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“Oh … milk!”: Is This The Solution To The Customer Interaction Puzzle?

What Occurred and the Experience of What Occurred

In the last post I shared with a customer interaction that took place at Starbucks. If you are to get value out of this conversation it is necessary for you to go and read that last post. Before we proceed, I feel compelled to issue a warning: this post is not for those whose attention span is limited to 30 seconds.

How are we to make sense of what occurred?  Let’s start with how the author (Anna Papachristos) makes sense of the interaction between her mother and the Starbuck’s barista

I’m not sure what was more baffling–the fact that no one in the coffee shop listened, or that they’ve become blissfully unaware of the basics. I understand that Starbucks stands as a status symbol more than anything, but have we really distanced ourselves from the simple things in life that badly? This barista’s mistake may have been the result of a random miscommunication, but her confusion was nothing short of hilarious.

Making Sense of This Customer Interaction: Multiple Perspectives

Two people took up my invitation, in the last post, to put intellect-expertise into action and generate-share an explanation of what occurred.  First, lets listen to Gord Demers:

I can’t help but wonder if this could be an English as a Second Language (ESL) situation were one of the parties didn’t have English as their first language…… Maybe the music was too loud and the customer spoke softly and the employee never truly heard the correct order?

James Lawther shares a different take on what occurred:

My guess, though difficult as I wasn’t there…  The barista was bored out of her mind, waiting for her shift to end and was in a world of her own. How’s that?

Finally, lets just remind ourselves as to how Don Peppers choose to interpret this interaction:

Starbucks, like the roadside diner and any other business, tries to maintain quality and control costs by standardizing processes and operations. Routine tasks, if they can’t be automated, are at least handled in the same way by every employee.

My Take On What Occurred

It occurs to me another way to look at the situation and what occurred is to make use of the insights of two philosophers: Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

Wittgenstein on Language

Let’s start with Wittgenstein and his insight into language.  Wittgenstein starts his book, Philosophical Investigations, by sharing a quotation from St Augustine in order to put on the table our taken for granted understanding of language.  This is what Wittgenstein says about this account of language:

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language.  It is this: the individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.

Wittgenstein does not see language in this way.  Wittgenstein sees words and language as tools.  What kind of tools?  Social tools for social purposes in specific domains of social life:

A common summary of his argument is that meaning is use—words are not defined by reference to the objects they designate, nor by the mental representations one might associate with them, but by how they are used……

He shows how, in each case, the meaning of the word presupposes our ability to use it….

Wittgenstein’s point is not that it is impossible to define “game”, but that we don’t have a definition, and we don’t need one, because even without the definition, we use the word successfully. Everybody understands what we mean when we talk about playing a game……

Wittgenstein argues that definitions emerge from what he termed “forms of life”, roughly the culture and society in which they are used. Wittgenstein stresses the social aspects of cognition; to see how language works for most cases, we have to see how it functions in a specific social situation. It is this emphasis on becoming attentive to the social backdrop against which language is rendered intelligible that explains Wittgenstein’s elliptical comment that “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

Source: Wikipedia/Philosophical Investigations

Heidegger: human being as being-in-the-world

In grappling with the question of being Heidegger chooses to look at the being who has an understanding of being: human being.  In so looking, Heidegger asserts that a human being is a being-in-the-world. It is tempting to interpret this as meaning that the world is a container, say a glass, and the human being is in the world, as water is in a glass. Wrong!  A more accurate representation is to see a tapestry and a human being is one thread in the tapestry. Notice, there is not a thread isolated from the tapestry – the two are one!

Not only is a human being a being-in-the-world, it is also so that a human being is situated within specific worlds. What kind of ‘worlds’?  The world of academia.  The world of business. The world of politics. The world of education-schooling. The world of Christianity.  The world of Islam. The world of the high-tech start up. The VC world. The world of finance …… 

What constitutes a world?  A world consists of human beings, their concerns, roles, interactions between human beings, tasks and equipment (stuff). 

“Oh … milk!”: the solution to the riddle?

In our average everydayness what is closest to us is our environment (Umwelt) in which we are caught up in our concerns and activities.

