TALKING is easy. STARTING is harder….. but SUSTAINING is the hardest Customer Experience challenge of all!


CX Challenge

Do you work for an organisation that aspires to ‘put the customer first’? Have you listened to senior leaders in your business talk about the importance of ‘being customer centric?’ Does your company have a ‘value’, or ‘vision’ or ‘mission’ that makes reference to ‘focusing on the customer’? How many of you work for companies that have actually STARTED to DO any of those things? How many of you work for businesses that have SUSTAINED those things over a long period of time? How many of you are confident that your organisation will be able to SUSTAIN the approach indefinitely in the future?

This may not sound like the most positive of starts to a blog post, yet the sentiment is likely to resonate with many. Over the last twenty years, I have worked in a variety of organisations across multiple industries who have all TALKED a very good game when it comes to being customer focused. If I had a Pound or Euro or Dollar for every senior leader who has uttered the words – ‘we want to put the customer at the heart of everything we do’ – I would have a nice little pile of cash! However, of all the businesses I have worked for, the overwhelming minority have been able to get to the ultimate state when it comes to actually being customer focused – the ultimate state that enables that organisation to SUSTAIN a continuous approach to actually being customer centric. Achieving a sustained approach to Customer Experience is without question (in my opinion), the greatest Customer Experience challenge of them all.

talk

Talking about Customer Experience is EASY. Literally anyone can do it. In a world where a significant number of working people still state that Customer Experience is a little ‘soft and fluffy’, those same people will still stand up and state how important it is for their business to put the customer at the centre of decision making. However, the startling reality is that there is still an overwhelming number of examples of organisations who are absolutely NOT putting the customer at the centre of everything they do – these tend to be businesses who are either very product centric, or shareholder centric or both.

I have worked with companies like this – I am sure you have (or do) too. It is so frustrating to walk into an overtly ‘non’ customer focused business who have banners or posters prominently TALKING about how  the customer is at the centre of their universe. TALKING about Customer Experience is EASY – but just TALKING about it means nothing if you do not actually do anything about it.

start cx

Many business who talk about Customer Experience have not even STARTED to do anything about it. If this sounds like a strange statement to make, you would not be wrong. Although ALL businesses are delivering customer experiences today (whether they are conscious of it or not), a huge number of them have very little idea of how capable they are of delivering an experience that meets and potentially exceeds the expectations of their customers. Some of these organisations do not even have clarity of understanding who their customers are in the first place. What makes this even more remarkable is that a large number of these companies are the ones who are TALKING about the importance of being customer focused!!

STARTING to introduce and embed a customer focused culture into a business, whatever size that business may be, is HARD. The reality is that to START actually being customer centric, an organisation must acknowledge that it may not actually be customer centric in the first place. That is why the transition from TALKING to STARTING is HARD. Acknowledging the need to be more customer centric is an incrediblly positive thing – it opens up a wealth of opportunity. However, acknowledging the need for improvement is sadly seen by many business leaders as an acknowledgement of failure – which may explain why these leaders may not think they have a problem in the first place.

Businesses that TALK about being customer focused but who do not know what their customers actually think of them must stop TALKING about it and START to understand how to actually do it – it is a big step, which is why STARTING is often a HARD thing to do.

sustain cx

Yet like most things in life, STARTING something is not nearly as HARD as finishing the thing you have started. In fact STARTING something that should in theory have no end to it is even HARDER. When it comes to Customer Experience, an organisation’s ability to SUSTAIN its approach to Customer Experience INDEFINITELY is without question the HARDEST challenge of them all.

I consider myself very fortunate to be working in a rapidly growing profession.  The fact that more and more businesses all over the world are not just TALKING about Customer Experience, but are now wanting to know how to START doing something about it is a hugely positive thing. However, the sad reality is that there are still painfully few examples of businesses who are seen as guiding lights – organisations who have so successfully embedded a customer centric culture that they have continuously SUSTAINED an approach to customer centricity over many years. That is why we often hear the same companies cited over and over again in benchmarking studies and Customer Experience Research as being true leaders in the field.

I recently published my own research into ‘what makes the worlds #1 CX brands‘ – brands such as Disney, John Lewis, Amazon, First Direct and Apple – were all in the top ten of companies considered as the #1 when it comes to delivering consistently good Customer Experiences. This was not a surprise to anyone – these companies are regularly named in similar studies. My research also highlighted WHY these companies are people’s #1:

  • Corporate attitude
  • They’re easy to do business with
  • They’re helpful when I have a problem
  • The attitude of their people
  • Personalisation
  • The product or service
  • They’re consistent
  • The way it makes me feel
  • The way they treat me
  • They’re reliable
  • They do what they promise
  • They’re quick
  • The technical knowledge of their people

The common characteristics of these organisations are characteristics required by companies who will have an ability to SUSTAIN a focus on the customer. Led by the attitude of the business, corporate culture is absolutely critical in SUSTAINING the TALK. Yet all of the characteristics highlighted in my research need to be SUSTAINED for a business to remain truly customer centric indefinitely.

SUSTAINING an approach to Customer Experience is without question the hardest challenge of them all. I am aware of a number of companies who STARTED to focus on it, but have since changed their focus. I have said many times in the past that Customer Experience is for life, not just for Christmas – our businesses exist to serve our customers – without them, we do not have a business. Whilst this is one of the most obvious statements of all time, why is it that too many businesses fail to recognise the significance of the statement?  The absolute key to SUSTAINABILITY is to embed Customer Experience so deeply in the culture of a company that it is not reliant on any one individual or group of people to SUSTAIN itself.

Customer Experience is the responsibility of everyone in an organisation. Everyone needs to TALK about it, START doing it and KEEP doing it to SUSTAIN it for evermore. Sounds so EASY – but in reality, it is so HARD to do!

