Are you an innovative customer whisperer?

| by Chip Bell
Are you an innovative customer whisperer?

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The owners of a new high-rise office building realized they had a major problem shortly after their grand opening. Tenants were complaining about the long wait for an elevator in the lobby. The building designer had miscalculated the number of people who would be wanting to use the elevators, especially at the start of each work day. The owner needed a resolution, hopefully one that could be implemented with minimal interruption and cost. This is the problem posed by Edward de Bono in his classic book "Lateral Thinking.  How would you solve the building owner’s challenge?"

The owner first brought in a structural engineer who studied the situation and concluded the only solutions were to either speed up the existing elevators or add a new elevator — both very pricey approaches. This was unsatisfactory.  he owner then brought in a traffic flow expert who also studied the situation and suggested staggering the starting times for workers in the building, thus spreading out demand for elevators.  This too was an unsatisfactory solution since the building owner had no control over the work schedule of his tenants.

Since the tenants were his customers, he called in a customer service consultant. Using the principles of inventive service, the consultant made a counter intuitive recommendation — put floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the walls around the elevators. The reasoning was that people would get so preoccupied looking at themselves and others in the mirrors, they would not notice the wait for an elevator. The inexpensive, non-disruptive solution was implemented and complaints dropped dramatically. The solution came from combining three components of innovative or inventive service.  

Customer whisperers focus on loyalty drivers

The search for a solution started with a deep understanding of the customer acquired through non-traditional methods. The customer intelligence gained facilitated insight, not just understanding: the issue was not slow elevators but rather the impatience of its users. A customer whisperer would know to examine factors that drive loyalty, not features of satisfaction. Airline passengers, for example, rank safety number one on their most critical features of air travel. But safety becomes a mere table stake when selecting one airline over another.  Customer forensics®, for instance, unearths the real reason for customer departures not just the tipping point that pushes them out the door.

Customer whisperers examine locus of focus

The second component of the elevator challenge was shifting from a focus on an outcome or core offering to a focus on its benefit or hidden customer aspiration (called the locus of focus). It is the playground of most disruptors — like Uber, AirBNB, Telsa, Google, etc. Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, made that mental shift when he said, "In the factory we manufacture cosmetics; in the marketplace, we sell hope."  A customer whisperer would intuit that a focus on vanity and curiosity would be the proper focus for a productive path to finding a value-unique solution. "People don't buy one quarter inch drill bits because they desire a drill bit," wrote Ted Levitt in his book "Marketing Imagination,' "they buy the expectation of a hole — a valued benefit.”

Customer whisperers pursue value-unique, not value-added

The third component used in the elevator challenge was the use of an innovation lens to discern a value-unique application that would unleash a host of options to address how to use, in this case, vanity and curiosity, to address the root problem, impatience (not wait). Value-added is about more; value-unique is about different. The innovative service expert suggested mirrors in the lobby around the elevators — a permanent and inexpensive solution. The customer whisperer could have suggested a Disney theme park approach and put entertainers in the lobby between eight and nine each morning. The expert also could have recommended a bank lobby or health club approach and placed TV screens near the elevators with each screen playing a different TV program. The list of value-unique possibilities is unlimited.

Innovative service is not simply an idea-generating, prescriptive approach. When Nordstrom department stores elected to put a tuxedo-clad pianist at a black grand piano in the ground floor of their stores, it was copied by lots of retailers with limited success. Nordstrom was not using a piano player as a piped piper tactic; but rather as a tool to solidify the loyalty of existing customers to affirm their perception of Nordstrom as a classy place to shop.  

When innovative service is treated as a mere cosmetic addition, its success is often experienced by customers as "cute" but not "compelling." In the end, the true test is whether a solution moves the needle in eliminating a distractor (like the slow elevators) or enhancing loyalty (like the Nordstrom grand piano).

That success starts with customer intelligence that provokes insight, not just customer information that yields a superficial understanding. It includes shifting the "locus of focus" from customer wants and needs to hopes and aspirations. And, it takes employing a variety of invention-enhancing lens through which to examine a customer challenge or opportunity. Without all three, the customer is likely to be superficially entertained but not influenced to act differently.





Topics: Consumer Behavior, Customer Experience, Customer Service

Chip Bell

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and author of several best-selling books including Take Their Breath Away, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences through Innovative Service and Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles. He can be reached at

wwwView Chip Bell's profile on LinkedIn

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