For those of you who view me as a customer service expert, you might be surprised to know that I have an avid interest in marketing and most of my work over the last 10 years has been with, and continues to be with, marketers and the Marketing function. So in this post, I am going to address what I see as two most important challenges facing marketers and the Marketing function.
Is technology the answer to the challenges facing marketers?
I recently attended and spoke at the Technology for Marketing & Advertising conference/exhibition in London. What I found fascinating is the love of new technology. I was reminded of the heady days of CRM. Do you remember those days? The days when Siebel sales folks would open up every sales presentation with “Siebel is the fastest growing software company ever.” And the point was that CRM technology was going to change the business world and put customers and their wallets at the feet of the organisation.
What is the biggest challenge facing marketing and advertising today? Is it the lack of technology to gather up all the data on prospects and customers and use this data to fire out marketing propaganda and offers, across a variety of channels; to turn prospects into customers and customers into repeat buyers and loyal advocates? If the folks in your marketing department believe this then your business is in deep trouble.
The first challenge is that of relevance
When it comes to effective marketing the first challenge is relevance. From the customer perspective the question is “Why should I listen to you? Why are you relevant to my life? What do you offer that simplifies/enriches my life?” Please tell me how technology is going to address this crucial challenge for you.
Look, Sky keeping marketing to me through direct mail, through email, and by telephoning me regularly. What does Sky want? Sky wants me to sign up for Sky TV; I was once a customer. I keep refusing. Why? My viewing needs are adequately addressed through a combination of Netflix/Lovefilm and going to the cinema. What Sky TV has to offer is no longer relevant even if it is being offered at half price.
The second challenge is that of the Customer Experience
Marketing is a profession that is tasked with manipulating impressions and emotions through the use of image, words, sounds and story. Put bluntly, marketing to date has been the discipline of propaganda. The big problem is that this propaganda does not work. Why? The most pithy answer I have ever come across is that put forth by Matt Watkinson:
No amount of marketing can compensate for an average one-star review on Amazon. You just couldn’t talk the talk anymore, you had to walk the walk.
If you get this you get the enormity of the challenge. What this means is the marketers and the Marketing function have to pretty much turn themselves inside out. They have to transform themselves from image makers to reality makers. Their challenge is to ensure that all the organisational actors that impinge on the Customer Experience do that which is necessary to deliver a Customer Experience that matches the brand promise, the value proposition, and the customer expectations.
Please tell me who the fancy technology is going to help you, the marketers, to influence the minds and shape the actions of all the people in the organisation that directly or indirectly generate the Customer Experience?
My advice to marketers
Technology is a red herring. Technology allows you to undertake marketing activities. Technology impacts the operation/mechanics of doing marketing. What technology does not do is address the strategic challenges. Worse still the pursuit of technology distracts you from the most important strategic challenges facing you, and your business. What are those strategic challenges? Brand relevance, and Customer Experience.
Where is the enthusiasm born of imagination and passion?
In my 25+ years of walking the corridors of business organisations I have come across the mind/intellect in many guises: as strategy; as planning; as process; as metrics; as technology; as standardisation; as the pursuit of ‘best practice’ and ‘benchmarking’…… What I have rarely experienced is enthusiasm born of imagination and passion. Yes, I have come face to face with fear, with greed, with pressure, with determination. And that is not the same as imagination, passion, enthusiasm. In this post I want to deal with imagination.
Does imagination matter?
Is business simple a game of mind? Is it simply a case of putting in place the right mix of ‘resources’ – people, processes, technology, metrics – based on analysis and then configuring and deploying these resources in the correct configuration? I say that this is the traditional assumption and narrative. And that it is not a surprise given the backgrounds of the people who read and write these narratives.