Customers + Employees = People. People = Business. Why Business is all about People


customers + employees = people

If you have ever heard me speak in public, it is very likely you will have endured hearing me recount my favourite quote of all time. I know that ‘quotes of the day’ are not everyone’s bag, but sometimes you hear someone say something or are referred to something someone in authority has said and their words touch you. A while ago, I had the pleasure of coming across these wonderful few words uttered by inspirational business author, Simon Sinek:

100% of customers are people. 100% of employees are people. If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business

This quote is the inspiration behind the image at the head of this post and epitomises the essence of what you are about to read. As I continue my personal journey of learning as a Customer Experience Professional, I am ever increasingly satisfied to discover that the thing that makes businesses successful; the thing that business is all about; is that thing we call PEOPLE.

Sounds obvious right? Maybe…. but ask yourself this. How many PEOPLE do you know work in an organisation that does not feel as though it is all about people? How many work in businesses that feel as though they are more about spreadsheets, or numbers, or tasks, or processes? In a world where there seem to be as many ‘shareholder centric’ organisations as there are ‘customer centric’, it is refreshing to come across businesses who genuinely do put PEOPLE at the very heart of everything they do.

Last week I found myself being fortunate (as I often am) to act as a judge at the first UK Employee Experience Awards.  The awards recognise and celebrate best practice in the delivery and improvement of outstanding employee experience – it is no coincidence that the awards have been created by the excellent Awards International who are also behind the UK Customer Experience Awards.  To deliver consistently good and great Customer Experiences, it is essential to also deliver as good and great employee experiences. To be a brilliant business, you must nurture and cherish all the PEOPLE who interact with you – that means customers and employees.

In London last week, I witnessed shining examples of role models – role models of leaders who were teaching, caring for, guiding, coaching, mentoring, empowering and generally inspiring the people they work with to do the very best for their customers, themselves and their business.  The people I saw were of all shapes and sizes – metaphorically speaking! From front line staff to team managers to CEOs – from financial services to utilities to retail. The thing these PEOPLE all had in common was remarkably easy for me to fathom – they all understand the importance of PEOPLE.

It was when one of the finalists said that his most important business principle was ‘adult to adult communication’ that I realised why the recognition that these awards purvey is so very important. Treating PEOPLE like adults in business sounds so startlingly simple, yet in my experience it is so utterly rare. Remember that I am talking about both customers and employees here. So often businesses talk to their customers as though they are still at school – the parent child relationship is  even more common for the poor employee.

The finalist who talked about ‘adult to adult communication’ was one of the very few CEOs present at the awards ceremony. As far as I am aware, he may have been the only CEO at the ceremony! Is it any surprise that he is the CEO of the company who only last year won an amazing 6 (six) UK Customer Experience Awards! Mark Horsley is the CEO of Northern Gas Networks – a business that the consumer on the street knows very little about, but a business that as a result of Mark’s humbling approach to empowering people is resulting in them becoming one of the most significant role models for any business in the world.

Mark and his people do not sell cutting edge, fashionable technology. Mark and his people do not have a compelling and seamless omni channel offering.  Mark and his people do not spend millions on adverting and big data. Mark and his people are responsible for putting pipes in the ground – pipes that enable energy suppliers to put gas into houses, offices and factories. They do it by a relentless focus on doing what is right for PEOPLE – customers and employees. The results speak for themselves – commercially and through the ever improving perception of customers and employees – PEOPLE!

Mark Horsley, CEO, Northern Gas Networks
Mark Horsley, CEO, Northern Gas Networks

Mark was as deserving a recipient of the award as any I have ever judged. Mark is a role model to anyone who ever aspires to lead a business. Mark accepted the award on behalf of his people (customers and employees) – I would have expected nothing less. This is not the first time I have written about Northern Gas Networks – it is unlikely to be the last. Who would have thought a company that puts pipes in the ground would have been a text book example to others as to how to deliver world class customer and employee experiences? The reality is that I am now teaching Customer Experience Professionals all over the world about this company – the company that as much as any I have ever seen bring Simon Sinek’s inspirational quote to life.

Northern Gas Networks understand that business is all about PEOPLE. The vast majority of PEOPLE present at the awards last week do too. This can only be an encouraging sign as the Customer Experience continues to work its way ever more into the business dictionary. We will never do away with spreadsheets and numbers and tasks and processes completely – nor can we – yet the shift towards a ‘PEOPLE FIRST’ culture in business does seem to be closer to reality than it ever has been.

What makes the the worlds #1 Customer Experience brands?


#1 CX Brands

As I quite literally travel the world talking, listening and working with individuals and organisations who have an interest in Customer Experience, I am regularly asked who the world’s ‘best’ Customer Experience brands are. ‘Who is good at CX?’ is a pretty typical question. It is a good question to ask and one that I can most certainly answer ‘in my opinion’. However, having been asked the question so many times, rather than me just citing my opinion, I thought I would go a significant step further and ask as many people as possible for their opinions.

In January 2015, I conducted an independent survey of people across the world to find out who their ‘#1’ Customer Experience brands are and most importantly WHAT makes them their #1. In this blog post, I am delighted to officially reveal the findings of the research. Some of the findings may surprise you……some of them will not. What you can be certain of is that the findings are likely to provide validation of the things that are the most common reasons for these brands ‘delighting’ their customers.


