Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Power of Words

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Have you ever wondered if communication is really that important to your business?

Let me just say: I hope that question never crossed/crosses your mind. Without a doubt, it's important to both the customer experience and the employee experience - and to building solid relationships with both constituencies.

Communication has three components: talking, listening, and hearing. Yes, listening and hearing are different, as I mentioned in this post. Hearing what is said is as important as saying what is said. When you talk, make it easy for customers to listen and to hear.

I started to think about the qualities of effective business communication; I came up with just a short list of how companies must tell customers about the brand and its products, services, issue resolution, etc. Their communications must be...
  • Clear
  • Timely
  • Honest
  • Relevant
  • Facts-Driven
  • Accurate
  • Easily Understood
Then I found this video, which got me thinking about the "Power of Words."

What if you wrote or said the same thing but with different words?

Perhaps the real qualities are slightly less rigid.  While the above qualities still apply, in order to effectively communicate and to convey the right message, businesses must, most importantly...
  • Make it easy to listen
  • Say what they mean
  • Mean what they say
  • Be empathetic 
  • Tell a story
  • Solve a problem
If you want customers to both listen and hear, make the story you're telling be about them. Tell them what you are doing for them, which of their problems your products solve, what jobs your services do for them, what value you will add to their lives.

Words are powerful. Are you using the right words?

The problem with words is that too many of them say the wrong things. -Torley

Friday, July 26, 2013

14 Ways to Protect Your Brand

Image courtesy of e-magic
This is the final installment of my thoughts on the Starbucks experience and the issues that are leading to inconsistencies from store to store.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I believe the inconsistencies stem from licensing the brand and losing control of the experience as a result. What I need to do for you in this post is make some recommendations on how companies can close that gap between the corporate customer experience and the licensed store customer experience - for a more cohesive brand experience. What needs to happen between agreement signature and experience delivery?

Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, said: "We have no patent on anything we do and anything we do can be copied by anyone else. But you can't copy the heart and the soul and the conscience of the company."

Let's figure out if that's possible. I think the heart, soul, and conscience of Starbucks is (part of) what people love about the brand. How can that be copied by its licensees, since that seems to be where the issues lie.

What follows are my thoughts on how Starbucks and other (retail) licensors can protect their brands and the customer experience; remember, the experience is your brand. (These apply to franchisors, as well, although with their underlying operations support structure, franchisors should technically already be doing some of these things.)

1. Choose your partners wisely.  I've written about this before; I think you have a responsibility to your customers to vet your partners (that includes licensees and franchisees) thoroughly. And that doesn't just mean from a financially-sound perspective. On one hand, licensees and franchisees are looking for top, established brands from which they can make "easy money," i.e., don't have to invest sweat equity into years and years of building their own brands, but those top brands didn't get where they are easily and need the licensees' cooperation to keep the brand intact. On the other hand, licensors want to grow and spread their experience (remember, Starbucks said they "enter into licensing arrangements to provide the Starbucks Experience" in various locations) but need to do so wisely.

Choosing partners wisely means that you find someone who is proud to represent your brand and is willing to uphold the brand standards that you spell out for them. Partners must honor your commitments (service, product, and experience-wise) to your customers.

2. Create a formal Brand Steward position. Companies usually have this as an informal position, but in a licensing situation, I think it must be a more formal role. Maybe some organizations in licensor/franchisor business models have this type of a role already, but if they do, I don't see it working. (Think governance similar to what you would have in a corporate Customer Experience organization, but it must spread to, and include representation from, the licensees). The position must be clearly defined and needs to ensure the next several recommendations are woven through the agreements and the organization as a whole.

3. Listen to customers. In licensor/franchisor models, I think listening to the voice of the customer is critically important, maybe even moreso than in a corporate model. Customers are your "in-house reporters" and can let you know what's happening at store locations faster than you can visit all 15,000 of them.

4. Mystery shop your licensees' locations. OK, like I said, you can't visit 15,000 of them, but you can certainly visit some. And the ones you can't visit, hire someone to shop for you. What are you seeing? What's the experience like?

5. And listen to employees. First, learn about their experiences, but then also hear what they are observing about the customer experience. They are your best source of information; they hear it all. Unsure about whether you want to (or should) hear from your licensees' employees? Check out the forums at ihatestarbucks.com to hear from both customers and employees. Know what employees of Starbucks that are located in Target stores call the brand? Tarbucks! Ugh.

Don't think licensees or franchisees will agree to that?

6. Put requirements into your licensing agreements around VOC and VOE. After all, it's your brand. You can protect it however you see fit. If the licensee doesn't agree, then perhaps they're not a partner for you.

Still not sure?

