Mike Wittenstein Interview
Lee Kantor: Good Afternoon listeners! I am Lee Kantor and this is Thought Leader Radio. We are coming to you from the Business Radio X Studio right here in Atlanta Georgia. Once again we have a wonderful guest for you. Today we are talking to Mike Wittenstein and he is the CEO of MikeWittenstein.com and Story Miners. He has a lot of experience doing customer experience actually. I’d to bring you on the show now.
Lee Kantor: Welcome to Thought Leader Radio. Mike how are you doing?
Mike Wittenstein: Thanks Lee. It’s great to be here, I’m doing fine.
Lee Kantor: Can you share a little bit about what makes you the authority on the customer experience?
Mike Wittenstein: Sure. There are a few parts to that. The first is the ability to see one of my client’s businesses from their customer’s point of view. Showing client’s how their customers see them is critical at helping them to understand what to do next. So that takes the powers of observation. The second thing that is important in experience design is to be able to figure out what it is that customers want most. What in particular are their unmet needs? And how should the business go about meeting them? So the second thing that I can do is help the client to understand how they need to adjust their operations in order to better serve clients. The Third part on the inside of the business is to make sure there is enough communication and clear contacts so that everybody can be empowered on the front line to do more of what the customer wants profitably.
Lee Kantor: Now is this something that you see a lot of companies feel that they have this down and then in reality maybe their customer doesn’t feel they have it down as well as the business owner thinks?
Mike Wittenstein: That’s actually very true. Vain did a study two and a half years ago among some leading brands. 80% of the companies’ leaders felt that they were doing a great job at the customer experience. When Vain pulled the customers of those companies, 8% agreed. That’s a big gap.
Lee Kantor: Why do think there’s such a big gap there?
Mike Wittenstein: I think it’s because companies focus through their own lense, which is about profitability and spreadsheets. It’s about OSHA requirements, operations, man power, logistics. Customers experience the business from a totally different point of view. They don’t see all that effort that goes on department by department. They get one feeling. They get one gestalt from the business. That’s the brand to them.
Lee Kantor: What in your mind makes a good customer experience? What are the good qualities of a good customer experience?
Mike Wittenstein: Great question. The most important one is the feeling that people take away after having worked with you. That usually comes from the way you’re treated, the things that you see, the environment you’re in. Interestingly, if you give customers a really good experience, they’ll tell their friends. They’ll tell them a story. In that story, if you’ve given them the right clues and experience, they’ll be able to articulate your most meaningful elements, your most enjoyable moments to their friends. Who in turn come back expecting exactly the same. If you give the right clues, you’re going to get good business. If you give the wrong clues people come back and they’re disappointed because you didn’t give them what they were expecting.
Lee Kantor: So even thought you may not be working on creating this kind of customer experience, you’re giving your customer an experience whether you want to or not.
Mike Wittenstein: Everyone has a customer experience. If you choose to manage it, you can do better for your customers, better for your front line and of course, better for your shareholders.
Lee Kantor: Are there some tactics that a person can do pacifically, just rule of thumb stuff that anybody can implement?
Mike Wittenstein: Absolutely. One of the first things is to understand your customers needs as they see them. Spend some time in their shoes. Talk to them about the things that they see are most important and at the end of that interview ask them what they’d like to see of you. Don’t put words in their mouth and don’t look at it through your traditional market research lense. The second thing that you can do is shop your business at all of its touch points at least once a month. A senior member of the management team should do this. Go into the stores, call in over the phone, check-in on the website and just get a feeling for what it’s like to be a customer. Call in with a real need or a real problem and see how it’s handled.
Lee Kantor: Now you’ve been in this business for a long time and your experience is kind of unique. Can you talk a little bit about what makes you somebody who can talk to other companies about this?
Mike Wittenstein: Absolutely.
Lee Kantor: From your background stand points. Like what got you to where you’re at now that makes you this kind of authority?
Mike Wittenstein: From a personal perspective, I’ve lived overseas. I’ve got about two years in Brazil and the former Soviet Union. There I learned not only to speak other languages but to understand other cultures. In Brazil for example, I learned that two people can see exactly the same situation and walk away with two different ideas about what it is.
