Effective Experiential Storytelling

What are the stories your customers tell about their experience with you and your business?  What do they think you really stand for?  What are the most memorable aspects of their experience?  What surprises them?  What frustrates them?  How do you make them feel?  The nature and quality of these stories has a profound impact on the success of your business.

We make sense of the world around us through the stories we tell… the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we hear from and tell to others.  If you think about the defining moments in your life, you’ll see that the stories you tell yourself about those moments have a powerful influence on your identity and the way you see the world.  Aside from these personal stories, across human history, we’ve shared meaning and knowledge with each other in the form of stories.  This includes the legends and parables shared within and across generations, as well as, the stories we share about more immediate events.

Stories are our Primary Means of Sharing Knowledge and Transmitting Culture

Humans have evolved as storytelling animals.  The story form is one of the core knowledge structures we use to encode and recall our experiences.   As I covered in a previous post (see:  Making Experiences Memorable), when we recall past experiences we actually reconstruct the experience from a limited amount of information encoded in memory.  Understanding how this happens provides powerful insight into how to design experiences that are both more memorable and more influential.

In business, the nature and quality of your relationships with customers is reflected in the nature and the quality of the stories your customers tell.  Your ability to retain customers is directly related to the nature and quality of the stories they tell themselves about their experience.  Your ability to cost-effectively acquire new customers is increasingly dependent on the nature and the quality of the stories your customers tell to other prospective customers.

The Experience Must Tell Customers the Story You Want Them to Retell

If you don’t effectively tell the story… how can ever expect that your customers will either get the message… or have the material to be able to pass the story effectively on to others.   In a previous post, I drew a parallel between experience and music.  (See:  Great Experiences are Music to My Ears).  The experience that customers have with most organizations is a lot like the Billy Preston song that goes, “I’ve got a song that ain’t got no melody.”  The experience doesn’t communicate anything effectively… it just defaults from the bunch of the things that organization does… and that bunch of things is generally all over the map.  Similarly, most organizations have a story that’s “got no message… and got no script.”

Earlier this week, I led several dozen executives from a wide range of companies through a full-day customer experience immersion event at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA.    Disney is an organization built on powerful storytelling.  There are stories of Walt; stories surrounding some of the worlds’ best loved fictional characters; the stories that unfold in movies, rides, and many of our personal memories of visits to one of the Disney theme parks.

As part of that event, we took a close look at one particularly well-crafted story; the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.  If you’re one of the more than half a billion people that have had the pleasure of experiencing this ride… take a moment… close your eyes and recall the experience.  What stands out as most memorable?  How do you remember feeling?  Over the course of about 13 minutes, a complete and highly immersive story unfolds.

Although it might seem like a stretch, there’s a lot that most businesses can learn about customer experience by considering how they can make the experience more like “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  For example, if you work for a bank, how can you make the experience customers have opening an account, applying for a loan, developing a financial plan, etc… a “Pirates of the Caribbean” experience?  If you’re a professional or business services provider, how can you make the experience that your clients have as engaging and meaningful as “Pirates of the Caribbean?”  In order to answer that question, we must start with three common characteristics of the most engaging, memorable, and retellable stories:

1. A Simple, Purposeful Message

A simple, purposeful message is at the core of many of the experiences that people find intuitively understandable and compelling.

By “simple” I mean a message that people can understand immediately; because it’s concrete rather than abstract and doesn’t require a lot of additional explanation. In their book, Made to Stick , Chip and Dan Heath do a great job of describing how the “Curse of Knowledge” often gets in the way of communicating in ways that people can easily understand.  The more knowledge you have of the strategy and inner workings of your industry and business, the more difficult it becomes to put yourself in the shoes of customers who don’t have that knowledge.  What seems intuitively obvious, concrete, and simple to you… may be confusing, abstract, and complex for your customers.

The Heaths illustrate the “Curse of Knowledge” using an experiment conducted in 1990 by Elizabeth Newton.  In that experiment, people were assigned to be either “tappers” or “listeners.”  Tappers were asked to select from a list of 25 well-known melodies and to tap out the selection’s rhythm on the table.   The listeners would then have to guess the song the tapper was tapping.  Tappers predicted that the listeners would guess correctly one out of two times (50%).  It turns out that the listeners were only able to guess one out of about forty times (2.5%).   The tappers thought it would be easy to communicate their “message” to the listener because, as they were tapping, they were hearing the song in their head.  However, the listener wasn’t hearing that song; they were just trying to decipher the message from what sounded like Morse code.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people try desperately to get their customers to understand when the underlying issue is that the customer just doesn’t have the same background music playing in their heads.

