With all of the data available today, brands have the ability to understand their customers like never before. However, while artificial intelligence and machine learning can be incredibly effective at leveraging this data to scale operations and help personalize the customer experience, many companies are misguidedly defaulting to a purely tech-based strategy that often ends up feeling robotic and frustrating customers more than delighting them. AI alone isn’t enough to provide superior customer service and memorable experiences. Customers today want superhuman customer service and that means brands must leverage a combination of high tech and high touch to empower humanity across their organization, not replace it.
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 Ford Blakely. Ford Blakely is the founder and CEO of Zingle. As a frustrated consumer with an entrepreneurial spirit, Ford worked to find a way to make it easier for customers to interact with companies and get their needs met in more immediate and personalized ways. Zingle was born in 2009 as the first business-to-customer texting platform. Today, Zingle empowers businesses to engage, support, and respond to customers in more meaningful and impactful ways. The Zingle platform combines artificial intelligence and machine learning with workflow automation and mobile messaging, which allows brands to deliver exceptional customer experiences in real-time. Leading brands across different verticals — including hospitality, health and fitness, legal, food and beverage, retail, and more — use Zingle to increase efficiency, improve operations, and delight their customers.
Ford has spent more than 20 years involved in startups, finance, and various entrepreneurial projects. He is a Certified Public Accountant who earned his Bachelor of Arts in Accounting and Finance from Furman University in 1997, before attending the University of Tennessee to earn a Masters in Accountancy one year later. He started his financial career at Arthur Andersen and later moved on to investment banking at RBC Capital Market, where he specialized in telecommunication start-ups and video technology companies at all stages. He then worked at LECG for six years, where he provided financial analysis and consultation services for businesses and law firms.
Today, Ford lives with his family in California. When he’s not building products or speaking on the importance of brands personalizing the customer experience at industry events, he enjoys traveling around the world and exploring new ways to enhance the travel experience.
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?
I’ve always loved inventing things and come from an entrepreneurial family. My sister Sara is the founder of Spanx and since I was a kid I’ve been obsessed with finding solutions to things that were inconvenient. When I was 13, my first invention was actually a toothbrush with toothpaste inside of it, so you didn’t have to pack both when you traveled.
When I got older I started a solutions journal and wrote down all the problems I experienced throughout the day and then tried solving them. Over several years, I tackled problems in clothing, plumbing, and more, and have several patents and a pile of notebooks to prove it.
But my real job was in accounting and finance and about a dozen years ago I was on the verge of making partner at my firm — what I’d been working toward for years. It was my holy grail. I told my wife and she said you can’t take this promotion, your heart’s not in it and pointed at the night stand with all my journals.
She was right. And it was my somewhat legendary impatience that first sparked the idea for Zingle around that time. While commuting to work, I always stopped at my local coffee shop to order a Java Kai for the ride. But the 10 minutes it took to order and then wait for my coffee was too much, especially when half the time it wasn’t made right.
I would stare at my Blackberry while waiting in line and it drove me crazy that I couldn’t send a message to the business and order ahead. That was the ‘aha’ moment and what became my personal mission and eventually Zingle. It was a primitive solution at first — texting directly to a printer at the coffee shop — but my order was ready and correctly made when I got there. As SMS texting and cell phones grew, so did Zingle and our software. We’re now helping businesses across all kinds of verticals better engage their customers in real-time conversations through text messaging, people’s preferred method of communication today, and delivering better customer experiences at scale with our AI-driven platform.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Back in 2010, when Zingle was in its infancy, I convinced one of our first customers, a local Subway franchisor, to run a promo where customers could text their order to the shop between 10–11:30 a.m. on a specific day to get a free 5 dollars footlong. I wanted to show off the power of Zingle and was excited that I’d convinced Subway — even if it was just a few stores — to partner with me. I was ready to pay for a bunch of free subs, but had no idea what to expect. To make sure we weren’t embarrassed, me and a few employees passed out flyers and spread the word in those neighborhoods the day before. I was so paranoid we’d only get a few orders.
The day arrived and when the clock struck 10 a.m. we were shocked! Not only were we actually getting orders texted to the shops, but we were getting so many that the printer literally overheated at one of them. On top of that, the store couldn’t fulfill the orders fast enough and the line stretched around the block. Customers were waiting for an hour and a half for their footlong and we couldn’t even read their order because the printer stopped working.
Talk about a customer experience disaster. But we rallied and jumped behind the counter and started making sandwiches as fast as we could to help keep up with the 1,900 orders that came in!
That’s a lot of free sandwiches and way more money than I planned to spend to prove my concept. Thankfully, the owner felt bad for us and gave me the sandwiches at cost, which as a budding entrepreneur, was still a massive hit to my checkbook, but a lot better than the full price.
