Supercharging CX using Nature

Close your eyes and think about your most memorable positive customer experiences (CX) from your past. 

Hopefully you’ve opened your eyes by now.

Now ask yourself, where were you?

Were you working in an office cubicle or classroom?

Were you on an airplane or in your car?

Were you shopping or at a restaurant?

Probably not. I bet most of your great memories were in some way connected to nature.

It might have been that moment of silence on the water or on a tranquil desert mountain peak where you could hear your watch tick-tick-tick. It may have been the crackling of an outdoor fire enjoyed with friends or the sound of the surf hitting the shore. Maybe it was braving the rapids or being out in the crisp chill of autumn amongst rustling leaves and the faint smell of burning leaves. Perhaps it was seeing a shooting star for the first time.

As a species we appear to have a special bond with nature. We have a deep-seated need to connect with mother earth to feed our happiness. In conducting research last year on micro-housing one of the consistent findings from experts and the literature had to do with access to nature. Urban planners advise on giving close access to parks and the outdoors. Experts in urban housing emphasized the importance of access to at least some kind of view of the outside world when confined to small confine spaces. 

Windows in spaceships are expensive and hard to design, yet NASA has consistently afforded astronauts a view of this big blue marble from afar, despite having no real rational need to do so. In fact, the international space offers the Cupola which offers a spectacular 360 view. The Cupola was repeatedly cut off out of the budget for being “unnecessary” only to brought back at a cost of $27 million dollars[1]. Apparently, it is important to have a view, especially when orbiting at 17,130 mph, 254 miles from the surface of the planet.

My interest was further sparked upon learning about biophilic design[2]While I had long held a fascination and respect for environmental design ever since my graduate school days, biophilic design takes this to an entirely different level. The basic idea of biophilic design is this: in architectural design we need to take the outside world (i.e., nature) and bring it inside.

It seems to have some of its origins in the design of zoos. Zookeepers started noticing that the animals in traditional enclosures were, well, unhappy to put it mildly. Many animals sat in corners or hid out of sight without moving. Breeding for many species was a near impossibility. They were in clinical terms; depressed. In the late 1990s zoos started rethinking how they cared for animals. Instead of cages and pens they created habitats for the animals. This had an instant impact on the animals and visitors alike. Animals became healthier both mentally and physically and visitors enjoyed seeing animals in their “natural habitat” even if it was a bit contrived.

We Are Just a Bunch of Animals

At some point we have, for some reason, come to think of our natural habitat as an office building or inside a modern home with artificial air, light, sounds, textures, and smells. It’s not. Notwithstanding the last 200 – 300 years, we have always been mostly outdoor pets. Sure, we might have slept in a shanty or a cave, but we were hunters and gatherers for 95% of existence and then a mostly agrarian society the last 12,000 years. As recently as 1900 more than 60% of Americans lived in rural areas and 40% of Americans lived on farms. Today, less than 20% of the population lives in rural areas, and just 1% live on farms.[3]

With more people now working from home and taking advantage of morning walks or lunchtime strolls, home workers are realizing it’s not just missing the commute that is improving their mood, Many have had time to slow down and literally smell the roses. There is ample evidence we like being outside and that people in rural communities are systematically happier than those living in urban communities. Virtually, every study I have conducted in CX where we can geocode home location, people are just less happy in cities…not just with insurance and coffee…but with life[4].

Likewise, there is growing peer-reviewed research that shows that people live and work in more natural environments enjoy many mental and physical advantages. Data appears to support biophilic designs reducing stress, improving cognition, and learning in Universities, and shortening patient stays in hospitals.[5] Cost saving per employee are estimated by some to be $2,000 per employee per year or $93 million in annual health cares…just by providing views to nature[6].

What it Means for CX

So do we all move to the country farm, commune, or kibbutz? I don’t see that happening. However, there are some pointers we can take and apply to experiential design.

1. Get the Outside, Inside

The implications for a customer experience design are evident. Creating warm inviting natural settings is going to make customers feel better about their experience and want to come back more often. From a retailing standpoint, we can make our retailscapes more appealing by incorporating nature in the design. Ever go to a greenhouse or garden store? It’s filled with living things, that generally make people smile and feel at ease.

Imagine a grocery shopping experience that looked more like a foraging event, then walking down sterile aisles with boxes and boxes of copy and paste “food”. Not possible? A working prototype for this concept is your local farmer’s market. Other stores are experimenting with different aspects of bringing the outside in.