It occurs to me that imagination and passion do matter. It occurs to me that they play a pivotal role in the game of business, to customer service, to customer experience, to customer-centricity. And it occurs to me that these two dimension are neglected – pushed out to the background or paid lip service. I see tactics (VoC, data mining, CRM systems, process redesign….) devoid of strategy and where I do encounter strategy it shows up as being devoid of imagination. It is as if just about everyone is playing the same game (make the P&L numbers) to the same rules and each players is expecting to differentiate himself from his competitors!
Why is imagination so critical?
I say imagination does not just matter, it is critical for any industry that is not immune from change in customer preferences, in competitors and competition, and in technological disruptions. Why? Let me share with you the insight of a particularly insightful philosopher:
” An animal has not enough imagination to draw up a project of life other than the mere monotonous repetitions of previous actions ….
If life is not realisation of a program, intelligence becomes a purely mechanical function without discipline and orientation. One forgets too easily that intelligence, however keen, cannot furnish its own direction and therefore is unable to attain to actual technical discoveries. It does not know by itself what to prefer among countless “inventable” things and is lost in their unlimited possibilities. Technical capacity can arise only in an entity whose intelligence functions in the service of an imagination pregnant not with technical, but vital projects.” Jose Ortega Y Gasset
Put differently, there are limitations to reason. Reason is limited by reason. Reason keeps one restricted to the comfort zone. And it is great for as long as the environment does not change. Imagination is needed to create/shape new environments and to deal with environments that are in the process of change.
Take Amazon. Was it not borne out of the imagination of Jeff Bezos? Take Starbucks. Was it not borne out of the imagination of Howard Schultz? Take Zappos? Was it not borne out of Nick Swinmurn? And was it not imagination (of being the company known for great service across the world) that enabled the Zappos leadership team to put Zappos’ existence at stake to reach for that which was imagined? Think Vodafone. Was it not borne out of the imagination of mobile telecommunications? The list is endless.
What has this got to excelling at the game of becoming customer-centric, at being a customer experience master?
Everything. In my travels what shows up for me? Obsession with the technology of customer service, of customer experience, of customer-centricity. When I speak ‘technology’ I am not just pointing at IT systems. I am pointing at obsession with the means/methods/tools – the rational domain of the engineer. What does not show up for me, what do I not encounter? An imagination pregnant with possibilities and vital projects to which customer service, the customer experience, and customer-centricity can contribute.
Imagination is critical to making the shift. Why? Because that is what is needed to move out of the prison of the ‘making the numbers’ and sticking to the comfort of the ‘known and best practice’. What made Steve Jobs great? At the technical level Steve Wozniak was supreme. Why is he simply a footnote? Because he lacked the imagination of Steve Jobs. Put differently, Jobs was the poet, philosopher and the founder of a new religion around the user experience. Allow me to illustrate this through the insight of Jose Ortega Y Gasset:
“The vital program is pretechnical. Mans’ technical capacity – that is, the technician – is in charge of inventing the simplest and safest way to meet man’s necessities. But these …. are in their turn inventions. They are what man in each epoch, nation, or individual aspires to be. Hence there exists a first, pre technical invention par excellence, the original desire… which part of man is it, or rather what sort of men are they, that are in special charge of the vital program? Poets, philosophers, politicians, founders of religions, discoverers of new values…. the engineer is dependent on them all. Which explains why they all rank higher than he…”
Put simply, without poets and philosophers like Jobs your engineers like Wozniak are not going to get you far in the game of customer service, customer experience, customer-centricity.
How do we treat the old and vulnerable in our hospitals?
To me, the mark of any civilisation is how we as a society treat the vulnerable. How we treat the vulnerable shows how much we genuinely care for people as human beings rather than economic entities. And when it comes to vulnerability the old folks in hospital are about as vulnerable as you can get – trust me I have spent quite some time observing how these folks and they way they are treated. Which is why I am not at all surprised by how badly these folks are treated in the UK. Here as some highlights from a recent piece in the Guardian newspaper:
- “Nearly half of hospitals are failing to provide good nutrition to elderly patients while 40% do not offer dignified care..”
