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Customer Experience

How To Investigate Your Customer Experience With Jeannie Walters

jeannie walters

Jeannie Walters is the CEO and Chief Experience Investigator of Experience Investigators, a customer experience speaker and trainer, and a fellow Chicagoan. She was kind enough to spend some time with me for a customer experience interview, sharing her wisdom on The Experience Maker Show.

Dan Gingiss: It is so great to have you here. For those that don’t know about you, why don’t we start by telling us a little bit about what you do?

Jeannie Walters: Sure. I’ve been focused on customer experience for about 20 years and have a company called Experience Investigators where we specialize in qualitative evaluation, and really consulting on journey mapping and understanding customers as well as we possibly can. I do that, I train, do workshops, and speak all about customer experience. I have a couple of courses on LinkedIn Learning for those of you who are stuck at home and want to get educated about customer experience. And, you know, I do a lot of writing and things like that. So that’s what I do. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, all about customer experience.

Dan Gingiss: I love how you say for those of you that are stuck at home, which is like pretty much all of us. And, who isn’t interested in customer experience? So, I think you’re targeting basically the whole world.

Jeannie Walters: I agree. I mean, why wouldn’t you be totally invested in this topic?

Dan Gingiss: I can’t believe that anybody isn’t. But then again, we’re a little bit biased. And so that’s unfair.

Jeannie Walters: Maybe a little bit, haha.

Dan Gingiss: So obviously, you have made the move to virtual presentations, which a lot of us speakers have had to do because our world kind of cratered in around us. How are you finding the reception out in the marketplace to virtual either keynotes or training or workshops, that kind of thing?

Jeannie Walters: What a great question for today, because I have been like crazy getting ready for a virtual keynote. As much as it seems like it would be less work than getting on a plane and getting onstage, it’s actually pretty. It’s a lot of work to really get it right.

As far as the reception goes, I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve had some long-term client relationships where I’ve done a lot of an ongoing basis for them, and some of that is continuing. I think one of the fears I have, I think, is that we’re all getting a little videoed out. And so, I think really understanding how to keep people engaged is super important, how to break things up, because it’s hard to sit for a long time screen after screen after screen.

So, I think we all have to get creative, but that’s okay. That’s where innovation comes from. And I hope, as we do more and more virtual events, we will learn more about how we can provide the most value. What do people really need in this environment that’s different than when we get onstage? Because you get a lot of energy from that audience and you play off of the people in the room and you play off of the energy that is there. That’s a lot harder when we’re doing virtual. So we just have to get really creative about it.

Dan Gingiss: You know, it’s interesting you said that because I was having a conversation on Facebook Live earlier this week and we were just doing it for fun. We ended up talking with my cousin who has worked in the professional wrestling industry for most of his career, not as a wrestler, but as a writer/photographer. And we were talking about how right now the WWE is still putting on content three times a week live in completely empty arenas. 

It’s fascinating because I mean, I’ve watched just a couple of minutes of it, but what’s fascinating is that you see these guys and they’re having these matches, and there are no fans and there are no signs and you can hear the sort of grunts that you wouldn’t normally hear on TV because it’s so loud. But, it got me thinking about how difficult that must be. It’s the same thing, right? When they make a great move, the crowd cheers and goes “Wow!”–they must feed off of that. 

And similarly, when we’re speaking, we’re looking at people’s eyes, we can see reactions. We can see when they’re laughing, when they’re paying attention. We can see if they’re not paying attention. And it is very difficult to do that and just sort of have to guess. I mean, we know our content well enough that we probably know when they’re chuckling that it really sucks not to hear it.

Jeannie Walters: It does. And I was even joking that when I recorded this keynote, I was going to line up all my kids’ old stuffed animals on the couch just so I could have an audience and feel like I was not in an empty room talking to myself. You’re absolutely right. Like, we have to have enough faith in what we do to know where things land. But at the same time, there’s nothing quite like having that give-and-take with humans, right? That’s what we’re kind of missing right now. 

Dan Gingiss: So, Jeannie, what are you seeing from clients in terms of focus on customer experience? Is it becoming more important, as you and I would probably argue it should be, or is it being tossed to the side because there are so many other priorities, that we’ve got to do something else besides that right now?

Jeannie Walters: I wish I had a perfect answer on this, but I hate this answer: It depends because there are leaders out there who are really understanding that of all times in history right now, we need to show our customers understanding and compassion, and really understand what they’re looking for in new ways and in very quick ways.

In fact, McKinsey just came out with a report a few days ago, I think, that basically said that the customer demand has changed so much and so quickly that there have been surges in certain industries. Like the fresh food meal delivery programs–they saw a 25 percent surge in just a few weeks in customer demand.

