Whose clock are you on?

Customer journey designs ignore the customer clock at their peril

Unless you’re afflicted by a particular neurosis you probably don’t spend every minute of the day counting down the time to your demise and wondering how you’re going to spend it. Yet time-efficiency and utilisation are beloved of management consultants, personal growth coaches, line managers and productivity experts the world over.

But often we’re using the wrong clock.

In the last week I’ve had two very personal examples of whose clock I’m on. Regular readers will know I’ve been a customer of St George’s Hospital in south-west London for more times than I would prefer to have been this year. Most of the time I’ve had some great experiences – under the circumstances – but my most recent visit caused me to reflect, not on mortality as much as time-efficiency.

Oh doctor, I’m in trouble

Following a routine day surgery procedure to correct a cardiac arrhythmia problem, I awoke in the middle of the night a few days later with a severe pain in my chest. Not, I was glad to notice, anywhere near my heart, but causing me some breathing difficulties. Following a few hours snatched sleep I embarked on a customer journey that went something like this:

08:00 Book same-day GP appointment online

09:15 GP appointment

10:00 Ambulance to hospital

10:20 Accident and emergency department – blood tests and electrocardiograms

11:50 Chest x-ray

12:05 moved to acute medicine unit

14:00 First meeting with doctor

15:30 Meeting with doctor and consultant – diagnosis and treatment

16:00 More tests

17:15 Medication delivered by pharmacist

18:00 Travel home

18:45 In my sick-bed!

A journey that lasted over 10 hours to diagnose and commence treatment of what appears to be a lung infection, most likely picked up on my first visit.

Every touch point in the journey was excellent – there were many others not documented that were also very good – but there was a lot of time in between them.

Always crashing in the same car?

Experience number two: I’m lying in bed the following afternoon when my wife phones to tell me she’s damaged the car – and two others – in a car park about two miles from our house and it can’t be driven. Another – longer – customer journey kicks off:


14:30 My wife calls our insurers and speaks to a very helpful and reassuring person on the other end of the phone at Admiral

15:15 My wife returns home – a lift from one of the other drivers, proving that the world is full of kind people, even if you scrape their cars

16:15 Call from recovery firm to confirm details for picking up the car

16:40 Call from recovery driver to ask where the car key is

16:50 Taxi to car with key


08:30 I call the repair workshop – would it be possible to pick up a courtesy car? Apparently, the car hadn’t yet been delivered by the recovery firm and would most likely be on Monday and a courtesy car couldn’t be made available until the damage had been assessed.


14:00 I call the workshop again.

“Yes, the car was delivered about 40 minutes ago so they’re doing the assessment”

“So, can I come over and pick up a courtesy car?”

“It takes about 48 hours to submit the assessment and have it approved, then we can let you have a courtesy car.”

14:15 I call the insurers to make the point that this is stretching the definition of courtesy a little bit but also, since I’m an accommodating sort of person, to say that we can manage without a car until Wednesday morning so if they could compress the 48 hours that would help. They call the garage who agree to provide the estimate by Tuesday p.m. All happy(ish) – for now.

Clocking off

There are two clocks in operation in my examples: a customer clock, representing my preferred time for the journey and a supplier clock representing when I’m not in control of the time the journey takes. In my healthcare journey, once I had made my booking and arrived at the doctor’s surgery I had pretty much ceded control to the various suppliers. In my car insurance example, we were in control of some elements (getting the key back to the car) but the overall – and rather unsatisfactory – timing of at least 4 days to become mobile again is predominantly dictated by the other actors in the process.

Any customer of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is accustomed to delays: in my case I had written off the day (and a few following it as it turned out) so although the waiting was tedious, I was aware that there were other higher priority cases using the resources. (This, incidentally, is one of the characteristics of a service owned by the public: you feel a bit of “we’re all in this together” and make allowances.)

Customers of insurance companies could, however, get a much better service. I have made a note of the difference between a hire care (provided by the insurer and available immediately on some policies) and a courtesy car (provided by the repairer and only after establishing that the car isn’t a write-off). Next time around I will pay more attention to this fine detail when selecting an insurer.

Takt and discretion

The idea of a customer clock isn’t a new one. In Lean manufacturing approaches the idea of “takt time” – literally the “beat” of the customers’ demands for products – is a key one in establishing how a manufacturer’s production line should be optimised. This works if you have customers with reasonably predictable patterns of behaviour like, say, an insurance company, less so if you’re a busy general hospital with a vast range of customers and conditions to service as well as specialised resources responding to multiple demands.