Beyond being simple, the message must also be “purposeful.” It must not only clearly articulate what you stand for BUT ALSO contrast that to what you stand against.   People will find it easier to understand who you are, when it’s clear who you’re not.  Heroes are boring without villains.  Triumphs don’t make sense without understanding the challenges that made those triumphs meaningful.  Stories without tension, uncertainty, or risk aren’t worth listening to.  The conflict built into the message clarifies the things that make the experience differentiated and worth engaging in.

It’s important to choose your enemies wisely.  For example, just about every insurance company out there portrays the enemy in their story to be the uncertain outcomes they protect you against.  As a result, the message from those companies pretty much boils down to the same thing… with only minor variations on how effectively they communicate that same old story.  Compare that to Progressive that has gotten a lot of mileage out of telling a different story; a story with a message that they provide competitive quotes that enable customers to feel they’ve made a more educated decision.  Allstate is also getting traction by telling a story around the message that they recognize and reward people for safe driving.  In both of these cases, the enemies are prevailing industry practices.

One of the best examples of a simple and purposeful message is Salesforce.com’sSuccess, Not Software.”  Salesforce.com’s “software as a service (Saas)” platform allows you to focus on your sales processes rather than having to implement complex and risky CRM software.  We’ve also worked with many companies that provide further examples of strong messages:

  • Jewelry Store Message: “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed.” It’s not about selling you jewelry. It’s about helping you give the perfect gift, in the perfect way that contributes to your relationship with the recipient.
  • Mortgage Bank Message: “A Better Way Home.” It’s not about just giving you a mortgage. It’s about a well designed and flawlessly executed home buying experience.
  • Automotive Financial Products Firm Message: “Driving Dealer Performance.” Rather than just providing financing and pre-paid maintenance (to their automotive dealer customers), we work with you to measurably improve the performance of your finance and insurance operation.

In each of these cases, the message is crisp and clearly articulated.  As you may guess, this is actually quite rare.  Most organizations become enamored with a message that doesn’t really communicate anything specific or concrete.

If we take a step back and look at “Pirates,” beneath the relatively light entertainment value, the story ends up hanging together brilliantly around the message:  “Despite the adventure, there is a price to be paid for a greedy and vile life.”

2. Characters that Make Sense

The most effective stories have characters that are authentic and intuitively understandable.  These characters make the experience more concrete.  This is particularly important if the product or service you provide is complex and abstract.  For example, if you’re in the insurance business, what you sell is abstract; a policy that represents the transfer of risk in exchange for a premium.  This raises the stakes on identifying both the characters in your story, as well as, the role they play.  If you’re in the banking business, who are the characters?

The strongest brand stories have great characters.  The book “Storytelling: Branding in Practice” by Klaus Fog, Christian Budtz, and Baris Yakaboylu describe the typical characters as follows:

  • The Hero. Who is fighting for the goal described in the central premise?
  • The Adversary. Who or what must the hero overcome to achieve that goal?
  • The Supporter(s). Who (or what) assists the hero in their quest?
  • The Benefactor(s). What superior character or force(s) provides aid in the quest?
  • The Beneficiaries. Who benefits in the end?

In many situations, the company and/or its representatives are the heroes; the customers’ situation or the alternatives provided by competitors are the adversary; and customers are the beneficiaries.  This is true in the case of Salesforce.com.  Many great services businesses, like the Four Seasons, really cast their frontline employees as the heroes that overcome the ordinary and predictable in order to provide the guest the most comforting and personalized experience.  In this case, the Four Seasons plays a supporting role rather than a heroic role.  (See:  A World-Class Hospitality Experience:  Four Seasons Aviara).

In  many marginally successful services businesses, like the major US airlines or many call center operations, frontline employees wind up playing the role of victims… caught between the demands of the customer and the constraints and frustrations imposed on them by their company.  In fact, there are many situations I’ve observed where the frontline associates not only play the victim but do untold damage to the brand my making their employer the adversary (e.g., “I’d like to help you but it’s against our policy”).