- Heidegger

Situated in a world, busy with the concerns-activities-equipment, we approach each encounter from a particular understanding. What kind of understanding?  The automatic-default understanding of a particular world.  For example, in the world of dining at restaurants you automatically ask for the bill, pay, leave a tip. Do you do the same after enjoying a delicious meal at a friends house when you have been invited as a guest?  What would happen if you did ask your hostess for a bill? Or insist on paying for the meal?  

It occurs to me that the author (Anna Papachristos) committed the same kind of blunder (asking your host for a bill at the end of the meal) when the authors mother walked into Starbucks and asked for “Milk”.  In the world of Starbucks, the world of coffee and coffee drinkers, one does not walk into a Starbucks, stand in line, get to the barista and ask for milk.

The barista is in the world of coffee and in a dance with customers who show up and ask for a coffee. In this world the request for milk is puzzling. It is nonsensical in the sense that one cannot automatically make sense of it.  How does the barista make sense of it?  Probably by looking for the coffee word that sounds closest to milk: “Mocha?”  Notice, that the barista did not get milk until the authors mother said: “No. Two percent white milk.”. What was the barista’s response? “Oh … milk!” Finally, the barista has made sense of the nonsensical request for “milk”.

What makes me confident of my interpretation?  The author writes (the bolding is my work):

This barista’s mistake may have been the result of a random miscommunication, but her confusion was nothing short of hilarious.

Yes, the barista was confused. She was as confused by the request for milk as a hostess would be by a guest’s request for a bill!

Let’s move on and consider why it is that even when the barista got the demand for milk, Starbucks delivered steamed milk and not cold milk:

Our barista proceeded to ask if we’d like the milk steamed, but we opted for cold. (They steamed it anyway.) Eventually, we managed to get our order straightened out.

Think back to Wittgenstein: the meaning of a word is the use to which it is put within a particular social world.  What is the meaning-use of the word ‘milk’ in Starbucks?  Milk that goes into coffee. What kind of milk is that? Steamed milk.  Put differently, in a game of chess ‘castle’ does not mean a castle as in a castle where a lord lives. Nor does castling in chess mean moving between castles in real life!

Why Have I Made Such An Effort With This Challenge?

Think research: how can you be sure that the question that you asked is the question that the customer answered?

Think Voice of the Customer feedback: how can you be sure that what you took the customer’s feedback to mean is what the customer meant?

Think requirements gathering: how can you be sure that you have understand the requirement that the customer is actual communicating?

Think experience design: how can you be sure that you have gotten the experience of the customer that you talking to, right now?

Lessons: 

To truly understand our fellow human beings we have to immerse ourselves in them. How? By living in their worlds. Which is why it takes a nurse to understand a nurse, a doctor to understand a doctor, a CEO to understand a CEO, a woman to understand a woman, a person with back pain to understand a person with back pain, an immigrant to understand an immigrant.

If you do want to understand another then learn from Undercover Boss.  Get out of your office.  Dive into a particular world by fulfilling a particular role in that world.  Dress for that role, train for that role. Dive into the activities that go with that role by actually doing the activities – not as a simulation but for real. And spend enough time, at least five days, living that role.

It takes a woman to understand a woman, a CEO to understand a CEO, an immigrant to understand an immigrant, a teenager to understand a teenager, a person with back pain to understand another person with back pain …….. How do you know when you have arrived at this level of understanding?  You live-breathe-speak the same language! And it speaks you.  Enough for today ..

Musings on Leadership, Performance, and Customer Experience

Is performance a function of an ongoing attunement to the ‘truth’ of the situation?

It occurs to me that, all else being equal, the probability of the airliners successful arrival/landing at San Francisco is a function of the the pilots attunement with reality: that which is and is not.  Let’s make this concrete by considering some examples:

  • If as the pilot, I have access to the gap between the actual flight and the flight path which is necessary to get the airliner to San Francisco, and I do make the necessary course corrections, on an ongoing basis, then I increase the probability of safe-timely arrival.
  • If as the pilot, I become aware that there is a serious problem with one of the engines and I can accurately determine which engine it is, and I do shut down the troublesome engine as/when it becomes necessary to shut that engine down then I increase the probability of safe-timely arrival.
  • If as the pilot, I become aware that there is a security lockdown at San Francisco airport and that the airliner is running out of fuel, and I head for the nearest alternative airport (say LA) then I increase the probability of safe-timely arrival.

