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Jon Picoult: “Serve employees as you’d want them to serve your customers”

Great customer experience starts at the top, in more ways than one. Founders and CEOs have an opportunity to advance the CX cause not just through the strategies and tactics they promote, but also through the personal behaviors they demonstrate. As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create […]


Great customer experience starts at the top, in more ways than one. Founders and CEOs have an opportunity to advance the CX cause not just through the strategies and tactics they promote, but also through the personal behaviors they demonstrate.


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 Jon Picoult. Jon is a noted authority on customer experience (CX), an acclaimed keynote speaker, and Founder & Principal of Watermark Consulting, a leading CX advisory firm. Put simply, Jon helps companies impress their customers and inspire their employees, creating “raving fans” that drive business growth.

Jon’s insights have been featured by dozens of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, NBC News and Forbes (where he is a regular contributor). He has worked with some of the world’s foremost brands, personally advising chief executives and other members of the C-Suite. His clients collectively represent over 850,000 employees and 500 billion dollars in annual revenue.

Prior to establishing Watermark, Jon held senior executive roles at Fortune 100 companies — leading service, operations, distribution, technology, sales, and marketing. Early in his career, at the age of 29, Jon earned the distinction of becoming the youngest executive officer in the over 150-year history of a leading, global financial services company.

Jon received his A.B. in Cognitive Science from Princeton University and his M.B.A. in General Management from Duke University.


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?

My first exposure to the business world was in radio advertising sales. The college I attended had a campus radio station, but it was actually a commercial entity, receiving all of its funding through advertising sales (not the university’s budget). I wanted to be a DJ at the station and they told me that in order to get a time slot that wasn’t during the overnight graveyard shift, I’d have to bring money into the station through advertising sales.

So, that’s what I did — pounding the pavement, trying to get local businesses to advertise on the station. Surprisingly, I was pretty successful at it and was elevated to Sales Director for the station the following year. (And, yes, I also got a prime spot for my radio show on Sunday evenings!)

What that role at the radio station really did was open my eyes to the power of customer experience (even though, back then, I wasn’t familiar with that terminology). I really began to appreciate the wide spectrum of touchpoints that help turn sales prospects into customers, and customers into raving fans.

After getting the business bug in college, I went straight into an MBA program and, after graduating, was selected to join a rotational management training program at a Fortune 100 insurance and financial services company. In the span of just 24 months, I worked in service, operations, marketing, and HR. It was a great opportunity to see, very early in my career, how different functional areas must coordinate their efforts in order to deliver an appealing product or service to the customer.

I ultimately assumed leadership of customer service operations for that company, before moving on to another Fortune 100 financial services firm to head up its customer service organization. That started a nearly 10-year, totally unplanned rotational odyssey where, in addition to overseeing service for that company, I was selected to lead functions such as IT application development, sales, marketing, and distribution. That was a hugely influential experience because it helped me understand customer interaction and customer engagement through the lens of many different functional silos. I came to realize that was a pretty unique perspective to have, since many business leaders are very functionally-focused, often losing sight of how the activities of individual departments combine to create the end-to-end customer experience.

In 2009, after years of toying with the idea of “putting out my own shingle,” I launched my own CX advisory firm, Watermark Consulting, and haven’t looked back since.

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?

In one of my first management roles, I led Premium Accounting for a life insurance business (it’s the department that handles all customer billing and payments). At one point in my tenure, I placed an order for about 250,000 envelopes, within which our bills would be mailed out.

A couple of weeks later, I got a call from the company’s procurement manager asking me to stop by his office. I did, and as I sat down before him, he slid an envelope across his desk to me. I could see it was the billing envelope, with the words “PREMIIUM BILLING STATEMENT” emblazoned above the address window.

“Oh, the new envelopes are in?” I queried. “Yes,” he replied, “but take a closer look.”

And that’s when my stomach sank, as I spotted the error — two I’s in PREMIIUM.

