The future of live performance (and customer engagement)?

It was the rock critic Jon Landau who almost blighted Bruce Springsteen’s career in 1974 by declaring him the future of rock and roll so I hesitate to say that I might have seen the post-pandemic future of live performance after attending an app-enhanced online gig by Dutch jazz trio Tin Men & the Telephone last week.

I’m also in danger of sounding a bit like your ageing relative who’s just caught up with new technology – “hey kids, have you discovered Instagram?” – as the app in question has been around for at least a couple of years and the band has been around for quite a bit longer.

Continue reading

Customer experience is hard – because it’s not just about the customer

It’s an end-to-end problem – and an opportunity

I was in conversation with a fellow consultant recently where she described her horrendous experience returning a sofa she had bought. You’d think this would be a straightforward exercise – these days I find it’s straightforward to return unworn or undamaged products to suppliers and get a refund – but not so. In this case the sofa had been covered with a fabric that, after a few weeks, had stretched significantly, making the whole thing look worn and unattractive.

My friend’s initial attempt to sort out a return was rebuffed but she was undeterred and sought out help from a fabric expert, who confirmed that the fabric used was too stretchy and therefore unsuitable for use as a sofa covering, and a lawyer friend who obliged her with a suitably stiff letter.

Continue reading

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.

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.


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

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

Are you an inspirational customer?

Customers should be better at providing meaningful feedback
and service providers should make it easier for them to do so

Another caffeinated customer experience gave me a new perspective on feedback. I was in a local chain coffee shop, taking advantage of a freebie courtesy of my mobile provider and the productivity benefits that seem to accrue from being surrounded by a general buzz of conversation. I noticed that both the coffees I drank seemed to be particularly good – better than usual – and both were courtesy of a “trainee barista” (according to her t-shirt). I passed by her on the way out and congratulated her on her exceptionally good coffee – clearly the training was working well – but she looked slightly non-plussed.

This made me think: are we, as customers, bad at giving feedback?

I think we are. And the trend towards surveying every inch of our experience doesn’t help.

Hi guys, how’s your food?

If I’m in a restaurant I think it’s nice if someone takes the trouble to ask if you are enjoying your food. But how many times has that enquiry been made when I have just started eating and not in a position to offer any feedback? Moreover – and this may just be British reticence – how often have I or people with me said it’s OK when some aspect of the food isn’t quite up to standard?

It’s the equivalent of the “How are you?” enquiry on greeting someone – we don’t usually respond with a list of current ailments or life situations – polite but meaningless.

Anti-social media

Back to my coffee chain. It has an app for payment and collecting loyalty points which is great and, if I’m being brutally honest, almost certainly does encourage me to spend more with them than with other brands. Every time I use it a little window pops up: “how was your last visit?” Are you spotting a problem here? At this point I’m thinking about my current visit and – since I’m in the process of paying for my coffee – can’t be doing with providing feedback on any visit.

I just checked my app: there’s no opportunity for me to provide more reflective feedback on my last visit so that I can’t more permanently record my verbal feedback to the barista.

Give us feedback – and your organs

And so it continues… a friend with a donated kidney posts a link to the NHS organ donation site. Although an opt-out approach will be adopted in England next year, it seems simple enough to register and it proves to be. And there is the inevitable feedback tab at the bottom of this screen – how can we improve the site? Well to be quite honest it does the job perfectly, so I leave a very satisfied rating and a comment to that effect, adding “you’re doing a great job” as the web team have implemented a nice clean website that helps you register quickly and, moreover, the outcome of their work is saved lives. I’m faintly surprised they didn’t ask for a Net Promoter Score as, in this case, I would recommend the site to friends, family and total strangers – if you’re in England, please do register!

But, actually, what is the point of feedback now? For all I know it may have been terrible to start with and customer feedback improved it but at this point it’s just creating work for people. This illustrates a tendency I have noticed in organisations:

Once we start collecting data, we get stuck in a rut and it has the potential to be wasted effort.

