Customer Experience as an access to & source of business disruption and transformation

What do the failures of three high street chains disclose about Customer Experience?

Over the last week or so, three brand name high street retailers – Blockbuster, HMV, and Jessops – have failed.  What do these retailers disclose about the Customer Experience?

I say that these retailers disclose that Customer Experience is both an access to business transformation. And at the same time, a source of business disruption.  Yes, digital technologies often enable a superior Customer Experience. Yes, someone has to figure out a viable business model. And yet, it is the superior Customer Experience that attracts customers and thus enables business disruption and transformation.

I also say that the demise of these retailers shows something else.  What? It shows that most of the companies that are talking about / using Customer Experience are using it as a tactical tool. And that is a mistake.  How can I point this out clearly? Let’s take the airline industry.  I say that as and when a company invents a ‘teleporter’ (think Star Trek, Blakes 7) it is the end of the airline industry no matter how much money the airlines spend on improving the Customer Experience associated with flying. And even with a ‘teleporter’ the people who go on sea cruises will continue to go on sea cruises.  I hope you get that which I am pointing at.  Just in case, I have failed to communicate, I am going to take a look at the demise of Blockbuster.

What lesson does Blockbuster disclose?

Why did I turn to Blockbuster?  To do a job.  What job?  The job of entertaining myself and/or my family.  What role did Blockbuster play?  Blockbuster provided the means for me to get that job done?  What was ‘the means’?  The video.

What did I have to go through to get the job of entertaining myself and my family done? I had to drive 12 minutes to the nearest Blockbuster store only to find that the car park was full. Then I had to drive around and find somewhere to park – not easy. Once I parked the car, I had to walk to the store. Then hope the right video was in store.  Select a video, queue and pay. Then walk back to the car and drive home. Watch the video. Tell myself to remember to take the video back. Next day, drive to the store, find somewhere to park, walk to the store, return the video.

Do you notice something?  The Blockbuster Customer Experience imposed costs – time, effort, worry – on me.  I did not want to drive.  I did not want to find somewhere to park. I did not want to turn up at the store and find Blockbuster had no more copies of the movie I wanted to watch.  I did not want to have the threat of late fees hanging over my head. I did not want to go back to the store to return the video.  These were the costs imposed on me by the Blockbuster Customer Experience.  I put up with them because I did not have a better alternative.

When the better alternative came – a better Customer Experience – I left Blockbuster. With Netflix and/or Lovefilm I select the movie I want to watch and I can watch it instantly on TV, on the PC, on the iPad, on the iPod. And if I don’t like that movie? I stop it and instantly start watching another one. All for a flat monthly fee which is better value than Blockbuster ever was.  Actually, it is better than that because I don’t watch many movies, my family does. Now, they do it themselves and I have no work to do!

What are the fundamental insights/lessons here?

It occurs to me that there are two lessons.  First, digital is disruptive. Digital technologies, used imaginatively, used courageously, hold the potential and promise of business disruption. Why? Because they enable companies to craft and offer superior customer experiences.  How?  They collapse time-distance-effort-worry. And thus enable smart companies to come up with value propositions and customer experiences that customers value. Which probably explains why the bulk of my work over the last two years has been concerned with digital strategy and digital customer experience.

Second, the real leverage in Customer Experience is not tinkering with what it is – which is what most companies are doing.  The real leverage is using insight and imagination to design fundamentally new and disruptive customer experiences.  The ones that enrich the lives of customers (by delivering unexpected benefits) and at the same time take out costs – time, effort, delay, worry  – and deliver greater value for money.

And finally

It occurs to me that if you want to get strategic value out of Customer Experience then go back and read/study The Experience Economy.  The point is not merely to improve the experience associated with a product, service or solution.  It is more than that.  What it says is that you can choose to compete at a completely different level – the experience level.  What are you selling?  An experience.  What kind of experience? The kind of experience that Build-A-Bear has come up with for bears for children.  The kind of music experience that Apple has created through iPods, iTunes, iCloud.  Or the membership experience that the MVNO giffgaff has put together for mobile telecommunications.  The kind of experience that Netflix and Lovefilm deliver for movies.

Please remember that if your business is open to digital disruption then it will be disrupted.  You can choose to do that yourself. Or you can wait for someone else to do it.  Blockbuster and HMV could see the disruption, they chose not to act.  As for the folks at Jessops, hindsight says that they should have got out of the camera business and into the business of selling smartphones.  What do you say?

Why culture is the ‘Achilles Heel’ of your customer experience efforts (Part II)

This post concludes the train of thought that I shared in an earlier post – Why culture is the Achilles Heel of your customer experience efforts (Part I). – I encourage you to read it to get the most out of this post.

Let’s forget morality and focus on ‘workability’.  By ‘workability’ I am addressing the pragmatic dimension.  For example if you want to fly a 747 from London to New York you simply need an airworthy aeroplane, the right fuel, experienced pilots, the right staff etc – these are the conditions of workability for the flight.  If you do not have these in place then your plane may get off the ground but it is highly likely to make it to New York.  So what are the conditions of workability for a customer-centric orientation that builds customer loyalty?

