Chip R. Bell of ‘Inside Your Customer’s Imagination’: “Ask customers about their hopes and aspiration, not just their needs and expectations”

Ask customers about their hopes and aspiration, not just their needs and expectations. When a large pizza delivery company asked customers in focus groups what they could do that no other pizza company was doing, customers suggested they turn the pizza box into something usable…like a fun puzzle, a picture for coloring, or a mask, […]

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Ask customers about their hopes and aspiration, not just their needs and expectations. When a large pizza delivery company asked customers in focus groups what they could do that no other pizza company was doing, customers suggested they turn the pizza box into something usable…like a fun puzzle, a picture for coloring, or a mask, on the inside of the pizza lid. The company added a sheet of waxed paper between the pizza and the lid of the box and made it usable.


As part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chip R. Bell, a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several award-winning, best-selling books. His newest book, Inside Your Customer’s Imagination: 5 Secrets for Creating Breakthrough Products, Services, and Solutions, was released in fall 2020 and was a 2021 winner of an Axiom Business Book award. In 2021, for the seventh year in a row, Global Gurus ranked him in the top ten keynote speakers in the world on customer service.


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?

Customer loyalty has been a key passion of mine throughout my entire professional life. I studied consumer and organizational psychology in graduate school and worked for a large bank as head of organizational development and was heavily involved in crafting their customer strategy. In the early 1980s, I started my own consulting firm focused on helping organizations create a culture that supported long-term customer loyalty. In the early 1990s, my focus narrowed to innovative service.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

If there was a mistake to be made, I probably made it. Thankfully, I learned from them. One big mistake was accepting a keynote speech with a client who said he heard me speak at a large conference and wanted me to give the same speech to his group. I neglected to ask enough questions about what he liked about my keynote and what goals he had for his audience. The morning keynote was on the opposite coast. I arrived the evening before in time for his cocktail party with his audience. As he and I talked about the speech I was to give, it became clear he was expecting a different speaker who spoke at the same conference but on a slightly different topic. I gave my keynote, but it was not the message he wanted his group to hear. I learned: do a lot of homework. The principle applies to all customer service. How many vendors call on us who would know we were clearly not their target market if they did even a tiny bit of customer research? Don’t waste your customers’ time trying to give them what they do not want or need.

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?

I have been blessed with many colleagues who have served as mentors. The late Ron Zemke was a brilliant partner, coach, co-author, and many consider the “father of service management.” His book, Service America was the first book published in the U.S. on how deliberate management is way different than product or process management. He and I pioneered what is now known worldwide as customer journey mapping. We wrote four books together. One story came when working with a large telephone company on why customers were so irate to the call center operator when there was a phone outage. Ron asked the CEO, “Has your phone ever not worked?” The CEO said it had not. “Would you be willing to instruct your technology folks to create a phone outage just on your street?” He agreed. He got an earful from his furious wife and neighbors on what it took to finally get phone service restored. It enabled us to start a project that involved asking hundreds of customers to detail their experiences — moment to moment — which we charted and brought to the CEO and senior leaders. It was a major eye-opening breakthrough for them and triggered numerous changes in processes no one really understood from the customer’s perspective and experience.

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?

Today’s customers assume the products they buy will be effective and purchased at a fair price. Give them shoddy products and you go out of business quickly. Gouge them on price and they will never come back. Product and price are no longer differentiators. What customers judge you by today is the experience they go through. Customers have lots of choices. Give them a mediocre experience and they go elsewhere. They also have the power of the Internet and social media (“word of mouse”) to tell thousands of people about their experiences with you. It means great customer service is no longer a nice to have, but rather a critical component for survival. It is the key variable on which organizations can be distinctive.

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?

Too many organizations keep score quarter to quarter and mainly watch the bottom line. They erroneously put pressure on sales to bring in new customers without realizing, depending on the industry, acquiring a new customer can cost 5–10 times what it costs to keep an existing customer. Creating great customer service is an investment that requires carefully selected employees (not just warm bodies), effective training and support, affirmation, coaching and a host of other variables that help frontline employees consistently create great experiences for customers. Some organizations are so short-sighted they are not willing to make that investment. They ultimately pay a price since customer standards are constantly going up as customers get great service in pockets of their life. When they have a great customer experience, they judge every other organization (no matter the industry) by the memory of that experience.

