An Interview with David Robbins about why customer experience still hasn’t found its so-called Wow! factor
An interview with David Robbins, VP, Client Consulting, Gongos, Inc. by Charlie Katz
Through a self-professed mission to support companies on their journey toward enhancing customer centricity, David’s 18-year career sits squarely at the intersection of research innovation and customer experience transformation. Through the development of customer equity models and methodologies that also support marketing, brand management, and operations management decisions, David’s experience spans both B2C and B2B organizations across a broad range of industry sectors.
Formerly Global Director, Customer Experience with GfK, David was instrumental in the company’s expertise across customer experience measurement and application, operational and digital efficiency along the customer journey and marketing effectiveness.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Prior to entering my career, I was studying psychology as a late blooming, part-time undergrad student working full-time after devoting time to the Air Force. I then went on to study applied developmental psychology in grad school. After my first semester of grad school at Purdue University, I fell in love with the analytics side of human development more than the concept of human development, so I focused my graduate studies on research methods and statistics.
I began seeking a full-time position in business after finishing grad school and applied for a position with a company then called Symmetrics. They were a research and consulting agency focused on helping companies develop their customer satisfaction and loyalty management practices. They were looking for someone who could come in and hit the ground running on building their proprietary decision science models. Having some experience with the underlying engine of these analytical models (i.e., structural equation modeling) through my grad program, it was a natural fit. At the time, I knew nothing about customer satisfaction and loyalty (other than from my personal experience of being a customer countless times over) and let alone the service-profit chain. But I quickly found that my background in psychology, human development, and analytics was a natural fit for the industry and found myself surrounded by many other like-minded social scientists turned research and business consultants working with marketing, sales, and operations teams.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I first began my journey, I was a methodological purist with next to zero business acumen. A freshly minted graduate who studied the science of human psychology and advanced analytics and was ready to set the business world on fire with all of the cool ways this science could be applied to understanding the customer and what makes them tick. I remember so vividly the first client meeting I went on. We were working with a Fortune 100 technology company at the time, and they were our largest client…so this was an important meeting (i.e., “don’t screw it up, David!”).
I was asked to go with the account director down to the client’s offices in Texas to help present some of our recent work to their marketing leadership team. Although I had the data and analytical science behind this presentation nailed and was fully prepared to play the role of “analytics” expert, I was woefully unprepared for the business environment that I was heading into. I remember starting the meeting feeling confident…starting to talk about the work in a highly technical way…cognitive decision-making model, structural-versus-observed variables, model fits, explanatory power, and everything else the average marketing exec would never understand or care less about. Very quickly, the account director started to interject after my every point, saying “what David means to say is” and suddenly I could tell my points were not landing and didn’t really have the knowledge of business and marketing at the time to translate these analytical ideas into practical ideas that the team running the business could relate to. It was such an embarrassing experience and I started to sweat so profusely, which just made matters worse. We got through the meeting ‘just barely from my side of things’ and was told by the account director how well it went on the way back to the airport. I remember thinking ‘well?’ That was the definition of ‘well?!’ I felt like an idiot, and it was one of many incredibly valuable learning experiences early in my career.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Without a doubt. One of the most influential mentors that I had was early in my career and was a gentleman by the name of Marty Lautman. Marty was a principal at the second firm I joined (ARBOR, Inc.), after spending the first 2 years at Symmetrics. I was relocating from Indiana to the East Coast at the time, and before remote work was really a thing. I wanted to make the leap from more of the back-office marketing science position I had at Symmetrics to working as a consultant on the frontlines with leading businesses at a new firm somewhere out east. Marty hired me and was an experimental psychologist by training and a certifiable genius…at least I thought so. He was brilliant in research, analytics, consulting, and business and quickly took me under his wing after joining the firm. He had built a hugely successful research and consulting business and told me that I would “cut my teeth” under his leadership with some the world’s leading companies (Marty never lacked an ounce of confidence). And indeed, I did.
Very quickly into my work with him and the team at ARBOR, Marty gave me far more responsibility than I deserved. Within six months, he had me leading our work with the largest division of a global package goods company that we served. Through the process of preparing for the quarterly business reviews with this company over that first year, Marty continued to reinforce that our job was not to provide insight into the consumer, but to take a point of view based on the consumer data that we were gathering and bring forward a clear set of data-driven and business-oriented recommendations. Our job was not to give advice to the business, but to persuade the business to act in the best interest of the consumer and to demonstrate how that would be in the best interest of their business. I remember feeling at the time…’who am I’ to recommend what this company should or shouldn’t be doing with their portfolio of brands and products regardless of what we knew about their consumers? I remember Marty reinforcing this point with me in one meeting with him…it’s not about us or what we think…what does their consumer data tell us that they should be doing based on our knowledge of their business. The subtlety was maddening, but an important life lesson to learn!
