The Tour de France – A Customer Experience Tour de Force


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Sweat poured from his brow as the contact centre agent searched fruitlessly for the critical data that the customer said he had provided to one of his colleagues the previous day. This seemed like the fiftieth time today that he had climbed through a mountain of information in one of the many customer databases his company maintained. Why couldn’t this run more smoothly? Why couldn’t they listen to us when we tell them that it’s driving both the customers and us crazy and taking far too long? Why did they cancel that project to upgrade the CRM system? Did his colleague forget to update the record? Was the customer mistaken? Who knows? Whatever the reason, it translates into a marathon effort for customer and the employee and a lousy experience for both.

Sport is often a metaphor for the challenges that companies face when seeking to deploy a winning customer experience strategy. There appears to be no shortage of lessons to be learned from almost any sport, and the tougher the contest the more relevant, compelling and powerful the examples seem to be.

A great example of this is the significant and colourful back story that flowed through, and often over, Chris Froome and the Sky team during their latest victory at the Tour de France, and included the verbal and physical abuse suffered by Chris at the hands of the “fans” and the media. In particular the “golden shower” he was given at various points on the mountain stages, especially the fearsome Alpe d’ Huez, and I’m not talking about beer! For many of us, our treatment as customer is often characterized by an expression that is the reverse of what happened to Chris. While not as physically unpleasant, it can, metaphorically (fortunately), still leave us with a bad taste in our mouths when we feel we are being taken advantage of, or not being treated fairly.

Key elements that can work for Customer Experience

But the memorable, key highlights of the 2015 Tour de France story are the ones that have tremendous positive implications and adaptable applications, when seen through our eyes as a customer. Two recent media articles have magically intersected to reveal just how valuable this can be when applied liberally.

The highly respected and talented writer Matthew Syed penned a series of great articles in The Times about this year’s Tour de France. Specifically, he mentioned the three changes that Sky’s team principal Sir Dave Brailsford took following the disastrous 2014 Tour to ensure they learnt from their mistakes and achieved the right result this time around. These focused on behavioral, motivational and technical aspects, and clearly they worked. With unerring timing across an ocean, and with the sea as it’s moist metaphor of choice, Bob Thompson, CEO of CustomerThink Corp, led with an equally challenging sporting image reminding us of the Fonz, in Happy Days, water skiing with a great white denizen of the deep, with his article entitled, Has CXM “Jumped the Shark,” trying to be the Theory of Everything? In this, he opined that this phrase, in common usage, means “the moment when a brand, design, franchise or creative effort’s evolution declines.” And added that “I’m worried that’s what has happened to the Customer Experience movement, as proponents attempt to define and redefine it to include every aspect of a customer relationship.”

So where’s the connection I hear you ask? I hope I can show you; otherwise we won’t have an article. Let me help you across this not so yawning chasm.

Will you have customer experience with that?

Bob went on to explore the idea that customer experience has reached a point where if nothing is excluded from CX, then it must include everything. As a result, companies often fail to focus on those specific areas, ideas, actions that can truly differentiate them from the competition. As I noted in my recent white paper Customer Experience isn’t Working -Yet, a recent survey by eConsultancy revealed that 40% of organizations cite “complexity” as the greatest barrier to improving multichannel customer experience. And only 26% of companies have a well-developed strategy in place for actually improving customer experience. I don’t think it’s a stretch to correlate complexity for, “it’s all too much” and more than one company is experiencing a “Greta Garbo moment” and just wants to be left alone. As Bob says, “How do you focus on something when it includes everything?”

The correlation with cycling, and particularly Matthew’s article, are the myriad and often seemingly unrelated components that combine to result in a successful Tour de France or other Grand Tour win. These can be just as complex, confusing, contradictory and overwhelming as in the customer experience world, and finding a logical starting point is as difficult as making it up the Alep d’Huez without getting wet. In Matthew’s article he pointed out that all these components, people, bikes, training nutrition, mental & physical well-being are clearly important but they need a structure, and in the case of Sky, a new plan to bring them together in a way that the sum of parts….. well you know the rest.

Those who know me realize that I am a plain speaking guy looking for simplicity in a complex world. So I like the fact that I can see three key lessons from this wonderful melange of cycling and customer experience fatigue: personal commitment and motivation, team dynamics, and innovative technical application. And that these can be distilled, adjusted, customized to help any organization, regardless of where they are on the customer experience journey, to really focus on what matters to customers, and their other stakeholders.

1. Organizational Engagement – Marriage Optional

Getting the team together regularly, speaking plainly and having corporate baggage-free, external contributions are some of the first steps to identifying the key changes necessary. Sound obvious, of course. Does it happen? Rarely. Yes, there are company meetings, but often honesty, candour and freedom of expression rarely get a seat at the table and are left banging fruitlessly at the door trying to get in. So company strategy and operational planning become less effective, lacking in actionable insight, gasping for the fresh air of innovation and as comfortable as an old pair of slippers or some marriages. As Dave Brailsford pointed out when describing the senior team.

“We had worked together, the four of us, for a long time. We had become aligned in our thinking. When we were faced with problems, we tended to respond in the same way. Your perspective is not challenged”

Team Sky brought in some outside help to force the leadership out of their comfort zone and the resulting engagement was the start of a new plan that chronicles ”what it takes to win.”

Dave added.

“I am convinced that successful teams emerge from emotionally robust cultures. Cycling is often described solely in terms of wattage and power outputs (CRM, Phone Systems & VOC?). But the human side is vital and often underestimated by performance scientists (IT Directors, CIOs?)

Dave put in a way that should give many companies something to think about.