Lee Kantor: Is that unique to Brazil, you think?
Mike Wittenstein: I don’t think so but that’s where it happened to me. I had to do it through the language and the culture as well. So it’s possible to have two completely accurate descriptions of the same thing. If you can hold that in your head when your developing experiences, it’s much easier to do what’s right for the customer and improve the operational efficiencies of the brand at the same time. One of the other things that makes me especially good is the ability to blend creative and operations at the same time. A really good customer experience might require the business to make some substantial changes. Lets take an example of a quick service restaurant. You walk up to the counter; you order your food from the reader board. What if that quick service restaurant decides to differentiate itself, which is what experience is all about in the service brands industry and they decide to offer table service. Well you’ve got to cut through he front counter or cut through the wall. You’ve got to change you’re manpower. You’ve got to change perhaps even your menu options and the way the register works so you can queue up orders. You need to know the food coming to the counter belongs to the person standing in front of the counter or which table there at. It creates havoc in the organization. There’s a lot of resistance to changing the way things are, especially in a successful brand. Being able to go in and excite everyone with a clear picture of what that new experience is going to be and what it means for the people on the front line is a skill that I really enjoy using.
Lee Kantor: Can you talk about the way the customer experience really hits the bottom line because, like you said earlier, it’s something people take for granted. Like I do my service because that’s what I do what I do- and now the customer buys my stuff. You don’t really think about how important it is to serve them kind of the big why about why you should be doing this.
Mike Wittenstein: Well if you don’t care about people, your employees and your customers–
Lee Kantor: As a business owner your employees are you’re customers as well, isn’t that right?
Mike Wittenstein: That’s right. A lot of people don’t see that. A lot of people look just to the bottom line. So to answer your question, I was carving out or cleaving off that half or so of business owners and key operators, managers and leaders who really manage spreadsheets all day long. Those people don’t really respond as well to this technique of customer experience design as they do to more traditional management tools. Coupling the two together is where I’ve had the greatest success with clients. The customer experience is about people because people deliver with their care, their energy, their attitude. The extra level of effort, care and attention that can make one experience shopping at a store, being tended to in a hospital so different than any other place. They’re vested in it. So you’ve got to create a great employee experience because they in turn know hoe to deliver a great customer experience. That’s one of the keys.
Lee Kantor: But each of your Clients, you’re employee as a client and your customer as your client, they each have different needs. So there would be a different customer strategy for each one, is that right?
Mike Wittenstein: The way you evidence the core attributes of the brand is different for each but they should be working on the same pattern if that makes sense. The trick, and I’m showing with my hands here two circles and how they overlap, is to get what the customers unmet needs are and what the employees needs are to kind of overlap and circle onto that also the businesses needs. Work in the sweep spot. Make sure your business is about one thing over everything else. Set a clear context in which customers, employees, owners, shareholders, vendors and all the other constituents and work clearly together. That’s the first step. A minute ago you asked about the bottom line or the multiple bottom lines for customer experience. Let’s go back to that for a second.
Lee Kantor: Ok.
Mike Wittenstein: When you have a better customer experience, you’re brand becomes preferred in your category and possibly in adjacent categories. That new positioning, if you will, is something that’s earned. Not just talked about. So we’re not talking about white wash and more advertising and social media for the sake of it. We’re talking about truly making a difference to the business that customers feel, notice and care about. It’s got to be meaningful to them. If you do create that your customers will be telling stories to their friends and colleagues that will drive more business to you. You’ll also find that you’ll be operating at a higher level. A higher point of existence, if you will, and that your products and services become more craved. So you’re able to excise a premium for that. Now in order to get the premium you’re going to delivering more service but you can do that quit profitably. The third thing is part of the intelligence customer experience design in to find ways to improve your game to deliver a better experience as customers perceive it and make more money at the same time. Every time I go into an engagement we find three, four, five, six of those and usually the savings from those help to pay for the advancement in other areas.
