In 1932, rear-admiral Harry E. Yarnell ran a simulation. He demonstrated that he could destroy Pearl Harbor through almost exactly the same tactics as the Japanese would use nine years later. His recommendations were dismissed. No one was considered crazy enough to launch an attack with so much self-inflicted material damage and casualties.
Since then, and especially since 9/11, the American army and government agencies like the CIA have tried to avoid being blindsided by their own prejudice. They do this by deploying Red Teams. These teams of elite soldiers and analysts are tasked to challenge existing strategies or security protocols To explore alternative futures/avenues that are out of scope for regular strategy makers.
Through army contractors, the technique has also become commonplace in the software security business. White-hat hackers strengthen IT systems by trying to gain access to sensitive client data, email communication and a client's innermost secrets.
I think that Red Teams should also become a standard practice in the world of customer experience. For as long as I can remember, CX winners have been the ones that were willing to break the rules. Today, these companies are called Airbnb, Amazon, Tesla. Not so long ago they were named Ikea, Nespresso, or even further back Polaroid.
With all the technological, demographic and environmental changes ahead of us, every industry will have its Amazon moment. The number of disruptors will only increase. The angles taken will only get more creative. While it is impossible to predict the customer experiences of the future, we can safely say that theys will be nothing like the one we know today. Waiting to see what happens, is asking for disintermediation or even obsolescence. Companies need to proactively challenge their customer experience beliefs and make sure they disrupt themselves, before someone else does. In other words, they’ll need a Red Team to go beyond traditional innovation efforts and instead really shake things up.
If you haven’t got a Red Team in your business, here is how you could get started:
Build a team of super-smart mavericks.
Red teaming is not for the average employee. In their hearts, red-teamers love to mess with the system. They love to look at corporate policies, industry habits or technologies and find ways to hack them. So look across your organisation for the wild ones. The mavericks. The rule breakers. The people that regularly come with customer ideas that are too wild or too disruptive to execute, but somehow still sound cool. They can be young recruits, or veterans in your business. They can be internally recruited, or independently contracted. As long as they are fast thinkers, understand teamwork, have a healthy disregard for (corporate) correctness and a penchant for mischief, you’re on the right path.
Give them a bold mission and no rules.
Red Teams perform best if they get big goals. Think about what your Pearl Harbor would look like. Identify the segment, market or core profit driver that would really hurt if it disappeared. Then tell your red team to find a way to steal it from your business. Or even make your whole company obsolete. Their goal should be nothing less than the total annihilation of your business.
If they are the right type of people, they may be slightly daunted by this task. But they will also be unable to resist the challenge. Especially once they understand that they have your permission to disregard any corporate rule, legacy method or industry habit. As long as what they come up with is legal, it's on the table.
Get out of their way.
In an ideal world, you give your Red Team some operating budget and take its members out of the business for 3 to 6 months. While continuing to have full access to all the information and know-how in your business, they are shielded from any operational or even strategic tasks. This keeps their mind clear of bias, and hundred percent focused on their task. It also minimises leaks of their thinking into the mainstream organisation. This avoids the rest of your employees getting too nervous about any wild ideas that bounce around.
In case isolation isn’t practical, or you would like to have multiple Red Teams competing in an effort to wake up your business, it can also work on a part-time basis. As long as it is clear that the moment they put on their Red Team hats, they forget about the rules which they apply in their regular job.
Organise yourself to really listen.
When they are ready to present their case, your Red Team will be in a very different place than you are. They have been looking at the world through different glasses and will have developed a team narrative and logic which may have nothing to do with the way your business works today. Inversely, your employees (you?) will be looking at life as it is supposed to be.
This will cause communication problems. Your Red Team may fail to make itself properly understood. The rest of the business may reject their ideas. Just like the people evaluating Admiral Yarnell’s simulation, they may be inclined to come up with reasons why a certain scenario would never happen. Especially if that scenario might threaten their own existence, or that of their department/business line.
You can safeguard against both traps by pulling in people who are used to considering wild ideas. This can be friendly venture capitalists or serial entrepreneurs that have made a living from breaking the rules. Have your red team pitch their ideas to these external judges, and only let them return to you, once they have them convinced they found the right angle. This will allow them to sharpen the pitch, and prepare for any questions or challenges that may be thrown at them. When they present their case, the story will be sound. Also, having been validated by external experts, will make it harder to dismiss.
Make sure the red team always wins
Red teaming is not a casual game. Toying with the technique as just another simulation may hold risks for both the team members as well as your organisation.
If they fail in their mission, the members of the team risk disappointment, or even public embarrassment. After all they are not just asked to come up with another innovation, but to seek & destroy. Not achieving this goal should therefore not be seen as failure, but actually as proof that with the current business is still robust. This needs celebrating.
