How to avoid a billion dollar loss – with better customer experience

April 03, 2014 By Mark Hurst No Comments

I’ve heard it said that as you get older, you believe less in a lot of things but believe more in a few things. After 17 years of customer experience work at Creative Good, I’m coming to believe more and more in the power of observing customers. To put it strongly:

No matter how good the reports, no matter how good the economic or financial theory underlying them, nothing beats personal, direct observation.

Here’s the twist. I can’t take credit for that previous sentence, because it was written years ago by Peter Drucker, the pioneering management thinker, in his book Management Challenges for the 21st Century. Like many nuggets of customer experience wisdom I’ve accumulated along the way, the knowledge has been around for awhile. As often as not, I find that Drucker himself was the first person to write about it.

The importance of direct customer observation was covered recently in this column on by Rick Wartzman, executive director of the The Drucker Institute. It also recommends Customers Included as resource on the topic.

Despite the seemingly obvious benefits of observing customers, it’s common to see organizations missing that step – and suffering consequences that can reverberate for years. Take just three case studies from Customers Included – Ford, Walmart, and the border fence – in which a lack of customer-inclusive thinking led to enormous losses (estimated at around a billion dollars each for Walmart and the border fence).

Years after the incidents, people are still talking about them. Here are just three recent mentions I’ve spotted in the press:

• From last month, Border Patrol Seeks to Add Digital Eyes to Its Ranks. Quote: “Homeland Security officials are still smarting from a disastrous border technology program that cost more than $1.1 billion and produced very limited results.” I wonder if the new high-tech ideas are including the customer any better.

• From a few weeks ago, Ford is removing Microsoft technology from its cars. Quote: “Problems with Ford’s in-car systems, especially as the company introduced versions that came with dashboard touch screens, hurt the company’s customer satisfaction ratings in recent years.”

• And from the WSJ last fall, as Walmart brought on a new CEO, a comment on the previous CEO’s tenure:

Wal­Mart . . . in the middle of the last decade [suffered] disastrous results. In an attempt to attract higher­-income shoppers and better compete with rivals like Target Corp., the company began paring back the number of items it carried to unclutter its aisles and tried to boost margins by moving from a policy of everyday low prices to one of more targeted sales. Customers balked, and Wal­Mart soon retreated.

If anyone asks why it’s important to include customers, or why it makes sense to directly observe customers, just send them those articles. The mistakes recounted in Customers Included are still felt today, years later… and yet the solution is simple. As Peter Drucker put it, nothing beats personal, direct observation.

(As always, get in touch if Creative Good can help.)

Why the customer experience still matters for Comcast and Time Warner

February 27, 2014 By Mark Hurst 3 Comments

I was recently in a Manhattan subway station when I spotted two old, peeling stickers on the wall (see photo) bearing these names:

New York Telephone
Bell Atlantic

These names represent over 30 years of phone service in New York. And although the stickers are torn and defaced today, each company had its heyday as a seemingly unstoppable monopoly, with a certain defining attitude toward customers. The Wikipedia entry for Nynex, for example, writes of “its reputation of poor customer service and low reliability. During its era, long-term issues regarding corrupt and faulty business practices, phones frequently breaking down, and missed repair appointments were reported.”

Sound familiar? Some of the same things are being said today about Time Warner and Comcast. (As the New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson put it, “the 4th most disliked company in America just bought the 6th most disliked.”) And yet this is not unique to telecom companies. In any non-competitive environment, where customers have no easy way to punish bad service by quitting, the monopolist feels no incentive to treat customers well.

That might be the final conclusion, except for something pointed out two centuries ago by Percy Bysshe Shelley in a poem called Ozymandias. You might remember it from school: an ancient statue lies rotting in the desert, a stark reminder that no empire lasts forever. The tattered subway stickers make the same statement. Time Warner and Comcast won’t last forever, but they can choose how they treat their customers while they’re still around.

Since I’m in the business of offering strategic direction to executives who manage the customer experience, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that, I hope, will find their way to the senior leadership of Comcast and Time Warner.

First, spend some time with customers. Not in a focus group. I mean real, authentic human interaction: one-on-one listening labs helping you understand the true customer experience your company creates. (For details, read our book or contact us.)

Second, be honest about your customer experience. It doesn’t count if, as the CEO of Comcast, you go onto an MSNBC show (owned by Comcast) and have the host (an employee of Comcast) ask you softball questions that he admits are softballs. (Yes, this actually happened.) For that matter, it also doesn’t count if, as Time Warner CEO, you state publicly say that you’re “putting the customer at the center of everything we do” if you don’t then take action on that point. (Check the MSNBC interview and judge for yourself whether this is happening.)

