The author of ‘Customer what?’ talks about the important role CX plays during an economic crisis, and why organizations are going backwards when it comes to both customer and employee experience.
CX Action Heroes is an ongoing zenloop interview series where we meet some of the bravest and boldest minds in the customer experience world.
Meet Ian Golding
Ian Golding is a renowned expert in customer experience. He has more than 20 years of experience in the industry, and he has spoken at conferences all over the world on the topic. In addition to his work as an advisor and consultant, Golding is also the author of “Customer What?: The honest and practical guide to customer experience,” and recently signed a deal to write a new book on CX.
Ian’s work has helped countless organizations improve their customer interactions, and he is widely considered to be one of the top experts in the field. In his interview, he discusses his thoughts on customer experience in the UK, and offers advice for organizations looking to improve their employee experience.
Our Interview with Ian Golding
First of all Ian, as a Brit, what is the current state of CX in the UK as you see it? How does the future look?
It’s a question I’m asked a lot. One of the things that makes me quite unusual is that I work and have worked for the last 11 years on every continent on earth and continue to work on every continent. So I have a slightly unusual insight into the way CX is evolving in different parts of the world.
What I’m about to say is not going to paint a pretty picture – and it probably won’t surprise you – but the UK alongside many parts of the Western world (not all parts) are slightly arrogant and slightly apathetic when it comes to customer experience.
The U.S. would always argue that they were the early adopters of CX, which I don’t think anyone would disagree with fundamentally, but the U.S. is also the land of extremes. You have some of the best examples of CX, but also some of the very, very worst examples of CX. If people are completely honest with themselves, the majority of organisations in the U.S that excel from a CX perspective were created like that. More customer-centric organisations have been created specifically with the desire to differentiate on that experience in the U.S. than anywhere else.
The question is, and it’s a very different thing, how many organisations have actually transformed themselves to become customer-centric?
The UK has a lower proportion of organisations that were genuinely created to be customer-centric. Most organisations in the UK were created to differentiate on their products and services, not on their ability to deliver a memorable experience. There is, unfortunately, almost an underlying sense of “we do it already.”
When you look at large organisations in the UK, most of them will say that they are focused on customer experience. There are well-known companies claiming they’ve been doing customer experience for decades, but if you ask the UK population about some of these companies, you will get the opposite perspective. So there is a big difference between talking about CX and actually fundamentally changing the nature of the way you interact with your customers.
We are still experiencing the aftermath of COVID and are now dealing with the cost of living crisis. Unfortunately, this has led to regression when it comes to customer experience. Organisations have gone backward.
When the pandemic hit, companies reacted in ways just to make sure they stay alive. The problem is, they’re still reacting to everything that happens, as it happens. Organisations should be proactively thinking, “How do we redesign our company to fit in this very different world that we now live in?” The business world is totally different from what it was in 2019, and my worry is that there is still too much talking and not enough action. There is very little proactive forward-thinking about redesigning experiences to be future-ready.
It’s so important to be flexible and future-ready. We’re now in tough economic times, we just went through COVID, and who knows what else is around the corner …
And in a recession, companies are trying to cut the fat or compete in price wars, when they should be putting the focus on customer experience. That’s how to get a competitive edge. Would you agree?
Conceptually, this is the easiest thing to understand in the world – it’s really not complicated. But again, transitioning the thought process from understanding the concept of CX to what I describe as operationalising CX, is proving to be a very big leap for many companies to actually take. Because when they understand what it means, human nature starts to come into play, and sadly the resistance to change.
It’s the inability to think beyond what is in front of your face. Thinking beyond, “Well, I haven’t got time to do this,” and thinking beyond needing to hit those numbers. There’s a constant conflict in the minds of leadership. Organisations need to understand that customer experience is a long-term strategy. It will have an impact on your numbers in the long term.
If you keep pushing it back and back, by the time you come to a point when you realise that CX is going to give you sustainable growth, it’s too late! Why? Because you’re focusing so much on the short-term that you’ve prevented yourself from transforming into something sustainable in the future and in the long term.
Still, not enough leaders truly understand what that looks like. This expression that I use is operationalising customer experience. Unfortunately, there is still a significant lack of understanding as to what is required to make that happen – and it’s driven by a number of competencies from accountability and governance, to customer journey management, to measurement. But I worry that leaders think their organisations are mature and already adopting those things, but they’re not.