The procurement manager was apologetic. After all, he and his staff were supposed to catch errors like this before they ended up in a mass printing. But I knew it was my fault, too, because we had both reviewed the document proof and neither of us caught the mistake.

I had to relay the news to my boss, the Chief Operating Officer, and I remember the call vividly. He obviously wasn’t happy to hear that we had a quarter of a million envelopes on hand with the word “premium” spelled wrong — but he didn’t lash out. He did what great leaders (and teachers) do. He refrained from prescribing any solution to the problem and simply asked me what I thought we should do.

The idea of scrapping the envelopes and being accountable for thousands of dollars of wasted expense was just unthinkable to me. After all, I was just a young manager striving to be fiscally responsible, spending the company’s money as my own. I wondered how many customers would actually spot the error, considering that extra “I” sneaked by all of us, even though we scrutinized the envelope far more carefully than the average person would.

“I think we should use the envelopes,” I sheepishly replied to my boss.

And then, of course, he politely disagreed and showed me the error of my ways. He said no matter how few customers actually spotted the misprint, for those that did, it would project an image of unprofessionalism. It would undermine the sense of quality that we as a company was trying to promote through every brand interaction. “We’ll eat the expense,” he declared, “Go get them reprinted.”

It might sound funny that an extra “I” could turn into a seminal moment of my career, but that experience left an indelible impression on me. Today, I would never think of sending that envelope out to customers. Back then, however, I didn’t fully appreciate how even the smallest details contributed to the perception of quality — not just in the eyes of customers, but employees, too. Imagine the message it would have sent to the staff if I had let those envelopes go out the door? Certainly not that we, as a company, we’re serious about customer experience quality.

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?

Certainly, the support I received from my parents was instrumental in shaping the trajectory of my personal and business lives. But if I narrow your question down to the business colleagues who helped me the most, I would single out my very first boss from my very first corporate job.

Your first boss inevitably exerts a disproportionate influence on one’s professional development. It’s your first chance to see “how it’s done” — leading, collaborating, inspiring others. I was lucky to get those initial career lessons from someone who did it all exceptionally well.

He was the Chief Operating Officer of the company division in which I worked. A really smart individual, but incredibly approachable and — this is the part that really sticks with me — he was funny. I learned from him how disarming a good sense of humor could be, how it can help defuse tense situations, how it can inspire people to want to do a great job for you.

The other thing I learned from him was to avoid over-engineering solutions to problems. He was all about quick and nimble, well before the term “agile” was ever in the business lexicon. I remember we were building a new system to track the licensing of our insurance agents, and we needed to populate a database with licensing requirements from all fifty states. I suggested we hire a temporary employee to key in all that data, and he countered, “Well, why don’t you just do it? In the time it takes us to train the temp in how to find the information and populate the database, you’d already be done with the job.”

I wasn’t happy about it at the time, stewing in front of my keyboard as I typed state licensing rules into the system. But he was right. Given my knowledge of the material, it was a faster, better solution. And it also taught me another important lesson: No matter what your role is in an organization, no matter how senior you are — you should never view any job or assignment as being beneath you. When employees see you getting your hands dirty right alongside them, it cultivates respect and builds credibility — two qualities that are invaluable to any business leader.

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?

Customer service and, more broadly, the entire end-to-end customer experience (from pre-sale to post-sale) has become more and more important to business success for several reasons.

First, traditional forms of competitive differentiation have become increasingly fleeting. New products and technologies can get from one company to another relatively easily. Cost leadership, another potential differentiator, is difficult to achieve, let alone sustain. A great customer experience, however, and the internal ecosystem that supports it, can actually be pretty difficult to replicate, yet can accord tremendous strategic and economic advantage to a firm.

Second, it’s become more common for people to evaluate the quality of their customer experience across industries as opposed to within industries. If Amazon, for example, can tell me precisely where my order is throughout the fulfillment cycle — why can’t my auto repair shop provide me with similar status updates while they work on my car? This blurring of customer expectations across industry sectors has effectively raised the bar for all businesses, making the quality of the customer experience more important across the board.

