May 2017
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Joseph's Blog

{Infographic} Once Upon a Time People Assisted One Another…

Once Upon a Time People Assisted One Another…

It seems like every week I read something like:

UiPath, a robotic process automation (RPA) startup that’s setting out to help companies automate repetitive tasks, has raised $30 million in a Series A round of funding. UiPath <is>…bringing automation to the ‘intelligent enterprise.’ It specializes in building what it calls ‘intelligent software robots’ that help businesses complete laborious and repetitive processes through computer vision technology and rule-based processes.”


Servion predicts that, by 2025, Artificial Intelligence will power 95% of all customer interactions, including live telephone and online conversations that will leave customers unable to ‘spot the bot’”.

Technology investments and futuristic predictions of a world where virtually all service is done by undetectable robots are both intriguing and daunting. But how did we get here? And will we reach a point where humans won’t provide any service to one another?

The path to our present-day obsession with machine-aided service is clear. It involves a perfect storm of at least these three major contributing factors:

  • Increased salary pressure. Fueled by lower unemployment in many parts of the world, as well as increased costs for finding qualified staff members, and fierce competition for talent, spending for automation has become an attractive investment.
  • Ubiquity of mobile technology. Global demand among consumers for instant and effortless service at their fingertips has fueled self-service opportunities across digital platforms.
  • Unprecedented breakthroughs in AI, Machine Learning, and Visual Technologies. Whether it is augmented reality, virtual reality, holograms, voice activated devices, or artificial intelligence platforms, machines are engaging with people to help us work faster and smarter than ever before.

But what about the future? If the predictions are correct, 95% of interactions will be “powered” by AI. Will there still be a place for human service delivery?

I am convinced the answer is yes. Here’s my thinking

  • Lower skilled jobs are and will continue to be replaced by automation. Who wants to call a brand to have their address updated – when such a transaction can be handled through an app, a text bot, or an online link?
  • For the foreseeable future, as Artificial Intelligent machines continue to learn to navigate the ambiguities and nuances of complex social interaction, humans will have a place delivering complicated tasks that rely on experience and abstraction.
  • In the distant future, highly skilled service professionals will provide rare and desired experiences for people who will want to “opt-in” to humans – as a contrast to a world of bots and machines. Those professionals will likely be aided by machines, but customer-facing interactions will be delivered with authentic warmth, interest, and compassion beyond the reach of the smartest technology.

So, what’s your prediction and where will you make your bets? Are you “all in for AI”? Or will you hold some of your chips back to assure that a part of your future service has a human touch?

For now (and I hope forever) human service providers will need to learn to play nice with machines. Let’s hope the machines will play nice too!

{Infographic} Transforming Optimism on Transformation

Transforming Optimism on Transformation

The word transformation is all the rage in business today. I suspect that’s a byproduct of another trendy word disruption.

Given the speed of change ignited by start-up businesses and technology companies, many established and larger companies find their lack of nimbleness to be a liability. The challenges of accelerating new behaviors across a sprawling enterprise (often across multiple locations, if not countries) conjures up images of a Herculean undertaking and they frequently are framed as “make or break” endeavors.

Let me give you a few examples of seemingly essential transformations:

Large Retail Chains – Despite a myriad of tactical interventions, retail decline continues with brands like Kohl’s, Macy’s and JCPenney reporting a continued slide in first quarter earnings. To stop the bleeding, according to AdAge, Macy’s plans to transform the way it markets promotions. Kohl’s will strive to increase “personalization, simplification, and clarity” and JCPenney is pivoting to “more digital and social.”

Financial Institutions – For the past several years consulting firms like McKinsey & Company have been sounding the siren for revolutionizing service delivery. Specifically for banks, Henk Broeders and Somesh Khanna of McKinsey note, “If the last epoch in retail banking was defined by a boom-to-bust expansion of consumer credit, the current one will be defined by digital. This will include rapid innovation in payments and the broader transformation in systems enabled by digital technologies. The urgency of acting is acute. Banks have three to five years at most to become digitally proficient. If they fail to take action, they risk entering a spiral of decline similar to laggards in other industries.”

Automotive – Last year Business Insider issued a report on the challenges ahead for leaders in the automotive sector noting, “…the automobile as we know it will transform. Over the next five to 10 years, this internet integration is expected to change the car ownership model, create a new platform for consumers to access content, lead to fully autonomous vehicles, and revolutionize the auto industry. The market position of the car today is similar to where the smartphone was in 2010 — it’s just taken off and is ready to explode.”

Ok…enough of the “sky is falling”, “beware of disruption”, and the “speed of change is out of control” talk!