Customer Experience is not just for the big, bold brands

The first big surprise for me was that  94 different brands were mentioned as people’s #1 Customer Experience brand in just over 200 responses . It is fascinating and encouraging to see that great Customer Experiences are not exclusively the preserve of those with huge budgets. Many of the companies named by respondents are small, independent businesses who share a similar mindset with brands we’re more familiar with. What is not a surprise though is that the top four favourite brands accounted for 40% of the responses. We’ll find out later why it is that the same brands keeping topping this kind of poll, but first, let me acknowledge the top 10 #1 Customer Experience brands coming out of the research:

Top CX Brands

Other well-known brands such as Emirates, Premier Inn, Argos, Airbnb, USAA and Sky all received endorsement as a #1 Customer Experience brand. In the interest of balance, some of the names mentioned by respondents that you are less likely to have heard of are as follows:

  • Sixthman Music Festival Cruises
  • Jabong.com
  • Dutch Bros
  • Discount Tire
  • Hatem Shahim (a barber’s shop!)
  • Dyreparken i Kristiansand
  • Spear & Jackson
  • Wegmans
  • Firebox.com
  • e-bolt
  • Container store

Different countries and a variety of industries – the sheer number of organisations receiving a mention suggests that there are many doing something right – the question is – what exactly are they doing that warrants a customer such as you citing them as their #1 Customer Experience brand? Before we find out, let us just have a quick look at the commercial performance of the top 10 CX brands coming out of the research.


The right customer experience is commercially rewarding

The sheer mention of  ‘Customer Experience’ and ‘Customer Centricity’, is still often greeted with a rolling of the eyes by those who are more focused on sales targets, operational efficiency and tasks. The irony though is that the former makes the latter much more successful. And it’s no coincidence that each of the top 10 brands has recent performance milestones to be proud of:

  • Amazon Q4 14, net sales increased by 15% over Q4 13
  • Apple 39.9% profit per product (3 months to end Dec 14)
  • First Direct Moneywise “Most Trusted” and Which? Best Banking Brand
  • John Lewis profit before tax up 12% in 2014 vs 2013
  • Disney Earnings per share up 27% in year to Dec 2014
  • Air New Zealand Earnings before taxation up 20% in H1 15 vs H1 14
  • Mercedes Revenue increased 12% from 2013 to 2014
  • Starbucks Revenue rise 13% in Q1 FY15
  • BMW 7% increase in vehicle sales in Jan 15 vs Jan 14
  • Boden Shipping 12,500 parcels each day

Pretty powerful stuff. Is it just a coincidence that the brands you are saying are the best at Customer Experience all seem to be faring pretty well on the commercial front? It appears as though all of the brands that are ‘great’ at Customer Experience share common characteristics – in fact the research identifies 13 common characteristics that are the reasons WHY these brands are #1 in your eyes. Lets us have a look at the ‘lucky’ 13!


These organisations have common characteristics

I wanted to know what it is that your favourite brands do to make them your #1 at delivering consistently good Customer Experiences. I asked for up to three reasons from each respondent and received 575 comments. Following verbatim analysis,  13 categories were identified, each distinct but interlinked. They were, as follows (with the percentage frequency they appeared):

  • Corporate attitude 15.9
  • They’re easy to do business with 14.9
  • They’re helpful when I have a problem 11.4
  • The attitude of their people 9.4
  • Personalisation 8.0
  • The product or service 8.0
  • They’re consistent 7.5
  • The way it makes me feel 6.3
  • The way they treat me 5.1
  • They’re reliable 4.4
  • They do what they promise 4.2
  • They’re quick 2.6
  • The technical knowledge of their people 2.3

We will look in more detail at what we mean by each of these in a moment but to view at any one in isolation would risk limiting what is being achieved by these organisations. This diagram shows how interdependent each area is in aligning with the corporate attitude and ultimately organisational goals and the very purpose for why the business exists:

characteristics of #1 cx brands


So what do the most favourite companies do, exactly?

Focusing on these attributes is what moves companies from fighting a rear-guard action to fix issues of their own making to creating a compelling a sustainable brand for the future. It also means that customers are increasingly exposed to better experiences as they go about their daily lives and that’s important because it keeps nudging the bar of expectations higher. This is why the brands that do these things are ones that people consider to be the very best at delivering consistently good Customer Experiences. Digging deeper into each of the 13 areas we can build a picture of how the companies who get it right control the way they do business.

1. Corporate attitude

It’s another way to describe organisational culture and it underpins everything that happens to or with a customer. More specifically, in the words of those who responded to the research, companies who have the right attitude:

  • put people before profits and non-human automation
  • know they’ll make more money in the long-run with this approach
  • test all experiences thoroughly (to eliminate unintended consequences)
  • listen and demonstrate they understand their customer
  • pay serious attention to detail
  • empower their staff to makes decisions and act straightaway
  • stay true to their values, admit when things go wrong and fix them
  • ensure their staff are fully trained and informed
  • recruit for attitude and alignment to brand values

They also said: “…they treat each customer as we would a guest in our home” and “…they balance customer obsession, operational excellence and financial rigor”.  Almost every other category is a sub-category of this one; it shows how important the right culture is.

2. They’re easy to do business with

It’s obvious to say a company should be easy to do business with and yet that’s not always the case. What respondents meant by “easy” included:

  • there are no barriers in the way for doing what a customer needs to
  • it’s simple to get information, purchase and use the product
  • needs are anticipated and catered for
  • customers don’t need to repeat information
  • they can switch from one channel to another with no impact on progress
  • products can be returned or fixed with minimum effort on the part of the customer
  • they are available when and where customers want; they can be reached without waiting and won’t limit the hours of their support functions to office hours if customers are still using their products and services all day every day
  • they are proactive in taking responsibility, eg finding products at other stores and having them delivered
  • customers have no objection to self-service because it has been well thought through
  • information is presented in a timely, clear and relevant way

3.  Helpful and understanding when I’ve got a question

Being easy to deal with is critical when a customer needs help or simply has a question. On the assumption that good companies do respond (a recent Eptica survey found more than 50% of online inquiries go unanswered), helpful companies are ones who:

