August 13, 2020
110 min read
The Profound Human Connection of Micro-Communities, Participatory Economies and Good Old Customer Service
This is Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. You already know that on this podcast, we’re obsessed with how the customer is changing. And every time the customer evolves, a new set of business models is born. The gig economies of Uber, TaskRabbit, and Instacart were born of lots of different economic and technology forces in America. But one of those forces was a changing consumer who was more willing to engage with strangers, especially as the sharing economy and peer reviews became more commonplace.
Then came the passion economy, with early ad-based models like YouTube, then sponsorship based models maturing on Instagram. And now platforms like Patreon and Subsec. But the common thread among all of these being a customer who is looking for a more direct relationship with the creator. And today, we’re seeing the emergence of something else, some that VC and Level Ventures partner Sari Azout calls the participatory economy, where fans actually participate in a creator’s success, with newcomers like Rally, Role, and Foundation. And this model, along with the others all boil down to one thing, customer happiness.
Customer happiness sounds trite, but it’s likely not what you think it is. It’s definitely not as simple as you think it is. And considering that the user, your user is changing, customer happiness is something that you can’t afford to overlook.
A business that is really, truly oriented around customer happiness is one where the business profits from things that are in the customer’s best interests. So, if you think about the KPIs and the guiding principles that define success, those have to be fundamentally aligned with the customer’s happiness. So, if you think of Facebook, for example, for Facebook it’s really important that the users spend a lot of time on their site. The more time I spend on Facebook, the more ads I’ll consume, the more money they’ll make. And so, for the user, spending a lot of time on Facebook, that’s not really making my life happier or more fulfilling. And so, I think of this as an example of misalignment.
Now, Facebook could start a customer happiness department tomorrow. They could improve their customer service department. They could add a ton of user research teams. But at the end of the day, if customer happiness is seen as a program or initiative, it’ll fail. I think that the companies that are truly oriented around customer happiness, there’s something in their kind of genetic code and the DNA of the business that’s driving the organization.
A long time, I think that I saw customer happiness as something that was defined by values. But I think if you only look at it through the perspective of values, you may have good values, but those don’t necessarily translate into your business model. For example, if you are a business that is selling anti-anxiety medication, but you profit. And even if your guiding principle as a founder is, I don’t want to sell medicine if you don’t need it. Ultimately, if your business model is designed to profit from selling medicine, there’s a fundamental misalignment there. So, I really think that this technical definition is one that acknowledges that businesses ultimately succeed when the self-interest of the business is aligned with the self interest of the customer.
What are some examples that really show how powerful this kind of alignment between the self-interest of the company and the self-interest of the user actually looks like and how it can create a business that’s very scalable, profitable, that can actually grow alongside other competitors that maybe have a different kind of business model?
You’ve also talked about something else, which is that the rise of the creative class of the knowledge economy kind of coincided with all of this and was another driver in this decoupling. Can you talk about that a little bit?
I think one caveat really is that the world is messy, right? So, it’s hard to kind of say, any business that is ad-based is fundamentally misaligned because the world is not black or white. Things tend to be pretty gray. But if we look at, for instance, education. If you look at the world of education, the business model around education has historically been you pay for information. The school is not really designed to profit when you get a job. But as the customer, if you’re going to enroll in a coding bootcamp, for instance, you’re not really paying for information, you’re paying for an outcome. You are paying to get a programming job.
So, that’s where that’s examples like Lambda School, for instance, come in. What they’ve done is, they only charge students once they get a job. And so, by charging them a percentage of what they earn, the idea is that the school’s interest is aligned more directly with students. And the school has kind of a real incentive and financial pressure to help students get a job. So, I think that’s an interesting example around education. We’re seeing a lot of movement there.
That’s not to say that if you launch a school with this model, you’ll succeed because education ultimately is about the quality of the curriculum and the teachers and the experience and the community. But I do think that businesses where there’s misalignment, they just present a lot of opportunity for innovation. Actually, a pretty interesting example is a company called [Aneva 00:05:30]. It’s in beta right now, but it’s Google competitor search engine that was started by an executive at Google who ran their ads business for 20 years.
So, the idea is that with Google, you as the user are not the customer, you are the product. They profit from you data. And so, their business model really necessitates them doing some things that are not in your best interest. If you are searching for something at Google, what you’re going to see is really the renting space to the highest bidder. And they’re not necessarily incentivized to show you the best results for you. And the idea with a subscription product is that the incentives are more aligned.
Of my favorite examples actually, is in the gig economy. So, if you think about the gig economy and platforms like Instacart and Uber, the challenge with a lot of these businesses is that it’s hard to keep all stakeholders happy, the drivers happy, the shoppers happy. Everyone almost feels like they’re getting ripped off. And so, I think that with Instacart, for example, there is a new company called Dumpling, and they’ve kind of turned the business model on its head because they’re giving personal shoppers a personal website. They’re empowering them, instead of a model where they’re somewhat commoditized or dehumanized. In the case of Dumpling, the shoppers are paying to build their own kind of grocery shopping business, almost like the Shopify model.
So, to me, what’s really exciting about these businesses is that they’re combining the scale of these marketplaces, but with the idea of empowerment and accruing kind of equity and value for everybody, not just for these kind of centralized organizations that a lot of participants have come to resent.
Yeah. When you were talking about subscriptions models just a second ago, it makes me think of the passion economy, or what you’ve described as the participatory economy, which is maybe an extension or something separate from that. I’ll let you describe it. But you had another really great example in some of your writing about the difference between Medium and Substack. And I think you had described how with medium, it’s really about really good content. With Substack, it’s really about really good creators. And there’s a difference between those two experiences. Can you describe that a little bit more? Like, how one maybe is a certain kind of brand in a certain kind of economy, whereas the other is maybe working on an older model?
Yeah. It’s super interesting. I think Substack is another example of this idea of incentive alignment. If you think about essentially the model for MailChimp, because we can think about incentive alignment for something like a MailChimp for Substack, and also Medium or a traditional media company and Substack. But starting, for example, with something like a MailChimp, with MailChip, you are paying to send a newsletter. With Substack, you are getting paid to send a newsletter, right?
Just this idea that Substack grows alongside your audience is a really interesting flip on kind of just publishing in general. I also think that Substack is an example of the passion economy in the sense that it’s really building on the identities of creators and the personal brands of creators. And so, with Substack, you’re not subscribing to topics. You are not subscribing to a publication, you’re subscribing to people. And I think that what’s interesting is that, in many ways, Substack is a response to media that has incentivized clicks and views, as opposed to kind of depth of interaction.
Substack, by charging subscriptions is able to go kind of narrow and deep, instead of having to appeal to a wide audience and monetize on ads. I think the challenge is, I think if you ask, does this idea of incentives apply to every industry? I think the challenge is, I don’t think media has found its model yet. I don’t think you can call subscription media a panacea yet. I think there’s a lot to be said about information wants to be free. And so, what happens if we live in a world where the lies are free and you have to pay for the truth?
And so, I think there’s a lot of, I think, discourse and conversation around that. And it’ll be interesting to see how Substack evolves. I think in the passion economy, a lot of what we’re seeing it fans are not necessarily paying for content, they’re paying for alignment and an affinity with a creator. So, there’s a universe where Substack can enable creators to build these close relationships without necessarily paywalling the content. So, I think there’s a lot of room and space to explore and kind of what it means, what the new business models for information might be. And it’s certainly an exciting time with a lot of kind of emerging business models that different people are exploring.
