Product design plays a huge role in creating a great customer experience. While bad design is easy to spot, we often take for granted really great design in our every day world. It’s not until someone turns what we take for granted on its head that we can appreciate great design of everyday objects. That’s exactly what Katerina Kamprani did with her project entitled The Uncomfortable. Trigger warning to those with OCD…this will drive you insane!
“Dude, Dave shaved his beard!” Benji, shouted over his shoulder laughing.
His friends shook their heads smiling in the background.
“It was getting itchy,” I said.
“Duuuuude….you have to give it time,” he said smiling brightly, “the yuse?”
“Yup,” I said.
This wasn’t my co-worker. It wasn’t one of my students. Benji is the barista and all-around go-to guy at our local coffee drive-through 7Brew right here in hoppin’ Bentonville. He knows me, my wife, my kids, and even my dog.
With three locations and a fourth in the works, 7Brew founder Ron Crume had the customer at forefront in both interaction and the design of his locations when arrived here from Grants Pass, Oregon. “Drinks are a byproduct of what we sell, it’s all about the experience,” Crume shared.
Making sure he designed his locations to maximize human the interaction, there is plenty of glass used in construction, and a two-way traffic pattern with people approaching the drive-thru in both directions. Mobile order takers are out and about in all kinds of weather joking and talking with customers.
Beyond the physical and process aspects, are the people. 7Brew is quite particular who they hire. “We are very careful who we hire and want to ensure a good fit with the culture and with the team,” says Crume. Prospective employees are interviewed both by managers and the team to ensure that fit. They are looking for people who are good with people.
The crew at 7Brew are not locked into a narrow approach to customer service where they have to say some contrived tagline, are required to wear a certain amount of “flair”, or ensure they are hitting some kind of behavioral checklist. They are afforded the autonomy, within reason, to make the call for the customer. In short, they can be human. “Our goal is to change the world with one smile and act of kindness at a time,” Crume shared.
The Case for Certainty
However, a willy-nilly no-holds-bar approach to customer service can create chaos. If every barista decided how they wanted to make a mocha or deal with a distraught customer independently companies would quickly lose the ability to scale effectively. They would also lose the ability to deliver consistency, something customers absolutely hate.
As human beings we are evolutionarily hardwired to want to know what is around that next corner or over the hill. This need for knowing has been successfully translated in such psychologically fulfilling but otherwise useless tools such as the Domino’s Pizza Tracker. After all, the Pizza Tracker doesn’t help get your pizza there any faster, it just tells you when it will be there. Not too many people order a pizza and then slip out for a 1-hour jog. You order a pizza because you or your family is hungry.
At Curiosity we have found that consistent delivery even trumps an occasional good experience. There is ample evidence that people would rather have persistently mediocre or bad experiences than one that is good one time and bad the next..
So how do you overcome this chaos in customer service? Even a simple business model requires front-end training to be effective, but training is expensive and takes time. With front-line service workers and call center agents generally less educated and a higher turnover rate amongst this population, comprehensive training is difficult, but left untended creates huge variability in service.
The answer for many is to develop a standards program. Standards programs are where the organization a priori identifies behaviors and processes they want employees to follow and then enforce them through rewards and “incentives”. While we still must train, much of the grey area in service delivery can be simplified.
In using standards to develop a set of defined and simple to understand procedures and behaviors seem like a common solution. “Greet people with x minutes of arriving”, “Answer the phone within y rings”, “Keep on hold time below z minutes” are all laudable axioms and derived metrics to shoot for which are known to positively impact the customer experience.
If done well, those behavior standards are linked to explicitly customer expectation research. For example, we would know the relative impact of hold time going for 5 minutes to 10 minutes and the impact on business outcomes. This is knowable data and helps businesses optimize the cost-benefit equation.
Many businesses were able to rapidly expand their franchise and outlet models through rigid adherence to standards. Standards program were, and are, applied to even high involvement and complex interactions such as automotive sales and service, financial services, insurance, and wealth management.
In this setting the venerable “mystery shop’ is then many times used to assess behavioral and operational compliance. In the one-two punch of traditional CSAT system, direct customer feedback satisfaction is then used to evaluate the evaluative attitudes of customers. In this way we can understand and monitor if we are enforcing the right thing. “Is compliance related to the customer experience?’ and “Is the customer experience related to business outcomes?’ are both questions we can answer with a high degree of certainty.
As you can see in the very typical sample from The Performance Edge, mystery shops get to a very detailed level of behaviors. With a heritage from the world of I/O Psychology and Behavioral Anchored Rating scales (BARs), the intent is not to be overly prescriptive, but to very explicit as to what is the expectation is and what associates need to do to achieve.
This approach can be very effective, but frequently comes at a price. First, if done poorly it comes across very mechanistic to customers as if employees are “going through the motions’. We have all gotten the flat “I am so sorry sir/ma’am, but I can’t help you” response.
