Hi Aki, tell us about yourself, your background?
Thank you for asking. I was born just a few days before the first rocket ever – the Sputnik – went into space, and that influenced so much of who I am. I truly believe that I was born in the most amazing time, not only in the optimistic post WW2 world, but also in terms of science, technology, and, of course, business. My grandparents and parents were immigrants, and as a child with an odd name, with odd lunch packets, celebrating odd holidays at odd times every year, my brother and I had to fight for everything. But that was a good thing, because it created a desire to succeed against the odds.
There were so many people and events – both positive and negative – that influenced me in my life that it’s impossible to list everyone and everything. In some cases I knew who I wanted to emulate, and what I wanted to become, in other cases I was able to reject the things that I didn’t want. But it’s also true that I believe that everyone ever born has some incredible qualities that can make a difference.
My original training after school and two years in the army was in psychology, and through that I moved into a number of HR and training roles. I was also a crisis counsellor for many years. In 1985, I realised that the world of marketing was fascinating, and at the insistence of the marketing director in my last real job, I became a sales representative. I thought I would hate it, but in reality I loved it, and by being there I could see that it wasn’t about sales: it was about nurturing customer relationships so that they would be happy to return again and again, and do all those desirable things that companies are so desperate for: repeat business, cross-sales, reduced price sensitivity, referrals and recommendations, and treating staff with respect.
So that is what led me to start a small consulting business in what was then called “customer service,” but more commonly known today as “CX.” It was all quite new in 1986, so I was fortunate enough to be able to start early on the bottom rung of the ladder. I’m delighted that it has turned out to be such a huge industry.
Online commerce was booming in 2020, and so did consumer reviews. – How can brands better utilize this data to improve their customers’ experience?
How often have we heard the term, “feedback is the breakfast of champions”? The new economy has made it so much easier to stay in touch – not only with customers’ perceptions of service and their feedback, but also their needs. But it needs to go way beyond the usual impersonal online surveys, or monitoring of social media. There is also an unprecedented opportunity to build trust and develop personal relationships online. This has been enhanced by greater acceptance of tools like Zoom – the whole process was speeded up by 10 years because of Covid. In addition, as we all know, other customers look at online reviews to make judgements about whether they trust a company and its offer enough to spend their money there.
There are probably three ways to read a review: first, it is true and negative, in which case it is not only a magic opportunity to make improvements to your offer, but also to impress the customer and other observers by your response and concern. Second, it is a positive review, which tells you what customers like so you can keep doing it, and also express gratitude for their feedback. This is especially powerful when results are used to create positive recommendations and referrals.
Finally, it may be a false review, either by a rival company, or by someone with a grudge. These are by far the most difficult to manage, and more so if you start making accusations of impropriety. You need to investigate deeply, and make sure that you understand exactly who and why this occurred. Of course, similar to the negative reviews, your own response as seen by others can also impress them by your ability to over-react to problems.
Aki’s tips for personalization
What tips do you have for companies that want to improve their personalization strategies?
There is no excuse for businesses to not personalise. None. No matter whether you are B2C, B2B or D2C, the amount of information available about your customers is vast. Their personal profiles and buying patterns are more visible than ever before. For example, there is relatively cheap software that can scan a LinkedIn profile and tell you about what interpersonal behavioural style a particular person reflects.
But, in spite of the fact that many proponents of AI and web-bots convince us that this is the future, I don’t believe that these will take over customer relationships. We are, after all, dealing with illogical and emotional human beings, and the pendulum will swing back again to where human relationships, trust, and all those other qualities are appreciated. Sure, it is true that companies like Amazon have managed to master automation, but most businesses are NOT Amazon. Even buying from other e-commerce sites that compete with Amazon is not always an easy process. No computer will ever be able to make the same nuanced judgements that a human being does without thinking – at least for another half-century or so.
So to answer your original question, companies will have to continue developing decent relationships with their customers, and use technology as an aid, rather than to replace. One final example: LinkedIn offers you the chance to send a quick and personalised video in their messaging app. Imagine if someone from your bank called you on your birthday, or after you completed a significant purchase, and spent 10 seconds personally recording a short message? That’s what I’m talking about.
Do you think personalization and customer-centricity are going to become increasingly more relevant in the coming year? How so?
As I mentioned, the pendulum is swinging back. Everywhere you care to look, by far the majority of customers are feeling alienated and alone, longing for the company of others. Seth Godin uses the analogy of a “tribe” – a community with which we share some things in common. Interestingly, in the IT industry we have had user groups for decades now. But why doesn’t a company that makes and sells drills, for example, bring together a community of its buyers to share stories and projects?
At another level, more personal this time, customers are seeing what some of their suppliers have done to get closer to them, and have also seen stories of how others have been treated. They have already started punishing those that have been perceived as being cruel and/or indifferent, versus supporting those that have shown caring and flexible. Paradoxically, customers have forgiven those businesses that have messed up, or not responded to their needs, but only if those businesses have tried to reach out and apologise, or have shown that they really want to help.
Social media pages have become crucial for companies in most industries, especially in eCommerce. What’s the most common mistake you see in a company’s social media strategy?
While some companies have made it intuitively simple for customers to give feedback, and respond to each personally, others trot out the same automatic responses to all feedback – or just ignore it outright. So what could have been quickly taken off line now becomes a public spat, and, in extreme cases it even shifts to mainstream media. If someone wants to rant about your business on any social medium, (including review sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp! and even YouTube,) you need to remember that there are probably others watching how you deal with it.
The other mistake that I see is a lack of authenticity. It’s almost as if some businesses say, “Well, there’s not much we can do to control this conversation, so we may as well not even try.” You cannot wish these comments away, and as we all know, what goes on the internet stays on the internet – forever.
What’s the most insightful book you read in 2020?
Whew, that’s hard to choose. If I had to pick from my collection, I’d choose Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense. But because the world is moving online, the works of internet entrepreneurs like Jeff Walker, Russell Brunson and Ryan Levesque are also incredibly useful and practical. These books demonstrate, (much like traditional retailers have done,) you need to offer something that allows customers to feel physically and emotionally/psychologically safe in their dealings with you.
It looks like working from home is going to stay with us for the foreseeable future. How should Executives gear up to the changing times?
There are three ways that executives can deal with all of the change happening around us: first, responding: a reactive survival mode where they need to do whatever they can to get through the crisis, and manage for continuity. Then they slowly start recovering: learning new circumstances, seeking opportunities, and adapting the way in which they do business. But those who will thrive are those who put in place new strategies for the future. These are the executives who seem able to see around corners. So it all begins with keeping in touch with customers and their needs, wants, desires, fear and headaches, but to do exactly the same for people in your organisation. We have to find new ways to allow people to connect in the most human way via the internet. One example is gamification, but there are at least a dozen more.
Last but not least, what is your favorite CX metric?
I always encourage our clients to use more than one metric, (from customer satisfaction scores, to NPS, to Customer Effort Score, and now the latest is what Fred Reichheld calls “earned growth ratio,”) because each has its own value, (and disadvantages.) However, if I had to pick one it would be Customer Effort Score.
Why? Because the world has suddenly become overwhelmingly complicated for all customers. Between legislative demands by governments, complex software for managing customer transactions, the growth of companies with a bigger footprint, and the logistics of delivering to customers, there is just too much uncertainty that creates havoc in our minds. That’s why a business like UBER or Pizza Hut’s delivery apps are so powerful: you can literally watch them on a map as they make their way towards you. So it’s not just physical, intellectual and time effort that is improved, but also emotional effort.