The foundation of customer loyalty is earning and cultivating trust

In a world full of suppliers who offer pretty much the same goods who would you choose to do business with?  If you are like most of humanity then you will instinctively do business with the one that you trust the most. Don Peppers & Martha Rogers have taken a good look at the whole trust thing in their book ‘Rules to Break & Laws to Follow’.  So allow me to share their wisdom with you.  Here are the laws that they recommend that you follow:

1. Earn and keep the trust of your customers

The key point I want to stress here is the word ‘earn’.  Yes, you need to earn it by doing the right thing (honest, fairness, integrity) as well as doing things right (competence, ease, access, efficiency…).  It means paying as much attention to the social and moral aspects as it does the economic aspect. Are you a fit and proper person/organisation?  Which is another way of asking: can you be trusted to act honorably/ethically?

2. Really taking your customer’s point of view means treating each customer with the fairness you would want if you were the customer.

At a philosophical level you can look at this either through John Rawls veil of ignorance or refer to some of the oldest philosophies used to guide human relations.  Using the lens of the ‘veil of ignorance’ ask yourself how would I design the system (roles, rules, interactions….) if I did not know if I would end up playing the role of the customer or the enterprise?  I used to use this with my two children when they would quarrel over cake: one of them got to cut the cake into two pieces and then the other one got to choose (first) which slice he wanted.  This system ensured fairness.

If we turn towards the world’s great religions then with Christianity you have the Golden Rule.  Rabbi Hillel when asked about the Torah replied “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you, the rest is merely commentary.” Confucius stated “What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not  to others.”  Mohammed said “None of your truly believe until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” And in the holy book (Mahabharata) of the oldest religion (Hinduism) you have “This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”

At a practical level it means taking off your shoes and walking the shoes of your customers.  It means experiencing how it feels to pick a mobile phone plan when there are so many to choose from, so many conditions, so many variables?  It means experiencing what it is like to set-up and use the product with instructions that occurs as being useless?  It means experiencing what it is like not to be able to get hold of  helpful human being when you have an urgent need and having to navigate a ‘hard to make sense of’ IVR and so forth.  Not reading a report about it – actually experiencing it by doing it for real.

Don and Martha say it best when they write:

  • Honestly taking the customer’s perspective is really at the heart of understanding the customer’s experience with your brand or product.”
  • “…the very concept of being trustworthy that the company will not be acting solely in it’s own short-term interests.  On one level, this might involve simply giving a customer a fairer deal than she would otherwise have know about.  Or it could mean providing the information to allow her to compare competing offers directly – your competitors best offers included. It might mean being completely open with the customer when talking to her about the merits of buying a product or service….”

3. To earn your customers’ trust, first earn your employees trust.

Your employees can be the source of customer insight, competitor intelligence, ideas, creativity, innovation and judgement.  They are also the source of flexibility: they can judge the situation and respond appropriately.  And there is world of difference between giving the minimum and put our ‘heart and soul’ into your work.  The difference is called ‘discretionary effort’.  Tapping into it is like tapping into an inexhaustible gold mine.  Still not convinced?  Name one technology, one artifact, that has not been ultimately created by a person or persons working as a group.

If you want your employers to treat your customers well you have to model that behaviour: you have to treat your employees well.  In services heavy industries (such as retail, telecommunications, hotels & leisure…) your employees are absolutely critical to any form of service excellence.  To earn the trust of customers you absolutely have to earn the trust of your employees.  You do that by treating them well:  the ‘veil of ignorance’ and the Golden rule applies just as much to your employees as it does to your customers.

You would be wise if you were to apply this ethic to your suppliers and your partners.  I have been a supplier of professional services for most of my working life and my teams have given our all to those clients who have practiced the golden rule.  The rest – we stuck to the contract and did the minimum we had to do.  When disaster strikes your suppliers/partners can be your saviours or the source of your ultimate destruction: more than one company has experienced this.  When disaster struck Toyota survived because it’s suppliers did the right thing because Toyota had a history of doing the right thing by suppliers. In the UK I once heard the CEO of the best known Indian food company share (emotionally) how his suppliers pitched in to save his business when his only manufacturing facility burnt down overnight. Why?  Because he had treated them honorably.

4. If being fair to customers conflicts with your company’s financial goals, then fix your business model or get a new one.

To cultivate customer trust you must put in place a culture that calls everyone in the company – each and everyone – to genuinely consider your customers perspective and well being in each and every decision that your company makes.   Here is how Don and Martha put it: “Whenever your employees are solving a problem or undertaking an initiative, at some point they should ask themselves the question: What’s in the customer’s interest here?” And you have to act on that interest.

If we are truthful then it is highly unlikely that you have this culture today.  Your challenge is to create that culture; your biggest obstacle is likely to be the Tops, your business model and short-termism.  If you company does not create that kind of culture then you are leaving the field wide open for new entrants who build a business model around treating your customers fairly, cultivating their loyalty and reaping the benefits: think Netflix v Blockbuster (late fees) or Google v Yahoo! or Zane’s cycles v other bike sellers.

Final words

Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

Culture is the lever and the CEO (as leader) is the fulcrum:  if you have do not have the right leader and the right culture then despite your best efforts you will not succeed in cultivating customer loyalty and harvesting the benefits. At best you will win minor battles like reducing customer service costs or improving the ROI of your marketing campaigns. And in the process of seeking ‘customer gold’ you will simply make the pick axe and shovel sellers rich.