The key thing for suppliers is that, whilst they may have their own timings for the stages in their customer journeys, optimising these may end up sub-optimal for the customer. The tendency is to optimise the delivery of a service, but customers want the delivery of outcomes. In my hospital journey my desired outcome was wellness, or at least a signpost towards it, and whilst the time spent was longer than it could have been (in a world with less demand) it was delivered.

In my insurance example the outcome is “get me mobile again!” and the time taken to deliver it is at least 4 days longer than it could have been. I’ll be making a mental note to check out Direct Line when renewal comes around as their positioning shows them as problem solvers not just insurers.

The closer you can get to understanding the customer’s clock as well as your own, the more likely you are to attract and retain customers.


Six days after the ambulance episode I headed back to the hospital for a check up and was delighted to get through initial checks, x-ray and consultation with the doctor in less than 45 minutes. I barely had time to draw breath – now much easier – between appointments, so proof that when all goes according to plan, the NHS can approach customer time.

Making purpose part of customer experience

One retailer’s principled stand shows an intrinsic understanding of customer outcomes

Aren’t orang-utans cute? Would you like one in your home? Well, now you can if you shop at Iceland, who, on the back of their recent thwarted TV campaign are offering cuddly monkeys for a mere £5 with the profits going to an animal rescue charity

Frozen out

UK food retailer Iceland is cashing in on what must be the most successful TV advertising campaign to have not actually screened on TV. UK readers will almost certainly be aware that Iceland wanted to screen an advert featuring a cute animated orang-utan to emphasise its commitment to removing palm oil from all its own-brand products. (The cute critters’ habitats are under threat from deforestation in the interests of satisfying our appetite for everything from shower gel to instant noodles – the lipid gets into 50% of supermarket products apparently.) Clearcast, the UK’s advertising clearance watchdog, deemed the advert could not be screened as it contravened the code on political advertising. Possibly the animation being originally made by environmental campaigners Greenpeace tipped the balance against Iceland. Possibly it was just an overload of cute.

Anyway, the outcry generated by the non-screening of the advert – and the resultant viral sharing of the YouTube version has not done the retailer too much harm in the run-up to Christmas. And an online petition to reverse the decision has attracted a million signatures. Clearly they have tapped into something.

So, is this a cynical cash-in or does it point to something more important?

It’s clear that this is a perfect confluence of a company acting with integrity and, moreover, a clear purpose and, mischievously or not, creating a media storm around their actions.

A look at Iceland’s website puts their concerns front and centre, making them distinct from other retailers whose efforts in environmentally-sensitive efforts have been sporadic at best (just count the number of foods in your shopping bag wrapped in single-use plastic for example). It’s a bold, innovative move, but apes don’t do much shopping so what has this to do with customers and customer experience?

Everything. But perhaps not the way you might think.

Virtue signalling

I’m not going to use this article to argue the pros and cons of environmentalism or global warming, although it does seem a bit irresponsible to be gobbling up rainforest at the rate of 146 football pitches a day – in Indonesia alone – just so we can shower in comfort or enjoy a pot noodle (this may be a contradiction in terms). What interests me though is something that Colin Shaw in a recent LinkedIn article made me realise: status is a vital part of understanding customer outcomes.

What I call the “status outcome” is more easily associated with luxury goods – Colin’s example is a Mont Blanc pen – where the branding is usually a luxury one and buying such a brand says something about the purchaser.

But it made me realise that the status outcome is a strong motivator for a lot of customer behaviour even if you profess to be largely uninterested in the luxury goods market. In the case of environmental issues such as the ones championed by Iceland, if I decide to shop there or buy one of their cuddly toys I am signalling to the other members of my “tribe” (these behaviours are all built into our genes) that I care about issues such as saving the planet and this statement may confer on me a certain status.

This behaviour is dismissively referred to by some as “virtue signalling” – as if those making the accusation have never done something similar or would prefer vice-or-iniquity-signalling as somehow more worthy – but I think that, from a customer experience point of view, understanding virtue signalling/status outcomes is a vital component: if the experience of my product or brand reinforces the customer’s status and aligns with my corporate purpose then this is a virtuous circle that companies would do well to identify and maximise.


Iceland would no doubt think the above is so much blather – their wonderfully candid website has a cruel but entirely fair pop at management consultants – but I stand by my analysis. It’s also part of a trend towards purpose-driven marketing: something that captures customers’ hearts as well as their wallets and extends way beyond the product.

I have a simple equation that I use to describe this:


What I mean by this is that if there is a degree of equivalence between Y, which is your company’s “why” – its purpose beyond generating a profit – and y, which is your customer’s “why” – something they care passionately about, then – bingo! – you have attracted a community of customers who share something bigger than a love of frozen food or whatever.

