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A while back, I delivered a presentation originally titled “writing customer experiences.” Writing because I think of a customer experience as an emotional journey and of the process of designing for customer experience as similar to the process of structuring an evocative story.

But maybe the individual moments in the customer experience are opportunities for poetry.

Stepping out of my car at a casino hotel I am met with the sweet strands of a song being sung by James Taylor, 'Shower the People you Love with Love.' The valet takes my key and another young man directs me to the front desk where I check in with no hassles. The smiling clerk hands me a coupon for three dollars off the buffet, calls me by my name and assures me that no matter what my concern might be, tell them and they will make sure my stay is a pleasant one. My bags are in my room when I get there and a mint is on the pillow. I am made to wonder if there will be subliminal messages piped into my room telling me to be sure to gamble away my life savings. I realize I am in the hands of smooth operators… The way I had been treated was poetry in motion. Culture gives off signals piecemeal, and combined they create a type of poetry." ~The Poetry of Organizational Culture, P. Michael McCullough

Employees give off signals piecemeal, and combined they create a type of poetry.

Merriam-Webster defines poetry as “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm.”

By swapping out a few words I could easily turn this into a definition of a magic moment.

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So might we think of a magic moment as a beautiful poem?

Machines Don’t Write Poetry. People Do.

Machines (technologies) don’t write poetry. Machines lack emotions, dreams and values. They lack heart. Machines are merchants of logic and efficiency.

To deliver a customer experience that’s “poetry in motion” we need a multitude of organizational poets. For, as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz so elegantly said “[Employees] are the true ambassadors of our brand, the real merchants of romance and theater, and as such the primary catalysts for delighting customers.”

The problem, as Seth Godin so bluntly puts it, is that “If you treat your employees like mushrooms (keep them in the dark and regularly throw crap on them), it's entirely likely you will get precisely the work you deserve in return.”

Are you treating your employees like mushrooms?

Or poets?

Most organizations have limited self-awareness. They think they know how their employees and their customers perceive them. They do surveys after all. So many surveys that we’re starting to suffer from survey fatigue. But surveys are poor tools for understanding people. They try to excavate facts from the rational brain. And then compile the results into Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides aimed at shifting beliefs in the rational brain.

Ninety percent of people believe they’re above average. This is a well-known cognitive bias. And it explains the service delivery gap -- 90 percent of organizations believe they deliver a superior customer experience, but only 10 percent of customers agree.

Despite these facts, if you ask a specific organization how they’re doing, they’ll argue they’re one of the exceptions. Ninety percent of them in fact will argue that they’re in the 10 percent that deliver above average service. People aren’t rational. Which means that organizations aren’t rational.

A similar study hasn’t been done on the service delivery gap within organizations, but I suspect based on employee engagement data the results would be similar.

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Odds are that you’re cultivating mushrooms, not poets.

Not convinced? It’s easy enough to find out. For our stories tell us. Our poems tell us.

Let’s look inside the mind of the employee.

Inside the Mind of the Employee

How might we look inside the hearts and minds of employees?

I’m not fond of traditional market research techniques such as surveys, focus groups and market segmentation. These techniques are based on an outdated understanding of economics and human decision-making.

Man as machine.

Instead, I prefer qualitative methods better suited to mapping people’s internal space.

Human as a storytelling animal.

So instead of quantitative methods which assume man as machine, experiment with qualitative methods that assume human as storytelling animal.

Have people play games. Play imagining the future games. Play strategy games. Play decision making games.

Learning Opportunities

Have people swap stories. Swap stories about a time they wow’d a customer. Swap stories about greatest moments of reward. Swap stories about moments so wonderful they made them shiver with joy.

Have them draw. Draw a customer. Draw a support ticket. Draw a sale. Draw their job. Draw a map or a timeline of their experience as an employee.

Here’s an alternative worksheet that leverages the power of storytelling, visual thinking and mental models to provide deeper insight.

  • The purpose of our company is: _______________
  • A story or sketch that to me illustrates that purpose: _______________

Ask them to finish this sentence. And the share a story or draw a sketch that shows that value in action.

  • A value of our organization is: ________________
  • A story that illustrates the value in action: ______________
  • A time I wow’d a customer is … draw a map of why it succeeded.
  • A time I failed to wow a customer is … draw a map of why it failed.
  • Create a visual portrait of your customer. Then describe, from their perspective, why they’re frustrated with your organization. ____________

What do these portraits, stories and maps reveal about employee’s understanding of the organization, the customers they serve and the type of experience that might wow the customer? What do they reveal about the employee’s mindset, their experiences as an employee and their feeling of empowerment (or lack thereof) to deliver a wow customer experience?

I suspect if you take the time to explore the mind of the employee you’ll uncover a wealth of stories, maps and drawings that reveal:

  • Vastly different perceptions of customer dreams, needs and pain points
  • Organizational rules and processes that block their ability to do the right thing
  • Gaps in information that leave them feeling alone and in the dark
  • Obstacles thrown up by silos operating like independent entities
  • Measures that drive behavior counter to the stated customer experience goals
  • Hurdles faced by being forced to work with hard-to-use technology deployed to allow the organization to measure and optimize, not to enable the employee to serve
  • A significant gap between the stated purpose, goals and value of the organization and employee perception

But a note of caution. Like any game, for this exercise to work you need to make it safe to play.

Our Stories Tell Us

We need to understand the stories employees tell themselves, for these are the stories they live by, make decisions with and that are performed through their actions.

As narrative therapist Karl Tomm states:

Not only do we, as humans, give meaning to our experience by storying our lives, we are empowered to perform our stories through our knowledge of them . . . .  Some of these stories promote competence and wellness. Others serve to constrain, trivialize, disqualify or otherwise pathologize ourselves, others and our relationships. Still other stories can be reassuring, uplifting, liberating, revitalizing or healing. The particular story that prevails or dominates in giving meaning to the events of our lives, to a large extent determines the nature of our lived experience and our patterns of action. When a problem saturated story predominates, we are repeatedly invited into disappointment and misery.”

Do the stories that predominate serve to constrain, trivialize, disqualify or pathologize your organization? Are they problem saturated? Do they reveal a series of disconnected voices and discordant poetry?

If so, you’re cultivating mushrooms.

Or do the stories that predominate reveal a connection to a greater purpose, one that promotes vitality and wellness? Are they possibility infused? Do they reveal a series of connected voices and harmonious poetry that weave together into the vibrant tapestry of a larger narrative?

If so, you’re cultivating employees as poets – merchants of romance and theatre.

Every employee gives off signals piecemeal, and combined they create a type of poetry. Combined they shape the narrative of your organization. Combined, they result in magic moments or misery moments.

To get the customer experience right, you need to get the employee experience right.

For as Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO recognizes “[Employees] are the true ambassadors of our brand, the real merchants of romance and theater, and as such the primary catalysts for delighting customers.”

Are you cultivating mushrooms? Or poets?

Title image by kevin dooley via a Creative Commons By 2.0 License

Editor's Note: Read more from Joyce in Designing Beautiful Organizations is Within Our Reach