Get inspiration: get meaningful feedback

So, let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with collecting data on customer behaviour and feedback: technologies are available to allow you to collect and manipulate ever-increasing amounts of data from all touch points. But it’s getting meaningful data that allows you to turn data into insight and insight into action that’s important.

In my view it’s qualitative feedback that gets you that insight, whereas quantitative data will give you trends and aid segmentation. We can cover quantitative data in another article but for now let’s look at five ways to get meaningful feedback from your customers to inspire you to improve.

1) Always provide a qualitative channel to capture feedback

My coffee chain is a good example of how not to do this: there’s nowhere on the app to provide ad hoc feedback which suggests they’re not that interested. Even the Feedback tab on their website is broken but there is a link to email channel, so I’ll be sharing my feedback with them soon.

2) Get feedback at the right point in the customer journey

Whilst you need an always-on channel for ad hoc feedback, it’s important to identify the points in the customer’s journey where it makes sense from their point of view to provide you with feedback. Most companies, to be fair, put this at the end of a transaction but there are still a significant number who don’t or who launch a feedback pop-up on their website before you have even done anything.

3) Ask the right questions – and the right number of questions

You should always add on a qualitative text input field to allow customers to explain why they gave a particular quantitative rating but do this sparingly: there’s nothing more annoying than having to justify every score you’ve given. And always have a general text input field at the end – some people like to save their comments for a single message.

4) Recognise negative feedback as inspiration

This is tough: I have long maintained that complaints are an under-used source of feedback but treating them as inspiration is a bit of an ask. It’s a question of mindset: if you have repeated complaints about some aspect of your products, services or experience then this is a great opportunity to turn that around. Genuinely customer-centric companies will have this mindset.

5) Follow up and reward

Whether grumpy or inspirational, your customers are devoting their time to improving your company, which should generate plenty of business value, so it seems right to offer some form of reward. My favourite is the pizza chain that sends you a voucher for free dough-balls for every time you feed back. The incremental cost of this is negligible but it encourages customers to provide feedback and – I have experienced – they do follow up with further discussion if appropriate.

Do let me have feedback both on this article on your experiences with customer feedback.

Wake up and smell the cologne… how are you inspiring your customers?

“Magic moments” are not the be-all and end-all of customer experience – but they are important 

Wednesday in Wimbledon – I’d say wet if I was seeking an alliterative effect but in the interests of veracity it was a fine day – and I had an hour’s “office time” before a meeting. I went to an independent coffee shop on Wimbledon’s main drag – once apparently the high street with the most chains in the UK – not because it was an indie but because I knew it would be quiet, got my coffee and my WiFi code and logged on.

The welcome screen was not what I was expecting. Instead of the usual MSN collation of news items there was a poem (see below).

Now whilst I don’t read a lot of poetry and my limited abilities as a literary critic are safely confined to my book club, I’d say that the author’s efforts were a bit overwrought. Nonetheless I loved the idea of the coffee beans’ “cologne” and this little poetic pause set me up in a good frame of mind for the next 60 minutes.

And it made me think: how often do businesses go out of their way to inspire their customers?

In my experience – not very often.

At which point, if you’re in the business of providing customers with a service on behalf of your company you might be thinking “hang on Nick, isn’t it enough that we provide a great service day in, day out? That’s hard as it is without expecting our agents to be inspirational poets!”

Up to a point

Well, you may have a point: broken processes, malfunctioning systems and a back office that’s still in the 20th century may be some of the daily challenges your front-line people successfully manage every day to deliver a great service. In which case any further requests to create moments of magic will fall on deaf ears.

Note that in my example the magic moment didn’t require any human intervention – in fact, the coffee service was pleasant but unremarkable – but someone had taken the time to think about what might make the experience a little bit special.

Your call is important, so here’s something that’s not muzak 

Of course, the effect can wear off. For example, my bank, First Direct, have a different approach to hold music, playing some ambient street sounds while you wait to speak to someone. As I have been repeatedly calling FD with regard to a foreign payment that’s gone astray (that’s a CX epic that will find its way onto this site soon), this is now as grating as listening to 16 bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a loop. Any element of surprise wore off about 30 seconds into my first hold.