7. Add SLAs (service level agreements) to your licensing agreements. Each location must uphold a certain customer satisfaction score, NPS, employee satisfaction score, etc., and if a location doesn't, it gets a warning and can potentially lose the license. Crazy? I don't think so. Not if you want to protect your brand.

I think you need to set the same types of expectations with licensees about your brand as you would with franchisees or to your own corporate stores. While licensees don't have the same marketing and systems support as franchisees, remember this: it's your brand!

8. Ensure consistency across the organization in terms of tools for both customers and employees. Trenta cups and mobile payment readers, anyone? Sounds simple, right? Apparently not at Starbucks. If the licensee doesn't want to order/use Trenta cups, then that's not a licensee for you. Sounds ludicrous? Not if you care about your customers.

9. Ensure that you provide the right training to your licensees. What's your brand promise? They need to know it. If your objective is to bring the Starbucks Experience to more locations, then train licensees on what that experience is/means. And, again, provide the tools to deliver on it.

10. Provide some hiring and culture guidelines to licensees. No, you can't run their businesses, but you can protect your brand. And to do so, you can provide some guidelines to set up the licensee for success.

11. In the same vein, outline some employee onboarding procedures. That means, provide some training documents and messaging around the brand promise, what it means to be a part of the Starbucks family, what the Starbucks Experience is, etc. The framework for a great employee experience and, hence, a great customer experience begins with onboarding and training.

12. Ongoing communication between licensor and licensee is critical. License-and-go is not a good plan. License, observe, communicate, update, and engage is a much better approach.

Define what your brand stands for, its core values and tone of voice, and then communicate consistently in those terms. -Simon Mainwaring

13. Be true partners. I know, this one might be extreme, but when you're working through product and service innovations or looking for new ideas, engage your partners/licensees. They are feet on the ground, as well, and can provide insights into customer needs and the overall experience.

And finally...

14. Mutual trust is essential. When there is trust on both sides of the equation, i.e., the licensor trusts the licensee to act in the best interest of the brand and the licensee believes the licensor will act in the best interest of its partners, great things can happen.

Having said that, just remember two things:
  1. No one cares about your brand as much as you do. License agreements are flexible and can be molded to fit your brand's needs. So choose partners wisely, and set both yourself and your partners up for (customer experience) success.
  2. Your customer doesn't know the difference between corporate, licensed, or franchised stores. They know the brand. And they know what they expect of the brand.
Am I wrong here? What would you suggest for Starbucks? If you work for a company that operates on this licensed model, how are you ensuring that your customer experience is consistent across stores and that your brand is protected? How many of these items do you have in place across the entire organization (corporate and licensed)?

A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well. -Jeff Bezos

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Is Your Customer Experience a Trade Secret?

Image courtesy of Marek Ślusarczyk
Last Tuesday, I wrote about my love for Starbucks while yearning for a consistent experience from store to store. Today, I drill down a bit into the root cause of these inconsistencies.

First a quick update: Despite the many tweets and shares across social media, I never heard from Starbucks. (Compare that to my posts about the American Airlines rebrand, when American's social media team followed up with me in some detail.) I did, however, hear from some former Starbucks employees.

OK, on to the story at hand. As I mentioned in the original post, I believe the issue lies with Starbucks' licensed stores. Some people have referred to them as franchised stores, but they are not; they are clearly licensed stores. Starbucks licenses the brand name (any time you visit stores in airports, grocery stores, hotels, Targets, universities, etc., you are in licensed stores) as opposed to franchising, though they state on their site that they offer limited franchise opportunities; however, it does franchise Seattle's Best. More than a third of Starbucks' stores are licensed stores - a good chunk of them are in my neighborhood!

So what does that all mean? There are differences between licensing and franchising, and I thought it would be interesting to look at those differences. In my next post, I'll compare those back to the corporate model and close the loop on the Starbucks story.

Regarding licensing, according to the Houston Chronicle's Small Business section (bold is mine):

"... businesses sometimes grant other organizations licenses to give them permission to use their intellectual property. A license is a contract through which one party grants another permission to use its patents, trademarks, copyrights, designs or trade secrets. The organization receiving the license, or licensee, compensates the licensor by paying a flat fee, royalties or a combination of the two. The agreement does not transfer ownership of the intellectual property. By licensing to third parties, small business owners can expand their businesses' reach and grow sales without having to invest in new locations or distribution networks, and risking failure."

On the contrary, from the same source, franchising is explained as (bold is mine):

"Franchising grows a business in a similar way but the franchising party or franchisor gives the franchisee permission to not only use its intellectual property but also its operating system. In addition to their trademarks, franchisees often use franchisors' distribution systems and marketing campaigns to sell the franchisors' products or services. In return, the franchisee usually pays the franchisor an upfront fee, royalties, and sometimes even a monthly or annual fee. Like licensing, franchising can help a small business grow rapidly and, although it requires more set-up and investment than a pure licensing deal, franchising remains considerably more affordable than opening new locations."

