Making customers feel welcome is so easy but why is it still so rare?

A non-toxic theatre visit ticks all the right boxes

If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to a popular West End show – and in my case even luckier to get one fairly cheaply (thanks to TodayTix) – your elation can be followed by a sudden lowering of expectations: the venue will be crowded and the business of getting to your seat can be a major stress point.

If your companion has mobility challenges, this stress can be compounded, but a visit to the Old Vic last week proved to be a pleasant surprise. I’d been warned that there was construction work going on at the theatre, so my expectations of easy access were even lower than normal, but here’s the pleasant surprise: plenty of people on hand to help. Having been directed to the other side of the theatre to some temporary outside loos – the works on the building seem to limit internal access at the moment – we encountered an incredibly helpful member of the front-of-house team who insisted on showing us to our seats at the back of the stalls just to make sure they could be accessed.

The play – A Very Expensive Poison – was excellent. However, the point of this is not to recount a very enjoyable (also inexpensive and non-toxic) evening but to reflect on why such experiences are still relatively rare. Many West End theatres – and other businesses in central London – face structural problems, namely old-fashioned pokey buildings, high rents and therefore ticket prices, and these can mitigate against a good customer experience. However, this means that businesses should invest in the relatively inexpensive assets that can turn an enjoyable theatre visit into a memorable one: namely the people customers encounter during the visit.

What’s frustrating is that there is nothing new or rocket-science about any of this: you simply recruit people who want to serve customers well and train them to make sure they have the necessary skills and knowledge to do so. Staff at the Old Vic were all pleasant and friendly but that’s still a rarity: it’s not that people are openly hostile, but too often I encounter indifferent service staff who are “going through the motions” rather than recognising it’s their job to make their customers feel better, however fleeting that interaction might be.

Organisations – in the arts sector and beyond – that recognise the central importance of this stand a greater chance of repeat business (I’m looking forward to my next Old Vic visit) and the financial success that comes with it.

Want to change your culture? Go green…

Taking lessons from permaculture may be the best way to create a sustainable culture change

As Kermit the Frog memorably put it, “it’s not easy being green” as anyone will know who’s unwrapped and binned or attempted to recycle the plastic from their weekly grocery shop. With images of plastic-bound sea life in our heads we might be feeling a creeping sense of despair… So why apply green principles to the equally vexed question of how to change your organisation’s culture?

The short answer is that it makes a lot of sense to do so – particularly if you want the change to be beneficial and long-lasting. Here’s how…

Culture change – the perennial problem

I’ve lost count of the number of organisations I’ve sat in where there’s an expressed wish that “if we could only change the culture” then the desired change would happen or be a lot easier to make happen. This is a common misconception: that culture is a “thing” that can be changed, like a process or an IT system. It’s not: it’s a consequence of people and systemic issues such as reward mechanisms, recruitment and so on. Affecting culture requires an understanding of these various factors and their interplay but very often leaders prefer a dramatic intervention such as replacing the top team or laying off staff to achieve what are inevitably short-term benefits.

Something more sophisticated is required and rather than come up with my own patented fool-proof culture change method (lubricated with several litres of snake-oil) I’d like to propose the application of some existing principles that will make you think more deeply about the impact of the change you are effecting.

These principles come from a sustainability approach called permaculture. In summary, permaculture – the name derives from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture” – is an approach to living that has less of a detrimental approach to the planet. In a discussion with some friends about the topic recently I was struck by how relevant these were to organisational change.

Principals for permanence

Permaculture is based on 12 design principles. There are plenty of good summaries around which are worth looking at. Here’s my take on how they might apply in a commercial organisation

1. Observe and interact

It’s so tempting – particularly if you’re a consultant or a leader operating on a tight timescale – to come up with solutions quickly and implement them as rapidly as possible. Taking time to engage and understand an organisation is critical if you want to identify the points of resistance and, more importantly, the areas of support that will be important in making the proposed change stick.

2. Catch and store energy

In pure agricultural terms this is another way of saying “make hay while the sun shines” – an old saw but often overlooked when implementing change. What are the best times to introduce a change (clue: probably not when you’re doing annual appraisals)? Where are the areas of organisation with more energy and support for the change you want to introduce (hint: start with these first).

