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Episode #151: How to Humanize the Customer Experience, with Rob Harles

Grad Conn

August 2, 2021  •  25 min read

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Have we lost sight of why we’re focused on the customer experience in the first place? In today’s episode, Rob Harles and I take a walk in our customers’ shoes to discover how to make the customer experience human again. 

Rob Harles is the Global Lead for Modern & Emerging Channels for Accenture Interactive. You can find him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Listen to all of the Unified-CXM Experience podcasts.


All right. Thank you, Jimmy, and welcome to the Unified CXM Experience. This podcast has been a real joy. I’ve been doing this for almost a year now, read 150 episodes. I am your host as usual, CXO at Sprinklr, Chief Experience Officer, Grad Conn, and today I’ve got a special guest. I’m joined by Rob Harles. He’s the global lead for modern and emergent channels for Accenture Interactive. Rob and I had a chance to interact on another podcast for another group not too long ago. And we had such a good time, we thought, “Hey, why don’t we just continue the discussion and bring it over here to the Unified CXM Experience and see what happens. So welcome to the show, Rob.

Rob Harles 
Well, thanks for having me.

I appreciate this, Friday afternoon, another hot summer. I know it’s tough. But I really appreciate the time and the commitment to do this. So a couple things we want to cover today. Things that we’ve been chatting about a little bit, which is how do you really get your hands dirty on customer experience? How do you really get in there and understand it? I do find people get almost so theoretical about it that they lose touch with the actual problem at hand. And then maybe, are we over mechanizing and over digitizing this thing and making it so inhuman that people don’t trust it anymore? And you’ve got a really funny story about the switch between humans and bots. We want to talk about that. I want to kick it off a little bit with a story that I’ve told before on a couple other episodes, but I think it frames this discussion really well, because it’s an interesting combination of digital and human. And it’s so ridiculously simple that I feel like people wouldn’t even think of doing it. But it was so incredibly powerful.

And I have this company I bought a product from recently called Pedestal Source and the only thing that Pedestal Source does is they make pedestals. That’s it. Can you make a box? Nope. Just a pedestal. You know, can you make it …  Nope, just a pedestal, but they make pedestals. They make pedestals that people can use at trade shows, in art galleries, in homes, and people often will put displays on top of the pedestals and some of the pedestals have got a kind of a glass top so you can have light from below. Some pedestals are plain, they can be short and squat or tall so they’re different sizes of pedestals but they just make pedestals and so I recently acquired a piece of art, it’s very cool piece of glass that looks like a bag with a goldfish in it. I mean it looks like a bag of goldfish, it’s made out of glass though. But I found I had a problem in that everyone who came over to my house, when they saw this fairly expensive sculpture, they were desperate to touch it because it looked really approachable and it’s reasonably fragile, so I thought I need to put this on a pedestal so that people will be less likely to touch it, so it looks more like art. And so I found Pedestal Source, I bought an underlit, because it’s glass it looks beautiful, an underlit pedestal and placed the order. It was quite a nice process; everything went really well, and they were very friendly in their emails back and forth and it was excellent. I paid my money and then kind of sat back.

Then I started getting emails from them and this is just an email campaign. It’s nothing overly fancy in terms of modern channels but I started getting emails saying we’re working on it and it’s coming soon, and this is when you should expect it and I was like, “Well, this is kind of nice. I feel really connected. They seem to be all over my order. I’m not worried that they’ve forgotten about me” and it was a reasonable amount of money, so it was nice to have that sort of reinforcement of the connection to the sale and then I got this really interesting email which was, “Your pedestal’s ready, see it here”. So I open the email and there was a link to a YouTube video. So I click on the link, and I opened a YouTube video and the YouTube video is Melissa and Melissa is standing on a shop floor at Pedestal Source, in her work clothes, like you know overalls and stuff like that with safety glasses and everything. And she’s just finished making my pedestal and it’s an iPhone video and she’s like, “Hey, I just finished making your pedestal and I just wanted to show it to you. I’m really excited about it. I feel really good about it. I did a really nice job. It’s looking great. And now I want to show you it’s eleven and a half inches and eleven and a half inches by forty-two inches and she had an actual tape measure, and she was showing in real time. And you can see it in relation to her and so you saw your pedestal that she had just made and is going to ship to you. And she said, “it’s going to be shipping in the next couple of days. And I just wanted to thank you for ordering from Pedestal Source, and it’s been really a real pleasure making this for you”. I was like, “Wow, that is like the greatest experience I’ve ever had with a product” but it’s also very clever, because these things are expensive to ship and probably non-trivial to try to ship back. And she was essentially reinforcing the size. So I could see my pedestal and find any issues, here’s my chance, and she didn’t say, ‘this is your last chance’ or anything but clearly, if I had an issue, I’d be able to react immediately, but I could see the whole thing. I could see the color, the way it was built. I could see the person that built it for me, it was very, very, very cool.