I really am so happy that you brought this up because it kind of brings up this gray area that I wanted to discuss with you. You said something similar to what you just did nos in one of your newsletters. You said, “Do we want to live in a world where people pay for content?” And I just want to put that question to you. I know you kind of touched on it a little bit. But in your personal opinion, and you just described, when the lies are free and the truth or whatever, the subjective truth is paywalled, naturally, you’re going to create echo chambers and a sense of tribalism. But is there another side to this? Like, if you had to answer this question, how would you answer it?
It’s such a fascinating question because I think that if you look at other professions, if you look at anything outside of journalism, sports stars, celebrities, the best ones get paid so much money. And so, with journalism, it’s not the case, right? Journalists are some of the lowest paid across all of these professions. And the reality is is that it costs a lot of time and money to create good information. And so, we could get into a conversation about, to what extent is it a public good? I think what’s interesting to me is that, if you look at what a lot of the successful publications at Substack have done is, they have said the free tier gets one post a week. The paid tier gets two posts a week. I don’t think that’s the right model.
1 think that you are making a lot of effort in creating something that costs you $0 to distribute. What I think that people are paying for, if it’s true that people are paying for the affinity, the closeness, the idea that I am supporting such and such writer, then I think that there is a universe where information can be free and users, customers will still pay for that affinity. I think that there’s still a lot of room to explore what that means. And I don’t think that we have the tools necessarily for that.
But I do think that it’s certainly not the best outcome for society for everything to be come subscription based in response to advertising. And I also think that we kind of went from advertising is evil, subscription is pure. And we’re not realizing that there’s a real gray area here, in the sense that, perhaps when your advertising is completely programmatic and algorithmic, there’s some tension there. But what about seeing advertisers as perhaps sponsors or facilitators of democratized information? I think that brands have so much marketing spend potential that could be put to use in humane and effective and ethical ways. And I think that we’re just kind of seeing the outcomes in such binary ways that we’re not really exploring the in between where I think there’s still a lot of room to build and explore.
Yeah. If we can, I want to look outside of just content because so much of the passion economy and the participatory economy, as you describe it, move outside of content where they do align incentives and they’re focused on customer happiness. What other brands are you seeing in the landscape that are aligning their incentives and goals along with their users in a unique way that’s kind of putting pressure on the old way of doing things?
Yeah, super interesting. So, I think the way that I see this evolution is historically customers were passive, they didn’t really have a voice. And it’s only recently that customers have really had a voice and a say. And if you think about the last 50 or so years in the first wave, it’s not really customers who started projecting their voices, but brands, right? Brands started developing personalities. Now instead of selling to Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, I have my own brand, I have my own voice. And so, I am broadcasting that voice in a unidirectional way on Instagram, for instance. Or I’m hiring an influencer with millions of followers to promote my brand. And so, I think of that as kind of unidirectional, right? The brand is still in many ways, the relationship in many ways is still top down.
I think what’s interesting about the participatory economy is that the consumer is also the creator. It’s this kind of bidirectional relationship. A good example of that is probably Arfa. Arfa is a company that was founded by the COO of Glossier, who I believe was also the co-founder at Glossier. And I think what’s interesting is, a lot of companies say they work closely with their customers and they’re customer-centric. But Arfa is kind of going a step further, they are devoting a percentage of their profits to a subset of their customers who are cocreating their products with them.
So, I think that what’s interesting about the participatory economy is, it’s not just paying lip service to this idea of, we build with our customers. But it’s actually creating models that align with your most valuable contributors, because if you think about, what is Facebook without its users creating content? What is Reddit without its community moderators? What is Uber without its drivers? What is Instacart without its shoppers? And I think that in the participatory economy, you are able to kind of frame these questions and create economic alignment from day one. And to me, there’s nothing more exciting than thinking about how you can grow and build these platforms in ways that don’t cause your contributors or your most valuable stakeholders to resent you, which is what I think has happened across marketplaces and mostly gig economy marketplaces, which have really grown at the expense of their most valuable stakeholders.
Can you describe Arfa a little bit? What is that brand?
Yeah. So, Arfa sells beauty products. I think their first brand, it’s a holding company. Their first brand is a brand called Hiki and they sell direct to consumer deodorants. And so, what’s interesting is that I think that borrowing from the success of Glossier, which is seen as a brand that has really innovated as far as how to think of their customers and engage with their customers. But I think what Arfa does is they take that relationship a step further and they truly engage their customers in helping create their products and give them a financial incentive to do so. It’s actually the first consumer brand that I’ve seen doing that.
So, this reminds me of something else that I’ve seen you talk about. And it’s that in these new economies, collaborators are greater than competitors, abundance is greater that scarcity, interdependence is greater than independence. And it’s really a profound new way of looking at business. But it also feels so antithetical to everything that we know about business, everything that you’re taught, everything that you see in the marketplace. Do you feel like this is going to have an out sized impact on business culture as a whole? Because now we’re talking about culture a little bit here, we’re changing our value system in the business landscape. Do you see this as having a halo effect?
Absolutely. I think that at the end of the day, what’s interesting about the participatory models that we were talking about is that it’s not just about saying we believe in a fair world, we believe that everyone should have a stake in the things that they contribute to. I think what’s interesting is that we increasingly have the tools to be able to align platforms with their contributors. Now, I don’t think this is some sort of socialist, let’s just kind of redistribute wealth. I think what’s interesting about this is that it’s actually in everyone’s best interest, because if you think about, if you were to start a community today. And that community relied on contributors to create content to spark discussion, if you give away a percentage of your fee stream or of the equity of that business to contributors, what’s going to happen there is that network effects are going to just kick in because more people are incentivized to help that community grow, as opposed to a lot of businesses that are just being drained by this misalignment. And Amazon warehouse workers, again Instacart shoppers.
So, I think that the promise and the kind of optimist in me thinks that we’re going there, because when we built the first wave of companies, I don’t think anybody anticipated how quickly they would grow, how big they would become, how much they would concentrate wealth. And I think that this new wave is about reclaiming the beauty of the internet. The beauty of the internet is that we can redistribute and democratize access. And the reality is that, I think in unintended ways, what we saw in Web 1.0 and 2.0 is the kind of unintended consequences of centralized platforms and platforms that don’t really facilitate the distribution of outcomes.
And so, I’m really just excited about what it means to create participatory models, not only from a governance perspective, you know? If you think about how many businesses have gone under because Facebook changed an algorithm or Twitter changed an algorithm. And so many companies are kind of one algorithm change away from failure. And so, what happens if you have more democratic platforms where governance is more distributed, I think that we run less of a risk. And I think that culturally, we are so much more aware right now of the challenges of centralizing and wielding power to kind of these massive social platforms.
I think you really hit it right there. I think a lot of people don’t understand or appreciate at least when they’re first starting a business or founding a startup that when they sign up for these models, they’re giving away so much more than just having to follow somebody else’s rule. They’re really giving up their potential livelihoods if something in the algorithm changes. That’s a really good point. Did this kind of relationship not exist before now because we just didn’t have the technologies to execute it? Or because as a culture, we just didn’t even think … Like, we weren’t ready to accept this kind of relationship?
