Real Leaders

“I Wish the CEO Would Try and Open This F@#!* Package”

The title of this story is a line we use at my house when a product or service is unusually challenging. It might be that bottle or package that requires a hack saw and a blow torch to open, or it might be that service that offers way too many steps to reach your desired outcome.  

Our most recent experience was the black pepper container that added an “open the whole box top” feature instead of only the shake side, scoop side or pour side. We found it challenging to seal shut this new feature. The result? The whole top of the can unexpectedly opened, dumping a box of pepper in our soup instead of the dash we desired. Reviews on the pepper company’s website revolve around harsh suggestions of what to do with the product’s designer.

We all know the value of making products and services tamper-proof, shoplifter proof, and over-the-top safe. Buy a new ladder, and you’ll have countless warning stickers to remove, each a likely response to a ladder lawsuit. Governmental regulations dictate full disclosure, transparency, and accommodations to consumers with unique needs or restrictions. We accept these boundaries as well-intentioned defensive efforts. Yet, too often an enterprise will place “delight the user-consumer-customer” far down their list of priorities.    

My business partner, the late Ron Zemke, and I pioneered the universal practice known as “customer journey mapping” in the late 1980s. The back story is the classic “let the CEO open it” saga. 

You can read about our early work in Ron’s 1989 book, The Service Edge, and our 2003 book, Service Magic.

We consulted with a large phone company and focused on what customers went through when their telephone did not work. After countless interviews, focus groups, ride-alongs in telephone repair trucks, and sit-alongs at call centers, listening to customers, we decided to graph what we had learned as if customers were telling us their stories.

We took our diagrams to senior leadership. Their classic answers were, “No wonder the customer is angry when they finally speak to a call center rep, look at what we’ve put them through,” or “We sure make customers wait a lot,” or “I would be confused if I were the customer, too.” When we drilled down to understand better customer expectations around each encounter (the moment of truth), we saw that we were actually being instructed by customers on how to make their experiences better.  

Remember, people within organizations cannot accurately see through their customer’s eyes since they know too much and are blind to customer experience. But there are ways to come closer to “being the customer.” It demands that the CEO “open it.” Here are three ways for the C-suite to gain close inspection from the customer’s purview.

Stop Thinking Boardroom Briefings Are the Voice of the Customer

“How do you know what matters most to your customers?” is a question I have asked many C-suite leaders. I often hear reports of briefings conducted by the chief customer officer, complete with slides, graphs, and survey stats. When I reference the fact that customers’ connections with the organization is through a relationship and then rephrase the question to end with the word “spouse” instead of “customers,” I get a less confident tone. While the parallel is admittedly extreme, it dramatizes the point that customer encounters are emotional and thus far from the sterility of a data point. 

When a whole box of pepper dumps into my soup, “strongly dissatisfied” is not the phrase I would use.

Create a board of customers and rotate membership, so no member loses objectivity or the capacity to be candid. Hold “What’s stupid around here” meetings with front line employees to learn what impedes their ability to serve customers effectively. Invite customers to board meetings for direct feedback. Turn all receptionists, security guards, and drivers into valuable scouts who learn about customer experiences and priorities. Meet with them frequently to get their scout reports.  

Go Where You Can Hear the Voice of the Customer 

I once worked with a client in Miami and stayed at the Biscayne Bay Marriott. 

Checking in, I spotted a familiar face behind the check-in counter a bit further down from me. It was Bill Marriott. This was years ago, when every property sported his portrait with his father in the hotel lobby. As I got into the elevator with the bellman carrying my luggage, I confirmed my observation. “He has been here a couple of days,” the bellman told me, “spending time in various departments.” Now in his eighties, Marriott still visits over a hundred properties a year.  

Become an expert on your products and services and, if possible, get into your “customer’s shoes” to experience things exactly as they do. Marriott told a group of senior leaders, “Leaders should spend time with the frontline, not to make them feel better, but to learn.” When you speak directly with customers, ask them questions about their hopes and aspirations, not just their needs and expectations. Turn customer interviews and focus groups into a treasure hunt in which you are likely to be surprised by the answers, not a dialogue to confirm what you already know or suspect.

Take a Bold Step to Improve the Customer’s Journey

Years ago, I consulted with a major bank. Correspondence to branch managers at that time was mainly through inter-office mail and couriers. Interviews with branch managers revealed managers were severely restrained from spending valuable time with customers and branch employees because of the time required to respond to various bank departments for information or reading reports they were expected to read. When I mentioned my findings to the regional bank executive, he hit the roof. He had a branch manager box up all the requests for one week, rented a van, and had the boxes of paperwork delivered to the CEO’s office. Stacks of boxes sent a powerful message, and the process was changed to ensure someone was always aware of the whole picture.

Knowing the real world of your customer is the first step. It then takes execution — that creates a delightful experience for them — right alongside the priority list of safety, security, and accommodation. To paraphrase poet Maya Angelou, “Customers will remember how you made them feel long after they have forgotten what you did for them.”

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