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Adrian Swinscoe: Forward Focused Episode 1

Jun 18, 2019

Evan Kohn: Hello and welcome to Forward Focused, brought to you by Pypestream Digital Labs, a thought series on customer experience, artificial intelligence, and enterprise automation. I’m Evan Kohn from Pypestream and I’m talking with Adrian Swinscoe. Adrian is a world-renowned customer experience expert and author. He’s consulted hundreds of businesses to help them engage with their customers, build their customer retention and improve service. You can find articles by Adrian in Forbes and he’s the author of “How to Wow: 68 Effortless Ways to Make Every Customer Experience Amazing,” and most recently his new book, “Punk CX.” Adrian, great to have you with us.

Adrian Swinscoe: Hey Evan, how’re you doing? I must say, that I’m not sure I’ve ever been called “world-renowned” before, so you made me blush throughout the introduction. Thank you for having me, it’s an absolute pleasure.

EK: Oh, we’re honored to have you with us, Adrian, thanks for joining. So, you have a new book out, “Punk CX”, I have my copy here, you talk about the parallels between the prog rock and punk rock eras and where we are with customer experience today. Where do you think the connection is?

AS: This is an idea that sat with me a little while now, rightly in terms of most good ideas, it emerged over a beer that I was having with a friend of mine, Oshean, who actually helped me edit the book, and I was expressing some frustration around the nature of customer experience and how there’s a lot of activity but not necessarily a lot of material or significant progress, and I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if someone took more of a punk approach? And I thought about that a little bit more and it made me think about music and the evolution of musical genres, particularly around the punk era, and for anybody who understands their rock music, prior to punk there was a big movement around prog rock. And prog rock was, whilst it was quite popular, it was very popular in many parts, it was also accused of being overly elaborate, self indulgent, not very inclusive, and in danger of disappearing up its own arse, if you pardon the language. And that made me think about the CX space, and I thought, well if you look at the number of different players and the number of different activities that are going on around CX, I mean, CX is being functionalized and specialized and automized, and that’s not a real word, but benchmarks and so on and so forth, there’s a danger that customer experience is starting to exhibit some of the same characteristics as prog rock.

The interesting thing, if you look at prog rock, the thing that exploded out the back of it was punk rock and punk was this DIY, back to basics, whole heart and emotion approach to music and it dared to be different, you know, didn’t have to be liked by everybody and it was okay with that. And that made me think, so if prog rock has led, in large part to the development of punk rock and CX is currently exhibiting some of the same characteristics prog rock did, then by extension, it made  me wonder, what would a punk rock version of CX look like? And that’s kind of, what I really started to explore and then produced a book that talked about this.

EK: Terrific. So is that a forecast then that our world of customer experience and how large enterprises manage customer relationships, will that be simplified in the years ahead?

AS: I think it has to be, or at least simplified, but it needs to be, I think, done in a slightly different way. It always seems curious to me that you have all these different businesses that are saying that we want to be leaders in our field, we want to lead our markets, we want to be customer focused, and so on and so forth. Yet they tend to do all the same things, and it makes me think, well you can’t all be leaders and you can’t all stand out if you’re all doing the same thing. And I think it’s time to disrupt people’s way of thinking and say — I use an analogy in the book — I talk about this idea of are you an artist or are you just painting by numbers? And I actually think there are a lot of people who are painting by numbers, like following people, they talk about being leaders but they’re following. And actually, if you paint by numbers you don’t create art, you just color in. And I’m trying to incite people or motivate and inspire people to think about, well, how can you become an artist? How can you do something different that stands out and is meaningful? And that can manifest itself in all sorts of different ways, the book isn’t a recipe, it’s like a firestarter, in many ways, it’s trying to encourage people to dare to be different, to be a bit braver, and a bit more courageous in how they think about the customer experience they deliver, but also think about it more holistically both inside and outside their businesses.

EK: Yup, and curious too of your thoughts on this concept of democratized CX, a choose-your-own-adventure type of approach, where proponents say that really allows for more flexibility and personalization of the customer experience. What do you think the future will look like with this notion of democratized CX?

