Know Everything There Is To Know About Your Products — It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many CEOs don’t really understand their own products. To be an effective CEO, you need to be familiar with what you, your company and your sales teams are selling. This will help you negotiate better deals, make more strategic acquisitions, and plan better for the future.
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 James Hartling. James is the Chief Architect for Cognizant Softvision, a division of Cognizant Digital Business. He is responsible for Client Technical Architecture and joined Softvision through the acquisition of his company Double Prime in 2015. His primary responsibility is working with customers of Cognizant Softvision at the interface of their strategy and technology. James has an extensive background in various fields of science and engineering, holding a B.S. in Physics from SUNY Stony Brook and a Masters in Physical Chemistry from Yale.
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?
Thank you for the invitation! By way of background, I come from a blue-collar family of builders, always hacking around old cars or fixing up lawnmowers, building decks or sheds, remodeling or putting additions on the house, etc.
Through my uncle, a love of science got added to the mix, and I pursued a career as a researcher, first in physics then expanding to encompass biochemistry and structural biology. It’s still one of my great loves, but business and its potential to impact the real world so directly also managed to lure me in. So with a couple of partners (also from the sciences), we built a company using our knowledge of computers, and our naïveté about business 🙂 to explore and solve problems for our customers. The greatest success came in building global e-commerce engines at great scale and guiding those platforms through the mobile, cloud, and ongoing transformations that continue to drive the business forward.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?
I have many not-so-funny mistakes, but a funny thing happened back when we had almost no budget, in the wake of the first dot com crash.
We drove up to the Boston area to buy some computers from a liquidation company, and upon arriving at the address, which very shockingly was a single-family home, we rang the bell. A woman and her child answered the door, and kind of dumbfounded, I awkwardly said that we were there to look at the e250s. She rolled her eyes and said, “oh you want my husband, he’s down in the basement of course.”
Upon reflection, it struck me that just because it doesn’t look like it at first, you might still be in the right place. If we had left because we arrived at a house and not the expected warehouse, we might never have purchased the machines that helped us get our business off the ground.
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?
So many people, my wife, parents, uncle, business partners, customers, friends. If I had to pick a name outside the obvious, it would be a guy named Robert Thomas, who ran the internship program at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the late 90s, when I was a student there. Funding was tight, but I loved my work and offered to work for free so I could continue it. Bob pulled me aside and said (paraphrasing only slightly) “never work for free, rather provide extreme value and make sure you’re being rewarded financially and in your career path.” It was my first realization that business mixes into all parts of life, even my seemingly-immune laboratory work.
That year my lab went on to write and win a large grant from the NSF to continue our work. I didn’t see much of Bob, but he was a great help to me and probably has no idea about it. I think about him often, and try to support young people through those early career mistakes that everyone makes.
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?
It’s essential because, despite business and technology and politics and the complexities of the world, we are all still very much human, and those primal instincts of joy and pleasure and happiness are all still very fundamental. Businesses aren’t built by machines, they are built by humans. Businesses don’t sell to machines, they sell to humans (don’t tell the procurement people). It reflects clearly on a company when it truly cares about its customers, and endeavors to treat that customer with care and respect, and does its best to fulfill that person’s need. Many years ago businesses tapped into customer psychology, and despite some misadventures, it’s been an enormously powerful symbiosis that has changed the world.
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?
When this happens, one possible reason is that there is no direct link to money, sparse analytics, and no feedback mechanism for improvement. If money is flowing in at acceptable levels, there might not be the drive to measure how happy people are with experience. If you don’t measure that, it’s not driving change. One thought is, talk to your customers and make sure you know them intimately. One of our clients is a multi-billion dollar client in the luxury retail space. When starting out, the founder famously reached across and over the counter, physically putting the lotion on women’s’ hands. The brand was one of the first to do this, creating an intimate and trusting experience, one that usually led to someone becoming a lifelong customer.
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?
The benefits of healthy competition cannot be overstated, especially to the end customer. There is no better motivator than to hear that a competitor is doing a better job, or providing a better experience, or just connecting and getting mindshare. When that happens, what follows is that competitors learn from each other, innovate, progress, improve — and the beneficiary is the customer.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Probably the best example I have is one where my company, Cognizant Softvision, provided services to one of the world’s largest energy and petrochemical companies, Shell. We featured this case study in last year’s book, ‘Transforming While Performing,’ written by our CEO Andres Angelani.
In short, digitalization is transforming the energy industry by improving efficiency and safety, and by facilitating the use of renewable energy. But the work we’ve done with Shell is more than digitalization and more than technology. It’s also cultural change, about people and creating more agile ways of working. The environment in which teams work is critical in framing and enabling the right behaviors and mindset necessary for the process of co-creation and value delivery.
We worked with Shell and their digital facility in R&D to completely transform it into a space that combines lean start-up thinking and design processes. This has helped to break down silos and fuel innovation through rapid experiments and by integrating domain knowledge with digital technology.