  • listen to understand before acting
  • give a customer the feeling that they are trusted and respected
  • will provide an answer and additional, relevant help
  • provide certainty and manage expectations about what will happen next and at each stage
  • empower employees to make decisions
  • resolve issues first time and quickly
  • have employees who are happy to give their names and direct contact numbers
  • preempt problems and solve them before customers are aware
  • fix customers’ mistakes without blame or making them feel awkward
  • follow-up afterwards to check everything was sorted and is still as it should be
  • are not afraid to apologise when they get it wrong

4.  Attitude of the people

Individual employees who are interacting with customers become a proxy for the brand. If they demonstrate the wrong behaviours the damage can be hugely expensive but getting them right does not cost a huge amount of money. Most often a function of the corporate attitude, the most appreciated characteristics are:

  • being courteous and friendly
  • a positive, “I’ll sort it” attitude
  • they are good at listening
  • it’s obvious they care about, and are proud of, the product/service
  • they are professional and not pushy
  • they are helpful and proactive
  • they are genuine and humble
  • they smile
  • hey are engaging and interested in the customer
  • they have personality, not a corporate script
  • they are patient
  • they show respect for their fellow colleagues

5. Personalisation

We are all individuals and like to be treated as such. Having “big data” was seen as the answer but as these companies demonstrate, it’s not only more important to have the right data and do the right things with it, but it’s also linked again to corporate attitude. Those who get the personalisation right:

  • understand, anticipate and are proactive
  • keep customers informed with relevant information
  • shows they listen and act, not just collect feedback
  • create a relaxed environment because a customer’s needs fits neatly into what they are offering
  • create a feeling of respect, that they care and have “taken the time to know me, to make things easier for me”
  • make it feel like dealing with a person where there’s a connection, not just a transaction
  • allow their customers to control the degree of personalisation in terms of frequency and content
  • remain flexible and adaptive to the circumstances, not scripted

6. The product or service itself

Making it easy, personal and rewarding will be wasted effort if the core product or service doesn’t live up to expectation. At the end of the day, your business has to have something of value to the customer to sell! When it comes to products and services, the #1 Customer Experience brands are those who:

  • the right mix of choice, relevance, quality and innovation
  • well designed, so it is easy to get it to do what it’s supposed to
  • quality is complemented by relevant innovation, not technical innovation for the sake of it
  • obsessive about the detail
  • paying as much attention to secondary products, such as food on airlines
  • good at turning necessary evils into compelling attributes – Air New Zealand’s legendary on-board safety briefings, for example
  • adept at keeping up with, ahead of and shaping basic expectations

7. Consistency

As customers we like certainty and predictability. It means that the decisions we make carry less risk because we can confidently trust the outcomes. It also demonstrates stability of, and a shared understanding of, strategy. For our respondents, consistency is about experiences that:

  • look and feel the same
  • can continue easily wherever, whenever and however
  • match or build on the positive expectations created last time
  • have continuity in not only what happens but how it happens; tone of voice, quality, different locations, store or franchise, people and processes, performance
  • provide the same reliable answers to the same questions
  • integrate with other services

8. The way it makes me feel

Emotions are a function of how good the other two cornerstones of Customer Experience – function and accessibility – are. How they were made to feel, whether intentional or not, is what people remember. Being the personal consequence of most if not all the issues covered here, it is what drives our behaviour about whether or not we will do the same next time and tell others to do the same. If people think they are part of something special, connected to a company that lives by like-minded values, they will FEEL special. And as human beings, we appreciate that. Survey espondents cited a number of great examples:

  • “get on an Air New Zealand flight anywhere in the world it already feels like you’re home”
  • “the packaging increases the anticipation when opening a new product” (Apple)
  • “interactions with employees don’t feel like processes out of an operating manual”
  • “there is (the perception of) a genuine relationship; it’s not just about them selling every time they are in touch”
  • “they make me feel as if I’m their only customer” (Land Rover)

9. The way they treat me

At the root of how we feel and therefore behave is often down to how we are treated. Good and great companies have experiences that:

  • demonstrate respect
  • show an empathy with customer needs
  • don’t do things like asking a customer to repeat information if handed from one colleague to another
  • keep customers posted on feedback they’ve given
  • recognise their customers both by staff individually in-store and organisationally
  • have a consistency of treatment even when not spending money in-store
  • create relevant retail environments so that customers feel they are treated as if they are somewhere special
  • develop meaningful loyalty programmes that acknowledge past purchases and reward future ones
  • are not patronising in tone

10. They’re reliable

Not surprisingly, reliability is cited as a key attribute. Although we simply expect things to work as they did last time or as it was promised, we probably won’t get too excited if that is the case. However, the consequences of it not happening will result in additional time, effort, inconvenience and sometimes cost to the customer; not what a brand would want to be blamed for. There are some markets where the mere hint of a lack of reliability in its truest sense has serious consequences for a brand. More generally, reliable customer experiences are ones that

  • give confidence and a level of trust that what we ask for when we buy is what we get; there are no nasty surprises
  • understand that they are key to repeat purchases and advocacy. No-one will put their own reputation on the line to recommended any brand product or service that is unreliable

11. They do what they promise

Again, this is a character trait we appreciate in friends, family and colleagues and it’s no different when dealing with a business. It can be seen as a subset of “the way they treat me” but it is also critical at a strategic level too; the brand is what people say it does and so that has to be consistent with what it’s promising, just as its employees need to keep their own promises to customers too. There’s a real financial benefit here too where unnecessary and costly rework can be avoided. How many enquiries coming into the business are because “You said you’d get someone to call back”, “You said you’d send me a copy of that statement” or “Where’s my fridge, I’ve had to take the whole day off work and there’s still no sign of it”. Customer experiences that do what they promise:

  • live up to the expectations they set
  • have employees that do what they say they will do
  • do it all consistently
  • fix it quick if they fail
  • are good at managing expectations