Yeah, I think a big part of it is that the companies that we build online grow so much faster. I mean, if you think about how long it took Uber to become a multi billion dollar company, these companies are becoming big at unprecedented rates. If you think about the S&P 500 companies of 30 years ago, it took them 10, 15, 20 years to build meaningful businesses. But today, the network effects are so strong and so profound that it’s scary how quickly companies can become billion and now trillion dollar companies. And so, I think that there’s just this massive disconnect between the unprecedented rate at which wealth is being created, but also the inequality. And so, I think that that’s a new thing.
In many ways in the past, we looked at wealth creation as something that was meritocratic because it took 10, 15, 20 years of you working so hard to build businesses that were a lot more traditional. You were operating in the physical world, you had manufacturing plants. But nowadays, if you build a network that takes off, the growth is just exponential. And so, I think that in a world where things can grow so quickly, that means we’re wielding power to people. And how does that impact a society when you have a company that has more power than a country? And so, I think that’s where that cultural shift towards decentralization and really allowing more people to participate in the creation of these platforms is occurring. So, I really think it’s a result of how fast these platforms grow relative to the businesses of the pre-internet age.
I’m going to shift gears here a little bit. The word fans keeps coming up. And I think we shouldn’t overlook that. I feel like we’ve gone from customers to users and now fans. And fans is reflective of this new relationship that these economies are affording us, where you’re not just buying a product or relating to the brand, you’re buying a relationship with the founder of that brand or the person behind it. And I think it’s really easy to see this in personality cults behind beauty brands that were started by YouTube founders, let’s say. But you also see it with obvious ones like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs or even Scott Galloway. A lot of people love the personal brand that packages what he’s selling. And I mean this in the best possible way. And he himself has described how a lot of times this likeability factor really insulates a company from criticism later on or from hiccups in development and things like that.
I want to ask you, I’m certain when you’re talking to new founders who are pitching you and they’re talking to you about revenue, TAM, you must be looking for something else instead, right? I mean, what are you watching for? If you’re in the room with a founder who has a platform in this new economy, what kind of a leader does it take to create these new kinds of relationships?
Yeah, I love this question. I think part of what I observe and links with the passion economy a bit is that we are transitioning from trusting institutions to trusting people. And so, in the same way that brands became people on the internet and the internet kind of led them to kind of humanize their voices, I think in that same way, people are now becoming brands. And so, historically, I think companies built products first and then audiences later, right? The audience would come as a result of the product.
What I think we’re seeing now is, people are building audiences. And those audiences are authentic. People are attracted to these creators and these leaders because they’re prolific, they stand for something, they have values. And so, that kind of affinity is what allows them to introduce a product later on. So, I love this idea of going from building a product and then an audience to building an audience and then a product. And I think that, when we look at digitally native vertical brands, for instance, I think that was an area that for a while we were tracking and heavily investing in.
And we noticed that there were almost like two kinds of founders. There was the founder that saw Warby Parker and said, “Oh, we went down every single industry to see what Warby Parker for X could look like. And we found that there’s nothing in refrigerators. So, let’s build a Warby Parker for fridges.” And that’s very different from somebody that has been talking about home improvement or some other category, beauty, and then launches a beauty product that is so authentic to them, that there’s a built in audience and that product makes sense.
So, I think increasingly, we’re going to see more companies that are born from just the affinity that they have with creators. And I think that that’s also a reflection of just the attention economy we’re in. It’s so hard to get a customer’s attention, CAC as they say is the new rent. Facebook is no longer a cheap acquisition engine. And so, what’s left is really kind of values and an audience that really kind of believes and buys into those values. And what I love the most about this, you mentioned Scott Galloway. I think it was Chris Dickson that once said, “The next big thing will start looking like a toy.”
And I think that a lot of that’s happening with maybe people broadcasting their ideas on newsletters and that might become the next online school. If you think about what David Perell is doing with Write of Passage, a writing school. He just started writing on the internet, has a weekly newsletter. But if you look at his vision for Write of Passage, it’s so ambitious that it’s hard to kind of comprehend that something that started off as a newsletter and just a creator being authentic and creating his own brand can really branch out and create products.
So, I think that the internet or people that are prolific about their views and their values have such an advantage into these worlds when it comes to building products. And when I’m looking at founders, I definitely love founders that have been building an audience and stand for something, because really, the last kind of battle for differentiation is really values.
Yeah, that echoes something else I saw. It was like a Walkers study, I think, that said the next frontier of disruption is going to be in customer experience and not product or price points. And they said that this was the year that that was going to happen. And COVID probably accelerated all that. But I want to dig in a little bit more. If you’re looking at a founder and they’re pitching you, what are some of the soft skills or the cues under the surface that will tell you that somebody can actually build this kind of personal brand that would help grow an entire business? Because this is a whole new skillset. You don’t learn this in business school. So, what does it really take? Because after all, whoever that person is, they’re going to create the internal company culture as well, right? It comes from the top down. So, how do you even quantify that? What do you look for?
Yeah. It’s such a good question. I think one of the things that I learned, and I think for me thinking about businesses from a kind of customer first way comes very natural. But what I’ve learned in the last couple of years is, that’s not necessarily the case for a lot of founders. So, I’ve spoken to a lot of founders that come to pitch us and say, “We are building AI for law.” Or, “We are building a social network built on top of crypto.” And then you ask them, “Okay, but what problem is this solving?” There’s no clarity around that. So, I think that what I’ve seen is that a lot of founders are in love with an idea or a product or a technology, and not really in love with a customer problem.
And so, the first thing that I look for is, is there a unique insight and an emotional connection to this problem that makes you the best founder to build this? And it can’t be, “Oh, we’ve seen eCommerce is growing. And Warby Parker succeeded. And so, there’s no Warby Parker for X,” because that’s not authentic. And building companies is way too hard for any founder to really withstand the pains if they’re only doing it as mercenaries. So, what I look for is missionaries. And I think that, back to this idea of incentive alignment, I think if you’re obsessed with a problem, I think that the strategy is determined by what you believe.
So, people always say culture eats strategy for breakfast. I think culture determines strategy. So, if you are a founder that believes that the social networks of the day optimize for vanity metrics and likes and followers and you have a point of view around why that shouldn’t exist, then the product and everything else is almost dictated by those beliefs. So, I really think that finding founders that are authentically mission oriented and that have a unique insight, because it’s not enough to say, “I believe this. Why is this unique?” But at the end of the day, yeah. I think at the end of the day it’s about missionaries over mercenaries. And it’s about making sure that the founder is driven by an obsession with a problem instead of an obsession with an idea or a technology or a solution.
Is this truly scalable internally and externally?
I think that as you scale, it’s a lot harder to do this. And that’s why it’s so easy for five person teams using a small wedge to build massive businesses. I think there a lot of examples of public companies that are able to do this. I mean, if you think of Amazon and their day one mentality, I think that’s an example of a company that is still rooted in customer obsession. But ultimately, as businesses grow larger, the individual, the people are almost like abstracted. And the empathy gap between the business and the customer grows larger.
Whereas, I think for small businesses, they really have no choice but to prioritize customers. And the lack of scale, I think is kind of a forcing function to listen and to iterate. So, I think that surely you can do this at scale, but it’s a lot harder. And I think that that’s how you see a company like Zoom in a couple of years eat Google Hangouts for breakfast, you know? So, it’s the reason why I think small teams and a lot of the innovation in industries like education and healthcare is going to come from the outside in.
