Five ways to get value from customer complaints

Unpacking the way in which my complaint to the AA was handled shows how a more customer-centric approach would have helped.

My recent experience with the AA resulted in a complaint which resulted in me leaving the AA, only to return as part of a much better deal with my car insurance provider. My original experience was bad but the complaints handling was not great either. However, as with all bad experiences, there is much that we can learn – in this case how to handle complaints so that they add value to the organisation and the customer.

My experience and observation of the complaint leads me to highlight five do’s and don’ts that, if followed will turn your complaints department into a source of value for your organisation.

1.     Don’t hide behind process

Organisation view: we’ll investigate your complaint and respond in x weeks.

Customer view: I’ve been inconvenienced/upset/hurt and I want a response NOW!

Process, process, process – I’ve reengineered a few business processes in my time but whether they’re old and creaky or new and streamlined there will always be an elapsed time and effort required to execute them. However, dissatisfied customers are not remotely interested in these matters: they want their complaint sorted as soon as possible. From the organisation’s point of view that might not be possible for all kinds of reasons and so it makes sense to get that formalised into timescales and to set expectations. That’s reasonable, but there’s a fine line between having a process and making the customer feel they’ve been shoehorned into it. In my case, presenting me with the timescales did a good job of lowering my expectations – the AA responded well within them – but also increased my dissatisfaction with what was going on.

2.     Empower front line staff to make a decision

When I contacted the AA with my complaint my naïve expectation was that perhaps the person I spoke to would be able to deal directly with my complaint and make an offer of recompense there and then. If the person I spoke to could have had access to the record of my dealings with the AA on the night in question then it’s possible that could have happened but in fact the agent’s job was simply to take down the details.

It would arguably have taken less of my time to just report online and clearly would tie up less agent time. However, resolution at first point of contact – as is the case with most agent interactions – is almost always the most satisfactory from the customer point of view and then means the transaction is not hanging around in a workflow.

3.     Be human not legalistic

The tone of the communication I received from the AA built on the process-orientation of their complaint handling approach. The clincher for me was the letter (sent to my wife) but copied to me after she had given permission.

“I have now closed our file, and this is my final response.
If you are unhappy with this, our final response, you may wish to contact a competent Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) provider such as the National Conciliation Service:  Please note, however, that the AA is not obliged to subscribe to ADR and as we believe that we have dealt fairly with your complaint we do not intend to subscribe to ADR in this case.”

So, in other words, take it or leave it. Now, we were happy with the compensation offered so I wasn’t likely to go to ADR – although as a customer complaints nerd I was tempted to do it just to find out – but is it really necessary to hammer the point home like that? At this point, the AA didn’t know that I was likely to leave and the tone of this response is hardly likely to induce me to stay.

4.     Move from satisfaction to delight (and measure it)

It’s clear to me from the handling of my complaint that the organisation was just interested in managing it in terms of the process with no interest in how I felt about it as a customer. This is a mistake that most companies continue to make and when I talk to clients about it I introduce the idea of the customer hierarchy of needs (shamelessly ripped off from the work of Abraham Maslow). The diagram below summarises it.

The Complainers Hierarchy of Needs

What I find is that many organisations are content to get to level 3 – sort it out – and ignore the value added by delighting customers. I was pleased to have this view reinforced by two speakers at a recent forum event from The Foundation centred around the launch of founder Charlie Dawson’s new book The Customer Copernicus: How To Be Customer-led. I asked a question as to whether there was anything distinctive about the way the customer-centric organisations represented handled complaints and the speakers who responded – one from Handelsbanken and one previously with O2 now leading a start-up – were unequivocal in stressing the importance of handling complaints with particular care and attention. In the Handelsbanken case it resulted in financial gain from new deposits and for the start-up the emphasis was on love-bombing dissatisfied customers.

It also depends what you measure. If process compliance and dealing with complaints within the timescale is your measure of success then you’ll only measure up to level 3 in my model. If you look at retention and satisfaction then you’ll focus more on the outcomes relevant to the business and to the customer.

