Improving the customer experience: which approach, which levers to use?

Need to improve the customer experience?

Sometimes a real world example of poor customer experience comes along that allows you to explore real world challenges in improving the customer experience.  I am thinking of the  recent report on the treatment of elderly patients in the UK hospitals which has caused quite a fuss even though relatives of elderly patients have been complaining of poor treatment for many years.

Let’s say that you want to improve the customer (patient) experience.  Where do you start?  There are all kinds of opinions on the root causes that have ‘driven’ compassion out of the failing hospitals.  If you read the papers or have listened to the radio (as I have) you will notice that the finger is being pointed at the following:

  • The nurses do not care (they do not have the aptitude) and/or are badly trained;
  • The focus of hospital staff is on filling in the forms, ticking the right boxes, processing patients and not getting into trouble with management;
  • The Top are not exercising the right kind of leadership;
  • Demand exceeds resources and so expensive nurses have been replaced by cheap Care Support Workers to balance the books;
  • The focus of the hospital leadership is on hitting targets set by Central Government rather than caring for patients;
  • Elderly patients are difficult to care for and many of them should not be in hospital but in care homes…..

So where do you start?  Which levers do you use to improve the Customer Experience?

I have developed a simple model (I do not claim that this model is the truth, it is simply a construct) that helps me to answer that question:

If you are like most organisations you take the operational approach.  This means that you make changes to the People, Process, Data and Technology dimensions.  So in the case of the NHS you work on the nurses (People) – perhaps through training and performance measures; you work on the way that work is done (Process); you might introduce some new technology to improve the process (Technology) etc…  This is the default approach and leaves the bigger picture (the context) that lays the grounds for all organisational behaviour untouched.  As a result the improvements (no matter how impressive) rarely endure and in some cases the short-term improvements turn out to be the longer term cancer that degrades performance.

The road less travelled is the strategic approach.  This is where the Tops exercise leadership and ask themselves the question: what is our contribution to the behaviour, health, performance of the system?  And then they set about shaping/nudging the levers that ultimately shape the behaviour of their organisation and its destiny.  What are these levers?  I can think of four:

  • Leadership – everything that the leaders communicate through verbal and non-verbal language.  It is worth bearing in mind that it is impossible for leaders (all of us in fact) not to communicate.
  • Culture – the taken for granted ways of thinking, feeling, talking, decision making and behaving.  What (and who) is and is not considered real, important, worth discussion.  Not only what is done (and not done) but also how it is done or not done.  I think of this as the ‘operating system’ of the organisation it determines the collective ‘performance’ of all the components of the organisation.  The Tops play a huge role in shaping culture – whether by actively shaping it or by simply neglecting it.
  • Mission & Strategy – the mission (call it purpose) articulates why you exist and the strategy is the high level approach you will be using to achieve your mission.  Let’s be honest the vast majority of missions simply do not inspire anyone in the organisation or anyone dealing with the organisation.  Why?  Because the mission is simply to fulfil shareholders needs / demands.  They are the equivalent of ‘selling sugared water’ rather than putting a ‘dent in the universe’.  So the challenge is to come up with an authentic mission that makes people proud to be a part of the organisation.
  • Business Model – this is simply the configuration of elements that create value for all the stakeholders and ensure the viability and strength of your organisation.  At the heart of the business model lies the value proposition and the people (target market of customers) that this value proposition has been designed for.   How well does your business model meet the needs of the various stakeholders?  What changes need to be made in order to take into account the change in customer behaviour especially the rise in customer power?  Does your business model take into account the multiple roles that customers can play all through the value chain?

What separates the Customer Experience leaders from the rest?

As I have studied the Customer Experience leaders (Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, Zappos, Zane’s Cycles) I have been struck by the thought that all these companies did makes changes to the People, Process, Data and Technology dimensions but only as a subset of the strategic approach: Leadership, Culture, Mission & Strategy, Business Model.    That is to say any operational changes (People, Process, Technology, Data) were nested and a part of the bigger organisational context that was shaped by Mission & Strategy, Culture, Business Model and Leadership.

I have this feeling that the people who run the NHS in the UK will go for the operational levers (‘the one bad apple’ defense/approach) rather then the strategic approach.   What do you think?  What is your experience?

Steve Jobs: it’s not about the money and it’s not about the technology

“The Co-operative Group has launched the biggest piece of consumer insight research it has ever done to develop a stronger brand message across all its business groups.  The company, which has divisions in retail, holidays, banking and funeral care, is hoping to find out “what consumers love about the Co-op and what they love less” and will then build and strengthen its marketing and brand strategy with the consumer at the heart of everything it does.” [Marketing Week]

I read the paragraph above on the same day that I learned that Steve Jobs had died and I did not know whether to laugh or cry.  Here we have a well known organisation and what are the people at the top talking about / concerned with?  The message!  They simply want to put out a better message.  How the heck does that inspire and feed the human soul?  Where is the greatness in that?  How does that make the world a better place for us?  Why would that inspire people to line up for the opportunity to work for the Co-op?

