Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Customer Experience Lessons from Lance Armstrong

Image courtesy of Kingchief
Today I'm pleased to share with you a guest post by Linda Ireland.

4 customer experience lessons organizations can take away from Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong has become a fairly polarizing figure the last couple years. Some people love him for his determination to beat one of the most lethal diseases of our time and for the organization he has built to improve the quality of so many lives. Others loathe him for allegedly doping his way to seven Tour de France wins from 1999 through 2005 - wins that have been since stripped of his name - and for the way he has handled the controversy, especially in light of the recent, damning report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

With his sponsors pulling out last week and his stepping down from the board of Livestrong, we are watching a very interesting test of just how much stress a brand’s customer experience can take before it breaks. 

I am often asked how many customer experiences a brand or business can have. In Lance Armstrong’s case, you could argue he has three specific customer experiences: 
  1. His dominant leadership as an athlete in the sport of cycling and impact on the sport and its participants 
  2. His leadership of the nonprofit organization Livestrong and its impact on peoples’ lives
  3. His status as an inspirational human spirit, who has risen above adversity and used his experience to make the world a better place
Right now it might seem likely that only one of those “brand of Lance” customer experiences will emerge unscathed. Love him or hate him, only time will tell whether any or all of these customer experiences will withstand the stress.

In the meantime, I see four early lessons that we can learn from as we watch the story unfold.

Lesson #1: A single touchpoint can’t necessarily kill a great experience
When the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Armstrong from professional cycling last August and declared all his wins since 1998 null and void, you might have expected a powerful hit to his personal brand. That didn’t happen. Not even close. Why? Because Armstrong’s commitment to the fight against cancer through his Livestrong Foundation is so strong, so real, that people are willing to look the other way. In fact, an “unscientific” Los Angeles Times poll had more Americans supporting Armstrong than questioning him before the recent news last week.

The numbers show his “customers” are supporting him - at least for now. Armstrong has 3.7 million followers on Twitter. His Livestrong brand is ubiquitous online - and off. The Livestrong Facebook page has more than 1.6 million fans. Clearly, Armstrong’s brand has grown beyond cycling, as I noted above - and he still has fans, despite the allegations against him.

Here’s an example through a personal story. I have been honored to chair the board for Community Health Charities of America, and a colleague and now friend there has battled cancer himself. Bill is an inspiration to me for many reasons, including his recent finish of a half Ironman race. When talking about Armstrong, he’s quick to defend him. Armstrong’s story, told through his books and Livestrong work, has been such a big inspiration to him in his own fight against cancer. For him, the doping allegations are a single part of his Lance Armstrong experience, one that affected, but still has not destroyed, Bill’s potent and positive perceptions.

Lesson #2: You can’t separate the tangible from the emotional
Just like any brand, the Armstrong experience has tangible elements - his Tour de France wins, the books he’s published, the events he led to support the racing community for many years. He has emotional, or intangible, qualities as well: he’s determined, consistent, inspiring. Those are two very separate things, right? But, from a customer experience point of view, it doesn’t really matter. We can mentally sort them into two buckets, but psychologically we can’t make them into two experiences. It’s all one experience. You might choose to ignore the doping allegations, but you can’t separate them from the entire experience Armstrong provides. Lance Armstrong’s brand encompasses his tangible and intangible qualities and his promise as both a star athlete who overcame great odds and is the founder of Livestrong.

You just can’t separate the tangible from the intangible. This is why my friend Bill still has a positive experience in spite of the doping allegations. And it’s why, when I hear “It’s not the product; it’s the experience that’s the problem,” I know that’s only half right.

Lesson #3: You can violate a touchpoint, but you can’t violate key principles
Every organization and customer experience has “defining principles” - those principles that say a lot about what your organization stands for and who you are as a brand. For Armstrong, those principles might be qualities and concepts like “performance,” “determination,” and “commitment.” Has he violated those? I don’t think so. Now, did Armstrong make a mess of certain parts of his “customer experience” with the doping allegations and challenging those allegations over the years? Absolutely. But for at least some, those don’t necessarily touch on the key principles of his customer experience. As a result, I’ll bet some, if not many, will be willing to look past that. They will  focus on his determination to beat cancer - and help others do the same. They’re willing to focus on his commitment to a cause he cares so deeply about. That’s what matters to people. That’s what should matter to your organization - and your customers. What are the 3 or 4 principles or defining factors of your organization’s customer experience?

Lesson #4: A customer’s perception always wins
I’ve worked for and with many organizations and brands over the years. Small and large. And, for some of them, one theme I continue to hear is this: “We need to stay ‘on brand.’” That’s fine, and I understand what leaders mean by this, but here’s the thing: No one cares about being “on brand” but you. All that your customers care about is if, and how well, you solve the needs that trigger their journey to you. It’s all about the customer’s point of view. In Armstrong’s case, he’s certainly had some bad press over the years, but so far, it has affected his standings and his funders more than his “customers.” Like Tiger Wood’s customers, or Bill Clinton’s or even British Petroleum’s, who largely stayed engaged after terrible missteps, I wonder if Lance Armstrong is another test for how much a customer experience can take before it breaks. I imagine that for at least the last of the three needs he solves as I listed above, his customers will still support him - and his fight against cancer. They will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him as he continues this ongoing battle to find a cure.

Those are four lessons that I’ve learned from Armstrong over the years and that I’m watching now. What about you? Any customer experience lessons we can learn from the Livestrong founder?

Linda Ireland is a partner at Aveus, a global strategy and operational change firm based in St. Paul, MN. Linda also blogs at Customer Experience For Profit, and you can find her on Twitter at @LindaIreland.

Note: Photo courtesy of Cain and Todd Benson via FlickR Creative Commons.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting perspective. As a cyclist here in Britain his reputation was pretty much gone long ago, as people largely suspect he had achieved his success through doping. The USADA report merely confirmed those suspicions.

    I can't confirm how he's regarded by the cancer community here, but in the cycling community his reputation couldn't get any lower.

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    1. Adi, thanks for reading and for commenting. I appreciate the perspective on this topic from someone outside of the US.

      Annette :-)

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