5.     Learn from the mistake

Long ago in a galaxy far away a wise being once said “The greatest teacher, failure is” and despite not being a practicing Jedi I very much subscribe to this view. Now I can’t claim any insight into how the AA use the information about my original poor service however I’d like to think that the performance of the subcontractor and their ability to capacity plan and deal with spikes in demand received some attention. Given the apparent lack of connectedness between departments I’m inclined to be sceptical however.

Not everything in your list of customer complaints will indicate a systemic error but regular reviews of complaints data should highlight what is wrong with customer-facing processes or the back office that supports them and fixing those can save money. Ignoring it is a wasted opportunity.

Complaints are a valuable asset in building great relationships with customers and making improvements to your business. Treating them simply as part of a process to be managed and assuming a legalistic, combative position with regard to the customer ensures that this asset is squandered.

If you’d like to find out more about how complaints can drive stellar customer experience performance, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Image by Prashant Sharma from Pixabay

I’m thinking of ending things: how not to handle a complaint

The AA saga continues…

Spoiler alerts: 1) this story has a happy ending 2) the film I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t (well, to be quite honest, I’m not sure – it’s a good film but goodness knows what it was about).

After my long night of waiting for the AA I was left with a defunct car at the bottom of my street and, with a bank holiday weekend imminent, it stayed that way until the following Thursday, when a brief stay in a local garage returned it to working order. I thought I’d give it few days before complaining to the AA in case I needed to get them out again and, once it seemed like the new alternator was giving the battery enough power to get around, I called their Customer Solutions line.

Whilst my time invested in this exercise didn’t match the epic wait that was the root cause of my complaint it still took over 20 minutes to get through and register my displeasure. I know this because I recorded the event and the video shows the elapsed time. The content of my discussion wasn’t worth replaying and wouldn’t have been fair to the agent on the other end of the line who was doing a great job under what appeared to be some difficulties with the technology and processes and procedures that wouldn’t exactly be described as customer-centric.

Tell me about it

Despite me quoting my membership number, the agent requested all my details, including those relating to the incident in question. “Don’t you have access to all this on your system?” I asked. Apparently not: the complaints are captured on a completely separate system. I waited patiently whilst my narrative was transcribed.

I finished by stating – since clearly the info wasn’t on her system – that my membership was up for renewal before the end of June so the resolution of this was probably in the AA’s interests. I was told that I would receive an acknowledgement within five working days and then the standard resolution time was up to eight weeks although they were mostly clearing them up within 21 days. I don’t know if I was supposed to be impressed by this display of hyper-efficiency but I wasn’t as my rant to camera when I hung up makes clear.

There was a further impersonal twist to this tale. My wife was driving at the time of the breakdown so it was “her” incident. She’d asked me to report it as a) she was too busy with other things and b) I’m a customer experience expert which means this falls within my remit. However the following day I received an email saying that because of GDPR the AA would have to deal with my wife on this matter. She also received a voice message saying the “final response” (no right of appeal then?) would be with her in 7 to 10 days. She then emailed them giving her permission to deal with me but this made no difference.

The happy ending

The reason it may have made no difference was that the AA’s response came back sooner than expected and, good news, the complaint “had been upheld” and a small compensatory payment was on its way (which just about covered our restaurant bill and taxi fare). So in fact the AA had exceeded the expectations they had set.

The ambiguous coda

If this were a Marvel movie you’d get this “stinger” after the credits had rolled to set up the next instalment. At the same time as the letter from the AA was sitting on our doormat I was on the phone to my car insurance company to discuss my premium, having gone through the annual ritual of getting quotes from GoCompare (other services are available). This conversation took twice as long as the AA complaint but was a much more enjoyable experience as I was able to get my premium reduced and get breakdown cover included. “There’s just one problem” said the very helpful agent, “the cover is with the AA”. (I had told her I wasn’t planning to renew with them.)

So I ended up cancelling my breakdown cover with the AA to end up with breakdown cover… from the AA. Modern business is truly a wonderful thing.