The Apple Store in San Francisco has large trees lined inside the store with earth tones and wood floors. The 360 Mall in Kuwait looks like an indoor forest in places with massive windows allowing natural light to flow in.

Source: WikiCommons

Fashion retailer H&M is experimenting with biophilic designs in their store in Hammersmith, UK with many plants and natural stone floors featured as part of the retail space[7]. Skin, hair, and body care retailer Aesop has beautiful clean stone floors and walls…with some large boulder place strategically which gives a sense of calming and peace[8].

Bass Pro is well known for its amazing indoor tanks and life-like staging of outdoor scenes, complete with real plants (and in the case of fish real animals). Yeti uses campfire scents its Austin flagship to store to get shoppers in the right mood[9]

Source: WikiCommons

Ever wonder why everyone wants to have outdoor seating when the weather is nice or why that little restaurant at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (Blue Bayou) looks so appealing? Nature calls, especially when we are hungry. Restaurant proprietors have taken notice. 

Source: WikiCommons

Agritourism has enjoyed an enormous boom as well and is expected to continue from $70 billion today to $117 billion by 2027[10]. Inclusion of nature into dining has grown substantially and new farm-to-table has also flourished where you can eat your salad literally yards from which it was picked. 

2. Mimic Nature

If you can’t bring nature into your retail and service setting, perhaps an approximate simulation will do. I always enjoyed the beautiful pond and giant bamboo groves embedded in the lobby of Westin at the Detroit Airport. What better way to escape the claustrophobia of the inside of an airplane by walking into a huge Asian inspired atrium. Sure the 60’ timber bamboo grooves are fake, but they look real enough. It provides a peaceful oasis in the middle a bustling and stressful airport.

Furniture providers have caught on too. Whitney Brothers has launched a new study pod for students that features various outdoor scenes and also provides separation from other students in this age of social distancing[11]. While using natural elements is always preferred, sometimes it is not reality or possible, so mimicking nature is the next best thing

3. Use Nature as Analog

We are hardwired to understand aspects of nature. We know red means danger and green generally means good. While there is some social conditioning (such as stop lights), those symbols in turn may be embedded in our genome. Red, is fire, and generally is something you want to be cautious about and green is general something good and positive, such as a nice sprig to chew on. Related, the science of biomimicry[12] uses nature as a teacher on how best design systems and solve problems.

Biomimicry is used to inform control systems as well as designs itself. Research into the humpback wales flippers allowed Whalepower to re-engineer blade design to increase electrical production by 20%.[13] The Wright brothers flying machines was inspired by pigeons. The profile of the B-2 bomber looks almost identical to the profile of a hawk while in flight. Velcro was modeled after annoying burrs from the burdock plant led to the hook and loop structure we use every day[14]. It’s hard to beat millions of years of evolution, so why not use what nature has already learned?

4. Sustainability

In my youth, the sad Mutual of Omaha Native American and Smokey the Bear were the extent of true sustainability consciousness for most Americans. Flicking cigarette butts out the window of your car or ditching garbage on the side of the road was not unusual to witness on American roadways. During most of the 20th century nature was seen by most Westerners as something to conquer, abuse, and use as we please. Thankfully, that sentiment has dramatically changed. 

Sustainability has come to the forefront of companies, governments, and organizations around the world. From biodegradable cups and cutlery to clean energy, the world has slowly turned toward respecting the environment as something that can be damaged and need of care for it to thrive. This has also come to forefront of consumer decision making. In a study conducted by Nielsen, 81% of consumers stated it was “extremely” or “very” important that companies implement programs to improve the environment and nearly 1/3rd said they would be willing to pay a premium to do business with companies that carry through on their sustainability commitment[15]. Customers are now making the decision on where to buy, and not to buy, based on how green the company’s policies and approaches are. Companies that do not embrace this consumer prerogative suffer the consequences.

Naturally Nature

While there are many excellent recommendations on how to create memorable experience in the abstract such as being surprising, emotional, etc., I have noticed relatively little written on what elements to actually use to make those moments memorable. I would submit that including nature in your experiential design is a foundational one. Of course, using nature doesn’t make sense for everything. In some cases, it may be difficult to determine how to incorporate it into your design. However, thinking about the physicality of nature as well as the process of nature may help bring inspiration in rethinking the experience you provide for your customers, members, and employees.



[2] [2] Kllert, S.R., & Calbrese, E.F. (2016). The Pracitce of Biophilic Design. Downloaded from



[5] Peters, T.& D’Penna, K. (2020). Biophilic Design for Restorative University Learning Environments: A Critical Review of Literature and Design Recommendations. Sustainability, 12, p1-17.











