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.


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.

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.

Customer experience does not apply to us – ‘we’re different’! Is it possible to be a genuinely ‘customer centric’ law firm?

0 law

Let me set a couple of things straight before I even start this blog post. Whilst the title suggests that I am focussing on one particular industry, the essence of what you are about to read can apply to many industries and professions all over the world. I must also make it clear that I am neither a lawyer nor someone who has extensive knowledge of the legal profession!

So that being said, why am I writing about an industry I know nothing about? Over the last few months, I have had a number of conversations with people in my networks about the challenges being faced by the traditional professions – predominantly law and accountancy. I have also conducted some work with one of the professional bodies that is responsible for developing the competencies of professionals working in these fields. During these conversations, it has become abundantly clear that those who know a lot about Legal and Accounting firms are concerned that they are amongst the most ‘un-customer centric’ organisations on the planet.

They are not alone. Despite the ever-growing Customer Experience ‘tidal wave’ there are still many untouched industries that are yet to acknowledge the need for change – the need to re-think the way they interact with customers and clients. These industries are often populated by businesses who THINK they are already customer focussed. They do not THINK there is any need to do anything differently. They THINK that Customer Experience does not apply to them.

I have worked recently with a company who did not think that Customer Experience applied to them – ‘we are different’ the senior managers in the business said. They may THINK they are different…..but they are no different to any business that relies on the successful interaction with a customer to drive the commercial goals of the organisation.

Businesses that THINK there is no need to change are usually ones who are focussed on one primary measure of success – SALES. If the ‘top line’ is doing well, why do we need to change? If we consider the way the legal profession has worked traditionally, it is one that is as SALES focussed as any other. I have been told by many people that legal firms will ‘not work for nothing’. Every minute of every day is an opportunity to generate sales….or in other words ‘bill the client’. As long as employees of the firm are generating ‘billable hours’ all is good with the world. This is what I am being told – and it does not sound very customer centric to me!

I was told today that law firms are incredibly ‘short term’ focussed businesses. It is all about the weekly sales figures. If the figures are not going in the right direction, find more clients to bill. This is NOT a strategy that will lead to long term sustainability of an organisation – however long it might have existed up to now. I was also told that firms tend not to care too much about ‘non fee generating staff’ – that is not the kind of business I would want to work for.

The industry insiders I have been interacting with are in complete agreement that the profession needs to change. The problem is that as yet, there is little evidence that firms are prepared to take the step to change the status quo. It is almost as though the industry is caught in a vacuum of past glories and no-one is willing to disrupt what they perceive to have ‘always worked’.

0 disruption

So is it possible to create a genuinely customer centric law firm that puts the needs of its ‘customers’ in equal balance with the commercial goals of the partners? You can guess what my answer is going to be…… of course it is! What the legal profession desperately needs is DISRUPTION! The legal profession needs someone – an individual, or a firm, or multiple firms – to disrupt the status quo. It needs someone to show the rest of the profession that it is possible to change the way things work – the way they have worked in the PAST.  Like other industries before it, the people who run law firms need to understand that becoming more customer centric will not only deliver financial benefits in the LONG TERM, it will also enable their businesses to become more efficient and effective at doing the things they do – or in other words improve their profitability.

To DISRUPT an industry takes ‘balls’! It requires forward thinking innovators to recognise that change realises opportunities. I strongly believe that the implementation of a Customer Experience Framework can help law firms to be the best they can be – for their partners, employees and customers. At conferences, workshops and seminars that I have the honour of delivering all over the world, I always remind people that at the end of the day, we are all customers in our own right. Even a lawyer is a customer him or herself – the key is to remind the lawyer that the things he/she considers to be important as a customer are exactly the same as the things his/her own customers consider important as well.

If you are a genuinely customer centric law firm, I would love to know about it – what are you doing to disrupt your industry? It would be great for others to hear your story.

As always, your thoughts on anything I write are very warmly welcomed – whether you agree with my point of view or not!

What is wrong with Virgin Media? a story of pain, frustration and dreadful Customer Experience

0 virgin media

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will be aware that I am regularly referred to stories of both great and not so great Customer Experiences. As I am a big believer in the use of stories to bring Customer Experience to life, I feel that I am very fortunate to be allowed to share some of these stories with a wide audience.