What can leaders in any size company do to create change readiness and enterprise-wide success on mission-critical transformation agendas? Here are 6 things to consider:

  • Strategically identify what needs to be “transformed” and limit key priorities. Nothing assures failure like adrenalin fatigue in which leaders exhort a “burning platform” for a tireless list of initiatives.
  • Tactically craft a vision for the desired change outlining:
    1. the benefits of the change.
    2. the risks of not changing.
    3. what is in it for the person being asked to assist in the change.
  • Identify a sponsor for the change supported by senior leader involvement, a team of the sponsor’s peers, internal and external stakeholders most closely affected by the change, and effective communicators.
  • Develop a communication plan that repeatedly shares the change vision and engages supervisors throughout the organization to personalize and activate the message.
  • Anticipate, identify root causes, and manage inevitable pushback. Teach effective methods for listening and work through active and passive resistance.
  • Build on Momentum – celebrate successes and stay the course!

Just as urgency for “transformation” reverberates throughout business articles and books, so too does skepticism about organizational success involving enterprise-wide change objectives. Some authors paint such an ominously negative picture, why should any leader even try to change an organization?

My experiences have been quite different as a consultant in small, medium and even large, complicated, multi-national businesses across sectors like automotive, retail, financial, healthcare, and professional services. In fact, I am a harbinger of hope for well-crafted transformational visions manifesting into the day-to-day actions across an enterprise.

It takes prioritization, rationale, communication, sponsorship, engagement of frontline leadership, resistance-management skills, celebration of victories, and sustained focus BUT transformational change can and will be achievable!

{Infographic} Choosing Where to Invest in Customer Experience Innovation

Choosing Where to Invest In Customer Experience Innovation: The Art of Tradeoffs

When asked if customers would like to have more exciting products, faster delivery, lower prices, OR friendlier service, the answer is always YES.

The challenge of customer experience excellence isn’t whether to improve products, people, process, or technology. The challenge is to identify which product, process or technology improvement will produce the greatest benefits for your core customer segments. Those critical customer cohorts consist of individuals who will not only drive present day profits but also emerging groups that will shape profits into a sustainable future.

The “big idea” of this blog is TRADEOFF. Every customer-focused decision represents a choice between competing options that will likely drive different benefits for different people at different costs.

Extraordinary customer experience brands spend a considerable amount of time learning about their core customer segments. (What do they value? Where do they go for information? How do they spend their days? Etc.) In addition to having a demographic and psychographic understanding of their core segments, leaders at these companies directly solicit qualitative and quantitative feedback from those core segments through questions like…

If we could only change one thing about our product (e.g. deliver it a day earlier or keep delivery the same but lower the price by $5) which would you rather do?

Based on the information they glean from this strategic listening, these leaders develop trial options to see if what customers “say” they want proves to be what they “really” want. If the brand tries the faster delivery option for example, but it doesn’t have the desired sales or loyalty impact, those leaders reverse course to explore other trial possibilities before they make an enterprise-wide modification.

Sometimes, speed-to-market considerations require brands to even TRADEOFF how much time is taken to listen to customers or other stakeholders. Should we go slower and miss a market opportunity or go faster with only part of the stakeholder picture?

In April, Starbucks launched a limited-time product that sought to capitalize on an online unicorn-themed food trend. The new drink called the Unicorn Frappuccino changed flavors and colors when stirred (going from a purple sweet/fruity taste to a pink tart flavor). The beverage was well-positioned to appeal to young, core Frappuccino drinkers and even to non-coffee drinking consumers.

Fueled by much social media buzz and the scarcity of very limited product availability (the product was crafted from April 19th to April 23rd or until supplies lasted in the US), the Unicorn Frappuccino connected with its target markets and sold resoundingly. But the tradeoffs made to get this product to market quickly showed some downsides – one of which was the meteoric demand and another the complexity of drink preparation.

In fact, one barista, Braden Burson was so distraught after his first day filling Unicorn Frappuccino orders that his online rant encouraging customers to NOT order the drink became a viral sensation in its own right. The magical nature of the Unicorn Frappuccino also did not protect Starbucks from a lawsuit being filed against it by the owners of a New York City coffee shop, The End Brooklyn.   According to the 10 million dollar lawsuit, The End Brooklyn began selling a similar Unicorn Latte four months before the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino made its debut.

So what do you think, did Starbucks leaders make the right tradeoffs in the Unicorn Frappuccino launch? Were the benefits in marketing, energy, existing customer excitement, and new customer trial worth the downside risks?

More important, how are you weighing the tradeoffs in your efforts to meet the needs, engage, and delight your core customer segments?

{Infographic} Out with the old, in with the new and not so new

Out With The Old, In With The New And Not So New: 3 Trends to Consider In Customer Experience Delivery

Are you ready for conversational commerce, digital gifting, and secondhand markets?

Great customer experience brands are constantly tracking macro-changes in consumer behavior and trying to determine if an emerging trend is simply a fad (hot for the short run but soon to fizzle) or a meaningful pattern worthy of infrastructure investment.