3. Obtain a yield 

The reason we do agriculture is that we need our efforts to yield something. Sustainable culture change in an organisation is the same: we need to understand the benefits of what we are doing, whether hard financial measures or softer attitude surveys. Having a good benefits management discipline really helps here.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

In the permaculture context, self-regulation means putting in the appropriate feedback loops so that a system can continue to function well. In an organisational context, this fits well with continuous improvement approaches such as Kaizen, or the application of systems theory. Understanding what feedback mechanisms – formal and informal – regulate an organisation’s behaviour and then altering them gradually is key to sustainable change.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services 

The Shock of the New was an acclaimed TV series on modern art but I think the title could often be applied to approach used to create a shift in an organisation’s culture, whether it’s “new” concepts (like customer-centricity – mea culpa) or new customers, people, technology or processes. Introducing something new consumes resource (it’s more expensive to acquire new customers than to keep existing ones) whereas it’s better to reduce unnecessary consumption where possible: what existing value is locked up in current customers and people and how can you unlock it?

6. Produce no waste 

Permaculture emphasises valuing and making use of all available resources. Leaving aside my concerns about how much packaging goes to waste, businesses are incredibly wasteful of the talent that’s locked up in their people and the goodwill of their customers. Take a “zero waste” mindset to your business see how it changes your perception of how to create value.

7. Design from patterns to details

This is one of the more obscure permaculture principles but it’s intended to force thinking about the big picture in environmental terms. Effective change management definitely takes this approach – at least in theory – by stepping back and observing how processes work (or not) end-to-end and asking the question “who do they serve?” (clue: if the answer is “the customer” that’s a good thing).

8. Integrate rather than segregate

My gardening knowledge is limited but I do know that if you plant marigolds amongst your tomatoes the chance of them being attacked by harmful root-rotting nematodes is reduced. Permaculture emphasises putting things in places where supportive relationships develop. How often do we do the opposite in organisations and intentionally create barriers and internal competition?

9. Use small and slow solutions 

As someone who cut their consulting teeth in the heyday of business reengineering – the father of which, Michael Hammer, was fond of saying “if it ain’t broke, break it” and where “big change, fast” was the guiding mantra – the idea of being small and slow is anathema to me. However, it’s worth considering how much attrition was caused in those swashbuckling reengineering projects and whether the changes were sustained in the long term.

10. Use and value diversity 

In agriculture, diversity increases resilience to disease and with the commendable advent of diversity programmes across many organisations, we might think we’re ticking this box. I don’t think we’re there yet: bringing different points of view and thinking styles together constructively to solve business problems is valuing diversity not just ticking a compliance box.

11. Use edges and value the marginal

Once again, my knowledge of sustainable agriculture leads me to take at face value the permaculture claim that the interface between things is where the most interesting events take place but in businesses that’s definitely true, with the interface with customers the most productive area for change and innovation. The problem is that this marginal area is often not valued by organisations, leading to cultures that don’t place the customer at the centre of what they do.

12. Creatively use and respond to change

Finally, the most powerful principle of the twelve. Change managers like me might think that we are driving change (other powerful adjectives are available) but it’s more helpful to think of how we respond to change. The author William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions, recognises this: change is a sudden thing and it’s how we manage the transition to the new state that results that’s important. Taking a creative and constructive view of change events helps that transition.

It’s not easy…

Some of the principles may seem like the blindingly obvious, some a little obscure, but they strike me a setting a challenge for all of us engaged in organisational change: how do we carry it out in a way that increases the chances of sustained benefits? Using the principles to ask questions of and challenge our preconceptions about how change is managed will, I believe, result in change that benefits all of us.

As Kermit says, it’s not easy being green…

Acknowledgements: 1) the author would like to thank his friend Linda Murgatroyd for introducing him to the concept of permaculture 2) the author also recognises that Kermit the Frog was singing about his skin colour not the environment.

A selection of vegan food

How often do you offer genuine hospitality?

Nick Bush fills up with hospitality, but wants more

Having grown up in a hotel and then a restaurant I am, more than most people I suspect, obsessed with the hospitality industry. But a recent experience made me realise that hospitality businesses rarely offer hospitality that feels genuine – like a good evening spent having dinner at a friend’s house, say.

Come again?

My immediate reaction to a restaurant offering “vegan soul food” is “run that past me again?” – I have no objection to food not involving animal products but it’s the “soul food” bit that mystifies me. Sufficiently so that I didn’t rush to eat at the nearby Amrutha Lounge when it opened last year but when I visited last week I realised what a mistake that had been. Not only is the food delicious but the serving staff make you feel genuinely welcome with an informality that stays the right side of the “hi guys!” fake cheeriness cliché of most casual dining venue.

The feeling you get is that they want to feed you – and feed you well. If you order a selection menu, which we mainly did out of laziness, there is an “unlimited top-up” approach so that you can order more of anything that you like. In practice the food supplied was more than enough, but I couldn’t resist the waitress’s eagerness for me to have just a little bit more. I’m much the same when I get invited to dinner somewhere: I find good food very difficult to refuse!