In the final part of this trilogy, I’ll draw some lessons for customer service organisations.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

hand holding a car door handle

You keep me hanging on: how the AA failed in the basics of customer service

A central London breakdown becomes an epic journey

It’s been a while since I’ve written about customer experience since there’s not a lot you can say about home delivery shopping and other pandemic-related services other than it’s been, well, OK. So it’s taken an almost entirely dreadful experience with AA’s breakdown service to get my customer experience mojo working again. Needs must, so here we go…

Thursday evening and my wife is on her way to a choir rehearsal on the other side of town. At 6.30pm and without warning the car engine cuts out in central London. Luckily she’s able to park up in a Holborn side street opposite a branch of Nando’s. Things could have been worse but then she calls the AA…

At 6.40pm she is told a recovery vehicle will be with you at 8.30pm, possibly earlier.

The confirming text quotes 8.50pm.

At 7.30pm I arrive in Nando’s for what turns out to be a leisurely meal.

At 9pm no message from the AA and no breakdown vehicle so I call. I’m quoted another 25 minutes.

By 9.40pm it’s no show, so I call back.

I’m told that it will be another 25 minutes and that “there are a lot of breakdowns this evening across the country”. I tell the agent that I’m in central London and that it’s three hours since the breakdown was logged. She apologises.

At 10.05pm the recovery vehicle arrives. It’s a “recovery partner” and the mechanic sagely informs me that the battery is flat (no sh*t Sherlock! I think we’d worked that one out) and as it wasn’t charging it was probably the alternator.

He then phoned in for a recovery vehicle. By this time I was too tired to argue why he couldn’t recover me back home but presumably it was only part of his contract to tell me what I already knew or had guessed at. He told me the AA would be in touch to give me an arrival time.

At 11pm no contact from the AA so I call yet again. I’m given an 11.40 arrival time and make sure they are now using my number as by this time my wife is on her way home in a taxi.

At 11.45pm a text arrives. Words (or at least polite ones) are beginning to fail me…

At almost exactly the predicted time the AA patrolman arrives. I am almost pathetically grateful. He’s much more proactive and puts a fresh battery in to allow me to drive home, follows me back with my dead battery charging in the van, swaps the batteries back and job done.

It is now 1.20am…

Now here’s the thing. I’ve been a loyal customer since 2008 (and various times before then) and although I balk at the annual fee it provides a degree of reassurance and, on the previous times that I’ve had to use them, they have turned up in reasonable time and solved the problem or at least got me to a place where the problem can be solved.

And I realise that sometimes things don’t go according to plan and customers are kept waiting but in an organisation of the size and experience that the AA has, you’d think that they would be able to deliver on two of the basic principles of good customer experience:



I think it’s fairly obvious how the AA’s systems and processes up to the point of delivery failed on those two points.

The following morning I receive an email entitled Your Breakdown Report and “how we helped”. To be fair the patrolman did a great job but my attention is drawn to the following paragraph:

We want to hear from you
If you feel that our service has fallen below the standard you expect and would like to complain, please call us on 0344 209 0556 or alternatively, you can email us on   Or, tell us what was great about your breakdown experience visit your patrols website here or call 0344 209 0556.

Oh, and did I mention that my cover is up for renewal. I think the AA and I need to talk. How that pans out will be the subject of my next post…

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The subtle simplicity of great customer experience

Leaders need to let people bring their “best selves” to work

If anyone’s noticed the gap in my writing on the website they’ve been kind enough not to mention it to me – or a more likely explanation is that its low traffic (if it were a country village it would be a loner’s delight) means that no-one has noticed anyway.

I’ll put it down to the pandemic effect – not that I or anyone close to me has caught COVID-19 – but just that in the way in which priorities have shifted means that some priorities drop and then have difficulty getting back to their former status. Moreover, writing about my own customer experiences has been as limited as my shopping trips to the local stores: sources of god, bad or indifferent CX have been in short supply.

So, I’m turning once again to the NHS who I’ve managed to have a fair bit of attention from over the past few months and where one recent interaction illustrated how simple and how subtle providing a great experience can be.