Here are three trends you may wish to consider as you explore technology, service, and product development:

1. Conversational Commerce – Increasingly customers are ordering products using voice commands through an interface like Amazon Echo. Starbucks and other brands have been leaders in developing technology to capitalize on this trend. Recently during a shareholders meeting, the Starbucks chief technology officer, Gerri Martin-Flickinger, suggested that consumer behavior is changing so rapidly that the days of customers using “one finger and point and click” to order online are waning and that the future will exclusively involve voice ordering.

2. Digital Gifting – In my book Leading the Starbucks Way, I discussed an early investment Starbucks made to allow customers to gift through social media – that initiative was called the “tweet-a-coffee program.” Tweet-a-coffee has been expanded to enable customers to send a Starbucks gift card via iMessage within a conversation using an iPhone or iPad. The person receiving the gift card simply redeems it on their Apple device using Apple Pay.

3. The Secondhand Market – According to a recent article in the Fashion Network, the largest online consignment shop (thredUp) reports millennials (30%) and women over age 65 (32%) are becoming more actively involved in thrift or secondhand shopping.

According to thredUp, 50% of their customers report that secondhand purchases are being made as an alternative to buying from stores like Marshalls or Nordstrom Rack.  While this finding currently is limited to clothing purchases, Fashion Network offers a possible explanation as to why the secondhand trend might be relevant to other industries when it comes to millennials and women over the age of 65:

“Having grown up during economic recessions, the two generations are more mindful of their purchases. More than half of these women have shopped secondhand in the last 12 months or say they will in the next 12 months, while the majority of millennial women say they consider the resale value of an item before they purchase something new.”

According to the Fashion Network article, shoppers with incomes greater than $125,000 are also passing up Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue to buy second-hand goods. As an example of positioning in response to this trend, I recently shopped at a high-end jewelry store that also sold “lightly used” designer handbags. 

So what do you think? Are these customer experiences fads? Alternatively, are they worthy of your consideration?

Let’s pretend that conversational ordering, digital gifting, and the secondhand market signal future true consumer preferences. How might you begin to invest in technology, service delivery, or product development that supports this changing consumer landscape?

{Infographic} What Are Your UICs?


What are Your UICs? Lessons from American & United Airlines Customer Experience Debacles

I call them UICs (unique industry challenges) and I see them as foundational issues that must be overcome to deliver outstanding customer experiences. Recently, high profile incidents at American Airlines (a confrontation between a flight attendant and a mother with two children as well as another passenger overheard the flight attendant’s behavior concerning the mother’s stroller) and United (the forcible and injurious removal of a passenger on an overbooked flight) highlight several major UICs facing airlines. Here are a few examples:

  • Frequent interactions that involve saying “no” to customers. Few businesses have as many rules (no strollers, “No you can’t get up and go to the bathroom yet”, “Turn off your cell phone”, “Stop playing your music without headphones”, “No your bag is too large to go overhead.”)
  • Customers must yield control. Unlike walking, driving, or riding a bicycle – train, cab, boat, and airline passengers rely on others to get them to their destination safely and on time. For airline customers, that reliance occurs in a metal tube at 30,000 feet.
  • Customer alcohol use.  Long layovers, traveler anxiety, free alcohol in first class, alcohol coupons as a loyalty perk, and many other factors contribute to passengers whose judgment may be impaired.
  • High volumes of customers served. The popularity of air travel (particularly at peak periods) places heavy demands on airline personnel, stress on passengers, and crowded/close proximity interactions.
  • General reputational issues. Viral videos of negative interactions like those mentioned earlier, policies that favor carriers over passengers, increased governmental and safety restrictions accompanied by incremental charges and disrupted travel caused by a myriad of factors all serve as a backdrop for customer expectations and assessments.

By contrast, if you were to generate a list of UICs for supermarkets (a business arena which typically garners fairly high marks on assessments of customer experience) or other retailers for that matter, you’ll likely find a very different list. For example, challenges in this sector might include:

  • Congested or cluttered aisles/display
  • Limitations in product selection or out-of-stock items
  • Indifference on the part of staff
  • Confusing store layouts
  • Items not ringing up properly
  • Long check-out lines
  • Inept bagging

UICs are reflections of industry vulnerabilities and/or “pain points” inherent in a customer journey for a specific business sector. UICs are mitigated by excellent experience design (e.g. touch point mapping) which optimizes service delivery provided by people (culture/training), processes (operations and business optimization), and technology (automation, efficiencies, and self-service).

Both the gospels of Matthew (7:5) and Luke (6:42), share a story of Jesus talking about the hypocrisy of not seeing a plank in one’s own eye while clearly identifying a speck in the eye of a neighbor.

In an effort to circumvent the tendency to over examine the limitations in an industry over which you are not responsible (maybe airlines) and to assure that you are addressing the substantial concerns faced by your very own customers, let’s take a moment to define the top five UICs you need to address.

How do you prioritize which UICs are mission critical?

What human service, process, and technological interventions are you deploying to address the highest value & unique industry challenges?