This is why they’re not seeing measurable change, and as a result they’re concluding customer experience doesn’t work and it’s a vicious cycle. So people like me have to preach a lot so they truly understand.
You mentioned before that some companies start with customer-centricity in mind and some adopt CX later try and transform their business. But there is still a huge challenge getting management buy-in, in particular convincing CEOs to get behind these initiatives. How do we get CEOs and leaders to care more about CX?
There’s no easy answer to that question, but fundamentally, customer experience has to be a shared vision. Far too often, one or two people are championing customer experience, but they’re dragging the rest of the organization with them kicking and screaming.
So much of this is about the legacy of the way organizations have been run. Whether it be the public or private sector, people are very focused on their own part of the jigsaw puzzle and on their own processes, their own tasks, and their own people. Which is why we’ve lived in a siloed world for decades.
Because it’s within their control, CEOs have the ability to change that and to remove those silos to give people collective accountability. But it’s not happening.
In 2022, I have seen some of the worst examples of poor leadership that I’ve seen in my entire career, which is approaching 28 years – no exaggeration! I have seen more lack of accountability than ever before. I suspect it’s the after-effects of COVID-19 where leaders haven’t been as visible and we’ve all been looking at each other head-on in video meetings. So leaders have been seeing only a tiny proportion of their people, and I think that they’ve become even more removed from their employees, what they are actually doing and how they’re collaborating with each other (or not, as the case may be). Leaders are just sort of hoping that everything falls into place, but it doesn’t work like that.
People need guidance, they need counseling, they need direction, and they need teaching. All of those fundamental basic things that we should have been doing 50 years ago, let alone five months ago, seem to have disappeared. Again, I think it is this mad, desperate rush for short-term financial success. “We haven’t got time for that. Just get on with it. What are your numbers today?” This mentality needs to change.
If we’re thinking about the UK in particular, even in the next few months, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more businesses failing because they didn’t make as much money as they thought they would in 2022. Leadership is central to all of this, but I see leadership getting weaker, not stronger.
Especially with this kind of tunnel vision, where not really knowing the people who work for you means that you don’t really know your customers either. There’s a pattern.
People can work from home, and that needed to happen during the pandemic, but it’s often out of sight, out of mind. Without question, the absolute priority right now isn’t CX alone, it’s the employee experience and the ability to deliver an experience to the customer again.
In the UK, people are on strike across the country because it’s all about money – there’s nothing else. That’s fundamentally the issue. We are now starting to see the fact that employees are largely treated badly. People have been seen as a commodity, but we need to treat those human beings in the way that we want those human beings to treat our customers.
Look at what happened in the aviation industry during the pandemic. The industry was in desperate trouble because they laid off all their employees to cut costs, but those employees were also treated badly before the pandemic, with low pay and horrible working conditions. So, when aviation opened up again, the workers didn’t want to go back. Why would you want to go back?
How do you attract those people because salary is not enough anymore. It’s got to be about the way you treat your employees. It’s a massively underestimated issue that is impacting traditional office space businesses. Lots of people retired during COVID because they didn’t want to go back to an office. The next generation works totally differently to people our age, where getting an office job is sort of what you did. The very last thing this generation can imagine is working in an office, to them it’s almost like working down a coal mine.
So with everything changing, how are businesses changing the way they operate to accommodate the change in employee expectation? Because I don’t see any of that, and I think this is why we’re moving into a really interesting period where organisations that understand this going forward will win, and the ones that don’t understand will potentially suffer. As I said, it’s not a pretty picture.
So what can companies do better in terms of employee experience and earning their trust?
So the obvious response to that is just tell the truth and to be authentic.
Something that I bang on about continuously, is that we need to start giving more control back to the people that deliver the experience to customers. You need to stop enforcing your people to just be entirely task focused. Give them time to think and act in the interests of the customer. We’ve got to trust people to do the right thing for the organization, and that is where the sincerity and authenticity starts to come back into the experience, because you’re not just following a script.
Recently in a restaurant, my daughter asked to swap her fries for broccoli, and the waitress replied, “I don’t know.” Firstly, the waitress should have known such a simple thing, but she wasn’t trained. I don’t blame her, but she wasn’t trained properly. She didn’t know.
But if you train your people properly, the response could have been, “I will just double-check; I’m sure it will be fine.” We can’t underestimate these things because as a consequence of that experience (plus other things that happened that evening), I’m not going back to that restaurant, even though the food was quite good. But the product is only part of the experience.
