhaps you’re drowning in articles about CX and wondering how buying another [trendy solution] will help you delight your customers. Chances are, you just need a fresh perspective and a high quality human being. I might even know some folks who can help.

 

Grounded CX and the Tale of a Yoga Fail

As I stepped to the top of my yoga mat, the teacher instructed to ground into your feet and firmly place your palms on the mat. Take a standing split then rise slowly into a handstand. (Anyone who has practiced yoga understands the amount of strength required to execute a balanced handstand. If you aren’t familiar, just know it’s really freaking difficult).

Caught in the excitement of accepting this challenge, I clumsily dropped my hands to the ground, skipped the standing split and hurriedly leapt into what likely looked like a contorted pretzel of limbs flailing about, ending in a loud grunt and thud on the hardwood floor. For a quick visual, imagine something like this (sound on):

What started as an exciting vision of a graceful hand-standing yogi ended as a tweaked back and punished ego. I later realized that I likely had the strength required to raise into a handstand, but in order to execute properly, needed to focus on grounding into my mat, staying with my breath, and finding balance before jumping into the final pose.

Later, while immersed in my usual CuriosityCX advisory work, I began to draw the obvious connection between my failed handstand and CX programs that all too often skip grounding in the basics in pursuit of more complexity and excitement. Like my lack of focus in the basic exercise of grounding into the yoga mat, many CX teams lose sight of the basics of a program, leaving a shoddy foundation which eventually leads to a crash. Sound familiar? Then namaste with me and keep reading.  

Through my long CX journey, what is consistently missing in CX programs that are faltering is a practical guide to get people back to “why are we doing this?” – a nod to the basics and focus on grounding. Synthesizing a decade of experience working with diverse brands from startups to the Fortune 100, I share 3 grounding principles that must be executed before even one strand of CX DNA can be built:

  1. Get organized and align

Round up as many people (ideally those with authority) from different parts of your organization as possible – everyone (should) know they have a hand in CX impact, so cast a wide net and aim for diversity.

  • Don’t send a mass email asking for volunteers. Offer taking individuals for coffee or lunch to explain the high-level need and why you’d like them to have a seat at the table
  • The C-suite simply must sit on the committee to ensure CX success. In a perfect world, the President/CEO sits on this committee from day one. When this is unrealistic, go as high as you can in the organization and never stop pushing the envelope until executives are at the table

You’ll be tempted to recruit your close internal network and friends – this can be fatal for a CX team as it often leads to a herd mentality and lack of action. Instead, focus on recruiting people you don’t know, or even known “haters” of CX. It’s your job to help them understand the importance of delivering experiences to drive improvement, so keep them in your camp and include them in the process.

  • Define roles and goals – who is responsible for doing what and when? What are the resources for getting these things done on time? What is the committee’s 30/60/90 day plan? What about 12 months? 18 months?
  • Keep this high-level and strategic. Don’t get caught up in the weeds. The weeds will change depending on partner landscape (e.g. technology platform, consulting firm, market research, etc)
  • Align (at all levels) on the vision for the CX committee and goals therein

Once you’ve established your CX committee (what we CX strategists often call “governance structure”), you can begin to level-set on the actual experience your brand is trying to deliver. A surprising amount of companies (even among the largest in the world), have little to no consensus around their ideal customer experience. Consistency around the experience is a foundational element that is often overlooked.

2. Define the experience you are trying to deliver

This doesn’t have to be a fancy or lengthy process – some of the most engaging experience ideation sessions started and ended with sticky notes (and strong coffee). Don’t use lack of budget as an excuse. You CAN accomplish this on a pauper’s budget (Don’t let big market research firms dupe you into thinking otherwise). Some suggestions to get you started:

  • Spend a full day physically walking “in the customer’s shoes” (however that is defined in your business…you don’t have to have physical stores to have a journey)
  • Host a retreat (ideally in a quiet place…nature helps) to get the creative juices flowing and have a free-form ideation session
  • Follow up with an in-office strategy session once the ideas/free-form discussion has been synthesized into a tangible “map” of sorts that illustrates the ideal customer experience