12. Quick

As customers, time (alongside money) is a commodity we trade with. A company who appreciates the finite and precious nature of it will create a distinct advantage. In today’s everything-everywhere-now life it’s not surprising that speed is an issue. Expectations are rising all the time where customers interacting with other brands see what can be done. Quick customer experiences are ones that:

  • move at the right speed for customers
  • show respect by having have good reaction times once a customer has initiated part one of a two-way activity
  • manage expectations, so if it’s not “quick” as defined by customers there are also, no disappointing surprises
  • are not just focused on speed of delivery but are quick to answer the phone, flexibility to find ways around rules and respond to questions

13. People knowledge

Having people who are technically competent with their product knowledge is another character of top brands. Companies that possess employees like this have an invaluable asset who are:

  • able to translate the concerns and questions
  • able to articulate complex issues in simple language
  • are not patronising
  • are proud that their knowledge can help someone else

So what?

There is no shortage of good and great experiences to learn from and they bring favourable commercial results to the companies that do have them. They don’t have to be high-tech out-of-this-world experiences; simply knowing what the basic expectations are should not be that hard and delivering them well time after time should just be the norm. This independent research also shows that it’s a combination of characteristics that matter, not one in isolation. That said, experiences, customers and balance sheets are always given an essential boost where having the ‘right attitude’ is the common thread running right through the organisation.


 Thank You!

A huge thank you to all those who participated in this research – without you giving up your valuable time and insight, I would not be able to share such valuable output.

An even bigger thank you to my friend and colleague, Jerry Angrave. Not only has Jerry co-authored this post, he also conducted the detailed analysis of the research results. A brilliant CX mind, he is also one of the most genuine Customer Experience practitioners I have ever met. You can read more of Jerry’s work at empathyce.com – I strongly encourage you to do so!

Two steps forwards, five steps back: No-one said transforming the Customer Experience is easy!


bang head here

Every job has its ups and downs. Whether you are a teacher, a doctor, an accountant, a sales rep, an IT consultant or an artist, some days will be better than others. I could continue to name more professions, but the principle would be the same – as sure as night follows day, good will follow not so good and vice versa. Throughout our lives we will face challenges – from the moment we come into the world, to the moment we depart it – how we deal with those challenges in our personal and professional lives is what defines us as people on this planet.

The profession that is Customer Experience is no different. It is not exclusively challenging – or indeed more or less challenging than any other profession. It is a tough job that requires as much mental strength and fortitude as it does skill and technical knowledge. Like other professions, the job itself deals with a principle that to many is just plain good sense. Many feel that the concepts that encompass the world of Customer Experience are indeed obvious. However, the reality with most things that are obvious to some is that they are not always obvious to others.

In my career as a practitioner of Customer Experience, I have faced an unmentionable number of the ups and downs that we all experience. I have sometimes been heard muttering ‘everyone get out of the building – there is no hope!!’ On other occasions, I have been so elated at the progress being made, that I have had to pinch myself to check that I am not dreaming. Influencing the transformation of Customer Experience in any organisation is a remarkably rewarding role – but no-one ever said it would be easy!

The reason for writing this blog post is to reassure all Customer Experience Professionals (CXPs) who sometimes question the direction that their efforts are taking them. In defining the experience that customers have with organisations, I encourage companies to consider how it FEELS to be a customer – both in the present day and how the company would like them to feel in the future. I would like to take the same principle and explore how it FEELS to be a CXP by delving in to the emotions that they WILL inevitably experience in their daily role. The emotions can be described in the following diagram:

Emotions of a CXP

I have experienced all of these emotions over the last few years, let me further describe each one in turn:

THE WALL – the emotion I describe as akin to ‘pushing water uphill’, this is an emotion that is difficult to prepare for, irrespective of how often/hard peers or teachers try. If you have ever tried to get the support of a senior leader, or a board of directors, or even your boss and struggled to get their buy in/support; or if you have been talking about customer feedback in a room of people spending more time looking at their smartphones than paying attention to the invaluable insight being shared; or if you have ever been given feedback about a meeting that completely contradicts what you experienced – you will know how this feels. ‘The Wall’ emotion is one that is impossible to avoid – especially if your primary role is to influence change or transformation of the Customer Experience.

I recently observed a session between a brilliant CXP who has enabled remarkable progress in their organisation and a group of very senior executives. With mixed body language and interaction throughout the session, the result was (in my opinion) a very positive one. The feedback received from this CXPs ultimate boss was completely contradictory – the CXP felt the full force of ‘The Wall!’ The instant response was one of hopelessness. ‘Is this really all worth it?’ ‘Show me a wall and I will bang my head against it!’ Fortunately, the wall is only one of three emotions – as often as you experience ‘the wall’, you will also experience ‘the high’:

THE HIGH – as a mid-life crisis runner (jogger), the obvious analogy to this emotion is completing a physical challenge. I will never forget how I felt when I crossed the finish line at the end of my first marathon. The raw emotion that accompanied my huge sense of achievement will live with me for a very long time. I have many memories of significant milestones in my Customer Experience career that feel just the same. Seeing the lights in people’s eyes alight as they are hit with the ‘light bulb moment’ is a joy to behold. Last year I delivered a workshop with a fellow CXP – we had to give each other a man hug at the end of the workshop as an expression of our enormous sense of achievement in helping a group of people ‘see the light’.

The CXP I referred to in my description of ‘The Wall’ has since experienced a number of ‘high’ moments. In observing the adoption and delivery of CX behaviours that are required to deliver transformation, as well as receiving very positive feedback about the meeting with senior executives, this individual has bounced between both ends of the emotional spectrum. Experiencing a mix of ‘walls’ and ‘highs’ is completely ‘normal’.

