John Sills started his career on a market stall in Essex. He has spent the last twenty-five years working in and with companies around the world to make things better for customers. He’s advised organizations such as Sky, The Body Shop, BUPA, Ovo Energy, Invesco, Morrisons, eBay, and UNICEF. He also spent twelve years at HSBC, starting on the frontline and finishing as Head of Customer Innovation. He is now a managing partner at customer-led growth company The Foundation.
Below, John shares five key insights from his new book, The Human Experience: How to Make Life Better for Your Customers and Create a More Successful Organization. Listen to the audio version—read by John himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Organizations are full of humans who aren’t allowed to act in a human way.
The difference between the past and present of customer experience first dawned on me during a family holiday a few years ago when we took a trip on a beautiful old steam train. The journey started with a friendly guard welcoming us on board, pointing us to the right carriage, and making a show of punching a hole in the paper ticket that my overexcited son was holding. We settled into our seats—and what seats they were! Deep leather cushions you could fall asleep in, each with its own spacious wood panel table to spread our picnic out next to a huge window, perfect for daydreaming. A fully stocked trolley service passed through the train with freshly made food and piping hot drinks.
As the train pulled out of the station and the smoke cleared to reveal the rolling hills, my son said to me, “Daddy, is this what your commute is normally like into London?” I had to laugh and say, “No, son. It’s not.” I then thought, isn’t that interesting? Surely the sign of progress is to make things more efficient for customers and make things cheaper and quicker without necessarily reducing the quality. It feels to me like we’ve been perfecting the functional experience over the last 20 years, but we’ve lost that emotional human experience.
Organizations are increasingly like the Tin man in The Wizard of Oz. They are able to get to where they need to get to, but without the thing that really makes them different and special. It’s that thing that we all treasure the most; having a heart. This means that organizations have been left filled with humans who aren’t allowed to now act in that human way.
It’s not just me that thinks this. We did a survey not long ago and asked customers in the UK what they thought. Eighty-five percent said they felt that organizations have now become impersonal and lost that human touch. Eighty-three percent said they feel organizations now take customers for granted. Eighty-one percent said they feel organizations prioritize cutting costs over creating a great customer experience.
2. Customer feedback is a myth.
If you imagine your life like a wedge going from left to right, at one end, you’ve got all the things that really matter to you. You’ve got your hopes, dreams, friends, family, job, career, the things you want to achieve, and the things that get in the way. As you come further down the wedge, you’ve got the services that you use to help you to get through some of these challenges and help achieve your ambitions. And right at the end of the wedge is the companies that you use, because none of those companies take up too much importance in your life.
“Very little feedback and information coming into organizations is at the thick end of the wedge.”
However, in this epidemic of feedback surveys that we are living in at the moment, nearly all of the information collected is at the thin end of the wedge. What do you think about us? What do you think about our service? What do you think about our products? Would you recommend us? Very little feedback and information coming into organizations is at the thick end of the wedge.
A couple of years ago, while running a project with a housing company, they asked me to interview some customers who’d recently moved into their houses to see how they were reacting to any problems that they’d had. I interviewed a woman named Lizzie. She was a wonderfully bubbly character. She said to me that she loved her new house, that there hadn’t been any problems at all. In fact, the first 25 minutes of the interview were her telling me how wonderful the experience had been compared to the last place that she had been.
I knew prior that there had been some problems, and I really wanted to understand what she thought about them. So I said, “Lizzie, was there anything wrong when you first moved in on that first day?” And she said, “Well, I guess the dishwasher gap was a little bit small, and that was a bit annoying because I couldn’t get my dishwasher in.” I said, “Okay, was there anything else that was annoying?” She went on to explain that the driveway was a bit narrow, which meant that they couldn’t open the back doors of the car and her daughter had to climb to the front of the car to get out. After pressing for more complaints, she explained that there were also staircase banisters missing, and a brown spot where the loft had been, both of which had already caused injuries to her daughter and husband. She also revealed that although she and her daughter loved the back garden, it flooded the house any time it rained. The surprising thing is that Lizzy had given 10 out of 10 on her customer satisfaction survey.
This just goes to show that while it’s important to understand what people think about those transactions, you need to understand what’s really going on in their lives if you really want to create amazing experiences and services for customers. You need to observe them and understand them, not just take for granted what they’re saying on a piece of paper. This matters in organizations because all of these feedback surveys and all of this customer data convince leaders that they’re close to what matters to their customers. Whereas in actual fact, they’re only close to customers’ opinions of their business.