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
Businesses today are dead center in what we call the experience economy. Whether or not they run their businesses to address this is another question. And frankly, most companies struggle to think about their business as operating beyond a goods-based or services-delivered economic model.
But in an experience economy, a customer’s last best experience is now the benchmark for all of their experiences, regardless of the company or industry context. And that bar is constantly rising. Industries and companies that have become notorious for less-than-ideal experiences are and will continue to be disrupted by emerging entrants in their category. A focus on great customer service and a great customer experience is a fight for survival for mature companies. Disruptors understand this, while mature companies continue to stumble over this time and time again.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
There are countless reasons for these challenges and unfortunately no magic wand solutions. The challenges range from human error and weak operational control of the experience, to inconsistent engagement on the part of a company’s frontline employees, in addition to experiences that are intentionally designed to drive operational efficiency versus serving the customer. On this last point, this is key reason why so many customer experiences follow the unfortunate rule rather than the exception when interacting with a company’s contact center — a less-than-ideal customer experience. And that is almost always deliberate by design. The reason for this is that for nearly every company, the customer contact center is often one of their most expensive cost centers to be managed, and operational efficiency reduces those costs. This leads to the focus often placed on a goal that the customer cares little about — ‘operational efficiency and cost reduction’ — and tries to replace that instead with a wholly undelivered promise of a more convenient self-service customer experience. It nearly always falls short — the business wins and customers lose.
Unfortunately, too many companies today continue to orient their actions around their business goals and capabilities, versus customer goals and the capabilities customers’ desire. They also embrace this zero-sum game far too often in that is counterproductive for both the business and the customer. The customer experience almost always suffers as a result.
In the end, businesses often manage to their internal goals first. They do this through a focus on key performance indicators (KPIs), which allow them to gauge their performance relative to the strategic, operational, and customer-facing objectives of the business. And nearly all of these KPIs share the same defining and common characteristic that makes them valuable for businesses — they are evaluative in nature. Even in the case of customer KPIs such as Customer Satisfaction (CSAT), Net Promoter Score (NPS), and/or Customer Effort Score (CES), these are generally more about the business and business performance than the customer and customer performance. Businesses establish what they deem to be the target thresholds for their performance. And most importantly, they are measures that are more reflective of what the business values than what the customer truly values. After all, does a customer really care about whether or not they are a Promoter, Passive, or Detractor? And satisfaction? That is a customer’s most basic expectation.
But today, there is an increasing focus on Customer Performance Indicators (CPIs). Unlike KPIs, CPIs are in fact about the customer and their goals. They are quantifiable measures of how well a business — any business, regardless of the industry — performs on the goals that are most important to the customer. Unlike KPIs, CPIs are not business-centric they are human-centric, as customers are in fact motivated by being human. After all, the average human being only behaves as a customer less 14% of their time. The secret then to a delivering great customer experience is to think less like a business, and more like a customer.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
In some ways yes, and in other ways no. Disruptive competition that threatens the very thing that established businesses care most about…revenue and profit…can and do have an enormous impact helping companies improve the customer experience they offer. Sadly however, and in the absence of disruptive competition (or a near and present threat that it can pose), companies often benchmark their experience to their direct competitors within industry and sector. Instead of asking, how do I compare to the best companies in the world on customer experience, they focus more on how they compare to their direct competitors (who often have the many of the same shortcomings they have) and filter their customer experience strategy through this narrow view.
This is an inevitable mistake that every business will likely make at some point or another, and it is precisely what invites their business to be disrupted by a new competitor down the road. As mentioned, the secret to delivering a great customer experience is to think more like a customer than a business. The benchmark for the customer is their most recent best experience, regardless of the industry or company. This leads to elevated customer expectations over time and larger gaps for those companies that choose to be an experience innovator and instead become experience followers.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
I had the pleasure of serving Starbucks as a client several years ago when there were few companies better at delivering a “wow” customer experience. This was based on a multi-faceted, extremely intentional experience design and delivery strategy at the time, and down to the smallest of operational details that the average customer would not notice but would often feel. What truly differentiated their approach though were the intentional actions the company took to know and engage with their customers on a human level — all aimed at wowing the customer.
