Saturday, March 8, 2014

Outside In by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine

The subtitle on this one is “The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business,” and that’s as good a sentence as any to describe the central thesis of this book.

The authors argue that the world of business entered a new age in 2010. From 1900-1960 we were in the Age of Manufacturing, where dominance came from mass production (a la Ford, RCA, GE, Boeing, P&G, and Sony), from 1960-1990 it was the Age of Distribution, where dominance came from moving goods around the world (a la Walmart, Toyota, UPS, and CPX), from 1990-2010 it was the Age of Information, where dominance came from connected PCs that allowed the control of information (a la Microsoft, Google, Dell, and Capital One), and now we have the Age of the Customer, where dominance will come from harnessing empowered buyers through a customer focus (a la Southwest Airlines, Amazon, and USAA).

That may be a little too much oversimplification for my taste, but the essential message is one that does resonate with me. Delivering a great customer experience is increasingly a necessary part of being a successful organization. In fact, in my world of association management, this may have always been the case. And yet many associations, like many businesses, struggle to view their mission, function and deliverables from the perspective of their customers.

For me, the most useful takeaway from the book (which, frankly, is 150 pages longer than it needs to be) is the practice of creating a Customer Experience Ecosystem Map. I’ll quote that section in its entirety, because it is something I’d like to try in my own organization.

In May 2011, we brought seven chief customer officers together as part of a networking event. They worked at companies with names you’d know, in a variety of industries, both business-to-consumer and business-to-business. We introduced them to the concept of ecosystem mapping by having them create their own maps. We’ll use their experience to show you what to do to create your own map.

This introductory exercise took our participants just under two hours. To try this out for the first time and get a sense of how the process works, you’ll want to reserve about that much time for yourself. You won’t need sophisticated tools: poster paper, three packs of colored sticky notes (in different colors), several sheets of colored stickers, and some markers. When you’re done, you’ll have a basic understanding of the concepts involved as well as a simple but sound ecosystem map that you can put to immediate use. And even though you’ll develop a more advanced understanding of how to create and use ecosystem maps in the future--and invest far more than two hours to create maps of far more complex customer journeys--the fundamentals you’re about to learn will remain the same over time.

First, pick an important target customer and think of a problematic journey for that customer. It doesn’t matter whether the customer journey involves buying a product or service, using that product or service, getting support, or whatever--just so long as the journey causes significant pain for an important customer. You’ll also want to make sure the journey you select is one you understand well, otherwise you won’t be able to complete the exercise without running off to do research.

Next, write down the series of actions that the customer takes as part of that problematic journey. For example, “opens bill and reads it,” “sees charge that looks wrong,” and “calls customer care to get billing details.” Write each of these actions on a separate blue sticky note and place the notes in a row across the top of the sheet of poster paper. In working with our chief customer officers, the journeys were remarkably similar in length, despite the diversity of industries, customers, and problem types--ranging from eight to eleven steps. That’s about the right number of steps for a journey you’re tackling in your first outing, especially in a compressed time frame like this two-hour exercise.

Next, write down all the people and groups that your customer interacts with at each step, like a call center agent or someone in the billing department. Do the same thing for objects or systems the customer touches--like a mobile phone or a paper bill. We had our chief customer officers put the people or groups onto pink sticky notes, the objects or systems on yellow sticky notes--use whatever color scheme works for you, as long as you’re consistent. Then place both sets of notes on the poster paper, lined up under the relevant steps in the process.

Draw a horizontal line across the middle of the poster paper, below the notes you’ve placed so far. This is the “line of visibility.” Your customers can see everything above it--the people, products, systems, snail mail, email or whatever--that they interact with, Everything you’re about to put below the line is completely invisible to your customer, despite the fact that what they don’t know is often the thing that hurts them.

Using sticky notes in another color, post the actions, people, groups, objects, and systems that support the above-the-line parts of the ecosystem. These should include people and things like your bill designer, your bill printer, the action of printing the bill, the IT system that supplies the data that goes into your bill, your IT department that maintains the system that provides the data that goes into the get the picture. That process will take a little longer than the previous steps--it took our chief customer officers about a half hour.

Then the fun begins. You’re going to need to put colored dots on the sticky notes. With our chief customer officers, we used little colored stickers so we could make changes on the fly by moving them around. In a pinch, you can just make do with colored markers (you’ll just end up rewriting some sticky notes). Put green dots on each part of your ecosystem--each sticky note--that is working well from the perspective of the person who is touching it. Tag parts of the ecosystem that are making people unhappy with yellow dots, and parts of the ecosystem that are making people very unhappy with red dots.

The results we got with our chief customer officers were very much what we described for John Birrer at the beginning of this chapter. It’s almost certainly what you’ll see as well. Customer interactions with people, objects, or systems along their journey turned red well before employee or partner interactions did. Some employee and partner interactions stayed green despite the fact that they were the root cause of customer grief.

We had expected something like this outcome. But even we were surprised by the consistently repeated pattern of unhappy customers let down by happy, oblivious employees and partners. Since that first session we’ve repeated this exercise with other groups, and the result is always the same.

By using the process we just described, you can get started today on finding and fixing customer experience problems. Don’t hesitate to take this first step--it will help you right now and start you down a path to something even more powerful in the future.

What do you think? Worth a try? It would be interesting to run an experiment or two and see what improvements one could make. And their fundamental conclusion is one that is absolutely true in most organizations--unhappy customers let down by happy, oblivious employees.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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