The pedestal arrived a few days later. I set it up. It’s perfect. It’s amazing and it’s great and the pedestal’s more than just the fact that the pedestal is a thing that works. It stands in the corner and has a light in it and is a relatively simple. It’s a piece of wood. It’s a relatively simple sort of architecture but the fact that they did all this other stuff in between has made that pedestal so much more interesting and as I think about customer experience and all this stuff that people talk about and all the implementation and this and this system and that system and this system, here we want to do this and that and this, I think how hard would it be just to like, “Hey, I just packed your box. Here’s all the stuff that’s in it. It’s on its way. Let me know if you have any problems. My name is Grad”. Something powerful there. So anyway, I just wanted to start with that story. And I think it links a little bit to your idea about being more human and are we over digitizing stuff and obviously they’re using digital transmission with email but there’s something very non-digital about the way they did this so let me let me throw it to you for a second and get your reaction.

Rob Harles 
No, but I think that’s a great story because it was digital. They used all kinds of ways to connect with you but the most important part of this to your point was they made that human connection. They actually showed you where they were with what you had contracted them to do. They showed you who was working on it so you get a sense of how much pride there is in the work and good craftsmanship they put into it and then you also got a lot of confidence that okay, it is actually done and it’s coming to me and it looks great, I can’t wait, plus now you have a story that goes with it so there’s a value you wouldn’t get anywhere else.

And this is like … Pedestal Source. The thing that maybe the thing that weirds me out the most is, I mean I’m not trying to like run down their company. It’s obviously an awesome company. They’re clearly very successful but if a company that makes wooden pedestals can figure this out and I don’t know who came up with this, like somebody super smart over there did this then why can’t I get this with my car?

Rob Harles 
Yeah, exactly.

I’m paying a lot, a lot more money for my car and I don’t get even a tenth of that. When I finish a service call why, instead of giving me a text saying your car is ready, why don’t I get a quick video from the mechanic saying “Hey, just finished going over the whole car. Looking good. I wanted to show you this little thing here, but this is pretty good.” All of this is totally possible, right?

Rob Harles 
It is. I think I had a similar story, a good one around design, I think I might have talked to you about it, but we were thinking of renovating our place and I love this stuff, number one so that’s a little bit that gives you … I love design so I’m a little bit more a high touch customer so that could be good and bad, right?

Yeah, I think that’s mostly bad by the way. Mostly bad

Rob Harles 
I’m told that you know that I’m paying them to tell me this that I’m not so bad but I do appreciate it I appreciate what you put into it the thought and I love design and in the past right I you know if you want to do this, I’m not great at things like what color goes with what texture which way and all that kind of stuff so I can appreciate it immediately see something’s good, but I can’t really always tell you what should be going with something and so you might end up with something it’s just very blah. So that was the starting point. And normally in the past I think maybe hired a designer or maybe if it’s really tough, an architect. But in the past experiences of those I’ve not really found that they’ve been any more accurate or better if I pay them $500 or pay them $5,000. It’s still a little bit hit or miss, right? Yes. It’s hard to find someone that really gets who you are and not try to push all their stuff on you, but at the same time strike the right balance. So I went online a couple years ago, and I was looking around and I found this thing. I was trying to think about this too, because I was working with a client who was looking to do some of this work, and if we just design stuff online, is it collaborative and all that. And I found a startup at the time, which was called Modsy. And I don’t you if I told you about that, but it was really and what they base ….

