The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for businesses, particularly when it comes to customer experience. Companies were forced to deal with closures, employees working from home, supply chain issues, and an increasing demand for remarkable customer experience. And most weren’t prepared. Why not?
I sat down with Ian Golding, one of the world’s foremost customer experience experts. Based in the U.K., he is a global customer experience specialist and author of Customer What? The Honest and Practical Guide to Customer Experience.
Dan Gingiss: Ian Golding, Welcome sir. Tell us a little bit about your background and what you’re doing today.
Ian Golding: I am like you – a customer experience specialist working with organizations on every continent on Earth to understand what this thing is. What I now call the science of CX, but more importantly, how to turn the science into something practical and demonstrable.
I’ve been doing it for far too many years now. What I’m still feeling very thankful for is that I get to see customer experience in every continent, every industry, every state of evolution. So every week I’m learning something that I didn’t know before. One of the wonderful things about what we do is that we are always in a different situation, which allows us to become better at what we do.
Dan Gingiss: Well, I also like that you refer to it as a science. I want to dig into that a little bit more because one of the things that I experienced in corporate America before I left is this feeling that CX is a soft skill that it’s not like finance, which is a hard skill. It doesn’t drive the bottom line. It’s nice to have, not a must-have. How do you respond to that?
Ian Golding: It is a fundamental issue, and it is one of the primary reasons why organizations are, still to this day, seeing a connection between customer experience and financial performance. Because customer experience, as we know, is a discipline in its own right. But it’s only in relatively recent terms that that’s been the case. And I always argue that it was the formation of the CXPA in 2011 that formalized the discipline of customer experience.
That’s years ago, just over 10 years ago. It’s nothing in relative terms. But what many businesses, leaders, and individuals still don’t understand is that sitting behind the words “customer experience” are a number of competencies. And it’s those competencies that will determine whether or not a business can become sustainably customer-centric.
Now, one of the challenges, though, with science, is that those competencies are not applied in an exact way. As you said, there’s no one way of doing any of this. So whilst I described customer experience as a science, it’s not an exact science and the skill of the customer experience professional is having sufficient knowledge of the competencies to determine how best to apply them in whatever scenario they face.
This is not a discipline where you can just learn stuff. You know, you’ve got to know it and then understand how to apply it in whatever situation we’re faced with. That’s tough.
Dan Gingiss: What I would argue at the same time is bringing everybody else into the fold because you’ve got to be an internal influencer as well. I like to call it “influence without authority.” We need those finance people involved. We need the legal team involved. We need the marketing team involved.
Customer Experience is Everyone’s Job
So let’s talk a little bit about this idea of customer experience is everyone’s job vs. customer experience is the job of a single team within the organization.
Ian Golding: The way I articulate this is the customer experience is the representation of everything an organization does that enables their customers to interact with their products and services. Every employee has a role to play in doing that.
However, there is a very simple question that you can ask any employee to determine whether or not they understand that. That simple question: “What role do you play in delivering the customer experience?” And if the response to that question is one of two things, they are proving to you that they don’t know. The two things being – “it has nothing to do with me” or “I am just.” This is unfortunately again so common in all industries.
We need organizations to visualize the experience they’re delivering to their customers as an interconnected chain of events. Every single employee in an organization, whether they know it or not, is a link in a chain connecting products and services to customers. We need every link in that chain to understand their role. It only takes one link in the chain not to understand the role and the chain breaks.
This is the problem because those facing the customer every day, well, they know what’s happening. But those who aren’t directly facing the customer aren’t consciously understanding that what they do is actually impacting those that are directly connecting with customers. They’re as much a part of that chain as those who talk to the customer everyday.
This is a principle that I call the Employee Hero, because whether people know it or not, whether businesses know it or not, it’s us, it’s our people who are the real heroes bringing the experience to life to customer’s everyday.
Dan Gingiss: Absolutely. One of the keynotes that I do is called “Why Every Employee is in the Customer Experience Business.” It comes from an interview that I did with an owner of about a dozen breweries in the United States, Scotty’s Brewhouse.
When you ask Scotty what business he’s in, he says, “I’m in the customer experience business.” He doesn’t say “I’m a restauranteur” or “I’m in the food business.” He’s in the customer experience business and that is what he wants all of his employees to feel.
What I love doing is going through different areas of the company because usually you’re going to have somebody say, “Well, okay, but I’m just in Finance,” as you said. Well, the Finance person might be determining the methods of payment that your company accepts. In Chicago, pre-pandemic, I found two fast casual restaurants, one of which decided to go to cash only and one of which decided to go to no cash. And you think about the difference in experience between those and who that affects, right? You have people that might be unbanked, that don’t have a card. So if you’re not taking cash, I don’t know how they’re eating at your restaurant.
