Of course you want your Website, and your company, to be the best it can be. But from whose perspective? Your perspective (internally focused) or your customers’ perspective?

The transformation from corporate-focused to customer-centric is not an easy one. Even the most client-minded individuals have trouble effecting cultural change in a large organization – or a even a small one. But it is possible, with perseverance and a little imagination.

For the last few weeks we’ve been presenting at a 10-city AdTech:IMPACT tour across the country – Brett (CEO), Brant (VP of Services) and myself. Jim Sterne was the keynote at each of these events and I caught up with him during lunch where he told me a fantastic story about how two companies became customer centric through a unique experience.

I asked Jim to write up the story for our blog. This is a long read, but worth it!:

A small company named Zylom asked me to fly to Amsterdam, take a train to Eindhoven and then drive to a conference center in the middle of nowhere. The entire company, all thirty of them, would be on hand to learn about customer centricity during a three day workshop.

Zylom creates and distributes online solitaire and puzzle games. Not the shoot-’em-up type that appeals to teenage boys, but word games and Tetris-like games that appeals to their mothers. The company is shockingly successful.

The first day was part lecture and part workshop. What is customer experience? What does it looks like online? How do you keep customers foremost in your thoughts throughout the day? The resort was first class. The grounds were stunningly beautiful. Lunch included a group bicycle ride through the countryside. That evening we boarded a hired bus for dinner in a nearby town.

All thirty of us climbed off the bus to discover that the restaurant had lost our reservation. Faced with a deluge of hungry patrons, this establishment did not seem to rise to the challenge. Half of us waited for an hour. The other half for another twenty minutes. Drinks were served to the wrong people. Food arrived late, cold, over-spiced, under-cooked and dessert never arrived at all. The flower arraignment looked at least two weeks past its sell-by-date. This was touted as a first class eatery but they exhibited little or no class whatsoever.

The following morning, it was time to discuss the homework I had assigned before flying over: Describe a bad customer experience. If asked, you’d have to think for a moment about a bad purchase you’d made or annoying clerk you had met so I gave them plenty of time to come up with something. There were stories of repair work gone awry, appliances that never arrived and faulty phone service with nobody willing or able to make amends. Finally, as we got half way around the table, one of the employees admitted that dinner the previous night had not been particularly good. There were grumbles of agreement around the table with sidelong glances at the CEO who had made the selection

At the end of the day, the CEO announced that we would be boarding the same bus and heading back to the same restaurant for dinner. This comment was met with a stony silence. He let the silence ferment for a bit and then said that he had spoken to the owner of the restaurant several weeks before and had secured an agreement. The restaurant would provide a poor customer experience on the first night and a good one on the second.

The room exploded.

Everybody had a comment on just how bad the meal had been. The waitress was surly. The bartender was smoking. The coffee cup was chipped. The cutlery was dull. The beer was warm. There was no salt or pepper to be found. The paper napkins looked like they had come from a fast food eatery. The list of faults grew as the crowd was wrapped in amazement that it had all been intentional.

I had been in on the ruse and had delighted in the mischief wrought by the participants. The bar tender did more than smoke. He poured some glasses half full. He banged pots and pans behind the bar where nobody could see. I watched as he put one glass of beer in the microwave to warm and flatten it. He and the other staff could be seen every now and again in the kitchen doorway laughing long and hard. The napkins had, indeed, come from a fast food supply house.

The second evening, as the bus pulled up in front of the restaurant, the owner was standing at the side of the road. He greeted each of us as we disembarked . He led us to our tables which were set with cloth napkins, crystal, candles and velum menus with the Zylom name and logo printed at the top. The waiters came in a wave and everybody had a glass of wine in an instant.

The owner brought a stool into the room and sat down. "Before we serve your appetizers, I have to thank you all. In my many years as a restaurateur, I have never learned as much as I did last night." We had been prepared for an apology for the previous meal with a wink and a nod, and a promise tonight’s dinner would be better. Instead, he recounted a revelation that would change how he and his staff would treat customers from that moment on.

"Oh, we had fun!" he said. "But it was very hard work. First – and for the first time – we had to think about the difference between a good dining experience and a bad one, so we could perform our contracted duty without actually spilling food or burning you with hot plates. Then we had to actually do it, and some of us failed.

"Our waitress simply could not stop herself from saying, ‘Thank you’ when taking orders. Our chef flatly refused to burn the crème brulé. It was very hard work." He paused. "But the thing that we could not understand…the thing that was so confusing and so enlightening at the same time, was that no matter what we did, not one of you complained.

"Now, I know that you are here at the command of your boss and he is paying the bill so you didn’t want to insult him or his choice of restaurants. But nobody should have to endure what we put you through last night. And now we know that as good as we may think we are and as wonderful as we think our little restaurant might be, if there is something wrong – nobody will tell us! So we must be especially careful and observant. Otherwise we are simply fooling ourselves. Thank you for this lesson. Please, please enjoy your dinner."

The next morning started a little later as we had wined and dined well that night. After lunch, it was my turn to find out if the lesson has been learned by the diners as well as by the restaurant. We talked about what we might do to improve Zylom’s customer experience. The hoped for and expected ideas we floated involved focus groups, usability testing, random surveys and the like. But I knew the exercise had hit the mark when the woman in charge of accounts receivable spoke up.

"The next time I send out invoices to our advertising customers, I’m going to include a note asking them how I can make it easier for them to process my bill." She has successfully identified her accounts payable counterparts as her customers and decided to get proactive.

I flew back to Santa Barbara knowing I had helped change their view of the world.

Jim Sterne is the founder and producer of the Emetrics Summit, www.emetrics.org. He is an internationally known consultant and speaker who focuses on measuring the value of the Web as a medium for creating and strengthening customer relationships. Sterne has written eight books on using the Internet for marketing and is a founding director of the Web Analytics Association.

Lessons learned:

How do you know what you should be doing better?

Inside your company you see things from an ‘inside the bottle’ perspective. Customers are not necessarily telling you where, when, and how you’re messing up. Many customers go on with life silently dissatisfied, as polite as this group at dinner. Yet customers readily talk to each other about their product experiences. You can enable, encourage and analyze customer-to-customer conversations and listen – even participate – in this open, authentic dialogue.

Even if a few customers say something, how big of an impact does it make throughout the company to drive change? A company needs recurring, ‘operationalized’ feedback to effect change. Change can occur with a steady diet of ‘customer oxygen’.

You want your website to be the best it can be? How are you going to change the way your company thinks about your goods and services? You might first consider asking every employee to describe a bad customer experience. Then buy them dinner.

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