You get the idea: the probability of success in this venture is a function of the pilot/captain’s ability to ensure that ‘the actions that are critical to the safe arrival of the airliner’ at San Francisco are in attune with, on an ongoing basis, with what is so (and is not so) as this impacts the airliner.  Furthermore, this attunement can be broken down into:

  • an accurate-timely grasp of what is so – the ‘truth’ of the situation; and
  • taking appropriate-timely action, on an ongoing basis, to ensure attunement with this reality.

I ask you to notice the following as regards the very structure of this game of commercial flying:

  • that which we are talking about applies irrespective of who/what is piloting the airliner. And what shape the airliner takes;
  • every crew member who values his life finds him/herself called to pass on information that helps the pilot to be attuned to the truth of the situation and take the appropriate action;
  • every sane pilot (one who values his life) is motivated to be open to and seek knowledge of the ‘truth of the situation’ and take the action that the situation calls for given the commitment to arrive safely at the desired destination;
  • lack of sufficient attunement to the the truth of the situation would affect the lives of all including the pilot/captain – even if the pilot/captain could ‘parachute’ out (and leave all the others to their fate) his live would be affected sufficiently negatively that parachuting out does not show up as an attractive option for any same pilot; and
  • there is no space to ‘hide behind’ an ideology that does violence to the ‘truth’ of the situation - the structure of this game is such that any significant lack of attunement with the ‘truth’ of the situation will lead to visible disaster and those held responsible will pay a public price.

Are large-established organisations in attunement with the ‘truth’ of the situation?

What accounts for the rampant malfunction, even outright failure, when it comes to large-established organisations? I say that it is a lack of ongoing attunement with the ‘truth’ of the situation. Put differently, it occurs to me that the first and most serious casualty of organisational life is the ‘truth’ of the situation; the ‘truth’ of the situation is moulded so as to speak-pander to the interests of the powerful and to conform to the reigning ideology.

Perhaps, there is no greater challenge for those who aspire to be leaders and who fill leadership positions then calling forth and truly listening to the ‘truth’ of the situation: seeing ‘reality’ in the nude – naked of personal interest and the dominant ideology.

How to illustrate, make concrete, that which I have been talking about here?  How to give it flesh and bones?  Let’s revisit the latest news on the NHS. Here is what jumped out at me from a piece (NHS-on-brink-of-crisis-because-it-became-too-powerful-to-criticise.htmlin the Telegraph newspaper:

THE NHS should not be treated as a “national religion” while millions of patients receive a “wholly unsatisfactory” service from GPs and hospitals, the official regulator has warned.

David Prior, the chairman of the Care Quality Commission, said the health service had been allowed to reach the brink of crisis because it was “too powerful” to be criticised.

He said parts of the NHS were “out of control” because honest debate about the weaknesses of the health service was not tolerated.

… he said. “When things were going wrong people didn’t say anything. If you criticised the NHS – the attitude was how dare you?”…..

Mr Prior suggested that the “target culture” imposed by Labour a decade ago fundamentally damaged the culture of the NHS, creating a “chillingly defensive” operation in which the truth was often sacrificed. “The whole culture of the NHS became so focused on targets that it obscured what real quality was about,” he said. “The voice of the patient wasn’t in those targets.”

He said many hospitals needed radical reform.

And finally

Is it just many hospitals that need radical reform?  It occurs to me that many organisations need radical reform. It occurs to me that our whole way of life requires radical reform. It occurs to me that our fundamental way of being-showing up in the world requires reform.

Where to start? It occurs to me that, at an ‘organisational’ level, a great place to start is to create a context which call forth an enquiry into, and a grappling with, the ‘truth’ of the situation from all of the actors who find themselves in or impacted by the situation.

When it comes to Customer Service, Customer Focus, Customer Experience, CRM, Customer Obsession, a great place to start with is the question, “Do we REALLY want to play this game, play it full out? Are we willing to do what it takes to EXCEL at this game?”