This week I have been given permission to share a story of the ‘not so great’ variety. Over recent months, I have been increasingly made aware of customer dissatisfaction with Virgin Media. At least a dozen unconnected people have been only too eager to talk to me about their tales of woe with the company. In recent years, Virgin Media have actually been a Customer Experience ‘stalwart’ – I know a number of the team who developed one of the most robust Customer Experience programmes in the UK. Sadly they all departed soon after Virgin Media’s takeover by US based Liberty Global.

Until now, I have not felt compelled to write a blog post about the stories I have heard. This changed when I was directed to a story you will shortly read. The fact that the story is about a doctor is not really the point – this experience is being replicated with customers of all professions. However the story does highlight the frustration, anger and pain that Virgin Media is causing customers on a daily basis. What makes it even more annoying is the fact that the issues experienced in this story and others are all about the execution of the Customer Experience – not the quality of the product. I talk a lot about the move from being product centric to customer centric – if you want to know what being customer centric is all about, this story demonstrates what it is to NOT be customer centric…

Dear Virgin Media,
I am disappointed at your lack of common decency to your customers. I have taken the afternoon off work so that your engineer can unplug my current virgin box and plug in a new one. It is now 18:15 and no-one has turned up. I called customer service at 17:00 and they said they would look into it and call me back in 10 minutes, I haven’t received a call.
I partly blame myself for falling for your pressured upgrade calls but I just wanted you to stop calling as after no less than 10 calls I gave in. The caller who I eventually answered was very nice and offered me a special package as I had been with Virgin for 5 years and was a loyal customer paying over the odds. I hadn’t upgraded as I was happy with how things were. Anyway, I fell for the sale and accepted the ‘special offer’. Straight after ending the call I went online to your website to see that new members could get the same package but would pay £60 less – do you think I am a mug? I think that this is frankly disgusting and misleading behaviour! Anyway, after calling someone back and holding, I managed to get the package reduced to that of a new customer (aren’t I lucky!) and duly booked the time off work for the change of box.
I work hard as a GP seeing people who are sick every day. It is no small thing to take time off work, it costs me money, it costs the NHS money, but I had no option as you only offer 9-1 or 1-5. Anyway, I opted for the latter and missed seeing minimum 18 sick patients this afternoon. As it turns out, I could have seen them because your engineer has not turned up. Not only have I not received a call or an apology, I will most likely have to take more time off work at some point to try again, likely after I have spent money calling you to explain your error. I feel you not only owe me an apology but my patients an apology. I appreciate that things go wrong and people get delayed, but if I have patients who need to be seen, who are booked in, I don’t just clock off and not let them know!
I’m stuck really with what to do now, I like the fast service your broadband service offers but hate the way you treat your customers, it’s a catch-22 which I why I have tried to avoid communicating with you at all over the years and avoided upgrades. Anyway, writing this on Facebook has been cathartic and maybe others reading this and empathising with me make me feel a little better.
Just for info, if I ran a service where I told a customer they could see me at any time either in the morning or the afternoon but there was also a chance I was not going to see them, but I wouldn’t tell them that, then it would be all over the Daily Mail the following morning, just saying!

Every time I read the story I find myself shaking my head – I have never worked for Virgin Media but feel deeply embarrassed for them. There are so many customer journey failures in this story that it is difficult to know where to start summarising them – it is ‘Virgin on the ridiculous!’. Understanding how capable your business is of delivering the customer journey is absolutely imperative – that is if you are aware that you have a customer journey in the first place. Continuously improving your ability to deliver the customer journey should be the at the heart of any Customer Experience related activity.

I hope that senior leaders from Virgin Media and Liberty Global read this – the sustainability of their business (like all businesses) is dependant on being able to consistently meet (and sometimes exceed) customer expectation. Unless they systematically address complete Customer Experience failures like this one, I almost hope that they are not able to sustain themselves.

If you have experienced a problem with Virgin Media in recent months, please feel free to share your story by commenting on this post.