Inversely, if they are successful and do come with a way to upend your business, you have to do something with this information. Once humans have seen a better way of doing something, all other methods seem inadequate. This will be the case for your Red Team too. They will have seen the future, and have a clear picture of the vulnerabilities of your business. If they are as smart as they should be, they won’t want to remain on a potentially sinking ship.
To keep them as part of your organisation (which by this time is highly advisable) you need to give them the opportunity to either help transform your existing business into the direction they created, or give them the space to strike out on their own (as a new venture for your business). If you decide to take the latter route, the relationship they have been able to develop with the venture capitalist/serial entrepreneur, may be helpful.
This last bit is probably the most delicate part to manage. But if the Red Team really finds clear vulnerabilities in the customer experience you offer, and inversely provides your business with a next level of growth, it may be one of the smarter investments you make.
In the context of the Customer Council as well as some other work that I’m doing, I am currently working on a Red Team format which members could apply to their business. If you’re interested in piloting the approach in your business, let me know. I promise to give you a sweet deal ;-).
Here are a few reading tips from the past week:
A lot of people in the NPS/VoC community are fond of benchmarks. Typically, these take the form of comparing scores to their competitors, or even companies outside the industry. If the score of the company’s own programme is higher than what can be observed in the market, the company gets to celebrate. If the score is below the market average, urgent action programmes are launched to prevent the demise of the business.
While there is business case to ensure that your Net Promoter or other score outperforms the competition, there is more to benchmarking than comparing numbers.
Here’s a few tips to help you check that your benchmarks are properly executed:
Remember: benchmarking is about more than numbers.
When conducting benchmarks, most companies look at the score. How is the business performing compared to the competition? But just like with your own Net Promoter or VOC programme, the score is consequence of your actions. If your biggest competitor scores 20 points above yourself, the key question isn’t the score differential, but the reason why the score differential exists.
Action: Every benchmarking program should ask respondents why competing brands scored the way they do and what these brands could do to improve their results. Comparing this data to your own, not only shows whether you are winning or losing the match. It also unearths opportunities to attack your competitors on the weaknesses and inversely, avoid their strengths.
Make sure you compare apples with apples
Benchmarking yourself against the competition assumes that the companies you select for comparison are indeed competitors. This means that they serve a similar set of clients than your own, with a similar value proposition/service. Change one of these two parameters, and the results may misguide you.
This realisation is both restrictive and expansive. It is restrictive, because in your own industry, you want to make sure that you do not compare yourself to the wrong competitors. For example, if you are Kia, it would make sense to look at the likes of Toyota, Honda, Seat and other brands in your category. You would probably be right to question the benefit of comparing yourself to BMW or Lexus.
However, it is also expansive. Today's customers compare experiences across brands and industries. So it is important to understand the experiences that make your customers recommend brands in other industries. Sooner or later, these customers will expect similar service levels from yourself. So in our hypothetical Kia case, fitness instructors and dentists suddenly enter the mix. After all, from a consumer’s perspective there is little difference between scheduling a dentist appointment dentist appointment or making an appointment to get their car serviced.
Action: Make sure you really pay attention to your competitive set, both within and outside of your industry. And if you’re not sure who to include/exclude, sit down with a number of your promoters and ask them. They’ll be happy to help.
Question your motives
Finally, before embarking or continuing some great benchmarking effort, you should question your motives. For many companies, the goal of benchmarking is that they want to be #1 in their industry. But what do you do once you reach that goal? If the number #1 CX player in your industry achieves a Net Promoter or other score of 63%, what number should you to aim for? Is the job done when you hit 65%? Should it be 70%?
Some of the VoC superstars that I know, are starting to challenge the goal of being #1 in the industry. One reason is that they find it increasingly difficult to motivate people to achieve even better experiences once the number #1 spot is achieved. But more importantly, they point out that a benchmark-based objective can distract people from the real goal: to profitably turn every customer into a promoter for the brand.
This isn’t just rhetoric, it’s hard business sense. Even if you’re #1 in your category, there will still be customers who can make you more money as promoters than it would cost to bring them to that point. Every opportunity you miss, is money you leave on the table.
Action: Before embarking or continuing any benchmark, ask yourself the question: What is my motive? If it is to check your performance and get inspired by competitive behaviour across industries, a benchmark can be a great tool. However, if there is a risk that a chase to be #1 turns into an objective which distracts, you should watch out. You may run the risk of being a one-eyed king in the land of the blind.
I hope you consider these tips useful.
Happy benchmarking 😃
We all want our customers to talk well about us and - if possible - act as ambassadors for our brand. But in spite of what many think, this goal is not achieved by merely offering great experiences, or aiming for high recommendation scores.