Rapid journey mapping is an excellent and quick way to be successful in this exercise, but even some napkin drawings are better than nothing (and sticky notes are your friend). The goal is to ensure alignment relative to how the customer interacts with you, which will ultimately help you understand what to measure and frankly how to even begin (or refresh) your research. A few critical key things to map:

  • Moments of truth/ points in the experience that are most pivotal and memorable for customers?
  • Pain points of the experience?
  • During which parts of the experience are your competitors’ experiences recognized?
  • Opportunities to weave brand strategy, ideology, mindset into experiences throughout the entire journey, and beyond

The CX landscape shifts constantly and thus defining experiences is an iterative process. Engage in Agile CX™ and consistent experience design sessions periodically. Establish a cadence that makes sense for your unique business needs, and always keep a pulse on your customer by measuring the experience and taking action on customer feedback (don’t ask unless you intend to act).

Once you have a committee and well-articulated and agreed ideal experience, you will be tempted to build out a research plan, start writing questionnaires and rally teams to execute. I encourage you to push pause and stay focused on the basics before driving toward program evolution. The third and equally important grounding principle of CX is communicating the cause internally in a meaningful and engaging way.

3. Communicate and inspire internal teams

Effective, efficient and consistent communication is absolutely critical for CX success. A few ideas to support the effort:

  • Brand the program with laser focus on ensuring alignment with the overall core ideology of the organization
  • Ensure your marketing team is completely in tune with your vision, purposefully integrating CX language and images into as many pieces of internal content as possible
  • Integrate real customer stories into the internal communication by showing internal partners “in their own words” snippets – these can be open-ended comments, compilations from social media, videos, etc. Sky’s the limit. Get creative to drive engagement internally.
  • Let’s be honest – nobody gets excited about a 100-slide deck. The human attention span continues to wane, so don’t shove something akin to a graduate-level dissertation on colleagues’ desks. Use video to increase adoption. Not many people are inspired by emails, but a quick 1-min video explaining the branded CX program over lunch sounds more interesting.

Regardless of your place along the CX journey, re-rooting in these grounding principles can help your teams build a program with lasting impact. Just like a yoga handstand is only as successful as its basic grounded footwork, only when you are deeply rooted in these three CX principles should you begin to execute research, drive insight, and tell meaningful stories that impact your business for the better.

So ask yourself, are you grounded in CX, or has your program strayed from the righteous path? Have you lost connection and balance? It’s time to get to work focusing on the basics, centering your team, and driving a more foundationally sound CX practice. Let’s collaborate: kate@curiositycx.com

How to Get Your Front Line Focused on CX

Probably the biggest under-acknowledged challenge in launching a new CX initiative is engaging front line employees. Real time data collection is pointless if only an exclusive group of technocrats in HQ can see the results. We can’t start to think about action if the front line does not have, understand, or feel the information is meaningful to them. But how do we get the word out?

Dashboards

Dashboarding has become very popular of communicating complex data simply. Companies such as TableauDomomTAB, and Dapresy have some very impressive dashboarding tools. These can be assembled quickly and inexpensively. Here is a nice interactive example in Tableau Public of a fairly comprehensive dashboard designed by Gustavo Alberto for the fictitious Krusty Burger chain, albeit in Español.

Most CFM providers have a configurable dashboarding component as well. The fact that most of these tools are also mobile enabled helps field engagement with the information as well.

However, even dashboarding can be asking a bit much for the busy frontline worker. The average working joe or jane who is out in the parking lot, behind the register, or in the call center really might not have the time, interest, or know-how to consult their NPS dashboard to see how well they are doing. How can they find out?

Making CX Public

We know that engaging the front line can make or break the success of a CX initiative. They are the intersection between the brand and the customer in most instances. How do we make them aware of what is going on?

The answer may be simple. Why not go public with CX results? Let’s put our report card on a very public refrigerator for the world to see.

This accomplishes a number of goals. First, it puts CX attitudinal and behavioral metrics right under the nose of the very people who can make a difference. Most motivation theories such as Expectancy Theory and Job Characteristic Model hold that feedback is very important in improving performance. It also makes a good deal of sense. How do I know if I am improving if you don’t tell me on a regular basis?