We’ve also seen many examples of companies that do a great job of telling the story in a way that makes the customer the hero.  One of the best examples is the wonderful grocery retailer, H.E.B., that’s core message is “Come Home a Hero.”    In the case of the jewelry store example above, the core message of “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed” is framed in a way that the male gift giver (70% of their customer base) is the hero… and the gift recipient is the beneficiary… but with a subtle message that, when the gift experience is a WOW, the gift giver becomes the ultimate beneficiary (figure it out).

3. An Engaging Plotline with “Signature Scenes”

There are common, relatively predictable patterns to the way stories are structured.  It doesn’t matter if these are verbal, or told in books and movies.  Think about your favorite movie.  With very few exceptions, the story typically opens with an Initiating Event that gets the audience hooked and encourages them care what will happen next.  That Initiating Event introduces the tension described in the message (described above).  Then, over the course of the story, there are a sequence of memorable, Signature Scenes that gradually increase the tension.  Typically each of those scenes introduces a question about what will happen next.  By doing so, it keeps the audience engaged and increases their investment in finding out how the story will eventually be resolved.  Finally, the story reaches a climax that answers most but not all of the questions that were posed over the course of the story.   The best writers and story tellers purposely don’t answer all the questions at the end.  The presence of unanswered questions is one of the reasons why people still talk about the movie the next day and, very often, the thing that leaves them wanting to see the movie again next week.

Experience Director, Adam St. John Lawrence, in his blog Work-Play-Experience has a very insightful way of putting this.  He says great experiences, like great stories go “BOOM Wow-Wow-Wow BOOM.”

One of the reasons that “Pirates” is so engaging is that it follows a very well-designed plotline and includes highly memorable “Signature Scenes.”  Here is the plotline:

  • BOOM: The Initiating Event: After lazily floating through the bayou for just long enough to feel immersed in the environment, guests encounter Jolly Roger who issues the warning that sets up the  conflict, “Psst! Avast there! It be too late to alter course, mateys… and there be plundering pirates lurking in every cove, waitin’ to board…. there be squalls ahead, and Davey Jones waiting for them what don’t obey…Guests then plummet through two rapids drops that represent a Point of No Return.


  • Wow1: Guests enter the “Grotto of Lost Souls” where they see the skeletons of three unfortunate pirates, two of whom have been run through with swords. As guests progress through this scene, the skeletons progress from realistic to much more surreal states of animation… steering the ship, drinking at the bar, and finally the captain’s remains lying in bed still studying the treasure map with a magnifying glass.

animated-pirate unforatunate-pirate

  • Wow2: The Attack of the Wicked Wench. After leaving the Grotto, guests are thrown into the middle of a battle as the ship, The Wicked Wench, is attacking the walls of the city while cannon balls splash all around.


  • Wow3: Sacking the Town. As the guest round the corner, they find that the pirates have captured the town and are now dunking the mayor in the well asking him about where to find “Jack Sparrow” (Disney added the references to the movie characters in 2006) as the town’s leaders are tied up and led away.


  • Wow4: In the Town… The Wench Auction and the Chase Scenes. In a series of memorable comedic scenes, guests are offered the opportunity to “buy a bride” and entertained as they see the brides and grooms chasing after each other. The characters are animated on turntables that circle the balconies of the buildings. As we progress through this scene, the characters are shown at progressive levels of drunkenness as the town sinks into chaos.


  • BOOM: The Town in Flames and the Escape. Eventually, the town is in engulfed in flames with spectacular effects and burning beams threatening to crash down on the guest’s boat. Meanwhile, the pirates are either too drunk to care or they’re in jail desperately pleading with the dog to let them out. As the guests escape up the waterfall, they are entreated to a final warning from Jack Sparrow (again, added in 2006).

town-on-fire drunk-pirate begging-the-dogs jacks-final-warning

So… how does all this apply to you?  Let’s look at one of the cases I mentioned earlier; the case of a leading specialty jewelry retailer that designed their experience around the message, “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed.”  After agreeing on that message, the customer experience was then designed to deliver that message using a set of Signature Scenes organized into a coherent plotline.  The Initiating Event was a specific greeting that welcomed the guest into the store.  That welcome introduced the message of helping the customer give the perfect gift… not just selling them a piece of jewelry.  This was then followed by a set of supporting, highly differentiated, Signature Experience Elements (or scenes).   These Signature Experience Elements included:  collaborative gift planning (differentiated from traditional selling), preparing the male gift giver to “romance the gift,” ensuring customers know what will happen if the gift doesn’t work out (the “guaranteed” part of the experience), creating a wow on exchanges or returns, and a clienteling process designed to maintain the relationship with the customer for future gift giving occasions.