Ian Golding: I facilitated a workshop on Monday on this very subject and there was a lady from Finance who did a variety of things, from accounts receivable to various other bits and pieces. I asked her and everyone else in the room. “Where do you sit in that metaphorical chain of events?” You know, do you come at the beginning, do you come in the middle, do you come in the end?”
She stood in front of the sheets of paper on the wall and she just looked really confused. She said, “I didn’t think we had anything to do with this chain, but actually, we’re everywhere, in fact, if you take us out the chain doesn’t connect together,” and it was like an epiphany. That’s really what we need people to understand: that we’re all a part of this.
What Did Companies Learn In the Pandemic?
Dan Gingiss: So obviously, we are hopefully coming out of a global pandemic that’s lasted a better part of two-plus years. Companies had to learn a lot about customer experience very quickly during the pandemic. As we come out of it, what do you think is different? And I guess the big question is, do you think we’ll be prepared for whatever the next world calamity is?
Ian Golding: That’s a brilliant question. Let me start on that. I think you’re younger than me Dan… But do you remember Y2K?
Dan Gingiss: Of course, yes.
Ian Golding: You can’t forget Y2K because the world convinced itself that the world was going to end as soon as the clock clicked on to the year 2000. The amount of preparation work that was done ahead of that was phenomenal. We were prepared for everything and nothing happened.
The reason I mentioned it, is that we get to a global pandemic and no one’s prepared for a global pandemic, and suddenly the world is having to react instantly to the Armageddon scenario that didn’t happen in Y2K.
What we learned is that we can do things very quickly if we want to. I think one of the most incredible things that businesses realize right from the very beginning is that it doesn’t have to take committee after committee after committee, approval process after approval process. It doesn’t have to take years to implement technological change. If we need to change something quickly, we can do it almost overnight. I think that was a brilliant thing for businesses to realize.
What we also saw was a huge increase in collaboration. Businesses realized we’ve got to come together and figure out how to do this. Suddenly, people were talking to each other, which was wonderful.
There are still many organizations blaming the pandemic for the way that they continue to do things and interact with customers. But as we come out of this pandemic, there are a number of big concerns for me. One is that we’re not thinking today – “what are we going to do the next time a pandemic comes?” Because it’s going to happen again.
The second thing is that one of the downsides of the last two years is that many businesses didn’t have a choice in most cases but to tighten their belts and get rid of resources that were seen as just unnecessary and to sort of restrict the size of their operation. What that generated was a greater need for the employees that were left to do things.
There was a word that I am increasingly disliking as time goes on, the word being “stretched.” Everyone tells me on a daily basis, “we’re stretched,” people are telling me that they are now more stretched than they’ve ever been before.
What that means is that people are becoming more and more task-focused than they ever were before, because we’ve got so much that needs to be done by fewer people, which means that we are obsessing with the delivery of tasks. People no longer have any time to think. And if all people don’t have time to think, they can’t empathize with the people they’re performing the tasks for. They can’t consider how they’re making those people feel and the unfortunate consequence of this is the experiences get worse. Customers become less happy and ultimately it’s damaging for the organization.
At the end of the day, we have to work with the situation and sometimes cut costs in a way that we didn’t want to. But as we come out of this, our people not having time to think is going to be hugely damaging going forward. Whilst people are stretched, there is a greater need now than ever before for organizations to identify things that are happening that are no longer necessary. If we can strip out non-value added activity from what we’re doing, then this horrible sense of being stretched can start to go away. We can’t keep blaming a pandemic for being stretched and not having time to do anything. We need our people to have time to think if they don’t have that, experiences will not improve.
Business Continuity Planning Is A Customer Experience Issue
Dan Gingiss: You mentioned without saying it, what I think is termed “business continuity planning”, which is basically being prepared for disaster. Now, I remember when I was in corporate America, I was in those meetings and I remember we would laugh at the idea of a pandemic like this. That’s never going to happen, right?
And to be honest, before 2001, we laughed at the idea of a terrorist attack. That’s never going to happen. When I asked do you think we’re ready for next time, it’s a little bit rhetorical because obviously we have to be. There’s no excuse to not be ready for another pandemic.
But also one of the things that I’ve been predicting, but not seeing as much as maybe I thought, was that business continuity planning as a skill was going to become almost as important as, the risk and privacy people have been in the last few years. I think that business continuity planning is something that probably has to fall under customer experience eventually, because it is the customers that end up the losers when everything shuts down, and the experience gets ruined.
I agree with you that this idea of being able to think, there’s the creativity aspect of it versus just the, “time to make the donuts!” You know, the Dunkin’ Donuts guy who wakes up at four in the morning. Repetitive tasks, just keeping the lights on, versus thinking creatively.
Ian Golding: For me, it’s proactive change. Historically, organizations have always been reactive. We wait for things to go wrong then we try and put it right. That awful expression of the burning platform. We need the platform to be burning before we do something. OK, well, that doesn’t work in 2022 anymore.