So that creates all sorts of issues around. We know what our customers need, but we might not be set up to provide it for them in the way that they expect. Our customer experience might not be able to keep up with this. And so, I think if you’re not focused on customer experience, you could be caught behind that and really disappoint customers when you had this huge opportunity to pivot in this great right way and come out of this in a different way.

So, I think there are leaders like that who are really focused on that. I think a lot of leaders are looking at this as a customer service/customer support issue, and they’re trying to put everything into providing reactive service.

And there is a place for that in some industries. But I think we also have to think very proactively right now about how we can look at the journey that our customers are on. Where are the demands that they have right now that they didn’t even have six weeks ago? What are the concerns they have that they didn’t have six weeks ago? I’ve been recommending to my clients that they look at certain customer segments. Who are your customers over the age of 60? Where do they live? You know, that has an impact today. So, all of these things are really looking at that, that’s where I think forward-thinking leaders are really going to shine.

There are some who are not going to make it through this because they’re thinking very short term, very reactively, instead of really being proactive about what customers need, not just today, but what that will mean long term. People will remember how they’re treated right now, and so we have to really look at that.

Dan Gingiss: I couldn’t agree with you more on that last piece. And I think that’s why it is so important right now that we’re focused. One of the pieces of advice that I’ve been giving–which is so simple, and it is sort of a basic tenet of customer experience anyway–is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. And, we’re all at home right now. So it’s not very difficult for us to imagine what our customers are going through, because you’re going through the same thing we are. We’re actually in a unique time in history in that pretty much everyone–no matter what your gender, socio-economic status, religion, sexual orientation, where you live in the world, whatever–everyone’s going through the same thing right now. So, we don’t have an excuse not to identify with our customers because we know what they’re going through.

So, try to think about, well, what are you going through at home and what’s difficult and what do you wish was easier? And what could some of the companies that you do business with do to help you make it easier on you and your family? And that’s probably going to start steering you towards the answer of what you and your company could be doing. But it is remarkable how sometimes it’s difficult for us to separate our own consumerism from our own customers and what they’re experiencing.

Jeannie Walters: I mean, if people were really good at that, we wouldn’t have jobs, right? That’s really the crux of what this is. It’s about the fact that our brains just can’t handle two separate truths. So, if we say, “Well, this is how I feel as a customer, but I’m doing all these great things in my brand. I’m creating all these processes. I know they’re going to work,” and we’re not really taking the time to ask customers.

And the other thing about today that I think is really different is: customer experience in the last few years has really been built on data, analytics, and measurement. And all of that is super important. But I like to say data’s great, but it’s always late. It’s always about what has happened. If we’re relying on benchmarks from six months ago, that’s not going to work right now. And so, I think getting real-time customer feedback may be a little more informal. I mean, heaven forbid, we might actually get some anecdotal data that’s important right now. And I know that’s making all the data scientists like, cringe. But it’s important to reach out in this really authentic human way through social media or through asking your customer support team, you know, what are you hearing, what’s really going on? And then reacting to that. Because if we’re just relying on the data that’s always worked, that’s not going to work today.

Dan Gingiss: Well, and it’s really as easy as just reaching out to your customers, right? Pick up the phone, call or email them, or go on social media, especially because we have a lot of employees that are at home right now that maybe aren’t at full capacity because of the nature of their jobs. It’s a little tougher to be at full capacity from home or whatever. Give them a list of customers and have them call. You know, I did that–I helped a consulting client do that. And it was remarkable how appreciative people were just to hear from the company. That was a big deal. And so I think that any company can do that.

So, in correlation to most of us being stuck at home at a time like this, “How does automation and self-service play a role during COVID as customer requests are increasing like crazy?”

Jeannie Walters: Great question. Thanks for asking that one. So I like to think of automation–I think we have to really understand where automation fits in the journey. Because, for instance, if I’m going to a grocery store right now and I’m using self-checkout, I’m using those kiosks that everybody else has touched, that’s a very different experience. And that’s going to raise certain levels of anxiety for me that might be different in other automation. So first of all, I would define what the goal of automation is. And I think that customers are really open to the right kind of automation, especially if it’s personalized to really make sure that they’re being served.

For instance, if you are in a queue on a phone call and you’re trying to wait and it’s telling you to wait forever, and it’s because you have one question, and maybe your question is, you know, are you going to extend the due date for a bill or something? If you could access that information, if they could provide that to you proactively in that form of automation, that could really help not only you, but also the company figure out how to get through this higher volume of demands and requests.

So, I think there is a great opportunity for automation. I think there’s great opportunity for personalization even and really relying on the tools that we have available, but making sure we really understand where they fit in the customer’s journey. Not just what they’re doing to help our brands get through this, but really how can we do this proactively for the customer? I think that’s the biggest question we have to ask about everything right now in customer experience.