But something else that keeps coming up too is the idea of community. So, you mentioned brands that start with a community first or looking at the customer first and then building a product instead of the other way around. And there’s so many niche communities popping up. You described a niche community that could turn into a huge vision for an education platform. The obvious one that I’m sure many people listening right now are thinking of is Glossier, which started as a really, really tight knit and active community and turned into a successful beauty brand. Where are you seeing some interesting developments and micro communities online, both in the actual communities themselves, as well as the platforms that are enabling these communities to happen?
Yeah. I love this question. I think we’re really seeing a renaissance in communities that I think is a result of people craving authenticity and just more depth. I think Facebook may say that their mission is to connect people. But at the end of the day, back to their business model, their business model is to connect businesses with people, not necessarily people with people. And so, I think that we’re seeing … I almost bucket it into products where the community is the product. And some examples there might be, for example, a network like Chief that connects women in executive positions, or a platform like Hey Mama for working mothers. A Slack group for brand builders that I’m part of called The Jacuzzi Club.
And there’s just across any set of interests, there’s products that are just built for the purpose of connecting people. What we’re also seeing is brand communities or product let communities. And I think that brands are realizing that the last kind of battleground for consumers is going to happen in terms of values and a deeper alignment. And a lot of brands, I think community has become a buzzword. And so, a lot of these brands are kind of vying to carve our spaces. And what’s interesting is that a lot of these communities are forming outside of big socials.
So, there’s Slack, there is increasingly a lot of telegram chats. There’s Discord. There’s a lot of platforms like Circle and Mighty Networks. Personally, I think that communities have such bespoke needs that I think the most interesting ones are not the ones that are going to live in platforms like these, but are ones that are going to develop very kind of idiosyncratic tools and features to meet their needs. So, I’m personally kind of bearish on this idea that there’s going to be a Slack for communities that’s going to serve the needs of all of these platforms. I think that this isn’t just about connecting people as a network, but giving them the right tooling to achieve specific outcomes, right?
If you think about communities around investing, they need specific tools. I don’t think that group chat or channels is necessarily the right tool or the right mechanism to connect. So, I’m increasingly excited about the more kind of custom communities that are building bespoke tooling around that, because Reddit, ultimately, it homogenizes communities across interests. And so, this idea of unbundling Reddit and unbundling Facebook I think is really interesting.
Brands always go where attention is. And attention, if you think about where you’re going, I’m no longer starting my days looking at my Facebook feed, I’m not scanning through my Slack chats and Telegram chats. And so, I think brands want a piece of that. I think it remains to be seen whether they can authentically do that. And I’m not super bullish on really large brands being able to do this in effective ways.
That’s what I was going to ask you. Can a community, the strongest of communities for a brand ever make up for a company that maybe doesn’t put customer happiness or the alignment of their self-interest with the self-interest of their customers at the center of the business?
Yeah, I just think that consumers are too smart and consumers can see through everything these days. And so, especially brand communities, if the brand is launching a community and the metrics to measure that community are user growth and revenue, I just think that those incentives are going to lead to outcomes that the consumer can see through. So, I’m less interested in those communities. I think somebody that invests and looks for venture scale outcomes, I think that this is an area where the reality is that the larger the group, the worse the conversation. And I think that as humans, we really haven’t solved this problem.
The best Telegram chats that I’m part of are 15, 20 people. I think when the groups start to become 200, 500, 1,000, I think that the quality of the interactions just decreases substantially. And so, yeah, I think there’s a lot to test here. I think companies like Chief have done a good job of creating smaller groups and kind of innovating on format. But you know, I’m not bullish on a brand reading that community as the next mode. And so, creating a Telegram or a Slack chat and just inviting 2,000 of their best customers inside and hoping for good results.
Yeah, I think I would agree too. As much as we want it to be true, I don’t know that it is. So much of what you’re describing here is about your mission, which is to bring more humanity and creativity to technology and business, bringing in this … I don’t think humanity is … There’s a better word than that. It’s not just empathy, it’s not just a closer relationship. It’s really all of the subtext that comes with the idea of humanity, just making it more ethical even, among other things. I feel like a lot of VCs say this. But I feel like with you, you’re really, really committed. And I just want to ask you, how did you get here? And why is this personal to you? And what is your unique take on how this is going to all unfold? I feel like I really see your unique take in your writing. But I would love to explore it here a little bit.
I think, I grew up in Colombia in Bogota, and my family was always in retail. And I remember, we were in the grocery business. I would go and I would work the cash register on the weekends. And there were always coasters in Spanish that said [foreign language 00:39:20], which means we work so the customer comes back tomorrow. And there was just this kind of immense obsession with the customer that I almost took for granted. And then I went to college, I graduated college, and I worked in investment banking and then on the trading floor. And I felt in the case of the trading floor, I felt this immense disconnect between my job and the customers I was serving. I didn’t really know who they were, what they needed.
And then, throughout my work with startups, I also realized that it’s almost like a paradoxical truth that a lot of businesses have a lack of focus on the people that they’re serving, and a lack of reverence and honor for those end customers that I almost assumed to be the number one rule in business. And so, I think that, for me, as I had children and I kind of … The stakes around my work became higher because one second at the office became time away from my kids, it really came down to using my voice to kind of further this idea that without reverence for customers, what is the point of business? And beyond that, I think that a business is really a way to project a worldview and to project your values to the world. And so, why would we build businesses in ways that are so transactional without leveraging the capabilities and the ability to just project your ideas in unique ways?
And so, I think part of it is that. I think a lot of products just don’t have a heart. And I think that’s sad. And so, I think anything that we can do to bring more delight, because the world doesn’t need more consumer brands. The world should see more products that delight and inspire. The other piece of it is that one thing I think I really believe is that all problems are people problems. And if you believe that, then the number one reason companies fail is founders run out of energy. I mean, you can say that the company failed because they ran out of capital or they got into a fight with a cofounder, they lost a key supplier. But at the end of the day, I’ve seen so many companies come and go. And I think that the one thing we don’t talk about enough is just the emotional side of entrepreneurship and the people, not just the people we’re serving, but the people that are building.
And so, I just think that bringing more humanity, just even to the way that we approach the work also just enables people to be more creative, more vulnerable, more real. A lot of what I try and do is not just to build businesses that are delightful, but for that process in itself to feel more human.
Yeah. And that humanity too, when you describe the way that you’ve described it, it only makes sense that as founders and businesses get closer to their fans, let’s say, or users, they crave that sense of humanity. Like, that kind of connection. And something I wanted to ask you earlier was, so much of this, yes, you can build it in the brand, you can build it in the product, you can build it in community platforms, wherever. But one of the most low hanging fruits is just in the customer experience, or even if we’re getting down to brass tacks, customer service, right? Where people are literally reaching out to you in the moment when they’re vulnerable, either they’re angry or confused or need something, that’s when the humanity could perhaps impact them the most. I want to ask you, how can customer happiness manifest itself in the actual customer service or experience of a brand?