Similarly, the mortgage company mentioned earlier designed a set of five Signature Experience Elements that happen over the life of the customer relationship, all designed to tell the story, “A Better Way Home.”

Building on the above points, The Disney Institute’s book, “Be Our Guest” summarizes their set of principles for delivering a compelling story, as follows:

  1. Know your audience. Clearly define who are you creating the experience for?  How do they think and what do they desire?
  2. Wear your guest’s shoes.  Design and evaluate the experience from the customer’s perspective by experiencing it as a customer.
  3. Organize the flow of people and ideas.  Think of a setting as a story and tell that story in a sequenced, organized way.  Build the same order and logic into the design of customer movement.
  4. Create a visual magnet.  It’s a visual landmark used to orient and attract people.
  5. Communicate with visual literacy.  Language is not always composed of words. Use common languages of color, shape and form to communicate through a setting.
  6. Avoid overload–create turn-ons.  Do not bombard customers with data.  Let them choose the information they want when they want it.
  7. Tell one story at a time.  Mixing multiple stories in a single setting is confusing.  Create one setting for each big idea.
  8. Avoid contradictions; maintain identity.  Every detail and every setting should support and further your identity and mission.
  9. For every ounce of treatment provide a ton of treat.  Give your customers the highest value by building an interactive setting that gives them the opportunity to exercise all of their senses.
  10. Keep it up. Never get complacent and always maintain your setting.

Over the past 25 years, we’ve worked with organizations that run the range from business-to-consumer to the most complex business-to-business relationships.  In the course of this work, we’ve found that Experiential Storytelling applies equally well everywhere along this range.  In practice, the business-to-consumer companies have the easiest time understanding it… while the business-to-business companies have the most to gain.

A World Class Hospitality Experience: Four Seasons Aviara

Last month, I had the opportunity to do a keynote speech at a Maritz Customer Experience Conference.   One of the highlights of this event was a behind the scenes tour of the beautiful Four Seasons Aviara Resort.    I took copious notes and wanted to share a few of the salient elements that contribute to the world-class hospitality experience delivered by this resort.  Across the clients we’ve worked with, there has been an increasing recognition that No Matter What Business You’re In… You’re in the Hospitality Business; it doesn’t matter if its a hotel, restaurant, bank, auto dealer, healthcare provider, or an insurance company.

The central thread that ran through the entire tour was the high level of excitement and engagement of the associates in each area of the operation.  Each person we spoke with emphasized the Four Seasons management model:  Teach Lead Coach Counsel Consistently (TLCCC Model).

A strong employee experience focus is consistent across the Four Seasons brand.  Hiring is critical; based on the observation that an individual’s desire to serve is innate; there to be discovered not taught by the organization.  As Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharpe has emphasized, “We hire for attitude.  We want people who like other people and are, therefore, more motivated to serve them.  Competence we can teach.  Attitude is ingrained.”  For more information see the following publications:

(Both of these documents are available through the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration:  Center for Hospitality Research)

Every aspect of the facilities, services, and personnel are carefully designed and orchestrated in a way that is consistent with their mission:

Four Seasons is dedicated to perfecting the travel experience through continuous innovation and the highest standards of hospitality. From elegant surroundings of the finest quality, to caring, highly personalised 24-hour service, Four Seasons embodies a true home away from home for those who know and appreciate the best. The deeply instilled Four Seasons culture is personified in its employees – people who share a single focus and are inspired to offer great service.”

Here are a few of the highlights of the tour:            

Housekeeping.  The Four Seasons has highly detailed housekeeping standards that dictate the exact condition and location of every item in the room.  For example, the two desk chairs are always pulled out from the desk at a 45 degree angle to make it easier for a guest to sit down.  There are always four magazines carefully arranged on a magazine rack, placed in the same sequence, staggered with a one inch margin between magazines.  The body wash, shampoo, and conditioner are always placed in the exact same location in the shower. 

