If you look at the latest Forrester data, customer experience efforts seem to be hitting a wall. In spite of big language and increased investment, the needles are barely moving. Some companies even consider to give up and compete on price or focus on easier domains.
Many of these problems come from an addiction to ‘easy solutions’ and ‘low hanging fruit’. While there is nothing wrong with the occasional quick win, real change requires a more structural approach. Only those companies that are willing to bite this bullet will succeed at the customer-centric change required to stay competitive.
So, if you're one of the people who are willing to look beyond the branded content stream of 'feel good' articles and 'quick fix' template, the five suggestions in this article are for you.
They are based on the Customerfit benchmark data and highlight 'big wins' which should be relevant for a majority of companies. None of them are necessarily easy, but if you want to play for real in 2019, you may want to consider them.
BIG WIN #1: Stop chasing scores and focus on capabilities.
Any sports coach can tell you that top performers don’t prioritise the scoreboard. They focus on process and capability. Hit the ball in the right way. Eat the right food. Practice every day. Get those things right and the scores will follow.
But many businesses forget this. They launch initiatives to 'improve their NPS score' or 'drive loyalty'. They forget that these are merely scoreboard outcomes for having played the right game in the first place. As a result, initiatives only deliver a fraction of their potential and the drive for customer-centricity fails to build momentum.
2019 RECOMMENDATION: Shift the customer experience dialogue from results and initiatives to 'organisational readiness'. Map all the capabilities that your business needs to achieve its CX goals. Then, develop a customer fitness programme to help develop these capabilities and systematically measure progress. Accept that the scores will only follow if you stick to your practice schedule. And if this takes time, don’t run off to find the next silver bullet. Do what any sports champion does. Train harder.
BIG WIN #2: Before you journey map, set clear customer experience standards.
Almost every company says it wants to provide a great customer experience. But in spite of all the research and journey maps, many struggle to articulate what this actually means. What is a good experience? And when exactly does it become great? And how do both concepts evolve over the span of the customer relationship?
This causes employees to make their own assumptions. Sometimes this goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. The only certainty is that - with the best intentions - the customer's experience depends on who ever happened to be running a given touchpoint/episode and their related journeys.
2019 RECOMMENDATION: Formally articulate your company's CX standards. What is the minimum experience your business needs to provide at every stage in the customer relationship? How exactly will you delight customers? When are you doing too much? How will you turn these efforts into money? By giving your people clear guidance on each of these parameters, they won’t just get better at providing the CX you promise. They can do it consistently.
BIG WIN #3: Build the customer into your mid-term plan.
In our mission statements, customers are "at the heart of everything we do". Tactically, they are part of our efforts to fix issues or capture opportunities. But typically, they don't appear in our mid-term (3-5 year) operating plans.
This is problematic. To structurally improve the customer experience, multiple silos need to co-operate over a number of years. If the operational targets and resources for this co-operation aren’t written into the mid-term plan, they will never be more than nice intentions. After all, a vision without resources and KPI's, is called a day-dream.
2019 RECOMMENDATION: Clearly embed your customer goals in every department’s mid-term plan. Let each team demonstrate how it will help create and capture customer value in the short and medium term. Then allocate resources based on this contribution (note: this is easier when you’ve created the customer experience standards above).
BIG WIN #4: First think customer, then technology.
I love my technology-minded friends dearly, but ‘how can I digitally transform my business?’ is the wrong question.
Sure, it can make a business feel that it is on the path to modernity. People get to participate in glitzy workshops. Everyone is busy doing what the gurus say, and the organisation is spending a lot of money. Surely, this must be good. But unless a digital transformation is rooted in customer, market and competitive insights and underpinned with a clear business case, it’s a very expensive distraction.
2019 RECOMMENDATION: The late Steve Jobs said it well: "You have to start with the customer experience, and work backwards to the technology". So check whether your digital transformation efforts focus on the jobs your customer is willing to pay for. If these require AI infused, blockchain-based, 3D printing protocols, all power to them. But don’t chase technology for its own sake. 'No customer insight’ means 'no project'.
BIG WIN #5: Show the business the money, but this time for real.
Everyone assumes that customer experience investments will generate a financial return. But it’s still too rare that this assumption is made explicit in financial targets, or even a rudimentary business case.
But worse, is that a large number of companies leave money on the table. They create 'promoters' but have no programme to systematically capture all the profit from these happy customers. And as my grand dad used to say, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’.