Not the most compelling exterior even without the roadworks

So, it was this aspect that was the clincher for me – a restaurant where people genuinely want you to enjoy yourself. It’s quite surprising when you think about it – the vast majority of places I visit are transactional: you order food, it gets delivered, you eat, pay the bill and depart. If you get personable wait staff and a nice welcome/farewell that’s a bonus but it often feels like it’s tacked on to the eating experience.

Philosophy

In the case of Amrutha Lounge I think the reason the experience feels different is that it’s part of an underlying philosophy about feeding people well. For example, they have a feature called “no man goes hungry” where you can exchange labour in the restaurant for food if you can’t afford it. (It’s a comedy cliché that if you can’t pay you end up washing the dishes, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it as part of the offer.) I don’t know how many people take it up, but it doesn’t really matter, it’s a statement of intent: what comes first is the offer of food.

And this is where so many businesses get it wrong on customer experience whether in hospitality or elsewhere. Too often, CX initiatives are built on top of existing poor processes and reward systems with little to change fundamental behaviours. As a consequence, effort is wasted, and results don’t justify the investment: CX is seen as a waste and nothing to do with the core business.

Actually, I would say forget customer experience and focus on what your core business does for the customer and how you want them to feel as a result: CX initiatives should grow out of that rather than be something that’s layered on as an afterthought.

You could say that customer experience has to come from the gut, but in the case of businesses like Amrutha Lounge, that’s the start – and the destination.

This post was originally published on The Next Ten Years

Can CX save us from a bleak future?

Dystopian visions send Nick Bush a warning about the future of customer experience

I misread a message from a colleague yesterday telling me that Gordon Tredgold’s article on 15 things teams hate about you was on LinkedIn. I clearly hadn’t woken up as I thought the article was 15 things you hate about LinkedIn. To which my initial reaction was “only 15?” – harsh maybe but I then realised I had a beef with most of the social media I use. (OK, I know LinkedIn doesn’t really class itself as a social media app but you get my drift.)

But that doesn’t stop me from spending considerable chunks of my day on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram (I went cold turkey on Twitter a while back and feel much better as a result)…

And then I read an excellent, if slightly depressing post from Chris Skinner entitled “We are the robots” which asked the question “Is technology making us slaves” and in which he gives an account of a ride from an airport in a driverless car to an automated check-in his hotel. No human contact at all.

Welcome to the future… a bit like science fiction but without the jetpacks and flying cars.

Now that’s what I call dystopia

Back at home I’m being entertained, if that’s the word, by a great TV drama series, “Years and Years”, a family drama set against the backdrop of social, political and technological turmoil in an imagined future UK. It contains some brilliant writing and some great actors but what strikes me most is that its speculative future is entirely believable, being based on issues that concern us today: migration, climate change, populism and the unstoppable rise of technology.

With The Handmaid’s Tale getting into its third season and Black Mirror tempting as a Netflix binge, dystopian drama is back on my agenda.

But are these dire warnings couched as entertainment making a difference?

My use of technology – Twitter aside – has not reduced a bit since I can get the following benefits from that little device in the palm of my hand:

  • News from various sources.
  • Music and live radio.
  • Connections with friends and family via Facebook and WhatsApp.
  • Emails whilst on the move.
  • Work connections via LinkedIn.
  • Optimal navigation of the roads and transport networks
  • Instagram (I still haven’t worked that one out fully as a trip to my page will show).

…and being a Brit, the weather app is a constant source of info – and a source of disappointment as another British summer fails to appear.

As a piece in the Economist reports, over 50% of the world is now online so my experience – my addiction you might say – is by no means unique. But I worry that with the many advantages of technological connectedness come the disadvantages of social isolation and a lack of human connectedness.

Customer experience to the rescue?

The drive to automate customer experience continues with a recent Gartner survey showing the over half of respondents expected AI to have the biggest impact on CX with chatbots and virtual assistants coming second. I’ve no doubt that automation can improve and streamline customer experience but increasingly I wonder what the cost will be, particularly where the needs of vulnerable customers are concerned. Increasing automation still requires the customer to do most of the work and if there are elements in process that the customer doesn’t understand or if something breaks the streamlined flow, bots are unlikely to help.

I’d like to see CX maintain a focus on human-centred interactions which may mean kicking against the trend for mass automation and focusing instead on the emotional capital that customers invest in your organisation. Customer journeys that pay attention to this and voice of the customer programmes that go deep enough to understand it will make sure that even if our phones become more and more integrated with our daily lives (a character in Years and Years has her tech integrated with her body) we won’t lose what makes us human, and ultimately what makes life worth living.