Maybe First Direct think they’re being smart and different but it’s part of what’s become, for me, an increasingly frustrating customer journey so it’s having a negative effect.

That old black magic

The quest for “magic”, inspiration and out-of-the-ordinary elements of a customer journey is important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important. One organisation I came across liked to devote considerable management time to deciding whether a customers’ experience could be classified as a “magic moment”. If it was deemed to contain insufficient pixie-dust to make it magic, it was deemed a “brilliant basic”. Both were rather aspirational terms as exceptional customer experience hadn’t exactly become the norm and there were plenty of basics that were far from brilliant. In my view they were well-intentioned but probably should have been a bit more rigorous about identifying and fixing process breaks and then empowering front line staff to create magic themselves.

Having a commitment to inspiring customers is a worthy ambition and it’s something that’s etched into NextTen’s DNA. We challenge ourselves to present material and ideas to our customers that inspires them to think differently about their businesses to deliver better results. Whether or not we succeed is something only our customers can judge. We haven’t yet employed seaside sounds or poetry to help us, but who knows what the future holds…

Meanwhile, what are you doing to inspire your customers?

Will customer experience survive Brexit?

The UK’s Brexit crisis means more investment in CX not less

I write this article from a country under siege. For months the UK has been in the grip of what appears to be a never-ending debate on a topic that around 97% of the population have lost interest in. Today (Tuesday 29th January) is the day when the UK Parliament is alleged to be “taking back control” and debating which version of not-being-part-of-the-EU enough people can be persuaded to agree on – although this has for a long time now resembled the spectacle of two bald men fighting over a comb.

But enough griping: I have discovered an issue that’s had scant attention so far and, to me, it’s absolutely critical: what will be the effect of Brexit on customer experience?

I don’t offer this as a solution to the Irish border question, trade tariffs, customs union or the free movement of people or any of the myriad of variously important issues that come under the Brexit banner because it’s more important than any of them.

Yes, that’s right, an issue more important than Brexit itself: what will our experience as customers be like and what can companies do to address it?

I have picked two that are top of mind at the moment.

Disaster looms

The worst-case scenarios being put forward, particularly in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit which would see Britain trading on World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs, see businesses experiencing delays at ports, disruption to their supply chains and a consequent lack of product on shelves. Stockpiling of all kinds of foods and medicines is increasingly becoming a way for people to spend their leisure time but it’s a critical preparation that businesses need to make too, to avoid one of the fundamentals of a good customer experience – i.e. the stuff I want to buy is in the shop/on the website – being severely impacted.

Licence to be a jerk?

Non-availability of products and late deliveries are the stuff of customer complaints and, sadly, likely to tip an already stressed customer into bad behaviour. It’s understandable if not forgivable that this can occur, and we’ve offered advice about this elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the toxic climate around Brexit produces extreme behaviour that businesses should be mindful of. One story that struck me in the last few days was that of a London restaurateur whose anti-Brexit messages that he’d added to his bills had resulted in death threats. Your first reaction may be that he might have been better to avoid the subject, but using your business to promote a point of view on the topic is not unknown: Tim Martin, the boss of pub chain Wetherspoon’s has been touring his venues and hosting discussions on the topic recently.

That brings us to the nub of the issue: from the point of view of many who voted to leave the EU, the issue isn’t about trade deals, it’s about the identity of the country they live in. We have an evolutionary preference for living in tribal groups so some people might feel uncomfortable with those who are not from their “tribe”. The sad thing about Brexit is that it’s surfaced these feelings in a thoroughly toxic way with a rise in racist attacks reported since the referendum in 2016.

From a CX point of view this is worrying for any business with front-line staff who are “not from round here” – in this day and age that would be most businesses – and action needs to be taken to minimise the risk of threatening behaviour from customers.

What can you do?