2019 RECOMMENDATION: If you haven’t yet got one, make a (rough) business case for your experience efforts. Even if the data is shaky at the start, it’s better than flying blind. And even more important, launch an initiative to help your business capture the maximum amount of value from every customer it turns into a promoter. And ask your CEO to add these extra profits to your customer experience budget 😉.
It is possible to do all of the above at the same time. But unless you're truly committed, this may be a bit ambitious. So if you want to make a dent in your company's customer-centric universe, pick the one that you feel could have the biggest impact.
2019 is a time where the market will start separating the CX players from the wannabe's. This means it's time to start reaching for the apples at the top of the tree.
If you'd like to discuss any of the above topics for your business, feel free to get in touch.
This article first appeared on www.alainthys.com.
Ever since the early 90s, doomsayers have heralded the end of the physical retail. In our age of digital disruption, stores would crumble under the weight of the e-giants. The high-street would all but disappear.
I didn’t buy it back then, and I'm not buying it now. Sure, video stores are gone, and high-street bankers better rethink the way they do business. High street real estate may even experience a dip. But the concept of shopping isn’t going to disappear any time soon. It will merely evolve, just like it has been doing since the first market trader opened their stall in ancient Sumeria. And if you don’t take my word for it, read Gen Z shoppers like physical stores.
The challenge to brands and retailers isn’t that retail spaces will disappear. It’s that they need to be reinvented for a new shopper reality. This comes down to answering three – existential – questions:
These are hard questions. But for anyone who directly or indirectly profits from the cash-register’s ring, answers must be found. To do so, brands and retailers need to let go of industry orthodoxies and embrace a number of new perspectives.
As a thought experiment, I’ve outline seven mind shifts to be considered. If you have more or different ones, let me know!
MIND SHIFT #1: OMNICHANNEL IS MERELY A ‘QUALIFIER’
Endless aisles, home delivery, in-store pickups, chatbots and self-service tools may make for exciting projects. Being easy may even turn some customers into promoters. But tomorrow, these initiatives will merely be qualifiers to play the retail game. So rather than look at them as strategic change programmes, we need to consider them as must dooperational programmes. They may provide a temporary, tactical advantage. But they remain operational hygiene factors like GDPR compliance andinventory management. I.e. We know it’s complex, but let’s just get on with it.
MIND SHIFT#2: FROM STRATEGIC CHOICE TO ‘FUN’ AS THE ONLY VIABLE OPTION
Shoppers want price, convenience and fun. Theoretically this gives three axes of differentiation. But for most players, there is only one viable strategic option. As a qualifier, convenience isn’t sustainably unique. Anything you invent today will be copied tomorrow. Price is a game that can only be won by one or two players in every category (increasingly named Amazon). So, unless you’re fully committed to becoming the Aldi of your industry, that’s off the table too. Which leaves fun as the only remaining path to sustainably attract shoppers at healthy margins. And I realise fun can mean many things. But they all require retailers to learn the art of making customer interactions enjoyable, surprising and enriching.
MIND SHIFT#3: FROM LOCATION BASED TO TRANSMEDIA STORYTELLING
A retail store has always been a tactile storytelling machine. It connects to shoppers and relates the values, purpose and aspirations of a business. This makes it a great platform to provide the fun I just described. But in an omnichannel world, retailers need to master telling this story across all channels. Learn that in this transmedia approach the store merely becomes a piece of a puzzle. It showcases a proposition, communicates the brand and builds a relationship with customers. However, whether these customers then purchase on-site or on their mobile phone, is irrelevant.
MIND SHIFT#4 FROM TRANSACTIONAL TO RELATIONSHIP ECONOMICS
Retail efficiency metrics like profit/m2, shopping cart value and comp store sales worked well when customers had to exit by the cash register. But when sales can come from anywhere, this won’t do any more. Retail operators should think in terms of customer lifetime value, dynamic pricing, personalised discounts across channels and Netflix style subscription models. This also means that the physical space needs to be accounted for differently. As the physical cash register becomes inadequate to measure retail success, new metrics should assess the financial contribution of physical space. This will be the only way to truly assess whether bricks should be kept or abandoned.
MIND SHIFT#5 FROM STAFF TO AMBASSADORS
Customers can find all the products and information they need online. So when they decide to speak to a human they want more than mainstream service. Retail staff needs to become ambassadors that help people enjoy themselves. Geniuses that provide specialist information which you cannot find on Youtube. This requires a mindset shift in talent management. Store operators must review the way in which they attract, develop and retain the right type of people for their customers. And figure out how to offset the inevitably more expensive payroll with the smart use of technology.