THE USUAL – the third emotion is the one that we experience most often – although we are less conscious of it than the other two more extreme emotions. The overwhelming amount of effort exerted by CXPs is required to develop and maintain momentum for the tactical and/or strategic approach being taken in transforming the Customer Experience. This is the daily toil – communicating with teams; building and implementing measurement systems;  defining CX strategy – the list goes on. Most of the time this work allows the CXP to make progress in the right direction – that is ‘the usual’.

The reality to all of this is that there is a point where all three of these emotions meet. The reality is that ALL CXPs will experience ALL three of these emotions. The reality is that this is completely NORMAL! No approach to CX will work perfectly – no CXP will only ever experience ‘highs or walls’ – likewise it is unlikely that things will trundle along with ‘the usual’. Experiencing ‘the wall’ may not be pleasant but it is NORMAL. Transformation is tough – you sometimes need to experience resistance to propel your approach to CX further forward. Experiencing ‘the high’ is a wonderful feeling, but it will not last long – you can never rest on the laurels of this emotion.

Transforming the Customer Experience is not easy. Being conscious of the emotions that you will feel is a good thing – you will often feel as though you are taking two steps forward and five steps back. Sometimes you will feel as though you are taking 5 steps forward and 2 steps back – this is NORMAL. The most important thing as a CX professional is to listen and learn with every emotional experience you have. CXPs, like the organisations they serve can never stand still – it is our ability to continually adapt and evolve that will help the organisations we serve to do the same for their customers.

 

Opinion or Reality? Does Customer Experience really make a difference?


CX opinion or reality

I am unlikely to be the first person to write an article focusing on whether or not the Customer Experience really makes a difference. I am also unlikely to be the last. On a weekly basis, Customer Experience Professionals all over the world are being challenged to demonstrate the ‘tangible’ value focusing on the Customer Experience really delivers. Often tasked by individuals in businesses who demand to see an immediate financial return for any investment made, it is extremely easy to dismiss the need for being a more Customer Centric organisation as just the ‘opinion’ of one person versus another.

In other words, some do not believe a greater focus on ‘the customer’ will actually make any difference to the financial performance of a company whilst some do. It is the prerogative of any human to have an opinion – it is also completely acceptable for one human to disagree with another humans point of view. I have recently been engaged with a debate that highlights just such a scenario. It was suggested that I spend too much time quoting theory and opinion when it comes to the subject of Customer Experience and not enough time sharing reality. It is therefore with this in mind that I have chosen to write this post.

The debate I refer to came about as one opinion (mine) suggested that negative Customer Experiences have a detrimental effect on an organisations sustainability – in the short, medium and long term. Whilst an organisation may not cease to exist as a result of delivering consistently poor (or just inconsistent) experiences, it is extremely unlikely that a business operating in such a way will be able to predict growth – certainly not sustainable growth.

The opinion on the other side of the debate suggested that this is largely nonsense – the ‘speak of Customer Experience folk’. The debater argues that if the opinions of the Customer Experience community were true, then businesses would be ‘bleeding revenues’ and ‘the management would be kicked out’. The very well read and respected professional on this side of the debate continued as follows:

Almost every business is doing well enough by doing well enough for most customers most of the time. And this works well enough for customers at the level of behaviour – irrespective of what they say. Complaining is a favourite human past time in modern society. It is like going to the movies. Then the movie is over, and folks go back to life as usual.

So this valid opinion made me seriously question the very profession I work so passionately to represent. Does Customer Experience really make a difference? Is the reality that whilst it is ‘nice’ to talk about the principles of being more Customer Centric, the reality is that a business more focused on the customer will fare no differently to one that does not?

Those of you that ‘believe’ that focusing on the Customer Experience absolutely does make a difference will be pleased to know that  agree with you! My ‘opinion’ has not changed as a result of the challenge from an alternative perspective. Allow me to explain why. The debater set me a very valid challenge as follows:

Now please explain to me how it is that the almost every single business is doing just fine: customers continue to shop, companies continue to make sufficient revenues, and profits. The only ‘thing’ that gets cut is the employees – including those who directly serve customers – and replaced by one form or another of self-service. Let’s deal with this through numbers. Name the companies that have gone bust? Name me companies other than Ryanair and Tesco that are struggling because they have leaked customers like a sieve?

This was my response:

Please allow me to remind you of the following company names:

Woolworths; Comet; Land of Leather; Borders; JJB Sports; Zavvi; HMV; MFI; Jessops; Focus DIY; Habitat; Threshers; Dreams; Clinton Cards; Peacocks; Past Times; Barratts; Phones4U; TJ Hughes; Ethel Austin; Oddbins; Adams (childrenswear); Allied Carpets; I could go on…… and bear in mind that I am only quoting names of UK companies who have either entered administration or ceased to exist altogether in the last seven years.

Yes these failures occurred during a financial crisis. However, the crisis only served to push companies over the edge – companies who were already teetering at the top of a cliff. In almost all cases, these brands had lost touch with the evolving needs of their customers and the world around them. Failing to adapt their propositions resulted in customers voting with their feet – the predominant reason why a business ultimately will cease to exist.

Companies struggle to survive on a regular basis – again this is largely down to the fact that their product, service or experience is no longer aligned to the needs of their customers. Look at Nokia, Kodak, Radio Shack – this is not just a UK phenomena.