I say excellence in the game of cultivating meaningful customer relationships and excelling at the Customer Experience is an ongoing attunement to the ‘truth’ of the situations as experienced-lived by the Customer.  This kind of attunement takes more than customer surveys or mystery shopping. I say these mechanisms are merely ‘defence mechanism’ – ways of avoiding what it truly takes to be attuned to the ‘truth’ of the situation as lived by the Customer.

Strategy and Customer-Centricity: Relax, It’s OK To Be Just OK!

What Is The Achilles Heel of Strategy?

My colleague and I put our whole selves into our work talking with folks in the business, listening to customer conversations, reviewing research, looking at competitors and trends, looking at various approaches, evaluating these approaches and coming up with optimal course of action for our client and our client’s customers.

To our delight the strategy was accepted-approved by management. A month or so later we got busy on implementation planning. It was during the implementation planning when hard decisions had to be made that the commitment to the digital strategy unravelled. Our clients got the value of pursuing the digital strategy and they found themselves in a particular situation which called forth and drove a different set of choice and actions.

This is the Achilles Heel of strategy, every executive finds himself in a particular situation. And every situation has its own ‘logic’ and a momentum. As such it really it takes something to alter course and make any significant headway. It takes resolve – fierce resolve, the kind of resolve that grabs you and keeps hold of you. It is not the kind of resolve that is created through the intellect. 

Why Don’t We Do What We Know We Should Do?

Have you wondered why your organisation sucks at being authentically customer-centric: practicing relationship marketing, client centred selling, pleasing customer service? Have you wondered why it is that your organisation sucks at calling forth the best from your people?

Now and then someone speaks and their speaking is wisdom. Today, I share with you the wisdom of David Maister as articulated in his great book ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker‘:

“In business, strategic plans are also stuffed with familiar goals: build client relationships, act like team players, and provide fulfilling motivating careers. We want the benefits of these things. We know what to do, we know why we should do it, and we know how to do it. Yet most businesses and individuals don’t do what’s good for them….

The primary reason we do not work at behaviours which we know we need to improve is that the rewards … are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get their are immediate…..

Our default pattern and why it doesn’t work

When it comes to improving performance at the individual, team or organisational level we tend to follow a self-defeating pattern.  I have seen this pattern played out again and again over the last 10+ years as organisations have grappled with relationship marketing, CRM, customer experience, employee engagement, digital.  Here’s what David Maister says:

We start self-improvement programs with good intentions, but if they don’t pay off immediately, or if a temptation to depart from the program arises, we abandon our efforts completely – until the next time we pretend to be on the program.

That’s our pattern. Try a little, succumb to temptation, and give up. Repeat until totally frustrated. Unfortunately, there is rarely, if ever, a benefit from dabbling or trying only a little. You can’t get half the benefits of a  better marriage by cutting out half your affairs, cure half the problems of alcoholism by cutting out half the drinks or reduce the risks of lung cancer by cutting out half the cigarettes.

You can’t achieve competitive differentiation through things you do “reasonably well most of the time.” You not only cannot dabble, but you also cannot have short-term strategies ….. The pursuit of short-term goals is inherently anti-strategic and self-defeating.

You are either seriously on the program, really living what you have chosen, or you are wasting your time. 

Why strategic analysis and listening to customers is not the answer

I worked in an organisation which expended considerably time-effort-cost in doing NPS quarterly.  We had access to the voice of the customer. And the voice tended to speak the same tune quarter after quarter. Why? Because the people in the organisation were not willing to change behaviour in any significant way.

Is it possible that setting up VoC listening programs are a ruse? A way of saying to yourself and others that you are serious about improving the customer experience so that you hide your unwillingness to change your behaviour, the behaviour of your team, your organisation?  What does David Maister say?

Improving the quality of the analysis is not where the problem lies. The necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve. 

What are the essential questions of strategy?

If we know the why-what-how of employee engagement, meaningful customer relationships, and customer loyalty then what are the strategic question?  Here’s what David Maister says:

The essential questions of strategy are these:

[1] Which of our habits are we really prepared to change, permanently and forever?

[2] Which lifestyle changes are we really prepared to make?

[3] What issues are we really ready to tackle? 

Now that’s a different tone of conversation and discussion (and the reason that real debate is so often avoided).

What am I getting at here?