Purpose can also be a great motivator for staff, which in turn drives better customer experience, so I’m surprised more companies don’t devote more time and effort to identifying their purpose. If you’re in that category you know what to do…

Go ape.

Are you making CX too much of a hard sell?

Make it easy for your stakeholders and your job will become easier too

Selling sand to Saudis? Carrying coals to Newcastle? Or just trying to convince your senior stakeholders to focus the attentions of the company on the people who pay their salaries – the customers – and providing a much better experience for them?

Sometimes being in customer experience (CX) feels like a hard sell, but it doesn’t need to be that way.

Why so hard?

It’s one thing to persuade the board of the advantages of investing in a ritzy new system to streamline accounting, raise productivity in the back office or make you compliant with the latest regulatory requirement. These are all things that have an immediately attractive requirement where the benefits – cost saving, keeping directors out of jail and so forth – don’t require a massive feat of the imagination to get a handle on.

And they don’t require anyone to change.

That’s the problem with customer experience, particularly if you want to get significant benefits out of it. It requires a change in behaviour at the top level of the organisation as much as it does at the front line: executives who’ve been happily building a career in their organisational silos will suddenly need to work cross-functionally to find out how to identify customers’ real needs (outcomes) and then provide excellent experiences with streamlined processes to deliver them.

That’s not something people take to naturally so making the case for customer-centricity can be hard.

But sometimes we make things too hard for ourselves.


I’ve had a couple of conversations in the last few days that changed my views on how we present customer-centricity at board level.

I delivered a webinar on Bringing Customer Experience into the Boardroom for InTouch Networks to a couple of hundred aspiring consultants and non-executive directors. There were some really interesting questions at the end, including one from someone who asked how I would deal with the sensitivities of boardrooms around outcome-focused, trajectory-driven ways of working (two topics I had introduced in the session)? A great question and I was reminded of hard times I had had earlier in my career when I attempted to convince senior stakeholders of the “rightness” of my position without taking their sensitivities into consideration. It’s easy to fall into the trap with anything customer-related that it must self-evidently be a good thing to do because it benefits the customer. Senior executives won’t see it that way though because they haven’t been through the same arguments that you have to get to your point of view – and often you don’t have time to take them through the same learning process that you went on, so the simplistic “moral” argument is one you fall back on.

I found a similar parallel when talking to Danny Witter, co-founder of Work for Good. Work for Good encourages businesses to make donations to charities by connecting businesses with charities on their website. Only 2% of charitable donations are made by companies so there’s an opportunity to increase that level massively. But, like customer-centricity, it’s not an easy sell – despite being a self-evidently good thing to do.

Take it easy

What struck me, talking to Danny, is that Work for Good has done a number of things that CX leads can learn from. I’ve covered some of the return on investment considerations that CX involves elsewhere but this conversation yielded some additional insights. Here’s what Work for Good do that helps make the leap into the world of philanthropy more appealing for hard-nosed business leaders:

  • Provide advice
    The Work for Good site is a great source of advice and information for businesses considering introducing charitable giving into their commercial model. There are also tools to help you get employees on board as well.
  • Reduce legal risks
    One thing I learnt about giving from my conversation with Danny is that there’s a legal requirement for businesses to set up something called a commercial participation agreement (CPA) if they encourage the purchase of goods or services on the basis that some of the proceeds will go to charity, or that a donation will be made. Doing this can make business giving quite a cumbersome administrative task by Work for Good take away the hassle: if you sign up for the service that’s done for you.
  • Reduce admin hassle
    As you might expect from a web-based business you can be up and running in a few clicks – and it’s easy for charities to register with the site as well.
  • Play to self-interest
    Some people might argue that charitable giving should be done anonymously – certainly traditional British attitudes favour discretion over publicly promoting one’s generosity – and this might well apply to personal donations. For commercial giving Work for Good take the opposite view and emphasises the marketing and branding benefits of having their paperclip logo and other information displayed on your website.

Papa, don’t preach

In short, Work for Good – and my thoughts about the question asked on my webinar – provide some useful lessons for those tasked with selling CX to seniors. If that’s your challenge, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Am I automatically assuming I am “right”?
    Does your zeal for improving CX mean you’re in danger of steamrollering objections or assuming that your stakeholders just lack your unique insight into the obvious benefits of CX? Are you preaching to the unconverted rather than listening to what they want?
  • Am I helping people understand?
    There’s no short cut for educating the board, but don’t send them links to a CX webinar (not even mine) hoping they’ll have the time to educate themselves. Instead, take the time to gather stories of current customers and why they’re not happy (tip: complaints are a goldmine for this).
  • Have I reduced or eliminated risks?
    Have you adequately considered any compliance of regulatory risks in what you’re proposing – particularly if greater front-line empowerment is part of the proposal – and have you taken steps to minimise this.
  • Have I reduced hassle?
    What’s the easiest part of your proposal that you could set up as a pilot or proof of concept implementation?
  • How does the proposed change play to stakeholders’ self-interest?
    Possibly the hardest question to answer – and one that we’ll explore further in future papers – but how can moving to a customer-centric culture with the attendant breaking down of barriers and perceived threats to personal empires be turned into something that furthers the company’s objectives?