No, how is that spelled? How’s monsy spelled? M o d s y, M o d s y, gotcha, okay.

Rob Harles 
… and you go in and the premise is, hey, we’re going to make this a lot simpler. Okay, I’m listening. And the thought was it’s hard to figure out your rooms, what goes with what and you might like certain things and other things don’t go with it, you might have things you want to keep, we don’t know if you put new stuff with it. Or we’re going to make that a lot easier. And we’re not going to charge you a bunch of money for it, we’re going to create your room, you just give us the photos. And we’ll tell you exactly where to take those photos, and how many. And then we’re going to ask you some stuff. We’re going to do a graphic test, which is, what are the things you like, what are the things you don’t like, do you lean … let me show photos? Or you can upload your own from Pinterest or Instagram or anything else. And now they’re collecting these. And then it’s, “What colors do you like?”  and it’s not just, “Oh, I like blue”. It’s “Do you like warm colors? Do you like cooler colors? Do you like bold colors?”, and they get all that and you pay them, I think at the time it was like $199 for a couple rooms. And what they promise to do is recreate your room as it is. And then come up with a couple of different options by working with a designer, based on the things that you just told them that you really like.

And it’s great because they do the same thing that your pedestal companies do. The minute you submit everything, they’re communicating with you in some fashion. “We thank you for the photos, we’re going to get back to you today if we need anything else, we’re going to have someone look at them”. And if you need something, they come back to you on email or they text you, “Hey, I could use an extra photo here”. And then you do that, and they say, “okay, in the next 48 hours or three days, your design is going to be done”, they’re going to come up with your preliminary design and you can work with them, you can chat with them, you can set up a call with them, or you can just do this all remotely and, and virtually. And because they set this thing up in high def in their space. And because it’s completely customizable, you can interact with anything that’s in that room. So they’ll put stuff in. But if you say I don’t really like that chair, I like that kind, you can drag and drop something else into it. And then they’ll tell you what the difference of cost is. And it puts it in its’ personal studio to see all your stuff that’s in that room that they put in based on things you’re interested in, if you said you like CB2, or Crate and Barrel or Design Within Reach or something else, that’s where they’re pulling these things from. All that stuff is as it goes into your room and into your studio. It’s like your own mini catalog. It’s your own website, basically, where you can look at stuff, change things, look at the price, whatever else.

But they don’t stop there, they want to get you to buy that stuff. Because I believe the model is that they get a certain percentage of the sales that originate off that. And but you’re not paying extra for it. You’re only paying that flat fee. And you’re only paying the best price. So one of their promises to you is taking the pain out of all this is buying something from say, Crate & Barrel, only to have it come down in price three weeks later, and then you’re like, “Oh man, I should have waited”. Their guarantee to you is if anything happens within that first few months, where the price goes down, we’ll notify you the price has gone down and we’ll get the refund for you. So we did that. And honestly, I wasn’t expecting much to come out of it. They came up with great designs. The person we worked with they were really flexible. They didn’t care how many iterations, how annoying you were. Yeah, that looks good. Oh, we’ll change the color on the background here. Sure. And, and I’m sure it wasn’t all digitally automated. I’m sure that a lot of this was like your example, a heavy dose of manual labor. But they made the math work. And more than that, we ended up buying about three or four rooms worth of new furniture and rugs and stuff based on that, because I didn’t have to deal with anything going wrong.

That sounds amazing. I am totally going to try that because I’m in the middle of a bunch of interior design myself. It reminds me a little bit of Framebridge. Framebridge is at a sort of smaller scale, but they frame stuff, but framing is … there are all sorts of different ways of doing things. And they’re very good at going back and forth, and back and forth until you get it exactly right. I had kind of a tricky piece I had to do recently, and they did a great job on it. And it’s the same idea, feels very customized, and I think what we’re talking about here in both cases is that it’s like the product itself is delivering the customer experience.