So, licensees get to use patents, trademarks, copyrights, designs, and trade secrets, while franchisees are handed the keys to the kingdom and are supported by the underlying operating systems to support the franchisee in a successful business venture.

Licensees get trade secrets. Can we equate the corporate customer experience formula to a trade secret? Or are the only trade secrets that Starbucks hands to licensees related to how to make the drinks (even though there are quality inconsistencies there, too)?
 Starbucks explains on their website (bold is mine): "Licensed stores are Starbucks stores that offer great coffee, tea and customer service; however, they are owned and managed by a licensee. Starbucks enters into licensing arrangements to provide the Starbucks Experience in locations including local department stores, hotels and resorts, college and university campuses, hospitals, casinos, airports, grocery stores and other locations."
Hmmm... that second statement in bold is the one that they're falling flat on. I think they can aspire to that, but given the definition of a licensing arrangement (and as evidenced by reality), that's about all they can do. So therein lies the problem. And the solution lies somewhere between the arrangement and the delivery. (OK, trying not to give away my next post just yet.)

Back to the franchise model. Franchisees get full operating support, and that includes marketing, software, back office, training, etc. Does that give them a leg up? It ought to. Would this have been a better approach for Starbucks - so that they could better protect their brand?

Again from the Houston Chronicle's Small Business section (bold is mine): "In a licensing agreement though, the licensor usually does not retain much control over how the licensee may operate. Unless otherwise specified, licensees can use the licensed property in whichever way they choose. Over the life of the agreement, which also tends to not last as long as a franchising relationship, licensees operate virtually independent from their licensors. Licensors in turn provide little if any support to licensees.

Franchisors on the other hand, maintain significant control over how a franchisee operates. How its intellectual property is used and how its products or services are delivered is often dictated by the franchisor. At times, franchisors even set requirements on price. In exchange, franchisors also offer more support to franchisees in the way of training, site selection and marketing.

From the customer experience perspective, it would seem that the franchise model is better set up for success, where success = consistency across the brand. In theory. In theory. Note that I have worked with a few franchisors in the past, and I can dispel that theory.

My experience doesn't mean all franchises are like that, but it sure makes me ask: Are either of these business models prepared to answer these two very important questions, which go hand in hand:
  1. How do you protect your brand?
  2. What are you doing to ensure that a consistent experience is delivered across all stores?
Based on what I've heard, seen, and read, neither model is foolproof. Which business model is best? Purely on the theory of which should provide the most-consistent customer experience, I would have to say the franchise model. Franchisees are supported by tools and systems that should create that consistency; on the other hand, licensees license the name and can do what they want after that (in simple terms).

I know I sidetracked a bit here by talking about the two models, but I think there's an important point here: regardless of which model you choose, or even if you don't choose either model, your customers have expectations. The brand is the (sets those) expectations. You must protect it at all costs. And by the way, your customers know your brand - they don't care about your business model. They care about the experience they (know they) are going to get when they enter an establishment with your name over the door.

Are there any brand police around for either model? Certainly for the franchise model, since they are supported by marketing tools and other systems, but it doesn't seem like it's as clear cut for licensees. Think about licensing the Superman logo for t-shirts and posters; that's essentially what Starbucks is doing, right? (OK, I'm over-simplifying.) But for such an iconic and respected (dare I say "cult") brand that should be the poster child for the customer experience - shame on Starbucks for not caring that licensees drag their brand into the mud. How are they protecting the Starbucks Experience?

Seth Godin defines brand as: "... the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer. A brand's value is merely the sum total of how much extra people will pay, or how often they choose, the expectations, memories, stories and relationships of one brand over the alternatives."

In my next post, I'll get away from this business model talk and take it back to where this conversation belongs: on the customer experience. In the meantime, here are some interesting quotes from Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks... the last two are my favorite and the most relevant.

"To be an enduring, great company, you have to build a mechanism for preventing or solving problems that will long outlast any one individual leader."

"We believed very early on that people's interaction with the Starbucks experience was going to determine the success of the brand."

"We have no patent on anything we do and anything we do can be copied by anyone else. But you can't copy the heart and the soul and the conscience of the company."

"We look at the brand not as a piece of advertising but everything we do communicates who Starbucks is. The place, the physical environment really has become an extension of the brand and it's very important to the success of the company."