Being “good” or being right isn’t enough. Thinking – like the best sales people do – about what’s in the customer or client’s interests is the way to succeed.

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.

RoI from CX: it’s (not) the numbers, stupid!

The process by which you get them is just as important

Are you frustrated at the lack of attention from senior management for your customer experience improvement programmes? Do you seethe with jealousy when other departments get investments to build a shiny new system and you can’t get enough people to analyse complaints data? Are you fed up with CX being seen as “intangible” or “nice to have”?

These are the messages we get all the time from our clients and contacts – and we can empathise with that because the paradox is that having a genuine customer focus offers massive benefits, but so few companies seem to be able to capitalise on it.

What’s going on?

To adapt a phrase associated with former US President Bill Clinton: it’s the numbers, stupid! Put simply, if you can’t get your CX investments to demonstrate an impact on the bottom line in the way that other investments do, you’ll be stuck in the “nice to have” category.

Problem is, if getting return on investment (RoI) numbers for CX were that simple, everyone would be doing it. But they’re not, for the simple but frustrating reason that CX does operate in the world of intangibles.

RoI for dummies

Throughout my career I’ve had to develop business cases for various things from marketing programmes to channel strategies and lean sigma projects. I frequently need to do something similar in my non-work life – two recent examples include:

  • Buying a new acoustic bass guitar to save my back from lugging an amplifier to music group practice.
  • Persuading my in-laws to invest in a new mattress so that we can visit them without subsequently needing physiotherapy to overcome the effects of a night in their somewhat uncomfortable spare bed.

These business cases are straightforward: there’s a cost (in the case of the bass, quite low) and a benefit – both relating to reduced back pain in these examples so that’s a very tangible outcome.

It’s definitely at the “RoI for dummies” level.

But we’re dealing with something a little bit harder – I’m not talking about mattresses now – with customer experience.

Some benefits are, or should be, straightforward to quantify. Let’s say we want to put more of the customer journey online: the cost saving from having fewer people in stores or call centres will be easy to calculate and match against the investment required. If we design the online system right then we won’t see a dip in satisfaction scores either, and it might be easier to up-sell or cross-sell related products through the customer’s journey, so we can measure a benefit from increased revenue per customer as well.

But what if we want to invest in front-line staff capability through training or making more team leader time available for coaching? Unless your training is specifically to do the job faster (cost saving) or to up-sell or cross-sell (increasing revenue), then you are likely to be basing your case on improvements to customer satisfaction or advocacy – measurable, yes, but tangible, no.

RoI for humans

To get from intangible fluff to dollars and cents benefits, you need to recognise that business cases are a human process. In other words, it’s rarely a hard number, mechanical process of cause-and-effect. This doesn’t let CX off the hook but if means that rather than being just the numbers, it’s the process by which you get them that’s important.

So, is there a definitive process for doing this?

Short answer: no.

The process you use to establish the link between intangibles and measurable benefits will need to fit within the culture of your organisation – anything different will most likely be rejected – but it should have the following elements:

Agreement on purpose and priorities

Organisations that have a clear purpose – their “why” – find it much easier to set priorities. As Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez points out in a paper for HBR, organisations should define a hierarchy of purpose, where the organisation’s purpose or strategic vision cascades into a set of priorities – the things that are the most important over the next two to five years. Clarity on these enables different projects to be scored against these priorities.

Agreement needs to be genuinely cross-functional as well, grounded in a mature discussion about the strategy and owned by all areas.

Discussion of the forces affecting the business in future

The context within which the organisation sits has a direct impact on priorities. For example, a financial services company may see its purpose as enriching the lives of its current and future customers, but if the sector that they are operating in is being threatened by low-cost competitors, they may see the priorities for the next two years as lowering their cost base to compete or they may wish to differentiate themselves on other factors such as service.

If the organisation isn’t clear on these two strategic elements then projects will be prioritised on the basis of political influence, existing biases and so on. A CX improvement project may get the green light in such an environment but would most likely be cancelled if a new “pet project” arrived on the scene.

Establish dependency

Benefits management is a proven approach usually applied to technology deployment to establish some rigour around investment decisions. The key tool in this is the benefits dependency network. This links “features” to business drivers via objectives and expected benefits and organisational changes. (There’s a good article on this – again on HBR – which avoids much of the academic jargon that bedevils this area.