This post was originally published on The Next Ten Years

Listening to dissenting voices could be your organisation’s D-Day

Sometimes it pays to listen to the minority view

The recent D-Day commemorations have reminded me that last year I saw a great play about weather forecasting… don’t stop reading there because it was weather forecasting that made D-Day successful and that, in turn, made me realise how important minority views can be.

Under pressure

Pressure” is a play written by the actor David Haig and covers the events leading up to D-Day. Haig plays John Stagg, a meteorologist advising the Allied Expeditionary Force. Despite a run of fine weather in the days leading up to the operation, Stagg persuades General Eisenhower that the weather will deteriorate sharply on the planned date and a delay of 24 hours would be necessary to avoid a catastrophic military failure. After much debate – including with another meteorologist, the American Irving P. Krick, whose own data (crucially derived from the US not the UK) suggests everything will be fine – the weather is terrible on 5th June but clears in 24 hours; the operation takes place and the rest, as they say, is history.

Despite having been turned into a compelling, if traditional, piece of theatre, these events actually happened and John Stagg is, arguably, one of the unsung heroes of WWII. Without his insight – based on a combination of experience and intuition – D-Day would not have had the effect it did on the outcome of the conflict.

Listen up

But what strikes me is that Eisenhower listened to Stagg’s expert opinion. The Normandy Landings constituted the largest seaborne invasion in history, so that’s a lot of effort and careful planning put under threat by one – albeit expert – opinion.

Change leaders don’t always do enough listening to dissenting voices, particularly when they have invested a large amount of effort in a particular solution and someone comes along with a last-minute change.

I think we can draw some leadership lessons from this particular episode in history (apart from the “we must never let this happen again” ones that have been recited endlessly over the last few days). When running a significant change programme, do we:

  1. Take our ideas out for testing, running the risk that people may disagree or propose alternative solutions?
  2. Use experts to provide relevant input on the areas where their knowledge adds the most value?
  3. Trust the experts’ judgement, without requiring excessive proof?
  4. Fully understand the risks of not adhering to their recommendations?

This isn’t to suggest that every change leader should proceed by committee, but an understanding of potential points of failure and their consequences is critical. Sometimes a minority, expert voice can be the difference between success and failure.

This post was originally published on The Next Ten Years

To keep your fickle customers, focus on repeatable great experiences

Customer loyalty may be overrated, but achieving it is still a challenge

Residents of my little pocket of south London are lucky to have a wide choice of coffee outlets to sit and socialise or work in. When I’m working at home and need a change of scene, I often take myself off to one of them to jolt my brain, not just with caffeine, but with a different working environment.

Lately I have favoured an independent outlet with a bright airy back room and a damn fine cappuccino but my last couple of visits haven’t quite hit the spot for me. I’ve been analysing this as, whilst I am a frequent visitor to my nearest coffee house (a chain, with adequate coffee), I want to support independent local businesses as well. Without spending too much time (metaphorically) on my own psychiatrist’s couch I have concluded that something in the experience must have changed as the product – the coffee – is as good as it’s always been.

What’s going on

Part of the reason I go to my independent is that the ambience suits 30-60 minutes of pondering and writing (that’s my creative process in a nutshell – if I wanted to sound pretentious I’d call it thought leadership) even if I’m surrounded by chatting mums (it’s invariably mums on a weekday), noisy babies and background music that’s not too obtrusive. The service has usually been pleasant enough, but something has changed: the last couple of times I have been there’s been less of a buzz and the service has seemed just a little offhand.

These are all tiny changes – was I being hyper-sensitive? (It does come with the territory of being a customer experience-obsessive…) Or was I starting to become a more fickle consumer?

No, something in my gut was telling me this wasn’t the creative crucible that I had been getting used to…

Hello, lazy brain

Obviously, it’s not my gut telling me this, it’s my brain. As behavioural scientists have observed, our brains are inherently lazy and want repeatable, dependable experiences. My lazy brain got the idea pretty quickly that my local independent coffee shop could fulfil the following equation:

Great coffee + nice ambience + OK service = productive hour’s writing

So, my immediate reaction when thinking “where can I go for a break” was to choose the independent over the nearer chain.

This theme is explored in A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin’s HBR paper “Customer Loyalty is Overrated” where they challenge the accepted notion that consumers make conscious purchasing choices and therefore companies are required to come up with ever-improving, fresher propositions. Behavioural psychology research suggests the opposite: our brains are not always analytical; instead they take incomplete information and fill in the missing bits based on past experience. The more often we do this in relation to an experience the more “fluent” we become. When we make a decision that just “feels right” the processing that leads to it has been fluent.