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Consumer Catastrophe^2

Today I'm pleased to bring you another guest post by Sarah Simon

In the afternoon of the 11th of June 2013, the moment my neighbors and I all feared became reality: A wildland fire had broken out on the western edge of the Black Forest, our semi-rural community of horse properties and wooded large-acreage lots northeast of Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.  It was an unusually hot, sunny, and breezy day.  Whipped by strong winds from the western mountains, the fire roared eastward greedily consuming grass and trees in its way - and, we all knew deep down in our guts - cars, homes, and memories…perhaps even lives.

Two neighbors drove up my driveway, one in an ATV, pointing to the smoke plume to the west, telling me to get the *#@! out!  I knew this was my chance to grab my most cherished belongings, load my three big dogs in the Jeep, and leave.  I had 40 minutes to haphazardly decide what I needed and what I could live without and leave behind the home I had worked so hard for.

[Image to the left: A horror repeated thousands of times in my community: A parting glimpse of my home, the sky darkened by encroaching smoke]

Pulling down my driveway, my neighborhood was filling with smoke like Halloween haunted house dry ice.  I knew I made the right decision for my personal safety by leaving promptly but was haunted by the notion that I likely had seen my house and most of my personal possessions for the last time.  Driving along the Palmer Divide toward I-25 to evacuate, I turned to view the smoke plume consuming my community.  I couldn’t handle what I saw, nothing I had experienced in my life could possibly steel my emotions for this…I pulled my Jeep to the side of a narrow 2-lane blacktop and cried.

I spent a week under forced evacuation notice, unable to return to my own: Sheriff’s deputies, fire crews and National Guard Humvees blocked my way.  Day after day, I hoped for some status update on my home, and stress of worrying was at times all-consuming.  Homes all around mine were burned and a house 2-doors down leveled by the flames, but I returned to an intact home – amazingly – without so much as a blade of grass scorched.

[Image to left: The Black Forest Fire smoke plume races eastward, engulfing trees, grass, property and lives.]

Many neighbors, however, were not so lucky.  Two residents of my community lost their lives.  Nearly 15,000 acres burned, and taxable property loss is estimated above $85 million.  In all, nearly 500 homes were completely destroyed in the blaze.  These weren’t just structures ruined but people’s lives turned completely and irrevocably upside down.  Roofs, walls, floors can be replaced.  But mementos, photos, collections…these things never return.  I held in my arms my neighbor who suffered unimaginable loss; no words could possibly comfort.  A friend of mine who survived war and internment in the former Yugoslavia described the appearance of the primary road approaching my home as “World War III.”

My story is far from unique and was, in fact, repeated over and over.  At the height of the fire, nearly 40,000 residents were evacuated from their homes, and the impact of this fire were felt far and wide. 

Tales of heroism and selflessness began to flood Twitter and local news sources.  But so, sadly, did darker stories: looting of abandoned residences and stealing from the cars of evacuated families.  One story in particular spread as fast as the flames of the fire: Resident Jeremy Beach, who lost his home to the inferno, contacted his utility providers to shut off services.  Many were sympathetic, but not DirecTV, which promptly ordered Mr. Beach to immediately pay $400.00 to compensate them for the satellite dish that was burned beside his destroyed home.

The Twitter storm that followed consumed DirecTV in some very negative PR.  Here was a community struggling to hold itself together, and one utility provider is jabbing fire victims right in the eye.  To lose nearly everything you own, then have a disembodied voice from an air conditioned office tell you to pay up “or else” is not going to enhance the customer experience one bit.

While DirecTV came around and apologized to Mr. Beach, admitting they made a mistake and forgiving the fee, the damage to their relationship with this customer and his sympathizers had already been done.  I get it: DirecTV is in business to make money, not to donate goods and services.  Still, their decision to coldly demand money from a shell-shocked fire victim resonated with the community as clueless, heartless, and tone-deaf.

 [Image above: Don’t be the company sticking your hand in this family’s face demanding money and adherence to rigid policies.]

