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Steven van Belleghem: “Do 100 small improvements over 5 big improvements”

Do 100 small improvements over 5 big improvements: CEOs should try to create a culture where teams prioritize trying to improve the details in the customer journey. Some of the best companies appoint people whose role is specifically to look for and fix all the small things can be improved. As part of my series […]

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Do 100 small improvements over 5 big improvements: CEOs should try to create a culture where teams prioritize trying to improve the details in the customer journey. Some of the best companies appoint people whose role is specifically to look for and fix all the small things can be improved.


As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven van Belleghem.

Professor Steven van Belleghem is widely regarded as one of Europe’s leading experts on customer experience in the digital world. He has helped organizations including Salesforce, Microsoft, Booking.com, Disney and Google and leads ‘inspiration tours’ to take executives to visit some of the world’s most innovative tech companies to help the understand the future of the customer-brand relationship. He is the author of a several international bestselling books, including ‘Customers the Day after Tomorrow’ and ‘The Offer You Can’t Refuse.’


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Today my passion is to create and share ideas about the future of customer experience. All my presentations, books, articles and videos talk about the possibilities technology can offer to improve customer experiences.

This passion was born during my teenage years. I had relatives in San Francisco and I had the pleasure to spend almost all my summers with them between the age of 13 and 21. There I fell in love with the optimism about technology and the spirit of the valley. My parents also had a photography store in Belgium, and looking back, my parents were always very customer-centric, going the extra mile for customers and investing in early technologies to make that happen.

The combination of these two parts of my youth were the foundation of my current work.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made or saw when you first started working in customer experience? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take-aways’ you learned from that?

Around 2010 I was convinced that social media would become the most important channel for customer service. That was naïve. I looked at it from my own perspective. I was spending a lot of time on social channels and I saw certain brands trying their best with social media service. Today I realize I was completely wrong.

Social media channels are too slow and too public for customer service. Even if you have to wait 10 minutes to get a human service agent on the phone, it is still faster than social and a personal conversation is still the perfect way to solve an entire problem.

What did I learn from this? I was looking at the problem from a technology point of view. If I had looked at it from a customer point of view, I wouldn’t have jumped to this wrong assumption.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are so many people who helped me along the way. My parents, my relatives in California, my wife, Kristof De Wulf, the CEO of InSites Consulting, Peter Hinssen who started a business together with me…

But, if there is one person that I would have to point out, I would say Prof Dr. Rudy Moenaert. He was my marketing professor during my senior year at university, and hired me as a research assistant when I graduated. After a few weeks, he started to involve me in teaching and some consultancy projects, so within just three months of leaving I was presenting to a senior management team of an international company. I was scared and nervous like never before, and… I did an awful job! It really wasn’t good, but Rudy gave me direct and honest feedback, and never stopped giving me the confidence to try again. Thanks to his lessons, his feedback and most importantly his trust, I started to belief in myself, and that started my career. Rudy and I are still very good friends today.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Without customers you don’t have a business. The customer pays the bills, and the customer is the best advertising channel to get new customers. Most companies want to keep their existing clients and find new ones, well the fastest road towards success is providing excellent customer service.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

Many companies are focused on their internal problems and challenges. Many companies are only interested in short term results, and because of that, they make the wrong choices towards their customers. The moment your store opens up, the main goal and only focus should be to share positive energy with your customers and give them the best possible service you can give them. They are not interested in your problems or challenges, they want to have a good time and enjoy working with you.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Competitions definitely helps. In my opinion, the biggest boost in customer experience was the rise of social media. Suddenly many businesses were confronted with customer feedback scores, with customers complaining about them on social media. Suddenly the customer had a loud voice, and that was new. This has increased the effort to improve customer service in many organizations, even if social media itself isn’t necessarily the best channel to deal with customer service issues.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience they received?

One of my favorite examples is the Dutch company Coolblue. They are one of the larger e-commerce companies in the Benelux, and they have build their success on looking for product categories where the customer is not being helped in a good way.

One of those categories was washing machines. If you need a new washing machine, it takes an effort: you need it immediately, most people can’t carry it, it doesn’t find in your car, you have the old machine that you want to get rid of, maybe you live on the 5th floor in an apartment building, you don’t know how to connect it. You see, many challenges. Coolblue identifies markets like this and then they decide to take care of everything, and do everything other players in the market wouldn’t do. They will come to your house, install the machine, even in you live on the 20th floor, they take the old machine… and beyond this transactional part, they also make sure the humans who come to your house are perfectly trained to deliver great service. They focus on the details to make sure that everything they say can even add value to the experience.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

Within just one year of the launch of this approach, Coolblue were already the market leader in the Benelux. And then, they used this same approach when they were selling TVs or computers. More and more people enjoyed the experience, saw the value and their growth was impressive as a result.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Do 100 small improvements over 5 big improvements: CEOs should try to create a culture where teams prioritize trying to improve the details in the customer journey. Some of the best companies appoint people whose role is specifically to look for and fix all the small things can be improved.
  2. Everyone should get direct customer feedback: One of the fallouts from the pandemic has been the number of sports being played without fans in stadiums. It has been interesting to see how many players have performed or behaved differently because they don’t have the direct feedback from their supporters — or customers! Soccer players, for example, need the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of a crowd to feel the emotional connection and respond accordingly to lift their game. You should try to install a system that gives as many of your team as possible direct access to customer feedback, so they can feel the same ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, rather than looking at customers as numbers on a PowerPoint slide.
  3. Always fix a problem first: When something goes wrong in a customer experience, the instinct of many companies is to spend time and energy researching whose fault it was — company or customer. The reality is, it doesn’t really matter, and the process of pointing fingers simply creates negative feelings. My advice would be just fix the problem, even it is the customer’s fault, and that will be remembered by the customer.
  4. Be fast, easy and fun: Domino’s Pizza is a company that has outperformed many of the world’s leading tech companies on the stock market over the last decade, and they have built their success by becoming the fastest, easiest and most fun place to order pizza. They transformed from a food company to a tech company and through data analytics, they realized 80% of their customers order the same pizza every single time. This meant that by putting an entire menu on their app they were alienating 80% of their customers, so launched their first zero-click app — just open the app and a pizza will be with you in 20 minutes. What could be easier than that?
  5. Empower employees to choose for the customer: Make sure you have a culture in your organization where employees can take decisions on their own, and where they don’t need to ask for approval if they would like to do something extra for a customer. They shouldn’t be afraid of helping a customer even if it doesn’t bring in any money, or even when it could cost money in the short term. Employees should get that freedom to make that shot, and feel the satisfaction in having helped a customer.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

Word of mouth is a crucial part of a successful strategy. So, always make sure that customers know that you are online, let them know that you would like to have an online conversation with them. You can kindly ask them to share the news.

Your chances for online word of mouth will increase if you are also part of the online conversation. If you are known as an online brand, people will reach out faster, if they know that you will reply to them, they will reach out faster. The best thing you can do, is start the online conversation proactively.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to start a movement that solves the educational problems in the world. In many countries, it is still a challenge to get all children in schools to receive a proper education, especially for girls. If we can solve this problem, many related problems in the world would start to be solved. When girls go to school for longer, they have less children, they have a higher quality of life… which leads to many positive evolution for all people. To contribute a little bit to this goal, I’m a board member of Plan International that is trying to work towards this goal, but we can always use all the help available.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m active on most social media. They can find a lot of content on www.youtube.com/stevenvanbelleghem, or on my instagram @stevenvanbelleghem on Twitter @stevenvbe or on LinkedIn. Those are the channels where I share most content. Would be a pleasure to welcome the readers on my channels.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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