MIND SHIFT #6: FROM MASS TO INDIVIDUAL
Retailers, and to a lesser degree brands, are number machines that try to track everything. But most of their analysis describes what customers (plural) have done (past tense). To personalise experiences across channels, this conversation must become forward looking. Predictively adapt offers to what a given customer (singular) will do (future tense) .This isn’t just about technology. It’s also about letting go of the mindset in which stores are seen as conduits to get products and services to a faceless mass of shoppers. They should be seen as places where individual customers get an individualised experience.
MIND SHIFT#7: FROM INCREMENTAL INNOVATION TO REINVENTION
The ‘disruptions’ we’ve seen so far are merely a prelude to societal, environmental, supply chain and digital changes that are coming our way. So, when looking beyond the horizon of next year’s profit plan, it’s time to let go of cautious incremental innovation. Every brand and retailer needs to boldly explore ways to reinvent themselves and their category. And no, this doesn’t mean outsourcing the business to Amazon.
It does mean challenging every orthodoxy that we know to be true. After all, who says that stores need to look like stores. Can’t they be immersive experiences, community centres, bars, spas or pop-up art exhibitions? Do they need to be located in high-traffic locations? Triple the amount of staff on the floor? Eliminate staff completely? An age of change brings risk, but also endless opportunity.
So, who will be the Mr. Selfridge of 2025?
This is a thought experiment, so if you have criticism, extra insights or violent levels of agreement, don’t hold back 😉. I’m not interested in ‘being right’, I just want to get closer to the right answer.
Also, if you’d like a explore ways to reinvent your brand or retail experience, feel free to get in touch. If it’s complex or ambitious, I’m in.
From the start, I knew the Customerfit Academy would be my most ambitious content project to date.
Building on the Customerfit model, my goal was to capture everything I’ve learned on customer-centricity/customer experience and make it available in an online environment. Not as fluffy online courses, but as Ikea-style build-it-yourself implementationpacks which would give any subscriber all the knowledge, tools and templates they would need to be successful.
It turned out to be even bigger than I thought. So far I’ve written over 100,000 words, produced about 14 hours of video and created dozens of supporting slides, templates and DIY tools. And I’m only at 3 of the 10 programmes that should be online by February.
But the first results are highly motivating. Supported by a Customerfit coach, the first group of users have found the approach highly productive. In fact, their employer has now pre-purchased 100% of all content produced until 2020 (hence that February deadline for the first 10 programmes). Also, we have had multiple confirmations that both The Customerfit System and the Customerfit Academy are well ahead of anything the big name CX research, strategy and consulting firms have in their portfolio.
So the product is getting there, which means we’re slowly starting up the promotional/sales engines for 2019. For the the Academy, each programme will get it's individual price, but I'm also gauging reactions to a Netflix-style €500/user/month all you can eat approach (minimum commitment 12 months - enterprise discounts apply).
I have been criticised by some that this will make the Customerfit Academy ridiculously cheap. A one-year subscription would get users all the know-how for which regular consultancies charge literally hundreds of thousands.
But I’m committing to the affordability route, as I hope it will allow the content to spread into countries and companies for which this know-how would normally be out of budgetary reach. Plus, if I’m honest, I kind of enjoy shaking things up a bit 🙂.
So my journey to make the world a little more customer-centric continues. Watch this space and if you’re interested in getting or giving your people early access to the biggest library of customer-centric know-how on the planet, let me know. As long as we’re in soft-launch mode, deals can be made 😉.
PS. Strategic investors with access to online marketing resources, customer networks or media are welcome to get in touch as well. Proof of concept is there, first cash is coming in and soon it's time start to start scaling.
I have always wondered what it would be like to just pick up your life and run your business from a laptop while sipping Daiquiris on an exotic beach.
Last month, I didn’t take things that far, but I did move to a village near Barcelona. I wanted to see whether I could combine the marvels of Catalunya with a 35,000-word writing target and a set of client deadlines.
To lead with the conclusion: my digital nomad ‘light’ experiment was an experience I would and will repeat. But there are a few things I’d do differently next time. And in the spirit of sharing what I’ve learned, I thought I’d write them down. Just in case you’d like to try it for yourself J.
