Over the years, as a customer experience consultant, I’ve increasingly become a student of “game theory” and of the “gaming industry.” I sense I am not the only one. For example, Thomas J. Watson the founder of IBM is quoted as once saying that “business is a game.”
As you likely know “game theory” is a branch of mathematics that postulates how people interact with one another to get their respective needs met (either in competitive or non-competitive ways).
Even if you haven’t formally studied game theory you’re probably aware of many of its concepts such as those articulated by Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli and others – concepts like the law of diminishing returns. That law suggests the benefits of effort or expenditure often decrease with time to a point where the gains don’t justify that expenditure.
Game theory obviously plays a role in “gamification” of mobile apps, online contests, or even the creation of buying incentives. In fact, according to gametheory.net an incentive is often, “given to overcome a moral hazard problem which arises due to imperfect information.” In other words, an incentive is a nudge to help people overcome fear or uncertainty when faced with a buying decision.
Clearly, game theory has its greatest application within the “gaming industry”. According to an article by Mark de Bruijn titled Level-up your customer experience: Lessons from the gaming industry, gaming has become a 100 billion dollar industry serving 1.5 billion customers. In his article Mark identifies three key ways that designers in the video and mobile gaming industry create “gamer engagement”, loyalty, and spend. Those 3 areas are:
- First Impressions
It should also be noted that all three of these design elements are applicable beyond the gaming industry.
Let’s take “immersion” as an example. In gaming, immersion involves enveloping customers in:
Mark highlights the role of gameplay broadly in business by noting, “At Starbucks you can earn stars with purchases. The Spanish bank BBVA lets customers perform tasks to promote the use of internet banking. And the running app Nike+ Run Club challenges sports enthusiasts to measure themselves against others.”
From the perspective of “graphics/sound,” companies not involved in the gaming industry address these issues through visual and sensory elements that drive pleasure and positive emotional connections. The efforts are reflected in the design of sights, sounds, smells, and possibly tastes during brick and mortar interactions or through the visual layout of an online company.
The story, from the perspective of gaming, typically involves character development, dialogue, and ways for gamers to personalize their experience. In other business settings, “story” often involves providing an emotionally engaging context for a branded customer experience and finding ways to have customers meld their personal story with your brand story. It also involves giving your customers a positive story to tell about the experience they had purchasing from you.
While I might not agree with John Watson’s ultimate conclusion that “business is a game”, I am certain that the more we apply mathematical principles about the economics of decision-making the more effectively we’ll design and deliver experiences that connect with our customers. Additionally, I am certain that the more we connect with our customers through promotion, graphics/sound, and immersion – the more they will purchase and demonstrate loyalty with us!
We’ve all had it happen. As customers, we’ve encountered a service provider who unfortunately chose to attend to something of interest to them instead of attending to our needs. As a result of their self-preoccupation, we were left to feel like we were intruding on their text messaging session, their online purchase, or interrupting their workplace gossip.
If you run a business involving human service delivery, you certainly want to set service expectations that help your people focus on the customer’s needs– every customer, every time.
So, what’s the best way to make your expectations as a leader clear and consistent?
Well here’s an example worthy of study. At a restaurant not far from me, the owners “require” their employees to sign a service behavior contract which among other things states that their employees will pay a “fine” if they have their phone out during working hours. The price for the first offense is $2.00, the second transgression $5.00, and the third $10.00. Similarly, employees are asked to agree to pay $1.00 each time they don’t say hello or goodbye to a customer.
Ok, I said that was an example worthy of study – not that it was an example worthy of emulation. In fact, the restaurant’s contract is more about controlling staff behavior in a wide variety of ways and not just ways that “might” improve the life of a customer. For example, the contract also has a cost saving clause which makes staff pay a fine if they give a straw to a customer unless the customer specifically asks for one.
Lest you think, I am exaggerating the nature of the restaurant’s contract check it out for yourself here. While I am not sure how well the contract is working, I do know an employee who claims they were fired for not signing the agreement has made the contract a very well shared internet phenomena.