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, I think it’s a great point. And, you know, a lot of it is just more amplified now than it has been before. But it is similar to how we always should be treating customers. So, my perspective on automation is I think automation is awesome when it is answering a repetitive question or a question that frankly somebody could Google, or that’s a pretty straightforward question. What’s the balance on my account, et cetera.

I think where automation falls down is when it tries to replace the human, and we really do need that human being to answer. And what is so acute about that right now is that people are craving human interaction. I would not lean immediately towards automation because I actually think that every opportunity you had to talk to a customer right now, just as we were saying before, it’s a research opportunity. It’s an opportunity to connect and gain loyalty, et cetera. I think it’s one of these things where we should be looking forward to talking to customers if we can.

My view, anyway, is that the best place for automation is actually to help the agent become a better agent. I always imagine an agent sitting next to IBM Watson, right? They’ve got the answer to every question in the world, the best Jeopardy player–they can answer anything, right? So now, they don’t need the three or four screens in front of them and all the sticky notes and the hacks that they do. All they need is their ability to communicate with another human and let the machine give them all the answers. That makes them so much better of an agent, and it makes the experience from the consumer’s perspective so much better, because how many of us have called, and then we finally get a hold of you, and you’re sitting, listening to somebody type a mile a minute to go find one piece of data. And it’s a very strange experience. So, that’s where I would be focusing on automation. What do you think?

Jeannie Walters: I mean, I think in an ideal world, that’s true. I think right now, that might be challenging. People are really challenged with staffing right now, they’re challenged with getting trained people into the right seats of the bus right now. Because as these demands go up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their business operations have gone up. In fact, in many cases they are limited somewhat. So, I would say, we’re kind of saying the same thing here, right? It’s all about how you can serve the customer in that moment the best way.

And so if they’re calling in to an agent, I totally agree with what you’re saying about the automation on that end of the spectrum, because we have not served our customer support people really well throughout the years with that. Now, we have the ability with machine learning and with artificial intelligence and all these amazing tools. There are some really amazing things you can do where it empowers the agent to really respond to the customer in the right way. I think the other part of this is, again, going back to “Who is your customer?” What are those customer segments and how can they be served in the best way? There will be generations that are more comfortable with getting text messages and getting things through the app and different automated touchpoints and feel like that’s still a very personal experience. There are other segments who won’t feel that way. And so, it’s understanding who your customer is, what they’re trying to do, and how you can best serve them.

Dan Gingiss & Jeannie Walters

Dan Gingiss: All right. So, let’s jump off of COVID for a minute because let’s face it, we’re a little exhausted talking about this. What were you really excited about from a customer experience perspective before all of this happened?

Jeannie Walters: I am excited about AI actually. I am excited about the potential of personalizing things in a way that’s scalable with artificial intelligence. And we’re not there yet. And anybody who’s had a frustrating chatbot experience will tell you we’re so not there yet. But I think that there are tons of potential around that. And I am excited about what that can mean, because we’ve talked about the customer journey for years. We’ve explored that. We understand. It’s really important to understand.

I think we have to take that a step further, and really understand the customer ecosystem, and what you brought up about really identifying with where everybody is in the world right now? That’s talking about their ecosystem. Because it’s not about my interaction with the brand as a standalone. It’s about “How does this fit into my bigger life.”

And I think when we look at how we can support and empower customers, not just with interactions with our brand, but what our brand could do for them, could help them with their life. If we understand their life and their ecosystem more, then we can deliver so much more value and with the tools available, we can scale those things, which has always been a challenge with humans. And so, we then reserve our humans for when they’re going to have the best impact, when they’re going to be able to provide the most value and when they’re really going to leverage those emotional connections so that customers feel like they’re being taken care of. So that’s what I’m excited about. I think there is so much potential around that. And I’m really curious right now as we get through this. What sort of innovations are going to come out of this? What sort of things will happen that will be even more exciting than we’re dreaming about right now? I think that’s going to be a big part of that.

Dan Gingiss: Yeah. And I think a lot of companies are seeing success in some different places that maybe they’ve seen before. And, you know, there’s one company I work with that’s now doing three different webinars a week and getting tons of people signing up for them because people are just clamoring for learning and for continuing education and all that.

And I think it’s you know, the other thing is that we’re looking at . . . We’re seeing all of the companies that we do business with react at the same time. And so, we have this ability to compare. The last time I remember that happening is when the European privacy laws were passed and we got all these privacy policy emails in our inbox. I remember writing for Forbes, I did a comparison of like, ten of them and with the situation that we’re in as well. Now, at the very beginning you saw all of these basically check the box emails that were, you know, “Hey, we’re cleaning more. And here’s the CDC’s website.” Awesome.