Lesson #1: A month is not enough
If you know you're somewhere for 30 days, and that a chunk of this time spoken for by work, you want to make the most of the leisure time available. So, we packed every free moment with trips and activities. We marvelled at Dali’s house in Cadaqués. Submerged ourselves in the urban underground of Barcelona. Learned how to mix the perfect mojito at Casa Bacardi. But while all this experience hunting was great, it was also exhausting. Especially as it left no downtime between work and fun.
☛ Don’t think 3-4 weeks. Think 3-4 months. This lets you get settled and takes away the urge to become a binge tourist.
Lesson #2: Think about your workspace
My experiment became a lot easier because some friends were kind enough to let us use their spacious and air-conditioned apartment for the month. This meant that I had a cool space to write as outside temperatures hit 35-40°C. But I also found that for more complex work, my small laptop screen and the lack of my trusted printer made some jobs a lot more difficult.
☛ Take along all the office material you need. And if you cannot do so, make sure you are closed to a shared workspace that has them available.
Lesson #3: Plan buffer time for idea overload
During this one month in Spain, I had more ideas than I’ve had all year. Part of this was due to going native in a different environment than my own. Part of it was because the palm trees and Mediterranean made me get much more serious about my down-time than I do at home. But as I had been so efficient in planning my work-time, I didn’t get to do more about these ideas than write them down and move on.
☛ Expect to have more creative ideas than usual and allow yourself time to expand on them. This will increase the chance you will use them at some point.
Lesson #4: It’s not all beaches and Mojito’s.
There is a saying that you cannot run from your life as you take it with you. So if you take your business to a foreign land, you take the good and the bad. Accounting obligations won’t go away. Neither will the little frustrations. And some days, the appeal of palm trees outside actually made it more difficult to write those extra 1000 words.
☛ As I went in without expectations, this realisation didn’t particularly delight or disappoint me. So, if there is a lesson there, it is to do the same. Be realistic that the most beautiful beach will not magically make parts of your life disappear. Though it can make them more enjoyable ;-).
Lesson #5: Take a swim beforeseeing your loved ones
My wife and son have been amazing during this month as they organised their schedule around my work-time whichallowed us to explore Catalunya together. But we were sometimes out of sync. They were in holiday mode. My head was still rehearsing a client call or resolving a writing problem. This also happens at home, but somehow the Spanish sun made the contrast between these mindsets much starker.
☛ Consider that the people travelling with you may be in a different mindspace. So, make sure your work-ation mood doesn’t affect their good time. In my case, I learned that the smartest thing to do after work, was to go for a swim and then meet my family. And frankly, it's not a bad habit anywhere J
I fully realise that picking up and moving to another country isn’t within everyone’s reach. But I also thought it would be impossible for me. What I found is that with preparation, fast internet and a little more office equipment, I could have continued for another 2-3 months without a problem. Especially as Barcelona airport was only 25 minutes away.
Many customer experience programmes encourage the front-line staff to smile at the customer. This of course makes total sense. A genuine smile is a great way to connect to anyone. You can even hear it over the phone.
But this simple expectation of friendliness creates an interesting management problem. A challenge which stretches all the way to the C-Suite.
After all, how do you make an employee smile?
Genuine smiles don’t appear on command. You can try to prescribe them as part of your training and process manuals. But compliance doesn’t mean sincerity, and customers can spot a fake smile a mile away.
You can also decide to create a wonderful working environment. There’s growing support for the statement that happy employees produce happy customers. Think of it as a modern day variation of the statement that happy cows give more milk.
But also on this path, success isn’t guaranteed. In fact, kindred customer spirit Maurice Fitzgerald even questions whether it leads anywhere. After analysing 345 companies, he could only conclude that: "employee satisfaction does not do anything at all for customers in most industries". While my data-set is more limited, I can only confirm this conclusion. I've even experienced situations with an inverse correlation between employee and customer happiness.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that employee satisfaction doesn’t contribute at all. But I am saying that to make employees smile at customers, they need to be more than happy to be working for you. They need to enjoy working for the customer. Enjoy providing them with great experiences.
As a leader, this means you need to do three things:
#1. Give your people a reason to get out of bed.
Don’t tell your people to smile at customers as part of hitting their targets. Instead, give them a customer related purpose which they enjoy fulfilling and which will eventually drive profit for your business. If they like putting a smile on your customer’s face, they will start smiling themselves.
#2. Show them you mean it.
Too many leaders fail to walk the talk. So greet your colleagues with a genuine smile. Build teams of positive people, that support and build each other. Even if they’re not in the front line. And yes, create that employee experience which treats your people like you hope they will treat your customers.