As an alternative to fining your employees. Let me offer a more tried and true approach to setting service expectations and driving consistent execution:
- Write down your service expectations.
- Highlight the “vital few”, “the nice to haves” and the “we can’t tolerate” behaviors.
- Let prospects know what you expect for service before you hire them.
- Look for the behaviors you desire in prospects while you’re hiring them (during formal interviews and informal interactions).
- Remind people of your service expectations during orientation and onboarding.
- Consistently demonstrate the service behaviors yourself.
- Continually train and coach to your desired behaviors.
- Catch people doing those behaviors well and recognize them for their authentic execution.
- After you’ve exerted considerable coaching effort, let team members go when they are not coachable or can’t perform consistently with expectations (it is for their good – they need to find something they are better suited for – and it is for the good of your service culture).
While behavioral contracts like the one deployed by our restaurant example can work for the short-term – customer service is a matter of culture. It is the way things get done every day in every action. As such you can’t “fine” your way to a fine service culture – you have to select for, train to, live by, and reward actions in keeping with the service behaviors you seek.
Every time I develop a customized customer service training tool for a client of mine, I caution that the tool is a “guidebook” for customer service behavior and that no tool can fit every application. As such, a customer service toolkit is only as good as the judgment and skill of the person using it. Additionally, tools often get elevated to “laws of human behavior” even in the absence of empirical data or evidence.
Let’s take two of the most commonly accepted tenants of good customer service – eye contact and being physically present. It is generally accepted that customers want to be welcomed and have service providers smile and make eye contact upon arrival at a business. However, a recent field experiment conducted by Carol Esmark, Ph.D. and referenced in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Your In-Store Customers Want More Privacy” showed that those behaviors don’t always have the desired effect on sales. Specifically, her findings from one study suggest, “If eye contact is made, the shopper is 37% less likely to purchase their intended product during that trip. Similarly, in line with a second field experiment where shoppers’ personal space was invaded, shoppers are 25% less likely to purchase the item in question if they feel another person is too close to them.”
Additional studies conducted by Dr. Esmark and her team seem to suggest that the nature of items being purchased has an impact on the “desired eye contact” from service providers. Dr. Esmark notes:
“Control over privacy becomes even more important when the product expresses a great deal about a person. Items such as nail polish or hair dye are more expressive in comparison to non-expressive products like face wash or cotton balls…Getting close to shoppers when they are eyeing less expressive products can actually increase sales because the product isn’t as telling of their personality. However, if the product says a lot about the shopper, they prefer some distance while they browse. Overall, when you invade someone’s privacy, the abandonment of a purchase is much more likely to occur when the product is expressive.”
Not only are field experiments like those conducted by Dr. Esmark helpful to fine-tune customer experience behaviors, but they also remind us that customer service is both art and science. Evidence-based principles of desired service behaviors must be delivered with great finesse and nuance. Eye contact may be a generally desirable customer service behavior, but that behavior has to be tempered in the context of the need of the person in front of you at the moment.
I once heard a chess master responding to a question about what it takes to be one of the best players in the world, he said, “Greatness comes from knowing the rules and when those rules need to be bent or abandoned to achieve victory.”
The same may be said for delivering transformational service experiences that resonate with each person you serve – know the “guiding principles” and when they should NOT be applied!
I am proud to say that Horst Shultze, the founder of the modern-day Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, has been a mentor.
One day, I was asking Horst about a client of mine that was struggling to engage customers. As I presented the challenge to Horst, I explained the efforts the company’s leaders had exerted to, “improve the quality of their customer experience so that most customers had less pain during interactions”.
Horst, in his charming yet forceful clarity replied, “That is exactly your shared problem. Who in the world wants to follow you or that leadership team if your aspiration is so timid. Who wants to only remove some of the pain, some of the time, for some of those they serve?”
