I was trying to explain to my dad what a consultant is. I said, “Think of executives as blindfolded people in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. A consultant is the person who finds the cat.”
I have had the good fortune to have worked in over twenty countries and in forty-eight states. And to get to all of those places I flew, and when we were done flying we always ended up in an airport because that is how things work when you have a good pilot. Today I was in Seattle’s airport. That airport has something I have never seen anywhere else. In fact, it has something that had I been sitting around with a bunch of friends and trying to come up with something odd to put in an airport, we would have never thought of adding this thing if we had sat for the next hundred years.
Across the walkway from me a woman was filling her water bottle from the water fountain that was attached to the concourse wall. I was standing thirty feet away from her. In spite of the cacophony going on around me I could hear the water from the fountain gurgling clearly, as it was dispensed from the fountain’s mouthpiece into her empty Evian bottle. The source of the sound wasn’t something I recognized immediately. Only after a few seconds did I understand that I was hearing was water running. I looked up and down the concourse, left and right, searching for the source of the water sounds. There was no obvious source, but the sound of running water remained as clear as a bell.
The gurgling sound appeared to be coming from the wall across the concourse. Only then did I spot the water fountain. When the woman released the fountain’s handle the water stopped and so did the sound. She turned the handle and the sound resumed. It wasn’t until she had finished filling her bottle and walked away that I was able to see the speaker. It had been built into the wall directly under the fountain.
There was no reason to share this with you other than the fact that I did not want to be the only one obsessing about the water. Staying with the water theme—continuing to obsess—and hoping my obsession might lead eventually to a series of rambling that I may be able to turn into to a blog, as I walked towards my gate I passed a seafood restaurant. Painted on the sign above the restaurant was a picture of a fish. It does not matter what type of fish is was. The background of the sign was blue. I assumed the blue color was supposed to represent water. The reason I assumed the fish was in water was because I knew that other than in the seafood section of a grocery store, water is usually where one finds fish. I stared at the fish. The fish stared back at me, and smiled the way a fish smiles when it has been laying on ice all day.
If your mind works like mine—and we do not have the time to debate whether my mind actually works—you are probably beginning to see how this is all coming together. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I want you to know I am working really hard to make sure you are not wasting your time reading this. As I looked up at the fish one of the voices in my head made me ask myself if the fish knew it was in the water. Then the voice asked whether fish, in general, have any knowledge of or understanding of water? Do fish even know they are wet? I concluded they probably don’t, but I cannot prove it.
Because I have an MBA, or perhaps in spite of that fact, I know that among the phyla (pl. phylum) of animals, fish are considered to be pretty good at swimming. Perhaps that is because that when they are not on ice they spend most of their free time in water. And swimming is probably some sort of a survival trait if you are a fish. I know for sure it is if you are not a fish. (The entire flow of this piece is starting to remind me of the Monty Python skit about migrating coconuts.)
Do fish know they are swimming? Do they even understand the concept of swimming? Asked the voice. Sometimes I wish the voice would leave me alone.
So, and here we go, can we be very good at doing something we do not understand? I think the answer is unequivocally ‘no’. Then the voice asked whether we can be very good at doing something we have only observed, something we have never experienced. For example, the voice postulated, whether a fish, if said fish had observed a person walking, could translate what it saw into its being able to walk. (There are those living among us who believe that millions of years ago fish walked out of the water, and evolved into humans.)
I think those who believers are the very same people who when they smile, look the way a fish smiles that has been on ice all day. Now, if it is true that if over millions of years of evolution, and the inability of fish to access cable television during those years, that in some inane interpretation of the survival of the fittest, resulted in fish walking from the sea, then so be it. And if that same meshing of the roiling of the essential gasses created the biped 101 which needed Nike’s to protect their feet…yada, yada, yada…somehow explains why a small faction of today’s humanoids like to listen to Celine Dion, does the fact that today we do not observe fish walking mean the evolutionary clock is moving backwards?)
If we cannot be very good at doing something we do not understand, and if we cannot be very good at doing something we have never experienced, does that explain why customer experience is often so pathetic? I have spent thirty years speaking with executives—those looking for the black cat that isn’t there—about innovation customer experience from the perspective of the customer. And those conversations have always left me confused. “Is providing a good customer experience a tenet of your organization?” I have ask them. I have never had an executive tell me that providing an excellent customer experience wasn’t a business imperative. When I ask, “Does your organization provide customers with good experiences?” To a fault they answer ‘yes’.
I think their answers explains why customer experience is so bad. The number of people in your organization who really understand customer experience would fit in a Hyundai. And all of the people work in your call center. The only time the other people understand customer experience is when they are experiencing a bad customer experience.
The big disconnect regarding customer experience is that employees of your organization never think of themselves as customers of your organization. Can your executives understand what they have not experienced? Based on the experiences I have seen, I am convinced the answer is no. For your executives to actually understand how customer experience functions in your organization, they would have to experience it. Knowing your firm has a call center, or walking through the call center, does not cut it.
I believe the thinking in most organizations must go something like this. Customers call. Our people spend time in our call center answering those calls. Therefore, we must be good at customer experience. QED. That assumption is no truer than assuming that making someone spend a night sleeping in their pool would make them a good swimmer.
This concept is self-proving. Go to your health system’s website. Did you have a good experience? If all you wanted to do was to learn what time the gift shop opened, your experience may have been okay. Call the number shown on the home page of your health system’s website, tell the person who answers your call that you just moved to town, and ask them to schedule an appointment with a specialist the next day. If you do not come away from that call feeling wowed—and you won’t—then you must conclude that neither will any of the other callers.
Adding valet parking, or proudly serving Starbucks, will not improve the customer experience. For those things to matter, your customer must actually make it to your facility. Consumers—potential customers, who never made it past your website or call center are no longer potential customers. They are somebody else’s customers. They will get their Starbucks at another hospital.
Most customer leakage, perhaps higher than ninety-percent of it, happens before consumers become customers. Your executives do not understand the experiences of consumers who are exploring becoming your customers because they have no knowledge of the experience. Your executives have no more knowledge of how many customers leaked during their first interaction with your firm than they have of the number of people who drove past their house while they were sleeping.
We’ve come full circle—water fountain, fish, and swimming pool. (And some people believe I couldn’t create something out of nothing.)
Three illustrations involving water. And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three. No more. No less. Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once at the number three, being the third number to be reached, then, lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.