- “At Alexandra hospital staff told how they sometimes had to prescribe drinking water on medication charts to “ensure people get regular drinks”
- “Inspectors found “meals served and taken to the bedside of people who were asleep or not sitting in the right position to enable them to eat their meal”
- “At Barnsley hospital, one patient whose nutrition was supposed to be monitored ate only a single spoonful of ice cream for lunch before their tray was cleared”
This is what the Chief Executive of the Patients Association says in this article: “Why is it that patients have to be prescribed water? Water and food are not treatments, they are a basic human right. Helping patients with food and water is not a try-to-do, it is a fundamental part of essential care”.
Ask yourself: what kind of system delivers this outcome? Is is simply a question of not enough staff on the ward? Or is it more: a system in which the ‘human touch’ has been driven out and replaced with stuff like targets, tasks, forms, checklists, outsourcing to reduce costs….? Whatever you decide, it is clear that the system is not designed to care for the patient and his/her wellbeing. It is a system in which there as so many players (each player doing his thing) that no single person has the complete picture of the patient nor the feeling of responsibility for the well-being of patients. It is a system where the people at the top claim and possibly believe that they are treating the patient/the customer well. Whilst the people at the coal face only make the targets (set by the people at the top) by not paying attention to the needs of the patients. Does this remind you of many commercial organisations where so many functions/people touch the customer and yet no-one owns the customer experience nor is responsible for the health of the relationship?
Are we using technology to dehumanize (one another) rather than enhance the human touch?
“For all the promise of digital media to bring people together, I still believe that the most sincere, lasting powers of human connection come from looking directly into someone else’s eyes, with no screen in between” [Howard Schultz]
As a society we are in love with technology and we are under the illusion that information technologies can and should replace the human touch. This is not a harmless illusion – it has a real impact on our relationships with each other: between employees; between the people in the business and the customer; between the doctors and their patients… You might have read about the research (and real life horror stories) that show that human babies shrivel up, under develop and even die in the absence of human touch. Is it any different for adults?
Abraham Verghese spells out the importance of human touch and ritual to the well-being of patients in the following video. I urge you to watch it as the story that he shares sheds light on the human condition and provides lessons on how we treat one another.
What are the lessons for Customer Experience?
Just in case you did not watch the video here are some of Abraham Verghese’s words and my commentary on those words:
- “The patient in the bed has almost become an icon for the real patient who is in the computer. I have coined a term for that entity I call it the iPatient. The iPatient has getting wonderful care all across over America, the real patient often wonders where is everyone? When are they going to come by and explain things to me? Who is in charge?” There is world of difference between the real customer and what the customer’s record in the marketing database – too many marketers and organisations confuse the two.
- “There is a real disjunction between the patients perception and our own perceptions as physicians of the best medical care.” We live out of our own worldview and we want to think well of ourselves so we almost always have biassed view on how well we are doing in terms of looking after our customers and the relationships we have with them. Often we confuse convenience and the repeat transactions that it drives with customer loyalty founded on an enduring emotional bond.
- “To often rounds look like this where discussion is taking place in a room far away from the patient. The discussion is all about images on the computer, data, and the one critical piece missing is the patient.” I witness many discussions about customers and/or the voice of the customer and yet I notice that no customers are present and neither is there voice. How many have set-up a dedicated platform to allow customers a voice? How many executives actually spend time with real customers and walking in the shoes of these customers? Numbers, analytics, can never substitute for nor provide access to that which is fundamentally human and which comes alive through human touch. If numbers is your thing and not people then go and run an investment fund not a business: a business is all about people.
A final thought
Would it make any difference to human relationships and the way that we conduct business if we remembered and acted on the following insight:
“You never know what is going on in people’s lives when you serve them. For all you know it could be someone’s last day on earth.” (Onward, p187)
I recently viewed the following slide deck (PSFK Future of Retailing Report 2011) and was struck by how the introduction focusses upon the human, the social – shopping as a social experience as much as an economic one, and yet the rest of the report focusses almost exclusively on the wonders of technology and the difference it will make to the shopping experience. I believe that the report implies that by putting an array of technologies into the retail stores less staff will be needed and possibly these staff need to have less product knowledge because they will be able to access that information through handheld devices connected to the right systems. Let’s just take a look at these assumptions.
