Interview: Why marketing should be the orchestrator of customer experience design

Managing principal at Storyminers and experience design expert, Mike Wittenstein, shares his views on how marketing can take the lead on transformational change

Mike Wittenstein
Mike Wittenstein

Marketing leaders are perfectly positioned to orchestrate their company’s customer experience-led future, but must put more emphasis on internal communications and designing a framework for their organisation to emotionally connect with consumers.

That’s the view of Storyminers managing principal and founder, Mike Wittenstein, who was one of the keynote speakers at the recent Customer 360 Symposium with a presentation on the intersection of technology and customer experience.

The consulting group uses experience design as a business strategy, and has assisted clients across 25 countries enjoy more than US$1.5 billion in sales impact. Wittenstein also has a long history in experience design and marketing, setting up IBM’s first customer experience practice in 1999 as well as working for interactive marketing agency, Gallileo.

One of the big challenges organisations face today is that their employees and operations are not geared towards a customer’s emotional experience of their products and services, Wittenstein said. Existing processes for building products, along with an obsession with ROI, cost efficiency and maximising existing assets, have hindered organisations from making the wholesale changes necessary to meet modern customer expectations, he said.

Many are also struggling to gain the agility needed to reposition the ship in the face of rapid change.

Marketing is in the optimum position to orchestrate the changes necessary in becoming a customer-led business because they’re already attuned to a customer’s emotional level, Wittenstein told CMO.

“A large part of what people buy when they’re buying an experience, and what differentiates it from other experiences, is how it makes them feel,” he said. “Marketers need to raise their game on the feelings side and help the whole organisation understand that a customer is going to feel a certain way.

“A lot of the customer insights exercises marketers go through, and the information they obtain to get the best media buy or best positioning, for example, is being left on the cutting room floor and not making it back into the business strategy or operational areas.”

Unlike the HR department, marketing is the only function that can also tap into the emotional state of their organisation and foster that customer-oriented collaboration company-wide, Wittenstein claimed. And it’s this buy-in that makes transformation possible.

“Marketing can step in and augment that voice of the employee not through measurement, but by creating safe places to have conversations,” he said. “That’s where the cultural aspects of delivering good customer experiences starts. Any time you can identify the experience and change the whole running of the company, you need to tackle the turmoil created as a result. It’s all connected.

“Marketers need to be the ‘Esperanto’ or catalysts for those conversations.”

As an example of a sector struggling make the transition to customer centricity, Wittenstein pointed to technology providers.

“Tech companies are having to swim upstream now to meet the needs of their customers. They’re realising they don’t just need more product or that having the technology product solves the problem, they need to know the how – the culture, how to turn the battleship in its own width, and be able to change more frequently,” he said.

As stewards of the brand, marketers have to make sure the business is actually going to deliver on what it promises, Wittenstein continued. This requires separating product from emotional experience, and designing the right operational and cultural principles to allow for innovation and new ways of interacting with customers.

“Focus less on hope and mission statements and corporate blah that doesn’t mean anything, and more on where the conversations around innovation in the company needs to be,” Wittenstein advised. “How do you be brave? How do you have a conversation with the boss? How do you explore those options on what customers need or employees to better understand what you need to do your job better?

“We have this fuzzy [customer] front-end where we’re seeing innovation, and it’s fun, attractive and appears to give great results. But the reality is the stuff it has to drag behind it is immense and heavy.”

A number of organisations have tried to address this need by launching innovation labs with separate teams. But for Wittenstein, these can actually restrict progress because they’re not supported by wholesale operational change.

“The unguided approach [to innovation] is good to find the unknown unknowns, but it’s a lot more effective to take a mindful eye towards design and then with intent, steer the innovation in a direction you are preparing the company to follow and to do that on purpose,” he said.

“You’ve got to be in the right ball park where the lines on the ground are the same for everyone.”

Designing customer experiences

Wittenstein was nevertheless quick to point out that customer experience is everyone’s responsibility, not just the CMO.

“Customer experience is truly one of the first integrative disciplines that everyone can get their hands on,” he commented. “Engineering used to be engineering, IT was for IT... but with customer experience, we’re realising when you change a service, it changes every single part of the business.

“Good experience design is about increasing the sensitivity of everyone on the team so they can have conversations about more of the details of experience. You have to get folks tuned in to a shared context. That needs to be one that has specificity around business and personal outcomes, operations and technology, and the emotional side of things.”

As a way of fostering this customer-led change, Wittenstein advised CMOs to start partnering up with “design sciences”, such as user experience, design thinking and behavioural design, to not only identify customer value and experience, but drive faster ideation and agility.

“The marketing toolkit is still largely based in a ‘buy low, sell high’ mentality, and is about getting the message in front of the customer and so on. It needs to move to a serving-based mentality,” he said.

“If I were a CEO, I would charge my CMO with accelerating the speed of my ideation and innovation. I wouldn’t set up a separate innovation team, make it a project program or put it under the IT office, I would make it marketing. I need ideas to turn my quickly and I need my people to feel more comfortable at the same time.

“Marketers won’t be able to do all the work, but they will be able to ask the right questions and set up the right discussions. All of the skills they have – especially the empathy and presentation skills – that soft side, which is what the rest of the business lacks. I’d then back them up with process and measurement people.”

Creating shared experiences so staff have points in time and reference is another core ingredient. Storyminers does this with its retail clients by taking a team out shopping and then asking them how they liked the service and for details around delivering that service.

“You have to notice those [unsatisfactory] things in order to get rid of those issues and operationalise practices,” Wittenstein said. “You have to know what it is, what it feels like, and have to be able to teach someone else about it.”

Another aspect of customer-led experience is recognising that the story that matters most isn’t the one the company tells, but the one customers do, Wittenstein said. Again, this requires recognising the importance of emotional in interactions, he said, as well as listening to customers first.

“If you can put clues into the experience that customers naturally gravitate to, they’ll want to talk about it,” he said. “And if you make it so the customer discovers the biggest benefits for themselves, rather than forcing all that information onto one page, they like it more because they discovered something and are emotionally connected to it.

“It’s not rocket science – it just takes humans who are empathetic. So you design the experience partly based on the stories they want to tell, and that’s how you crank up innovation. That’s when you’re portraying the details of what happens at check-in, what technology is available and what people say and what to do when XYZ happens.”

Another suggestion from Wittenstein is to bring in a business analyst that is value creation-based, rather than cost savings-based.

“Companies all too often look to make better use of their assets...You’ve got to be willing to leapfrog to be able to articulate the value the customers are getting,” he claimed.

“Think of your favourite coffee place: What could they give you that’s of more value? Most people think about getting more coffee, or charging less, or serving faster, or putting it in a cup that doesn’t burn my hands, or a temperature gauge outside of the cup so I know what the contents of the inside of the cup are like. They focus on coffee because it’s a coffee house.

“But what about giving me a quieter environment? What about putting in my choice of sound so I can control that ambient sound by tapping my table? It’s a different orientation and way of thinking.”

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