#3. Be ready to support.
No one can be cheerful all the time. But customers will nonetheless expect the same level of friendliness at every interaction. So be sensitive to the ups and downs of your people. Give them an opportunity to take a time-out. Put a mechanism in place to cheer them up on those days when it’s hard to smile.
Creating a front-end culture of genuine smiles is one of the bigger leadership challenges that I'm aware of. Because as you might guess, it’s not the smile that matters. It’s the sincerity that goes with it. The desire to meet and exceed customer expectations. The desire to make customers smile, because you made their day.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS! Did I miss a beat? Do you (dis)agree? What do you do to make your people smile? Use the comment section to share your thoughts and views with everyone who reads this article. We can all learn from each other.
This article is one of a series to help me articulate my thoughts for The Customer Fitness Code. This is a new book I’m writing to complement the rapidly expanding Customerfit system. If you would like to know more, you can already check out www.customerfit.eu or get in touch. Meanwhile, don't forget to follow me on Linkedin or subscribe to my newsletter.
(c) 2018 Alain Thys, all rights reserved
Photo by Brooke Cagle
I regularly meet customer champions who complain that their colleagues just don’t get it. Or that they don't care about the customer.
I always challenge this mindset. If, as customer advocates, we cannot convince people to care, this doesn’t mean that they are slow. It only means that we haven't been convincing enough. After all, no one gets out of bed with the intent of upsetting customers (well, there was this one guy, but that's another story :-)
So with this article, I would like to share three suggestions to help your people care about the customer. None of them are magic bullets, but I hope you find them useful.
1. Show people how they impact the customer experience.
In my Reebok days, a colleague of mine ran a programme to create the perfect order for UK sports retailers. Like everyone else in the business, the warehouse staff also got involved.
During one of the many workshops, a breakdown occurred. One of the warehouse workers wanted to leave the session, as he felt it was a waste of his time. After all, all this customer b**lsh*t didn’t apply to him. He worked with boxes and had no influence on customer satisfaction.
Now, luck had it, that on this day the CEO of a major retailer was visiting that particular warehouse. He overheard this employee. In a friendly way, he joined the conversation and asked him about his job at the warehouse. The man explained that he worked on picking and packing. He had to seal the boxes before they went on the truck.
The CEO continued with a rhetorical question. "So you are telling me, that you are the last person to see and touch my product before it comes to my stores? And you say you have no influence over my satisfaction as a customer?" The point didn't need any further explanation.
ACTION 1: The actions of every employee (should) add value to the customer. Explain to each of your colleagues how they are part of the bigger picture. Once they see how their work puts a smile on the customer's face, it'll be easier for them to get excited about it.
2. Make the customer voice actionable.
Customer voice programmes can be a great source of honest feedback. They can help you pinpoint what you are getting right and what you are getting wrong. But those unfamiliar with the way these programmes work, may struggle to see their value.
For example, if a customer complains about the price she needs to pay, billing may not be the issue. Sales or marketing may have created the wrong expectation. Those delivering the service might have delivered sloppy work. The invoice might be unclear.
Yet, if you work in marketing, service delivery or IT, you may not immediately see these aspects. After all, the bill being too high has nothing to do with the job you do.
ACTION 2: Complement your customer voice programme with a regular root cause analysis. Translate customer feedback into functional and departmental language that resonates with your silo-colleagues. Once they see how they can contribute, they are more likely to act on this.
3. Humanise your customers.
Every business and employee wants to look professional. Tools of this trade include PowerPoint presentations, jargon and complex analytical models.
While these serve a purpose, they can dehumanise customers. Juan, Mary and Gérard, become units-in-use, policy holders or PAX (BTW does anybody even know what that abbreviation means?). This directly affects the organisation's ability for customer action. In fact, once we turn someone into a number, there is a dramatic decrease in our ability to care. Bringing back the customer as a human can inverse this process.
A few years ago I saw a brilliant example of this at a global telecom operator I worked for. Like any other telco they had clients that suffered from bill shock. Especially when confronted with unexpected post-holiday roaming charges.
Also, like at every operator, these customers were numbers on a spreadsheet. That is, until one of their customer experience champions singled out the story of Johan.
Johan was a single dad who had been on holiday with his two children. Upon returning home at the end of August, he found that his bank account was empty. The country he was in, wasn't part of his data-plan and he had incurred a bill of several thousands of Euros. Through automatic debit, this amount had disappeared from his bank account. At the start of the school year, he didn't have the money to buy his children the books and new clothes they needed.