Stop Wasting Time on Making CX Frictionless

“Good night Clarence I had a truly w o n d e r f u l evening,” Alabama said on the steps of her front porch on a beautiful August evening.

They had just had a lovely dinner at a fancy restaurant and then enjoyed some live music afterward. The full moon glowed on the couple as cicadas quietly chirped in the distance.

Clarence looked down nervously, anticipating this first date moment of truth and carefully planning his next move. He gathered his courage and his breath and then went for it.

“Alabama?” Clarence stammered as he looked deeply into her eyes.

“Yes, Clarence?” swooned Alabama.

“On a scale of zero through ten, how likely would you be to recommend this date to a friend or relative?”

Sound ridiculous? It is, yet we subject our customers to this kind of non-thinking metric abuse much more often than we should.

That’s not to say measurement isn’t important. It is and is largely responsible for me making my mortgage payment and beer budget for the last 30 years. However, so much time and energy is spent on measurement, I have concluded that most Customer Experience (CX) programs are lacking something else very important.

In Praise of Measurement

One of my favorite management gurus, Peter Drucker, was reputedly fond of saying “only what gets measured, gets managed.” And managed the customer experience has been over the last 50 years, all too often focusing on metrics vs. true outcomes. Most CX programs (many of which are really Voice of the Customer (VOC) programs) focus on asking customers about their experience in very specific terms. They ask how promptly you were greeted or how well was the representative able to answer your questions or resolve your issue. As such, that level of detail has been often the main focus.

While there is a place for the details, perhaps we are being too atomistic and reductionistic in our measurement. I have conducted thousands of ‘driver analyses’ where the independent variables were aspects of the experience (e.g., prompt services, comfort of blah blah blah) where the dependent variable was some form of “overall experience” or “would recommend”. Most of these models come up short on explaining the variance in these outcome measures, even with the benefit of mono-method measurement bias. Why is that?

Attributes vs. Experiences

Imagine for a moment designing a traditional VOC measurement to evaluate your partner or romantic interest. You might provide a rating on attractiveness, witty repartee, intellect, and so on. Does such an approach really provide a good measurement of your interest and attachment to that person? Would it be predictive in continuing the relationship? Probably not. In that scenario you are measuring attributes of your romantic interest, not the experience that you had with them and what makes you look past dirty dishes in the sink or dirty socks left on the floor and instead remember those piña coladas together at O’ Malley’s.

The truth is, most VOC programs are compliance-driven and operate just one rung above mystery shopping programs. While those mystery shopping programs can tell you, with some certainty, is if the bathrooms are clean, and today’s orthodox VOC program will tell you if that cleanliness was pleasing to the customer. What neither of them does is tell how to create an amazing memorable experience in the first place.

Revisiting “Quality”

Noriako Kano (1984) addressed this issue nearly forty years ago with the method now known as the “Kano” model. Building on Herzberg’s (1959) two factor model, he had four “satisfaction drivers”: must-be, attractive, one dimensional, and indifferent. 

“Must-be quality” or “Basic Needs” are those things that we are disappointed by if they are not there (such as a car not turning on). They do nothing to make us love the experience if it is there. They are expected. “One dimensional” quality as known as “Satisfiers” have a linear relationship between satisfaction and the attribute. For example, as price decreases satisfaction increases. “Indifferent” drivers are those that are largely irrelevant to the customer and so, therefore, has little influence on consumer behavior (loyalty or otherwise).

The final dimension is what Kano called “Attractive Quality”. It has also been referred to as “delighters”, these are the unexpected things that happen that make the experience exciting.

Given “basic needs” are satisfied, the “delighter” measurement dimension was seen as the holy grail amongst VOC folks. While you are unlikely to revisit a hotel with no electricity and a lukewarm shower, it is hardly going to make you want to come back just because when you turn the light switch on it works and the water in the shower is warm enough (“must bes”). Also, you can only get the pillow and sheet so soft and get the price so low (“satisfiers”). So “delighting” customers became all the rage. But the measurement of this became somewhat of a challenge.

VOC’s Eldorado…

Delight is after all, by definition, undefined so you can’t exactly put it on a survey. It’s that surprise that you didn’t expect. Some folks tried just measuring it directly, but that tends to be an awkward method and probably does not capture the true essence of delight. For some reason asking, “On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being undelighted and 10 being truly delighted, how delighted was the experience today?” doesn’t seem to cut it. Others have tried a more organic approach by asking open ends about “most memorable” experiences to limited success.