Lee Kantor: Now when you’re working with a customer or your client what’s your point of entry typically? What’s the pain that they’re feeling? Or is this kind of a preventative–
Mike Wittenstein: It can be used either way but there’s always some kind of a pain. Usually it’s a pinching feeling around commodization cause services have come under the commoditive sledgehammer of late. Even web services have come under that and that’s such a newly based business. Another thing that comes is when market share starts to shrink or when the economy falls off. I’ve been talking with a number of hotels recently and they know that their number one concern is fewer people are traveling.
Lee Kantor: Right.
Mike Wittenstein: But what can they do to add more value so over the others they’re preferred in their numbers and the amount the make per room per night continue to go up. It’s possible to make the differentiation because what happens in a down economy customers who are used to buying in one stratter or one kind of service, they because of budget constraints, drop down to a lower level. The suppliers are having to struggle to supply them with the experience that they were used to because they haven’t changed their expectations even though they’ve gone from Kohl’s to a Walmart or from a Crowne Plaza down to a Comfort Inn. Helping the company to respond and understand the few little things that it can do that usually cost almost nothing. Smiles, greetings, telephone messages in a hotel for example. I was hospitalized over the summer and it was so interesting to me the way the nurses treated me at this medium grade hospital. Each time anyone came into the room they asked me, “Is there anything I get you?” That one question made me feel so comfortable and I said, “Yea, I’d like an ice cream cone”, or “I’d like an Icee or a drink” and they’d go get it no matter who they were, the nurse manager or the floor, who’s very busy or the lady cleaning the floors. And when I talked with the nurse manager about it, when she made rounds to visit with all the patients, I asked her about it and she said “You know Mike, we’ve found that after we’ve been doing that we’re also saving a lot of time because the patients are waiting for someone to come in now. They’re not pressing the button all the time. So we can run a more routine operation in the hospital, meet more of our patients need for critical care and health and still get them their ice cream cones.”
Lee Kantor: It’s like they’re anticipating your needs rather than reacting.
Mike Wittenstein: Bingo! Bingo! That’s the highest level of customer service.
Lee Kantor: What’s that? That’s the highest level is the anticipation of the needs. That should be what you’re shooting for as a business owner?
Mike Wittenstein: At the very highest level, very difficult to achieve. First you work on delivering good solid service, keeping the promises that your brand makes. Next, you work to make your organization more agile so as more customers come in with their changes demands or variances on a theme, you’re able to meet those. Next you work on personalization. Finally, your work at the ultimate level, which is anticipating customer’s needs, which is being ready for them before they even ask.
Lee Kantor: Now you’ve mentioned this a little bit. Can you explain the difference between this customer experience and branding?
Mike Wittenstein: Sure.
Lee Kantor: Or do they work together?
Mike Wittenstein: They do work together. People who are real serious branders look at their purview as everything from the box to what’s in the box, to the floor stand on the floor, to the point of purchase displays, to the service that’s offered, etc. Many people that do branding and many customers think of branding as the logo or the mark that goes on the website or the product. This kind of branding is all-inclusive. In fact, I think it’s best used as strategy for the entire business, particularly for service operations. I wouldn’t say that if you’re making ball bearings or trading on port belly futures.
Lee Kantor: So do you want to create this kind of signature customer experience? It sounds almost contrive, like you’re trying to create something that’s just for the customer experience, just so they have a story to tell their friends. Have you made it like an organic part of your everyday business?
Mike Wittenstein: You do it for your customers not to them. When you’re advertised to, people keep telling stories over and over and they want you to change your behavior. We pay a lot of money to be manipulated as customers. We go to movies, we listen to opera so we cry. We take our kids to Disney world maybe ten times in their life.
Lee Kantor: Right.
Mike Wittenstein: These are all way we pay to have an emotional experience in our lives. The trick is to tap into what your customers want not what you want them to have and adjust the business to deliver on those. That’s quite authentic and customers will keep coming back for that over and over again.
Lee Kantor: So when you’re addressing this you’re kind of addressing their DNA.
Mike Wittenstein: Sometimes you do have to adjust the DNA of the company and meet the needs of the customers.
Lee Kantor: Right.