Over the years, Horst has had to remind me of the consequences of thinking small or setting uninspiring aspirations. He continues to challenge the organizations he leads, and protégés like me, to seek the “perfect customer experience for every customer every time” and set “perfection” as the expectation for every service professional.
In the past, words like “perfection” were unnerving to me. I used to believe that the pursuit of perfection was not only unrealistic but demoralizing. Who wants to be exhorted to be perfect, when perfection can’t be achieved? In my mind, why should anyone seek the impossible, when aspiring to lofty heights like “excellence” or “world-class” could be sufficient to improve performance? From Horst’s perspective, “perfection” is the only game worth playing. It is what drives him each and every day.
Interestingly enough it is by chasing perfection that we achieve more. The great American football coach, Vince Lombardi, put it this way, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” I extrapolate that to mean that chasing excellence might lead to mediocrity.
Let me give you an example of some rationale for setting perfection and not excellence as your service standard. Let’s assume you serve 100 customers a day and that “excellent” or “world-class” companies satisfy 90% of them. Here’s the question – which 10% of your customers are you willing to dissatisfy?
In 2017, why not set a new standard for experience delivery? How about not settling for 90% satisfaction level but “perfect” experiences – flawless and caring ones which are delivered to every customer, every time – NO EXCUSES!
In essence, my wish for you and your customers in 2017 is in keeping with the words of American humorist and writer, Mark Twain, who reminds us all:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”
Explore what perfection looks like for your customers, dream that such perfection will occur, and discover ways to deliver it every time!
Over twenty-five years ago I used to speak about managing the stress of the holidays. Those speeches were loosely based on the book Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season. In it the authors, Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli, essentially focused on four main themes:
- Prioritize gift-giving to those who truly need your gifts.
- Engage in activities (across a well-paced holiday season – not just a day) that connect with your deepest personal values.
- Seek to be a peacemaker among friends and family.
- Commit to spiritual growth.
Over time, I’ve come to believe we don’t need to, and quite frankly can’t “Unplug the Christmas Machine” – that machine will run even if you or I were to find a way to unplug it.
I suspect our efforts would be better spent focusing on how to create humanity-rich experiences this time of year. To that end, I offer some thoughts which I’ll lovingly call “do’s and don’ts” for the season. These thoughts are targeted in the context of both business and personal life, as they relate to each of these relationships:
Family and Friends
Customer Do’s and Don’ts:
Do: Smile. During the holiday crunch a smile and genuine graciousness can stand out and comfort customers.
Don’t: Confuse this Customer With the Last One. When the pace picks up, it’s easy to get into a groove where people blur into “transactions.” You may be doing your 50th identical transaction of the day, but that transaction involves a person and for that person, this is likely their only interaction with you today. Honor people – their visits and their business.
Team Member Do’s and Don’ts:
Do: Drive Positive Energy. My friend Johnny Yokoyama (the owner of the Pike Place Fish Market) notes that what “shows up” in the workplace is a reflection of what the leader creates. Joyful workplaces begin with joyful, energetic, and caring leaders. There is never a more critical time for positive joyfulness than in this high-stress/high-volume period of the year.
Don’t: Get Lost in What You’re Selling. If you focus on serving your people and keeping them focused on serving others – your sales will benefit.
Family and Friends Do’s and Don’t’s:
Do: Focus on the Memorable. With very few exceptions, the most memorable aspects of the season are not the tangible presents but the experiences shared with people we love.
Don’t: Take this Time for Granted. I used to think “next year” I will savor the holiday season more fully. Aging and unexpected life circumstances have helped me realize that we just don’t know how or if we will experience the holiday surrounded by the same people assembled this year. Since there is no rewind button, mulligan, or “do overs”, THIS IS the season to savor!
Thanks for being a part of my Michelli musings and may you have the best holiday of your life.
From my faith tradition, I wish you a Merry Christmas and extend that wish to say Happy Hanukkah and Joyous Kwanzaa!