The true problem in measuring delight in this fashion is that it cannot be measured at the atomistic level nor should it be measured as an attribute, but as an experience as a whole. In fact, I don’t think you can directly measure “delight” at all. You must create delight, not be preoccupied with measuring it.

While traditional CX metrics have a critical role in assessing the success of these experiments, as an industry we have become too dependent on fixing problems versus creating experiences. You’re not going to frictionless your way to creating memorable “peak” experiences. While you could probably capture what happened via voice to text and text analytics, the only way to measure it really, is as a behavioral intention or business outcome.

Designing Experiences

As an industry we need to put less emphasis on compliance and incremental improvement and more focus on experience design. Sure, we still need to monitor how the experience is going, but are you going to really differentiate your brand by having really clean bathrooms or really soft pillows. At some point, there are diminishing returns. We need to think bigger.

Thankfully, traditional product development research techniques combined with more human-centered design thinking approaches can move us from compliance to creation. It starts with understanding the current customers (and their manifest and latent needs) and their current customer journey. While we can look at the current journey and say “where can we reduce ‘friction’ points?” that will only get us so far. Are you going to really win people’s hearts by spackling over annoyances? You may well just be created a frictionless but also boring experience.

In their excellent book The Power of Moments the Heath Brothers (2017) talk about this concept extensively. They talk about ‘building peaks’ rather than ‘fixing potholes”. The idea is that customers remember the awesome stuff and that is paramount in creating amazing experiences (and returning customers). They don’t remember the long lines, humidity, and bad smells of Disneyland, but do remember the 16 minutes on the Pirates of the Caribbean or the 3 minutes riding Space Mountain. Experiential time, it turns out, is not proportional to the actual time. 

Of course, no amount of roller coaster rides or pictures with costumed actors will make up for the spoiled chili dog that made you wished for mercy from above, but the point is, just removing ‘friction points’ makes Jack a very dull boy. The Heath brothers provide many fine examples of reimagining the experience from the first day on the job journey or the Popsicle Hot-Line at the Magic Castle Hotel where guests can order a popsicle free of charge delivered on a silver plate. That’s where experiential magic lays.

This really is the essence of moving us forward in customer experience. We should focus on creating, prototyping, and deploying minimal viable product experiences rather than getting mired down in the measurement of atomistic attribute benefits of products and services. There is a larger Gestalt here.

Where to Start?

This can start with what Farhad Manjoo (2003) of the Wall Street Journal calls the Andy Rooney business plan. It goes like this: “first, find the most annoying, obvious problem that millions of people deal with every day. Then ask if things really have to be that way.”

If you pay attention, these opportunities are everywhere.

  • Does landscaping equipment (i.e., leaf blowers, etc.) need to be so loud?
  • Why is health care and insurance in the United States so bewilderingly complicated?
  • Why do we need professionals to help us with taxes?
  • Why do we need to drive to a giant warehouse and go down aisles to put a can of beans in our cart that are identical to 50 other cans of beans on the shelf?
  • Why do I need to drive to work every day, only to sit behind a computer most of it?
  • Why does higher education have to be a pursuit where the professor lectures and the students listen?

Sweat the Small Stuff

Changing a classroom and changing an organization are magnitudes of scale different. If you are feeling like experiential design is a monumental task requiring immediate large scale organizational change, let me allay your concerns. While organizational commitment to change is a pre-requisite for improvement, these changes can be made over time. Large scale change needs to be made in a series of boot-strapped successes (or at least learnings) building on one another.

Second, little things can have a big impact. An unexpected box of chocolates or 6 pack of local beer for hotel or Airbnb guests can create an inexpensive and memorable surprise for guests. A cook inviting a young aspirational chef for a quick tour of the kitchen in an upscale restaurant, or perhaps even the wink of an eye from a professional athlete to fan can make a huge impression. You can’t necessarily plan all of these experiences, but you can select, train, and empower your employees to do so. Experiences aren’t necessarily designed; they are, many times, improvised with customers in a shared experience.

Learn by Doing

While a bias for experimentation is important there are circumstances where that proposition is too risky. Funerals, weddings, and emergencies are probably not good times to experiment with new concepts ‘live”. In these cases, or if you simply don’t want to rush into just “doing”, you can adopt a more conservative approach by conducting concept testing first. Good ole fashion experimental design and storyboarding can go a long way in ironing out the kinks of a new way of doing something and mitigating the risk with customers.