One of the things that’s most surprising to me is that customer service is seen as a cost center instead of marketing or customer experience. I think that this idea that you have to invest to win over new customers, but the keeping existing ones happy is a totally different department with a totally different mindset is just so crazy to me in this day and age. And I think that you just need a better mindset, I think, to treat your customers better. I think that if you have a mindset that is oriented around customer happiness from day one, then customer service isn’t just about answering questions about shipping and returns, it becomes a way to build relationships with your customer, a way to organize customer insights. And so, those teams should be, in theory, very important. They should be tied to the product development teams.
And I think that companies. Glossier’s an excellent example of a company that has done this effectively. If I recall correctly, their customer service teams are part of their marketing teams. And I believe that they rotate as far as answering customer service emails and being a part of other functions. And so, I think that companies that don’t silo service as a kind of low level drain on costs are going to succeed. But ultimately, the way that I see it is it really flows from the top. If you are guided by important principles that are oriented around customer happiness, the rest will flow. And I almost am reminded of just examples of companies that are just so delightful in everything from their microcopy. One example that we invested in is a company called Ghia. It’s a non-alcoholic aperitif. And every touchpoint and interaction, you can tell that it wasn’t somebody that woke up one day and said, “Oh, the non-alcoholic market is growing. Let’s just launch this.” It was a product that had a soul.
And I used, like they send you coasters with your order. And they say really fun things like, ‘glass half full’ or ‘over the influence’. And everything’s just so authentic and has such a clear and distinct voice that I think that if you have a mindset that is oriented around customer happiness, the details, the delight, all the way down to the microcopy and the interactions, they all flow in a way that doesn’t happen.
Yes. I was just going to say, it’s the difference between struggling to write a brand versus a brand that just writes itself. We see this in our work all the time. And I’d imagine with this brand it’s exactly what you’re describing.
Yeah, I think that when you have that mindset and that obsession with a customer, then every customer interaction just becomes a magic moment and compounds into just something that the customers are willing to pay for. And I think it’s such an exciting time to be in business for that reason. This is really new, I don’t think that brands had this kind of power and direct relationship and two-way relationship. And so, I just think it’s a really interesting time to think about how you can delight customers in ways that weren’t possible when you had gatekeepers.
Yeah, and it also reminds me, I think Warby Parker actually, in the beginning, required everybody to come up through customer service. Everybody had to work in customer service at some point to really appreciate and understand the customer and have an empathy for them before they could go onto leadership somewhere else within the company. So, even before we had names for these things, it was already starting to happen and actually create new categories and new winners. You as a customer for a company that you haven’t invested in, when did you feel this human connection? Can you remember a time where a brand actually touched you because they put customer happiness at the center of the brand?
Yeah. You know, it’s funny. I think one of the best examples, and it’s an interesting example to use now, I think, considering where the company is today. But I think that when Outdoor Voices came to the market, it was perfect for somebody like me who’s never been the athletic type, where the message of just doing things really resonated with me. It wasn’t just about, let me run faster, compete, or be the best runner. But just like, wear these leggings and just go out there and be active. And that message, to me, was so profound. And it’s not that their product was necessarily any better than Lululemon or Nike or anything like that. But just that idea that you as a customer could have an affinity for a brand just because their values resonate. I think that illustrates this idea that what’s most important is the mindset and the values, ultimately. And that everything else flows from that.
So, this human connection, this customer happiness that is the new frontier of disruption, how do you actually make it central to a company? How do you build a real brand on top of its principles? Ty Givens is a customer experience strategist and the founder of The Workforce Pro. She and her SWAT team descend into the heart of companies and transform them from the inside out with a focus on the human connection that turns customers and users into fans. I asked Ty how leaders can truly make customer experience core to their brands. And what kind of second order effects that change can have on the company, its employees, and the overall landscape.
In order to make customer experience central to a company, it sounds cliché when you hear it starts with the top down, but it’s true. One time I worked with a company where it was uniquely brilliant. The person who answered the questions related to shipping problems was the person who did the shipping. The person who answered questions related to marketing problems was the person who did the marketing. And I thought that was so remarkable because most times, customer experience is actually in the center of everything. We take responsibility for decisions that are made in every single department, and we own it as if it’s our own. So, when I saw a company that actually trained their shipping person to reply to issues related to long shipping times or an item or product coming that was damaged, I thought, “That’s genius. Why isn’t everybody doing this?”
That’s super smart, because also when people, when they’re stakeholders in the actual customer experience, it makes that shipping person better at their job. It makes that marketing person better at their job in other ways. And also, now they have something valuable to bring back to the table to the rest of the company that only they would be uniquely able to understand.
What I also saw during my time there, it wasn’t that long. They’re great, we’ve worked with them a few different times over the last year. But what I also saw was fewer defects. So, when you’re the person who has to own the outcome of the decisions that you make, you make better decisions. So, it was great. Like, they ended up changing couriers as a result of the shipping person hearing how long the delays were, which is normally something that sits in customer service. And then you have these competing priorities where the business says, “Why aren’t you telling us what customers are saying?” And then it’s like, “But when we tell you what the customers are saying, you’re saying that’s not important enough.” So, there are competing priorities that happen all the time.
And I just found that when you have that ownership, it’s great. However, I haven’t been able, even sharing how successful that was, I haven’t been able to really get any company to take on that same thought process. A lot of times, customer experience is sometimes thought of as the last thing that you need to be worried about. And so, because of that, you end up in a place where you hire a bunch of people to come in and answer questions about things. And for us, we live in the space day in and day out of fixing other people’s problems, so you start to get a little bit numb. You don’t hear the issues and the problems the same way, it’s just what you do every day, day in and day out.
That’s super interesting. So, I just want to get to the heart of the matter here. You do customer experience strategies for companies. Like, you go super deep. You reorganize org charts if you need to, you completely uplevel entire teams. You change the internal culture of a company. What are some of the secrets, the really non-obvious things that you’ve learned in your years of doing this that people don’t really understand that affects customer experience and customer happiness really profoundly, but it’s just not commonly understood?
The reality is that you have to put the employees first. A lot of companies really focus on putting the customer first. But it’s the employee that you have to take care of, because if the employee is happy and feels passionately about working with or for your company, that’s going to show up in their engagements with the customer.
So, a couple of ways that you can do that. When a CX person provides you with insights on what the customer is actually experiencing, even if you can’t take action right away, you have to have a way for them to feel valued and heard and know that the information that they’re sharing with you is important, it’s valid, and you’re going to do something about it when you can. And when you do that, what happens is, the employee, they feel empowered. And that empowerment shows up on the call because they actually … Let’s say call, email, chat, whatever. I’m showing my age. But it shows up in their confidence when communicating to the customer.
So, if someone writes in and says, “You know what? I received this product. It was broken. It was damaged in shipping.” And that CX person feels empowered to make that right and know that they can get that information to a person or a team or a group of people who are going to work on prevention, that confidence is going to show up in that communication. And a lot of times, the company is really, really focused on, let’s make the customers really happy. And it’s like, well, let’s make the employees really feel happy and valuable, because they’re the ones who talk to the customers, and that’s going to show up there.
So, what you’re talking about here is managing emotions on both sides of the equation, not just the customer emotions, but the employee emotions. And it feels like what you’re saying is that creates the conditions for a really good interaction that is almost irrespective of whether you can help them right away with the problem or not. Is that right?
That’s right. I’ll give you an example: I used to run customer experience for ShoeDazzle. I started there in November 2013, ironically, the week of Black Friday, as the head of CX, okay? Right, okay? You know, listen. I walked right into it, smack.
