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Jim Kalbach: “You don’t “own” the experience a customer has, they do”

Align the customer experience with the employee experience. It’s not enough to state a commitment to developing a great customer experience, you have to also motivate and enable the teams that create that experience. As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had […]

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Align the customer experience with the employee experience. It’s not enough to state a commitment to developing a great customer experience, you have to also motivate and enable the teams that create that experience.


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 Jim Kalbach, Head of Customer Experience at MURAL.

Jim Kalbach is the Head of Customer Success at MURAL, the leading digital workspace for visual collaboration used by 40 percent of Fortune 100 global enterprises. He is also a noted author, keynote speaker, and instructor in user experience design, information architecture, customer experience, and strategy. He is the author of three books: Designing Web Navigation (O’Reilly), Mapping Experiences (O’Reilly), and The Jobs To Be Done Playbook (Rosenfeld Media).


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?

After getting a degree in library and information science, I started working in product development and usability for technology agencies. From there, I developed a career in user experience design working in several different organizations.

I was deeply interested in how customer-centric design could bring value to organizations, leading me to look at broader, more strategic concerns around customer experience. I was fortunate to get a chance to do a fair amount of mapping — customer journey mapping, experience mapping, and the like — which put me in contact with strategic decision-makers in my organization. After a decade of research and practice, I published a full-length book, which became a bestseller: Mapping Experiences (O’Reilly).

As the Head of CX at MURAL, I’ve been building the customer success, customer support, and professional services teams for five years. The company has grown about 10x in employees since I started, and we continue to expand. Now, I’m leading some of our key growth initiatives and looking at a go-to-market expansion strategy.

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?

A number of years ago at MURAL, we were communicating an important online event to all of our users — hundreds of thousands of people were to get the announcement. It turns out we published the wrong date, even though a colleague checked the text over. So we sent it out again with an update, but that update had the wrong time! It was a simple, honest mistake both times, but just goes to show you can never be too careful.

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

Yes, there are lots of people who helped me along the way. I’m very grateful for the work colleagues I’ve had over the years. I’ve learned a lot from my teammates in various companies. Also, since I teach a lot of workshops, I learn a great deal from my students. They ask the tough questions and poke holes in my thoughts and ideas, which helps me strengthen my overall story.

One person who helped me a great deal was my manager at LexisNexis, a leading legal information publisher. She really had faith in my abilities and gave me a lot of room to develop my experience mapping expertise. I had the support to dive deep into areas that were adjacent to my immediate work, which allowed me to explore more than usual. She also helped me network with other senior stakeholders in the organization.

Later, after we both left LexisNexis, she hired me again at Citrix. Again, she helped me shine as a thought leader and clear through the politics of a large organization, so I could be effective.

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?

Business has changed fundamentally. Customers have real power. They can read reviews online and compare your offering to others, instantly and easily. The competition is just one click, or “sort by” away.

In this landscape, customer experience is everything. We are truly in the experience economy where consumer insights are informing key roles and decisions at some of the largest and most influential companies. Great service isn’t a nice-to-have — it’s critical to succeed in business today. Unless companies want to be a commodities business, they will need to wrap their offerings in broader customer experience in a way that differentiates.

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?

Traditional management styles and mechanisms don’t necessarily handle this Copernican shift well. Many people find themselves stuck in the old ways of doing business (i.e government). Those that truly embrace customer experience, not only as a way to merely delight but as a way to gain true competitive advance, are the brands that succeed.

Part of the problem is the concept of “experience” defies precise definition. We typically say experience is the sum of all actions, thoughts, and feelings an individual has when interacting with an organization over time. But that begs the questions, how do teams observe and comprehend an experience? How do they then design an experience, something that is a perceived state in the mind of the consumer? Also, how do we measure and manage experience?

For many, it’s a daunting endeavor that runs contrary to normal business logic. As a result, uptake and integration of the true customer experience mindset are slow.

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 absolutely drives the customer experience imperative, not only within a product category but also across them. We talk about the “consumerization of B2B solutions,” for instance. It doesn’t matter if you provide deep, complex back-office services; people still want an Apple-like experience when interacting with your solution. A move toward cloud-based subscription services also changes the importance of customer experience. We’re well out of the days of shrink-wrapped software on CDs, which, once shipped, was something the customer-owned and installed. Now, services are available in the cloud from any device, anywhere. Not only is the competition just one click away, but customers can also switch providers — or voice their grievances on Twitter or Facebook if they feel they are not being supported. Developing relationships with them and supporting them long-term is imperative to be successful.