‘Thank You’! The two most important ‘Customer Experience’ words of all

0 thank you

‘Thank You’. Two little words. Two words containing a total of eight letters. As a parent you spend most of your life teaching your children to use the words regularly. As a child, you are constantly reminded of their importance. It is unlikely you have ever looked up the dictionary definition of ‘thank you’ – so I have done so for you – you can thank me later:

1. (adjective)

expressing one’s gratitude or thanks: a thank-you note.
2. (noun)

an expression of thanks, as by saying “thank you”: I never got so much as a thank-you for helping him.

You probably did not need to be told something you already knew (hence you may not want to thank me for sharing this with you). So why am I taking the time to talk about words that you possibly; probably; almost certainly use on a daily basis? Let me explain.

People who know me well know that I am not a fan of the TV programme ‘Undercover Boss’. As predictable as an episode of ‘Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares’, I am always irritated by the naivety of senior business leaders at failing to be aware of what is happening in their own organisations. I refuse to believe that going ‘undercover’ on TV is the right way to finally understand, discover or recognise what colleagues and customers experience with your company and quite frankly I never will. However, despite the sour taste the programme leaves in my mouth, I find it fascinating to observe. Having watched a UK episode that I recorded last week, I am compelled to write this post. I want to spend the next few minutes writing about the significance of the words ‘thank you’ – in general, but especially in the world of Customer Experience. I hope you can find the time to read them (thank you in advance if you can).
The Undercover Boss episode in question followed YMCA England’s Director of HR, Bims Alalade. Bims writes passionately on the YMCA website about the experience – she says it is an experience that will stay with her ‘forever’. You can read her thoughts here. In case you do not know, YMCA is a charitable organisation. It is actually the largest and oldest youth charity in the world. Their work is vitally important in providing predominantly young people with a safe place to stay; a fresh start; guidance and support; and facilities to get active. The YMCA relies on full-time staff and a large number of volunteers to keep all of their services running to ‘very high standards’.
Undercover Boss - Bims Alalade
Undercover Boss – Bims Alalade
Unusually for Undercover Boss, I was emotionally moved by this episode. Unlike Bims, I do not (and never have) worked for the YMCA. I did not know or appreciate the amazing things their staff and volunteers do. From cleaning youth hostels for sometimes rude and offensive residents, to providing nightly medical help in city centres, Bims was taken by the passion, pride and motivation of the people working for her organisation. Bims should not have been surprised – she should have already known. Whilst I am comforted by the fact that she now does, I find it astonishing that as the Director of HR, it took a TV programme to open her eyes to the efforts of her own people.
The predictability of the programme leads to the staff subjected to the ‘undercover antics’ being ‘summoned to head office’. Once there, they meet with the real persona – the boss. Cue shock and dismay, humble acknowledgement of the issues from the boss, followed by a ‘gesture of goodwill’ to the member of staff concerned. I am always left wondering what the other hundreds and thousands of employees of the organisations that have participated in the programme are left feeling. Why was I not chosen? Where is my free, all expenses paid holiday to Barbados?
This is where those two words come in – ‘thank you’. What moved the employees and volunteers who participated in this episode of Undercover Boss was the fact that someone was saying ‘thank you’. A senior leader was acknowledging and recognising the work that they do. People are actually quite simple – as children, we usually respond rather well when our parents give us positive feedback. We are no different as adults. The two simple words with a total of eight letters used honestly and often are a good way of keeping employees feeling motivated and valued.
How many bosses do you know that do not say thank you? How many bosses have you worked for that rarely thanked you for anything? I have often written about the importance of acknowledgement and recognition of people as a key component for a customer centric organisation. Saying thank you goes a very long way – and best of all, it costs you absolutely nothing. I believe that ‘thank you’ are the two most important Customer Experience words of all. If your organisational culture is one where it is the norm to appreciate your people and thank them regularly, it is very likely that your customers will feel appreciated as well. The well used mantra of ‘treat your people how you want them to treat your customers’ is very apt.
I hope Bims never graces our TV screens again in this context. I hope she regularly repeats her Undercover experience again – although in future leave the wig and TV cameras at home. Just taking the time to visit, work alongside, experience and appreciate your staff will mean a whole lot more to all of your people than a TV appearance and a free holiday. I hope that Bims continues to thank people in her organisation who are doing a remarkable job – they are remarkable because they do what they do for love, not money. They are remarkable people who deserve to be told ‘thank you’ by every boss that comes their way.
So think back to the last time that you said ‘thank you’ to your own people. When did you last write them a thank you note? When did you last send them a thank you email? When did you last say thank you to them in person. Can’t remember? Do it now – don’t delay. You can thank me later.