What set Starbucks apart in my opinion was the depth with which they helped their employees to see their customers as human beings and empowered and supported them to treat them as such. As friends, neighbors, colleagues, who appreciated being seen and being known as people…not customers. Whether it be a simple thank you, using your name, picking up on your pattern of ordering and anticipating what you might like the next time you visited, or engaging you in an authentic (versus scripted) conversation. These were all ways of making the customer feel that they truly cared for them and their business and showing that in small, but memorable ways at every opportunity.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
For Starbucks, it absolutely did. Not only did the company become known for their best-in-class products and services, but for an unrivaled and unparalleled experience within their industry and beyond. An experience that was instrumental to propelling their hypergrowth over this period of time and that reset the bar for their customers around what a great experience looks like, regardless of the context.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Align it with your purpose — Customers are smart and can sense inauthentic attempts at wowing them from a mile away. Please don’t do this! Many companies try and fail by chasing strategies and tactics to creating “wow!” experiences that simply do not align with their reason for being. Based on some recent work that we’ve done at Gongos in partnership with HBR Analytic Services, we identified a unique breed of companies we call ”customer-committed companies.” These are companies that deeply embed their customer-committed purpose throughout all levels of their company. Most importantly, they are characterized by significantly higher levels of employee and customer engagement, and a much stronger employee and customer experience as well. The secret to great experiences is to make it your own, but in ways that are deeply meaningful to your employees and customers.
- Align your people, process, and technologies to deliver that experience — You cannot deliver a “wow!” customer experience without aligning every part of your organization around it, and that means your people, processes, and technologies all need to march to the same beat. Too many companies today think that “wow!” experiences are the result of awesome digital strategy and execution. And while there are great examples of this in the marketplace, I guarantee that you will not find them without seeing an organization whose people and processes are not equally aligned behind this same customer-centered vision for creating that “wow!” experience via a digital channel.
- See your business as a customer does — I mentioned this before and it is absolutely critical, so it bears repeating. The secret to delivering great…or “wow!” customer experience is to think less like a business, and more like a customer. Think about the goals that your customers are trying to achieve and orient the design and delivery of your “wow!” experience around one of the goals that is most important to your customers. Don’t make it about your business, make it about your customers.
- Empower your employees — Company leaders cannot create and deliver a “wow!” customer experience without empowering employees to act in the best interest of your customers. Of course, there need to be guardrails here and businesses cannot act in ways that are counter to their business goals. Find your guardrails in your customer-centered purpose and design and deliver a “wow!” customer experience that empowers employees to act in that way. Either through their one-to-one interactions with your customers, or through one-to-many experiences that are designed and delivered through your employees on the basis of technologies or processes. Behind both of those must be empowered employees, as even the best digital strategies, tools, and processes will fail at creating a “wow!” experience if employees are not empowered to think outside of the box and find new ways to serve the customer.
- Make it memorable — At the core of every “wow!” customer experience is an emotional payoff or benefit — not a functional one. Creating “wow!” experiences that stir positive customer emotions will drive the memorability of the experience. Factors such as simplicity and ease are still important, as customers want and expect that too in so many cases. But to truly “wow!” them requires that emotional response sticks. Emotion and memorability are intricately linked — you can’t create a “wow!” experience in the absence of a positive emotional experience, which is what will drive the enduring nature of the interaction.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
“Wow!” customer experiences drive deeply meaningful levels of customer advocacy. Not the Net Promoter Score (NPS) or 5-star rating type of advocacy. Instead, “wow!” customer experiences create a blueprint for the kind of advocacy that is truly customer-led and driven. Meaning, when customers take it upon themselves to authentically share their positive experience with others. If your company is truly designing and delivering a “wow!” customer experience, there’s nothing more that your company needs to do. Your customers will take care of that for you!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Funny that you ask. I am actually part of a team at Gongos that is working on a patent-pending approach to help companies operationalize customer centricity through a new value exchange model. We are the very beginning of our journey together to start a movement that reorients the relationships between customers and businesses in mutually beneficial ways. There will be much more to share on this as we get further into 2021 and we couldn’t be more excited or optimistic. Change starts somewhere, and this is where we will be starting for us — a mutually beneficial model of value exchange that helps companies understand how to grow in more customer-centered ways and avoid the risks of potential disruption down the road.
As published in Authority Magazine.