10 CX Inspirations from photography / part 1
I have been blissfully dismissive of the joys of photography for the better part of my life. I considered it a lesser art form compared to painting for example, and just a favourite pastime of the well-to-do. I mean, what can be easier than just copying reality using a bloody expensive device that practically does all the job for you? It wasn’t until I bought a camera for a trip to Kenya a couple of years ago that I came to appreciate the power of a good photograph and more importantly, how taking photos changes your perspective to your life and work.
Here are the first five things that doing photography contributed to my thinking about customer experience.
1. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” Robert Capa
Robert Capa is an iconic photojournalist who covered five wars and is considered by some to be the greatest combat and adventure photographer in history. So how close exactly was close enough for him? Suffice I say that he was the only civilian photographer landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Google the images he took on this day; or check out his famous The Falling Soldier. You can almost smell the air and feel the tension in people’s bodies.
What it took Capa to capture these photos is beyond me; what I do know is that what’s preventing other photographers from getting close to their subjects is mostly fear, especially if they are doing street photography. It does take a special mindset to point the camera at an unknown person’s face and take a photo. Yet, if we are after greatness and memorability, we can’t just sit comfortably on the sidelines – we need to be in the fight, at the moment the action is happening, in the moment of truth.
How this refers to CX should fairly obvious. Nevertheless, here it comes: the companies that provide the best experience know their customers intimately. The champions in CX know what their customers are going through, what needs they are satisfying, how every little thing impacts the experience with the product or service. The champions in CX are not afraid to get close and personal.
With the proliferation of tools and data this kind of extreme personalization is quickly becoming the norm, especially in the services domain. A telco client I work with for example matches the personality of the caller with the personality of the customer service center to ensure a better service. They also go upstream and try and tackle any reasons for potential dissatisfaction before they appear by using predictive analytics and algorithms. What they now have in their hands is a powerful tool to anticipate what’s going to happen before it hurts their baseline. They are not afraid to get close and personal with their clients.
2. “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Ansel Adams
In some respects photography is like politics or football – we all think we know better or can do better. I’m the last person to talk against the democratization of photography, yet it is true that the advancements in camera capabilities result in tons of images (mine included) with stellar technical and dubious conceptual quality. The bigger challenge of the two is by far the second one – figuring out exactly what is the impression or the message that one wants to convey and what is the best way to do it.
Adams is one of the great masters of landscape photography. And while I can hardly imagine anything more difficult to work with than the rocky barren landscape (such as the one below) he organized the image in such a way that everything seems to be in its right place. A test artists frequently use to evaluate their work is asking themselves what could they remove from the painting or novel without it losing its power. To be frank, one would be hard pressed to find something like that in this photo for example.
What does this mean for CX management? For one thing, there is a directly transferrable message – it is relatively straightforward to get the execution right, the tools are available; what is difficult is figuring out what are you trying to achieve and more importantly, what are the elements of the composition that will help convey the message? What needs to be there? What can we skip? What is the order in which we should expose the person to the different elements of the experience? Are all the pieces working in tandem to create a coherent experience?
Disney, Apple, Ikea and the other companies we consider paragons of good customer experience do that. They all have a very clear vision for the experience they want to provide and they manage the totality of it; from the first time you hear about the company, through the advertisements you’ll see, through the in-store experience, to the very last interaction you’ll have with them.
3. “There are two aspects of good composition that are of prime importance. The concept of a unified thought is one; simplicity is the other.” Bruce Barnbaum
Have a look at any of the photos I’ve included in this post. No matter which one you pick, you’ll find that it strongly conveys at least one message or emotion (and in most cases not more than one actually). That concept of unified thought is crucial for providing great customer experience, for when it comes to making an impact the importance of consistency cannot be overstated.
Again, as in photography, the pieces that constitute the experience must align with and amplify each other, otherwise it just doesn’t work. What great photographers do is use every element available to them deliberately to create a pleasing composition. Our work as CX professionals is by and large the same – we need to orchestrate the pieces that constitute the experience to make them work together. And I’m talking about extreme ownership here; it’s not enough for some elements to align – they all need to fit.
You will also find that each of the photos here looks very simple; almost as if any of us can pick up our phone and take the photo. We probably cannot, but the impression of it is what matters. In a similar manner, I strongly believe that our customers should experience their interaction with us as a flow, as opposed to a series of jumps. Things should feel as if they are natural, smooth, unobstructed. And as with many other things, complexity is the enemy when it comes to clarity and seamlessness.
