Evan Kohn: Welcome listeners 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 Evan Carroll. Evan is the author of two books, you might have read about Evan in the New York Times and The Atlantic or seen him on CBS Sunday Morning or NPR’s Fresh Air. Evan regularly serves as a keynote speaker on customer experience and he’s also an adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, so we have a tar heel here. Recently had Evan Kirstel on the show and, listeners, I promise I’m not biased only bringing on guests named Evan, but Evan Carroll, great to have you with us.
Evan Carroll: It’s great to be here on the Evan show.
EK: [laughs] Indeed, well maybe we have a future of having a separate show where it’s all about Evan, but that could be for another time, but great to have you with us. Now, Evan, I hear you have a funny story of your first technology project.
EC: So I have been in technology a very long time. In my wee years my family had computers with a CRT monitor built in and a keyboard built in, it was one piece of furniture, there was no mouse, it had two 5 ½ inch floppy drives and I don’t remember much of it but I have been told that I am the reason that that particular computer stopped working. That I, as a young kid, I liked to go in there and put discs in and press the buttons to the point it no longer worked. But I’m not too embarrassed about it because my sister is credited with putting a slice of pizza in the VCR as a way to hide it for later. So, she ruined the VCR, I ruined the TRS80 but at least I didn’t do so by putting pizza in it.
EK: [laugh] Gotcha. Evan you cover all things customer experience so I’ll start by asking you a broad question, how can companies successfully connect with consumers today?
EC: So in the broadest sense, I think the advice Jack Welch gave is really applicable here, he said, there are only two keys to competitive advantage, number one is learning more about your customers faster than your competition and number two is putting those insights into action faster than the competition, so insights into action. And when I hear that, what I hear is how can we use the data and the technology and everything that’s available to us to better understand what our customers want. Not as a customer segment, not as all of our customers in one big bucket, but rather as each individual person. How they might be different, what their preferences are, and how we can customize the experience for them; because in a world where it was a one size fits all customer experience, we kind of had to design for the lowest common denominator, whereas now, I believe we can create experiences that are tailored to the audience of one and that’s really exciting to me.
EK: So where do you get most excited about technologies impact on customer experience?
EC: So, I like to tell companies that they should let technology do what technology does best so that people can do what people do best. And the reason I advocate for that is quite simple — have you ever been in a situation where you really really wish that you had a way to self checkout or you had a way to just handle your problem yourself, it takes more time to wait in line or call someone and conversely you’ve probably had those situations where you’re so frustrated, you’re at your wits end, you felt there wasn’t a good option available for you from a technology standpoint and you just wanted to speak with someone. And I think where companies make big mistakes today is they put technology in place in times when, really, you should have a person and other times where you should have technology that’s where people are spending their time. And so, what gets me most excited is this premise that companies are starting to understand that being able to use technology as part of the customer experience isn’t about replacing people rather it’s about letting everyone do what they do best and that is what gets me excited.
EK: And it sounds like the focus there is really getting consumers to resolution if they have an issue, and fast answers, allowing them to have a delightful experience that they can really navigate, what are one or two companies that you think really get it when it comes to delivering an outstanding customer experience?
EC: It’s cliche to say but I believe Amazon really, really gets it, you know their stated mission is not to sell the most products, their stated mission is to be the Earth’s most customer-centric company. And the reason I believe they are so good at customer experience is actually personal experience. So, I had a situation a few years ago where I decided to purchase a very expensive piece of camera equipment, it was a bit of a splurge, I’ll admit that, but I got a good deal via Amazon Warehouse deals, that’s their damaged box merchandise, so I got a good deal and unfortunately, the camera lens, it was a camera lens that arrived, was similar to the one that I had ordered, but was actually a much less expensive lens, it was mislabeled. And I was immediately — my heart sank — because now it’s my word against theirs, right? They could say oh, well you’re trying to send us back a less expensive lens. And I immediately said this is not a situation for an email or the standard return process, I’ve got to call someone. And so I got on the phone and very quickly I got to a person, very quickly that person put me in touch with a specialized team that dealt with photography equipment. They had a specialized team and as soon as I said I have this one versus this one they said “oh, well that’s no good, those are two completely different lens at completely different price points, of course we’re going to get you taken care of”. So in that moment I realized that sure I could have used some of their online tools but I went for the personal route at that moment and I felt that they did a really good job of realizing that if it’s a higher value product there should be a different return experience and I feel like just the fact that they have that insight is a very, very good sign of wanting to be that Earth’s most customer-centric company, as I like to say. I know you asked for two examples but you got one example with a really good story to go with it so, there you have it.