To come up with products that enrich the lives of customers requires resolve, analysis is insufficient. To create-deliver truly personalised-relevent marketing requires resolve, analysis and marketing technology are insufficient. To call forth the kind of service that generates gratitude from customers and makes them feel good about doing business with your organisation requires resolve, analysis-outsourcing-technology are insufficient. To orchestrate an end to end customer experience that calls forth customer loyalty requires formidable resolve, VoC and customer journey mapping are insufficient.  Put different, dabbling won’t do; it occurs to me that most are merely dabbling.

I say, it is worth listening to David Maister once more:

There is no shame in aiming for competence if you are unwilling to pay the price for excellence. But don’t try to mislead clients, staff, colleagues or yourself with time-wasting, demoralising attempts to convince them that you are actually committed to pursuing the goal.

Relax, it’s ok to be just ok

As I get present to the world of business as it is and as it is not, I get present to the following and contradicts all the evangelising about customer focus, customer service, customer experience, customer relationships and customer-centricity:

1. Almost all businesses are unexceptional. They provide ok products (that do the job well enough). They provide OK digital real estate (websites, social media, apps, mobile). They provide OK stores. They hire OK people. They provide OK customer service – whether in stores or via the call-centres. And they generate an OK end to end customer experience, by default. As a result they do OK – they survive and make OK profits.

2. It is only against this background of OKness that the exceptional can and does show up. It is because almost all banks and insurance companies are ok that USAA glow so brig and htly. It is because most digital retailers are OK that Amazon shines brightly. It is because most high street retailers are OK that John Lewis and Waitrose (part of the John Lewis Partnership) shine brightly. It is because most organisations provide OK customer service that Zappos and Zane’s Cycles shine brightly.

Who and What is the Biggest Obstacle to Making the Transition to Becoming a “Customer Company”?

Are the Tops are the biggest obstacle to your organisation becoming a “Customer Company”?

Some of you have questioned my emphasis on the Tops and their critical importance to any successful shift towards your organisation becoming a “Customer Company”.  Some of you have asked me why it is that I have focussed on the Tops and not the Middles and the Bottoms.  The answer is twofold.

First, there is the fact that every system has certain points that have much higher leverage than others. Isn’t that  what we are looking for when we map the customer journey, assess the customer experience, and look for the “moments of truth” – the interactions that really matter and leave customers happy or unhappy, promoters or detractors?  Ask yourself who you would approach and seek to convince/persuade if you wanted to trigger major organisational change.  Would you approach the sales rep or the call-centre agent or would you approach one or more people in the C-suite?

Second, there is my 20+ years of experience at the coal-face of organisational change and business performance improvement in its many disguises.  Yes, the Middles and Bottoms have some capacity to resist/impede change initiated by the Tops. What is missed is that they rarely have the capacity to initiate major organisational change nor to bring it to an end abruptly.  This capacity, this power, lies with the Tops.

Never underestimate the Tops addiction to control and the fear of losing it!

Allow me to share a real life example with you.  This example is provided by Judith E. Glaser in her book Creating We. In this book she shares the story of  a weight loss company and its shift toward customer-centricity.  Here is an abridged version of her story:

Major change – or transformation – usually involves a huge shift in power that takes place across a company. In the 1990s, a weight-loss company was experiencing customer defection at a high rate….

Customers were defecting from their programs and, worse than that, they were telling other potential customers that the company was awful…… The company was getting a bad reputation for high cost/low value…..

The company leaders didn’t believe how serious the situation was. They felt that Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig were no match for their billion dollar powerhouse. But they were wrong and the feedback proved it.

……. we did extensive customer research, as well as franchise research among their 4,500 sales consultants, and discovered that the hard-sell style did indeed cause customers to rebel at some point and to spread the word that the company was insensitive, pushy and only out for money.

….. we engaged hundreds of internal consultants and totally revamped the sales approach, and, most of all, its relationship to its customer.  The company changed its value proposition ……. we created a sales-training process to teach everyone how to be sensitive to customers, to talk and partner with them……. the program was called “Partnership Selling”….

Customers loved the new approach, and sales consultants did, too. Interestingly, however, the new approach created great problems for the leadership team. 