Yeah, that’s a crazy indoctrination, that’s insane.
Yeah, you know? Just jump in the deep end. And so, here I am, first day of work the question is posed to me, “Should we open on Black Friday?” “Well, what did you do last year?” “We were open.” “Okay.” “We had a skeleton crew.” “Great, let’s do a skeleton crew this year.” That wasn’t a good call, because you know what? It was a totally different business than it was literally 12 months before. Heck, it was different six months before.
So, here we are, skeleton crew. I show up with my team. We’re going to do this together. Well, we get there, we have 60 plus calls in the queue because marketing thought it would be a great idea to change the promotion every hour. So, you can imagine, you got 20% off an hour ago, and now you get 40% off. What do you think people are going to do? They’re going to call in and say, “I want my extra 20.” Okay?
I hadn’t even seen the backend of our website to help anybody with anything. But you know what I did? I got my butt on the phone, because I knew that I had the power to make things right. So, when I get on the calls and someone’s asking me, “Hey, I just placed my order, and I waited online for you guys for an hour, an hour and a half, or two hours. And now the promotion is that this percentage, I want you to adjust my rate.” Did I know how to do that? Heck no. I wasn’t signed into anything but the phone.
But what I did is, I took notes. And I knew that I had the confidence to make that call. And that confidence showed up. Another thing I did is I told the customers the truth. I was like, “Hey, this is my first week.” You know? And that actually somehow built some sort of relationship between me and them. They felt like, “Oh wow, well, welcome. We’re so glad you’re here.” They were so warm and welcoming. And while I didn’t know how to do the work, I knew what needed to get done.
So, I think that that’s a good example of how the confidence of you being able to actually make those decisions will resonate with the customer, because the customer is contacting the business. And they don’t know that they’re talking to Ty. They don’t care that they’re talking to Ty. They were talking to the name of that company. And so, they expect whoever picks up that phone, replies to that email, that they know everything about them and that they can fix their issue. So, you’ve got to make your employee feel and understand and know what their span and scope of control is, so that that can resonate on the call. And if they don’t have all the answers, don’t harm them for that. So what they don’t know all the answer? Make sure that they feel confident enough to communicate to the customer, “While I may not know that, I know that I can get that information for you.” That’s the key.
Yeah, what you’re describing, I think, would sound a little scary to some founders or leaders within a company, to give that much autonomy in CX or even just customer support, when a lot of the problems are kind of still in a black box. Like, you don’t even know what you’re dealing with yet. I’d imagine that could be a difficult thing to convince leaders and CEOs to adopt, right?
No, you’d be surprised.
Reason being is, most startups that I’ve worked with, and I’m talking about the ones that are growing super fast, they really focus on hiring people that they believe make good decisions. That’s actually scary though, because what does good mean? What I think is good, you may not think is good. Just because I finished and I got a degree from a really great school, that doesn’t make me a good decision maker. That means I can stick to something. And so, because of that, in a lot of startups that I have worked with, joined, either in a consulting capacity or even as an employee, they hire certain prototype because they feel that this person makes good decisions. But they’re largely inexperienced in a lot of ways. They’re not actually making good decisions, they’re just doing what they think makes sense. But they don’t actually understand fully.
And so, what happens is, and you have these side by side train the trainer type experiences. So, let’s say I walk in, this has happened before. I walked in, inherited a team of six. This is as an employee. All six of the people who were on my team did the work a different way. They all did it the way that they thought was best. There was literally zero strategy associated with how the work was getting done. And so, when it came time to putting in some structure and some rules, some guidelines, if you will, because I do believe that you have to give people the ability to make decisions in order for them to feel valuable, because if everything that you’re doing is logic based, it’s this, then that, yes, then no, let a machine do it.
Customers don’t actually have a problem with machines, they have a problem with incorrect information. They have a problem with waiting for incorrect information. But if you can make it where they can get that information right away and it’s accurate, they don’t care who gives it to them. So, I’ve seen a lot of times where there’s a lot of autonomy in CX. And as that company scales and grows, that process starts to break down because there was never any strategy behind it. I honestly think that companies forget that customer experience is tactically strategic. You have to be able to actually do the work that’s associated with the strategy.
Can you describe that a little bit more? Like, it feels like what you’re talking about here is also what makes people good decision makers. And I think that’s kind of like the big question. Like, how does a strategy make people good decision makers, but still give them a lot of autonomy?
First, you have to help them understand your brand voice. Who are you as a company? A good example that I think we all often use is, and it’s controversial, but a Chick-fil-A. When you go to Chick-fil-A, you get greeted automatically. When you ask for something and they provide it to you, they don’t say, “You’re welcome.” They say, “My pleasure.” And is that natural to them? Is that what they probably say when they’re with their friends and family? I doubt it. But it’s required for the role. So, what happens is, you start to formulate phrases, terms, things that are acceptable within the company that sound like the brand. And you present that to the team. And you’re like, “This is how the brand speaks. It may not be natural to you, but this is how the brand speaks.”
You also have to personify the brand. So, if there’s a person internally who represents the company, it’s almost like you’re thinking, “What would so-and-so do? What would that person say?” And that kind of becomes your nomenclature and your speech.
Is that like a shortcut that some brands use? Like, you know, so and so in the company, imagine what they would say. Like, their kind of archetype for what this brand sounds and feels like?
Exactly. And so, when you start to talk about the decisions and what’s a good decision, you have to kind of mirror that person. What would that person do? So, I worked for a company where there was a person internally. She was not the CEO. But she was the company personified. And so, when we would go into these different interactions with customers, the question would always be, “Well, how do I handle the situation. What would she do?” Because she is the company. So, once you understand who it is that you’re modeling after and you spend time with that person and you get to know that person, because they have to be very visible, obviously. That’s where you start to get into what is a good decision, because a good decision for me may be different from the brand that I’m working for or working with. And that’s the part that’s key is personifying that. You have to turn that brand into a person, because essentially the company to the customer is a person.
It also highlights something else that I’ve heard you talk about, which is that, especially with COVID, things like customer experience. But specifically customer service, for some brands, even especially in beauty, has become like the new showroom, because you’re going to customer service for the same things that you used to get at the actual store, which is education, experimentation, being guided, understanding what their brand stands for. Can you talk about that a little bit and how that’s changing what people are actually doing strategically in their customer service channels?
Yeah, 100%. I’m seeing brick and mortars turn into contact centers on a consistent basis. And the experience that you have when you’re servicing a customer directly in a retail business is so different than what happens online. So, for example, if I am working with you behind a counter, I’m talking to you. We’re making eye contact. You can hear the inflections in my voice. You can see that my expressions match what it is that I’m saying to you. We lose all of that context when we’re doing this either by email, live chat, over the phone. Anything of the sort, we lose the ability to have that emotional intelligence to be able to look at a person and kind of feed off of that energy.
So, you have to almost overly create it when you’re not physically in front of them. And you have to establish yourself as a subject matter expert. Specifically for beauty, it can be really, really challenging because nine times out of 10, if you are say a makeup brand, you have people who are coming to you and they’re asking you, “Which color should I be purchasing to match my skin the best?” Well, I’m not looking at you, so how can I make that decision? I can’t swatch anything on your skin to test it. So, instead, we have to build a rapport with one another where we’re sending photographs back and back, moving to some sort of channel that is may be visual. Asking for photos in natural light. So, you’re actually essentially building trust, right? In a different way than you would normally have to do. And you’re building a relationship because this person has to believe what it is that you’re teaching and telling them.
