Imperfection is a virtue

Recently we were given a box of chocolates as a present. The outer box looked somewhat neutral. It had no print on top, just a yellow ribbon around the box with a little tag that stated the name of the shop. Box, ribbon and tag told me the average age of the shop’s customers will be something around 50+. The fact that my aunt gave the chocolates as a present to us supports this assumption pretty well.

Box of chocolates
Box of chocolates (Source: own stock)

When I opened the box, I saw the chaos that you can see on the picture above. Far too much of the transparent foil had been used to wrap the chocolates and there was not really an order in the way the chocolates were put in the box. The sweets themselves had little imperfections here and there, not because of bad packaging, but because they were obviously hand made.

What happened to me as a customer? At first, I was disappointed by the loads of foil and the chaotic presentation of the chocolates – it was feeling cheap. But this impression lasted only for some seconds until I took the first chocolate out, saw that they were hand-made and tasted them. At that moment, the pieces fell together: small shop, probably existing for decades, hand-made sweets, true craftsmanship and a little imperfection here and there that show that this is authentic and not designed for perfection until it hurts.

My take-away from this: Too much perfection can lead to an uninspiring experience for the customer. Experiences should stay authentic and be proud of their little imperfections.


(Image source: own stock)

Packaging design with a laugh

The last time I had to grin about a packaging design was at the Kindle’s  barcode with the person reading below a tree. This time I was not really expecting something special when I had bought a new shaver. I should have been warned, because it was a Philips product. One of the few product companies that is offering their design services also to external clients: Philips Design.

Moustache Barcode
Moustache barcode on the packaging

OK, I had unpacked the shaver and was on the way to flatten the cardboard packaging and throw it away. There I saw the nice barcode on the bottom that had just the right amount of humor to provoke a good laugh while keeping up the high value perception that the product and packaging quality suggested when buying and unpacking it. Getting ready for my first Movember this year!

(Image by: jpmartineau)

When an unsolicited SMS made me smile

“The customer is always in control.” or “We only contact our customers when they allow us to.” are statements that can be found in many customer experience manifestos around the world. Recently a small company broke those rules on me and it made me smile.

When the SMS (a.k.a. text message) arrived on my phone, my first reaction was annoyance. How did my number end up on a spam list? Aren’t there laws in Germany that keep the SMS channel pretty clear of spamming? Or was I just lucky during the past years – something I couldn’t say for my mail accounts.

Some months ago I had the pleasure of visiting several focus group interviews. One of the topics that came up was, how the people in the group would like to be contacted from the corporate world and where the marketing messages should end up. SMS was considered to be the most private channel there is. The group clearly stated that this is still one of the most frequently used channels for keeping in touch with friends and family. Marketing? Stay out of here! Same applies to me.

Sharing your customer’s spirit opens windows to communication

Then I started reading the whole message. It was from a small coffee roaster around town that I had once given a call to know if his shop was open. As he was on his delivery tour, I postponed my initial visit. I had left nothing more with him than my number on his phone. No opt-in/ double opt-in whatsoever. The guy that operates the business is surely not a marketing guru or builds upon a massive ATL/ BTL budget as you can see from his website Leon’s Roasthouse. But he showed the right sense of how much he can intrude his (potential) customer’s intimacy without ruining the young relationship. He is a coffee geek, I am a coffee geek. We share a spirit – and that made it fully OK to get a marketing SMS on the new spring roasts and blends that were available from that day on.

What is the take-away for bigger operations out there? Respecting a customers’ privacy is still a major pillar of good customer experience. Full stop. If you are dealing at arm’s length with your customer or are only own a small part of your customers’ mental bandwidth, you better obey to the rules. Only if you are veeery veeery close to your customers and there is an emotional link in between, you can break the rules from time to time.

(Image by: chaparral)

Watch your customers’ mental bandwidth

In customer experience, we care a lot about making customers happy and are having a close eye on NPS, CS and others. Those measures are then used to judge the impact of a single communication or service measure upon the customer. In large corporations, these “single” touch points with the customer can add up massively, when departments don’t align what they do. This is when a customer gets three letters from the same company that suggest four ways of getting an issue resolved. One from sales, one from service and the last one from the logistics department. So shouldn’t we first determine our customers’ mental bandwidth and how much of that bandwidth they grant us?

Your product or service is not the center of the world

You all know the drill. Your job and the industry you are working in is the most important thing for you during daytime – and sometimes also after having returned to your home and family. But what about your customers? Ask yourself how important the product or service you are providing is for your average customers? Check how much time a customer spends every day, consciously using your product or service. Assessed with Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene theory in mind, where does your product or service belong to?

Customer bandwidth has become a scarce resource

Now, wipe the tears from your eyes if you have realized that your center of gravity falls into your customers’ “hygiene” bucket. Your are in good company. There is a lot of noise out there and every company tries to grab the customers’ attention. Our customers on the other side have only a limited bandwidth for us as they also need to care for their work, their family and all other things that are in their “motivator” bucked to use that analogy again.