Being happy with a brand is not enough to make us talk about it. For example, I’m extremely happy with the dishwasher we bought a year ago. If asked, I'd happily score it a 10 on the recommendation scale. But I cannot recall any time at which I brought it up in conversation with any of my friends. From my perspective, it is great at washing the dishes, and that’s about the end of it.
The reason for this disconnect is that even the most extreme form of satisfaction is only a part of the puzzle. Even if they love you, most customers will only talk well about your brand if this enriches their conversations. In my case, dishwashers don't.
To structurally get happy customers to translate their intention to promote into action, you need to infuse your customer experience with ready-made stories that your customers can tell. In other words, you have to give them something worth talking about. This requires three components to be in place:
1. Something extra-ordinary needs to happen
I mean this very literal as something out of the ordinary. People can only talk about things they actually perceive, and no matter how hard you try, your regular customer experience will be expected and therefore unremarkable. That is why you need to script unexpected - and obviously positive - moments that kick customers out of autopilot mode, and into paying attention to the reasons your brand is so unique. Only by being remarkable, you can give them stories to tell.
2. The story needs to be self-affirming
Being remarkable is not enough. Any brand story will only make the conversational cut, if telling it makes customers feel good about themselves. For example: if I talk about the bio-branded tomatoes I buy from the organic store around the corner, I will always have a personal - often subconscious - agenda for doing so. This may be that I want to look good to my friends (look at me, I’m bio). That I want to help them (bio is good for you). That I want to help the guy running the organic store (he's really nice!). That I want to be environmentally friendly (bio will save the planet). Etcetera.
You need to address this by making sure that your customers are always the hero of the stories you want them to spread. As different customers have different motivations, this also means you may need more than one type of story.
3. The story needs to be easy to tell
Finally, your customers need words to talk about your brand. This may sound obvious, but it's not always easy to make conversation about a brand. At least not without sounding like an engineer, or a snob. Just think about it. Can you explain how that shiny new hybrid car saves you money? Or how those branded vitamin pills really help your body?
You need to give your customers a language to talk about your brand which doesn't require jargon or knowledge of your industry. Not by dumbing things down, but by using words and emotions that are relevant to their lives. That they can care about.
These three components still don't guarantee that the world starts talking about you. But they will surely get you on the way. At least IF your customers are so happy that they are willing to be your ambassadors.
If they're not, don't bother with anything I just wrote.
A couple of months ago, I decided to put myself on an intensive diet of books that would bring me back to the edge. In case you'd be in the mood for some mind-expanding reads, I thought I'd share some of the titles which really made an impact.
Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently by Beau Lotto
I met Beau at the Future of Storytelling in New York where he blew me away with some of his insights on human perception. Now they've been bundled into a cognitive toolkit that helps understand how humans perceive reality, and what to do with this knowledge.
The Futurica Trilogy by Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist
I was given this book by a friend and with 738 pages of small print I did feel a bit intimidated. But once I got going, I found myself immersed in one of the most relevant combinations of philosophy, sociology and futurology I ever read. Warning: the insights in this book will change your worldview.
Experience by Jones, Mather and Uchill
This collection of essays doesn't just investigate the different sensorial and cultural aspects of the way we humans experience. Its heat-sensitive cover, pheromone print and central web of spidery bookmarks also turn reading the book into an experience in its own right. It's not a light bedtime snack, but definitely worth the effort.
Technology vs. Humanity by Gerd Leonhard
How do we embrace technology without becoming it? Where do we draw the line? Technology vs. Humanity does a great job at thinking through the implications of our addiction to automate and and digitise everything. It also makes an excellent case that just because we can, it doesn't mean that we should.
Transmedia Storytelling: Narrative worlds, emerging technologies, and global audiences by UNSW Australia on Coursera
OK, technically this isn't a book, and I'll only start at the end of the month. But the line-up of instructors and topics looks really promising. Not just because of my love of storytelling. But also because I've got a growing suspicion that transmedia fiction techniques can provide many answers to the challenges of cross-channel CX design. But more about that at a later date!
Happy reading :-)
Here are some interesting articles from the past week:
No Net Promoter (or VoC) programme is complete without a “closed loop”. This is geek speak for following up and acting on customer feedback. But while many companies focus their efforts on bringing dissatisfied customers (aka. detractors) back to the happy zone, more is required to run a truly successful NPS programme. In fact, there’s a triple loop to be closed:
LOOP 1: PACIFYING DETRACTORS
This is the closed loop we all know and love. Whenever a customer scores us 0-6 on the Reichheld scale, alerts go off and actions get taken. First to make sure that the individual customer who had a bad experience stops being unhappy. Then, to ensure the business doesn’t make the same mistakes again. All of the above gets supported by systems, processes, KPI’s and mindset programmes that deeply embed this practice into the organisation. As detractor numbers go down, managers smile.