In my view, benefits dependency is far too useful to be left to enlightened techies as the key thing is that it involves a facilitated discussion between stakeholders about what’s important. This gets to the essence of the CX RoI problem: the process by which you discuss priorities, investments and predicted results is just as important as the management information you use to track it.

Let’s take my recent guitar purchase as a very simple example. Thinking about my decision, the benefits dependency network that informed it looks like this:

Obviously, a business example would be more complex but the important thing to bear in mind is that in thinking about the link between the simple features of my new guitar, I’m having to think about what’s important to me. In the same way, a discussion about the benefits of CX improvement yield important discussions about what’s important to the business.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t use a benefits dependency network; the important thing is to have the conversation.

Get the proof

The unavoidable truth is that once you have identified the link between improvements in customer experience and business benefits you will need to find evidence that supports the linkage.

This process is made easier if the quality of the conversation around benefits is good. In other words, if you come out of it with a linkage between say, spending more time talking to customers, customer satisfaction and increased sales that’s a working hypothesis that you can then gather data for. Of course, detractors may point to other ways to drive up sales but if the conversation is managed correctly, those “other ways” should be included in the benefits discussion.

A simple excerpt from a benefits dependency network in such a situation might therefore look like this:

In this example both sales training and CX training are agreed to have an impact on increased revenue. If the organisation is happy to invest in both, then the RoI case should include both. Detailed analysis of individual agent performance – satisfaction, time spent, sales achieved – may prove that one investment has more impact than the other.

And that’s the risk: going down this route may mean that you discover that your organisation does favour business outcomes that don’t require further investment in improving CX. Personally, I think that’s unlikely as once you start down the route of an open and honest discussion of what the organisation’s priorities are you’ll find you’re on a level playing field where the benefits can be evaluated alongside other initiatives.

I’ve had many years’ experience of these kind of conversations so if you’d like to discuss how to develop these ideas further in your own organisation then please get in touch with me.

Customer success: the cornerstone of “21st Century Capitalism”

It would work just as well for socialism too

It’s party conference season in the UK at the moment, a few weeks where I get a morally-dubious pleasure in watching the main political parties in the UK conduct an exercise of inadvertent self-sabotage in a seaside or city location. It’s rather like those episodes of The Apprentice where one or both teams begin to implode: you know you shouldn’t find it entertaining but you can’t take your eyes off it all the same.

In the search for a vaguely new-sounding idea that doesn’t have anything to do with Brexit, I was interested to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, outline something called “21st Century Capitalism”. It’s the cheapest trick in marketing to put “Modern” (© New Labour, 1997) or something similar in front of a well-used word to make it sound fresh but, indulging Mr Hammond for a moment, what could it mean?

Luckily, his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (if any non-UK readers have got this far, don’t you just love our job titles?) Lynne Truss was on hand to explain to the BBC’s lunchtime news. It’s got something to do with social media and all the e-stuff that that includes, apparently. That’s the kind of loose definition that I can live with and I think she might be on to something: new media, and the rapid pace of change that goes with it, gives capitalists – I’m using the term to mean anyone running or working for a private or public sector business in a market-based economy – opportunities like never before.

The problem, as people seem to be hinting at lately, is that pre-21st Century Capitalism hasn’t exactly delivered health, wealth and happiness in line with many people’s expectations. So, how can we make it work? I’m no economist but that doesn’t prevent me from offering this hypothesis:

Customer success will be the tool to making capitalism work

By customer success I mean the next generation customer experience or customer experience 2.0 approaches that put the customer at the centre of what an organisation does, how it thinks and how it behaves.

Why is this different?

You could argue that successful organisations have always put the customer first. We do have the examples of Zappos, Southwest Airlines and many others to illustrate that and, if you’re pedantic you could argue that some of these organisations were successful in the 20th Century too. I totally agree, but the fact remains that most organisations don’t completely orient themselves around the customer and people are disillusioned with the current economic model.

Of course, putting those two statements in the same sentence doesn’t prove that lack of customer focus is the reason that capitalism isn’t working as well as it could be but consider what the alternative might be like.

No quick fix

Customer-centric organisations have the following characteristics:

  • They have propositions that focus on customer outcomes and utilise technology to deliver these creatively (see my recent story about Deliveroo using customer behaviour data to set up dark restaurants)
  • They recognise that happy employees are essential to deliver happy customers
  • They have a strong sense of purpose.

This sounds like the kind of organisation that would be one that people would find rewarding to work for – and not just financially. And whilst creating many thriving customer-centric enterprises wouldn’t solve some of the structural problems that the UK faces such as infrastructure, health and house prices overnight, it could be a major contributor to success.