AS: So, I actually think, I mean don’t get me wrong, is that I’m a real fan of really, really good technology and how it can enable great experiences for customers; and I like the idea of this democratized CX, i.e. you can customize, personalize the experience you get. However, if I think about the word that is at the heart of the democratized term, democracy, and I think democracy sort of implies that everybody has a say and everybody’s needs get listened to and paid attention to and the thing I struggle with, in that sense, is that I think that there are many groups of customers that are still struggling with this idea or potentially getting left behind. Let me give you an example, there’s research, and it comes from the UK, but I think that it has parallels in both Europe and North America and other parts of the world, that says that 75-80% of disposable income and net assets that exist belong to the age group that is 66/65 plus. But yet, only about 5% of the advertising marketing spend is dedicated to that group of people. That makes me think about why aren’t we really paying attention to that group and their needs? That they might not necessarily be, they’re not digitally native but they might not be digitally savvy, as digitally savvy as other groups. I think they’re growing and they’re maturing but my challenge is that if we’re thinking about democratized CX are we taking care of the needs of, you know, not that group in particular, but groups like that, you know, groups that aren’t in that it’s all digital first type of approach. You see this manifested in a way where customers are saying, oh we like self-service tools, but we struggle when companies make it hard to speak to somebody when things get difficult.

EK: Yup, and curious where you see technology having the biggest impact on CX today, whether it’s the evolution of how large companies are using their contact centers, how they’re injecting AI and automation, balancing different omnichannel approach to building relationships with customers or just tapping into a variety of different analytics solutions to really optimize customer journeys. Where do you see the biggest impact?

AS: I think the biggest impact will be informed by the word enabling or enablement, I think. It’s that a lot of people are getting almost like stuck in this idea that technology becomes a replacement, a tool that replaces things, that replaces the need for human beings, and I think in some places it can, I mean it’s absolutely right that we use technology to automate or make more efficient some of the tasks we try and undertake, whether they’re as employees or as customers. But I think if we start thinking about how can we use technology to enable the experience, both inside as an employee, so employee experience, and also outside as a customers or clients or consumers, and if we ask ourselves the question is this enabling a better experience? Then I think we will put ourselves on a right or better track.

EK: And how do you feel, Adrian, about digital transformation? So many businesses across industries characterize their initiatives as a full-on transformation, the way they do business, the way they engage with customers.

AS: I wish we’d stop talking about digital transformation, that’s how I feel about it.

EK: Okay.

AS: And the reason why I think about that is that I don’t think digital is a new thing anymore, it is a thing, it the thing, it should be business as usual, right? It’s part of our world, it shouldn’t be a separate kind of entity, it should just be integrated with how we are. So, there’s one thing, I think we should put digital aside and just talk about how we do business and that’s, you know, on and off digital platforms. But I think the whole idea of transformation, I think, I wish we’d stop talking about it, for a number of different reasons. One is that, think about the word transformation, it sort of assumes when you transform then you’re finished. I think technology and the marketplaces are moving so fast that we’re never going to be finished, so it becomes a misleading term, in many ways. I write about it in the book and there’s a quote from a punk song called No Control by a band called Bad Religion, they’re one of my favorite bands, and there’s a quote in the song that says, “there’s no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”, I love that quote. When I looked into the song I actually found out that its a quote from a book by James Hutton. He wrote a book in 1788 called A Theory of Earth which is the first acknowledged treatise on geology and what James did was, he went around look up, you know, rivers and valleys and mountains and hills and all sorts of geographical features to try and understand how the earth had been formed and how our landscape had been formed, and he came to the conclusion that there is no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end, we’re in this evolutionary cycle, things are always changing. So, it’s not about transformation, I think it’s more about an evolutionary process, and so that’s why I think transformation doesn’t necessarily help us.

Also, because I think when we start talking about transformation what we don’t necessarily take into account is the semantic and psychological impact it has on people, particularly employees. When people start talking about a transformation project then we have to take into account some of the subconscious reactions we have to words like this. You talk about transformation it’s like people go, oh! What does that mean? Does that mean my jobs at risk? Are we going to do things kind of differently? And that doesn’t necessarily, I think, engage people in the process, they don’t know if they’re going to be negatively or positively affected by it, if that makes sense.

EK: Yup, yup. Well, certainly lots of competitive pressures on companies to reinvent themselves and find ways to really deliver business value out of innovations, so you call them major initiatives, not transformations. How do you think the political climate is impacting the way enterprises approach customer service?

AS: Well, I think there’s an opportunity there. I think the political climate across the world, it seems to me, you know, if I think about, particularly the UK, and I think about also the US, I think we’ve seen that governments and public agencies, they’re under pressure, and they can’t necessarily do the things they want to do and the world has such huge problems and issues that we need to try and address that people are starting to look at enterprises and businesses as agents for change in their own right. And I think that there is both an opportunity and a challenge for businesses to be a bit more political in how they do things, take a stand on things, have a view on certain kind of issues, and I think that, in itself, can be actually quite punk in its approach. You know, some people may not like it and we look at, say Nike, did with the Colin Kapernick advertising campaign or we look at what, say Lush in the UK, has done about its nakedly, sort of, political in terms of where it sources its products from and what sort of issues it takes a stand on. What that does do is, it says, we’re not trying to please everybody, we are just going to do things we think that matter. Now, you have to then decide as a customer, or even as a supplier, or even as an employee, whether you like that, whether that’s aligned to your values and are you, kind of, wanting to align to that? Whether you want to buy it or want to work for it or you want to supply to it or so on and so forth. It’s not just about standing out for the sake of standing out, it’s about standing out but also making a difference. And so I think the political climate it’s actually, it’s both a challenge but also a real opportunity for many businesses.