While traditional CX metrics play a critical role in assessing the success of these experiments, as an industry we have become too dependent on fixing problems versus creating experiences. You’re not going to frictionless your way to creating memorable “peak” experiences. We need to figure out where those underlying needs and desires are and then use our creativity to enable and create experiences that keep customers coming back again and again.


Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2017). The Power of Moments. Simon & Schuster.

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”


“Oh but Dave, if we remove incentives no one will care about the customer anymore!” some might protest. While some would dismiss as poppycock (whatever that is), this argument does hold some water.

I’ve seen CSAT first hand dip after incentives were removed from large CX systems. But you have to ask; was it a decline in the experience or a decline in the measurement of it? I would argue the later. You are now just getting an undistorted picture of what is going on.

If you are just going through the motions for money, you are probably half-assing CX anyway. We have all had all experienced the difference between an I-really-care-empathic follow up call vs. a DMV-style going-through-the-motions type of follow up call. It’s akin to making your child apologize to their sibling. They will do it because you are making them, not because they are really sorry. Any successful business owner instinctively knows that their success is lays in making sure the customers loves what they do. 


Incentivization merely creates the illusion of caring by spackling over the underperforming retailers who really don’t. It’s a big lie that no one on the supplier side wants to talk about because of the money at stake.

If you can’t trust your employees or business partners to do the right thing by your end customers, you should get rid of them. If you are so out of touch with your end customers that you don’t know, perhaps you should find new employment as well

There Are No Absolutes

Only the Dark Side believes in absolutes1. I, my friend, am no Sith Lord. So, I will tell you this; incentives tied to CX aren’t ALWAYS bad. There are instances where incentives are entirely appropriate. Conditioning new behaviors is a great example. “How do I get people to care about CX in first place” is a common problem statement in nascent CX organizations. In those cases, to get people to engage you’ve got to give a little of that juice. But trust me, you will want to ween your organization of the incentive drug quickly, before it becomes an unbreakable and destructive habit.

Need help in recovery? Let us know.

1 In case you are wondering what I am talking about here, please reference one of the several fine Star War films by Lucas Films

This article originally appeared on Customerthink

The Secret to Finding True Customer Insight

“I guess we just made a big mistake,” Jonah said.

He looked directly at me for a moment and then downward at his wrinkled hands collecting his thoughts as the sun was setting, casting long shadows across the kitchen table.

His wife reached out and laid her hands protectively on his while Jonah looked me directly in the eye.  They both had something to say. The retired couple were visibly upset but were doing their best to keep their composure.

“We are of modest means,” he started.

As he began his tale I could see tears swelling in his partner’s eyes. Jonah was sitting broomstick straight stoic, his bubbling rage barely constrained behind his dark blue eyes. She sat silent, interjecting on occasion. They both had a message to send. I was to be their messenger. I was there to be their confessor and offer, perhaps, some small degree of absolution.

In this in-home interview, we weren’t talking about a loved one lost. We weren’t talking about a swindled retirement savings or some form of nefarious flim-flam that convinced Jonah and his wife to buy brackish real estate in Florida. We were discussing an automotive purchase, about which they now had very serious misgivings.

“We just believed in them…we feel so betrayed….” she said.

This was very real for them, and in their presence I felt their worry. I experienced their remorse. I felt their pain. I walked away from the interview moved, a bit sad and much wiser. What survey could have captured this?

An undergraduate professor I once had related how he couldn’t conduct surveys because he thought them impersonal and even insulting to participants. He judged them, on the whole, disrespectful and indignant. At the time I dismissed him as being an overly sensitive neo-hippy lacking monetary drive who should just go back to his yurt and carve a new bong out of reclaimed barn wood.

I have recently started to rethink my judgment of the good professor’s position.

Much of the research industry has long viewed the respondent as a commoditized, and largely free, raw ingredient in which to make insight sausages. The ideas being we could just zap enough people in a panel to fill our quotas and off we go. A filled quota is a filled quota after all.

As much as the thought of the mechanization of queuing people to answer your inquiries is appealing, I would encourage you to think about who exactly are taking these long boring surveys.

I have become deeply suspicious of some panels that prod their herds to complete some really poorly constructed “self service” surveys through incentives. Flat-liners, speeders, repeaters, and plain old cheaters are prevalent. There are even software programs that will cheat for you that are available for purchase. A.I. is let lose upon the untended yearning fields of uncompleted questionnaires to do what humans are loathe to do.

