Let Little Bets Lead You to Big Customer Experience Wins

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RouletteMany times, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of better customer experience isn’t management buy-in, budget, lack of data, or any other extrinsic factor (as common as those are). It’s a mental block—a plain and simple inability to look at your company from the outside-in. By seeing the experience from your customer’s perspective, it’s much easier to identify improvement opportunities.

But getting to that way of thinking isn’t simple, which is why you might consider patterning your customer experience initiatives after the entrepreneurial, early-stage start-up philosophies coming out of Silicon Valley. Just as start-ups embrace customer discovery to learn what customers really need in their products, you can embrace it to improve the experience of the customers you already have.

The key is a modest start, identifying customer experience changes that are small, fast, and “unrealistic”.

Start Small: Little Bets

What if instead of trying to create the perfect customer experience – solving all your problems in a single, highly orchestrated effort – you improved experience incrementally, one step at a time?

Make one small change today. Then measure how that went and make another small change based on what you learned. Continue down that path and some changes will succeed while others will fail – but by bringing a structured approach to the process, you’ll learn every step of the way.

That’s the basic principle behind Little Bets, or as author Peter Sims describes them: “low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea.” As it turns out, the highly successful “big bets” that tend to be glorified in the mainstream rarely launch as a comprehensive plan. They’re a confluence of inspired ideas, false starts, and information-based course corrections. In fact, it’s a lot like the process of building a successful startup. You hypothesize, test, iterate, and learn. Where you end up may be different than where you initially planned to go, but each step is informed – building on the successes (and failures) that preceded.

In the world of customer experience, we see something very similar. Success stories often start from humble beginnings. Middle-out or bottom-up grassroots initiatives, rather top-down mandates and fully funded programs. That’s why it’s so important for Smart Companies to empower their employees to do right by customers and provide a structure for the results of these tests to be visible to others. (Not doing so can create problems like the dog biscuit issue from my recent “5 Whys” article).

The entrepreneurial approach to customer experience improvement leads to a proliferation of “little bets” that not only get you unstuck but can lead to big wins.

Start Fast: Embrace Imperfection

There’s a popular quote-turned-mantra in startup circles from Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn. He said, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” You can dissect this idea any number of ways. In part, it’s about the scourge of perfectionism, the short-lived nature of market opportunities, and the importance of getting a product into customers’ hands to start collecting feedback.

It’s also about the high cost of failing to act. Applied to customer experience improvement efforts, any change you feel completely comfortable making has likely cost you too much already. If you’re losing customers due to bad experience, it’s obvious: You needed to act faster. But it’s important to remember you still can be incrementally out-innovated by large competitors and very quickly disrupted by new ones.

Put another way, delaying customer experience improvements because you’re trying to craft perfection leaves you much more vulnerable than getting a “good enough” effort launched. If you start with the assumption that any change you make is going to need improvement after launch, wouldn’t you rather be early than late?

Start Unrealistic: Doing Things That Don’t Scale

Paul Graham, founder of the startup accelerator YCombinator, recently wrote an essay entitled, “Do Things That Don’t Scale.” It’s full of stories from startups he’s worked with, including Airbnb, Wufoo, Stripe, and Meraki, who succeeded because of a willingness to do things in the beginning that would be absurd to attempt in a large, established company.

The co-founders of Airbnb, in their early days, would go door-to-door in New York trying to sign up new users and improve the listings of existing users by taking better photos of their apartments. You could never do that at scale, but the founders also realized they’d never get to scale if they didn’t do that. The founders of Meraki Networks were hand-assembling routers when they started out, because factory production is such a barrier to entry for most hardware startups. That effort, though, helped them get enough market traction to make the big bet of factory production much safer.

Author of The Lean Startup, Eric Ries, captures this idea with the term Concierge MVP (minimum viable product). The argument goes that it’s wasteful to launch with the final, perfect embodiment of your product or service. Why? Because when you’re starting out, you don’t yet know if that’s the product or service people really want. So, instead, you try to provide the essential benefit with a concierge-style duct tape and baling wire solution. And once you validate your idea, that’s when you really start refining. It’s the ultimate example of doing things that don’t scale.

So ask yourself — what sort of customer experience improvements could you make today using a Concierge MVP approach? Admittedly, it’s counterintuitive to suggest that small, fast, and unrealistic improvements can result in a big customer experience transformation. But it’s about being agile.

We’ve reached a point where changes in technology and the connectedness of consumers have made being slow to respond roughly equivalent to being irrelevant. Our advice? Act first and fast – and ask (highly targeted and revealing) questions later.

This blog originally ran on CMO.com, where Michael Hinshaw writes the weekly “Get Customer-Centric” blog.

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