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

At MURAL, we worked with one consultancy to co-create a new way of engaging with their clients. They had a vague idea our solution could help them but weren’t expecting what we delivered. We came back with a stunning visual display of their content presented in a non-linear way in a large canvas, which we later dubbed “immersive storytelling.” Our partnership with them was a huge part of the value they got on this effort, well beyond MURAL as a tool. We continue to innovate together to this day.

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

Immersive storytelling is so visual when displayed on a large screen, others in the company were attracted to it. It proved to not only be a way to get away from “death by PowerPoint or Keynote,” consultants were now able to engage their clients in a whole new way. Within a short time, the small team using MURAL grew to hundreds and eventually thousands across the organization.

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. Customer experience is not a nice-to-have
     
    For many of the reasons mentioned in previous answers, CX is mission-critical for businesses. It’s how they’ll grow and differentiate themselves in the marketplace. Building a better mousetrap is a great start, but not enough. There’s a correlation of CX to revenue growth. Uber, AirBnB, Google, Apple, Amazon — just consider how the top brands and fastest-growing companies constantly strive to provide exceptional customer experiences.
  2. You don’t “own” the experience a customer has, they do. 
     
    We often talk about “experience” as a thing that we can design and manage. We can’t. We can only create an environment that enables an intended experience. “Experience” is a perceived quality in the mind of the consumer, and that perception isn’t always what we think it is. I worked for over a year on a project for a large online trading platform that wanted to change the way buyers and sellers would pay each other. “Simple,” we thought. “We’ll just put a message up, and they’ll follow along.” The experience people actually had was quite different. People didn’t change to our new model and continued their old behaviors. There was a ton of psychology going on that we didn’t account for and underestimated the perceived experience of the customer.
  3. Details matter…a lot.
     
    Organizations often equate their level of effort to perceived value by the customer. A small change in wording, an extra thoughtful touchpoint, or a simple gesture of delight might seem trivial to us, but could be incredibly impactful to customers. For instance, at MURAL, we did extensive research to understand how people can best grasp the new category of “virtual whiteboards” and worked that language into our demos and classes. Using specific metaphors, like “board,” “wall,” and “canvas” helped customers new to our space get oriented quickly. Sometimes it comes down to one well-placed, well-chosen message to make or break an experience. Always sweat the details.
  4. Consider a sustained “long Wow” rather than a big bang.
     
    Sometimes the investment is seemingly big, breakthrough solutions is easier than placing small bets. As Capital One’s Head of Enterprise Design, Brandon Schauer, shows us, if you sequence a series of smaller moments of delights in a coordinated way, you can create a Wow! Experience over time. He calls it the “long wow.” Orchestration is key to achieving the desired experience. Apple is a master of the long Wow! Some of Apple’s product announcements can be classified as incremental innovations at best, often with no new technology, but they create a customer experience that consistently gets people lined up at their stores to see what’s next.
  5. Align the customer experience with the employee experience
     
    It’s not enough to state a commitment to developing a great customer experience, you have to also motivate and enable the teams that create that experience. You need to not only align with the customer journey, but you also need to align the people who deliver the experience with an experience of their own — the employee experience. Everything from how you are organized to the defined workflow between teams to the tools that employees get all contribute to the employee experience. As the late business management guru Peter Drucker used to say, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The employee experience is the culture in action. The best and most sustainable way to create a great customer experience is to create a great employee experience.

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?

Absolutely! You want to make it easy for customers to recommend you and tell others about their experience. More importantly, consider ways to grow and nurture your super promoters, or your top and best customers who actively advocate for you.

There are plenty of steps you can take to amplify ambassadors on your behalf, including sending swag, to direct outreach, to bringing super promoters on stage with you at customer events. These things grease the advocacy engine. If you measure Net Promoter Score, you are admitting advocacy is important to your company. But what are you doing to foster, encourage, and promote the promoters?

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. 🙂

A lot of the techniques, methods, and logic that goes into making great customer experiences can also be applied to solving social issues. I once helped an NGO in Abu Dhabi understand the experience of former violent extremists by using mapping techniques from my book. Together, we developed a plan to counter violent extremism.

I’ve heard stories of using design thinking and experience mapping to help tornado victims, to fight domestic violence, and to solve homelessness. There are more examples that reflect the potential impact of applying customer-centered thinking to address broader societal concerns. But often there is no matchmaking of talent: how can we bring the skills we possess to a broader stage and help charities, non-profits, and governments improve our lives overall? The movement I would start is to help coordinate skills with need outside of commercial settings.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can find me on Twitter at @jimkalbach or at MURAL at @MURAL.

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

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