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

What to do if your customer’s a jerk

Zero tolerance is the only option

I’ve focused recently on the toxic effect that people who behave badly at work have on overall morale and performance. The behaviour of these jerks or assholes should be dealt with to minimise its effect on their immediate colleagues and the longer-term impact on employee engagement.

But this week a distressing news story made me realise that whilst jerks can exist anywhere in the workplace, they can also be present on the customer side.

On a flight from Barcelona to London Stansted on Friday, a white man was filmed shouting at a black woman to get her to move seats (he has a reserved one apparently) while the passengers were boarding the plane. The woman is disabled so can’t move quickly but Mr Jerk seems oblivious to this and seems to think it’s OK to heap a volley of racist abuse at the woman. I’m not going to dignify his appalling behaviour by quoting it here, but you can check it on YouTube (warning: contains offensive language).

What’s just as shocking as his behaviour is the response of the Ryanair crew. They do intervene to get him to calm down – although the action of the passenger in the seat behind is more proactive – but frankly that’s not good enough: he should have been taken off the flight. In fact, towards the end of the video they appear to be more interested in him than the abused woman.

But let’s not blame the crew: they’re under a lot of pressure to get flights off the ground – like any low-cost operator they depend on the schedule and that will have driven their behaviour. The downside is that not only is the whole flight stuck with Toxic Racist for the whole journey, but Ryanair’s reputation takes another knock.

Too hard

At NextTen we try very hard to love Ryanair: they prove our point that if you have a clear focus on customer outcomes (low cost holidays) then you don’t need magic moments or even a particularly friendly approach to your customers to have a successful business model. But they’re clearly driving this model too hard: strikes by staff have dented profits and it looks like they may be having to cut fares too much to keep customers.

Ryanair have reported the incident to Essex police, although this is definitely too little, too late. With the investigation requiring cooperation with Spanish police it’s possible no prosecution will be made.

The customer is not always right

Sadly, customers behaving badly are a constant for any business and transport is one of the areas where people can find themselves under stress and staff can be on the receiving end of complaints about late running, overcrowding or any of the things likely to affect the business of getting from A to B. But sometimes it’s more subtle: a few years ago I was told a story by one central London bank branch I was visiting about a local business owner who thought it was quite OK to park up on the double yellow line outside while he deposited money. He expected staff to keep an eye out for any traffic wardens and woe betide them if he got a ticket! To me this was quite unacceptable behaviour but as he was a good customer it was tolerated.

These extreme examples show the extent to which companies have a genuine customer focus that is driven by respectful treatment of everybody, customers and employees alike. In the case of the bank, the staff should have felt that if they challenged the customer about his selfish behaviour they would have been backed up by management. In the case of Ryanair, we can infer that other priorities were at play and/or staff might have not felt they would be backed up by management.


Companies should do more to make it clear what customer behaviour they consider to be unacceptable. Of course, most companies – particularly in high-stress areas like transport, healthcare and public services – do, rightly, exhibit the “abuse of our staff will not be tolerated” warnings but more subtle examples need guidance and policies. And staff need to be supported in exercising judgment about action to take when it happens.

But when your customer’s being a racist jerk, don’t think twice, get rid of them. Zero tolerance is the only way to go.

Can customers win the fight against global warming?

Responsible use of data can help

If there’s one thing that gets me going it’s being told I should change my behaviour in order to affect something of global significance. Don’t get me wrong, I recycle religiously, drive a small car and don’t eat a lot of meat but nevertheless my inner libertarian gets worked up when I hear that we should all “do our bit” to combat global warming by making lifestyle choices.

If only it were that simple.

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is as welcome as it is disturbing. I may not be around when a global temperature rise of 2% causes irreversible damage to the planet, but I’d like to think it could be averted or the effects lessened by limiting the rise to 1.5% as the report recommends.

But we won’t get there by suddenly converting to veganism: concerted effort is required at an international level to reduce CO2 emissions as well as shifting the demand towards goods that have a lower impact.

Customers to the rescue

This isn’t a political publication so I’m not going to say anything about the willful ignorance of some administrations with regard to climate change and whether humans are the cause. Let’s assume that if you’ve got this far you think we could have something to do with it and leave it at that.

This is a customer experience piece though, so what can customers do, and how does customer experience figure in it?

I was heartened to read a piece in Marketing Week that revealed that grocery behemoth Tesco is using marketing data from its loyalty scheme to encourage people to eat more healthily. This is an important issue: obesity is on the rise and the consequences for healthcare – and the economic impacts – are significant. The various initiatives Tesco is undertaking – removing the sweet aisle from the checkout, handing our pieces of fruit to children – should help to nudge their customers towards a healthier choice.


I particularly like their “helpful little swaps” initiative which compares the prices of healthier – and cheaper – alternatives to a customer’s bill. Anything that helps people take more control over their health seems like a good thing to me, even if – to be cynical for a moment – you suspect that the alternatives might make better economic sense for Tesco as well.

Again, this is data driven, as it allowed Tesco to see what worked and what didn’t and whether their customers understood what “healthy” meant in terms of their shopping basket. They could then adjust the mix of promotions accordingly. They have now partnered with TV chef Jamie Oliver, a noted campaigner against unhealthy food to develop exclusive recipe content.