Here are some lessons your company can take away from this fiasco:
  • Resist False Economization: What is $400 really worth to you; is it worth the loss of one customer, or several?  Even if half of the 500+/- homes in the area had destroyed company property, are you willing to fight tooth and nail against victims of natural disaster for $100,000 when the damage to the relationship with your customer base comes at a much greater price?  Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish with your customers, the most lucrative asset to your business.
  • Value Public Relations - good reputation is worth its weight in gold:  Good will can take years to establish but only hours to destroy.  In a natural disaster or similar event, align yourself with the angels, not the pirates, devils, scoundrels, and thieves.
  • Respect the Authority of the Modern Consumer: Communities of consumers will talk, they will rally, and your company will suffer for playing the Big Bad Wolf when the chips are down.  During this event, social media was certainly a star communications player, but with neighbors meeting in shelters, churches, coffee houses, and civic centers, this was no time for a company to play Bad Guy.
  • Be Informed:  Stay abreast of current events that impact your customer base, clear down to the local level.  DirecTV had zero excuse for being uninformed about the Black Forest Fire.  At least three vendors of mine (telco, waste management, and milk delivery) proactively contacted me acknowledging the disruption of the fire and extending sympathy and even concessions (e.g., grace periods on payments).  While DirecTV was busy burning bridges, these companies were earning the good will, admiration, loyalty, and appreciation of their customers.
  • Be Flexible: Don’t let rigid policy and dogmatic thinking get in the way of compassion for the customer.  Consider some alternatives to sticking hard and fast to policy – maybe a 6-month grace period or a meet-us-halfway cost sharing would have been more appropriate in this “burned satellite dish” situation.  Ensure this emergency plan is communicated to all staff, and keep these contingency plans on the books for the next time chaos strikes your customer base.
  • Have Some Sympathy: Emotions run high during natural disasters, and customer’s lives are spun into craziness.  When times get this tough, be the supportive company, the vendor that takes the high road, a community contributor, not the bumbling idiot or cold-hearted corporate robot.
Catastrophes happen – natural disasters, political uprisings, terrorism events.  In this era of customer-centricity, your company cannot afford to further contribute to the misery of your customers impacted by these events.  Today’s customer wields power like never before to demand companies live up to increasingly high expectations.  Emergencies like the Black Forest Fire etch memories on a person’s mind that last a lifetime, and you can’t afford to be the company that deepens a consumer catastrophe.  Seize such rare opportunities to put your best foot forward and show your customer just how much you value them.  It’s good business to be a good neighbor.

Sarah Simon is a career insights professional with 16 years of experience in the feedback industry. Specialties include VoC architecture, journey mapping, developing linkages to business performance, reduction of customer defection, results analysis and communication, with expert survey design skills.  She is the survivor of a botched early-generation "big data mining" operation and is happy to live to tell about it. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Starbucks, I Love You But...

Image courtesy of nunnun
I love Starbucks, but Starbucks annoys me, too. Do you have that kind of love/hate relationship with the brand?

I enjoy going to Starbucks for the many reasons that you probably do, including the friendly staff and the inviting environment.

But here's where the problems arise: I think they have consistency issues. And consistency is a key component of the customer experience. It sets expectations and creates predictability. And guess what that leads to? Trust.

I've said it before: Consistency breeds predictability and trust, and trust breeds loyalty. You just know what to expect. You feel good about it. And you'll do all the things loyal customers do.

So, as my mom would say: I have a bone to pick with you, Starbucks.

You see, I have a lot of options when it comes to Starbucks locations. (This is not a news flash to anyone.) Between my house and the gym, which is 7 minutes away, I have five locations to choose from! Two are freestanding; two are in grocery stores; and one is in Target. (The freestanding stores are corporate stores, while the others are licensed stores.) So, as you can imagine - and I think it's a fair assumption - I have expectations that each of these locations will offer me the same experience.

Not so. 

Bear in mind that I'm a creature of habit when I go to Starbucks, probably not unlike many/most customers. In the cooler winter months, there's a specific hot drink that I order, and in the warmer months, I get either iced tea or iced coffee. Trenta.

I have a Gold Card, and I use the Starbucks mobile app. I have Starbucks cups and coffee mugs at home. I brew both Starbucks and Seattle's Best at home. Am I a One Percenter? No, but I'm a fan.

Here's what I've observed. 
  • I can get a Trenta drink size in some stores, but not in all of them.
  • Unless I go to the freestanding stores, I cannot use the mobile app to pay. (Nine times out of 10, I'm not buying my drink in a freestanding store). There's a sign posted at one of the locations that says, "We're waiting for the software upgrade so that you can pay with the mobile app." It's been there for six months now. I can, however, use my Gold Card.
  • When I've earned enough stars for a free drink, I can show the barista my phone to prove that I have a free drink but it feels icky (yes, very technical CX term) knowing that it's not removed from my account or marked as used. (I've not abused that at all, but there are probably others who might be fine with doing that.)  
  • Even though I'm notified that the reward is on my Gold Card, swiping my card doesn't remove it from my card or apply it to my purchase.
  • Coupon codes that I get via email or on the app cannot be redeemed in stores that are not freestanding.
  • The quality of their drinks varies from store to store, barista to barista. 
  • And so does the pricing. A barista asked me on Saturday, "How much do they usually charge you for that drink?"
I believe the issue lies with the stores that are not freestanding. But here's the thing: The sign above the counters say "Starbucks." The employees wear the green aprons. And by all other accounts, they  sure look like Starbucks. So what gives? The experience from store to store ought to be seamless.