This is the problem with scripts and not knowing what to do if the information isn’t on a pinboard in the staff room. As you said, these employees haven’t been appropriately trained and trusted to think for themselves without repercussions.
Let’s use Ryanair as another example. If you use the aviation industry as a barometer, the organisation that has come out of the pandemic the best is Ryanair. Because they continue to do what they always said they would do, which is get us there, nothing more. They get the basics. They don’t do any of the bells and whistles, but they get the basics right consistently enough, and many companies could learn a lot from that.
A few years ago you released the book “Customer What?: The honest and practical guide to customer experience.” Who will benefit most from reading your book?
Good question. I wrote it primarily for the practitioner. So having been there and done that for many years, I have always wanted to write a book. People ask what I do for a living, and I say that I’m a customer experience specialist. 99 times out of 100, the response is “Customer, what?” – that’s why I named the book that.
I wanted people to have something that brought to life the reality of doing what we do in a simple but very practical way. I didn’t intend for it to be a textbook, but it almost acts like one. People scribble in it, add stickies, and use it as a reference to help them through the things they’re doing.
A client of mine told me that he keeps my book in the boot of his car, and when he arrives at work every day, he gets his bag out of the car and touches the book because it gives him hope (laughs). Readers often show me their book when I meet them, and it’s always dog-eared and clearly has been used a lot. That’s exactly what I hoped the book would be.
I spend a lot of time supporting my peers because it is a difficult and very often lonely job. So if reading my book gives people the belief that they can do it and make it happen, I’m delighted!
That’s awesome. I love that your book has become a companion piece that you know hasn’t been read just the one time, or left to collect dust on a shelf.
That’s right. Actually, I am writing a new book. I can’t reveal the title yet, but a publisher reached out and asked me. The new book will focus on leadership and how to implement the strategy to make customer experience a reality.
When will your new book be released?
2023, hopefully. Perhaps in time for Christmas. People can buy it as a present.
Not only are you an author, you are of course a CX consultant. When you have your first conversations with new clients, what are commonly the first things you advise them to tackle?
It varies wildly. A lot of organisations think they need training. They think they need teaching and education in CX. Yes, they do, but starting with knowledge sharing isn’t necessarily the right thing to do. Typically, I recommend to any organisation that aspires to become more customer-centric is that it’s vital to get an understanding at the top table. As to what, why, and how, I’m having a conversation with a multinational retailer about supporting them, and they want this whole big program for the next twelve months, but my response to them is, “but why? You don’t know what the problem is yet. Do your leaders agree that this is the right thing to do?”
So, I’m very unusual as a consultant because I’m not going to give you a statement of work, since we don’t know the problem yet. What I would much rather do is spend three hours with the leadership team, and get them aligned behind the need to change, and for them to come to that conclusion themselves, so we can then determine what’s required. But let’s get aligned first and then we can determine what happens next.
Sometimes, people jump in too quickly to CX when the company isn’t ready for it, which is something I write about in my book – customer experience readiness. If the organization isn’t ready, it’s just not going to sustain itself, and you end up wasting a lot of time and money.
As a giver of advice, what’s the best advice that you’ve received?
It’s advice that I give to a lot of people myself: If you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons, what have you got to lose?
There have been times in my career when I’ve asked permission to do things that I knew were the right things to do, but because I asked permission, I was told no. I should have just done it because it was no risk to anyone. So if you know it’s the right thing to do, do it.
If you prioritize yourself above the organisation, that’s where you will get into trouble. But if you’re doing the right thing for the company and you know it’s the right thing to do – just get on with it and show the organization how it can make a difference.
So you already mentioned that you’re planning to release a new book next year; what else do you have planned for the next 12 months?
Many of the same things. Traveling will increase again, and I will host some awards in person that have been virtual over the last couple of years. So the next one will be the Customer Experience Awards in Las Vegas in May, then the Turkish Customer Experience Awards. So plenty of live events and continuing to support anyone who wants me to help bring their customer experience to life.
Ian Golding is a leading customer experience (CX) consultant, author and regular conference keynote speaker who works with companies including BT, Pfizer, Thomson Reuters, and Cisco. Based in Chester, UK, he was recognized in 2021 as the Customer Experience Magazine’s (CXM) Top CX Influencer. A founder and inaugural board member of The Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA), Ian is also an Executive Director and Ambassador for The Customer Institute and the Director for The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM)’s course on customer experience management. To learn more about Ian and his work, visit his website, or connect with him on Linkedin or Twitter.