Third, social media has raised the stakes, because it has essentially given consumers a bigger megaphone with which they can “service shame” companies they dislike, or publicly praise those that delight. As a result, word-of-mouth (both good and bad) travels more quickly, which creates a bigger upside for companies that impress customers, and a more dangerous downside for those that don’t.

It’s also important to note that the connection between customer experience and business performance isn’t theoretical. There’s some pretty good proof out there that should convince even the most skeptical executives.

For example, over the last decade, my firm has tracked the stock market performance of companies that lead in customer experience versus those that lag (based on consumer polling data). The eye-opening finding? CX leading companies generated a total shareholder return which was nearly three times greater than that of CX lagging companies.

Whether you lead a public or private entity, the takeaway from that research is relevant — because the market is basically saying that, over the long-term, a great customer experience helps build business value, while a poor customer experience erodes it.

Reference: Watermark Consulting Customer Experience ROI Study.

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?

There are a few dynamics at work here…

First, there are companies that might appreciate the value of good customer experience, but where they fall down is in the execution of that strategy. For example, they might exhort their employees to go out and deliver a knock-your-socks-off customer experience, but then they neglect to provide the detailed, behavioral guidance that helps employees actualize that strategy, that helps them answer the question, “Okay, but what do you want me to do differently when I go back to my desk (or my store)?”

In that same vein, you’ve got companies whose heart is in the right place, but don’t appreciate how the workplace environment (the employee experience) may inadvertently be shaping staff behaviors in customer-unfriendly ways (e.g., the call center that measures employees primarily on how quickly they handle calls, rather than how satisfied customers are after the call).

Then there’s a second category, and those are the companies that publicly tout the importance of customer experience, but are privately skeptical that such a strategy pays off. That leads to a subtle but significant change in focus. Instead of solving for the best CX that will maximize loyalty, these firms solve for the minimum level of quality that won’t trigger mass defections. Unfortunately, under certain market conditions (e.g., few competitors, high switching costs, low transaction frequencies), companies that deliberately sub-optimize their customer experience can survive, if not thrive — at least for a period of time until disruptive forces take hold.

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?

It’s hard to make generalizations about this, but I’d say that for many companies, the priority they place on customer experience improvement is driven by competitive dynamics. If one national player makes notable advances in customer experience, it creates market pressure for others to follow.

Conversely, a smaller company that’s operating in a relatively sleepy, uncontested market will have less incentive to deliver a differentiated customer experience. Of course, that’s not necessarily the correct strategic choice — because, at some point, every market becomes contested (just ask Blockbuster Video or the entire taxi industry). And, when that happens, the company with the best end-to-end customer experience will have a leg up on the competition.

In terms of other external drivers of CX improvement, regulatory changes and legislative mandates can provide great “encouragement” to company executives (recent examples include fee transparency in financial services, and airline passengers’ rights during tarmac delays). Just a side note, though: If it takes government intervention to get a company to make much-needed CX improvements, then that company (if not that entire industry) will have even bigger problems to solve down the road.

One final external pressure worth mentioning is the hiring of an outside leader. CX excellence starts at the top. It’s no coincidence that some of the most legendary companies in this regard — Disney, Amazon, Apple, Costco, Zappos, Ritz-Carlton — had founders or chief executives who had “customer experience” in their DNA long before the term became trendy. A newly hired CEO who is genuinely passionate about customer experience could absolutely be the impetus for real change at any organization they join.

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

Shortly after I started Watermark, I was working with a Fortune 10 telecommunications company, conducting a series of CX executive education programs for their most senior business leaders. These were multi-day sessions where they had an array of outside experts coming in to present to the executive teams on a variety of topics.

I was with another client one day and received a call from the telecom company: One of the other expert presenters had a family emergency and would be unable to attend that week’s session — could I step in for him?