EK: Well, that’s great, You know, listeners probably read so much about the importance of brands building that level of trust and often it’s evidenced by, as you say, will brands trust their own consumers too, when that type of scenario arises. So, Evan curious about your fellow Tar Heels as a professor at UNC, what topics do your students find most intriguing these days and has that surprised you?
EC: So I’m not sure it surprised me but I will say that most recently I taught a capstone course in information science and the charge of that course really is to be an emerging topics course, and we spent a significant amount of time on really ethical questions as it related to technology. And so, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the, with the trolley problem but self driving cars have brought this up as a more relevant thing in today’s world. The problem was positioned as a trolley is, the brakes are out, and the trolley is on its way to where it might run over three people who are tied to the tracks, but you as a person can flip the switch and divert the trolley and you know for certain it’s going to kill one person if you do that, if you do divert it. The question is as a person do you flip the switch and what are the ethics of flipping that switch? Now, you might say Evan what do trollies and running over people have to do with anything? These are the types of decisions that technology will have to make in the future and we have to figure out ways to convey our ethical constraints to that technology. And certainly we won’t be making decisions between which way the trolley goes but we do have self driving cars that will have algorithms that say if you must do damage do the least amount of damage as possible or if you must potentially impact life do so at the least possible, and that sounds reasonable until we have to start grappling with it. So it really surprised me just how much my students latched on to the ethical side of things and really wanted to explore those questions but then it occured to me the reason why: that’s because technology questions and technology itself comes and goes, there’s a new piece of technology out everyday and they can do more and more for us but at the end of the day we, as humans, have to deal with the human element of that and how humans interact with that technology. And that’s why I think it was so, so fascinating to them and I thoroughly enjoyed being with them and sort of grappling with those ethical problems.
EK: That really is fascinating and you’ve covered a range of industries and how technology has evolved especially in serving the customer experience is there a particular industry or sector that you think just needs a kick in the rear when it comes to keeping up with these shifts in consumer expectations?
EC: You know, I have to say it, I think a lot of those industries tend to be your professional service industries. I think industries like banking need a kick in the rear. The industries that tend to move more slowly banking and insurance, all those industries where you often need an agent or intermediary to interact with the industry, I think those are the ones that really need a kick in the rear because they’re the ones who will say my customers really value the personal attention that I give them, they don’t want a technology focused process and I think that’s fundamentally false. The customers want and appreciate, you know, self service technology when they need self service and there are times when they need a more personal touch and to simply ignore it by saying that’s not applicable to my industry is really a death sentence. And then you have companies out there like Amazon and Apple that are absolutely killing it and that adjusts the expectations you have to use and keep up with. And those are the ones I’d say need a real kick in the rear but I will say this because the curve of customer expectations is so rapidly increasing everyone needs to act as if they were just kicked in the rear just to keep up.
EK: And in your book Blue Goldfish you wrote about using technology to drive profits and prophets, so profits with and ‘f’ and prophets with a ‘ph’, now do you think most senior leaders today do finally appreciate that linkage between customer advocacy and its impact on revenue?
EC: You know, Evan, I really do think they’re starting to get that. Because it’s been proven that customers that are referred to you tend to be more loyal customers, they tend to refer more customers. Its proven it’s much cheaper to retain a customer than it is to go get a new one. And it’s taken some time but I fundamentally believe that businesses who adopt customer experience as a core strategy are really seeing the benefits of doing it. I think some of the businesses we’ve talked about so far in our conversation are evidence of that. So I would say the answer is most certainly yes they are appreciating the linkage and I think it’s a direct relationship, those who appreciate the linkage more actually see more benefit from it because they’re willing to make the investments in customer experience that are required to see the benefits. And I think it’s important to realize that customer experience is not a campaign or it’s not a one off project, it’s a fundamental way of operating your business so it is 100% customer focused and the more you get that, I think, the more your customers will reward you.
EK: Evan Carroll, thank you for joining us, thank you for sharing, where can our listeners find you?
EC: Sure, you can catch me online my website is evancarroll.net, I am available via Twitter @evancarrol, also on Facebook, Linkedin, you know, all the places social media is sold, you’ll find me there.
EK: Well, much appreciated again, Evan. Listeners, thank you for tuning in today. You can access more Pypestream Digital Labs content at pyperstream.com/insights, we hope you join us for the next Forward Focused podcast.