Second, research in psychology has shown that this approach can have the effect of decreasing the implicit motivation of doing good work by substituting an external motivation for implicit one. In this way, fun quickly turns to work for even the most spirited employees.
Finally, many front-line employees I talked to hate the experience. “I feel like I am being treated like a child…it’s ridiculous” one waitress at a local steakhouse told me.
Empowering With Purpose
So how do we minimize the chaos but maximize the humanness? Here are five proven approaches to balance humanness and still provide the consistency that the human species desires.
Robots to the Rescue!
Interestingly one solution can be found in technology. Perhaps we let the robots do the mechanistic jobs that require very specific behavioral parameter; answering within so many minutes, have a response time of y minutes, and so forth. Let make the robots the automatons like the good servants they should be. Let humans do what they are good at; being human.
Tear Down Unneeded Hierarchy
Second, you can dump the old school command and control hierarchy and empower your employees. My first job was with Carlisle Tire and Rubber implementing self-direct work teams in the production cells. It’s amazing what people will do when not treated as a child or cog in a machine…when they are respected and afforded the same freedom they enjoy in their work lives as they do in their personal lives. Sure, there has to be a “boss’ but does there have to be so many of them.
Also, empowerment isn’t just but blowing up the organization and letting people do whatever they want. Former submariner Captain David Marquet offers some excellent insights about how to empower employees effectively. In his article “6 Myths About Empowering Employees” he points out that empowering employees is not something you have to do, that they already are empowered, you just must allow them to do their jobs. However, you just don’t do it in a wanton fashion but ensure both the leadership and the employees have the competence to do so.
Obey the Spirit of the Law, Not the Letter
Third, you aren’t throwing process out the window. You are throwing needless and overly prescriptiveness processes out the window. The good folks at 7Brews have a way they take orders, they have a way they make coffee, and they have a way they take payment. It is clear, consistent, and simple. There is very little variability. However, there is room to test. In talking with the crew there, they seem encouraged to think about new ways of doing things and not just go through the motions. Micah Solomon describes how standards are viewed and used at the Four Seasons resort:
“Standards help ensure that every part of your service reflects the best way your company knows to perform it – a prescription that you autonomously performing employees can then feel free to adapt to suit the needed and wishes, expressed or unexpressed, of the customers they’re actually facing at the moment.”
Train and Inspire
Fourth, is an investment in training. Every great service organization I have encountered invests in and continuously train their employees, this includes 7Brew. The customer experience manager for the high end One and Only resort (of which there is ironically several) told me they conduct training quarterly to every month for all their employees. This training doesn’t necessarily need to be sitting down in the classroom but can be meetups for best practice sharing. It is a continued investment in the front line.
Also ensure you have the right reward and recognition in place to inspire folks. This doesn’t have to be money. Figure out what makes your workforce tick and use that to help motivate them.
Start with The Right Raw Material
Finally, and most importantly, it is getting the right talent for the job from the get-go. Some people do not belong in a customer facing role, just as some people do not belong conducting multi-nomial logit modeling. The right tool for the right job applies to human capital as well. This is well captured in Soar with Your Strengths by Don Clifton and Paula Nelson, where they encourage people to reinforce and chase after what they are good at, and stop worrying as much about what you are bad at.
Whether Benji and the crew at 7Brew in rural Arkansas were born as genuinely gregarious and happy people or learned it from their environment is a debate to be had in academia. In the world of great customer experience, you want these folks on the front line. You want them following processes that make sense but allow for autonomy and room for front-line innovation. Most of all you want to pick the right people for the job, training them, and then let them be them.
In business school we were all taught about the 4 Ps: Price, Product, Promotion, and Place. I remember teaching graduate level Strategic Marketing and the author of the book had decided to also throw in an “S” (Service) to salute the experiential flag. While the four Ps are certainly important, an over reliance and focus on them may have forced entire industries down a myopic product centered hole.
In the hallowed halls of consumer package goods (CPG) where the magic Ps were first conjured and codified we are finding this particular potion, no matter the alchemy employed, lacks the potency it once possessed.
On all sides ‘Big Food’ is under assault and they and the associated adjacencies are suffering. Disruptors on all sides are sourcing more local, organic, and relatable products and brands. Customers are no longer shopping in the middle of the store as much as they are around the edges, if they are shopping in the store anymore at all.
Many reasons, but the focus on the Four Ps created an overly atomistic and reductionist approach to product development, design, and marketing. It is a formula to be optimized with customer input as the test subject. Like Rhesus Monkeys in some subterranean laboratory, customers are used as stimulus-response subjects to help hone and refine the product. Does this taste sweeter? Does this taste saltier? What do you think of this package? Blue or Red? Do you like it? Why or why not?
Admittedly this approach created some very addictive chicken nuggets and pork chop coatings, but this 1960s approach where the brand manager played the role of the beneficent product god and customers were his flock of “consumers” misses a very important point.
People do not buy products; they buy experiences.