I’m receiving treatment for mild osteoporosis following a reassessment after my last fracture. It involves annual trips to the local Rheumatology department for an “infusion”. This does not consist of, as the name suggests, a pleasant afternoon sipping chamomile tea but rather 20 minutes hooked up to a drip where a drug designed to enhance calcium build-up is administered. As I discovered, it was a not particularly stressful experience, but the events leading up to it certainly were.

Public transport to St George’s Hospital in South-West London involves a lengthy and infrequent bus service so I took my car and allowed what I thought was plenty of time to park. Maybe it was due to visiting the hospital on the day that COVID-19 vaccines were starting to be administered but the car park was chock-full with a good few cars circulating looking for spaces. I decided to take my chance on the local streets which normally have some spaces available. Not today though and I ended up a few blocks away, still with a good chance of making my 11am appointment if I walked at a brisk pace.

I fired up my parking app to pay for the parking. My credit card needed updating: could I remember my password? No, I couldn’t and to avoid a lengthy password change I set off looking for a meter at which point the fates decided to have a good laugh at my expense. “Pay at blue meter” said one sign with a helpful arrow. I set off in the direction of the arrow to encounter another similar sign pointing the opposite way. I wasted a good few minutes walking between these two signs doubting both my eyesight and my sanity until a local resident directed me around the corner to a working meter.

It was now approaching the time of the appointment so I tried calling the hospital to let them know I was on my way. At this point my phone died, so I sprinted down the backstreets of Tooting as best I could and then walked through the labyrinthine corridors of the hospital, face mask puffing in and out as I panted, eventually arriving at the outpatient clinic where I waited for the woman in front of me to finish a lengthy transaction with the receptionist.

Eventually I got to the desk and gave my name. “I’m sorry I’m late” I said “parking was a nightmare”.

“That’s not a problem” she said, “We don’t turn people away”.

And that was it – a few simple words and my stress, caused by an accretion of trivial annoyances, simply vanished.

The rest of the experience was – if not quite an elegant salon de thé – pretty relaxed. The staff even apologised for it being “a bit mad today”. Seriously? If that was busy, I’m looking forward to going when it’s normal: it would be extremely chilled.

Anyway, thanks to Janet on reception and Pierluigi in the infusion suite for making it as relaxed as it could be.

But what do we learn about great CX from this? The key thing is that a good or bad experience can be formed in just a few words. If Janet had been offhand or asked me to be on time in future, it would have felt very different. Instead, she was empathic and chose her words accordingly. Lead nurse Pierluigi was also personable and chatty whilst explaining the possible side effects (not major as it turned out).

There are plenty of good and bad stories about the NHS at any point in time but this one, routine and trivial as it is, illustrates the key point: leaders – in any organisation – need to enable their front line people to bring their “best selves” to work and make sure conditions are there to interact in a kind and pleasant way with customers.

It’s that simple.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

2020: the summer when everything worked (yes, really)

How will we look back on 2020 in years to come? I’m quite sure that we won’t be calling it the time when everything went more or less right. The failure of countries to get on top of coronavirus, with the prospect of a second spike in infections means that right now it’s tempting to view everything through the lens of failure.

I’m not going to line up behind MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s remarks about people’s “constant carping” – I’m all for a good old carp if it represents criticism and concern over something that’s plainly not working (in this case the UK’s test and trace system) – but I am going to take the opportunity to celebrate a few things that did work for me this summer. In no particular order:

  • My experience of my local hospital following a lockdown Zoom injury.
  • Zoom calls where I didn’t break any limbs that helped me feel connected to the wider world.
  • Going to a comedy gig at Battersea Arts Centre where Covid restrictions made it feel like you were being looked after.
  • At least two pubs – one local and one in Devon where we were staying on a brief holiday – where social distancing was in force and table service staff were determined to make sure we had an enjoyable evening.
  • Great service at The Ivy Café for a family celebration.
  • My street in SW London developed a sense of community with an active WhatsApp group and much helpful neighbourliness happening (more on that shortly).

The one thing that didn’t work however was my fridge and that gives rise to a customer experience story that was as remarkably unremarkable.