Mind the context and you will be relevant

For a customer experience professional that means that the context the customer is in is very relevant. Ask yourself how much bandwidth a customer will have in the situation that you are designing your service for. Will there have been noise before entering the respective service stage? How much time do you allow for the action/ transaction to happen? How much information do you provide for ask from your customers? Will the customer be on top of things or is the situation new for her?

If you thoroughly go through your service design and design for minimum bandwidth use with minimum distraction before and after, you have a good chance of getting your message across and providing an excellent customer experience that does not leave any open questions to your customer.

(Image by Jacob Earl)

Parallels between theaters and retail concepts

The best way to learn something new about the town you live in is to either have guests and show them around – meaning you buy a travel guide before to pimp up your knowledge – or to stumble upon an interesting book and read it in the evenings. The latter happened to me and by accident, I got some interesting insights into the Aalto Theater here in Essen, Germany. From the outside, you would expect a very modern inside – let’s wait and see if you’re right. How this connects to customer experience? Let’s have a look at some theater history…

Theaters re-invented their stages in the 1920’s

As early as that, theater makers explored how to get away from the proscenium arch stage (stage on one side, seats on the other) and make it possible to integrate the audience into the plays. This meant two main changes. To write scripts that allow for interaction between actors and audience and to have stages that are versatile enough to actively drive that interaction. The old-fashioned proscenium arch stage with its separation of stage and audience could not serve that purpose.

The concept of integrating stages and theater buildings was driven forward in the coming years, culminating in the concept of the “Totaltheater“, envisioned by Erwin Piscator and Bauhaus founder Martin Gropius: A theater that wraps itself around actors and audience and is flexible to accommodate to almost every possible setup.

Looking at the breath-taking architecture of the Aalto Theater mentioned above (opened in 1988), you would expect to see a very progressive stage concept that reflects its wrapping. But you won’t. The concept found inside the theater is old-school proscenium arch, limiting possibilities of play. The revolution happened on the outside, only.

Retail concepts have mainly stayed clear of a revolution

Instead of “blowing up all opera houses” as French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez provoked in a 1967 interview, the retail stages have mostly stayed as they are. Looking at concept stores around the world (worth a read: The Slowretail Blog), much thought has been put into interior design and the various ways of displaying the good, illuminating them the right way and to some extend also the way how the shop staff is trained to interact with customers. Actors talking to an audience.

So when you cut out all the furniture and decoration what is left is a journey of entering the store after having had a look in the window, browsing around or asking for a specific item, examining it a.k.a. trying it on, eventually paying and leaving. This experience might be backed by some digital signage or processing a payment via an iPad but these are all features and make no big difference to the customer.

Is this shopping experience more fun? Maybe. Would a customer prefer to spend more time there than at any other place except home? Not sure. At the end asking again: Was there a revolution? No.

Some answers can be found in today’s theaters

Coming back to the aim of the 1920’s theater folks, the first thing is to include the customer much more into the whole sales and service concept of the store. What can be more engaging when customers stay a little longer on the shop floor only because they want to be part of a discussion or problem resolution. Think of an Apple store, where it can happen that one or two extra customers end up around the original agent + customer duo to put in their experiences around a certain product and its suitability for a specific purpose. This is engaging for all parties and the customer that walked in ten minutes before “just to have a look” exits the store with the feeling that he helped another customer taking to the right decision. Positive feelings included.

Another way to go is to confront your customers with your own big ego, like a theater play where the actors shout at the audience and make it feel like being kind of wrong where it is seated. Or like Miles Davis when he turned his back on the audience to demonstrate that he did not need anyone to listen to him. If customers appreciate this kind of behavior is up to the individual, but if such habits fit to the brand, it is appropriate to design your customer experience that way. Abercrombie & Fitch does it like that and officially states that most of their customers should not wear their clothes anyway, because of their unappealing bodies.

The last example from the world of theater is to bring the stages to the places where the people and the audiences are. In the theater world this often happens when a major renovation is going on and the theater is closed for a long time. In the customer experience world this happens when customers find less time to visit their favorite stores. The stores come to the people like in the well-known example of Tesco in South Korea.

More areas of differentiating customer experience are still to be explored

Is this all? Not a all. What a about stand-up comedy? How can it inspire the way we sell and service tomorrow? Maybe we should think about adapting improvisational theater methods to shops. Could be entertaining, could deliver solutions to customer problems that we have not seen before. And I haven’t even started thinking about performance theater…

In the end the take-away is to do it differently than the folks in the town I live in. They mastered the exterior design of the Aalto-Theater but fell short of doing the same magic to the inside: enabling different and differentiating customer experiences that bring out the actors’ and play’s luster.