Home Interviews Brad Cleveland, Author Of ‘Leading The Customer Experience’

[Interview] Brad Cleveland, Author Of ‘Leading The Customer Experience’

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Brad Cleveland

Across the globe, leaders and organizations are struggling to respond to skyrocketing customer expectations. And as a result, they’re facing dissatisfied buyers, brand damage, and lost profits.

In his new book, “Leading the Customer Experience: How to Chart a Course and Deliver Outstanding Results“, customer strategy expert Brad Cleveland shows leaders, step by step, how to meet these new demands and win customer loyalty once and for all.

We recently sat down with Brad Cleveland to discuss what’s behind these expectations, common mistakes businesses make regarding customer experience, and how to quickly correct course.

Here is some of our conversation:

Customers’ expectations have hit all-time highs. What’s driving this trend?

Yes, that’s right. Here’s the main driver: when customers see or experience innovation in products or services with any organization, they now know what’s possible. They begin to expect improvements from others.

So, we have to continually reassess and recalibrate what our customers need and expect. What does it mean to deliver a great customer experience? The answers evolve quickly. And, of course, the stakes are high. It’s easy for customers to relay bad experiences to others. Yet when you consistently deliver great experiences, the connected world is a powerful friend.

Many leaders label customer expectations as an enormous challenge and obligation. But I encourage them to see it as the huge opportunity it is. Deliver great experiences, and you’ll be building an external sales force of customers who have a powerful influence on others.

What common mistakes do businesses make when it comes to customer experience?

There are two big mistakes — overarching mistakes — that are far too common. The first mistake is building a vision and approach around your organization’s goals and ambitions.

Case in point: A few years back, I was sitting at the back of a large meeting room as an organization launched its customer experience initiative to a cross section of company employees (this was before COVID shut things down). Two presenters, who were part of the initiative, walked employees through a 75-minute overview. They introduced terms and acronyms (CX, NPS, CSAT), discussed surveys and response rates, and outlined goals and metrics.

After the presentation, I overheard two people who were heading for a coffee station. “Did you get all of that?” one asked the other. “Not really,” was the reply, “and we’re up to our eyeballs in work; I hope this doesn’t add more to our plates.” Oh no! All that work, and the organization missed the chance to win hearts and loyalties.

Can you picture Richard Branson, Emily Weiss, Elon Musk, or any other leader you admire launching a new initiative around net promoter score, creating advocate customers, or digital transformation? Sure, all those things have a place. But focus on what matters: How will we improve our customers’ lives? How are we upping the ante? How will we make a dent in the world? All the rest is academic.

The other common mistake is suboptimization — letting good work in functional areas undermine the overall effort. Without deliberate intervention, departments don’t naturally work across functional lines. The legal department requires precise language in customer documents. The compliance team demands stringent verification to protect customers and the organization. Customer service is focused on those interactions, and so on.

But being customer-focused within a silo doesn’t fix the most exasperating barriers to good experiences. Great experiences happen by design. They are shaped with a clear-eyed view of the customer as they traverse through the work done by marketing, legal, product management, billing, and customer service.

Those challenges sound all too familiar. How can leaders step in and right the ship?

I’d begin with a candid, no-holds-barred assessment of what’s happening now. What are customers saying? Cast a wide net to listen: surveys, social media channels, one-on-one conversations, product and service reviews, operational data (wait times, returns, renewals, and similar), and more. I’d especially focus on your employees’ perspectives. Where might the organization not be living up to its promises? Do employees ever feel a conflict between the company’s expectations and doing what’s best for customers? Does leadership encourage and enable innovation? Look for themes.

As you build your approach, don’t underestimate the power of a compelling vision. I really like the mission statement of sporting goods outfitter REI, which its employees can all get behind: “We inspire, educate, and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.”

Another example of a compelling vision is from the federal government of Australia. This country is going through a transformation driven by a promise: “We’re making government services simple so people can get on with their lives.”

Your vision should be right for your organization. You’ll then need to build an approach — steps that include establishing leadership, getting employees on board, building governance, and others. Customer experience spans the organization and requires support from the top. But I’ve seen, many times, leaders of divisions, departments, or teams become the spark that ignites a movement.

Clearly, leaders have a pivotal role in getting customer experience right. In your book, you stress that employees do as well — they’re a business’s “CX secret sauce.” Tell us more.

Yes, think about a customer’s journey through your organization. That might include learning about your products or services through marketing materials, your website, or a sales rep; purchasing at a store, from a partner, or through your website; needing assistance, accessed through your mobile app, online resources, or contact center; and others. Every one of the products, services, technologies, and processes were selected, designed, implemented, or overseen by someone who works for your organization.

Incredible things happen when we enable employees to be their best. I remember a dreadfully ineffective customer service department in a consumer products company. Employee turnover was high, and customer feedback was awful. A new director asked the customer service team about their value and purpose. One employee, with a frown and arms folded, responded: “We handle consumer gripes all day… how important can that be?”

They decided to find out. They started by analyzing the drivers of their work. Some simple analyses over the next few days revealed that 11% of customer contacts about a specific cleaning product were due to the cap being too hard to remove. Customers would force it off, often shearing off the spray nozzle in the process. The new director shared this data with their packaging supplier, who redesigned the caps. The customer gripes went away. And that gave the customer team a glimpse of their power and potential.

In the months that followed, the customer service department became involved in marketing, systems improvement, and product development — all based on insight and intelligence distilled from working with colleagues and customers every hour of every day.

A senior leader told me this team had become the “secret sauce” to the company’s research and development. When these team members saw their true impact on customers, colleagues, and the company’s success, they began to understand their value. Breathe that kind of life into every department and watch what happens!

In closing, what’s the one piece of advice you hope readers take from your book?

In a nutshell: everyone needs to feel ownership in customer experience! In some ways, the customer experience movement has become a victim of its own success. As customer experience has become professionalized, it’s too often driven people away rather than invited them into the process. Effective leaders cut through the clutter. They make customer experience understandable, relatable, practical, and exciting!

To learn more about Brad Cleveland and his new book, visit his website.