In hindsight, the entire thing was ludicrous. I can laugh now, but at the time it was one of the most humiliating experiences I’ve been through as an entrepreneur. It taught me two things: 1. You never know what to expect as an entrepreneur, and 2. Never, ever, underestimate the power of free!
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 wouldn’t be here today without my big sister Sara, who serves as a constant advisor to me and has taught me countless lessons about being a successful entrepreneur. One that really stuck with me is to never leave things to chance and do whatever it takes to drive momentum — even if you have to fake it before you make it. (Perhaps the Subway experiment was the exception to this rule.)
Before Spanx became a massive global success, I remember when Sara came up with a plan to hire me and some friends to go into stores where Spanx was carried and buy a bunch of the product. When we’d go in we’d rave about how amazing Spanx was, how we’d seen them on Oprah, and more important than driving sales, we were turning those sales associates into advocates for the brand.
I took a similar approach when I started Zingle. Early on, I made a push to get in with the car valets in New York City. The idea was that people could use Zingle to text ahead and get their car faster. I gave the valets a stack of cards they could give to customers when they parked their car. The problem was the valets thought this would end up replacing them so they threw the cards away and weren’t telling people. I got a few buddies — and gave them a few hundred bucks — to go to the valets and ask them about the sign that had the Zingle promo on it. At first, the valets would shrug it off, but my friends got them to explain and then they’d act like it was the greatest idea ever. They got the cards and would text ahead for their car when they returned and then rave about how much time it saved them, the important meeting they were able to make, whatever. And they’d tip them 40 dollars. Naturally, this got the valets buzzing, word spread and business took off.
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?
As companies like Amazon and Netflix continuously redefine what it means to provide remarkable experiences and service, consumer expectations are higher than they’ve ever been. At the same time, more traditional brick-and-mortar businesses struggle to keep pace with the digital innovation and execution of those tech giants.
But as research has shown, customer experience has a direct impact on a businesses’ bottom line. There is a correlation between experience-focused companies and revenue, as well as the fact that customers will leave a company after just one bad experience. Talk about high stakes.
We recently conducted a consumer research study to help our customers and found that 86% of consumers say they’d pay more for superior service. Half of the consumers say online reviews greatly impact their purchase decisions, and 42% say they would return to a business that was able to turn a negative experience into a positive one. That shows the value great service can provide: It drives revenue, conversion, and loyalty. What business doesn’t have those three objectives on their list of goals this year?
2019 was the year that customer experience leaped from the marketing presentation into the boardroom and it is becoming a prioritized strategy. In 2020 and beyond, we’ll see even further emphasis on CX across all industries as companies realize that factors like product and price aren’t enough of a differentiator anymore, and that customer experience has become the top way to rise above the competition and win customers.
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?
I don’t think it’s an issue of not making customer experience a priority as much as it is a shift in mentality that’s needed. Take customer service, for example, the customer service mindset is commonly centered around surpassing expectations by doing whatever is possible to prevent issues from occurring in the first place. Because of this, many organizations allocate their energy and resources toward prevention.
But as we all know, mistakes are simply inevitable. The good news is that they’re also powerful opportunities. The Service Recovery Paradox shows us that if a brand fixes an issue for a customer, a paradox emerges and the customer actually becomes more loyal than if a mistake had never occurred. This is why we are far more likely to remember the times a company has turned a poor experience into a positive one than all the times’ brands have left us frustrated.
If we can shift how we view things like service and embrace issues as opportunities then we can provide the type of experiences that leave customers wowed.
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?
Absolutely! Customer experience is becoming the key differentiation amongst companies and forcing them into a race to deliver the best, most personal and memorable experience. As mentioned above, the factors fueling this are a confluence of today’s customer experience leaders continually raising the bar, younger generations’ mobile and digital preferences, and the overall acceleration of technology that gives businesses unprecedented access to the tools needed to enhance the customer experience.
And with social media today, there is immense pressure on businesses to provide better and more consistent experiences. Bad reviews and viral posts can do irreparable harm to businesses.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
I recently heard from one of our customers, Nashville KOA, this amazing and sprawling resort that combines camping, glamping, cabins, more traditional hotel rooms, and outdoor activities. Its general manager, Aaron Williamson, shared a story of how leveraging Zingle’s guest-messaging platform helped create a really personal moment for one of his guests.
On the last day of a multi-night stay at the resort, a woman texted that she wanted to spend an extra night because her husband was not feeling well. Williamson saw this through the Zingle dashboard, and instead of having a staff member follow up or even just texting back, Williamson called her to say he hoped everything was OK and to make sure her reservation was extended. A little bit later, he texted her to see how things were and to share where the nearest medical facilities were just in case.
She never responded, but a couple of days later, Williamson saw a review that called out the exceptional service. In it, she wrote that no matter where else she travels in the world, she would always come back to Nashville and stay at KOA because of how much they care.