As a Professor at the University of Arkansas, I asked my students to describe what taking survey was like using only one word.

“Annoying” “boring” and “pointless” led the list.

In designing surveys, I encourage those same students to ask themselves “would I fill this out”? If not, you should think about a redesign…or different approach completely.

Surveys have their place. I don’t think they are going anywhere soon, but we should become much better at choosing our audiences and creating better and engaging designs.

Good data comes at a price. That price is investing the time to really care about what people have to say and listening in ways that they want to communicate. To not view them as the raw grist for the insight mill to process.

Every day millions of posts are made on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Much of this communication is the expression opinions about people, product, places, and things. Why do people share these things? Because they are provided a forum in which they feel heard. A forum, in which some small way, their voices matter. This empowers people.

So let’s not dump surveys altogether, but become more attuned to the people you are talking to. They are real people with real problems, fears, and dreams. Be with them as a partner and confident, not as some indifferent corporate scientist.

The key to gaining great insight can be found in respectful and careful listening. It is about engaging in deliberate empathy. This is where real insight is uncovered; the ability to see the world from the viewpoint of the people you are interested in understanding.

You will get so much more from this approach even in smaller sample sizes than some sterile panel survey that goes out to god knows who or what. Keep it real. Keep it human.

The fundamentals of consumer research are sound. Companies are still very interested in what their customers have to say. Customers are very interested in sharing their opinions and experiences.

The trick is to listen to your customers in a way they want to be heard. Let them know you care. Be their messenger. Respect them. And if possible, be their advocate.

How to Keep Your Brand Human at Scale


“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.

Crush Your Next Customer Experience Presentation with these 10 Tips

A very young petite brunette got up from her seat and walked to the front of the large conference room filled with mostly jaded middle aged men from the automotive industry give a presentation on, of all things, their customer experience results. The crowd simmered down and she smiled briefly at the room as the technician prepared the projection equipment. She ruffled through her notes.

I thought “Oh boy, she’s going to get killed.”

No one likes bad news, and in my experience, no one likes bad news less than millionaire dealership franchise owners. And for many there was going to be very, very bad news today. I almost covered my eyes as she started…it was that painful. And then something amazing happened.

She crushed it.

She got off the mark like a professional sprinter. Articulate and focused, it wasn’t about the slides it was about the message; stop trying to maximize short term profits at the expense of long term loyalty.

The entire crowd, myself included, badly underestimated her. This young women talked to these powerful men about their customer experience with respect, but clear confidence. She pointed out the strengths of their operations. But she also pointed out where improvement was needed. She didn’t mix words.

These dealers had a big experience problem with price negotiation. They were hanging on to the old “four square” approach to pricing and their customers weren’t having it. It contributed to strong feelings of mistrust. Modern customers demand more transparency in pricing or they will just pick up and leave.

She looked them in the eye and provided iron clad evidence of their problem using customer experience and financial data, but did it through relatable storytelling. Using data and anecdote as a one-two punch, she related a personal story of her own mother getting mixed up in a price negotiation at a local dealership. It didn’t end well. It was a lost sale for the dealership.

She wasn’t lecturing. She was approachable. She invited them in to comment as it was just a conversation. She smiled and cleverly countered objections.

“Hey kid, I make a lot of money using that technique” one veteran car guy challenged her.

“Well, maybe you do Bob. I will give you that. But most don’t”

She then produced a slide looking at the relationship between different pricing tactics and the impact on customer experience and average gross profit. Bob stopped talking.

 “Also, let’s think about the long-term consequence … do you think those customers will come back again? Where do you think they will service that vehicle? What will they tell their friends?”

I looked around. There weren’t one set eyes that weren’t on her and what she was saying.

Impressive. And then something else amazing happened.

At the break, I looked around the room. The entire audience was either on the phone or sending emails or both. I serendipitously eavesdropped a bit and could hear these dealers talking to their managers about the results and what should be done. Actually, the volume level of some would not merit a “talking” status, but more of a “yelling” one. Action was happening. Right there and then.

Creating the Killer CX Presentation

We’ve all been there. We’ve all seen a few of the VOC presentations like the young women above and some real train wrecks. But what separates great VOC presentations from the real stinkers?

As CX practitioners our main job is to draw people in, engaged them in the results, and ultimately get them to do something. If they don’t understand what they are looking at that won’t happen. If they don’t care or believe what you are telling them that’s a dead end too.