After 10 years undistinguished service (it kept things cool or frozen – that’s what fridges do: they’re not the most exciting household appliances) I came down one morning to discover my fridge-freezer at a distinctly un-fridgelike temperature. Thinking I’d left the door open I ignored it until it became obvious it wasn’t keeping its cool like a fridge should.

I didn’t relish the prospect of buying a new fridge and adding to the world’s mountain of waste if it could be repaired. Inquiries to our street WhatsApp group produced a couple of recommendations for local repairers. One duly turned up the day after and within an hour had apparently freed a frozen fan leaving me with instructions on how to do it should the problem recur. This however was short-lived as the fridge cooled over the next 24 hours and then stopped cooling. I repeated the cure but to no avail – a replacement part was sought and then fitted. Same problem, at which point the collective might of the street rallied round, providing me with a whole freezer in a neighbour’s house which was empty awaiting refurbishment and a cool box whilst I defrosted the whole thing and started again. Still no joy, at which point the fridge was officially pronounced dead. Repairers J R Griffiths offered to help find a replacement at a discount to allow for my wasted expenditure but couldn’t beat John Lewis’s price on the model I’d found.

That model turned out to be out of stock, but a search found a supplier at an even lower price: I ordered it at lunchtime on a Wednesday for next day delivery (no extra cost) with a promise that my slot would be confirmed between 7 and 9pm that evening. An email duly arrived informing me that the fridge would arrive between 3 and 5pm the following afternoon, told me the names of my deliverers and that they would call me around 30 minutes beforehand to say that they were on their way.

At 4.50pm the call came through and I manoeuvred the old appliance to the pavement ready for collection. I also took their “we’ll be with you in 25-30 minutes” with a pinch of salt as traffic in my neck of the woods can be grindingly slow at that time of day, not helped by several road closures in the neighbourhood so was unsurprised when they were a good 15 minutes behind their estimated time.

Farewell to the old fridge

The new fridge was wheeled into place, the old one taken way and I’ve been enjoying chilled drinks and milk that doesn’t curdle as soon it goes in my tea ever since.

As stories go then, it’s remarkably unremarkable – and that’s my point: we are much more engaged with a story where something awful happens to someone (as long as it’s not us) or someone survives a stressful or traumatic situation, or snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Most classic stories are built on such a narrative arc. My story has no such drama – though I’m open to discussing film options with any avant-garde directors who might want to take it on – but behind its dull normality someone had:

  • Trained the frontline staff to be courteous and efficient in spite of working a long day and running behind their schedule.
  • Worked out a customer journey from order through to delivery that fulfils its promises.
  • Prepared and deliver clear customer communications.
  • Realised that combining efficiency and customer journey effectiveness can enable you to offer low prices.

Marks Electrical emerge as my customer experience favourites of the summer because they managed to deliver the above unremarkable things very well and judging from the comments of other customers on their website, do so on a regular basis.

In these stressful times it’s good to realise that out there people are getting on with their jobs and doing just fine. We should feel free to carp when something doesn’t come up to scratch but let’s also celebrate the mundane work that delivers a great customer experience.

Main image by sandid from Pixabay

What the NHS can teach us about customer relationship management

When you think of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) then excellent customer relationship management is probably not the thing that springs to mind. Talk to any UK citizen and for all the genuine positive feeling about the NHS – witness the recent “Clap for Carers” and happy 72nd birthday celebration – there will be a good sprinkling of people with awful tales of long wait times, misdiagnoses and all manner of poor interpersonal reactions.

I’m maybe lucky in that most of my interactions – and as we’ll see, there have been quite a few – have been positive, but I’d like to highlight one series that has much to teach the commercial sector about customer relationships.

Give me a break

Recently I broke my wrist. Other than it being during a Zoom call there was nothing very remarkable about it (hint: if you’re sitting on a kitchen chair don’t lean back on one leg and expect the forces of gravity to move with you). Having to visit A&E during the pandemic lent the episode a bit of spice but the lack of non-COVID patients meant quicker-than-usual service and four weeks in a plaster cast which I could remove myself.

But that’s not where the story starts.