Each new housekeeping attendant is given 2 weeks of training.  In addition to learning the housekeeping standards, attendants are expected to be able to answer questions and handle a wide range of guest requests.  Housekeeping attendants are assigned 12 rooms per person with the assumption that caring for each room will take 45 minutes per day.  Attendants are expected to know each of their guests’ names. 

With the exception of the evening turndown service, there are no carts in the hallway to obstruct guests’ passage.  In order to make this possible, the Four Seasons specially designed roller bags for carrying supplies and a vacuum.  Attendants hand carry linens back and forth to the linen closets.

Guests traveling with small children are provided with toys, as well as, milk and cookies at bedtime.  The housekeeping staff places letter sponges with the letters of each child’s name in the bathtub before the guest checks in.  In addition, housekeeping provides child-sized bathrobes, cribs, step stools in the bathrooms, and child proofing.

The Four Seasons allows guests to stay with small pets.  If a guest is traveling with a pet, the hotel provides dog beds and dishes.  The carpets are cleaned after any guest has stayed with a pet.

The Perfect Room Program.  Although housekeeping evaluates the condition of each room on a daily basis, every room is taken out of service and refreshed every six months.  This process takes 1-2 days per room and is based on an 82 point checklist involving every aspect of the rooms décor, furniture, and equipment.  If there is ever a “Guest Activated Problem” (a.k.a., GAP), the standard for responding is no more than 15 minutes.

Concierge.  The concierge desk is a focal point for guest requests from simple restaurant reservations to more complex guest requests.  For example, one guest indicated they were bored and wanted something exciting to do for the day; the concierge arranged a helicopter day trip to the Napa Valley.  Each person on the Four Seasons concierge staff is either a member of or working towards membership in Les Clefs d’Or (pronounced lay clay door; meaning “keys of gold” in French), the international association of professional concierges.

It’s the bellman’s responsibility to learn about the guests preferences when greeting the guest either in the lobby or in their room.   Four Seasons bellmen consider themselves detectives; they have to watch for subtle clues.  Bellmen are given a lot of latitude to correct problems as they occur rather than having to get approval from management.  For example, one couple checked in to the hotel to decompress for the weekend and were given a room overlooking the pool.  As the bellman was escorting the couple into the room, he noticed the wife’s very slight reaction; she’s wasn’t excited about being above the pool.  The bellman immediately looked into the availability of another room.  The only available room was the Presidential Suite.  The bellman arranged to have the couple moved to this suite for the same rate as their regular room.  When the couple checked out, the husband said the following about the bellman, “I’ve never met someone who loves their job as much as he does!”

Facilities.  Everything about the lobby and the grounds are designed to signal “relaxation.”  This includes the muted color scheme, lobby layout, and beautiful fresh floral arrangements.  Employees with a passion for landscaping pay acute attention to detail in caring for the grounds.  Daily cleaning, trimming, and painting are done during times of the night and day with minimal customer traffic.  In addition, they make very limited use of power equipment in order to reduce noise.  The facilities and golf course staff at this property has surprisingly low turnover; they’ve only hired 5 new people over the past 4 years.

Overall, it was an impressive tour; enlightening to see the kind of effort that goes on behind the scenes in order to deliver a superior hospitality experience.  The challenge for leaders across industries is to figure out how to deliver compelling and authentic hospitality in your business.  Ultimately, it’s knowing how you want the customer to feel about themselves… not how you want the customer to feel about your business that will guide your way.

Customer Experience and Our Search for Meaning

Customers don’t buy products, they buy desired states.  One of the most significant mistakes any organization can make is to assume customers should care about their products or services.  This doesn’t imply, however, that a company can’t play a very meaningful role in the lives of customers.  The best companies enable people to have experiences that are highly meaningful in their lives.  Customers tend to care a lot about those experiences; what those experiences accomplish for them; how those experiences make them feel.  As a result, people develop strong ties to the products and experiences that create or reinforce meaning for them.  For example, many people love the experience of going to Starbucks, using their iPod, driving their Harley, shopping at Nordstrom or Whole Foods, and going to Disney World.  Witness the level of emotional attachment customers have for experiences like…  NASCAR, Jimmy Buffet, BMWs, Four Seasons Hotels, etc…

Our search for meaning is one of the central, defining characteristics of what makes us human.  At the highest level, meaning is how we make sense of the world, interpret our desires, and put the things that happen to us in perspective.  Tapping into people’s search for meaning is the essence of understanding how to help customers have a great experience.