Telling this story at the start of the bill-shock meetings, got a lot more of people's attention than the spreadsheets used to do.
ACTION 3: Replace your cold customer reports with human accounts. Give your people the opportunity to relate to your customers as individuals. Make them care. Once they do, they'll be ready to help. Not because KPI's say so, but because it's in our nature.
Thank you for reading until the end of this page. This article is one of a series to help me formulate my thoughts for The Customer Fitness Code (project title). This is a new book I'm writing to help companies improve their customer experience management capabilities (aka. customer fitness). If you would like to know more, you can already check out www.customerfit.eu or - alternatively - get in touch :-)
Meanwhile, if you haven't done so, do subscribe to my newsletter. Here, I share articles like this one, additional thoughts and the occasional freebie. You can find a registration field at the top of this page.
This article is the first in a series of publications to share the results of Customerfest, an online experiment to co-create the future of customer experience which ran late 2017. A big shout out to the team of InSites Consulting for making the event possible
In Bavaria, a driverless bus scoots across the countryside. In China, a man enjoys his dinner thanks to a dental implant set by a robot. In Northern Ireland, a toddler sports a 3D printed kidney. A Caribbean robotic bartender mixes cocktails on a cruise-ship.
The world has changed, and customer expectations are changing with it. 2020 will be a world where technical customer loyalty is dead. Where customers can buy what they want, when they want it, where they want it and even at the price they want it.
To adapt to this new reality, we will all need to reinvent ourselves. In fact, every company will need to develop three specific capabilities (*):
We need to learn how to solve customer problems before they occur. As devices around us get smarter, customers will expect smarter environments. Interfaces that only show the stuff they like. Mechanics that repair machines before they break down.
Customer insight collection needs to become instant and continuous. Sensing technologies and algorithms need to predict customer needs before competitors do so. Even before customers identify these needs themselves. This will allow further simplification of the customer's life. Cut transactional steps and touchpoints. Even complete journeys.
As long as humans are paying the bills, we want to be more than an organic interface to a digital process. Before we part with our money, we want attention, empathy and warmth. So while a more digital experience can add value, you will always need to infuse it with a human touch.
Tactically, you need to truly understand the customer's emotions at every stage of the relationship. Strategically, your business needs to develop a human face. A purpose and business model that transcends the simple pursuit of profit.
The experience we offer IS the product. But the opportunities to deliver this experience are getting scarce. Customers already tuned out of (intrusive) marketing efforts years go. Digitalisation now helps them avoid our showrooms, stores and offices. Unless these visits make their life easier or more enjoyable.
So when they do give you their time and attention, you need to pull out all the stops. Immerse them in your offer and the story of your business. Give them an experiential memory that can lasts months, years or even a life-time. After all, there’s no telling when you’ll get another chance to interact.
Bonus checklist item: reinvention
I realise that the above may feel like customer experience science fiction. Especially as many of us are still coming to grips with journey mapping and VOC programmes. But unfortunately, I'm not making the rules. Technology will accelerate. New players will disrupt existing markets. Customer expectations will rise.
Above all, this means mastering the skill of reinvention. The ability to challenge our own habits and beliefs. The willingness to learn new techniques and skills. Even if they are far outside of our comfort zone.
Does your business have a process to challenge itself on a regular basis? Do you deploy red teams to find weaknesses in your system? Set up think-tanks to explore new business models? In short, are you ready for reinvention when the need presents itself?
This is a final post with learnings from my trip to The Future of Storytelling (FOST) Summit in New York. My thanks for inspirations offered by Don Hahn, Melissa Kelly, Andrew Peters and my friend and virtual reality savant David Polinchock.
Imagine that I told you the story of Snow White. But I’d do it in a fragmented way. I would tell you some parts over Twitter. A bit in a 90-second YouTube video. Some more on a highway billboard as you drove to work. To add to the complexity, we wouldn’t make an appointment to talk. I’d shout out at random, unannounced moments in your week.
With this approach, you’d probably miss a large part of the story. You might think it was a tale about mining conditions for dwarfs. About a narcissistic queen and her mirror. A murderous huntsman. A young woman that sings to animals. Or, worst case, a lady serial-killer selling apples.
SHALL WE STOP FOOLING OURSELVES?
The above may sound like ineffective storytelling. But it is a reality for every brand and corporate communication professional. There is a complex, often layered story to tell. But it must live in rushed videos, limited character tweets and glossy websites which no one reads anymore.