Do you find that life is more complicated or less complicated? Do you find that you are more time or less time? Would you prefer to spend your time doing research, talking with your social network, evaluating options, find the right products and then making the purchase? Do you do that voluntarily or out of necessity because either you do not trust retailers or find their staff to lack the product knowledge? Do you do that for all product categories and before every single purchase? Do you look forward to serving yourself through the website, the IVR and FAQ’s never encountering another human being at the company your are doing business with? Can you really imagine turning up to the retail store, scanning in the bar codes, reading the reviews, reading how the product was manufactured, getting your friends opinions…..? How long will that take? Do you have the time? Can you do that standing up in the store with lots of other shoppers jostling around?
What would it be like if you trust the retailers? Retailers that stock products that you can trust – the quality is sound, they are fit for purpose; the products are appropriately priced; there are plenty of welcoming, helpful and knowledgeable staff who can and do help you with making the right choice including selecting the right products. What if these staff are also enthusiastic about the products that they are selling? Do you think some of that enthusiasm will rub off on you?
Allow me to share a personal story with you because I believe that it illustrates another perspective on why and how we shop in the retail stores.
I was handed an iphone 4 and told that I needed to get a protective cover for it – sound advice given that it is an expensive advice. Yet, I had never owned an iphone and so did not know what kind of protective cover to get. So I started by observing and noticed that different people had different covers and so I wondered which one would be right for me. I even asked a couple of people for recommendations yet the recommendations landed as lukewarm to me so I lacked confidence on those recommendations. Then I turned to the internet and there were all kinds of covers and all kinds of reviews. At the end of this process I simply felt that I had wasted my time – too much choice, too many opinions and fundamentally I could not touch/feel/use the cover to see what it added to the weight, bulk and use of the iphone. So what did I do?
As the retail centre was only five minutes walk I went shopping. Where did I go? Carphone Warehouse. Why? Probably because I have a mental map that says ‘independent advice’, ‘friendly in the past’ and ‘stocks lots of accessories’. I walked over to the accessories section and started looking. That did not help me because the signposting was poor – I simply could not find the iphone4 covers. So I turned to the three people on the counter and asked them for help. One young man stepped forward with enthusiasm. He showed me the iphone covers and there was considerable choice. So he asked me what I was looking for and I explained. He then made his recommendation with conviction and enthusiasm yet he did not stop there. Without asking he opened up the packaging, took out the cover and snapped it into place and invited me to feel it and use the phone. I did and the cover did the job perfectly and it was reasonably priced as well. So I thanked him for his help and bought the cover – all of this took less than five minutes; I had wasted some 3o+ minutes shopping online.
Insights into the shopping experience
There are some categories of products that we simply have to see, touch, hear, feel and experience in order to know if a particular product is right for us. And this is where offline retailers have an advantage over etailers.
Sometimes it is really hard to choose because we have no prior experience and there are so many products to choose from. This is where knowledgeable, enthusiastic, helpful staff can make all the difference: right there and then they can learn what you want and let you experience their recommendations.
There are occasions when you simply cannot wait a day or more to get your hands on stuff that you need. Again this is where offline retailers have a great advantage because we can turn up and walk out with the stuff that we want when we exit the store – clearly not so for all products e.g. fridges, washing machines etc.
Convenience matters. The fact that I could easily pop into the shopping centre made it that much more likely that I would do so when I needed to buy something quickly – on that day.
I enjoyed the human interaction with the young man that sorted out my problem for me / helped me find the right cover. He is no longer just another face he is a human being to me: I know that he has an iphone, that it is white, that he had considered buying the cover he recommended to me but did not do so because it did not go with the colour of his iphone…… Put differently I was enriched by the social encounter (in the real world) which simply would not have occurred in the online world. And this social encounter matters to many people – the challenge is to get it right by retailers investing in the right people and the right number of people.