By the left

At the other end of the political spectrum I find it hard to argue against enabling the kind of customer-focused organisation I have described as part of a more redistributive approach to the economy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that – to avoid the trap of the traditional, faceless bureaucracies that characterised nationalised industries back in the 1970s – a customer success approach should be just as essential to 21st Century Socialism as it is to 21st Century Capitalism.

When statistics hide the truth about customer complaints

Ofgem’s complaints report shows the problem – and the opportunities

The trouble with being a customer experience-obsessive is that as soon as you hear an item on the news about complaints reports, your carefully-planned day is ruined as you have to follow it up out of curiosity, weird as that may sound. Thus, today, the news that UK’s energy regulator Ofgem had published its review of complaints was pure catnip for me. And as someone committed to helping organisations (NextTen’s not currently working in the energy sector but that doesn’t prevent me from having an interest – and of course we’re open to offers!) I’m interested in what these reports say about the state of complaint handling – the “Cinderella” of customer experience, as I’ve said many times before.

On the naughty step

Although the survey of over 3,000 complainants found that satisfaction with complaint handling had improved by 5% since the last survey in 2016, the proportion of customers who are dissatisfied (57%) remains much higher than those satisfied with how their complaint had been dealt with.

The main contributors to high levels of dissatisfaction were the length of time taken to resolve the issue, not being kept up to date with the progress of the complaint and suppliers not providing complainants with a clear view of how long the resolution will take

Ofgem’s statement gives the impression of a regulator who’s had enough of energy companies’ lackadaisical approach, having put three of the smaller outfits – First Utility, Ovo Energy and Utilita – under compliance investigation and requiring all the others to share their improvement plans. This is admirable, as in other regulated industries the relevant bodies don’t always give the impression of being on the side of great customer experience.

I know from my experience of working in banking, another regulated industry, that mention of any investigation or referral to the FCA is enough to galvanise action, so this will generate some useful action, although there’s a risk that the effort spent in responding to the regulator and justifying action would be better spent on the actual improvement work.

Some of the responses by energy companies – as reported on BBC Radio’s “You and Yours” consumer programme later in the day – were already edging towards the defensive. Utilita said that the report was looking at complaints up to November 2017 and since then it had reduced the number of complaints. Indeed, the overall number of complaints has halved since 2014 so, superficially, it sounds like an industry moving in the right direction.

Lies, damn lies…

Taking a look at Utilita’s data – available on their website – is revealing. Overall, complaints have dropped between Q2 2017 and Q2 2018. But whilst the last quarter shows a drop-off in overall complaints, the numbers resolved at +1 day and after 8 weeks had dropped, suggesting that there’s a rump of really difficult complaints that are tough to resolve.

And that’s where the problem lies both for external observers like me, and insiders. If you can find a statistic that shows – even “proves” – that you’re doing the right thing, you will certainly want to use it. But the old adage “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies – and statistics” applies here – the statistics you don’t share are the ones that are much more revealing.

Whilst it’s interesting that Utilita’s time to resolve is increasing I’m more interested in the stories that underpin the data. I can’t tell what the specific issues are from the data, but I’d hope that any recurrent and intractable underlying causes were being dealt with.

…and tweets

You and Yours helpfully quoted some social media comments – about energy companies in general it should be said – which I found much more illuminating. Most referred to the difficulty in contacting customer service to complain or to switch or just to talk to a human being. Again, that’s just a non-representative sample to support a news story, but if it were me even one of these complaints would be too many.

And that’s the problem: statistics will tell you that you’re broadly improving, but customer stories will pin-point the pain. And focusing on the really painful experiences will drive fundamental improvements in broken processes that, when fixed, will provide a platform for overall improvements in customer experience.

Balancing act

As a head of customer experience or complaints, you have the challenge of making the case for improvement, so you have to balance powerful anecdotal evidence of dissatisfaction with trend data to make the case for funding customer experience improvements in preference to other important projects. It’s a problem we see all the time at NextTen and over the next few weeks we’ll be publishing ideas on how you can make a robust case for powerful customer experience. It’s far too important to wait for a regulator to kick you into action.

Is your business built on “alternative facts”?

It’s a natural tendency, but you should worry about the consequences

Like many people I’m sceptical about the labelling of what people – typically leaders of superpowers, or journalists – say or write as “fake news” or “alternative facts”, and worried that this kind of mud-slinging will lead to a general decrease of trust, when that’s something the world needs more of, not less.

But then I discovered two things:

  • I’ve got a tendency to use “alternative facts” when it suits me
  • It’s something that we’re hard-wired to do and – for better or worse – has made us the dominant species on the planet.