I couldn’t find that on my own. Yeah, but lately we’re starting to see, I think, more contextually relevant emails, one that I highlighted in a post recently. It was from Charles Schwab who recently sent me all of these investment research tools to handle getting through a volatile market. It’s like, wow, that’s brilliant. That’s exactly what I want from Charles Schwab right now. And I think that, you know, companies need to ask the question of how can you really help? Not like, appear to help by sending me to the CDC website, that I already know how to get to. But how can you help? Is it contextually relevant to my existing relationship with you?

Jeannie Walters: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. And it’s funny because I just wrote a post with some examples like that, too. So, we’re thinking like, because the idea of exactly what you talked about, like sending these things that are somewhat meaningless to a customer, transitioning into a place where you’re sending them something really meaningful is really important. And I talked about how, you know, Macy’s of all places–they sent out something that said, “Okay, our shipping is messed up right now.” Like, everybody’s struggling with this, or “Shipping is delayed.” But then the next question that they addressed was, “You’re probably wondering if we’ll be extending the return window.” 

You know, when you want to send something back. “Yes, we are. Here’s what we’re doing.” And I was like, “That’s a great example of putting yourself in the customer’s shoes,” and thinking, “OK, what’s the next logical concern that somebody might have? How can we address that? How can we make it relevant to them?”.

I think that there is this mutual compassion right now for what everybody’s going through. So, customers are more aware that brands are just people. Brands are just big organizations of people. And so, instead of having this relationship with a brand, we’re now seeing relationships with people. I think everybody’s responding to that and really authentic human ways, which again, I hope that lasts. A few months ago, we were talking about how customer demands were getting kind of crazy. And now I think customers are also having patients with brands. But the brands are being really authentic about it, which is how we got there. So, I hope that continues.

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, it gets down to this again, this human desire for interaction, which is why staying at home is so hard, right? That we can’t be with people.

And I have held a belief for a long time that people want that human relationship with the companies that they do business with, and the ones that stand out to us as being examples in whatever industry are generally the ones that have figured out how to create that relationship. I love your example of the sort of proactive, anticipatory question.

That’s what I said earlier on about the kind of thinking from the perspective of yourself at home. What questions do you have while your customers probably have those questions too? Maybe you could answer them before they have to ask you, and there’s so many benefits to that. Because, number one, your customer thinks that you understand them and that you’re listening to them. And number two, you might even save yourself a couple of customer service calls, by getting out in front of something before it happens. So, I think that is really smart. And in the few times in which that happens to me–even as a customer experience guy, I’ll be like, “Man, it’s like they read my mind!” It’s a really good experience.

Jeannie Walters: It is! Well, and I think the other part of that is sometimes I’m always blown away when they are answering a question I didn’t even know I had. Once you do this, you might have this. 

A couple of years ago, we were experimenting with different software, collaboration tools and things like that. And there was a feature that we really wanted and we couldn’t find it. So, we emailed their service team and they said, “Oh, you know, we’ve been working on that for a while, here’s what you can do, here’s a workaround.” And about a week later, they sent another email and said, “You know what? We found a better workaround for the integration that you want.” Iit was one of those integrations that I had kind of mentioned, but I didn’t realize how important it was going to be with their software. They totally anticipated that for me.

So, then suddenly it was this moment where I was thinking, oh, my gosh, they totally recognize that we had this need. And then the kicker is, about six months later, they emailed us and said, “Hey, guess what? That feature you asked about six months ago is live now. Here you go. Try it out.” And I was just like, wow, they really thought about it in a way that it wasn’t just kind of saying, which is very common. I think we’ve all had this where we email about a feature and they say, “Yeah, we’re working on that.” then you never hear about it again. You might catch the announcement when it’s launched a few years later, but it’s not personal. 

So, I thought that was great how literally I was thinking, “Wow, I didn’t even know I needed that integration.” And then once I thought it was like, “Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?” And I would have asked that question in two months anyway. But they totally got in front of it and it left such an impression on me.

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, that’s awesome. And I always recommend to clients: if somebody is giving you a suggestion or a product approval or whatever, even if you don’t do it for another year, go back to all the people that recommended it and suggested it and tell them each individually that you listen to them and that you made the change and you’re going to absolutely make a customer day and create long term loyalty.

Jeannie Walters: I mean, that’s the basic definition of “closed loop.” But we are notoriously not good at that. Brands are notoriously not good at closing that loop specifically or the ones who, you know, compliment you, but also ask for something. We’re really bad at closing that loop, too, because we’ve got all these other fires to put out. And it’s really easy to just think they’re gonna be happy when they see it. But I love that recommendation because it really is. It’s about making that emotional connection and it’s about letting people know that you’ve really heard them, which is half of this. Customers just want to feel heard and recognized and seen. And so, the more we can do that, the better everybody feels about it.

Interview edited for length and clarity. Watch the video of the entire interview on YouTube.

Related: The Do’s and Don’ts of Customer Service Automation