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?

Competition is great. Think about all the monopolies with whom you deal. In some states it might be a utility, clearly it is many governmental services. How is their customer service? The biggest external pressure that can force an organization to improve is the customer. When you start losing customers to your competitors, it could be sign it is all about the experience you are creating. When you keep getting the same customer complaints (over the same issue), it could be early warning that your customer retention strategy is failing.

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

I work very hard to practice what I preach. It might be remembering special dates or events important to your customer. I had a client who mentioned casually that his daughter was planning to go to college at Duke to study business. Some weeks later I sent the client an article I discovered on Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. But what he was most wowed by was when his daughter told him in the first week of school that she had been selected to do a big project partnering with one of her business professors. She learned in the process that I had called the professor (who was a friend of mine) and told her to be on the lookout for my client’s daughter.

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

So, here is the payoff. The client remained a client for over ten years. There were many times when he and I were together with a friend of his and he would relate the story of how thrilled his daughter was that her professor singled her out for a special project because of my call to the professor before school began.

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

1. Talk frequently with the frontline associates about what they hear from customers about their experiences and expectations. When Starbucks store associates kept hearing customers ask about Wi-Fi in the stores and a way to keep their hot coffee from spilling through the sip hole onto their hand, the company implemented WIFI (a plus that kept customers in their stores buying more coffee. They also invented swizzle sticks that sealed the coffee lid hole and served as a coffee stirrer.

2. Ask customers about their hopes and aspiration, not just their needs and expectations. When a large pizza delivery company asked customers in focus groups what they could do that no other pizza company was doing, customers suggested they turn the pizza box into something usable…like a fun puzzle, a picture for coloring, or a mask, on the inside of the pizza lid. The company added a sheet of waxed paper between the pizza and the lid of the box and made it usable.

3. Consider the hiccups on the customer’s path that might occur and find creative ways to solve them. Hampton Inn Hotels realized that when traveling couples made coffee in their guest rooms with the coffee pot provided, they frequently got their coffee cups mixed up (“Is this your coffee or mine?”). They solve the dilemma by provided coffee cups with lipstick on one (like the cup had been kissed) and a mustache on the other cup!

4. Set your metrics around what drives customer loyalty which may be different than what customers say is important. Ask airline passengers what is the most important feature on an airline flight and they will tell you “safety.” Ask customers why they select one airline over another, and safety will not be in their top ten. Is it important? It is critical. But it is not a differentiator, it is merely a table stake.

5. Make sure every employee in the organization has an emotional line of sight with customers. How many times have you purchased an item which you had extreme difficulty opening? You can bet the product designer or product manufacturer did not spend time sitting with customers watching them struggle with their packaging.

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?

The secret to word of mouth is to create an experience that yields a compelling story customers cannot wait to share with others. Remarkable (something to remark about) most likely comes from value-unique, not value-added; ingenious, not generous. Giving customers more than they expect can be a problem when customer expectations go up right along with the addition. Innovative service is about something completely unexpected. It is about different, not more. When my wife bought a new car, she traded in her old car. A week after purchasing the new car, she turned on the radio and discovered the service tech had programmed in her radio stations from her trade-in. That is value-unique…and she has told everyone who will listen!

My particular expertise is in retail, so I’d like to ask a question about that. Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Research shows most customers are willing to pay 15–20% more for a great customer experience. There will always be competitors who can offer a lower price. And there will always be customers willing to be beat up by lousy service just to get the lowest price. The question is: Is that your target market? Price as a competitive advantage is a dead-end street — just ask K-Mart!

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 think I would start a movement to return to the old-fashioned village farmer’s market. It was an egalitarian experience where merchandise was bartered with goods produced. Farmers traded meat they grew for clothes someone else in the village made. It was eminently fair, socially uplifting, and ensured high quality.

How can our readers follow you on social media? www.chipbell.com; [email protected]; http://linkedin.com/chiprbell; http://twitter.com/chiprbell; http://instagram.com/chiprbell and http://facebook.com/chiprbell

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

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