While our solution provides brands a way to leverage AI and messaging to increase engagement with their customers and improve service, our philosophy is one of using this type of technology to elevate the humanity inside the brand, rather than replace it. What Aaron did, in this case, exemplifies that perfectly.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
I can think of countless examples like this, where customers are left with a feeling of attachment to brands that use Zingle because of how they handled service issues. Hospitality is one of our core areas of focus and we continually see TripAdvisor reviews from many of the properties we work with that rave about the guests’ experiences and call out the personal touch that came from being able to text the hotel or resort.
In an age of consumer disloyalty, the ability to build positive emotions around your brand will always have a lasting payoff.
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.
- Mistakes are Opportunities.Growing up, my dad always encouraged us to take risks even if they led to failure because failing would teach us how to get comfortable with rejection and learn from our mistakes. This ability to embrace mistakes as growth opportunities are just as important for brands as it is entrepreneurs. Missteps are inevitable when you’re running any business, but they can also be great opportunities. When businesses have a strong service recovery strategy in place, mistakes don’t have to be fatal. A proactive service recovery strategy is actually an extremely powerful, yet underutilized way to win customers, drive loyalty, and ensure you provide a customer experience that’s worth writing home — or online about!
- There’s Psychology Behind Service.The consumer research we conducted found that more than 1-in-3 consumers (35%) report that they actually feel more emotionally connected to a brand if they solve a problem for them. When we fix a problem for someone, we are hitting at some very core human needs, including the need to be heard, understood and validated as an individual. No matter who your customers are, every one of them has one thing in common: they’re all human. By using service recovery as the glue to tie the service experience to the human experience, companies can take their customer relationships and experiences to the next level.
- Real Time Communication is Crucial. The same research found that only 25% of hotel guests say they report any issue that impacts their experience. Why? Because there isn’t a quick or easy way to do so, or because they don’t like confrontation. If this happens in hospitality, about the most customer-focused business there is, it surely happens across all industries. When issues slip through the cracks, they result in lost customers and damaged reputations. Customers need to feel empowered to communicate their issues in ways they are comfortable. Today that means leveraging mobile technology and establishing proactive communication that allows you to keep tabs on the entirety of the experiences your customers are having and jump at the moment things are headed off course.
- No One Wants to be a Support Ticket. In order for service to wow customers today, it has to be conversational and contextual. Let’s say I’m a hotel guest who texts the front desk that my TV remote doesn’t work. Taken as one message, this seems pretty straightforward with a simple fix. But it doesn’t provide the context of my whole guest journey. If customer support is able to view things more broadly and not as a static ticket they might also notice that I got in late from travel (I’m tired), or that right before this remote ticket I complained that the water wasn’t hot. The additional context would provide the staff with a better understanding of the issue and how to respond. An impersonal response back and a knock at the door an hour later with a new remote might not be enough to win me back after a long day. But a knock at the door 10 minutes later with a new remote and a bottle of wine might make me your customer for life. Looking at the bigger picture gives companies the ability to truly understand the journey their guests are having and ensure they respond the right way.
- Striking the Right Balance Between High-Tech & High-Touch. With all of the data available today, brands have the ability to understand their customers like never before. However, while artificial intelligence and machine learning can be incredibly effective at leveraging this data to scale operations and help personalize the customer experience, many companies are misguidedly defaulting to a purely tech-based strategy that often ends up feeling robotic and frustrating customers more than delighting them. AI alone isn’t enough to provide superior customer service and memorable experiences. Customers today want superhuman customer service and that means brands must leverage a combination of high tech and high touch to empower humanity across their organization, not replace it.
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?
Businesses shouldn’t be afraid to ask happy customers to share an online review, and frankly, if you’re confident in the experiences you’re providing, you should ask all customers to share their experiences online. Our platform helps make that easy. For example, in hospitality, our software integrates with TripAdvisor so hotels can encourage guests to leave reviews and then make it extremely easy for them to do so.
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. 🙂
My family is passionate about helping the homeless. At least every three months, we go to CVS and put together little care packages for the homeless, with snacks, water, deodorant, shaving kit, toilet paper, and other supplies and then hand them out. It’s something our kids have rallied around and was actually my daughter’s idea.
We also volunteer at homeless shelters, but this was a way for us to make a more immediate 1:1 impact. A lot of people have unsympathetic views toward the homeless, but the underlying problem in many cases comes down to mental disorders. We do all we can for our loved ones with mental illness, but the ones who don’t have that kind of support network often don’t have anywhere to go and need our compassion. It’s such a tiny expenditure, but if everyone took a little time to hand out care packages or volunteer in other ways, it would make a tremendous impact.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
● Instagram: @fordblakely
● LinkedIn account: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ford-blakely-5b4427ba/
● Twitter handle: @ZingleMe
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thanks for the opportunity!