Mike Wittenstein: It’s always been that way. We just don’t have the tools often to look at it. We have spreadsheets to look at which color our view of what the customer needs. Sometimes we put the needs of the company ahead of the customer. My opinion for service brands, in a down market with a lot of competition, that’s a very dangerous design to continue.
Lee Kantor: But this has nothing to do with the down market though. This customer experience, you think is important regardless of what the economy’s doing.
Mike Wittenstein: I believe that’s true. I believe it’s the best way to create substantial customer advantage.
Lee Kantor: Can you share a story where maybe one of the Client’s you worked with was doing something a certain way and you were able to go in there and kind of pull the customers to say “Hey, you know what they really want X and you’ve been doing Y. If you do this little tweak, it could make a dramatic difference.”
Mike Wittenstein: Sure. We have a company here In town that we’ve worked with a couple of times at story miners called alternative apparel. They’re a contract designer and manufacturer of blank t-shirts, which the sell to department stores to other companies called decorators that print on the shirts. When I started working with them in 2005, the saw their customer as the wholesaler, as the decorator, the person who paid them a check. After going through a strategic planning session and developing what we call a reason for being, which defines really the DNA of the brand, we realized that the customer for them the designer was the wearer of the T-shirt. When we made the adjustments inside the company and it’s capabilities to focus on the wearer rather than the buyer, it opened up all kinds of new opportunities. For example, alternative apparel is available online to customers directly now. Not only in huge allots of huge truckloads. They’ve also opened up stores on the West Coast and trial stores here in the Atlanta area. They’ve opened up to be a C Market as a result of doing that. They’ve also found some efficiencies internally. They’ve found a new currency with which to work with a lot of their department stores and other buyers which is the understanding of the buyer and where their interests are because it helps the buyers make better decisions.
Lee Kantor: So the pain that they were feeling was that they were not growing as fast as they’d like? Was that were you came into play?
Mike Wittenstein: Part of it was that. They didn’t want to be an also brand. They also wanted to keep the feeling of their own culture. With the name alternative, you can tell their different listening to the name and they wanted to keep that unique feel that they created within the business because they knew they were going to grow. So we grounded the culture and we also made the business belong the employees in a sense. They are all very involved and very empowered in the front lines to make decisions much like the staff at the Ritz Carlton. I don’t know if you know this or not, I hate to say this but the lowliest kitchen person or room cleaner has the authority to spend $2500 on the spot and management will back them up to keep a guest happy.
Lee Kantor: Wow. That’s pretty bold from a customer. That’s a lot of trust.
Mike Wittenstein: It is. It is and they don’t abuse that. And of course, there’s the other conversation that you don’t need to spend $2500 and maybe a baseball hat would be enough.
Lee Kantor: Now when you’re working with a customer at that level and you’re saying to change dramatically like you’re suggesting, how much proof do they need? Is this based on your track record? Do they feel, look if Mike says I should do this then that makes a lot of sense?
Mike Wittenstein: That’s a very interesting question. There are so many people that are in a conservative mind set whether the economy is up or down. They want you to prove the future to them. Well it’s impossible to measure what hasn’t happened yet even with the best statistics. What I found works best is to pick consultants that you have a good connection with on a professional and on a personal basis with. A couple of conversations is usually enough to do that. There is no patterned approach that you can use to take the magic that happened with one company and instill it in another. You can’t tell Publix that they should operate like Walmart and expect them to have the same success. I was in a class in Georgia Tech speaking a couple of years ago and one of the students said, “Yea. When I grow up I want to be Bill Gates!” Well that was an accident, you can’t be, you can’t replicate the same path, the same choices, the same outcome that has happened to that man or any other company. You have to find out who you are on the inside and what you can authentically deliver that’s different and better than anybody else. Then you can build a brand around that.
Lee Kantor: Is it possible to have everybody have the customer service of a Nordstrom or a Ritz Carlton? Or can Walmart be Ritz Carlton? Is that possible?
Mike Wittenstein: It doesn’t make sense at all. They’re not playing that game whatsoever.
Lee Kantor: Right but the customer experience for Walmart, obviously you go in there with a different level of expectation than you would going into a Ritz Carlton.