Imagine there’s no future

What’s all this go to do with global warming? We may all be eating healthily but that matters not one jot if the earth is scorching beneath our feet. Exactly! We may hear the exhortations to eat healthily and act more sustainably but – in my view – that’s not enough to make a sufficiently large number of people act differently to significantly shift the dial on health measure or our carbon footprint. (Also, actions to improve personal health have a visible payback: if I eat well I generally look and feel better, so public health campaigns can have some effect. Combating global warming is too easily seen as someone else’s problem: it won’t affect me until it’s too late.)

It strikes me that persuading retailers – possibly working in some form of cooperative alliance – to act to promote goods with a lower carbon footprint would have a bigger impact than trying to dictate to the population at large. Tesco’s use of customer data shows how you can fine tune this type of campaign and use it to commercial advantage.

Enlightened commercial self-interest may just be the best way to keep the planet safe for the next generation.


Ten tell-tale signs that show you’re not that customer-centric

It’s not what you say, it’s what you do (or don’t)

Are you customer-focused, customer-driven or customer-centric? If you’re any of those things that’s probably why you’re reading this, but does the organisation you work for feel the same way?

In our work with CX leads we come across a real tension between what companies say they care about and what they actually do. Very often, the tension is so great that it’s a real disconnect. The result? Wasted effort on customer initiatives that don’t have sufficient momentum and under-realise potential benefits.

So, what can you do about this? It’s best to start with what the organisation does: a good reflection of the environment within which a culture of customer obsession can grow. Here’s my take on the tell-tale signs that will tell you that – unless addressed – getting genuine customer focus to take root will be tough.

1. Customers don’t figure in strategy

This is the obvious one, so let’s get it out of the way first. But before I do, I should say that there is no hard-and-fast rule that says you must have customer focus to have business success. You can build a company that successfully prioritises other things: being faster and/or cheaper than the competition, creating innovative products. And in most cases, you’ll need enough customers to buy your super-cheap or fabulously innovative products so obviously that’s part of any business strategy. But if caring for customers, creating a superior service experience, enabling employees to make customers happy, including customers in your community or other words like that don’t feature in your strategy – and even more critically in the plans and budget allocations that follow – then it’s a good bet that your company is driven by something else.

And that’s fine, but just don’t expect a long CX career there.

2. No-one is curious about customers

One characteristic of successful customer-driven companies is that everyone – from the CEO to the front-line – is interested in what customers think, what they want and what they aspire to. That shows up in a number of ways: senior execs don’t go “back to the floor” once a year, they talk to customers and the people whose day job is to provide a service to them on a weekly or even daily basis.

When you have people in your organisation who are curious about customers, you get ideas and you get genuine conversations about customer outcomes that help you build killer propositions. The converse is that if you don’t come across this quality on a regular basis, your organisation is almost certainly focused elsewhere.

3. One measure is pursued relentlessly

As fellow contributors have argued (here and here) it’s senseless to focus all your efforts on measure of customer satisfaction or customer success when customer behaviour is such a complex thing.

It’s one of the subtler symptoms of a lack of customer focus that a focus on one measure of success – yes, Net Promoter Score I’m talking about you – means that an organisation can kid itself that it’s customer-focused when in fact it’s paying lip-service to customers with one simplistic measure. And when you relentlessly pursue the one measure, people get rewarded on it and then start to influence the measure rather than what the measure tells you.

Life, and customers, are much more complex than that, and your measures should reflect that.

4. Complaints are seen as a problem

Does your organisation have a well-resourced complaints department that deals with customer feedback in a prompt and positive manner? Or is the prevailing view that complaints originate from a few awkward customers who probably weren’t in your target market anyway? If it’s the former then you’re mining the rich seam of customer feedback for some customer-driven improvement but if it’s the latter then that’s another sign that something else is the focus, and it isn’t the customer.

5. Difficult or vulnerable customers are shut out or marginalised

Well, no-one would have this as an explicit strategy but it’s a symptom of having an idealised view of the customer rather than reflecting the messy reality that people find themselves in. One way of testing this is to look at your organisation’s policy for vulnerable customers: does it exist, and if so, is it translated into action that means that customers who don’t fit the “norm” are catered for and treated equivalently? Being customer-centric means being focused on all your potential customers.

6. Social media is not understood

I’m often staggered by the ineptitude of media campaigns generally, particularly where the brand takes a bit of a battering as a result of poor service performance. In these situations, social media appears deaf to customer feedback. So, if you see your organisation failing to respond constructively to grumpy tweets or fractious Facebook posts then there’s a good chance that customer-centricity has failed to take root in your marketing department.

7. Cost-cutting hits the contact centre first

Where a business allocates its budgets is a good indicator of what its priorities are. So, if your contact centre is under pressure to cut costs that’s a sign that customers might not be a priority. But again, this is a subtle sign: spending more on contact centres could mean that your organisation can’t stop customers calling who’d rather not have to sit in a call queue for ages. But if the focus is to cut costs first and then ask why customers are contacting you, it’s a sure sign that cost-saving comes before customer experience.