Whether there’s a pandemic or not, it doesn’t work because we now live in a world that is constantly being disrupted, whether it be a pandemic, whether it be conflict, as we’re seeing unfortunately in Eastern Europe right now, or whether it be disruption within your industry. At the end of the day, you cannot just wait because if you wait, it’s too late. What I’m hoping is that the message does get through, but at the moment, I can’t see it.
Dan Gingiss: Well, you mentioned the conflict with Russia and Ukraine. It’s possible, I hope not, but it’s possible that at some point we’re talking about a major escalation. We’re talking about other countries being involved, we’re talking about World War III and where’s that in the business continuity plan? Is anybody focused on that? I’m sensing a lack of urgency around that. Let’s wait and see and it’s that same mistake that we made with the pandemic.
Every morning I wake up and listen to NPR News, Public Radio, and I remember in December of 2019, January, February of 2020, they were already counting the cases in China. I remember when they said they hit a thousand cases in China and the numbers kept growing. Yet nobody here, there was no sense of urgency. I think we’re seeing the same thing with this conflict.
You mentioned supply chain. I’d be fascinated to know of all of the companies that have experienced supply chain disruptions, what have they done about it to prevent future supply chain disruptions? What are they doing to maybe make some products or some components domestically instead of having to import?
Ian Golding: It almost says to me, is it just too hard to think forward. We don’t need to think about that unless it actually happens. But one of those brilliant examples is Toys R Us. In their time, it was “we don’t need to go online.” By the time they realized they did, it’s too late. Why do human beings keep doing that?
Maybe it is sort of an inherent thing in the way human beings’ brains work. But I was always told that you can’t use the word, “can’t.” Anything is possible. If you want to do it, do it. So let’s think forward. I think that’s a sort of a message that I’ll be using a lot this year. Stop looking backwards, think forwards. What do we need to do to ensure the sustainable growth of our organization going forward?
Dan Gingiss: I totally agree. I think it’s important in every industry. It’s important whether you’re upstream, downstream, whether you’re B2C, B2B, D2C, B2G, whatever characters you want to put together, it’s important in all of them because what we saw in the last two years is total disruption. I don’t think we’ve seen that in our lifetime, but I agree with you. I think we will see it again in our lifetime. I think for sure, this isn’t the last pandemic that we will see in our lifetime.
Ian Golding: What’s interesting is that some industries do adapt to it better than others. The hospitality sector was brutal. Restaurants were, I mean, it was just a disaster. So what did traditional restaurants do? What did they say? Well, we can’t just wait to see what happens. Let’s start doing takeout for gourmet restaurants, you know, restaurants who would never have done that. The thing is, they now know how to do it. So, if something happens again, we’re ready. We’ll just flip the switch and we’ll start delivering.
Dan Gingiss: I would say even more than that. I don’t think they should stop because I think a lot of people got used to, “Oh, I can go to a gourmet restaurant and take out and have it at home.” And maybe I still want to do that. It’s like curbside pick-up at the grocery stores. I like grocery shopping, but man, when I got two hours back on my weekend. I got used to that. I don’t want that to go away, necessarily. I think a lot of what we’ve seen in the last two years, you mentioned being able to make faster decisions. Obviously the digital adaptation, but I think in a lot of ways, we’ve improved the experience and we’re not going back to what it was beforehand.
Ian Golding: Yes, that’s true. The other dynamic to that, though, which is important to mention is the impact on employees. I read something that there’s quite a lot of stuff on LinkedIn at the moment, of people saying “I was offered a brilliant job”, but they said to me, “I have to be in the office five days a week and I don’t want to do that”. “Why do I need to be in the office right away?” So there’s this other dynamic that actually the employee experience has been radically disrupted. An employee doesn’t want to go back to the way it was before.
Dan Gingiss: It’s like as companies over the decades went from formal business attire to business casual to casual. There were companies that just wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t move. Maybe you’d have a jeans day once a month, but they just weren’t going to do it. And then it kind of all exploded.
This thing with making people come in to work, what’s also being missed is the opportunity now that everybody knows how to work remotely. If you have a business that’s in some rural area of the country, you now have the ability to hire somebody from a major metropolitan area. You know, the best of the best for your company because they can work remotely.
It’s just like in customer experience, where sometimes we just have to turn it around to see the light and the opportunity. To me, the big opportunity for companies is that you can hire somebody from anywhere now. Instead of just having to look within a 10-mile radius of your office for the best person, which if you’re in a small area is tough to do, there’s not a lot to choose from. Now the whole world is your oyster, and I think that’s such an interesting opportunity for companies.
Ian Golding: 100%. One particular day during the pandemic, I worked in 10 countries on the same day, and yet we couldn’t have done that before.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview below and subscribe to The Experience Maker YouTube channel for more interviews with CX experts.