We would also do well to remember what Bruce Barnbaum warns us about: “Without a point of view, there will always be ambiguity in the image that cannot be overcome by simplicity and unity alone.” Having a point of view is that touch that makes us think that someone thought about the experience, that someone designed it with us (as customers) in mind. It is what distinguishes my photos from the ones of the great photographers for example; not the quality of the image itself, but the specific point of view from which things look as they do.
I love the way Adidas tackle this for example and I consider the brand transformation they executed in the last 10 years to be one of the most successful ones ever (and likely one of the hardest). In the process to becoming a brand associated with vitality, power, and dynamism, they used all the elements at their disposal and used them coherently and consistently. An adidas ad, an adidas product and an adidas store will all convey the same feeling, simply because the sensorial codes and words they use are the same. What is more, adidas have a clear and bold vision of what they want to stand for and they are not afraid to show it to the world.
4. “f/8 and be there”
A bit of a background: f denotes how widely the lens is open which is one of the three ways for controlling the amount of light that reaches the camera. Aperture is also the primary means for creating the blurry background effect you see in a lot of photos, and especially in portrait photography.
Now, modern day cameras give you a lot of control on pretty much every aspect of a photo, so one needs a certain level of knowledge of the way they operate to achieve a good result. As a consequence, many people focus more on the equipment and the camera settings than on what is being photographed.
To help novices with this, more accomplished photographers like to say f/8 and be there – taking the effort to find a picture-worthy situation or environment and being there is more important than your equipment or your camera settings. Instead of freaking out about the correct parameters, focus on what really matters – on what is happening around you. As Lucas Gentry puts it, “Photography has nothing to do with cameras.”
In CX management technology is important of course. It’s mandatory to provide people with the equipment to do their job right of course. Yet, could it be even more important for people to concentrate on what really matters – on being there for your customers when they need your help? Could it be that we are focusing more what’s in our hands (our cameras) than on seeing and exploring what our customers expect?
I recently had the chance to see how this works in practice. The other day I bought a headphone set. The day after I received what I’d typically consider a rather lame email from the brand’s customer service desk congratulating me for my purchase and asking if I have any feedback. Now, the way we’d typically do that is by using a CX measurement platform allowing you to design and send surveys. This would have made it easier for me to share my thoughts and I’d have probably taken part in the survey (which I didn’t). They clearly don’t have anything like this in place forcing them to use the old-school drop-me-an-email approach. And you know what? That’s still much better than not having anything in place at all. They don’t have the technology to do it in a modern, efficient, cool way, yet they are still doing it. They are trying to be there – at the end of the day, that’s what matters the most.
5. “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something.” Walker Evans
There are at least three completely separate elements I like in what Walker Evans is saying.
The passion of it, the ‘die knowing something’ part is vital I believe in any area of live, and CX is no exception. For unless we have this constant itch to know what our customers are doing, what moves them, what makes them tick, we are unlike to make huge strides towards delivering excellent CX.
Then comes one of the most important things photography thought me. I thought I was watching and seeing the world before I good hooked on making photos. Truth is, I wasn’t; my eye was lazy; my stare was brief; and my interest in visual side of the world was limited. It was only because I started taking pictures of the world that I started ‘staring’ at the world; never before would I walk around a scene or an object for example just to see how it looks on the other side or from below for example. This very specific look at the world is what CX management needs in huge doses I believe; this obsession with seeing the customer from every possible angle and in many situations; this persistent attention that leads to seeing details otherwise easily overlooked.
And finally, a rather surprising lesson perhaps – although photography is a visual art, Evans doesn’t just say that we need to stare; he insists that we must also listen very carefully, and I’m sure that making use of our other senses is also within the scope of his advice.
Similarly, when creating and managing experiences we can’t rely only on one of our senses – we need to listen, watch, smell and touch if you will, the experience our customers are going through. Everything communicates and everything contributes to creating an experience, and we need to be aware of how our customers see everything that we do.
One of the largest consumer electronics companies, and a client of ours, understand this very well. They gather insights from multiple data sources, integrated them into one unified source of truth (an online dashboard), and have a system in place that allows them to close the loop with their customers. This ensures that whoever accesses the dashboard doesn’t only see customer satisfaction, or brand, or brand image metrics. No, they see it all – from brand awareness, through brand preference, through customer satisfaction, to future intentions. This holistic view is part of the reason why their NPS results keep increasing quarter after quarter and why customers gladly recommend them to peers.
At the end of the day, I think Annie Leibovitz captures the essence of it brilliantly: “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.” Are we afraid to fall in love with our customers? The ones among us that deliver the best customer experience are not.