Customers do not buy cereal, they are looking for how to feed their kids in the morning and keep them happy and healthy. They don’t buy dolls or toy cars they buy the experience of playing with that doll or the creative endeavor of creating a make-believe city out of the living room carpet.
This product myopia is not relegated to CPG by any means. Insurance companies are struggling as to how to sell life insurance policies to millennials who fail to see the point. The hospitality industry is trying to assert its relevance over aggressive boutique experience providers. The automotive industry is about to be turned on its head as product planners continue to plan products while young people are increasingly delaying getting a licenseand would rather not own a car if they didn’t have to. It affects almost every industry.
The evidence was in plain sight for a long time, but accelerant has been thrown on experiential fire by millennials and newer generations of the “sharing economy” who view owning stuff as a needless investment when money could be much wisely put toward hiking the PCT or hang gliding in Belize.
So what do we do?
The first important step is we all need to take a step back. Hold hands and chant “we don’t sell products, we sell experiences.” We need to radically re-think how we “do” product development and marketing from the ground up. It is coming to terms that we are not providing a product with features, we are providing an experience.
So how do we proceed from there? The steps are familiar, the substance of doing them may not be.
Who is Your Customer?
First, we need to define who it is we are talking about as customers. Is it one person or many? Is it retirees or school children? Men or women? Defining your customer is more accurately done psychometrically then demographically as one is typically just a surrogate for the other, but nonetheless some kind of profile is better than none as experiential desires vary greatly by individuals. Getting crisp on “who” is very important before we start talking about the what…however, those conversation invariably possess a recursive quality.
What do they Want?
If you ask people what they want different in their Ketchup they will tell you things like size, taste, color and so forth. These are the tangible product attributes that people get their brains and around and we, as researchers, have trained them to talk about. If you get lucky you might have an eureka! moment and find out they want to get the ketchup out of the bottle easier. However, the conversation is always about ketchup.
In order to really get to what people want we need to reframe the problem. What is the underlying experience they want to have? How do we get to it? Is it really about ketchup? Or is it about picnics or baseball games?
Customers have a very hard time expressing this in the abstract. The famous quote of customers wanting a faster horse buggy is spot on; customers can’t project their future product needs; that’s our job.
Getting To Experiences
Over the years researchers have come up with different ways of getting to “underlying needs” such as laddering techniques and other project techniques. I think those can work, but have some pragmatic limitations. When we start laddering up to “self-actualization” or “connectedness” as the underlying need, you oftentimes see the look of sheer terror on the product planner and marketers’ face. How does one design to “connectedness”? No, we need something a bit more concrete.
I have found the best way to evoke what people want from their experience is looking at their customer journey today and contrasting that to what that might ideally look like in the future. We are not confining people to attributes, colors, and prices. This involves a mix of observing behaviors, looking at trends, and actually talking to people.
Take for example the founder story of Uber
“On a snowy Paris evening in 2008, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp had trouble hailing a cab. So they came up with a simple idea—tap a button, get a ride.
What started as an app to request premium black cars in a few metropolitan areas is now changing the logistical fabric of cities around the world. Whether it’s a ride, a sandwich, or a package, we use technology to give people what they want, when they want it.”
What did Uber do? They took away all of the bad stuff and added in the only the stuff that improved the experience. They didn’t make a better taxi, they re-engineered the experience of getting from point A to point B better.
So now we understand the journey and it’s time to get to work. Unfortunately, in this new world it is not just the product planning and brand managers at the helm of the Starship Experience, it takes the whole crew. We are creating experiences, and that involves many people including manufacturing, sales, human resources, operations, product planning, marketing, and many facets of the organizations. If you have retail partners, franchisee, or third party installers; this involves them too.
Oh yeah, those pesky “consumers”… we want to talk with them too. In fact, getting the folks together who are using your stuff with those building stuff is a really great way to supercharge the design process. This approached saved Lego’s bacon and others. We have to get everyone to the table with a common understanding of the customer, their journey today, a common vision for the future, and only then can we design.
Also, it’s important to keep it simple and iterative. The iPhone 6 wasn’t created over night; nor was that F-150 or that tasty can of Thai Chili Star-Kist Tuna. Everything thing on this planet evolved from previous iterations that morphed and changed to best survive and thrive in an ever-changing ecosystem. Those ecosystems change, so must the products and services within them. In fact, one tends to influence the other. Experiential design is no different. It is an iterative, learning, and building endeavor.
Less Ps more CX
So are the four Ps irrelevant? Of course not, they are just a subset of other characteristics we need to consider when designing experiences. Tweaks to existing product offerings are still appropriate, but tweaking at the expense of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture is where companies get caught on their heels.
True experiential design involves more than just product configuration and throwing blue crystals into laundry detergent. If you want to survive in this rapidly pulsating environment, long cycle gated product development approaches won’t do. Move quick and iteratively. Check you instruments but not at the expense of stopping the boat. We must be look at what customer really want and then deliver it to them, quickly, and holistically.