Rob Harles 
Sure, because it changes that experience from being a bit of a drudge like I used to have to go around, look online and go into the store and talk to a bunch of people and then look at swatches, but they aren’t really the whole thing because that chair was in blue, and the swatch is in red. And it was a chore. I just couldn’t see the entirety of the arc of my shopping experience. But what they did was they looked at the arc of a person’s shopping experience of redoing a room and said, “Okay, let’s look at it end to end. And let’s get all the friction out of that.” That was I think what they did was get all the friction out of that, let’s try to be as absolutely helpful as we can afford to be and be very communicative in that process. And the result is I think a lot of people will buy. So yeah, and then then we talked about the antithesis of that, which is, you know, I think I was joking to it. I think maybe in my old age of getting cranky, because now I watch my own experiences with an eagle eye. I start documenting saying, like, how bad was that.

Well, you know, you got less time, right? So you got to be more worried about how things go. Things got to go more smoothly because you don’t have much time to waste. Yeah, man, time’s a ticking. I’m more than half done, come on, let’s go.

Rob Harles 
But I think it’s because also, you know, I deal with these clients like the companies I patronize more often than not are my clients. So I have to be a little bit careful about being dismissive and critical, but I really try to be helpful so that but the one thing I think I’ve decided that isn’t really important, which I think is a big missing these days, is being able to put yourself in the shoes of the customer, right? Love walk that mile. That’s what those personal experiences teach me. So whenever I can I try to, actually before we do a strategy or hand something over, I tried to actually go, Okay, let’s do a sanity test here, I’m going to be the customer, I’m actually going to buy something from you, not going to be expensive, something I probably need. And good, bad or otherwise, I’m going to document everything that happens. And it’s amazing how eye opening that is it because it actually stops me sometimes from emphasizing the wrong thing, like clients may come to us and say I really want to automate this or I really want to build a better experience around this. But more often than not when we’re looking at it, it’s with this sort of framework around making the experience better for ultimately, the company, the brand, versus how do I really make the experience much better for the customer? I’ll make it better for them. Yeah, I guess that’s my bottom line.

What’s interesting about what were you saying is I love the way you’re talking about this because we’re almost rediscovering something that we used to know and is a bit of a funny thing about marketing, maybe even in business a little bit too, but certainly in marketing is that no one remembers the past and no one really studies the past. My brother is an organic chemist, and he’s working at the fringes of the most advanced technology in biotech today. He’s just like, he’s at the most itsy bitsy … it’s just so unbelievable what he’s doing in terms of genetics and all this stuff that they’re working on. But he also knows the periodic table of elements. Like, right, you know, he’s not like, “Who needs to know that old stuff”. I mean, it’s still important. Whereas I feel like in marketing and advertising, we forget the periodic table, we never learn it. There’s a great book called The Art of Writing in Advertising. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it. It’s a McGraw Hill advertising classic. It’s an interview by a guy named Dennis Hagens. In the interviews David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach, Leo Burnett, Rosser Reeves (who invented the whole point of the idea of USP) and George Gribben, who my dad worked with when he was at Y&R. And in there Leo Burnett talks a lot about what you’re saying. Leo Burnett talks a lot about walk a mile in your customer’s shoes. When you try to understand the way the customer uses the product, use your client’s products. Someone once asked Leo Burnett, he would always wear suits from Sears because Sears was based in Chicago and Sears was a really big client. Leo Burnett was an extremely wealthy man near the end of his life, and he could afford to buy a suit anywhere, but he always wore suits from Sears, and he always smoked Winston cigarettes. And Winston was a fine cigarette but not the top-of-the-line cigarette. He could afford a better cigarette, but he smoked Winston cigarettes and he ate Green Giant frozen peas. Like he used all the things that he sold, and someone said, “Why do you? Why don’t you just smoke a better cigarette and buy a better suit and eat fresh vegetables?” And he’s like, “I just find that profit tastes better”. So I love that but that is something people have forgotten. And I don’t know why.