And business leaders need to be aware of the dual-edged sword that this evolutionary advantage gives us.

True confessions

I was picked up by a client recently for appearing to state something as an irrefutable truth when – in truth – it was an observation of some behaviours that indicated an area of improvement. I apologised for my oversight and we moved on. Afterwards, I reflected on what I had done: in my eagerness to reinforce something that my client was already aware of I had over-edited my point to remove almost all the words that had originally suggested it was an indicative observation. The result: drifting into the domain of alternative facts.

Then, by coincidence, I picked up the book I am currently reading – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – where author Yuval Noah Harari makes the assertion that everything that homo sapiens has achieved is built on fiction. What he means by this is that the reason that homo sapiens managed to achieve dominance on the planet – and eliminated other human species such as Neanderthals – was that we developed the ability to tell stories about other people, about what we or they had done and about things that we wanted to achieve, thus enabling large groups (ideally around 150) to cooperate in hunting or other joint endeavours.

This is something I had realised whenever I had stopped to ask myself faintly philosophical questions about why things have a monetary value, why wars start and why so many people like Ed Sheeran. We all agree that certain things are the way they are, largely without question, because we accept the story behind them.

Does this matter?

This realisation made me feel slightly better about exaggerating something to make a point: clearly I was building on an innate human capability to make stuff up and to tell a better story.

But beyond that, realising that the stories we tell each other can have a profound effect is the most important trait that leaders at all levels possess. Leaders that tell stories well, and with authenticity, are more likely to achieve lasting success than those that don’t.

You can see this in the world of customer experience: if I have a good experience I’ll tell someone about it; if I have a bad experience, I’ll most likely tell even more people, maybe exaggerating a little to make the story more interesting.

Brands of course do this all the time, and perhaps should do more of it. Many years ago, I used to stay regularly at a Marriott hotel whilst working in Vienna. At the time Marriott was running a newspaper ad campaign with stories of excellent customer service, including the time a concierge had loaned his cufflinks to a customer who had an important meeting and had forgotten his. I thought of testing this out and turning up to the front desk with un-linked cuffs but lacked the chutzpah to try it, so I never found out how prevalent this excellent service culture was. Looking at some stories of service it’s quite a thing in Marriott and other hotels.

True or false?

You might be forgiven for thinking that if success comes from telling the best stories we might as well just make stuff up to suit our personal or business agendas. But there’s a catch: it helps if the stories are true. A tribal leader who tells people of a great herd of bison to hunt just over the hill isn’t going to last long if that proves to be incorrect just as a business leader who paints a compelling vision based on empowering their workforce is going to have a tough job if a significant number of people find redundancy notices in their inboxes the next morning. And if I had carried out my testing of Marriott’s cufflink-lending service and found it wanting, I’d have moved to another hotel pretty quickly (maybe).

In a world where fake news can spread instantaneously, and alternative facts can seem like a viable alternative to actual facts, leaders at all levels have a responsibility to increase the integrity of their messages they or their companies send out. We might be merely human but that doesn’t stop us taking responsibility for our evolutionary tendencies.

Build a community and you won’t need customers

Instead, you’ll have committed fans who’ll go the extra mile for you

Here’s a heart-warming story from my recent holiday – and I promise it’s the last for now – that has a lesson for organisations who are serious about genuine and deep customer relationships.

Thursday afternoon in Tuscany – another beautiful day is unfolding and, in the main square of Anghiari, the town we’re staying in, seats and staging have been erected for the evening’s concert by Southbank Sinfonia and a specially-recruited chorus of local singers and visitors, mostly from the UK.

The festival’s been going for nearly a week and, in glorious weather, around the old town and nearby locations we’ve enjoyed some sublime music. Can anything spoil our perfect musical holiday?

As if to prove a point, the sky darkens, it gets colder, and then without too much warning, pours down with rain. We retreat inside the pizzeria we’ve been lunching at, and shelter from torrential rain and, at one point, what appears to be a mini-cyclone that leaves a trail of upturned chairs and busted parasols in its wake. As the storm subsides, we make a break for the hotel, returning to the square for the concert a couple of hours later. The concert was great, but we missed the best part.

The show must go on…

While we were lazing at the hotel a group of local people and visitors banded together with the orchestra to reassemble the seating and dry it off. When we returned it was like the storm had never happened.

It was a great example of how, when you’re united by a common purpose, the barriers between service providers (the town, the orchestra) and customers (the visitors) disappear. A group of people went the proverbial extra mile to make the concert happen, and a little bit of the world was a happier place as a result.