In fact I would like to remind you of the most clear cut example of all – JC Penney. In 2011, as the new CEO of one of the largest department stores in the US, Ron Johnson (once of Apple) made a number of strategic decisions without the benefit of either employee or customer insight. Johnson decided to change the established logo, change the pricing policy (including the halting of sales and the elimination of coupons). He also changed the layout of the stores. A very traditional business with an extremely loyal customer base, the decisions were catastrophic. This is an excerpt from his profile on Wikipedia:

Many initiatives that made the Apple Store successful, for instance the “thought that people would show up in stores because they were fun places to hang out, and that they would buy things listed at full-but-fair price” did not work for the J.C. Penney brand and ended up alienating its aging customers who were used to heavy discounting. By eliminating the thrill of pursuing markdowns, the “fair and square every day” pricing strategy disenfranchised JC Penney’s traditional customer base.Johnson himself was said “to have a disdain for JC Penney’s traditional customer base. When shoppers weren’t reacting positively to the disappearance of coupons and sales, Johnson didn’t blame the new policies. Instead, he offered the assessment that customers needed to be “educated” as to how the new pricing strategy worked. He also likened the coupons beloved by so many core shoppers as drugs that customers needed to be weaned off.”

By the time he was fired in 2013, JC Penney had lost over $4 billion during Johnson’s tenure. Having fired him, they launched a nationwide TV advertising campaign apologising to customers and ‘begging’ them to come back.

JC Penney apology

This is the reality of what could happen if you do not listen to your customers or employees. Just because a company still exists, it does not mean it successful at delivering consistently good customer experiences. The challenge is for business to achieve sustainable growth – all good things come to an end eventually if you do not remain focused on both commercial goals AND customer needs. You can read more about the JC Penney story in this Forbes article.

The reality is that nothing lasts forever. Organisations thrive, whilst others struggle. Businesses cease to exist on a daily basis. The larger the organisation, the more unlikely it is to fail altogether – but it is not impossible. As we have seen with the likes of Tesco and Marks and Spencer in recent times – failure to continually adapt your proposition to align to the changing needs of your customers will likely result in financial struggle.

The reality is that even already financially prosperous companies have realised how important the Customer Experience is to their future sustainability. I have had a number of conversations with board members of very large UK companies since January – these are companies whose financial fortunes have IMPROVED consistently since 2008. However these companies have openly acknowledged that unless they put the Customer Experience at the top of their priorities NOW, the future will not be as rosy.

This is not opinion. This is fact. This is reality. Does Customer Experience really make a difference? I will leave it for you to form your own opinion.

Leveraging the soft and fluffy: how important are soft skills in delivering Customer Experiences?


Fluffy Dog

Yesterday I had the enormous pleasure of co-chairing the first ever Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) Members Insight Exchange to be held outside of the US. The gathering of Customer Experience Professionals (CXPs) from across Europe was as inspiring an occasion as I hoped it would be. I have always said that when you put a group of CXPs in a room it acts as a mass counselling session – the Member 2 Member principle that underpins the CXPAs approach enabled everyone present to learn from each other in a wonderful collaborative environment.

What struck me throughout the day was the clearly evident ability of almost everyone present to communicate and integrate together in friendly, engaging and warm conversation. It is not often you put practitioners and vendors in a room together, many of whom are technically competitors of each other, only for them all to act as extended members of family!! The CXPA is all about learning from each other (as I have already said), but it is one thing stating the ambition and a completely different thing seeing it actually work in practice.

It was therefore fascinating for me to reflect on the day by connecting some of the thoughts from the very first speaker with everything else that followed. We were honoured yesterday to be addressed by a business that has incredibly successfully re-invented itself in the UK over the last few years. Unlike it’s US parent, McDonald’s UK has managed to maintain a very firm place in the heart of millions of UK consumers. Jack Upton, UK Director for Training, Education & Customer Services shared his thoughts on what lies behind their success – ‘blending the employee and customer experience’.

Jack Upton addressing the CXPA UK Members Insight Exchange
Jack Upton addressing the CXPA UK Members Insight Exchange

Jack shared many valuable insights – from their use of the ‘people-profit chain’, to the increase in importance of ’emotional engagement’ between employees and customers, to the principle of ‘fusion’ – the better the delivery of customer experience at McDonald’s, the greater the value for the employee. Yet it is when Jack started to talk about ‘soft skills’ that my ears pricked up. Yes…..soft skills.

I, like many CXPs am often accused of talking only about the ‘soft and fluffy’. In fact I have used the image of the lovely cute dog at the head of this post in many presentations I have made to senior leaders over the last few years. Whilst I take the ‘soft and fluffy’ accusation in my stride, it is important to consider whether there is actually anything wrong with talking about the soft and fluffy!! Jack’s insight into the importance of soft skills to the McDonald’s business helps to explain why.

Before I expand on Jack’s thoughts, let me clarify what is meant by the term ‘soft skills’. I shall do this by quoting the modern ‘font of all knowledge’ – Wikipedia:

Soft skills is a term often associated with a person’s “EQ” (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), the cluster of personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism that characterize relationships with other people.

McDonald’s is one of the biggest employers of young people in the UK. The development of soft skills in these young people is core to their approach. In fact the development of people is one of the cornerstones of the success of McDonald’s this side of the Atlantic. I have seen this in evidence with my very own eyes – McDonald’s training facilities are quite simply fantastic.

Research led by McDonald’s and backed by other organisations including the CBI, Barclays and learndirect, as well as entrepreneur James Caan has identified that Soft skills such as communication, teamwork and time management contribute £88 billion to the UK economy! You can read more about the research in an article published in HR Magazine in January 2015 – in it Neil Carberry, CBI director for employment and skills said:

“Business is clear that developing the right attitudes and attributes in people – such as resilience, respect, enthusiasm and creativity – is just as important as academic or technical skills.”

I could not agree more. In fact some of the best examples of genuinely Customer Centric organisations are those who solely recruit based on the ‘soft skills’ elements of Neil’s statement. Zappos, the online retailer now owned by Amazon, is perhaps the most famous example of all. Jack confirmed that this approach is just as important to McDonald’s. Soft skills alone do not guarantee the consistent delivery of great experiences, but if you are able to leverage the power of these skills, the behaviour of your people will go a huge way to developing unbreakable emotional bonds between employees and customers.