Despite best efforts, only very few customers, stock market analysts and even employees ever hear a company’s full story. Snow White hits the radar. The apple may stick too. But most of us miss out on Sleepy’s goofiness or the Queen's complicated relationship with the huntsman.
This is problematic because a brand’s personality is all about this nuance. Without these colourful touches, every story it tells sounds the same and becomes a commodity. This, in turn, makes even more people tune out.
THE ANSWER IS STARING US IN THE FACE
The performing arts have solved the above storytelling problem for thousands of years. Their solution still works today. If they want an audience to hear a story, they don’t push it across 50 channels. They concentrate it in its purest form and ask the audience to come to them.
I am increasingly of the belief that this can also work for brands. That marketers can break the self-destructive cycle of forcing their messages on an ever more elusive and disinterested audience. That, like the arts, they can invite their audience to join them willingly by investing in immersive media and experiences. By telling stories which people want to hear.
These can take many forms. Physical spaces. Virtual/augmented reality environments. Long-form copy (aka. books). Podcasts. ARG’s. Story-worlds. Or the often ignored, but oh-so-immersive silver screen of cinema. I probably missed a few.
SHALL WE PLAY A NEW GAME?
Unfortunately, these immersive experiences won’t fit the reach addicted communication formats that force us to dumb down stories into 30-second or 140-character formats.
They require us to replace our message-centric communication models with an audience-centric approach. Stop focusing on the stories we want to tell, but craft the stories our audience wants/needs to hear. Quit chasing hypothetical GRP’s, but embrace and move smaller, real audiences. Rely on them to tell our story to the world.
We need to start crafting (immersive) experiences that are meaningful, memorable and shareable. As this is a standard that most of the current marketing and communication initiatives fail to achieve, marketers and agencies need to raise the bar. Play a new game.
WHAT IF AUDIENCES EMBRACED YOU
This mind-shift will take effort. Audience-centricity, meaning and the careful crafting of experiences don’t always fit in the hectic world of campaigns and KPIs. Advertising has become a machine and the world I describe above, doesn't really fit the mould.
But I firmly believe that the brands that dare to be different will gradually, and sustainably overcome many of the communication challenges they face today.
Instead of hunting audiences, I see a world in which customers willingly give their time. Immerse themselves in real, imaginary or virtual brand environments because they want to experience them. And once they have been touched, they tell their friends about it.
After all, who of us wouldn’t want their brand’s story to be as familiar as Snow White?
If you're a (marketing) executive and you find this message resonates, do get in touch. I'm currently still shaping my thoughts on this topic, so perhaps we can experiment and co-create in 2018.
Also check out my other two lessons from the Future of Storytelling:
This article first appeared on www.alainthys.com. All rights reserved.
Every year, I force myself out of my day-to-day activities to attend the Future of Storytelling Summit in New York. In a short series of posts, I’m sharing some of the lessons I learned this year. I hope you find them useful.
FOST LESSON 2: TO TELL A STORY, YOU NEED TO LISTEN
Once upon a time, I met a storyteller from Madagascar. She captivated her audience with crocodiles, tribal feuds and virgins discovering love in the jungle. When she climbed on the stage she wore her traditional robe. No shoes. No props. No Powerpoint. As she spun her tale, you could hear a pin drop.
After the event, I had the opportunity to spend some time with her. Knowing we would only have a few moments, I decided to make the most of them. “How" I asked. "do you take such a simple story and use it to silence a group of grown men full of their own importance?”.
Her answer was one of the most important storytelling lessons I ever had in my life. “You need to remember”, she said, “that you are not the one telling the story. The people you speak to tell it to themselves. In their imagination. All you do, is give them the tools, the ideas and the emotions that they can make their own.”
She continued by explaining that, as a storyteller, her most important skill was to listen and understand the picture the audience was painting for themselves. She watched their body language. Their expressions. Their eyes.
Based on what she saw, she adapted her tale. Would the crocodile take a little longer before the attack? Would it swim away? It all depended on the reaction from the audience and her intuition. While the core elements remained the same, she hardly ever told the exact same story twice.
NEW YORK, OCTOBER 2017
I was reminded of the Malagasy’s words at the Future of Storytelling Summit. In their own way, speaker after speaker illustrated that successful storytelling required listening.
Cartoon Network’s approach hinged on design thinking and rapid prototypes. Disney actively involved audiences in making their movies better. Eating designer Marije Vogelzang was more interested in the stories of the people eating her food, than the food itself. Colum McCann from Narrative 4 delivered a passionate plea that listening and empathy lie at the heart of every meaningful story.