Starbucks' brand promise is to provide the highest quality coffee, exceptional customer service, and a truly uplifting Starbucks Experience - around the world.

If only it just rang true in my neighborhood.

For the most part, I think they are living up to their brand promise - just not consistently. And that's the problem. That's not good enough. It needs to be every day, every location, every transaction.

Are you living your brand promise at every touchpoint? Have you observed your customer experience across channels, across locations, across employees, across partners. Is it consistent? Are you losing customers because it's not?

The hardest thing about skateboarding is consistency: The slightest flick of your foot or gust of wind can send your board flying, so it's really anybody's game out there. -Shaun White

Friday, July 12, 2013

Nostalgia: Creating Memories or Making Noise?

Image courtesy of In A Gorilla Costume
Nothing is more synonymous with summer than ice cream! And that means ice cream trucks and that wonderful jingle that lets us know that the ice cream truck is on its way or has arrived. 

In the last week or so, in Long Beach, CA, residents have been complaining that the lovely jingle of summer is a nuisance. And so the City Council has listened to its constituents and is threatening to silence the trucks - not for good, though they will likely be placing restrictions on when or how long the music can be played.

What does that have to do with customer experience?

I started thinking about the nostalgia of ice cream trucks, how the thought of them takes me back to my childhood. It got me thinking about memorable things, which led me to think about memorable experiences, and well, you get the picture.

Let me spell it out a bit more clearly.

What are some of the attributes of a great experience? As I wrote previously, I believe great customer experiences are built on trust but are also personalized, memorable, remarkable, and consistent. I also think there's an emotional component, and that's where nostalgia comes in to play. I'm adding "nostalgic" to my list of descriptors of a great customer experience. Read on to find out why.

As defined on Wikipedia, "nostalgia describes a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations."

Isn't that what we're trying to achieve as we focus on customers and the customer experience: a place (or brand) with happy personal associations? The emotions elicited by that association, that happy place, are what brands are trying to achieve and build on.

To delve further into the concept of nostalgia, I found some interesting research published just this week (though the research has been ongoing for a decade by dozens of researchers around the world) that ties nostalgia in nicely with delivering a great customer experience.

Research by the University of Southampton tells us (bold is mine): "Nostalgia confers psychological benefits. When engaging in nostalgic reflection, people report a stronger sense of belongingness, affiliation, or sociality; they convey higher continuity between their past and their present; they describe their lives as more meaningful; and they often indicate higher levels of self-esteem and positive mood."

Customers buy from brands with which they align. When customers are aligned with your purpose, there is a sense of belonging, affiliation, or sociality. Couldn't have said it better myself.

From Scientific American, one of the collaborators, Clay Routledge, wrote:

"Nostalgia, compared to control conditions, does not increase negative emotions, but it does increase positive emotions. As I mentioned before, nostalgic experiences tend to be characterized as positive and this feature of nostalgia appears to translate into actual mood. When nostalgia is induced in the lab, it puts people in a good mood. In other words, thinking about cherished experiences from the past makes people feel good in the present."

"Nostalgia, compared to control conditions, increases perceptions of social connectedness. Again, as previously mentioned, nostalgic experiences tend to be highly social in nature. The consequence of this is that nostalgia makes people feel closer to others. Nostalgia reminds people that they are loved and valued by close others."

Tying back to the ice cream truck jingle, a New York Times article about this nostalgia research states: "A quick way to induce nostalgia is through music, which has become a favorite tool of researchers. In an experiment in the Netherlands, Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University and colleagues found that listening to songs made people feel not only nostalgic but also warmer physically."

The article further went on to say: “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function. It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives."

What are you doing to create experiences that will become nostalgic to your customers in the future? Or elicit the same emotions and alignment that nostalgia does? Is that possible?

"Emotions" is the new "it word" in customer experience. I've heard it more often at conferences and during webinars in the last few months than I have in my 20+ years in this line of work. But I don't disagree with it; it's a word we'll hear more and more as we come up with new ways to both understand customers and create those personal connections - connections that create a bond and a level of commitment that has customers returning to purchase again and sending friends.

How can we deliver an experience that evokes the kinds of emotions - those happy memories - that hearing an ice cream truck's jingle does? The music is a calling card, alerting children that the ice cream truck is on its way. Do you have a similar calling card that takes customers to their happy places? If yes, what would happen if it was taken away?

I'll leave you with an ice cream truck video to ponder that thought...

The "what should be" never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no "what
should be," there is only what is
. -Lenny Bruce

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Honesty is the Secret to Success

Image courtesy of wbeem
Today I'm pleased to share a guest post by Erin Osterhaus.