I’ll always buy some brands because I associate them with the outcomes they deliver and don’t give the choice a second thought: in this case those brands make things easy for me by providing repeatable outcomes.

This is tough for companies where service is an integral part of the experience. A product can be manufactured, packaged and priced consistently for repeatable outcomes, but add service – typically with some form of human factor involved – and the outcome is less repeatable. Coffee shops in particular try to get around this by offering monetary incentives via loyalty cards to get you to come back. It’s not an influencer though: both my chain and my independent have equivalent loyalty schemes but that’s part of my conscious choice so not part of the repeatable experience that plays to my subconscious.

The product element in a coffee shop is easily repeatable. The equally critical ambience and service factors are less so, but they can be addressed. A market leader such as Disney puts a enormous effort into ensuring that – given the potential for massive variation – it offers an overall great experience for its resort customers, through focusing on staff (sorry, cast) selection, training and development and continuous improvement of all elements of the customers’ experience.

In my case, I may have been unlucky, and some of the factors I value were just missing on a couple of occasions. But the damage has been done: my lazy brain now has to do a lot more work to find a conscious reason to go there.

Cup half full

What bugs me about corporate attitudes to customer experience is that it’s seen as expendable and something to be cut when the going gets tough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of making it as efficient as possible – transforming underlying processes, removing friction and augmenting the experience though new technology but too often it’s a discretionary element that can be cut according to the other demands of the business. If you were running an airline you wouldn’t knowingly send faulty planes in the sky or not provide enough fuel for the journey so why take a different attitude to service?

Good coffee in my neck of the woods is easy to come by but a consistent experience that plays to my unconscious, lazy brain is a lot harder.

This post was originally published on The Next Ten Years

Is poor service letting down your social media strategy?

According to a recent survey it is – but fixing it requires commitment across the whole organisation

Whatever you may think about Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, their ethics or market capitalisation, social media companies are not about to disappear as a channel through which brands can connect with the current or future customers. But success in social media – as in real, bottom line business benefits – depends on a much more coordinated approach than is currently evidenced.

According to a recent report by social media management company Sprout Social, 50% of consumers follow brands to learn about new products and services and 48% to be entertained – a good basis then to promote your products in a fun and entertaining fashion. But wait – 56% of consumers say they unfollow brands because of poor customer service.

If you’re a social media marketeer that’s a bummer because it happens somewhere else in the company. There you are creating campaigns that are fun, funky and geared towards your lovely Facebook audience (the most popular channel – 89% of marketers use it) and you’re getting some great engagement metrics but someone in customer service is screwing this up!

What can you do?

I’d hazard a guess – actually it’s more than a guess as this is what I’ve observed in companies over the years – that the problem is that despite the great advantage of all kinds of social media to create connections with consumers, connections across businesses still seem much harder to achieve.

Let the train make the strain

To illustrate, let me go back to a piece I wrote last year about UK train operating company GWR. Its main point was that despite the very poor service customers were getting, following the introduction of new rolling stock, there was no acknowledgement on any of their social media. From what I can tell – my wife is a regular GWR traveller for work – the service has not massively improved and the social medial feedback situation is unchanged.

Only connect

The GWR situation shows how disconnected companies can be: product development designs a great new train, it gets delivered, doesn’t work properly and has seats that almost all customers find incredibly uncomfortable – a sure-fire recipe for poor customer service.

In this situation, social media marketing is an attempt to put sticking plaster over some gaping wounds in the company’s processes and however much engagement there is, none of it will change the design of the trains in the short term.

A histogram showing which teams social marketers wish they could influence more
Image: Sprout Social
A histogram showing which teams social marketers consult and share data with
Image: Sprout Social

The Sprout Social report – which covers a lot more than I have referred to here and is well worth a read – contains some more revealing statistics. Asked which team social marketers could influence more, 59% chose sales. Sales was also the one that most social marketers shared data and goals with – so I’m not sure how effective that is if it’s not influencing sales – but where is service?

It’s clear from the factors influencing unfollowing that linking social and customer service is key, yet the driving factor is sales, sales, sales. Don’t get me wrong – it works: I am now the proud wearer of a pair of blue brogues following a well-placed ad on Facebook (I may also be having a late mid-life crisis – don’t judge) and a company needs to sell, obviously. But if your social media doesn’t listen to and respond to customers’ feedback on service or understand why you are being unfollowed then it’s not adding as much value as it could be.

What’s needed is a joined-up approach that links social, sales and service under a coordinated brand strategy. The evidence suggests that this is an opportunity most companies have yet to seize.