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.

Is This The Fundamental Quality of Effective Leadership?

“I am not a human resource; I’m a human being.”

It occurs to me that there is no outside without an inside. It occurs to me that there is no hot without cold. It occurs to me that there is no high without low.

You might be wondering what my point is. My point is that there is no customer experience without an employee experience.  My point is that it is futile to strive for engagement with customers without striving to engage employees. My point is that it is pointless to strive for access to the Voice of the Customer and disregard the Voice of the Employee.

A couple of quotes that Bruce Temkin shared in his latest post, speak to me.  Quotes on the critical importance of treating employees as human beings. And engaging them in a worthy purpose. First, is a quote from a young worker. I say this quote goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to employee engagement and organisational effectiveness. Here is what this young worker says:

…give employees a voice… create a place where people want to shine… I’m not a human resource; I’m a human being.

It occurs to me that business is run as if it is manufacturing operation, or a game of chess. What is forgotten is that human beings are not chess pieces nor widgets. Human beings are conscious. Human beings are amazing With this exquisite complexity come complex needs.   And these needs go beyond mere survival and power over others.  These needs include a powerful need to have a voice, to be listened to, to matter, to be involved in something noble/worthy of a human life.

Does the prevailing management need to change?

What does Bruce Temkin have to say? He says that the prevailing approach to management must change.  Here are his words:

Rather than imposing layers of strict controls over employees in an attempt to ensure financial success, companies need to engage employees and reap the benefits. While this may seem like a subtle difference, it leads to a profoundly different approach to management—from controlling to leading.  Employees aren’t a fungible commodity that you burn through on the way to success, they are your critical assets.

A leadership parable

After 25 years in business, I am struck by this, in our organisations we pay little or no real attention to what really matters, what drives organisational effectiveness, what generates workability and enables high performance, what really makes the world wonderful for us.  I say the key quality of effective leadership is to listen for, hear, and act on what really matters.  Allow me to share this leadership parable with you, it was provided by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgine back in the 1990s.

The Sound of the Forest

Back in the third century A.D., the King Ts’ao sent his son, Prince T’ai, to the temple to study under the great master Pan Ku. Because Prince T’ai was to succeed his father as king, Pan Ku was to teach the boy the basics of being a good ruler. When the prince arrived at the temple, the master sent him alone to the Ming-Li Forest. After one year, the prince was to return to the temple to describe the sound of the forest.

When Prince T’ai returned, Pan Ku asked the boy to describe all that he could hear. “Master,” replied the prince, “I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbirds hum, the crickets chirp, the grass blow, the bees buzz, and the wind whisper and holler.” When the prince had finished, the master told him to go back to the forest to listen to what more he could hear. The prince was puzzled by the master’s request. Had he not discerned every sound already?

For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening. But he heard no sounds other than those he had already heard. Then one morning, as the prince sat silently beneath the trees, he started to discern faint sounds unlike those he had ever heard before. The more acutely he listened, the clearer the sounds became. The feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy. “These must be the sounds the master wished me to discern,” he reflected.

When Prince T’ai returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard. “Master,” responded the prince reverently, “when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard—the sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth, and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew.” The master nodded approvingly. “To hear the unheard,” remarked Pan Ku, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens. The demise of states comes when leaders listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinions, feelings, and desires.”

And finally

I leave you with this quote from Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, a quote that Bruce Temkin shares in his post:

“If you create an environment where the people truly participate, you don’t need control. They know what needs to be done and they do it. And the more that people will devote themselves to your cause on a voluntary basis, a willing basis, the fewer hierarchies and control mechanisms you need.”

It occurs to me that this quote and the leadership parable point at the true nature of what constitutes a social orientation in business.  Social as in co-operating with one another, to get our human needs met, and co-creating a world that works for us all. What do you say?

 

Customer Experience in the UK: what is really going on?

What’s really going on the UK contact-centre industry?

Yesterday, I met up with a friend who works in the VoC and contact-centre space and we discussed the whole customer thing.  This is what showed up for me in our conversation:

– There has been a huge surge in people with Customer Experience titles. And mostly it is people in contact-centres taking on these titles.

– The customer experience is not the fundamental driver of how contact-centres operate.  The contact-centre industry is permeated through and through by a focus on processing transactions (calls) as cheaply as possible. This was so before Customer Experience titles became fashionable and it is still the case.

– Whilst some brave souls in the contact-centre industry (like my friend) are up for and focus on the customer experience in contact-centres.  The big outsourced contact-centre providers who dominate the industry are focussed on bums-on-seats, costs and meeting their transactional SLA.  They have no listening for customer experience.

– VoC has become the new black, just about everyone is doing it.  And there is big question mark over the value of this given the lack of genuine passion for the customer and the customer experience in the organisation.

– There is a lot of talk about social customer service and the reality is that very little is going on.  There is a tsunami of calls coming in from customers and only a trickle of contacts through social. This works for the people in the business because they are terrified of social and its impact on the carefully scripted brand image and messages.

Customer Experience: what is the cause of the gulf between the words and the reality?