Rob Harles 
Well, I think that being a historian I always gravitate towards history, and I always think about what was it before the 20th century, before mass advertising and large corporations and we ultimately boil it down, we were a nation or nations of shopkeepers. It was very hard to go and scale those. So you would probably know most of your customers and they would know you, good, better, or otherwise. And the best ones would probably make it their business to know their customers, they would keep something back that just came in that they knew that their customers liked, or they would replace something without question. Others were less savory, no doubt, and tried to pass off bad meat for fresh, but in truth you were limited by the number of people you could have in your commercial audience. And then you flash forward, as we get to the 20th century, and things come together with conglomerates and mass advertising erupts. It becomes all about economies of scale. Like how do I run a massive business globally. I can’t know my customer, I’m so far removed from him, like 15 degrees of separation which was a benefit in the sense of increasing productivity and increasing scale and obviously reaching new markets in ways no one could possibly have done before and there was enough momentum, because the stuff was new, that there was a high demand, so as I walk down the aisle, I want to know what this thing is. But as that progressed, and the further and further it progressed, the further and further away that we became from our customers, and then we had to employ proxies for that. We had to have market research solve the evolution of that, Madmen, right. We have to have some statistical research about our customers. And then we’ll segment them and then we’ll do some conjoint analysis and then we’ll come up with two or three segments that we think we can build a business around. But you know, still it’s a snapshot in time on an abstract.

And so what’s interesting now is I kind of feel like it’s historically come full circle. And it’s come full circle, because for the first time truly, we have technologies that are two-way. We have our customers, bleating about who they are, like a lamb bleating. I’m like this, I want that, this is who I am, this is what I respect and value. But as I always joke, even though we have all that, I always say you if you’re old enough to watch, at least in rerun, you know, I Love Lucy and you saw the one with Ethel and Lucy in the Chocolate Factory working part time on a conveyor belt and the chocolates started fine. And then they started coming faster and faster. And they started dropping on the floor and they put them in the pockets and stuff them in their mouths. We can’t keep up with all the data that we’ve got. And part of that is because we are just avaricious for data and we’re not really thinking. Okay, let’s peel this all back to what it really matters, which is walking a mile in the customer’s shoes, understanding who your customer truly is, what motivates them, what annoys them, and figure out ways first and foremost to hold on to them before you get a whole bunch more. And that’s where I think we are right now which is we have this promise; we actually have the ability to do some of these things. But we don’t do them because we’ve still got this sort of 20th century mass marketing large conglomeration mindset that keeps us very disjunctive and separate, siloed. I joke with you, honestly, I don’t see marketing going away, I just see marketing is everybody’s business; being a salesperson is everyone’s business. If you touch a customer, if you talk to them, just like that person who made your pedestal you know, you probably won’t ever talk to them. But now you know them …

Melissa’s in marketing too. She makes pedestals and she was proud of it. And that that made me excited about getting it because I felt like the person who made it put some care and love into it. So it made me think about that pedestal in a very different way. Versus I probably would have assumed it came off some kind of anonymous production line, I wouldn’t have been associated with a human being and maybe I would have been more critical. I don’t know. I mean, there’s nothing really to be critical of, but it really just changes your mindset when someone presents something to you as this is my thing. Do you like it?

Rob Harles 
Well, and what we said time and time again, you said this, which is when you define what humanizing is, it’s not some amazing new thing that we just came up with because the social scientists came up with it. It’s the most basic fundamental thing that we have, which is we’re very visceral, emotional creatures. We’re social creatures. We want to be able to trust people, we want to and when we do, we probably trust them almost for life. Same with brands, same with anything, but if you shatter that trust, if you aren’t transparent, if you push people away at a distance, if you treat them as though they don’t really matter, they’re just, they’re just fodder for you selling more stuff. That’s where I think we’re rapidly coming off the rails. And I think that companies and brands and even governments should realize how to make more intimate, and I’m not even saying how to be one to one, but intimate connections with people making them feel they matter. That’s going to be what separates the wheat from the chaff.

We’re going to take a break now, having a fantastic conversation with Rob Carl’s. He’s the Global Lead for Modern and Emerging channels for Accenture Interactive, and we’re going to be picking that up in Part Two in the next episode, so for the unified CXM experience, I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr, and I’ll talk with you and Rob … next time

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Grad Conn

Chief Experience Officer, Sprinklr

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