To me, this struck an important chord. As a hard-core customer-centrist and empathic individual, I’ve always believed in listening. Sometimes to a fault. But in the world of angano (Malagasy for story), it is the only way.
Stories do not exist unless someone is listening. To make audiences care about your words, you have to start from their reality. This applies if you want to convince people of the business case for your idea or have them embrace your description of the Gash-i-Rah clan on the planet Khalu. You need to give them points of recognition which connect to their beliefs. Their desires. Their fears.
Once you meet them there, you can take them to any point of your story world, as long as you keep listening and continuously adapt your tale to the story they are ready to be told.
LESSON LEARNED: AUDIENCE-CENTRICITY IS KEY TO GREAT STORYTELLING
Bad listening is where many stories fail. Deliberate listening is what makes them succeed.
The good news is that with my customer-centricity training, I know how to do this. Generating insights, observing audiences and taking customers on an emotional journey are all part of the trade.
The bad news is that I remain human. As executives, talkers, writers, makers, we’re so eager to get our point across, that we lose sight of the ideas our audience are ready to accept. We use words that don’t resonate with their beliefs. Warn of threats they do not see. Promise treasures they cannot imagine.
As a result, we may rationally convince them of our point, but forget to win their hearts. They may hear about our crocodiles, feuding clans and virgins in the jungle. But they will never see them in their mind’s eye. I’ve done it more than once, and I’m bound to do it again.
So the lesson I learned, is that for every future story I tell, I will try to apply the audience-centric principle that it is not about the story I want to tell, but all about the story my audience is ready to hear.
This story first appeared on alainthys.com. If you like what you read and would like to get more, subscribe to my newsletter. It's full of articles, tips and other goodies.
Every year, I force myself out of my day-to-day to attend The Future of Storytelling Summit in New York. This is one of one of those rare events that don’t just inform, but challenge - even change - your belief system. After a week of experiential overdose, I'll be sharing some of the lessons I learned this year. I’ll focus on the ones which are relevant for brands and customer professionals. I’ll split them over multiple posts.
FOST LESSON 1: UX as we know it, just died
Every serious conversation about quantum physics has a tendency to melt your brain. It doesn’t make sense, and yet it is. So when my first work session at Fost started looking at the influence of quantum field theory on user interface design, I knew I could be in for a rollercoaster ride (OK, I’m a nerd, sue me 😃).
Jumping straight to the end of the story, the workshop's message was that we should forget everything we know about today's user interfaces.
Ever since the beginning, we have modeled digital interfaces on an industrial age paradigm. If you wanted a machine to do something, you had to press a button. This could be a physical button, a Siri command or a wave of the hand. But metaphorically, it was always “a button”.
Using this new paradigm, these buttons disappear. By installing a wide variety of sensors around us, our machines monitor our every move, micro-expression, heartbeat, temperature, pupil dilation. And just to be clear, our sunglasses, jewellery and clothes can all be machines.
This allows the development of probabilistic models that predict our intentions at the speed of our brain. In other words, the machines watch us and calculate the probability that we want to open a door, open a file or are in the mood for ice-cream. Once the probability is high enough, they automatically provide us with the things we desire. No commands. No instructions. No buttons. Only intent.
This can happen over short distances, but also across larger ones. Even at the other side of the planet. After all, if you think about vectors in a quantised field, space is a very relative concept. All that matters is the expression of intent/probability.
If this sounds like science fiction, it partly is. The technology is available today and all major players are working on it. But it does require 5G, a ton of sensors (IoT anyone?), more advanced AI and - as an AT&T executive observed - “a massive amount of processing power”.
Also, the ethical implications will need sorting out. If my primal brain says I want bacon, but salad is the smarter option, which will the digital restaurant menu show first? If I tell my vendor that I’m satisfied with the service, but my micro-expressions contradict this, is he allowed to know? If I’m depressed and consider killing myself, will the machines help me? Or stop me?
But all these elements will eventually be sorted out. Especially as first user tests indicate that after 20 seconds of usage, people have figured out the new way of working. They also prefer the intuitive nature and nanosecond speed over old-school UX.
So, there is still a number of years mileage in today’s user experience design practices. But the genie is out of the bottle and there’s no way we’ll put it back in. In my mind, UX has we know it, is a dead man walking.
What are your thoughts when you read the above? Good? Bad? Ugly?
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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.