One breakthrough that has emerged is Shell GeodesicTM, designed to improve the accuracy and consistency of a horizontal well’s directional control to reach optimal oil and gas rock. Geodesic streams drilling data and processes algorithms to make real-time decisions that better predict outcomes. It features a drilling simulator, which offers a user-friendly interface and a suite of machine learning and control algorithms that improve performance.
We know that Shell was wowed by the end result, but also the ability to help impact a cultural shift throughout the organization.
Truthfully, while we always want to create wow experiences for our clients, the truly best experiences create a ‘WOW’ for us as well as our clients. Clients and assignments that show us something new, and also serve as a learning or innovation environment, or what we measure our best Wow experiences by.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Yes, the long term effects were for the client but also for us. It served as a barometer for Shell, in terms of what type of impact they expect from innovation and digital transformation projects, a sort of best practice was developed. In addition, we hold it as a litmus test for the work we do with other clients. It’s not just about creating digital transformation, but about creating long-term and lasting cultural change within a team or an organization, so that we’re able to create an environment for sustainable innovation.
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.
Creating a Wow! Customer Experience does not happen overnight, and while there are several factors that go into creating this type of success, I believe the following are the five most important:
● Know Your Customer and Their Motivation — Back in the 50s, there was a way of selling things. With automobiles, features were important. “Our car goes faster than the other one, we have leather seats, more horsepower.” Much of this was based on quantitative factors. However, that focus shifted to marketing that was connected to people’s hidden desires. Cars would start with beautiful designs, and masculinity was often tied to a car’s identity. Marketers understood that if you know people’s desires, you can create an experience for them that taps into something deeper than appearance. Capturing a customer’s emotions, passions, and motivation is the basis to demonstrate how a product fits into their lives and understanding that leads to a Wow experience.
● Know-How To Get and Analyze Data — Today we have access to more and better data than ever before. It’s not only important to have access to the data, but also how to interpret it and understand how to use it to further your business and your customer experience. Focus groups and polls used to be the only way to achieve insights into user experience, but richer analytics today enable us to gauge how customers receive and experience our products. It’s important that a CEO understands the data, as well as new ways that data can be leveraged to better understand customers and products.
● Know Everything There Is To Know About Your Products — It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many CEOs don’t really understand their own products. To be an effective CEO, you need to be familiar with what you, your company and your sales teams are selling. This will help you negotiate better deals, make more strategic acquisitions, and plan better for the future.
● Know The Good, The Bad and The Ugly About Your Business — This goes hand in hand with understanding your products. A good CEO should understand the capabilities, potential, and limitations of the business. How should you respond if the customer starts to move away from your product? Will marketing fix that problem, or should a solution come from R&D? Answers to these questions usually reside within a deep appreciation of what drives the business and the customer, and how current capabilities work toward creating a sustainable and positive customer experience. It’s important when solving these kinds of issues to not be constrained, and for a CEO to be able to motivate and encourage teams to push beyond the typical boundaries in order to create a culture of innovation internally that ultimately extends out into the market.
● Know-How To Connect With Your Employees — Employees coming and working together often translates into a successful customer experience. CEOs must understand how to bring employees / direct reports together, and integrate all the pieces of the business. From design to marketing to packaging to delivery to customer service… understanding how to successfully integrate all of those aspects of the business is the difference between a bad, good or amazing customer experience. Apple is one of the best examples here, and Steve Jobs understood better than anyone. He understood the importance of packaging, and that changed the game for them and for tech products. Unboxing became a thing thanks to Steve Jobs. CEOs should ask themselves what details can help differentiate the experience? Maybe it’s the product itself, or maybe it’s the path to experiencing the product (packaging), not necessarily how it works but how it feels in your hand (design). Apple understood better than any other company that the details matter and play a huge role in the experience. Walk into an Apple retail store today and you’ll see that spirit alive and well.
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?
Great experiences have a way of getting out there. I hope that our customers speak well of us, many of them have supported us and me personally at conferences, and vice versa. Good business and partnerships are born, evolve and mature. I’m always happy when I’m contacted by someone who was referred to me by a colleague, past or present. There is nothing more gratifying and it really sets me up to try and do my best for them and keep that original relationship well-tended.
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. 🙂
There is so much that needs doing today, from climate to healthcare to equality, the challenges to humanity are legion. I’ve always believed, and even seen in some cases, the power and potential that technology holds in addressing these difficulties. Too often, however, and especially of late, tech can also seemingly exacerbate things, e.g. expanding inequality rather than alleviating it, accelerating climate change rather than stemming it. We need an ethical movement in technology, one in which at least to a degree, profits become secondary to actually improving the state of the world. The potential is there, it manifests from time to time, but it’s not a focal point in any strategic way. It doesn’t need to be utopian, it just needs to be better.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I don’t have a huge presence, but I’m easily found on LinkedIn, my personal Instagram is easily found (@nycphillynerd), and I’m an occasional special guest star dancing with my daughter on TikTok 🙂
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!