Only through adroit and impactful storytelling can we really inspire our audience to take action. Here are some the tricks that our young presenter used and you can too in delivering a rock star level VOC.

  1. The Wrapper Counts

Many people buy wine because of the label. It’s true. You chose your romantic partner because you were attracted to their appearance. People like beautiful things. This includes your presentation.

Attention to detail and making things beautiful will open people up to your presentation and make them pay attention. Make it look clean, uncluttered, and inviting. On this issue, it is instructive to listen to Sheryl, our veteran real estate agent, on how to sell a home through compelling presentation…

Make it look homey and comfortable, but like it could be the [prospective] buyers’ home…but WAY better. You want them to believe they would feel comfortable there… get rid of the clutter off of all the surfaces and get rid of the brick-a-brack. Make a beautiful canvas which they can complete to their desire…also use silver…silver sells

While I cannot vouch for silver selling, her other pointers are spot on. Make your VOC presentation for your audience. Make them believe they can live in it. Make it their own and eliminate clutter. If graphic design isn’t your thing, find someone who can help. There are amazingly talented people out there just waiting for a chance to help you.

  1. Define Your Story Arc

Story telling is an iterative process, doubly so for the CX and Insights professional. First, you need to figure out what the data is saying and then you need to figure out your story and how to say it. Don’t go near Powerpoint before you have a well-developed idea and plan on both fronts. Some of the more analytically minded may be tempted to put a question down and just answer it. Don’t do that.

People who know what they are talking about don’t need Powerpoint” – Steve Jobs

Create a story by following the familiar pattern of exposition, rising action, climax, resolution, and conclusion. Provide the ground work in exposition. Make a big uncomfortable problem for your audience. Make them squirm if you can. Make it build. Admire the problem and layer on other aspects of it. At some point, there is an apex and resolution. Then we reflect. Every great story follows some variation of this very simple and ancient formula. Make sure you follow some variant of this general arc to keep your audience engaged.

  1. Provide Context

Part of the story is defining why you are yapping at them in the first place. Sure, you have been heads-down looking at which kind of hair in the drain is the most distasteful to hotel customers, but your audience has no idea what you are going to talk about or why they should care. Set the stage. Provide some background and context about you are going to talk about. Talk about the industry, the competitive set, and trends.

Punch them in the face with something controversial to get their attention. Get them just a little off guard. Talk about anything in the set up that will answer the question: why should I care about your CX presentation today.

Sure, you are going to annoy some insiders with some review material, but people generally like to hear even familiar material. It makes them feel smart. They may even chime in with their own observations and comments which what you want from an engagement standpoint.

  1. Connect the Dots

I hate taco stands that only sell tacos. Ok, that’s a lie. I love taco stands that only sell tacos, but my point is people usually want more than tacos to eat. Your audience also doesn’t want to hear about just your quantitative or qualitative study even if automates turn signals for the elderly and enables orphans to divide by zero. Any attorney worth their $1,100 Italian shoes knows that multiple forms of evidence is much more convincing than a single source.

If needed you can use your VOC study as the center piece, but bring other components in to support and explain what is going on. Use operational, behavioral, market, sales or any other data that helps support your point.

This also has the added benefit of making you smarter and getting other folks in your organization engaged with what you are doing. Notice a dip in the availability of 60lbs parchment paper in Louisville? Get on the horn and find out. Talk to the district manager. Talk to the distributors. Talk directly customers. In short, roll your sleeves up and connect the dots for your audience. You find out some really interesting surprises in your investigation.

  1. Make it Personal and Relevant

The more authentic you are the more people will tune into your channel. Be yourself and relatable in delivering result. Make your presentation relatable to your audience. Masters of storytelling Chip and Dan Heath remind us that successful presentations are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story based. Also, make “what’s in for me” central to the delivery. Making it personal and relevant for the audience will earn your audience’s attention and readiness for action.

I think presentation Jedi Nancy Duarte said it best her book Resonate:

The audience does not need to tune themselves to you—you need to tune your message to them. Skilled presenting requires you to understand their hearts and minds and create a message to resonate with what’s already there.”

Sure you want to let the data speak, but you are the presenter. You want them to remember the message and the best way to do that is to put on a personal level they can understand. Mix parables with parameters and facts with fables. This one-two punch of stone cold facts and personal stories are memorable and impactful

  1. Less is More

We have all heard the Blaise Pascal quote “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter”. It is true, it is hard to distill down stories to the bare essence. If you are Mr or Ms. Clutterbug you will have an especially hard time with this. But you must get rid of everything unnecessary. You don’t need to show your work; the audience trusts that you did your job. Make your results as succinct and fast paced as possible, but not at the expense of losing your audience.