And a lot of businesses have just not been prepared for that shift pre-COVID. And now they’re in a place where they’re saying, “Hey, everybody. Make good decisions.” And they’re finding out that good means so many different things to so many different people.
Let’s talk about the customer side of things a little bit. You’ve been doing this for so long across so many different categories. And working with pretty big companies that are very brand focused, especially in certain consumer categories. How have you seen users change over the years? Like, how have people’s expectations or beliefs or their actions or whatever, how have they evolved over time in how they interact with the brands?
So, customers see a brand, a company, a business, like I said, as a person, one unit. So, for example, if I go into a brick and mortar store and I have an experience there, there’s an expectation that if I have to move that to the eCommerce channel, that that person on the other end of that message or system, that they know and understand me too. For the people who are actually physically in retail, they are not the same people that are answering the phone calls when you call the 800 number. So, you have to have systems that are able to almost trick the customer into believing you know everything about them, because the customers fully expect that you know.
They’ll say, “I went into the store yesterday and I bought this item.” They’re expecting that you can see their purchase history. Whereas, before we didn’t really have that experience where the customer expected you to know everything about them across the board. If you went into, say Macy’s and you made a purchase, you weren’t necessarily going online and expecting that the person in the retail store understood. But that was 10 years ago. Today, you have a full expectation that they know you almost by name. And that’s the way that the customer is. The customer expects that you know what it is that they’ve purchased, what they need, what didn’t work for them. They see the company as a person and they want that personalized relationship.
And I attribute that to great marketing in a lot of ways, because for example, this is not a client of mine, but I’m going to use Sephora as an example. I get a notice via email from Sephora that says, “It’s time to buy more of …” whatever product. What’s crazy is that, they’re always spot on. How do they know? Feels so personal. And so, even though I’m getting that email, right? And I live on the other side of things. But I’m getting that email and I feel like they know me somehow. And when I go into the store, I actually feel like the people in the store have some sort of way to understand all of my experiences, all of my purchase history, what store I was at. It’s a very personal thing. And customers just have that expectation. And we didn’t have that before.
You know, when we spoke on phones only to different brands, I mean, it was a much simpler type of engagement. You called Office Depot, you asked for pens. They sent you pens. The pens were not the right color, you call in, you ask for more pens. There’s no expectation that you have this amazing experience. And now, when you write in to Office Depot … Excuse me, when you order pens from Office Depot and you order blue and they come purple, you almost expect that someone on the other end is going to magically know that they sent you purple pens. And not only are they going to send you the blue ones, but they’re going to send you red ones for the inconvenience.
Yeah. I mean, as a user, it feels really jarring when you feel like whoever you’re talking to on the brand side isn’t anticipating your needs, because you know, you’re also giving them so much information. We’ve gotten so used to giving a brand so much information about ourselves that we expect that immediate understanding in return. And I know what you’re saying about Sephora.
This makes me think of something else. So, obviously it’s easy to control all these interactions in the channels that you own. But more and more, I see communities popping up that a brand doesn’t own. But they act as substitutes for customer experience. So, The Ordinary. So, The Ordinary has a couple of gigantic Facebook groups, you have to be accepted into them. Once you’re in there’s a whole … Speaking of indoctrination, there’s a whole indoctrination process, because to use The Ordinary’s makeup products, you have to really learn how to combine their products. And they don’t teach that to you right away.
But I just see a lot of women on these platforms. And it’s died down because the brand has changed, but in the beginning, there was such an engaged community of people. They’d post a picture and they would be like, “I have this skin condition. I don’t know what it is,” or, “I can’t find a match,” or, “I’ve tried this regimen. It’s not working. Should I be combining different products?” And you’d get a ton of comments of women who kind of could diagnose you and help you fix your problem within The Ordinary universe. The Ordinary doesn’t own any of this.
I think once in a while, The Ordinary would send the Facebook group some free product to give away to their audience. But they had no control over that. My question to you is like, in situations like that, are there good rules for what a brand should and shouldn’t do in terms of interacting with these autonomous communities? Is there a way to overlap them and to tie them together? Or do you just let that be what it is and hope that it amplifies your customer experience?
Yeah, so I can’t speak specifically for The Ordinary. I’ll tell you what I’ve seen on my end when it comes to the community. So, although communities appear to not be regulated, I assure you, they are, okay? No one is going to let anyone take off and run with their brand and messaging and have nothing to say about it. Believe me that they are definitely regulated. And it just may look like it’s being regulated by a normal person. But I assure you, they are regulated. That’s one. But I mean, good job if it looks like it’s not, because that’s the goal.
The second thing is that a lot of times, the people that you hear that are most vocal in those community spaces, they are not employees. But in a lot of ways, they could be influencers or ambassadors of the brand. And so, they may have relationships where they can get product for free or they get it at a discount. And maybe they can sell it to their cohort, etc. But essentially, there is a relationship that lives there, whether we see it or we don’t see it.
So, you’re describing environments that are somewhat engineered. Is that generally good practice? Or is there room where these communities can kind of take off on their own? I just want to get into the mind of, if I was a brand and I see a community forming that I don’t have control of, not yet at least, what should I be doing?
Well, first of all, you need to get somebody in there who can help review the messaging that’s going on and make sure that it’s actually true, right? Or that it’s right. And so, the way to do that is to get somebody in there who represents your brand, even if you don’t have that information shared publicly or it’s not directly clear. And the reason why you want to do that is because you want to make sure that the information that’s being shared is accurate and true related to your specific brand.
What it does for the customer though is, you’re actually getting information from someone you trust, because under the surface, if you have no idea whether or not that person represents that company, but you feel like the information that they’re giving you is tried and true, whereas the company obviously has a vested interest in telling you how to use their product because they want you to buy more. And what happens with the communities is, it kind of tricks the customer into believing that the person that’s telling them what to use and how to use it is not, in fact, a person who has any incentive to be sharing that information. They’re doing it out of the kindness of their heart and because they’re passionate. And in reality, they probably do just have some sort of relationship with the brand. And that’s the reality of it.
The other thing to think about in communities is people who work for companies nine times out of 10 are not as fanatical about said company as the users are. And so, because of that, even when you’re calling in or you’re speaking with someone from the customer experience team, they may or may not be as passionate as a community member. You’re going to get a lot more passion out of the community member than you are out of a customer experience person who was taught, if a person says this, then do that. If a person does this, then do that. They may or may not be users of the brand.
So, the community actually from a product standpoint can be a really, really, really strong place to develop and get more advocates and to help people to better understand how to best utilize your product, your service, your brand, whatever that is. And then have support be responsible for things that are operational, because like I said, the person who is actually replying to the customer may or may not be as passionate. And a lot of startups that I’ve seen, they try to hire specifically for passion. But it’s not the same.
A good example of that is hiring a makeup artist to do customer service. For me, who I’m a worker bee. I have my office hours, etc. It doesn’t bother me to have that type of structure. But makeup artists are creatives. So, when you give a makeup artist an offer for a job that’s say, full-time, what they hear instead of, “I’m going to have consistent pay and I’m going to get benefits and I’m going to have paid time off,” what they hear instead is, “Oh my gosh, if someone calls me to do a gig on Tuesday, I’m not going to be able to drop everything and go because I have to work.” Doesn’t feel good, right?