Wind back to 2015… I’m walking along a road on the way to meet my wife at the cinema, fiddling with a recalcitrant mobile phone. The next moment I’m sprawled on the pavement having missed my footing and twisted my ankle. Two hours later and the twisted ankle was the size of a small pumpkin and unable to take any weight: four hours later I’m limping out of A&E with my leg in plaster…

But there’s more…

Further back in time: a chilly day in early January 2006 at Hampton Court Ice Rink. I am standing balanced – I think – on my skates when I topple backwards and instinctively put my hand out to break my fall, breaking my right wrist in the process. A trip to a different A&E and then, a few days later, surgery to pin my wrist in position.

I feel it’s only fair to point out that in none of these episodes was any alcohol consumed before or during but, regrettably, we have to go further back to the event in 1998 that kicked it all off. I don’t think we should dwell on the details but let’s just say that an empty stomach, a few drinks and tube travel don’t mix. Result: four broken ribs.

Dumb luck

To complete the picture, we need to add an unfortunate encounter in 2019 with a hanging strap and a bus that pulled away suddenly resulting in a broken ring finger. At which point you may conclude that I am particularly accident-prone, clumsy or just unlucky.

The NHS thought differently, however.

Out of the blue in the summer of 2015, after my ankle had recovered, I received a summons to the Rheumatology department at my local hospital where most of my fractures had been treated. When I asked why I was having a bone density scan the radiologist said that I had had a higher than normal number of fractures for a man of my age so they needed to check for osteoporosis.

Sure enough, the results came back with mild osteoporosis which, following a few years taking the requisite medicine has become even milder, technically now osteopenia. So, a happy-ish ending, pending the results of my latest scan which had been brought forward following the latest escapade.

Someone to watch over me

The point of this sorry tale is not my very mild and – in the grand scheme of things – mildly inconvenient medical condition but the way in which, as a routine, this aspect of my health was being monitored and remedial action taken, triggered by my third break causing a look at my medical history.

On one level, this is unexceptional and, I assume, a routine check in the world of orthopaedics. However, it signals a key difference in my relationship as a customer of the NHS and my relationship as a customer of, say, BT or any other large organisation. With the NHS it’s a lifelong relationship – perhaps obviously although, theoretically, there are other providers available – and in this example it shows that there’s a commitment to my bone health built into that relationship.

With a commercial organisation, customer relationship management is, I think, seen as answering the question “how can I get the customer to buy more of my stuff?” not “what does the customer need right now?”

To take BT as an example, I have been a customer of theirs for most of my adult life (even working for them for nine years, or two fractures-worth) but they have never taken much interest in how I can get the best of their products and services. In the current “fractured” working environment, more seamless Wi-Fi and better broadband would be a good start… I can go on their website and guess at what the best solution for my needs might be, but a bit of expert opinion (cf. medical input) wouldn’t go amiss.

The CRM challenge

If you’re in the business of customer relationships – whether “managing” them, developing them or whatever – ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the value of the relationship to the customer?
  • What is the value of the relationship to my organisation?
  • How do I measure that value?
  • How long am I committed to my customer for?

The answer will vary from organisation to organisation but the NHS’ approach shows that you almost certainly have the answers already embedded in your operating model. Whether those are the right answers is the key question – and one that I would be happy to help you answer.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Nothing goes together like a bird feeder, chocolate and the Bossa Nova (?!)

One of the less stressful aspects of COVID-19 lockdown constraints has been the increased amount of birdsong and, I think, more birds in our tiny back garden. Encouraged by recent nesting robins and blackbirds we decided to tempt some more visitors in and bought a squirrel-proof bird feeder, ordered online from garden/DIY supplier Homgar (“unique products, all in one place”).

Delivery times were impacted by COVID-19 and our expectations of a long wait – set by the supplier – were duly met, but when the feeder arrived there was a faintly bizarre addition to the box: another box containing a set of recipe cards and a CD of Bossa Nova music. Taken in isolation this might be one of those “thoughtful” Christmas gifts from a distant relative (logic: you like cooking and music so this is ideal for you!) but in the context of the delayed delivery it was both unusual and rather touching.