The basics of good retailing have not changed: location, merchandising, knowledgeable staff, great service, value for money…. Some retailers are suffering because on the whole many retailers have forgotten these fundamentals especially the human and social aspects of the shopping experience. Despite the lure of technology what really matters in the offline retail world is the human to human encounter: the people that we meet in the stores, how helpful they are and how they make us feel about ourselves, our fellow human beings and the world that we live in. The proper role of technology is to add to this hi-touch not to detract from it or to replace it. I can imagine that there is a consultant or IT vendor out there selling the fact that with the right technology in place the retailers can dispense with their human staff: the customers will simply turn up and serve themselves or maybe robots will do the work of the human beings. To be in love with this dream is to be fundamentally mistaken about human beings and shopping.
One of the biggest issues that I have with the customer experience movement is that the process, technology, efficiency and standardisation mindset that is appropriate in the manufacturing environment is being applied to the services industries and the service environment. And in the process the very best of what people have to offer (the human touch, flexibility, improvisation, creativity…..) is being taken out of the picture: the opportunity to create that emotional bond is sacrified for efficiency.
At the same time, today, I have not been able to do much today (back is playing up) and so I spent some time re-reading an old book (published in 1999) and called “Market Leadership Strategies for Service Companies”. As I have spent the bulk of my life working in, delivering and advising companies with a heavy service orientation the following passages speak to me and I want to share them with you:
Employees are not the problem, management is the problem
” Over-engineered employees desperately need to once again pursue the most personally satisfying work goal: doing things that make a difference in the eyes of customers. Employees intuitively know that their core mission should be to provide the kind of help to customers that is truly needed …..Their company’s seeming indifference to being perceived by customers as unique frustrates them……..The net effect is that millions of employees feel robotic in their daily execution of quality, cycle time reduction, re-engineering and a host of other operational activities that perpetuate rather than improve the company….”
Employees are incredibly important and yet misunderstood, under-utilized and over-structured
“Employees are often the most misunderstood, underutilized, and over-structured assets of a service companies. But next to customers they are the second most valuable asset that companies have. The problem lies in the perception of the role that employees play in the customer experience. Many service companies view their employees simply as part of a process that produces an end output – a physical product to be delivered to a customer. If a customer’s primary focus is on functional performance of the physical product, the employees generally do not need to be involved with the customer experience. But with services the situation is different. In fact, in service companies the employees are very involved in the customer’s experience.”
Big mistake: dehumanizing people all in the mistaken (manufacturing) view of quality
” The mistake made by well meaning and well schooled managers is to dehumanize their people – all in the name of quality control. Service managers attempt to make employees interchangeable. Although industrialising the service may be important and even necessary, taking the “performers” out of the equation leads to a neutered, indistinguishable experience for customers. “
Product and quality through people – not by replacing them with self-service technology, standard processes and scripts
“Productivity and quality improvement come from having people involved with customers – people who want the responsibility, can manage themselves, respond well to pressure from customers, and who are highly motivated through skills, job opportunities and pay advancements.”
My conclusion, my interpretation
People – customers, employees, contractors, suppliers, partners matter. In fact they are critical to business success in service intensive operations and industries. If you are worthy and you have the know how you can tap into the very best of what they can offer: energy, enthusiasm, passion, creativity, flexibility, discipline, intelligence, wisdom. And that in itself is ultimately the source of competitive advantage, ongoing renewal, new product development, great customer experience, growth and profitability.
Yet as a very wise French teacher told me when I was about 10 years old: “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink”. I believe that is the case with many companies, many CEOs and many management teams. If they do not value their employees, you cannot make them value them. Which means the door is wide open to those that get the message and are willing to blaze the trail. For example, John Lewis – who recently delivered a great set or financial results when many other retailers are struggling and blaming the weather.