“We’ve been successful for a long time, but if we’re going to get to the next level we have to question ourselves and everything we’ve taken for granted. We have to rip it up and start again.”

While many customer experience strategic plans may not require such drastic action, the revitalization of organizational engagement must feature clearly defined rules and mutual understanding that transcend silos and turf wars, and truly get to the heart of business issues. These must be framed in customer language that all stakeholders can understand, measure in their own terms and act on. This doesn’t mean total and perfect harmony at all times, but having a form of disruptive cooperation that allows for differing and diverse views but that can still lead to a consensus about what’s best for customers. This doesn’t necessarily require matrimonial like vows, but certainly strong, sustainable and documented commitments. The team needs to consistently prioritize issues, to get the nub of problem quickly, be prepared to test often and fail early and to be satisfied with small but sustainable incremental improvements that over time and with scale can make a big difference. As Bob neatly summarizes,

“My own research finds the most significant differentiator between business performance Leaders and Laggards is constantly seeking ways to improve solutions delivered to customers.”

2. Never mind the quantity, feel the lift

The approach that Sky took that looked at “every assumption and every procedure”, may seem contradictory to my view that simplicity is the answer. But as the end result was agreement, or organizational alignment, on making three key changes, their ability to look at the big picture first clearly allowed them to evaluate and validate where the most gains could be made. While each of those may include a lot of moving parts, by applying the cross-functional approach companies can be similarly more nimble in identifying problem areas and deciding which are the most customer damaging, employee soul destroying and revenue degrading. Whether you use these measures or other negative metrics isn’t the most important aspect. Visualizing success, and the values associated with it, and being able to translate those into meaningful, targeted actions, can produce a common bond and a shared goal among team mates and match Team Sky’s results. As an example Dave Brailsford noted his team focused on behavioural shifts, personal marginal gains, small tweaks in nutrition and on proactively solving problems for team mates, adding that “proactivity is the difference between a good and a great team.” The resulting improvements can give your overall business, the employees and certainly your reputation, a big lift.

Organizations should focus on a relatively small, but compelling list of issues that have a definite, measurable, negative impact and where restorative action is the order of the day. These may have their genesis in a number of different operational or procedural waystations along the route. These can add up to powerfully indicative insight and show that by sometimes “sweating the small stuff” there is a profound and lasting effect on a seeming insurmountable large problem. As an example for many retail organizations product returns are an on-going nightmare. They blow much of their profit, and their reputation, by erecting a procedural and experiental road block, especially when it comes to customers getting approval for the return, filling out complex forms and paying through the nose for the privilege of transporting it back. One company that I know and love has seen a huge decrease in complaints, a quite dramatic dip in employee time and effort, and a nice lift in profits by simply including a pre-printed form for returns, having a reasonable returns time frame and providing an easy and inexpensive pick-up service. The changes were implemented via a number of small, company-wide initiatives and the costs to implement this change, compared to the revenue generated and costs saved, were relatively low.

3. Practice, Practice, Practice

There’s an old joke; that you can adapt for whatever geography suits you: someone, apparently looking for directional advice, asked, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall? And the response “Practice, Practice, Practice!”

As with many maxims it’s easier said than done. For Team Sky (and for that matter for all TDF teams,) this meant spending time on the mountain, visualizing the ascent and descent, making sure that bike changeovers could be done quickly and safely, trying out new nutritional plans and systematically working on individual motivational elements, were among the more effective. While I’m no Chris Froome, I did have my own moments of athletic glory some years back when I twice completed the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Many of the other amateur participants had far greater experience than I did in the individual disciplines, and many of them passed me easily, frequently and with gusto, on the bike leg. However, I had spent a great deal of time practising the transition from the long bike ride to prepare to run a marathon and learning to retrain my muscles to know what was coming and to visualize how that was going to feel. While it was no walk in the park (well actually it was for much of it,) I found that my legs still had some life left in them and passed many of the bike specialists that had left me in their wake earlier in the day.

So back to customer experience and your own particular Alpe d’ Huez. Make sure that you have regular practice sessions, role playing or real playing, updating personas, testing innovative responses. Give your people the freedom – some call it empowerment – to react as naturally, empathetically and honestly as they can. Practice is really about preparation and ensuring that your team has strong personal characteristics, is well trained, led inspiringly and confidently, and can react quickly and with agility when things go wrong, or when another team/company surprises you with a breakaway or change of strategy. Many companies have people that are just along for the ride and who struggle to keep up and scale the heights of great customer experience. Taking a leaf out of Team Sky’s play book and from Bob’s article, by debating what customer experience really means, quickly recognizing challenging customer scenarios, adapting personalities and procedures, visualizing outcomes and positive customer responses, can prepare them for the journey, strengthen their resolve, and keep them climbing to the top no matter what, life or customers, throw at them. So mount up, get in gear and start working on your own customer experience Tour de force.

The Yellow Jersey awaits.

Gerry Brown
Gerry Brown aka The Customer Lifeguard is on a mission to save the world from bad customer service. Gerry takes a unique approach that helps businesses focus on getting back to basics with four fundamental principles that are vital to underpinning a successful customer experience strategy: Culture, Commitment, Communication and Community. Gerry has spent over 35 years in key management roles in the UK and Canada and has worked with some of the largest companies in Canada, the UK and EMEA, including O2, SONY, Sage, Screwfix, TUI, BSkyB, Bell Canada, TELUS, and CP Hotels.Gerry is a member of the Professional Speaking Association (PSA) and the Global Speakers Federation (GSF) and speaks authoritatively and passionately about the practical, proven, customer service strategies that produce lasting, memorable and measurable results.


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