8. Digital streamlining is everything

Of course, the reason for cutting contact centre costs is usually to direct people online where the chances are that they will receive a slicker, more streamlined service. That’s absolutely the right thing to do. But if your streamlined service is at the expense of human contact to handle exceptions, queries or special assistance then you’re digitally excluding part of your customer base.

9. Silos are indestructible

Despite the protestations of management theorists, organisations today look much like they did 30 or more years ago, with Sales, Marketing, Operations and Finance all with a seat at the top table. I’m not advocating a different way of organising as an essential part of being customer-centric: as far as I’m concerned, we’ll need those functions and disciplines for at least the next 30 years. But if the functions turn into indestructible silos, with no genuine co-operation between them, then customer-driven efficiencies from cross-functional processes are going to be hard to generate.

10. Jerks get promoted

In this article I’ve not focused that much on the creation of a positive, customer-focused culture, possibly because you can’t be that prescriptive about what works. It’s easier to focus on what doesn’t help and I have argued elsewhere that the prevalence of assholes in an organisation can have negative consequences for performance. So, if you’re in an organisation that promotes people despite their negative, self-centred or bullying behaviour then you’re in an organisation that it not committed to employees’ happiness and, without that, customer happiness is likely to be in short supply.

Look on the bright side

Customer-centricity isn’t the only game in town, but if you’re in a role that espouses it whilst your organisation shows signs – as illustrated above – that it’s got different priorities then you could be in for a stressful time.

On the positive side, if it’s genuinely committed to becoming more customer-focused, then any of those ten tell-tale signs will be a great place to start your change initiative.



Priti Patel and the mine field of being a maverick

Priti Patel’s much-publicised forced resignation as International Development Secretary the other week, for not disclosing the extent of her holiday meetings with senior contacts in the Israeli government, illustrates the perils of going outside accepted policy and organisational norms.

In other words, she was sacked for being a maverick. 

The positive side of being a maverick is they “break down doors” and get things to happen more quickly. The problem is they also make decisions and don’t bother to tell people – in some circles that is deemed not acceptable. Goodbye Priti Patel.

We seem to have a political elite who talks about the importance of very high standards on one hand and sets very low standards on the other. Assuming there is not something else going on which we have not been told about, shouldn’t we be encouraging maverick behaviour that challenges the accepted way of doing things?

Interest declared: I was a fan of the TV series Maverick when I was a (toy) pistol-packing, poker-playing young cowpoke (my childhood had its colourful moments). Much later, I was inspired by reading Ricardo Semler’s seminal book ‘Maverick’ about his experiences creating Semco as a radically different kind of organisation. This informed a lot of the start-ups I created inside large organisations.

And some of the people I’ve most enjoyed working with have been leaders that kicked against or challenged the conventional ways of working.

So, I’m naturally drawn to mavericks of all kinds, although I accept there are limits!

To remain healthy and competitive, businesses should encourage their independent thinkers and doers to pursue their own projects – Semler’s Semco did just that, with improved performance as the outcome – but, sadly, Corporatism will kill Entrepreneurialism every time, as Clare Boyles points out elsewhere on this site.

In the case of Priti Patel, Is this another example of Corporatism clamping down on a creative individual who was doing the right thing, but cutting a few corners along the way?

How you answer that question depends on whether you think Patel’s actions were in themselves correct. Without going into the mire of Middle East politics it was clear that her unauthorised meetings didn’t fit at all with the UK Government Policy or support its aims regarding Israel-Palestine conflict.

As a result, she had to go.

The same fate awaits business mavericks working inside corporates. Step too far away from the age and you’ll find your career stalling for lack of resource or senior support. At which point you may decide to take your brilliant wealth-creating idea somewhere else. However, to prevent that happening you should – unlike Priti Patel – make a habit of telling people in the organisation what you’re up to, and how it serves the common good.

In my experience that’s where a lot of organisational mavericks come unstuck, since sharing their independent vision might mean having to compromise or change it.

Nurturing the independents within an overall vision is the hallmark of a truly entrepreneurial corporate.

And judging how much to compromise or adapt your vision to get a bigger result is the hallmark of a genuine entrepreneur.

The customer’s role in superior service

The discussions on superior service examples yielded a detailed response from management consultant Jane Northcote ( whose take on superior service recognises that it’s a two-way transaction. Jane writes:

Customer service is traditionally regarded as an attribute of a company: Waitrose provides ‘good’ customer service, an electronics discount  store provides ‘bad’ customer service. Equally, however, it is true that customer service is an attribute of the customer.  Some people experience good customer service, and others bad, even from the same organisation. Why is this?

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Basic etiquette: the foundation for superior service

If you want to lay the foundation for superior customer service then one of the enablers you need to put in place is to make sure people have a basic level of etiquette or good manners.

I was recently on holiday in France and was struck by how French people are conditioned to be polite by comparison with the British. Carry out most transactions – however mundane – and you will be greeted with ‘Bonjour’ at the start and ‘Bon journee’ at the end – that’s the equivalent of ‘Good day’ and ‘Have a nice day’ to book-end the interaction.

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