I’m the recipient of regular emails from organisations telling me I should do something about Brexit, usually involving emailing my MP, but the key question is what should companies do to ensure that customer experience isn’t impacted? Nearly 60% of UK companies have some sort of Brexit programme in place, and I suspect that in organisations where customer experience (CX) heads are struggling to get airtime or investment for their initiatives this will only be made more difficult by the management of the looming crisis. But here’s the thing: Brexit programmes need CX and CX needs its own Brexit strategy.

I offer the following recommendations:

1) Keep going

In the spirit of Winston Churchill – “if you’re going through hell, keep going” – any current investment in CX should be continued and ramped up to take on board the implications of low stocks, increased customer stress and complaints.

2) Foster and celebrate diversity

Anyone’s workforce will have people with a variety of social/ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles. Companies that want to get the best out of their people celebrate this diversity. In the face of divisive and abusive behaviour the best defence is to provide support to those who might face it on a day-to-day basis. Not to do so is to cave in to a small minority of people with unpleasant attitudes – and who wants their business to do that?

3) Increase expenditure on CX training

If you’re keeping going and successfully lobbying for an increase in CX investment, the best area to spend it on is staff training, particularly where it deals with handling difficult customers.

Are you affected by Brexit? What plans is your organisation making and to what extent do they include customer experience? We’re keen to hear your views.

The death of high street retail? Bring it on!

The survivors of “retail hell” will be those that are prepared to change the way they think about customer experience

Reports of the death of the high street may have been exaggerated in the past but the decline in shop sales versus the increase in online sales reported over the Christmas period suggests that retail as we know it could well be in its death throes.

After my experience in the January sales in London I can only say the sooner the better.

What I learnt in a brief – but not as brief as it could have been – trip to Oxford Street last Sunday and a spot of grocery shopping on New Year’s Eve was that our tolerance of poor physical retail experiences is lessening, particularly when the online version is so much better.

What’s wrong with shopping?

Where do I begin? Let’s start with everyone’s favourite department store, John Lewis, on a Sunday afternoon. At the height of the sale season we were pleased to snap up a new mattress as a clearance bargain. We’d originally gone in to try out a Simba Sleep mattress – which you can buy online and return if not happy: now a standard with the new entrants (see also Casper, Eve and others) – but ended up with a different make at a clearance price which was more comfortable, albeit not covered by any guarantee should our in-store test proved to have been inadequate.

I get a bargain and a try-before-you-buy stage in the customer journey so what’s wrong? Well not that much if I’m honest, although I got a definite sense from the store assistant that he’d rather have been able to upsell to one of the many more expensive items on display (he could have helped me feel a bit happier about picking up a bargain instead). The trouble really started when we descended to the kitchen shop in the basement in search of a new pair of kitchen scales. As a keen cook and a bit of a kitchen gadget fan, I’ve previously spent happy times ambling through John Lewis kitchen shops, but something has changed since the last time I went to the Oxford Street “flagship” store. It proved tricky to find the right area and, when we did, the shelves were in such a mess that it took quite some time to work out what scales were available and how much they were.

On the basis of this second experience, online would have been much better – although it still took me a while to find the kitchen scales section on John Lewis’s website – and I could have bought my new mattress online as well, albeit at a non-clearance price.

Food, glorious food

Most of the time we shop online for food, via Ocado – it saves time and petrol cost – but it requires advance planning. In preparing for a New Year’s Eve dinner I needed to go to a local mall and that other bastion of British middle-class grocery shopping, Waitrose (part of the John Lewis Partnership). One missing ingredient required a trip to Sainsbury’s supermarket a short walk away. I found my missing spice but then had to wait in line whilst what appeared to be a large section of south-west London queued to pay at the self-service tills. There’s no way these are going to give you the kind of pleasant interaction on a standard check-out aisle that I’d had pre-Christmas in the same store – “unexpected item in bagging area” is hardly the basis for a great customer relationship. Most of the time I end up having to wait while a harassed assistant confirms that I am over 18 and can legally buy alcohol. My New Year’s Eve purchase was relatively smooth but the overall experience – albeit at peak time – was stressful.

Back to the Future?