Second, for customers it provides a degree of transparency about the performance of that location and gives them assurances that this is a good place to shop. The fact that a store isn’t perfect is not seen as a negative any more than your credit score or your score on the vintage Donkey Kong machine in your local pizza parlor. A “Not Perfect” provides motivation for those in the store and creates a sense of trust with the customer that the books are not, in fact, cooked.

In Store Public Displays

Many companies have taken this to heart. This example shows Weis Grocery store displaying their CX efforts in a low-tech but effective manner.

df_feedback_weis

Here we see some challenges in the Produce and Seafood departments but some recent victories in Bakery, Deli, and Pharmacy. This information is posted right in the front of the store for all to see. To associates it is a constant reminder of what still needs to get done and to customers it says we are serious about customer experience and are always striving to improve.

The other nice feature of this simple approach is it involves everyone. Ostensibly the GM and/or department heads are physically updating their scores and changes on a regular basis. As a result, I would imagine the employees in the department discuss regularly and are attuned to those scores. Finally, customers see it every time they shop. In short, it engages all stakeholders where it matters; on the front line.

This second example comes from the London Midlands Railway in the central Britain. This is posted right at the station, not hidden away in some corner of the station, but right next to the ticket counter.

df_feedback_midlands

You can see here they display operational data (e.g., on-time performance), along with the trend. Right next to that information you can see how they handle the human side of the business with information about information provided and “staff attitude”. A very nice summary of all results can be found online here as well.

Online Public Displays

Publicly displayed information about Customer Experience need not be relegated to physical locations. While digital reviews are fairly ubiquitous not everyone has the fortitude to let all reviews get posted unfettered. In some cases, corporate sponsored CX metrics systems either cherry pick reviews or filter out the bad ones. This practice, however, has consequences. The biggest of which that consumers will stop believing them if they appear to be tampered with.

Here is a nice example from Best Buy that lets the CX cards fall where they may. You can see that the reviews are verified (they have to be purchasers). If you were to scroll down you would see many that are not so stellar.

df_feedback_bestbuy

This level of transparency not only helps customers make a good choice, it allows for self-policing of CX so long as it does not degenerate in a quid pro quo economy where there are favors (i.e., incentives) traded for good reviews. That is a topic for a whole different post.

Many others, particularly in hospitality, have adopted a similar approach, thus creating a natural selection system for CX. While some ratings site have been criticized by having reviews suppressed and others have been accused of not being vigilant enough in preventing fake reviews, other companies like SureCritic Reputation.com, and others act as intermediary of reviews that seek out to post the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Driving Engagement and Trust

We live in a time of information transparency. It is expected by customers and integral to consumer decision making. A recent report by Deloitte found that almost 80 percent of consumers have interacted with brands before they even set foot in-store.

While CX information is important for consumer decision making, it also has a large role in driving both employee and customer engagement. Those dashboards and reports sitting back in HQ do little to get buy-in from the field. The private curation of data is seen as Big Brother paternalistically trying to keep tabs on regions and outlets that clearly cannot be trusted.

You can start to turn the cultural ship a bit by democratizing the data. Push CX and operational data down to the lowest level and get the front line’s buy in. If it’s under everyone’s nose every day and they feel like they have some part in influencing it, it will help drive behavior.

Second, I personally prefer the low-tech version in lieu of, or in addition to, technology based solutions. The grocery example is easy to set up, requires about $29.99 of investment and requires local management and front-line employees to engage in the process versus being passive recipients of data.

Third, make CX simple and embed it into the culture. I know many hotels and retailers start the day by reviewing customer feedback. This a great practice that gets everyone focused on the customer rather than the score. It includes everyone in the solution; and most importantly those who can make the biggest difference.

Finally, the practice of cherry picking, tampering, incentivizing, or modifying customer feedback before it gets to the public domain is a very bad one. People aren’t stupid and will catch on to these shenanigans. It will reduce perceptions of trust and they will, over time, dismiss the information as bogus, transforming an entire feedback mechanism into an enormous waste of everyone’s time and money.

Making it Visible

Getting unvarnished customer experience feedback out in the public, in a simple to understand, and non-punitive fashion will help engagement with employees and also engender trust in customers that you are dedicated to making sure they have a rock star experience. When people have access to the data, believe in it, and understand its impact they will be much more apt to do something about it. And action is the whole reason for any CX initiative