Now and then one of our fellow human beings comes along and discloses a new world of possibility, attracts a bunch of people that are attracted by that world of possibility and in the process, collectively, they change the world.  A leader is not one who does it alone.  A leader is one that inspires, unleashes, channels the greatness of many to bring about that which speaks to us – at a deep level.  Was Steve Jobs such a person?  I’ll let you decide that one.  For my part I simply wish to share the following with you.

Design your own life – that is the ultimate ground of leadership

Nilofer Merchant wrote the following piece: Steve Job’s Legacy:  Design Your Own Life and it is worth reading.  Two particular paragraphs stand out for me:

“But when we define ourselves by what others want, we are trying to kiss a moving butt. To live in a box defined by someone else is to deny our uniqueness. Each of us is standing in a spot no one else occupies. That unique perspective is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and our vision. When we deny these things, we deny that which only we can bring to the situation, our onlyness. And that is surely not the way the world is made better.” [Nilofer Merchant]

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” [Apple ad – when Steve Jobs came back to Apple]

It is not about the technology!

In my view Steve Jobs was in touch with his humanity in its rounded aspect (the light side and the dark side).  He had an appreciation for the ‘soft stuff’ that is treated with contempt in mainstream business.  The real challenge is to make the human heart sing with joy.  Here is a quote that spells it out for me:

“Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.

I have often said that if you are not fully human, if you do not have an affinity for your fellow human beings, if you are not touched by beauty then you give Customer Experience a wide berth and leave it to the people who have these qualities: the challenge of Customer Experience is design (that makes human life simpler, easier, richer and makes the heart sing) not management.  The CRM folks did not get this and that is why CRM failed!  Right now it looks like Customer Experience is headed the same way – yet there is time to get it and act differently.

Innovation and leadership

Many talk about innovation and leadership, few know what they are talking about.  Here is what Steve says:

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

What is Steve saying?  He is saying that innovation is a function of people, passion and leadership.  He does not mention frameworks, methodologies, processes, metrics…….

Seven More Insights

I was going to write more and then I read this fantastic piece by Umair Haque.  I urge you to read it.  There is more useful insight (some might say wisdom) then a library of business books.   Thank you for taking the time to put this together Umair.

A final word

The business world is full of people who talk about productivity, efficiency, process, standardisation, streamlining…..  This way of looking at the world provides order: it makes the trains run on time.  It also is worldview devoid of any beauty.  Steve’s great contribution, for me, was to show that we can have both: well designed products that work exceptionally well and experiences that make our hearts sing.  Finally, Steve said that he never did it for the money!  Now contrast that with the vast majority of people who work in and run organisations: it is all about the money.

You don’t find Customer in the P&L or in the Balance Sheet

I don’t publicise the fact that I started out in accountancy and finance – in fact as a Chartered Accountant I am a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales.

Now I have been wrestling with the a problem: despite all the talk of customers being in the driving seat and the need for companies to be customer focussed and/or customer centred, it is truly hard to find more than a handful of companies that are customer focussed and even less that are customer centred.  Why?

Whilst grappling with this question two thoughts came to me and they are both related to finance.

The first is that I remember a friend from the venture capital community telling me that the way venture capitalists directed/managed the companies they owned could best be described as “management by Excel”.  What he meant was that the VCs determined what price they wanted to sell the business and at what time.  Once they had decided this the plugged some figures into an Excel sheet and that told the senior management (CEO and fellow directors) of the company what revenue and profit figures had to be delivered each year.  The rest – what actions were taken or not taken to make these numbers – was entirely up to the senior management.

The second thought that occurs to me is that in all of my time preparing and analysing the P&L and the Balance Sheet I never came across the term customers.  There is no value given to customer relationship in the P&L or the Balance Sheet.  There is no value associated with customer equity.  There is no value given to being customer-centric.  Customers simply do not exist in the language of finance.  Neither do employees.

I have read that the Eskimos have tens of words for snow because snow – all the different types – really matters to the survival and well-being of Eskimos. In the English language we have only one word for snow as it relatively unimportant.  In the language of finance (P&L, Balance Sheet) there are no words for Customer – that tells you all that you need to know.

The overwhelming majority of companies will continue to focus on making this years numbers by any means.  If one of those means is to be customer focussed then the company will become customer focussed – for that financial year.  If making the numbers means reducing quality of product or quality of service then those means will be used.  What matters is making this years revenue, profit, cashflow and EBITA numbers.

Or to put it differently in the real world of business, customers and employees are simply means to a higher cause: making the financial numbers.  Can this kind of organisation ever be described as being customer centred?  I’ll let you decide.