EK: And in your previous books “How to Wow: 68 Effortless Ways to Make Every Customer Experience Amazing”, are there any one or two out of those 68 you found folks come up to you having read the book saying, wow that one really stood out to me?

AS: What a great question. The response to that book has just been phenomenal. It’s been out since 2016 now and everything I wrote in that book I still by. I had a bit of a wrestling match with the publisher around the subtitle, the effortless ways, and I said to them, I said, these things aren’t effortless, they are hard work — they convinced me to say that, well actually it’s a better marketing sort of title. But what I’ve tried to do is to say that by listening to your customers, by listening to your employees, by doing the simple things really, really well, by not making assumptions about what works and what doesn’t work or how customers are, then what you’ll do is, you’re willing to do the work to make your service and experience your own, as it were, and that in itself will make you stand out. So, that’s not an answer to your question because I can’t really answer your question. There wasn’t one thing that really stood out, there’s been all sorts of ones that have stood out for different sort of people, for different reasons.

EK: Well, we can take that, that there’s really no silver bullet it sounds like to delivering an amazing customer experience, it’s culture that needs to be infused within an enterprise, it’s a blend of different tactics and strategies and how to continuously tailor customer experiences. You know, we know that consumers can get angry and frustrated, look back on any given week, what were the 10 minutes of that week that were the most frustrating to you, many folks would say it had to do with a poor customer experience. Whether it was waiting on hold for a while calling a contact center, you name it. How can companies take these reactions and flip them into something that’s productive?

AS: So, if I think about complaints management or the management of poor service experiences, I think it’s still one thing we don’t necessarily do that well with, we don’t really lean into it, as it were. And I think that’s because of the nature of the situation, I mean, somebody’s angry and frustrated and they want something fixed and they want to vent and that’s hard for somebody to receive, as it were. Those situations are no different to situations we have in our own personal lives where we have difficult conversations. Not having a difficult conversation doesn’t necessarily solve the problem it just pushes it to one side, and I think what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to almost, like, build up our emotional musculature, as it were, to lean into these conversations, to better understand, can people make them feel like we’re paying attention to them, not in a cursory way, not in a process-led way, but in a very human way. Because, in many ways, when somebody’s angry or frustrated one of the key things they want to do is, is they want to be heard. There’s all sorts of research that shows that actually, when something goes wrong we actually really get involved with that in a very empathetic way, we don’t, kind of, switch to fix, as it were, but we actually, we step into it, we listen, we try and understand, kind of, what’s gone wrong, we make a promise around how we’re going to fix things and we follow up to make sure everything’s okay.

The thing that comes out of the back of that is one that customers feel really good about it, you’ve listened to their concern or to their frustration, you haven’t ignored them, you haven’t just, kind of, passed them off and went oh no, we’ll give you a voucher or we’ll give you some money off or we’ll send you this, we’ll do this, we’ll give you a token or credit, you know, or so on and so forth. It’s, sometimes, it’s easier not to say something than it is to say something and I think that actually when customers are angry there’s a real opportunity there. And, also, research that shows actually when we get those things right we can create an even better perception of the experience that we deliver, but also, we also boost retention and loyalty because people know that when things go wrong their worst fears come true, it’s like, ughh, and what they want to do is they want to be saved, they want to be saved in a very human kind of way. It’s a real challenge because it’s not an easy thing to do, the best companies do that really well, they lean into it, they listen really, really hard and they stay focused on the customer, not necessarily run them through a process.

EK: Adrian Swinscoe, we’ll leave it there, thank you for joining us, thank you for sharing your insights today. Where can our listeners find you?

AS: So, I’m all over the tinter web, as it were. You can find me most easily at, my name is Adrian Swinscoe, you can look me up on my own blog by the same name, so .com or on Twitter or on Linkedin, even look me up on Amazon, check my books out. Happy to connect with people and to talk further and, Evan, thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure.

EK: Much appreciated again Adrian. Listeners, thank you for tuning in today, you can access more Pypestream Digital Labs content at We hope you join us for the next Forward Focused podcast.