‘More than just the product’ – the evolution from product centric to customer centric

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I recently read an interesting article about book stores. The very first sentence of the article stated:

‘Independent bookshops need to make readers feel special in order to compete in the internet age, say book trade experts’

You would find it hard to disagree with the statement. The number of Bookstores physically present on UK high streets have fallen to less than 1000 in 2014 – down over a third in the last ten years. The number of printed books sold in the UK last year dropped almost 10%. During the same period, sales of ‘ebooks’ rose 134%. You can read the article in full here.

The online revolution has hit the book selling industry harder than many others. Large and small retailers alike have disappeared without a trace. In 2009 one of the most prominent collapses in the industry came with the demise of Borders. The chain of bookstores that was originally part of the US parent group had been struggling for a while. Recognising the impact of online competition, Borders had started to try and change their proposition from being one of just bookselling. By the time they announced their ‘administration’, typical Borders stores contained both a Paperchase stationery and Starbucks café concession. In addition, some branches also contained a RED5 gadget concession and GAME video games concession.

Borders were trying to offer their customers more than just the product. Borders were trying to offer a more varied customer experience. On this occasion it did not work – the question is why? The book selling business has always been a hugely competitive one, even before the existence of Amazon. Operating a bookstore is challenging because of the need to maintain and manage large stocks of physical inventory, tough suppliers and the seasonal nature of demand for books, which peaks during the year-end holidays. Additionally, Borders attempts to adapt to the online phenomenon were limited .

In other words, Borders reacted to the challenge of Amazon far too late. Their attempt to integrate other ‘services’ to adapt the experience for customers was very well intentioned, but not enough to overcome the financial challenges already besetting the group. There are similarities with HMV’s failure to respond to the challenge of Apple’s iTunes  – again, by the time they did, it was too late.

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In 2014, bookstores need to demonstrate that they offer something more than books. If you want a book to read, the easiest and often cheapest way to access one is via a Kindle. For bookstores to still have a place in the lives of consumers, they need to offer an experience – a compelling customer experience that goes beyond just offering a book to read. Jasper Sutcliffe, head of buying at Foyles, was recently quoted as saying that bookshops “just can’t be a book shop any more”. “They need to offer so much more – the bespoke service that booksellers give, the events, the signings, the added value – and we look to publishers to help.”

The book selling industry is not the only one that needs to adapt to the rapidly changing world we live in. Another is the complex market that is Pharmaceuticals. For the last fifty years and more, the Pharmaceutical industry has been remarkably successful. Whilst it has done a huge amount for mankind, it has also benefitted from producing lifesaving medicines that have generated billions and billions of dollars of revenue and profit. To a degree, it has been so easy for the industry to make money, it has almost simply ‘fallen from the sky’.

In 2014 the world for pharmaceutical companies looks very different. The exclusivity that many of their products have benefitted from is expiring. Competition has grown exponentially. Generic products are rife. Differentiation is now a real and genuine challenge. The pharmaceutical industry can no longer rely just on the product alone – one company’s product is now largely the same as another. To survive, Pharmaceutical companies are actually going to have to work to earn their money . They are going to have to evolve their proposition to encompass the customer experience – not just the product. To convince a physician to prescribe their drug, a pharmaceutical company is going to have to work harder to demonstrate value than they ever have done before.

In the world we now live in, few companies can survive on the strength of their product alone. Product centric organisations are becoming fewer in number. To survive in our increasingly customer/consumer driven world, it is vital that all organisations understand the importance and necessity of evolving to becoming customer centric. If a book store simply tries to sell books, it will fail. If a pharmaceutical company just tries to sell a drug, it will struggle. To find, win and keep customers in 2014, all organisations need to demonstrate that they offer and deliver a compelling, consistent and differentiated customer experience.