What is going on here?  Why is there such a big difference between the words and the reality?  Why is it that whilst the words have changed from CRM to CEM, the indifference to building emotional bonds with customers continues?  Is it a lack of understanding?  Are people in business simply ignorant and so they need more education from the likes of customer experience gurus?

My passion is the being of human beings especially how we show up in groups and organisational settings.  And what it takes for us to shift our being-doing.  So allow me to share a story with you that I say sheds light on what is going on.

A holy man was meditating beneath a tree at the crossing of two roads. His meditation was interrupted by a young man running frantically down the road toward him.

“Help me,” the young man pleaded. “A man has wrongly accused me of stealing.  He is pursuing me with a great crowd of people. If they catch me, they will chop off my hands!”

The young man climbed the tree beneath which he sage had been meditating and hid himself in the branches. “Please don’t tell them where I am hiding,” he begged.

The holy man saw with the clear vision of a saint that the young man was telling the truth.  The lad was not a thief.  A few minutes later, the crowd of villagers approached, and leader asked, “Have you seen a young man run by here?”

Many years earlier, the holy man had taken a vow to always speak the truth, so he said that he had.  “Where did he go?” the leader asked.

The holy man did not want to betray the innocent young man, but his vow was sacred to him. He pointed up into the tree. The villagers dragged the young man out of the tree and chopped off his hands.

I say that a shift to an authentic customer orientation, one where the focus of the company is to come up with value propositions and customer experiences, that enrich the lives of their customers (and all the people who have to play their part in making this happen) requires transformational change.  It requires a complete break with the past and operating from a radically different context. It is the kind of break that the caterpillar makes in order to show up as a butterfly.  And that is a big ask for almost all of us especially large companies that are doing ok.

What does it take to generate deep contextual customer insight?

Do you know your customers?

Is it possible to know your customers simply through ‘at a distant’ listening methods like NPS, post transaction surveys, social media, text mining customer call records etc?  I get that many of you are convinced that you do know your customers.  You are that you know what matters to your customers.  You are that your VoC listening programmes provide you with insight into your customers.

If only it were that simple.  Insight, deep contextual insight, is not that easily gathered. What am I pointing at?  Let me share a story with you, a story that Irvin Yalom, an existential psychotherapist, tells in his book The Gift of Therapy:

“Decades ago I saw a patient with breast cancer ….. been locked in a long, bitter struggle with her naysaying father.  Yearning for some form of reconciliation …. she looked forward to her father’s driving her to college – a time when she would be alone with him for several hours. 

But the long-anticipated trip proved to be a disaster: her father behaved true to form by grousing at length about the ugly, garbage littered creek by the side of the road. She, on the other hand, saw no litter whatsoever in the beautiful, rustic, unspoilt stream. She could find no way to respond and eventually, lapsing into silence, they spent the remainder of the trip looking away from each other.

Later, she made the same trip alone and was astounded to note that there were two streams – one on each side of the road. ‘This time I was the driver’, she said sadly, ‘and the stream I saw through my window on the driver’s side was just as ugly and polluted as my father had described it’.

But by the time she learned to look out of her father’s window, it was too late – her father was dead and buried.”

Please note that the daughter did not get access to her father’s experience until she physically sat in his seat and travelled the same route that her father travelled.  Or put differently, that little distance between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat made all the difference!  Are you still convinced that you understand your customers and their experience, that ‘at a distant’ VoC listening programmes give you the requisite understanding of your customers?

What does it take to generate this deep contextual insight?  Empathy

I say that if you want to excel at the game of service, of customer experience and/or customer-centricity, you have to get deep insight into the lives of your customers.  I say that if you want to design great customer experiences you have to get deep contextual insight into the lives of your customers.  I say that if you want to cultivate a customer-centric organisation then you have to get deep insight into the lives of your customers AND the people who work inside your organisation.  And I say that you cannot get this deep contextual insight through ‘at a distant’ listening programmes. I say that to get this deep contextual insight you have to cultivate empathy.

How do you cultivate empathy for your customers and the people working in your organisation?

The short answer is go beyond ‘at a distant’ VoC listening programmes. Get out of the office and get on the front line.  Put on the shoes of the front line employees and interact with, sell to and serve customers.  Go further and put on the shoes of the customers, sit where she sits, and travel the path that she travels. If you have the patience for the longer answer then I recommend setting aside 20 minutes to watch the follow informative video: http://youtu.be/G9jC1ThqTNo

The 6 habits of highly empathic people

Here are the six habits of highly empathic people as set out and discussed by Roman Krznaric in the video above:

  1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers
  2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
  3. Get into extreme sport – extreme sport of experiential empathy
  4. Practice the art of conversation
  5. Inspire mass [empathic] action and social change
  6. Develop an ambitious imagination

Final words

The price of deep contextual insight into the lives of our customers and the people who serve them is to travel the path travelled by George Orwell and Patricia Moore.  You will get what I am pointing at if you watched the video.  There are no short cuts.  I say that it is only once you have that deep contextual insight that you will be in a position to even know what questions to ask on VoC surveys, what to listen to on social media, and how to make sense of the that which shows up on VoC listening posts.