Onwards and upwards

You could argue that that’s a special set of circumstances: the Southbank Sinfonia is a training orchestra that takes the cream of the crop from music colleges around the world and gives them the experience of being a great ensemble player and, as a result, it has a lot of enthusiastic supporters – it’s a charity – that are all drawn to the festival each year because that’s what they feel passionate about. So, a bit of extra effort to make the show go on is hardly surprising.

But that’s missing the point.

Within any group of customers there will be people who want to feel part of something bigger than simply consuming the product or service provided. Here’s another example from my recent commute.

Book swapping in action

When I head down to one of my clients, I travel via Wimbledon station. On the platform where I catch my train there’s a waiting room with a rather tatty bookshelf in the corner. Over a few days, I noticed that the bookshelf’s contents seemed to vary considerably. Curious, I took a closer look and discovered that it was a book-swapping arrangement. It’s been going since 2009, which is quite something, and shows that

  • someone cared enough to start it
  • people care enough to bring along books to keep it going.

Train of thought

Now I’m not about to suggest that Surrey-bound commuters on Wimbledon station are united by a common love for, er, Southwestern Rail (not the worst of the rail companies in the UK, but that’s not saying much), making them go the extra mile to make waiting for a train a bit more interesting and spreading the love to their fellow humans via second-hand books. But the point is that your customers do care about things and if you want to stand a chance of turning your customers from grudging recipients of your products into raving fans who’ll help you deliver a better service then you need to start finding out a lot more about what they really care about.

‘App-y holidays still require the personal touch

The hand-held holiday is almost here

My wife and I are in the basement of an apartment hotel on a sweltering July afternoon in a town east of Milan. It’s the reception, although it would be more appropriate to describe it as a basement with a desk. After a while the manager appears, and we give our names. Our Italian just about amounts to saying we have a reservation so when the manager asks for money, we’re a bit stuck to explain that we had already paid via booking.com. We resort to waving the relevant email in front of her which I had printed off before we set off on our long-awaited rail holiday in France and Italy and then with a bit of action on her side she finally confirmed that she’d been paid, and we could have our room.

Senza cattivi

In truth that was one of only a few glitches on a glorious fortnight spent travelling via train to and from a music festival in Tuscany so it doesn’t give me any villains to add to Don Hales’ catalogue of customer catastrophes. But I did realise that something had changed since the last time we made a trip out of the UK about three years ago: this was the first holiday that could have been transacted almost entirely on a hand-held device – an iPhone in my case.

The only parts of the trip that had to be on paper were passport control (although that now has an electronic element) and our Interrail passes, which remain quaintly paper-based. The rest of our holiday was fulfilled using the following apps:

  • Interrail – the pass may be on paper but the app was invaluable in helping us plan outward and return journeys and work out whether we needed to reserve seats (a complicating factor in the otherwise carefree world of Interrail-ing)
  • com – we’ll come on to a failing of the service later, but we booked all our hotels through the app without major problems
  • Google Translate – we found this late in the day, but it helped with a bit of menu and official notice-translation
  • Google Maps – despite the voice’s determination to pronounce all Italian street names with a defiantly British accent (we concluded that the “Google lady” was a Brexiteer) we were safely navigated around Tuscany.
  • SNCF and Italiarail apps/sites to manage seat reservations – with no need to print off tickets.
  • Google – for just about everything else, particularly restaurant reviews.

None of the above is particularly innovative, but the combination of apps helped things go smoothly, and if the passport becomes digital it would be possible to have a “hand-held holiday”.

Eroi dei clienti

But even with plentiful Wi-Fi, data roaming and so on, the hand-held holiday can be subject to human error. On booking a hotel in Turin we inadvertently entered the wrong month and didn’t realise until the pay-in-advance booking had gone through. Booking.com was not exactly unhelpful but didn’t go out of its way to add value, simply passing a message on to the hotel in question. Shortly afterwards the hotel called and said they would be happy to transfer the booking to our intended date. In effect this meant cancelling the booking from their end and booking us directly. The hotel itself turned out to be charming and very comfortable, with a great breakfast in the morning and, as a result they turn out to be my Customer Hero of the holiday.

‘App-y ending?

It’s true that the apps helped us have a great holiday, but they didn’t make it memorable. If my outcome had just been “get me from A to B with some accommodation” then they would have delivered a 98% OK customer experience. But my outcome was to have a memorable and enjoyable break – and that depends on human software (the charming hotel staff in most of the places we stayed in, wait staff who tolerated our faltering language skills with grace and humour, the people we met at the music festival) more than the app software you find in a hand-held device.

If you’re on the path to seamless, frictionless customer experience, you need to make sure you have enough support – ideally from humans – when things don’t go entirely to plan.