The accompanying message – see photo – explains it all (sort of). Effectively they are saying:

We fell below our normal standards of service and, even though it was due to circumstances beyond our control, we’d like to thank you for your patience.

Photo: author

What’s great about this from a customer experience point of view is that the company had already set our expectations of a long delivery time and, whilst I was looking forward to the prospect of more avian visitors, it wasn’t high on my list of priorities. However the recognition that it might have been was key and even though the chocolate/bossa package might have been a job lot bought at random (like a distant relative with hundreds of Christmas gifts to buy) it was a token and signified a lot more than if they had just put a message in the package.

So often in customer experience I find companies are content to deliver just adequate levels. In this case Homgar didn’t “go the extra mile” – a cliché that’s unhelpful to say the least: an extra inch may be plenty – but they did provide something unexpected that lodges a positive emotional connection with their brand which means I’m more than likely to consider them next time I’m thinking about some garden equipment

Mostly though I’ll be glancing out of my kitchen window to see robins and tits feeding up on sunflower seeds whilst I move on from baking sourdough bread in lockdown to some more calorific treats, accompanied by the latin-jazz sounds of Antonio Carlos Jobim and others. All thanks to one little bit of extra customer experience.

Main image by Oldiefan from Pixabay

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.

For those unfamiliar with the band – and their low number of Spotify followers suggests they won’t be selling out stadiums for a while – they are a Dutch trio playing modern jazz but using found sounds, news clips and so on as the basis for some of their pieces. (If you want to hear someone jamming ironically to clips of Nigel Farage, this band is for you.) This is nothing new as bands across all kinds of genres have been doing this for a number of years. What is new – at least in my experience – is the use of an app to enable audiences to participate in the performance by, for example, suggesting names or phrases that can be translated into musical note sequences or indeed using the app to compose simple motifs that can be the band can then interact with.

However, it’s the enforced separation of lockdown that means this technology can really come into its own and shows how creative thinking might take concert-going in a new direction as we emerge into the “next normal”.

What just happened

Just another day on the intergalaactic gig…

In a concert that was part of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s annual jazz weekend recently the audience was invited to imagine we were leaving Earth on a spaceship for another – less environmentally challenged – planet. With Tin Men providing the in-flight entertainment, the app made the audience part of the show as well with competitions for the name of the new planet and suggestions on environmental improvements solicited – and used to create note-rows to improvise against. This is a personal reaction, but I found the tech more memorable than the music. Nonetheless, there are some takeaways and lessons for those who are looking for the longer-term success of their organisations – whether commercial, artistic or whatever – post-pandemic.

The following questions are particularly pertinent:

Where is your customer?

We attended a gig “in Cardiff”, in the sense that it was organised by RWCMD, but we could have been anywhere in the world with a decent internet connection – in this case my living room. This will be much more common post-Covid and organisations previously dependent on people physically turning up to a location will need to provide means of remote participation. Just as we’re now surprised if a retail organisation doesn’t have an online ordering capability, our expectations of online will widen to concert and theatre experience providers.

How are they included?

If your audience/customer base is widening how do you include everybody? This doesn’t mean just by having an app that may enhance their level of communication, but it means thinking about the nature of that engagement. For example, the Tin Men’s environmental/intergalactic trip was one story on which people could hang their concert experience – what is the story you want to tell, and how does it chime with the one your customers want.

What capabilities do I need in my team?

In the business world we’ve long been used to having IT people – formerly a mysterious separate breed – increasingly integrated into teams and business units so that product or service development is tightly bound to the digital channels used to deliver them. In my experience the performance world has still to make major strides in this direction. Businesses are starting to recognise that the development of gaming might have much to offer their thinking about customer engagement, but in the music and theatre world there are as far as I am aware very few hybrid approaches that potentially engage audiences differently and/or engage new audiences. Theatre companies, orchestras and other music groups should all be finding ways to collaborate with technology innovators and developers to ensure their core product can be accessed by as wide an audience as possible.

I am sure that in the increasingly fragile world of live jazz, Tin Men and the Telephone’s app-driven antics will distinguish them from the many piano-bass-drums outfits performing today and keep their music alive for a good while longer. Other organisations should take note.