LOOP 2: DELIGHTING PASSIVES
The second loop asserts that pacifying detractors isn’t enough. Sure, it may provide some quick wins for boosting scores, but the Net Promoter philosophy isn’t about reducing the number of unhappy customers. It’s about turning people into promoters for the brand. A second alert level is required which - just like for detractors - triggers the organisation to action. This time not to stop the unhappiness, but to turn satisfied but otherwise indifferent customers (passives) into promoters. Individually, and structurally. In a way, it’s about creating a mindset, and a way of working that brutally raises the Net Promoter alert bar from 6 to 8.
LOOP 3: ACTIVATING PROMOTERS
Even when all customers are promoters, the work isn’t done. Business is about making money and the third loop focuses on monetising your Net Promoter programme’s results. It’s a third alert level that kicks into gear whenever customers score their experience 9 or 10. This focuses the business on the money. How can we make sure these customers buy everything they could sensibly buy from us? Can we leverage their recommendation through testimonials and introductions? Can we learn what we got right and leverage this throughout the business? And how can we achieve all the above, without annoying them?
The underlying process for each of these three loops is almost identical. Still, the mindset, skills and behaviours to make them a success couldn’t be more different. The first, is about operational improvement. The second about building meaningful and differentiated experiences. The third focuses on sensibly capturing the value of promoters. As individuals, but also as a group.
Taken together, they constitute a triple closed loop programme that listens to 100% of the customer feedback you receive and ensures that all parts of the business are involved in acting on what customers say.
Have you got them all in place?
Another set of interesting articles I came across in the past week:
As quite a few people are asking me what I'm up to, I think it's time for a once-in-a-blue-moon personal update.
Over the past 6 months I have been doing a controlled exit from my executive obligations in Futurelab. As a shareholder, I still care about the well-being of the business, and I will - on occasion - continue to contribute to projects. But after a decade of playing in a band, I thought it was time for a solo album (or 2, 3, ...).
While it will probably take me another 6 months to truly find my new stride, it already turned out to be a life-changing move. Re-starting from scratch, and without an infrastructure, brings quite a few organisational, commercial and financial challenges. But it also brings the freedom to selfishly focus on some of the things which have been lying in my cupboard for way too long. In fact, they've got me pumped to a degree that I haven't been in a while.
So, what am I up to? Broadly, my activities fall into three categories.
I GET TO WRITE AGAIN!
Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of working on some of the most challenging customer experience projects on the planet.
I am currently capturing everything I learned from this in a total Customer Fitness Programme (aptly titled: Customerfit 😃). This provides companies with a full overview of their customer experience management capabilities as well as a series of practical workouts to improve them.
Over the past 6 months, the Customerfit model and its accompanying assessment have been beta-tested by over 150 executives in 40+ countries. After all this customer feedback, I’m proud to say that the final version I’m about to release is rock solid. And as I’m told no model should exist without a book to promote it, I’m working on that too (but that will be for later in the year :-).
I'M PILOTING A NEW INITIATIVE
My closer contacts know this as "the project Alain has been talking about for years, but never seems to get round to". For the rest of the world, the Customer Council is a customer experience accelerator aimed at building prototypes and visualisations of next generation customer practices and concept experiences.
It's a bold project, which - to succeed - requires the support of corporate visionaries that are ready to work on the customer experiences of 2020 and 2025. Whether I'll find these people, the future will tell as we're currently in full pitching and business development mode. But the signs are good: the Customer Council has already received very kind support from the folks at InSites Consulting and Confirmit. More interesting names are on the way.
If you want to know more: check out www.customercouncil.eu.
All this development work costs money, so to pay the bills I still service a number of private clients as a customer experience architect and occasional storyteller/speaker.
In doing so, I focus on what I'm good at, which is larger, international and complex CX initiatives for people that want to get results (rather than debate the finer academic points of customer strategy).
On that note: I still have one or two client slots left, so if you have a juicy challenge, let me know. For more info: www.alainthys.com.
AND OF COURSE THAT’S NOT ALL
2017 and 2018 are completely focused on executing the above. But beyond this there is a longlist of projects which go well beyond talking about customer experience management and focus on creating actual customer-centric propositions. After all, with all the opportunities that large and small organisations waste every day, someone has to do it. But that is a story for another time ...
Take care !
Here's my harvest of clickables from the past 7 days.
About this blog
Whenever inspiration strikes, I use this space to share my thoughts on customer experience management, storytelling or what ever else crosses my mind.