Why do some product or service experiences have enough pizzazz to wow customers, while others are shrugged off as ho-hum and quickly forgotten?
Stefan Thomke, the William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, explains that “the difference has less to do with catchy marketing and everything to do with the design of the experience itself.”
Consider GE Heathcare’s Doug Dietz, who didn’t realize that children saw the company’s MRI scanners as cold, scary chambers of misery until he visited a hospital and saw for himself. The machines created enough fear and tears that many kids needed to be sedated.
The scanners were functional enough, but their design failed to take into consideration the intense emotions of parents and children. So, Dietz and his team embarked on a patient-centered redesign by attempting to view the diagnostic procedure through the eyes of a child.
The result: Adventure Series scanners that make children feel like they’re on a theme park adventure. The newly configured machines transformed children from distraught to happy, leading to a pleasant ripple effect: collective relief among parents, a sharp reduction in sedations, and satisfaction scores that jumped by 90 percent.
“Dietz’s team turned an experience that was horrible into a wonderful experience,” says Thomke.
He included GE Healthcare as an example of a company making a customer experience turnaround in a recently released learning exercise Designing Transformational Customer Experiences. The exercise helps companies discover design principles that make experiences great. (The accompanying teaching note is available to instructors to help them run the exercise.)
Thomke, who has worked with global firms on upping their customer experience game, has taught the class in the HBS executive education programs, MBA program, at HBS reunions, conferences, and in company workshops. He managed the session in the Leading Product Innovation executive education program on the HBS campus in February 2017.
Creating a memorable experience
When it comes to providing the type of experience we gush about to friends, many companies are falling down on the job. A survey found that 65 percent of customers are likely to speak negatively about their experience, and 48 percent who had negative experiences shared them with 10 or more other people, according to a study in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article. Only 25 percent were likely to say positive things, and only 23 percent with positive experiences told 10 or more others.
“EXPERIENCE DESIGNERS ARE TOLD TO FOLLOW STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES AND PROVIDE CUSTOMERS WITH PROGRAMMED RESPONSES”
Sure, some customer experiences are just plain awful—like GE’s scanner-monsters before they were reimagined. Others suffer from being ordinary, mediocre, and forgettable. That’s because many organizations tackle customer experience by relying on haphazard efforts, Thomke says, like brainstorming, trial and error, and market research through focus groups.
In doing so, they often look to avoid terrible encounters at all costs, with a focus on creating consistency and weeding out variability. Experience designers are told to follow standard operating procedures and provide customers with programmed responses.
This approach may lead to fewer complaints overall, but still, it’s a lost opportunity.
“When a negative experience gets management’s attention, they immediately get nervous and move in and want to shut everything down by tightening controls, focusing on process, and taking autonomy away from their people,” Thomke says.
“Because they’re worried about the negative experience, they make sure customers get what they expect. But when you get exactly what you expect at a restaurant, you won’t remember a week later that you were at that restaurant.”
In contrast, exceptionally great experiences stand out, create memories for years, increase loyalty, and lead to a massive multiplier effect when one customer shares the details with others in today’s super-connected consumer world.
“We forget that the things that really stick, the things people talk about years later, are not the average experiences, but the outliers on the other end of the spectrum,” Thomke says.
In his teaching, Thomke asks business executives to think of a great customer experience they’ve had, as well as a terrible one. What’s particularly novel about Thomke’s approach is that students learn through a methodology called LEGO Serious Play, and storytelling. (LEGO Serious Play, or LSP, has been used by many global companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Fedex, to foster creativity, deepen learning, and solve complex problems).
Thomke became a certified LSP facilitator and then spent more than a year working on the design of his class, with the intent of creating a student learning experience to match the theme of the discussion. As part of that experience, executives use LEGO bricks to build models that reflect their positive and negative experiences.
“It’s not about building objects. It’s about solving problems,” explains Thomke, who has co-authored a case about LEGO.
“We have five senses, but we usually rely on sight and sound when we sit in meetings, and we don’t use our other senses.
“When you use the hand-mind connection, you’re using touch, and you start thinking with your hands and you draw things out of your subconscious.”
When students share their own experiences, few of the stories, if any, tend to be about meeting customer expectations, providing value, or generating good functionality. Instead, they are more often about encountering an unexpected problem: A consumer heads to an Apple store with a broken iPhone. An airline customer arrives at the airport without a driver’s license.
They begin to worry they are doomed to an awful encounter, yet they are surprised when an employee far exceeds their expectations by going the extra mile in helping them out—sometimes by going against an organization’s standard procedure.
“People think the world is going to come down on them. It turns out that this is the greatest opportunity for a company to move in and create a memorable experience,” Thomke says. “A problem could be a problem, or a problem could be an opportunity.”