Mike Wittenstein: Absolutely. One of the things that Walmart could do, just kind of dreaming for a moment. They’ve imposed on their suppliers a tremendous amount of burden in terms of supplying information about the product in RFID tags. Radio Frequency ID tags that make the products known to machine readers within the store. They for example to establish a net or a zone in the store that could identify where shoppers are and where all the products are, they would be able to automate electronically faster than most of the high-end retailers. So while it would still be a self serve model, you’d know as soon as you got into the store if the products you wanted were available. For example, you put a pair of pants in and an ad for another company that had pants in that size, in a similar color, compatible with what else was in your wardrobe could flash up to give you the one option of here’s something else you might want to consider before you leave. Rather than indicating people and paying for all the signs and all the other things.
Lee Kantor: Right
Mike Wittenstein: So they could make tremendous advances in their customer experience but only from the position that they already own, which is low cost. You’re there to save money. If Walmart extends that saving idea into saving time or saving effort- I think that would work very well. But to turn it into a Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus, or a Ritz of a Tiffany’s is just beyond the can.
Lee Kantor: So isn’t that the argument someone working with you would say? Is like, “Look, that’s not who we are. We’re not Nordstrom or we’re more Target?”
Mike Wittenstein: Yea. Customers in every segment whether it’s the high end, the low end or in-between have unmet needs and if you can work to find early what those unmet needs are and adjust your operations to meet them, that’s where you develop a deeper bond and loyalty amongst the customers. Then you don’t have to go out and worry about churn, and Comcast and Dish Network and many of the other Telecom providers like AT&T. You could take a page from that playbook and learn quite a bit.
Lee Kantor: Because they’re look at their service more as a commodity or that’s how the customer is looking at it?
Mike Wittenstein: I don’t think the customer is looking at it that way at all. I have so many unmet needs with all of my telecom and even web service providers these days. I get very very basic stuff. A plug in the wall and a bill at the end of the month from AT&T. Nada. Nothing else.
Lee Kantor: Right.
Mike Wittenstein: From Comcast, I get days of waiting. Multiple telephone calls. Hours having to be my own advocate and I feel like I need a lobbyist working inside the company to get something done. They’ve made great strides in the last few years compared to what they were but it’s still not good enough. I’d be willing to pay almost double to get better service. So there’s an unmet need at least in me and many of my colleagues but they’re not taking advantage of it. They’re missing a lot of growth by living off of the cash cow, so to speak.
Lee Kantor: And is that because their industries don’t have that much competition? They get kind of lazy.
Mike Wittenstein: I think it’s partly that. Partly the deregulation that didn’t quite take enough and partly lazy management.
Lee Kantor: So they’re choosing not to. They’re ok with a level of churn. They must have accepted it, or else they would do something about it.
Mike Wittenstein: I think they put financials ahead of service
Lee Kantor: But they’re not seeing the financial benefit of good service. They’re not valuing that.
Mike Wittenstein: That’s why they need to look at a customer experience designer and other innovative approaches that can help them but they need to jump out of their own pyridine because they’re stuck. They’re customer stat scores compared to other industries and even compared to themselves have been going down down down over the last few years. I can’t remember the name of the site but that’s for information that the US government can capture on surveys.
Lee Kantor: I guess that would be the same as the US car manufacturers that the customers are choosing other foreign options and they’ve got to the point where there like well this is how we do it and we’re ok with it. And now obviously they’re paying a price or we’re going to be paying a price.
Mike Wittenstein: Well they’ve lost touch with what customers needs are. Both the extant needs that they bring to the showroom everyday and the unmet needs, what’s cool, what’s next side of that car purchase.
Lee Kantor: Right. Instead of the ‘We’re telling you what you like’ they should be listening to the customer of saying what they would like.
Mike Wittenstein: Exactly. I think the closest the car manufacturers get to that is development of concept cars. For example, two years ago, I believe there was a design competition around a minivan frame and all kinds of cool designs came out. City tour vans, astronomy vans, music vans, eating vans, different types of attachments that went inside and outside, glass that would change from dark to light depending on the conditions outside. They came up with some fabulous ideas but so few of those make it to the production or factory floor and even fewer make it into customer hands. It’s seen as a commodity where as customers are looking for a more personalized purchase in that level. They’d like more attention and less hassle, shorter buying times, less pressure, more honesty. We’ve all purchased cars before.