The success of an organization is closely related to an honest company culture. And here’s the proof:

A 2010 Corporate Executive Board study found that companies encouraging open and honest feedback among its employees experienced superior shareholder returns over a ten year period, outperforming others by 270 percent. In the study, from 1998 - 2008, companies with honest feedback among their staff. Impressive numbers, but do they hold up?

To find out, Fierce, Inc., a leadership consulting firm, conducted its own research. The firm surveyed over 1,400 executives and employees, finding that the vast majority - 99 percent - preferred a workplace where staff members were able to discuss issues truthfully.

Honesty may make a company a “happier” place to work, but the Fierce survey uncovered an even more important finding: 70 percent of respondents believed that a lack of candor impacted their organization’s ability to perform at its best. There were various reasons for this belief, among them the argument that small problems could be identified early on, arming managers with the information needed to make decisions.

But, unfortunately, a culture of open and honest feedback doesn’t occur organically. In a recent article on the Software Advice website, the CEO and President of Fierce, Halley Bock, provided four key tactics to improve your company’s communication and encourage open and honest feedback.
  1. Be Current and Brief. Resolve problems faster by addressing issues as soon as they arise.
  2. Don’t Sugarcoat the Issue. Don’t cushion confrontational situations with compliments or small talk; tell colleagues or employees what’s at stake, and review the steps required to address the issue together.
  3. Keep Positives and Negatives Separate. Focus only on the positive or negative when it is warranted, and don’t muddle the issues in a “compliment sandwich.”
  4. Use a Social Networking Approach. Enjoy higher employee morale, improved productivity, better retention, and increased bottom-line success through candid dialogues between managers, employees and coworkers.
These tips might not be easy to implement, but they’re well worth it. In the end, nurturing a workplace culture of honesty and open communication will not only increase the level of happiness your employees experience in the workplace but it may also increase your revenue. And what business wouldn’t want that?

Erin Osterhaus is the Managing Editor for Software Advice’s HR blog, The New Talent Times. She focuses on the HR market, offering advice to industry professionals on the best recruiting, talent management, and leadership techniques. Prior to joining Software Advice, Erin held various writing positions in the private, non-profit and government sectors. She holds a B.A. from Southwestern University in Spanish, French and German, and recently completed her M.A. from Georgetown University in International Affairs. When she's not writing about up-and-coming trends in the HR space, she's reading novels or traveling to exotic locations (or both).

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Most Important Two Feet in Business

Do you know what or where the most important two feet are in your business?

With a hat tip to my friend Stan Phelps and his concept of "the longest and hardest 9 inches in employee engagement," I thought I'd take a look at the toughest - yet most important - two feet in business.

Can you guess what or where they are?

If you guessed the two feet on your customers, you're right; they are the most important two feet in your business. After all, they are the reason you are in business, right?

The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer. -Peter Drucker

And they are the toughest two feet. Why? Because they have expectations for the types of experiences they'll have with your brand. If those expectations aren't met or if the experience is poor, they'll walk elsewhere.

Image courtesy of Theresa Thompson

Those two feet, they can vote. They can vote to stay or to come back again if they love what they see or experience, and they can vote to leave or to never return if they are wronged. They can vote to bring friends along the next time they shop, or they can vote to walk friends to a competitor's establishment.

The other day, I came across the Law of Two Feet from Harrison Owen, as outlined in his "Open Space Technology: A User's Guide," and while its original application had to do with meetings, I think it applies to the customer experience, as well:

If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

When the relationship is no longer mutually beneficial, when it's one-sided and opportunistic, customers use their two feet. They vote. They go shop somewhere else. What are you doing to ensure that potential, current, and future customers' two feet grace your doorway and continue to do so?


As you know, I believe that the employee experience precedes the customer experience. As such, the other two feet that are important to your business: your employees'. Employees have the same ability to vote with their feet. And when employees vote with their feet, that trickles out to your customers.

Our DNA is as a consumer company - for that individual customer who's voting thumbs up or thumbs down. That's who we think about. And we think that our job is to take responsibility for the complete user experience. And if it's not up to par, it's our fault, plain and simply. -Steve Jobs

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Is Your Customer Experience Something You’ve Experienced (as a Customer)?

Today I'm pleased to share another guest post by Micah Solomon.

If you haven’t yourself experienced the customer experience at your business, is it really wise to invite an unsuspecting public in? Can you assume, with any confidence, that they will enjoy something you’ve never tried yourself?

I’m always startled when businesses don’t work at finding out, firsthand, what it’s like to use their own service or product.

Of course, it’s easy to fail to use your own product or service: Separate employee entrance; separate employee parking; separate, streamlined login process on your website; separate everything.  Drive home at night, wash your hands, put work behind you. Until the next morning.