In his outstanding book, “The Culture Code” psychiatrist Clotaire Rapaille, describes Chrysler’s struggle to clarify the meaning of the Jeep Wrangler.  After years of distinctive positioning, the Jeep Wrangler ended up sitting in the middle of a very crowded field of other SUVs.  Many of Chrysler’s natural tendencies were to make changes that tried to make the Wrangler compete more effectively against those SUVs: more luxurious, fixed doors, enclosed, etc…  After in-depth research that dug into the deepest associations that Americans have with the Wrangler, Rapaille was able to help Chrysler see that people associate the Wrangler with a HORSE.

As Rapaille states, “SUVs are not horses.  Horses don’t have luxury appointments. Horses don’t have butter-soft leather, but rather the tough leather of a saddle.  The Wrangler needed to have removable doors and an open top because drivers wanted to feel the wind around them, as they were riding on a horse.”  Subtle features like round head lights rather than square headlights were shown to positively influence sales.  After all, horses have round eyes not square eyes.  In fact, the logo for the Wrangler was redesigned to feature the grille and round headlights… like the face of a horse.

Most companies think too much about their products and what they want to say about them… and don’t really appreciate the deep meanings that influence the way customers’ think and feel.   For instance, a few years ago I had the opportunity to consult with one of the leading mattress manufacturers who, at the time, were positioning their product using the storyline… “Better Sleep Through Science.”  From the internal, mattress company perspective, science might help understand how mattress design contributes to a good nights sleep.  Unfortunately, people don’t positively associate their experience in the bedroom with science.  The company has since dropped the science angle in promoting their product.

How do you get to the bottom of what’s meaningful to people?  You can’t just ask them.  If you ask customers, much of you get are alibis for what they do.  For example, if you ask people why they go to the mall, you tend to alibis about things the customer needs to shop for rather than the deeper meanings of going to the mall to “reconnect with life,” get out of the house, see other people, explore what’s new, etc…   This is one of the reasons we’ve learned that the online shopping experience cannot replace the experience of going to a store.

Getting to the bottom of what’s meaningful requires a more holistic perspective on how people experience.  You need to watch what they do and how they react in the context of their daily lives.  You need to dig into the subconscious associations that shape the ways they perceive and interpret the world.  (see observation and elicitation).   Rapaille make the point:

“The first principle… is that the only effective way to understand what people truly mean is to ignore what they say… When asked direct questions about their interests and preferences, people tend to give answers they believe the questioner wants to hear.  (This)… is because people respond to questions with their cortexes, the parts of their brain that control intelligence rather than emotion or instinct….  They believe they are telling the truth… In most cases, however, they aren’t saying what they mean.”

Rapaille goes on to describe that, “Most of us imprint the meanings of the things most central to our lives by the age of seven.”  These early associations, formed during the most emotionally impressionable stages of our lives, create our strongest beliefs about who we are, what to expect from others, and the way the world works.  Certainly significant imprinting takes place as a result of our experiences later in life.  However, the way we process these later experiences is often highly influenced by the foundation of our earliest and most deeply entrenched beliefs.

Across many of clients we’ve worked with, we’ve observed that customers’ experiences are significantly shaped by their earliest associations:

  • The experiences people have moving with their family today are significantly influenced by conscious and subconscious memories, emotions, associations, and meaning attached to experiences they had moving as a child.
  • The experiences people have at dinner with their families are shaped by deeply imprinted of memories and emotional associations of family dinners they had growing up.
  • The current reactions many people have when a product breaks are influenced by the childhood experiences we’ve had with broken toys and how our parents responded.
  • Today’s American teen attitudes have been significantly shaped by the events of 9/11 as well as the trailing emotional turmoil and extended war that has impacted the entire country.

This list goes on.  Although these associations are uniquely personal, many of these experiences are fairly consistent across a culture.  In any given culture, individuals that have grown up at a similar point in history have relatively consistent imprinting of experiences with respect to world events, safety, family, working, food, home, shopping, sex, etc…   Understanding this imprinting is critical in designing customer experiences that attach with people’s search for meaning in their lives.