Finally, think about your legacy. Would you rather be known as the executive who fought the FCC and won, building a formidable monopoly that scared off would-be competitors (as Joe Nocera writes could occur)? Or would you rather be known as someone who actually made people’s lives better? Or heck, at least as someone who provided nominally decent service for a fair price? Time Warner hasn’t yet cleared that bar.

For the rest of us, customers who have whatever experience the companies serve up, take heart. Some companies actually do value the customer experience, and it’s possible Comcast might come around. But even if not, every monopoly, no matter how powerful, will eventually look like Ozymandias.

See also: People hate Comcast and Time Warner Cable even more now that they’re merging (Quartz, March 1, 2014)

Good Todo redesign

January 12, 2014 By Mark Hurst 2 Comments

(January 14, 2014, 3:50pm Eastern): All bugs described below should be fixed. Please email us (help at with other bug reports, but things should be working more smoothly now. Thanks to everyone who wrote in!

(Monday, January 13, 2:15pm Eastern): Launch has gone relatively smoothly, though there are a few bugs, mainly around categories, that users have pointed out. (Sorry for the hassle!) We’re working on fixing the following:

• Category persistence – if you close a category, it currently pops back open when you change days or views. We’re working on getting it to stay closed.

• Creating new todos with a category – if you try to create a new todo with a category – either by using the Web interface or by emailing it in (with the Subject line starting with the category name), currently it gives an error about “1 to 5 digits in length” and the todo is not created. We’re working on fixing this; meantime, create the todo without a category and then assign the category after that. (Tip – from the main list-view page on the website, you can drag-and-drop todos into the category labels shown on the bottom-right of the page!)

• Mobile-app syncing issues – all mobile apps seem to be working fine, except when todos are created or edited with categories. This seems to be related to the bullet above and we hope one fix will resolve all these issues.

• The same category heading shows up multiple times – some users are seeing a todo under category X, and another todo displayed under a separate header for category X. We’re working on a fix (meantime, drag all those todos to the X category label in the lower-right of the screen and they should all show up under a single category-X header).

……..previous updates below: ………

(Sunday, January 12, 7:07pm Eastern): The new Good Todo website is up! Enjoy (and let me know if you see any post-launch strange behavior, though it seems to be working great).

(Sunday, January 12, 4:35pm Eastern): Good Todo is now down, temporarily, for our scheduled upgrade to our new website. Hope to be back up with the new design in a few hours. Stay tuned!

We are installing the new Good Todo website today. Here is a brief video showing off the new design:

In retail, customer experience and the “cool factor”

December 19, 2013 By Mark Hurst 2 Comments

Before we head into the holidays, just a few more thoughts about customer experience.

This recent NYT headline caught my eye: Tech Companies Press for a Better Retail Experience. Great, I thought, the retail customer experience is getting more attention. (Goodness knows retail stores could learn a thing or two, as I wrote about in my experience in Williams-Sonoma.)

The article rightly points out the importance of the customer experience:

Behind all the investments in retailing is one of the technology industry’s favorite buzzwords: “user experience.” It reflects a belief that companies need to obsess not only over details of product design, but also the environment in which the products are presented to the public.

But then we see examples: in a Verizon Wireless store, a customer is sitting in a leather chair! Google is building mystery barges! The new frontier of user experience, it seems, is upping the “cool factor.” (You can guess which retailer is named as the gold standard: Apple, of course.)

While I agree that the Apple Store creates a great user experience, I’d offer this rule of thumb: Good customer experience does not always equate to the “cool factor.”

Sure, Apple has done well by being cool, but to most retailers, I’d say: you’re not Apple. Most companies need to find out what their customers want from them, not from Apple, and deliver on those unmet needs.

Customers want what your company can deliver that your competitors can’t. It’s dangerous to lose sight of this, as Walmart learned when it tried to become Target: a roughly billion-dollar mistake. (The entire case study is in Customers Included – recommended reading.) In other words: Create a good customer experience for YOUR company.

According to the article, AT&T has started fitting its retail stores with “reclaimed teak paneling.” I have to wonder if that addresses the key unmet need of AT&T customers.

Here’s the Uncle Mark 2014 gift guide

December 11, 2013 By Mark Hurst No Comments

I’m happy to announce the new 2014 Uncle Mark gift guide and almanac: download the free PDF. Gift ideas and life tips abound in this 11th annual guide.

Please share this year’s guide, if you agree with my suggestions: share on Facebook, or tweet it.

Topics include my favorite books of the year, videogame systems, gifts for kids, and how to learn Chinese. Download it, read it, and enjoy!

P.S. Apropos of nothing, here are the three fun links I included in today’s email newsletter (sign up for the email newsletter here):

ASCII fluid dynamics

Fun with public statues

Picard’s shirt-tugging maneuver. In the future, we all tug shirts.