Lee Kantor: It’s a nightmare.
Mike Wittenstein: It’s an abysmal situation. I was part of a, for a very short time, considered to help run an online cannibalization scheme. The idea here was that one of the big players in auto distribution was going to eat some of his own store revenue by developing a killer online model. But they couldn’t even sell it to the dealers. They were so stuck in their ways that it never got off the ground.
Lee Kantor: Well remember when cars were just starting out in this country, there were hundred of car manufacturers. It wasn’t the big 3. I mean there were literally hundred and maybe we need to go back to that model to get some of the innovation.
Mike Wittenstein: Perhaps, perhaps. I think a lot of the competition is going to be on the service side. You’ve seen OnStar in the cars and map and Internet services. Microsoft has a platform that mobile now that goes into cars. I think we’re going to see more personalization, more service and the expansion of the concept of the car or transportation to include other media and other points of value as well.
Lee Kantor: Now I heard rumor that you’re working on a book.
Mike Wittenstein: I am!
Lee Kantor: Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mike Wittenstein: Absolutely. Is started the book earlier this year and originally it was going to be called Designed Experiences but with the economic onslaught and change we’ve decided to repurpose the book to show people how they can fix their business using customer experience and get out earlier than everybody else. The idea is that everybody who reads this book, who have service brands, will be able to lead the pack in their area, that can be a geographic area or a market segment that their in, recover more quickly and gain greater market share as things turn around.
Lee Kantor: So is this a how-to manual kind of book or more theoretical?
Mike Wittenstein: Not theoretical at all. It’s very practical. It’s filled with lost of examples. Customer experience has been around for ten or fifteen years now and they’re plenty of people that are making good strides in it. There’ll be practical framework we’ll supply some follow for services to help people with the specifics of how-to.
Lee Kantor: Now, I like to ask all my guests to share their thoughts on what’s coming up next in their industry. Do you have any thoughts about what’s happening next in customer experience?
Mike Wittenstein: I think there’s two things. I think we’re going to see a better blending of technology and in person. Microsoft has a technology out that they call surface, which is basically a large display lit from beneath a table up to 4 by 8 feet, that allows more than one cursor at the top- so different people using their hands can touch the surface to make multiple actions happen at the same time. I think the retail opportunities; the healthcare diagnoses and the presentation of information- concepts can be fabulous there. I see it in trade shows. I see it in hotel lobbies. I see it in a number of different places. The other thing I see is greater personalization of service. One of the examples that I like to use when I talk about that is the service that the Ritz Carlton uses for their frequent hotel guests that stay at the same properties 3 or more days a month. They encourage you to bring all of your charkas, all of your pictures of your children and you favorite pants or your tennis racket- those kinds of things. They’ll take a picture of how you set up your room, they’ll keep all you’re stuff and the next time you reserve everything is set up just in place and your clothes are clean and everything is perfect.
Lee Kantor: That’s amazing service.
Mike Wittenstein: I think we’re going to see more of that in the low-end. For example, as retailers come to understand not only whose standing in front of them but what they have in their closet, what brands they are and what brands they desire. The technology is going to be able to match up what’s in the store with what can help the customer the most. Then the salesperson, their job will change from voicing product on customer and saying, “that looks marvelous darling” no matter what they’re wearing to truly guiding them to things that will help them complete their look for the way they would like to look.
Lee Kantor: Good Stuff. Good Stuff. It was great having you on.
Mike Wittenstein: Thank you.
Lee Kantor: I think that our listeners got a lot out of that. What’s the best way for some to find out more about what you’re doing?
Lee Kantor: Good Stuff! Well thank you so much Mike for being a guest on the show today. I definitely want you to go to Mikes websites to learn more about what he’s up to and then you’re down checking out mikes websites take a moment to check out www.thoughtleaderradio.com were we have more interviews with other business innovators. I am Lee Kantor and I look forward to talking with you next week on Thought Leader Radio.