What are people looking for?  Here is a list of the most meaningful basic desires many people are attached to… find a way to help customers connect with one or more of these things and you’re really on to something:

  • Achievement. The need to accomplish difficult feats; to perform arduous tasks; to exercise skills, abilities or talents.
  • Affiliation. The need for association with others; to belong or win acceptance; to enjoy satisfying and mutually helpful relationships; to be accepted by those we admire; to act in a socially acceptable or justifiable manner.
  • Consistency. The need for order, cleanliness, or logical connection; to control our environment; to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty; to predict accurately; to have things happen as one expects.
  • Diversion. The need to play; to have fun; to be entertained; to break from the routine; to relax and abandon one’s cares; to be amused.
  • Dominance. The need to have power or to exert one’s will on others; to hold a position of authority or influence; to direct or supervise the efforts of others; to show strength or prowess by winning over adversaries.
  • Exhibition. The need to display one’s self, to be visible to others; to reveal personal identity; to show off or win the attention and interest of others; to gain notice.
  • Independence. The need to be autonomous, to be free from the direction or influence of others; to have options and alternatives; to make one’s own choices and decisions; to be different
  • Novelty. The need for change and diversity; to experience the unusual; to do new tasks or activities; to learn new skills; to be in a new setting or environment; to find unique objects of interest; to be amazed or mystified.
  • Nurturance. The need to give care, comfort, and support to others; to see living things grow and thrive; to help the progress and development of others; to protect one’s charges from harm or injury.
  • Recognition. The need for positive notice by others; to show one’s superiority or excellence; to be acclaimed or held up as exemplary; to receive social rewards or notoriety.
  • Security. The need to be free from threat of harm; to be safe; to protect self, family, and property; to have a supply of what one needs; to save and acquire assets; to be invulnerable from attack; to avoid accidents or mishaps.
  • Sexuality. The need to establish one’s sexual identity and attractiveness; to enjoy sexual contact; to receive and to provide sexual satisfaction; to maintain sexual alternatives without exercising them; to avoid condemnation for sexual appetites.
  • Stimulation. The need to establish one’s sexual identity and attractiveness; to enjoy sexual contact; to receive and to provide sexual satisfaction; to maintain sexual alternatives without exercising them; to avoid condemnation for sexual appetites.
  • Understanding. The need to learn and comprehend; to recognize connections; to assign causality; to make ideas fit the circumstances; to teach, instruct, or impress others with one’s expertise; to follow intellectual pursuits.

Customer Experience and Why It’s Important

Whether you like it or not, the real growth of your business is a direct result of the quality of the experience customers have with you.  It doesn’t matter if you’re in retailing, consumer products, business services, high-tech, industrial products, or commodities.  The quality of the customer’s experience translates directly into your ability to acquire and retain customers as well as improve their profitability over time.

Over the past few years, there’s been a significant increase in the portion of business leaders that recognize these fundamental truths.  Unfortunately, despite this recognition, there’s still a big “knowing – doing” gap.  Looking across industries, there hasn’t been much progress in the overall quality of customer experiences.  Most companies, if they’ve done anything at all, have made no more than isolated, surface level improvements.  Exceptionally few organizations have ever fully described or designed the experience they intend their customers to have.  If this is true for your organization, chances are the experience is fragmented, inconsistent, and frustrating for your customers.  You are making like difficult for them in ways that may be hard to understand.

We’ve found that organizations with more complex business-to-business relationship often have the most to gain by making improvements in their customers’ experience.  Some organizations are even discovering new ways to facilitate a differentiated experience surrounding the sale and use of increasingly commoditized products and services

Based on our research and work with companies, we’ve found that companies that have made meaningful improvements in their customer experience have realized bottom line improvements of 10-25% as a result of increased retention, additional sales, reduced customer acquisition costs, and improved price realization.  In addition, we’ve found that the customer experience is often the best lens for making performance improvements in specific areas of the business.  For example, the best way to improve sales performance is by designing a sales process that matches the way target customers want to buy and simultaneously provides a differentiated experience for them. 

Some companies understand these benefits and are already using the customer experience as a differentiator.  They include many of the well known “customer experience leaders” like Disney, Lexus, REI, Whole Foods, and Four Seasons, as well as emerging leaders like Build a Bear Workshop, American Girl, Umpqua Bank, and Hot Topic.  They also include business-to-business companies like: Granite Rock, who creates a differentiated experience around the ultimate commodity… sand; Selectron, an electronics component supplier with a highly transparent, customer-centric business model; and IBM, who has a long history of differentiating the management of client relationships.