But if you put that same makeup artist in the community and give them access to free product to sell to their cohort, the ability to speak on behalf of your brand and encourage people to use it, not only are they going to feel more fulfilled by that because it’s passion for them, they’re also going to be in the space where they’re going to be able to get more clients to the kind of work that actually feeds them. So, it’s to a brand’s benefit to have a strong community of users, of people who … Because they’re going to actually teach the company about their product in a way that people internally will never even know or understand because their focus is just different.
Have you seen any remarkable or super creative, out of the box customer experience journeys or touchpoints or campaigns? Or anything out there, maybe even things that you’ve worked on that reinterpreted what customer experience could actually be?
I think I might have to go back to that brand that I mentioned earlier, who actually made their whole company customer experience people. That one really stuck with me. I mean, their inquiries were low. The volume of the product that they sold was very high. They had very satisfied and delighted customers. And it was all because everyone took ownership of the decisions that they made internally. And that also for the CX team, made them feel like they were as valuable and as important as the rest of the company. There was no such thing as hierarchy between departments.
And they didn’t spend a boatload of money on their customer experience, because a lot of times companies see CX as a money pit. Like, you’re hiring all these people. You don’t have to have a bunch of people. You just have to have the right processes. You can invest one good time in a good training structure and invest one good time in a good plan. And then, find the right leader to run it day in and day out. And you can do it for less money if you put together the right formula. A really good formula is to make everybody responsible for their own outcomes. It just really helps.
Yeah. A lot of the things that you’re describing are just, and we’ve mentioned this with the previous interview with Sari, is just aligning the self-interests of the company with the self-interests of the customers. But you’re saying also with the self-interest of the employees too.
Yeah, you know, I worked for a company that put employees first. This was over 10 years ago. Yeah, over 10 years ago. And what’s funny is that, a lot of us who came from that company most immediately had a hard time finding another company that we wanted to work and and put in the same level of effort.
They ruined you for other companies.
They ruined us, because it was the best thing though, because you know what? I remember after that, I would go to a company and they’re like, “We’re employees first.” And I’m like, “Well, let’s see what this looks like.” And I’m like, “They don’t even know what that means,” you know? I got my MBA. I finished in 2013, but I left that company in 2010. And so, when I started to do my coursework for my MBA, wouldn’t you know that I was finding that a lot of the training that I was required to do there, it was like 40 hours a year, not a big deal. But they did invest in you. A lot of it was coursework for my MBA. So, I was already ahead, right? Go figure.
So, that’s investing in your employees. And that’s how you teach good decision making, right? You give them resources and access to information. You help them to become better, right? You invest in them. And when you do that, you have happy employees who absolutely delight your customers. And at this particular company, the NPS was around seven, which is really, really high. And that’s because they had really happy employees.
Okay, I’m going to ask you a very big, very unfair question. How do you turn a really angry and unhappy customer into a happy fan for life?
It’s going to sound too simple, but you just have to listen. Okay, I was running customer experience for a brand. And this particular customer, they went from frontline agent to elite, from elite to a supervisor, from a supervisor to a manager, to me, okay? I get on the phone with the person, which to me, it shouldn’t have gotten this far, but it did. Okay, fine. So, I’m on the phone with this gentleman. And I just let him talk. And when I let him talk, I mean, he was going on and on and on. I literally put the phone on speaker, and I had to mute it because there was a lot of background noise. But I just let him talk. And every now and again I would say, “Yeah, I hear you. Okay, no, I understand. Oh yeah, that’s no problem,” right? By the time he was done venting, and this lasted a good 40 minutes.
40 minutes. 40 minutes.
40 minutes, okay.
Yes, 40 minutes on my cell phone, mind you. When he was done, he says, “Are you there?” I said, “Yes, I’m here. I heard everything you said.” And I told him, “Here’s what we’re going to do for you.” I didn’t give him anything that was ridiculous. I just made good on what he asked for. And I apologized for the experience he had. And he said, “Finally, somebody who listened.”
And I think it comes down to, when you’re dealing with irate or angry customers, what you have to realize is that it’s not personal. It’s not about you. They’re not mad at you, they’re not angry with you. They’re angry about something that happened, and you happen to be the person that’s going to catch the wrath of that because you are answering the phone for the company, and the company to them is a person.
So, I know you don’t do this too much in your strategy work now. But when you did used to get behind the phone, how does it feel for you personally when you take a negative experience like that and make it a positive one, and actually turn somebody from a customer to a fan?
You almost want to scream it to everyone who will listen, because CX is hard work. Now, granted, I’ve been doing it forever, so I’m probably going to say it’s the hardest job ever, but it’s the only job I’ve ever done. So, what do I have to compare it to?
A little biased. Whatever.
Right, you know? So, when you have those experiences, you actually feel so validated as a person that you’re good at what you do, that you know what you’re doing. You are empowered to make good decisions for people. And it just makes you feel validated in a lot of ways, because most people don’t call up a company just to say, “You know what? I think you guys are amazing. That’s all. Have a wonderful day.”
That would be nice. Doesn’t happen. So, when they call, they’re usually very upset about some experience that they’ve had. And when you are able to turn that into a positive, like for that gentleman that I spoke with for 40 minutes, that’s 40 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. But I gave him my cell phone number, right? And I told him if he had any problems, he could call me in the future and it’s no problem. And I mean, he didn’t have to call me back, right? And he ended up remaining a customer. So, it’s little things like that, giving people the access and making them feel like you care. You care and you heard them and they matter.
Once you’re able to get that conveyed to a customer and they feel good and they feel happy, or you even get to that point where, when they call in they say, “I want to talk to so-and-so.” Like, oh my gosh. Your feathers just fluff because it’s like, I did such a great job that they only want to deal with me. And people, they love it. They love it. So, I think that it makes me stand up a little taller. And it validates me as a CX person, because our job is really all about caring for other people and making brands, like we’re the voice of the brand now in our marketing. But marketing speaks through us, because anything that marketing says, we said. And so, we want to make sure that we’re making the customer feel as valuable and as important as the marketing, sales, and growth team set out to do.
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you’re new here and like what you’re listening to, do us a favor and leave a review. Those reviews mean a lot. I love reading them, and it helps our audience grow. Secondly, I’d love to give you more of our brand strategy thinking in the form of articles that we write, videos that we publish, and anything else that captures our attention. Just sign up for our newsletter at conceptbureau.com/insights and I promise, you won’t be disappointed. Thanks for listening. It was great to have you here, and we’ll catch you next time.
Interesting Links & More Reading
- Creator Economy to Participatory Economy (Check Your Pulse #48)
- The Creative Economy, We’re Not Really Strangers, and the Immediacy Filter (Check Your Pulse #34)
- On Intentional Work, Level Ventures, and What I’m Investing In (Sari Azout on Medium)
- Customers 2020 – A Progress Report (Walker)
- The Passion Economy and the Future of Work (a16z)
- How the Passion Economy will disrupt media, education, and countless other industries (Li’s Newsletter)
- Unbundling Work from Employment (Li’s Newsletter)
- Clean color brand Kosas leans further into personal care (Glossy)