The same can be said for graphics and words. I am a Stephen Few fan (although I think he may be a tad too stoic for my graphics tastes) and a Hemingway fan. They both have the unique ability to pull away everything and leave only what is necessary, and in so doing, somehow leaving more. Applying this clean-up to your presentation will make for a tighter presentation and a much happier (and informed) audience.

  1. Invite the Audience In

Now-I-am-going-to-drone-on-for- 58-minutes-and-leave-the-last-2-for-questions presentation approach is a sure-fire way to lose your audience and not accomplished your most important task: communication.

Be brave and invite your audience in. If you are in person, ask them questions, even if it is a show of hands. Online, no problem, do a quiz such as those free ones by PollEverywhere. The show is oh-so-much more entertaining when you are not the sole performer. Also, be willing to pivot. Your job is communicate to the audience your message, however, that is done.

Everybody’s got a plan until I hit them” – Mike Tyson

Don’t be afraid to change gears up and abandon your plan if it’s not working. Stay agile and stay engaged with your audience. Remember your mission is to deliver the message and make it stick. Don’t be afraid to improvise a bit.

  1. Be Gracious

You know how much “thank you” costs? Nothing. No one likes someone who is condescending or taking sadistic glee at a particular region and product’s poor showing. Don’t hold back the punches, but be gracious and understand your political context. You can dole out the truth but not be ruthless and personal about it.

You are not the hero who will save the audience; the audience is your hero.” – Nancy Duarte

You are the Bruce Lee of VOC, dispassionately unleashing fists of truth against misconceptions and the unknown. Your opponent is the dark entropy of ignorance, not your audience members. Your audience members are there to learn, and ostensibly, improve the customer experience. You should, in turn, create a pleasant audience experience from them that is captivating, direct, but humble. Make it easy from them to believe you. Be their ally not their adversary.

  1. Remember Your Homebase

The best thing I learned in public relations training was to always return to your home base. What are the one to three points you are trying to communicate and stick with them over and over and over again. You might think this is annoying to people, and it can be, but not as annoying as you might think. You listen to yourself much more than anyone else does.

Don’t limit your home base communication to just your VOC presentation but add it to the upfront invitation and the after-event ‘thank you’ and action planning session. Get your co-workers to help out through communicating the main points either informally or formally throughout the organization. If you cannot tell me the three key points of VOC presentation you have not done enough cleaning and distillation. Get crisp and make sure you are always coming back to home base, over and over again. Oh, and practice.

  1. Provide a Call to Action

“Ok now do what we do?” the manager asked her boss. The presentation is over and now everyone goes back to work. That is a clear VOC presentation fail. You must have a call to action in your CX presentation and ideally make it specific, time-bound, and connected to specific people.

The more personal and public these commitments are the more likely they are to get done. If that doesn’t conform with your organization’s culture then find another way to “commit to a commit” where people are committing to do some specifically in the future in the way of acting on the results.

The shelf life of insights is extremely short in the world of CX. The more time that elapses from your VOC presentation to action, the less likely it is to happen. I recommend reminding audience attendees what the expectations will be from them as a result of the presentation in advance. There is no free admittance to your amazing presentation after all. Organizations invest a bunch in time and people to deliver the VOC results, it is a crime to waste that effort by organizational impotency.

Beyond the Presentation

Dashboards and technology can only get us so far in Customer Experience, it takes a human interpretation and cheerleader to spur action. This is especially true in the early stages of CX initiatives in an organization.

If you are responsible for getting the word out, you have a very important job that transcends the hour or so of the presentation. Before and after it is a constant marketing campaign by you and your team to evangelize CX. Take bits of your presentation and include it emails. Go visit the head of operations or marketing on a regular basis. Action happens when someone is insisting on it. Be that change agent and use compelling story telling to create reason for change.

Be like the young lady who persuaded those millionaire dealers to swallow a 500mg truth pill. She gave a persuasive and compelling argument to a tough audience that resulted in positive change. She continues to provide those compelling arguments to this day. Sometimes to a corporate audience and sometimes to our children, the latter being a one of the toughest audiences you are going to find. I find it’s always good to learn from your spouse. I continue to learn every day.

The New Formula for Disruption: CX>4Ps

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.

Experiential Design

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.