Experience by Design

I’m a consultant in customer experience, support, online strategies, etc. I’ve done gigs at a lot of well-known, and not so well-known companies. And when I first walk down the halls of these companies, I experience a slo-mo process of understanding how the company expresses its culture on its walls, often knowingly, strategically, and consciously. But just as often, painfully unconsciously.

building your vision into the very structure

As I work with the company, I’m usually pretty busy taking in a lot of information–certainly lots more than the myriad reports and workings sessions that are on the schedule. One thing I look for is the palpable link between the look and feel of the inside of a company with its outside, ie the product or service it offers. This link has been remarkably consistent and telling: the “end-user” of the company, the customer, manages to experience–for better or for worse–the core culture of the company, a culture that is expressed internally in its physical details.

However the company “window dresses” their offering, however much it may market its “customer centricity,” in the end, the customer really will–in a million unspoken ways–truly experience the culture of the company and come to a nearly unwavering “impression” of the company based on that unconscious experience. And it will take an extreme make-over to change that impression.

Take, for example, three big names: Microsoft, Dell and Apple. Big complex companies with high visibility and well known business models. All three talk about the customer, all three talk about experience, all three have numerous internal initiatives in place to improve the customer experience–on the box, in the box, online, on the phone, by email, chat, IVR and what have you. They all truly do want the customer to be happy–who wouldn’t? It’s not rocket science to figure out, even if you are a monopoly, that if you ain’t got customers, you ain’t got nothin. (I’ve been in Austin a lot lately).

So, each has expended an enormous amount of energy and money, money, money to make sure the Customer Experience works. They have the latest technology, they have metrics, they have visibility…into what they think matters. And this is where things get a little dicey: what they think matters.

creating the model customer

I’ve been to all three campuses and here’s the news: the difference between them is startling and speaks directly and clearly to the culture of each.

At Microsoft you will see expensive art on the walls and lots of banners proclaiming the latest launch, the latest version, the latest product innovation. These internal promotions are big on team, big on being the best, huge on “evangelism.” You’ll see colorful and smart internal marketing that pumps up the troops with enthusiasm for the next…product.

msft windows.gif

At Dell, you won’t see a lot of art; some but not a lot. There’s most definitely a manufacturing feel to the place, a certain boot-strappiness that eschews glitz in favor of process. But you will see a lot of posters with top leadership announcing the latest push to greatness. A lot of internal marketing about top leadership and a can-do attitude. A lot of internal focus with a linear, top down spin.

At Apple, you’ll see something altogether different from the other two. You’ll see pictures of people who use Apple devices. You’ll see a lot of art, and in fact, the pictures of customers are professional quality portraits of Hollywood or otherwise historical figures who use Mac and who Think Different. It’s cool, it’s inspiring, it’s all so beyond the computing device…because after all, Apple is nothing if not an experience. And experience is all about a subject/object relationship, ie, the customer and the device–a Relationship writ large.

Form Follows Function

It’s spooky to me, once I started to notice this, that the customer “impression” of these companies over time pretty much lines up with what the companies believe about themselves.

MSFT believes its next big thing is going to crush the competition and change the world, it’s the next big thing, it’s microsoft–and that’s what customers perceive as well.

it's the product, stupid!

In fact, customers are exhausted by the next big thing and just want one thing that works well consistently and without an inordinate amount of maintenance. Customers never want to think as much about their OS as Microsoft thinks they do.

Dell is Affordable. It’s all about JIT manufacturing, process, and offering a high tech device to the world for out-of-this-world prices. It’s a supply chain, something most customers know nothing about and don’t want to know about…and yet, in the last year, customers have begun expressing the notion that they are part of a supply chain, the wallet part, and that once they’ve done their part, Dell would prefer they disappear until needed again. A growing percent of Dell customers feel used and uncared for–something, by the way, that most all of the Dell employees I’ve worked with would like to change. They’re good folks, they want to take care of their customers–but there’s an internal engine, a process in place, that makes that damn difficult.

top down--who's the customer?

And then there’s Apple. Apple has managed to package The Relationship. They’ve thought of everything, and everything just works. Apple is so cool, is able to do so much so easily that they underscore ease and simplicity by leaving enough space left for surprises: eye candy, ear candy, all kinds of candy. And it all just pretty much works and keeps working without you, the user, having to do too much to ensure that it works. Apple knows about people, and this focus is palpable in all that they do, from their online store, to the super cool phsyical stores, to their email, their IVR system, the metrics they keep and watch, the relationships they make and tend to in a hundred different ways. Everything about Apple screams relationship. Even the names of their products–iMac, iPod etc–encourage you to relate to your devices in a most personal way.

I don’t want to be a slavish devotee of Apple. In fact, they have made, and will make some blunders, big and small. I don’t like how the iPod mini user manual doesn’t tell you how to switch the damn thing off, for example. But do I care? Not really. It just forces me to relate to my Apple-maniacal friends in order to get tips on how-to. And there you have another brilliant, cohesive aspect to Apple: the community.

Does the look and feel of the campus have anything to do with the look and feel of the final product? I sure don’t know of any studies, but it doesn’t seem like a real stretch to me. Would it help a company that is disconnected from its company to have pictures and videos of their customers scattered around? Real live stuff? Well, it sure couldn’t hurt, and it may be the spark that’s needed.

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One response to “Experience by Design

  1. Very interesting post. The questions you raise correspond very precisely to my preoccupations.
    Corporate Unconscious and the tool “Meaning Capital” I use in my consulting business address these types of issues.
    There definitely is a link between the product of a company and its environment. Your analysis of Apple, Microsoft and Dell is relevant.
    I have just published a book in France on a distribution company called “Fnac” which you may not have heard about. Almost 5 billion US$ in turnover and over 15 000 employees. They sell books, records and high-tech products. Created in 1954 by two ex-trotskyst militants, who invented a concept : “we do not sell products to customers, we advise consumers”. I know both founders well. One of them told me : “We do not have customers, we have friends. What we want to do is intelligent commerce”.
    Their shops are a great place to be in ; lots of people go there just for the pleasure. Out of 100 visitors, only 30 buy sometnig (80% in any supermarket). Customers have a strong affective link to this company.
    What is interesting is that all the stores have the same design which has been developped by an architect (80 years old now) ever since 1954. There has been a lot of thinking behind. In particular about the furniture, lights, height of ceiling etc … Even more interesting, he has been careful to split stores in merchant and non-merchant areas in a way that turns them into great places to be.
    In other words, you can read and experience the story of both founders in the walls. To the extent that you can start wondering what the actual business of the company is : is it distribution or developping a friendly community? Their meaning capital is all about friendly community. The closest business model they found is distribution.
    Sorry for being too long.

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