I explained the unusual situation to the other client I was with, and given that it would have no impact on their deliverables, they graciously allowed me to cut their time with them short and prepare for this unplanned assignment.

Within 48 hours, I had immersed myself in the absent presenter’s content (which actually focused on innovation, not CX), reviewed their slides, memorized their talking points, and flew halfway across the country in time for the scheduled program. It went off without a hitch, I got great presentation ratings, and my telecom client was delighted.

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

It certainly strengthened my relationship with that telecom company, and they became one of Watermark’s biggest and most valuable accounts.

But the other consequence of that experience was really underscoring in my mind the unique loyalty-building opportunity that businesses have when they work with a customer who is in a position of vulnerability. When you come through for your customers in those emotionally-charged situations, they remember it forever and it leaves a highly positive, indelible impression on them.

It really speaks to the power of emotion in customer experience — the idea that customers’ behaviors and brand perceptions are strongly influenced by emotional considerations, not just rational ones.

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.

There are many organizational “dials and levers” that need to be positioned just right in order to cultivate CX excellence, so boiling it down to just five is challenging. (Indeed, this is one of the reasons a great customer experience can deliver sustainable competitive advantage — because it’s not easy to get all those organizational switches in the right place.) That said, here are five tasks which should certainly be at the top of every executive’s to-do list if they’re seeking to create a customer-obsessed organization:

1. Create a common understanding of the term “customer experience.”

One critical task is to educate people in the organization (particularly executive leaders) regarding the true definition of “customer experience.” Absent that level-setting discussion, key people (or even entire departments) might tune themselves out from the conversation, incorrectly viewing the “customer experience” push to be focused on an area other than their own.

For example, many business people think “customer experience” is synonymous with “customer service.” For them, the term conjures up images of 800-line call centers, retail store associates, and other post-sale, person-to-person interactions. That view is problematic, because, for example, it could lead the head of sales (and his/her entire team) to wash their hands of the customer experience thing, incorrectly perceiving it to be a service-focused endeavor.

In truth, however, the customer experience encompasses every live, digital and print interaction, from pre-sale to post-sale. (Yes, the customer experience begins even before someone is a customer!) Indeed, the purchase experience (as administered by a sales department) can actually set the tone for the rest of the customer experience, and even sow the seeds for later customer disappointment (such as when product features are not clearly explained upfront to a purchaser).

Get your team on the same page, early. Make sure everyone understands that customer experience isn’t about that other department, over there. It’s about all the functional areas, all the geographic regions, all the product P&L leaders working collectively to shape a highly positive, end-to-end customer experience.

2. Make sure everyone realizes they have a customer — and an obligation to “wow” them.

Another organizational constituency that could (erroneously) conclude that CX improvement isn’t about them is all the people who don’t have regular day-to-day contact with customers. After all, “customer experience” is about the customer. So, if I’m an employee who never interacts with customers (working behind the scenes, in Accounting, Legal, or IT, for example), then what does this have to do with me?

Quite a lot, actually — and the founder or CEO needs to impress that upon every staff remember. Everyone in an organization has a customer (and, often, more than one). Sometimes, however, that customer might be internal to your organization — a colleague in another department, or a teammate just a few steps away.

That’s an important idea to take to heart because behind every great external customer experience lies a great internal customer experience. Employees must provide exceptional support to one another, so collectively, the business can make a great impression on the external customers that it ultimately serves.

The bottom line, while not all employees are customer-facing, they are all most definitely customer-impacting.

3. Serve employees as you’d want them to serve your customers.

Great customer experience starts at the top, in more ways than one. Founders and CEOs have an opportunity to advance the CX cause not just through the strategies and tactics they promote, but also through the personal behaviors they demonstrate.

With every interaction in the workplace, top executives have an opportunity to show the workforce what great customer experience really looks like.

Are you pressing your employees to communicate clearly and comprehensively with customers? Are you imploring them to give customers their undivided attention? Are you urging them to be super responsive whenever a customer inquiry crosses their desk?