Image by Ri Butov from Pixabay

The simple formula you need to shape your post-pandemic planning

In a previous article I talked about the importance of knowing what business you are really in to get a firm hold on what’s going to be critical as your business emerges from the current crisis.

The business you are really in is another way of discovering your deeper purpose or as Simon Sinek puts it, your “why”. But it’s only one side of the equation: as well as understanding this purpose you need to have customers who share that purpose in some way. To use Sinek’s example, Apple would not be successful if their why didn’t resonate in some way for their millions of customers.

“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”

Simon Sinek

However, organisations often don’t pay enough attention to their customers’ “why” (you could argue that since Sinek made that point Apple has lost its own why) and end up wondering why they don’t attract or retain enough business.

To uncover the customer why – let’s call it Y for simplicity – you need to look beyond the what and how of your products or services to uncover your customers’ deeper motivations in using them. This isn’t always obvious but luckily, it’s not that complicated, and I want to illustrate it with a recent example that’s quite close to home.

Can’t stop the music…

My son Dave is a graduate of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and has since graduating two years ago embarked on the precarious but noble career of freelance jazz musician. Resisting the siren call of London he remained in South Wales to work within its small but lively jazz scene.

He and some fellow graduates organised themselves into a collective – Bamzu – that, prior to lockdown, had begun to attract good crowds to regular gigs and jam sessions. Often the attendees were regulars from the college’s weekly Amser Jazz Time sessions who had seen the musicians develop through the years of their course.

When lockdown hit, Bamzu, like other venues and groups, moved their operations online, organising fortnightly ticketed concerts via Zoom live from performers’ homes. I’ve been to two so far and have been very impressed by the quality of musicianship and the sense of connectedness with the musicians (this isn’t just proud Dad bias as my son has yet to play on a session).

Simple gestures

But you can get online performances from almost anyone so what makes this special and what’s the Y? I’d say that what’s important isn’t just the what (jazz) or the how (Zoom) but the sense of community in these events. Having been to a few live events in Cardiff in the past few years I know some of the regulars by sight so seeing them on the call (we’re mostly all on video) is as close to turning up to a gig as I’m likely to get for the moment. Participants are off mute before the music starts so it’s a bit noisy and chaotic too.

This club-like atmosphere may be initially off-putting to outsiders, but two simple gestures add to the sense of community. When the music stops, the mute goes off so that the audience can applaud, whoop or whatever – not a common feature in most online shows – and at the end of the whole session, the host plays a danceable track and pans around the audience allowing a wave or some adventurous/embarrassing on-screen move-busting. It was during this part at the end of the last gig that the penny dropped: our Y was the sense of community and connection as much as the music.

The way of why?

For all those with a lifelong dread of maths, introducing a formula, even a simple one, may mean I lost you at the heading. But don’t worry, it’s a simple one. We have established that customers’ purpose in being your customer is Y so you simply need to make sure your own purpose – let’s label it y – equates to that, i.e.

Y = y.

Jazz has a reputation as a recondite art form (appealing to people who use words like recondite) so the Bamzu collective could have contented themselves with livestreaming performances with minimal communication, relying on their excellence as musicians to do the work. But, intentionally or not, they have recognised that the business they are in is more about community and involvement and – it’s early days so who knows – this may bring them an audience beyond their original geography.

I did it my y

Every day what gets me out of bed isn’t just the alarm clock or the thought of 30 minutes’ lockdown home gym work but because I believe that organisations of all shapes and sizes can do what they do for their customers differently and better than today by realising their inherent capabilities and thinking creatively about their business and its possibilities.

It’s taken me a while to articulate my y and I don’t claim the preceding sentence is the finished article but it’s a bit more specific, and hopefully more distinct, than simply management consulting, which is what I do. By definition then, my clients – ideally – have a Y that complements my y, in other words they want to think differently about their business and turn those thoughts into action.

The Y = y formula is a journey that organisations undertake, and that journey is fundamental to thinking positively and creating a viable and successful post-pandemic future. I have some fun ways of getting to Y (that’s part of my how) that I’ll share in future articles.