The previous hard-sell approach…… enabled the company to track each sales consultant’s every move. Each was trained to memorize a sales script and not divert from it….. This highly structured, predictable, customer insensitive approach enabled them as a company to track what everyone did and said down to the last word, giving the company control of every customer interaction. They rewarded sales consultants for getting the pitch perfect…….

The new customer-focused process reduced the control of the corporate headquarters and increased control for the sales consultants to manage the “customer experience”.  Corporate went along with the new approach for a short while, maybe six months, then retracted the whole value proposition, for fear they were losing control.  Corporate were unable to ensure that everyone followed the same process. They therefore were unable to reward the best sales consultants for following the script…… Their focus was totally internal and control-based. 

…. during this time, the former president returned to run the company. He favoured the canned controlled interaction with customers and reinstated the old approach to selling. The hard sell returned and the customers left……

During the process, they were hell-bent on reinforcing their own way of doing business, dominating the customer and the sales organisation, and being in total control. After they went out of business, a few of the executives realised they had authored their own demise.

They executives were at the edge of new insights. They were taking the coaching and doing well. Then their insecurities kicked in, the fear of losing control returned, and they went back to square one.  They could not leave their Comfort Zone of doing things the way they’d always been done.  The only WE they could see was the familiar WE of their fellow senior executives, not the inclusive WE of the enterprise as a whole, and certainly not the WE of the customers.

When organisations are faced with change, fear often causes them freeze and hold on to the current way of doing things, even if its not working…..

Unhealthy cells stop taking nourishment from outside, stop taking feedback, and defend their position; and the president responded the same way. He stopped listening to the marketplace, to the customer, and defended his point of view; he was not open to feedback or to new ways of thinking. People had to please the boss, and they did.

 

Customer Experience and Organisational Change: Reflections on the Limits and Folly of Outside-In

The genesis of this post is a conversation that I had recently with Rod Butcher, a man who has been at the coal face of Customer Experience in a large organisation.

Standing outside of an organisation, as a bystander, it is easy to espouse the value and importance of the outside-in approach to Customer Experience. It seems so easy; just about everything is easy when seen from a distance.  If on the other hand you have spent time in the ‘belly of the whale’ you get a visceral appreciation for the huge importance of inside-out: what matters in the organisation, what doesn’t matter, what works, what doesn’t work, what gets done, what does not get done, what the people who really matter are willing to do and not to do….

Why are so many large companies struggling with genuinely taking a customer-centric approach?  Why is the dominant issue with VoC the inability of the organisation to act on the voice of the customer?  Why is it that despite all the talk of collaboration and social business there is so little genuine collaboration?  Allow me to share two stories with you.

When I moved into my new home over 10 years ago gardening called to me; I had no experience of gardening. One day I found myself in a garden centre and a number of plants called to me. So I bought these plants home and set about gardening.  That is when the obstacles arose.  The soil in my garden didn’t match that required by the most expensive plants. Then there were issues to do with sunshine: some required lots of sunshine other liked shade; some needed lots of watering, others little….

Most of the plants struggled to thrive and many of these eventually died.  Why? Because I was not willing to do what it took to provide what the plants needed.  I had rather hoped that the I could just buy then, find a spot in the garden where I thought they looked good, plant them there, and water them time from time.  That is to say I was looking for the plants to fit into my priorities, my way of doing things.

I recently visited friends who took great interest and pride in taking care of their precious plants: young olive tree, young lemon tree etc.  I was shocked to find that both of these plants looked withered, dry, dead.  Why? What happened?  Clearly, they had not been looked after.  Why? Because both of my friends had turned their attention to stuff that showed up for them as being more important.  Put differently, my friends had failed to sustain their commitment to these trees. Why? Because they were not central to their lives; they were merely hobbies and or decorations.

What have a I learned about gardening? I have learned to start with a good understanding of my garden and then choose plants that will thrive in my garden. I have learned that if I really want acid loving plants in my garden, which does not support them naturally, then I first need to do the work of digging out a specific part of the garden and putting the right soil.  And I have learned that I have to be love these plants so much that I am happily provide them with the regular care they need.

I’ll leave you to figure out the organisational lessons.  For my part I agree with Rod Butcher: outside-in is not enough, what really matters is the willingness of the organisation to change, or not, from the inside-out.

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