With this fresh in my mind, it was therefore no wonder that a room full of CXPs was able to engage with each other so successfully. CXPs do not just possess a collective obsession and passion for all things customer experience. They are also living, breathing examples of people with highly developed ’emotional intelligence’. CXPs understand the importance of a strong work ethic; having an unbreakable positive attitude; great communication skills; good time management; the ability to solve problems; working as a team; accepting and learning from criticism; flexibility; adaptability; working well under pressure; and doing the right thing. These are the attributes of brilliant CXPs – these attributes are known as ‘soft skills’

Maybe the soft and fluffy is not such a bad thing after all. I have met many leaders in my time who do not understand the importance of ‘soft and fluffy’. These leaders do not possess an abundance of emotional intelligence. One of these so-called leaders once called me ’emotionally immature’ – I will never forget it – although it is one of the many things I have learned from in my career.

I believe that the more you can leverage the soft skills within your organisation, the more your organisation will want to engage emotionally with your customers. Emotional engagement and empathy generate advocacy. Advocacy leads to loyalty. Loyalty leads to sustainable growth. Makes perfect sense to me……what about you?


If you have two minutes, please take the time to complete my 2 question survey to find out your personal #1 brand for delivering consistently good customer experiences. I also want to know what makes the brand your #1! The research will be used for an upcoming blog post – many thanks for your time!

You can complete the survey by clicking here

 

Guest Post: The Importance of Personal Growth for Customer Service Professionals


Deanna Ayres

This week I am focusing my blog on the importance of developing ‘authority’ as a Customer Experience Professional in celebration of the upcoming CXPA Members Insight Exchange on the 10th February in London. If you have not read all about how to earn authority as a Customer Experience Professional here.

I am delighted to follow my post up with a guest article that also speaks of the importance of ‘personal growth’ – this time from the perspective of the Customer Service Professional. Written by Deanna Ayres, I am sure you will find a lot of value in her wisdom…


Customer service professionals are one of the major points of contact between the consumers and the company. Considering that they are a representation of the brand, customer service workers must be well trained and knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics, both general and pertaining to the company itself.

When people leave school, most people consider it the end of the studying, exams and assessments. For customer service professionals, however, it is important to continue their learning process to meet the continuously evolving needs of the customers.

Whether we choose to accept it or not, employees are constantly being judged on their skills and benchmarked against their colleagues. And, unlike studying for a final exam in college, new technology, customer demand and legislation make for an ever-changing environment.

According to a 2012 survey by an adult learning organization, there is a strong correlation between continued learning and sustained employment, especially when it comes to those fields with direct customer contact. Staff that participate in learning programs are more capable of adapting to changing requirements of organizations, putting them in a better position for promotion in their current company or with a competitive edge in the job market. They are also more likely to be viewed by their superiors as highly motivated and engaged in the business, two positive attributes to have for any employee.

Some organizations are good at providing learning opportunities for subjects that directly translate to improved performance on the job. In customer service environments, as well as many other work environments, keeping your employees happy is a way to boost the bottom line. To keep employees happy, companies often invest in creating a culture of learning by organizing continuous learning programs for employees to better themselves and their performance. There is plenty of evidence that these types of work-based learning programs are dollars well invested by the company. They cultivate engagement, flexibility in work schedules and an increased sense of appreciation and connection with the company.

To promote personal growth, companies can bring in guest speakers; encourage employees to start office-based clubs built on their interests, and implement computer rooms in the office where employees can participate in online training programs. Each of these three possibilities can be tweaked according to the type of business you operate in to meet the needs of your employees specifically. To help the company help its employees, it is worth it to invest in a call center management software as well just to ensure that the entire process stays on track and remains beneficial for everyone.

What the company offers in terms of training options, however, may not be in line with what you really want or need for your career. Depending on what area of your job you are looking to improve, there are a variety of ways to get started with your personal growth.

A great place to start is to look at past performance reviews or speak with managers, colleagues and the human resources department to seek advice from those whose skills and careers you are aiming to achieve. To improve these areas, you can identify workshops; approach someone in the business to be a mentor or sign up for an online study program. Another idea is to shadow someone who is very good at the skill you’re looking to improve. You can shadow them for one day, one week, or once a week for a longer period of time.

Instead of identifying areas of improvement based on comments of those working close by to you, you can benchmark your skills according to the job market. Check out advertisements of roles similar to yours to understand what it would take for you to get hired in the case that you were unemployed. Are your IT skills up to par? Negotiation skills could use a little improvement? Whatever the job market is looking for, you can adjust your learning program to accommodate those skills.

Sometimes the skills you need to work on aren’t so much about learning something completely new, but rather about refreshing and updating old skills. For customer service professionals, a brush up with handling difficult customers, communication skills or people management skills, for those looking to climb the ladder.

Outside of professional training, personal development outside of work can often lead to the gain of soft skills that can improve your performance in the workplace as well. Volunteer work, fundraising projects, joining local committees or participating in research activities are all ways to create personal growth without focusing on one, specific skill.

A good workplace makes employees feel like their company invests in and believes in them for the long term. Providing and promoting personal growth for customer service professionals leads to happier employees which creates bigger returns for the company and its investors. It’s a cycle with an endless amount of benefits, which just keeps going around.


Deanna Ayres is the SEM Strategist and Community Outreach Supervisor at The Marketing Zen Group & Kova Corp. She loves to come up with new content strategies for and with her team and believes that connecting on a personal level is vital to success. Growing up in Europe has allowed her a unique insight into cultural differences in business & marketing. In her spare time she is a photographer, hobby cook with a love for coffee, gamer and geek. Follow her @deanna_ayres