These are all admirable, customer-focused behaviors. They’re also behaviors that company leaders can demonstrate when working with their staff and colleagues.

By paying attention to the details in that companywide e-mail you’re about to send, by not multitasking when an employee engages you in conversation, by replying promptly to every e-mail or text you receive — these are all ways that executives can model precisely the customer-focused behavior that they’re trying to encourage across the workforce.

4. Observe customers in their natural habitat.

As any CX guru will tell you, to create a customer-obsessed organization, you’ve got to open up the feedback spigot. Customers must have clear avenues for providing feedback, which the company can then use to improve its products and services.

In many executives’ minds, that translates into some type of Voice-of-the-Customer program. Focus groups. Satisfaction surveys. Research questionnaires.

However, the most brilliant customer insights — the ones that drive game-changing CX innovation — rarely come from antiseptic focus group rooms or dry market research surveys. Those instruments have value, but they are no substitute for watching and listening to customers in their natural habitat — as they navigate through their day, as they use your products and services, and as they (sometimes) bastardize those products and services to accommodate their needs.

Sure, go ahead and build a robust Voice-of-the-Customer program. But don’t let it take the place of you personally getting out of the corner office and going “into the wild” to observe customers as they interact with your people and your products. It’s an essential exercise that many business leaders neglect to carve out time for (or they just delegate the task to others). But the insights you’ll gain from doing it — yourself — will be invaluable.

5. Enlist employees in the customer experience improvement effort.

The vast majority of people come to work wanting to do a great job for their customers and their employer. However, their best efforts are often thwarted by things that are out of their control — obstacles that only company management can remove. That includes things like cumbersome procedures, inflexible business policies, antiquated systems, poor training, disempowering job designs, etc.

And so, a key responsibility for any CX-minded business leader is to uncover those obstacles and eradicate them (or at least mitigate their adverse effects). That requires engaging the staff regularly, asking them, “what got in the way of you delivering a great customer experience today?” — and then, most importantly, acting on what you hear.

The beauty of this approach is that it not only helps to better engage customers (by continuously improving their experience), it also helps to better engage employees (by showing them that their input is valued, and that management is vested in their success).

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?

Legendary companies recognize that they’re not just in the business of creating great customer experiences, they’re in the business of creating great customer memories.

Indeed, how people remember their experience with your business is arguably more important than the experience itself. That’s because, when a friend or colleague asks you, “What do you think of this company?” or “I’m in the market for [X] — do you have anyone you’d recommend?” — your response will be based on what you remember about your experience with a business (as opposed to being based on every touchpoint you encountered during the experience).

This is why some of the most effective techniques for CX design are grounded in principles of cognitive science — how people perceive and remember what’s going on around them. One such principle is the idea that we really only remember the peaks in our experiences, the really good parts, and the really bad parts.

So, the way to inspire customers to refer others to you (without just asking, which in some business contexts could be awkward) is to create peaks in the experience that they’re sure to remember and tell others about. That can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways — for example, by demonstrating exceptional responsiveness, or offering a highly personalized experience, or delivering a pleasant surprise that your customer would have never expected.

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. 🙂

In the business arena, I’d crusade to eradicate “eSnubbing.” That’s when people don’t respond to their colleagues’ (or customers’) phone calls, e-mails, and texts — or, if they do respond, it’s after some ridiculously inappropriate time period.

I think eSnubbing is one of the most common workplace incivilities out there, and not only does it leave a horrible impression on the people with whom you work, but it also creates a huge drag on productivity. Progress on projects or problem resolutions come to a grinding halt, and people’s time is unnecessarily consumed following-up with all those who have eSnubbed them.

Just respond to people! Even if you don’t have an answer to their question, at least acknowledge their request and let them know when you will have the answer. It’s an incredibly simple way to deliver better experiences to both your customers and your colleagues.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn, as well as read my blog on the Watermark Consulting website.

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

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