The photo below (from an otherwise very serviceable hotel, FWIW), shows the hazards of such oversights, in a very minor, non-life-threatening way.  Let me explain.

Precariously-leveled desk, low chair
High and precariously leveled hotel desk, low desk chair. As a guest hoping to work from my hotel room, I’ve hand-cranked the desk chair — which is a nice chair, thoughtfully provided by the hotel, if not actually a Miller Freeman Aeron chair, at least a serviceable “Ikea Freeman” knockoff — to  literally its highest possible level.  Yet even so, I am being asked by the combination of lowish seat and highish desk to type with my elbows. Which is the kind of acrobatic maneuver I’m not at all deft at.
As a guest hoping to work from my hotel room, I’ve hand-cranked the desk chair - which is a nice chair, thoughtfully provided by the hotel, if not actually a Miller Freeman Aeron chair, at least a serviceable “Ikea Freeman” knockoff - to literally its highest possible level. Yet even so, I am being asked by the combination of lowish seat and highish desk to type with my elbows. Which is the kind of acrobatic maneuver I’m not at all deft at.

More easily curable, but also, as the kids say, awkward: The desk - again, thoughtfully provided - was so wobbly that it took all the cardboard I could scavenge to prop it up to plumb. [See the lower l.h. corner of the photo.]

Both of these mismatches - table height to maximum chair height, desk instability to needs of guests, such as typing without spilling their water - would have been obvious if someone on the hotel team had tried, even once, to use the desk.

This, I argue, would beat hearing about it on TripAdvisor, wouldn’t it? Or more likely, never hearing about it. A fate that is probably even worse.

When I consult for a business on customer service and the customer experience, one of the first steps I take is to secret-shop the establishment. I’m pretty obsessive: A typical secret shopping report for, say, an excellent restaurant that wants to improve further, is some 35 pages of photos and text.

Such a report may seem excessive, and perhaps it is. But you should be trying at least a scaled-down version of shopping yourself, yourself.  As often as possible.


PS: To correct a misconception I’ve seen elsewhere: No, you don’t need everyone who works for you to necessarily be the target customer of your business. This is a misconception in the other direction, and obviously unworkable in many situations.  For example: While the five-star Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts company does permit employees to stay free–at any of their resorts, occupancy permitting (a policy which is brilliant for obvious reasons, including employee retention), this doesn’t mean that Four Seasons expects their employees to entirely channel the reality of their Bentley-driving median customer.  Likewise, you don’t have to be a skate punk to sell skateboard gear.  And so forth.  But you do need to have your eyes open.

This post was originally published on Micah's blog and is reprinted here with his permission.

Micah Solomon, author of "High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service," is the business keynote speaker, author, and customer service consultant termed by the Financial Post "a new guru of customer service excellence." Solomon offers speaking and consulting on customer service issues, the customer experience, and company culture - and how they fit into today’s marketing and technology landscape. An entrepreneur and business leader, he previously coauthored the bestselling "Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Watch Out for That Tree!

Image courtesy of Seraphine
What happens to the business when we get distracted?

I can tell you, as I'm writing this post at 3:28am on Sunday morning when I should be sleeping, that distractions are not a good thing. They keep you from doing the things you're supposed to be doing.

This holds true for business, as well. Distractions are toxic to your business. Your focal point is your purpose. Your purpose is your why. It's your reason for being. It's your reason for doing what you're doing. It points you in the right direction when competing ideas are spreading you too thin. It guides you if you get lost or distracted.

So what happens when we get distracted? This list ought to help encourage you to figure out how to remove those things that distract you daily.
  • You lose focus, of course.
  • You make mistakes. 
  • You don't finish what you started.
  • You don't do what you should be doing. 
  • You forget what you're doing or lose your place.
  • You forget why you're doing what you're doing.
  • You do things you shouldn't be doing.
  • Your purpose becomes diluted.
  • Your performance becomes inconsistent.
  • You don't hear what others are saying.
  • You miss what's right in front of you, the obvious.
  • You don't sleep well.
  • You repeat yourself.
  • You lose focus.
  • ...
Don't get distracted by shiny objects. Know your purpose, communicate it to the organization, and let that be your guiding light. Shiny objects might be sexy, but they aren't worthy of your immediate attention. They suck resources into doing things that detract from your purpose.

Everything you do, from hiring to designing your customer experience, will be aligned with this purpose. If you stray from your purpose, the business pays the price: your customers know it and typically walk away. Customers align with your purpose; when your purpose shifts or becomes fickle, customers lose interest and shift to another brand with which they better align.

In a nutshell, in business, if you become distracted, lose your focus, and/or try to be everything to everyone, you'll flounder; you'll lose your footing and your following. The business falters and fails. 

You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks. -Winston Churchill