There was a time when a trip to the shops was a relatively unhurried affair. Growing up in a small town over half a century ago I remember getting most of our food from a short trip to local shops. It wasn’t something full of magic moments as I recall but nor was it particularly stressful even when the local supermarket was involved. And my mother, who I was usually accompanying, would stop and chat to friends, neighbours and shopkeepers in the course of her expedition.

Of course, there was no competition from any other shopping channel in those days, just the choice between a few local shops so you can’t really compare it with our price-driven online interactions. However, leaving wistful reminiscence aside, the past has some lessons for the future of physical retail: shopping in those days was friendlier and less hurried. But if online can take away the need to stand in crowded shops or searching in vain for unavailable items what’s left on the High Street?

Café society

The answer is to forget about selling – at least in the same quantities as online – but to view the online and offline worlds as complementary rather than competing. Let’s look at a couple of retailers under threat from online competition: bookseller Waterstone’s (thriving) and music/video retailer HMV (filing for administration). I’m a customer of both, but in ways that illustrate this shift.

I spent a couple of hours in Waterstone’s Piccadilly branch at the weekend where I combined coffee, book shopping and a pre-dinner cocktail. The branch has three food/drink outlets and several floors of books and I based myself on the top floor café/bar with occasional forays to the book departments. So, my visit to the store is more about an overall leisure experience than a targeted piece of book shopping (which I could have done via Amazon or other online retailers). Waterstone’s still hasn’t integrated the online world very smoothly: one of the books wasn’t in stock and I declined the offer of ordering it as I figured I could do it online. However, I bought other books in the store so there’s no reason why the order couldn’t have been linked to my other purchases and offer a discount, securing more of my expenditure versus Amazon.

At HMV the threats are more extreme – we still like physical books for reading (versus eBooks) but are less enamoured of CDs and DVDs for audio/visual product – but the response has been less adventurous. My local HMV store also contains a branch of independent cinema chain Curzon. The cinema is one of the best in the area – a good choice of films, comfy seats, great sound and a good café/bar – but the degree of integration between the two is non-existent despite branding the venue as hmvcurzon. On the other two floors of the shop the offering is a traditional retail one: racks of CDs, vinyl and DVDs with various add-on products such as t-shirts.

Curzon is, as far as I can tell, thriving: the cinema experience is good and, as a distributor of independent films, it also offers a streaming service. Like many other cinemas it also offers live broadcasts of concerts, theatre etc. This move towards content and experience appears to have passed HMV by. Just as bands now make money from gigs rather than record sales it doesn’t require too much imagination to think how HMV might have evolved into a live experience provider – with links to related merchandise and streamed content – rather than remaining as a shop selling stuff that fewer and fewer people have a need for.

Entertaining outcomes

I’m not going to make any predictions for the future of high street retail other than to say that a better understanding of customer outcomes is required. If you view your customer’s outcome as “buy some stuff at an acceptable cost/convenience level” then you’re operating within the traditional retail paradigm. With online taking up an increasing proportion of shopping, that cost/convenience offer will need to be pretty compelling to cover the cost of high street property.

But if you view the customer’s outcome as “feel part of the community” (my experience of 50 years ago) or “have a great time with friends/family” (my recent Waterstone’s/Curzon experiences) then you might view the proposition you offer quite differently. In my little corner of south-west London, the number of coffee shops – both independent and chain – has doubled over the past 12 months and they are all busy: that points to a need that people have to get out into their community (even if it’s to sit hunched over a laptop with headphones on).

I’m not saying all shops should have a café attached. Retailer WHSmith provides a dire in-store experience (occasionally including a coffee vending machine) but it doesn’t prevent them achieving high performance, particularly given a focus on travel-related outlets (where leisurely browsing isn’t part of the experience). However, for most retailers, asking what’s missing from their customers’ experience and taking action to reinvent their outlets accordingly is the best hope to keep the high street alive.

It’s also a highly complex area and different solutions will apply in different localities – what might work in Wimbledon may not play so well in Warrington or Wigan. We’ll be returning to this theme in subsequent articles and inviting other people to contribute. If you’ve got direct experience in this area we’d love to hear your views.