3. Nobody cares about your business as much as you do.
I used to use a local taxi firm. They were fantastic, friendly, and polite, with lots of cars available, but they had some troubles too. You could only pay by cash or you had to phone up if you wanted to pay by card, and you never knew where the car was. It was always just around the corner. I used them for years until one day this thing called Uber came along. Uber allowed you to pay by card and you could see exactly where the car was. Overnight, I switched and stopped using the local taxi firm that I’d used for years.
About a year later, my local taxi firm caught up and released its own app. That meant now they were local, had lots of cars, I could pay by card through the app, and I knew where the car was. So overnight I stopped using Uber. This is because customer loyalty is a myth. What matters is staying useful and, crucially, staying more useful to your customers than any of the alternatives. We are only really loyal to friends or family, maybe football teams, people that we know, people that we’ve grown to love, but nearly always something where there’s an emotional connection.
“If organizations and leaders in organizations believe that customers are loyal, then they start taking them for granted.”
When it comes to organizations, we’re never really loyal. We just like to stay useful and we like to be with organizations that are useful to us, whether that usage is the right price or a good product, or whether it’s useful from a status point of view. Maybe you buy Apple phones because you want to be an Apple person, but as soon as that price increases or the product gets worse or the reputation of the organization gets damaged, then you soon find an alternative to use instead.
This matters because if organizations and leaders in organizations believe that customers are loyal, then they start taking them for granted. They stop trying. They put all of their efforts into recruiting new customers and onboarding new customers, and no effort into keeping customers or keeping customers happy. The safest thing to do is to not believe in customer loyalty, but challenge yourself to stay useful every single day.
4. Let your humans be human.
Four years ago, I moved into a new house and I decided that I really wanted one of those big comfortable reading chairs, one that you could really get lost in by the fire. So we went to the local furniture store and we were in luck. On the day we went, they had an ex-display furniture sale on, with some fantastic comfortable chairs at half the normal price.
I went in with my wife and son and we started looking around. We found a big, yellow chair that we really loved. There was only one problem: we had driven there in a small car full of children’s toys. I inquired with the salesperson who said that delivery was not available for ex-display furniture. After some reflection, I confirmed that I did indeed want the chair and offered to bring it to my car to attempt to fit it into the trunk. I was then informed that only bought pieces were allowed off the premises of the store. After a few more of these exchanges, my excited and desperate son began jumping up and down on the chair shouting at any other people that came past that they were not able to buy the chair since it was “our chair.” Then, after convincing the employee to assist us in getting the chair to the car, he set the chair down just outside the door since he would not have been covered by insurance should anything have happened to the chair. That left me and my wife struggling to get this newly-beloved chair into our tiny car on our own.
It’s a fantastic example of where all the common sense and humanity have gone from customer experience. There was no empowerment to make the right decision and to make things better for customers, just a rigid sticking to the rules, which clearly made no sense given I was a customer trying to buy a product, and it was incredibly hard to do.
5. Why Switzerland has the best trains in the world.
Of all the organizations that I studied, there was one experience that stood out more than anything else. It was an experience just before COVID, traveling through the Swiss countryside with a group of 30 octogenarians researching a rail holiday tour they were on.
“Organizations have to make sure they can create this great experience for customers and let their people be people.”
The Swiss train went from Geneva to Zurich. I’d heard about the famous Swiss efficiency and was secretly quite delighted when the train broke down. I thought I’d have a good story to tell, but then something unexpected happened. Within a couple of minutes, the train guard made his way to our group along the train. He apologized profusely, explaining that the train had broken down and we were to be stuck there for a while. He then empathized with our big tour group and lamented by informing us that we might miss our connection. He then said, “I can only apologize for this. But don’t worry, as soon as we get moving, I’m going to come back and let you know exactly what’s happening. I’m going to let you know what time the next train is you can get on and I’m going to make sure you get there.”
As he walked off, we got a phone call from an unknown number; it was the head of operations at Swiss Rail. The person on the phone also profusely apologized and then empathized with our inconveniences. He then said “If you need anything, give me a call, but the train guard will look after you. You’ve got my number just in case.” Ten minutes later, the train started moving again. True to his word, the guard returned and explained which platform we needed to arrive at to make our connection on time. He also offered to guide us there upon arrival.
When the train pulled in, we walked down to the door, and true to his word, there was someone waiting for us with an umbrella. We walked through the station and onto the train that was waiting for us. They had already reserved a carriage for us. As we got on, they gave us tea and coffee vouchers to further apologize for the inconvenience. It was the most wonderful customer experience that I’ve experienced.
There are lots of reasons why that might be, but more than anything, it was about a ruthless ambition to create a great customer experience. Organizations have to make sure they can create this great experience for customers and let their people be people. This one piece of advice remains true more than anything else that organizations can do to make things better for customers.
To listen to the audio version read by author John Sills, download the Next Big Idea App today: