Episode 301

How To Love Your Customers So They Love You Back

Your Host

About this Episode

I'm Mark Reed Edwards. Welcome back to Confessions of a Marketer. This week, we have Ben Afia, who describes himself as a consultant, speaker, and author who's had his fill of cold corporate organizations treating their employees and customers like robots. So his mission is to make businesses more human.
And to that end, he has a new book out called The Human Business: How to Love Your Customers So They Love You Back. I've known Ben probably for about 15 years. We've worked together and he's been on this podcast a number of times.


Ben, it's great to have you back.

Ben Afia: Thank you very much for having me on, Mark. It's a pleasure.

Mark Reed-Edwards: For those people out in the audience who don't know you, could you just sketch out your career history and how you came to write this book that I'm holding in my hands?

Ben Afia: So I started specializing in language at Boots, the chemist in the UK. In that role, I was working in brand strategy. And looking in particular at the voice of the brand and managing copywriting across the business. But I got made redundant about 20 years ago, decided it was time to go solo with a new baby on the way and about to move house, it was the perfect time to start a business. And so it turned out to be so my Boots colleagues went off to various places and encouraged me into companies like Eon, Barclays, Legal and General, and so my freelance career went from there. And I started as a copywriter specializing in brand tone of voice. But clients very quickly were asking me to extend that.
So we were looking at the language and this is the language that people might be using in the marketing team, writing communications, but also the language in customer service and throughout the business, indeed. And so we were asked to train people in writing skills, but also in spoken empathy skills.

So when the contact center people are on the phone with customers, they are speaking and then confirming things in writing. So that started to extend the work that we were doing. And very quickly, I realized that really what we were doing was change. So I started looking, this is probably 15, 16 years ago when we first worked together, probably thinking about how do we help this change to stick?

How do we get the right behaviors throughout an organization? And for me, the change really stems from the brand, from the brand strategy, your vision, purpose, values, behaviors. It's all an extension of the behavior on the front line. So that all of these things join up. And I ended up realizing that really I was working on three things.

I was looking at the culture or the employee experience. I was looking at the brand or the brand strategy. And I was also looking at the customer experience. So that's what I ended up trying to pull together in my book because I just needed to organize that thinking in a way that might make sense to the companies that I was working with.

And the insight that had come to me was that. Unless you align your culture and your brand, you can't possibly give the experience to customers that you hope. Or that they hope to receive because you end up promising through your marketing, things that you can't deliver through your service. And the only way to join those up is to align culture and brand.

Mark Reed-Edwards: And there's nothing more disappointing than to see some kind of marketing campaign that says, you know, our store is a great place to visit. And you go there and there's a disconnect between what you see in their marketing and what you experience. And so what you do is you kind of connect those two.

Ben Afia: Totally. A few years ago, I was running a workshop. I had 40 customer service people and the company, who will remain nameless for the moment, had just launched their new brand strategy. So they had a new strapline, a new campaign, and this had gone public. So I had 40 people in customer service in this workshop.

And I said, what do you think of your exciting new strategy? 40 faces just looked at me blankly. Nobody bothered to brief them. And this is the disconnect I'm talking about. You know, if you're going to send messages out to your customers, the first people they're going to talk to in your stores, in customer service, they need to know all about it.
They need to be briefed. They need to be trained. They need to be ready to deliver that service, to deliver that promise.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Many companies think of the brand as just a visual thing, right? So, we redesigned the website, we have a new logo. And maybe a new strap line or something, and maybe some new brand language, but that's kind of where it ends. And it's a top down procedure. I know when you and I worked together, I think about 15 years ago, that project, the verbal identity, tone of voice, rose out of us doing a revamp of the way the company looked.

And it became really evident that we needed to not just put a lick of paint on things, but to actually reengineer the way we talk to employees, the way employees talk to customers and partners and so forth. And that's when we called you in and it was maybe the most effective part of the brand revamp that we did because we had to go and enlist people.
When you ask people to talk differently, to use different language, you have to train them and you have to engage with them. And that's what we ended up doing. And I think maybe that's why that brand was more successful than it would have been otherwise.

Ben Afia: I think that's right because what happens when you ask people to talk differently or write differently is you're actually encouraging different behavior. Because really the speech is only a reflection of the underlying behavior. So the way I think about this is, and the way that I encourage change now is by recruiting a team of champions from throughout the business. So for example, I worked with Aldermore Bank in the UK, the mortgage business. They felt that they were delivering good service and their brokers and their customers were saying so, but they were getting complaints when they confirmed things in writing. And so by recruiting a team of champions, somebody representing every team in the customer journey, we were able to hear from the whole organization and sense and make the connections throughout the customer journey.

So from every touch point, every point of contact a customer experiences with the company, we can affect those and we can connect them up and align them. And what very quickly happens when you recruit this team of champions is they make connections and it reveals for them that there are problems in the process, that things aren't quite lining up in the process.

But of course this gives them the opportunity to fix it. So this is what I mean by changing behavior. It's the behavior of the organization, the systems and the processes. It's about redesigning them. So that rather than just trying to rewrite letters, which is, I suppose, what you might perceive a rebrand to do.

In fact, what we're doing is we're changing the systems, the processes, and therefore the culture. So to me, brand is absolutely, brand is the organization. I think Seth Godin said, "Marketing is everything a customer experiences." Well, a customer experience is everything that you do.

So we are all responsible for marketing. We are all responsible for the brand it runs throughout our organization. It's as much the responsibility of the legal team as the branding team. Operations, compliance, you know, whoever, are all making decisions that affect things that customers experience. So all of those people, we have to involve them.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Yeah, I mean the back end, how you sign up customers, how you sign up partners, the language you use in your contracts there are obviously some bits of language that you have to use. But you can make your contracts a bit more friendly. You can make the experience for the partner portal more friendly and have it match the experience you say people have with your company rather than just having what you say and what you do be separate things. It's integrating that brand because you know, as you say, the customer, or the partner, or, you know, the person off the street who just comes on your website, experiences the entire thing. They don't just experience your About Us page.
You know?

Ben Afia: No. And actually I was speaking to the chief exec of Aldermore Bank, who is now at Nationwide in the UK, last week. And he said that really it's about making the connection between the business's strategy and the frontline. And that's the thing that I think a lot of executive teams struggle to do. How do you help people on the frontline to understand the direction and adopt the values and behaviors that you're hoping to encourage? And there's often a big gap. Sometimes you can go to some of the big consultancies and they give you PowerPoint decks of strategy and cultural frameworks. But they don't help you to implement it.

They don't help you to drive it through the business and help everyone absorb and feel ownership for that behavior. So that's where I really focus: taking the strategy and translating that into things that people on the front line will understand, and therefore the messages will get out to customers and you get that consistency between strategy and execution to use a bit more jargon.

Mark Reed-Edwards: It's a real thing. That's, that's what's so amazing about it. You know, when you train or when you enlist those frontline workers, even earlier in the process, you know, to get their opinion on certain things, it pays dividends. It's not wasted effort. But it can be hard to do.

So I kind of want to go through the three parts of your book. And it's broken up into create your employee experience, build a better brand strategy, and energize your customer experience. Before we get into that, did you structure this in kind of a linear fashion? So you need to create your employee experience, and then once you've done that, you can build a better brand strategy and then energize your customer experience?

Or can this happen in any order? And then we can dig into the three parts.

Ben Afia: Yeah, it's a great question. And the model took a lot of thought actually, and months and months toing and froing. And I remember discussing it with a strategist friend of mine who said, "It's in the wrong order. Surely you start with the customer." And he's right, of course, we do start with the customer.

So where might the symptoms show up? Where might the problems occur that this might be a solution to? Well, it will tend to be in customer service. So it will be at the last stage, the last section of the book and the model because your symptoms might be you're getting complaints or escalated complaints to the chief exec are on the rise.

It might be that your sales are falling. It might be that your customer attention is dropping or your loyalty measures. So it's going to be at the customer end that you're feeling the pain because those things ultimately have an impact on your cost base and your profitability. So that's when you're going to feel the pain.

And often a company will go, "Clearly we need to sort out our customer letters." And they'll see that as a customer letter project. I absolutely believe in starting where the pain is because I find, you know, this can be quite an involved process. It can take some time and it needs some commitment of time, money and leadership. So we need to build the business case internally in order to be able to. You know, get permission to do this work. So I tend to start where there's pain and work to solve that, to have a, to find some quick wins, you know, fairly rapidly, but the reason the model is laid out in that, in, in that order is because the source of knowledge, the source of intelligence within the organization is your people. I genuinely believe that most answers are already within your people. So if we start with the cultural, the employee experience, we are doing what I think of as exploring times that we've been at our best in the past. And this is an approach called "appreciative inquiry" that I've been using for probably the last 10, 12 years.

And when we explore these stories of times we've been at our best --and we do this in interviews, in workshops--we find that people have a huge amount in common. It's fantastic team building, but it also gives us brilliant stories that give us evidence for how the organization is at its best. And from these stories, we then have a sense of the values, the behaviors, the things that we valued in common from these best past experiences, and that gives us a fantastic platform to make any change that we need. So I use this exploration to develop all elements of brand strategy because it gives us evidence.

It gives us truth from within the organization. But if we're looking to refresh. Anything around the customer experience. So the letters, the emails, the web pages --anything around the customer journey, again, if we start from what we like at our best, then whatever we create at the customer experience end is going to be authentic.

It's going to match the organization's ability to deliver. This is coming back to this point about making the promise and being able to deliver on it. So that's the reason these are in the order. Start with understanding what you're like at your best. That's your culture. Express that in your brand, and then you get onto the experience and making that human connection with customers.

Mark Reed-Edwards: There was a CEO of HCL Technologies back in 2010, published a book called "Employees First, Customers Second, turning conventional management upside down." His name was Vineet Nair. And it was kind of a startling idea to put your employees first, but it worked very well for them. And it seems like that's what you're doing here.
So let's look at part one of your book, Create Your Employee Experience, and you divided it into six parts. Can you just briefly go through how that works?

Ben Afia: Absolutely. So we've got I guess within employee experience, we've got five elements. So your heartbeat, alignment, values and behaviors and engagement. So what I mean by heartbeat is feeling the beating heart of the organization. So this is the process I've just described: understanding what you're like at your best, getting people telling these stories of times that they've been at their best at work. Through this, you hear things that give you really genuine language that you can then use to develop your values, your behaviors. Quite often, I mean, in businesses, I'm sure your listeners will recognize, you know, when you see values posters on the walls and these really generic corporate words, you know, they're just on the walls, aren't they? They're not the actual behavior that's going on through the organization. So for me, for this, stuff to work, you need to get to something really genuine and different. And that's what the heartbeat is about.

It's feeling the pulse of the organization. And when people tell you those stories, you get really human language coming through and that language gives us clues as to the sorts of words that we can use for our values and behaviors. And that makes it a down to earth, practical, authentic framework. The second step is alignment, and that's about aligning leadership. So when I start a project now, rather than say, starting in operations or marketing to look at a specific problem, I try and encourage the organization to align the people director, brand director, and operations director from the start and then take the message to the wider leadership, because we are absolutely talking about the culture throughout the organization.

So the whole of the exec team needs to be involved and your leadership team. The next stages are turning those stories of times we've been at our best into values that feel really authentic. And then a behavior framework, and this is very different from a competency framework, which should be banished now, I think competency is about measuring people for progression. Whereas for me, behavior is about encouraging the behavior that we want to see that stems from our values. So the values and the behaviors are kind of the guiding lights, if you like.

And of course, every organization has values. Sometimes they have behavior frameworks. Certainly the larger organizations I work with tend to, but quite often the values feel a bit flat. And so these stories of times we've been into our best are brilliant for bringing these to life and giving more color to them.

And what that does for people on the frontline is it helps them to connect with them. And to feel that they're true, because in my experience, training people, you know, people won't change behavior unless they believe that this is the reality that they live within. And then the last stage is engaging the rest of the organization. And again, appreciative inquiry helps us to do that, to reach out throughout the organization.

And as you were saying a moment ago, getting everybody on board and engaged in the change. For me, it's about encouraging people across the organization to feel like they're in partnership in creating the kind of organization that they love to work with, love to work for, and to be a part of that process. So that's the first step employee experience.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Yeah, and the way you describe it, it provides a perfect kind of launching point or foundation for the second part, which is Build a Better Brand Strategy, because you've enlisted the employees. And they're, they're then invested in it. They're part of it. They're not just told, "Oh, here's the new brand."

Ben Afia: Totally. We talked about brand being deep throughout the organization. My view is very strongly that brand is everybody's responsibility. We all own brand. We all are part of the brand. We all contribute to the brand, even though we may not have the job title. So if we start from within, from the employee experience that then yet mobilizes the organization. So then when you create your brand strategy, which I guess is the marketing jargon, isn't it for, I guess, a series of decisions about: Who are we trying to speak to? That's our audience. Why do we exist in the world? What do we set out to do? That's our purpose. How do we want people to think of us when we're not in the room? That's positioning. How do we express that? So that's our personality or identity. And then only at the end of that comes voice, the tone of voice of that expression, and this is, I suppose, a slightly different take on brand strategy.

All the big agencies have got their fancy models, haven't they? I can remember when I was at Boots, actually, we had a brand funnel and the brand funnel had pillars and I was. I'm still to this day, I mean, this is over 20 years...

Mark Reed-Edwards: Mixded metaphors, huh?

Ben Afia: Yeah. If you're going to use a model, you know, if you're gonna use something visual to help people grasp an idea, don't mix those metaphors.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Yeah.

Ben Afia: And there were just so many words that seemed almost disconnected in a way. So this is why these stories at times were our best, are so important because that gives us the language to tie all of these things together. So the audience bit is about understanding who we're trying to speak to and we need insights. You know, classical marketing is to gather insight on the market and create a product or service to fulfill a need that we've identified.

But if we do that alone, often we end up ignoring the culture that has to deliver. That products or service. So that's why we start from within for me. And then the other elements slot into place as you need them. So I suppose there's three sections to the model and these 15 segments, actually, each of them has a chapter in the book and they are all projects that clients have asked me to do for them at some time in the past. So this is all based on work that I've done for clients. But no one company needs all of these 15 things. They might need one thing or they might need three or four.

So the idea behind the model is that we can pick and choose. We could acknowledge the things that already exist within the organization. You know, I mentioned values in the last bit. Most organizations have values. Sometimes they want to refresh them. So we might need, we might be able to leave the values alone for now, or we might want to refresh them, check that they still resonate and create stories to bring them to life.

So there's nuance to this. It's not saying you have to do all these 15 things by any means. And, and quite often, if your pain is in the customer experience end and it's your touch points, it's your customer letters, for example, you might go, "Well, actually under the brand strategy section, the place to focus is the tone of voice. You know, if we've got our positioning nailed and we've got our personality down, it might just need expressing in tone of voice. So we just pick the bits that we need.

Mark Reed-Edwards: So let's talk about customer experience. You create the employee experience, you build a better brand strategy, and you've got a foundation for the customer experience. I love, I don't know whether you intended it to be funny, but the journey, "What are you putting your customers through?" kind of made me chuckle.
You know, because sometimes the journey that, that companies put their customers through is, is not, it may be intentionally, but usually unintentionally painful. There's something in that journey. And I think we referenced it earlier, you know, maybe it's the contract, maybe it's the portal you have to sign up for and you don't get the email or the email that you get back is unclear.

There are a lot of bumps in the journey that Often arise because, well, you know, one group builds the portal and another group writes the copy and then there's someone else who comes in and does the visual and they're not talking to each other or the technology is outdated and, you know, they feel like they're stuck with it.
There's all kinds of reasons that that happened. But nonetheless, it affects that customer journey and it's the first item under "Energize your Customer Experience." So can you tell me about that?

Ben Afia: It's something that larger companies tend to spend quite a lot of time and effort working on because they are quite complex. But as companies are, you know, startups to scale ups, it can be a bit more patchy. Because as organizations grow, they tend to become inwardly focused. We tend to focus on the problems and the issues that we're solving internally, and you end up getting this level of conversation that's quite inwardly focused.

And this is normal. I think this is just human. And in fact, when, when I was growing my business 10 years ago and I had five employees and 20 freelancers, we spent a lot of time talking about how we were working internally as a team and we could have been spending more time focusing on our customers. So every organization goes through this. It's something to do with growth.

And so for me, the journey is about understanding what's going on for your customers and then matching their expectations, their needs. And that can be really difficult because within the organization, we're inwardly focused, but we're also technical experts. We know our subject matter and we have what Steven Pinker calls "the curse of knowledge." I think he uses the analogy of a brick wall. So when we start in our professions and we're at the basics, let's say we've just left university or, you know, we start as a junior marketing role and learning the basics of marketing . The lower bricks of a brick wall are those fundamental areas of knowledge. And then as we become more experienced, we lay more layers of bricks and this, this wall goes higher and higher and higher and higher. And as we become more and more expert, our focus is on the top rows of bricks of knowledge. And we lose sight of the bricks at the bottom.

We're no longer conscious of them. They're propping up our expertise, but we're not conscious of that level of knowledge. The thing is that our customers are at that lower level of knowledge and we're at this higher level. And so the language and the framing that we use in, within the organization is at an expert level, but our customers experience it at a non expert level. So for me, it's a level of translation. It's: how do we look at this journey from the perspective of customers so that we experience it through their eyes? And that's really quite challenging actually. It's quite difficult. I'm just starting work with a startup and they're growing rapidly and they haven't gone through this journey mapping process yet.
And this is going to be my first job. I'm joining as head of CX and the first task is to map the current journey that customers go through to understand how customers are feeling at the moment, at each point, at each touch point, and then the second part of this, this journey. Section of my model, empathy is about defining how we want customers to feel at each point.

So you can map the journey and then say how we would like customers to feel only when you've decided how you want customers to feel. And I also talk in the book about we want, you know, what do we want them to think and what do we want them to do? But to me, those things are quite obvious. It's the empathy part.
How do we want people to feel that in business we so often miss out on? And because of this internal focus, we just lose sight of how customers could be feeling and how they really are. So we map the journey, we work at how we want them to feel. The third stage is then to refresh all our touch points. So we can look at the advertising, all of the marketing material, the website, all the FAQs, the signup, the letters, the emails, so the whole process.

In a complex business, you have lots and lots of communications, especially in a service business. And which is where a lot of my experiences is in. But refreshing all of those touch points is crucial for (A.) making customers happy, (B.) encouraging them to come back and buy more from us , (C.) to refer their friends.

And this is how we grow a business, isn't it? We win customers, we keep them coming back and we get them to refer their friends. So this is where the benefits come through and lead to profitability. And then the last two stages are training and coaching, which is about how we then embed that within the organization.

So for me, it's about training people in the written skills, in the spoken skills, in other skills that lead to customer experience. But the coaching one is maybe unusual. And for me, this is about developing a coaching culture. So most organizations in their customer service will have a QA or quality assurance framework, and that'll be quite legalistic in its tone.
And this is how you're measuring people on those calls. And that can be quite debilitating actually, because the language can be quite fierce. So for me, I'm trying to encourage a coaching style where rather than pure measurement, we are trying to encourage people and encourage the right behavior and free themselves to be more themselves at work, to give more of themselves, to the business and the companies, to help them feel safe, encouraged, supported, and to thrive. And only that way, and you see how we come full circle from the employee experience, only that way, do you have happy people who can do more and that gives you happy customers who buy more.

Mark Reed-Edwards: It makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? I mean, it just seems logical to me. There's one word that you used, and it's, it's the heading for one of the, one of the parts in here is empathy. And that has to be genuine.

Ben Afia: Absolutely, I think you can only deliver this through your staff, through your people and people who don't feel genuinely cared for, can't care for your customers. So you're absolutely right. You can't show empathy unless you feel it. And you're not feeling if you're shut down, if you're in flight and fight response, if you're feeling threatened all the time and measured against legalistic frameworks. So it's about creating an environment where people thrive and pass that thriving on to customers. I mean, it's a cliche. But Apple, I think, are the masters of this. When you go into an Apple store or when you're on customer, onto customer service on the phone it sometimes feels like you're the only person in the world.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Hmm.

Ben Afia: So that person in that moment, and how often does that happen in customer experience? It's, it's incredibly rare. But I remember the chief exec of Timpson's, which is a chain of key cutters and cobblers in the UK, which has quite a strong ethical stance and recruits a lot of people out of prisons because they believe in giving people a second chance. And I can't quite remember the whole interview, but one thing that struck me was that the staff's happiness was absolutely paramount because, and it's the manager's job to make sure that the store managers are happy, because if they're not happy, customers aren't going to be happy. And it sounds counterintuitive. You know, if you talk to a chief finance officer about staff happiness, they might look at you with bemusement. But Timpsons was saying that the stores led by the happiest people deliver in the most profit.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Yeah.

Ben Afia: And that just seems astonishing to me.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Well, but it makes sense. You get a feel for a store or a business. I had an executive I worked with now 30 something years ago and he made a startling statement, he said, we should all have fun. And I thought, really, you know, you're supposed to have fun at work? But he was right, you know, why would you want to go into work unless you were having fun, unless you were enjoying what you were doing, the people you worked with and the work you did and that it has meaning, having a genuine smile on your face.

And I remember that John Lennon quote, attributed to him, that sincerity is important--once you've got that faked, you're all set. You really can't fake it. You can't really fake empathy. You can't really fake elements of your brand because the truth will be known when the customers experience you.

Ben Afia: Absolutely. I've been looking for some services just recently, some coaching services. And I've been looking at companies that have been suggested to me. And in this particular space, there are companies where they don't give you the names of any human beings in the organization. So this is an organization that's offering coaching, but they're not giving you the faces and the names of human beings.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Yeah.

Ben Afia: I then found another organization and all of the staff have got photos and bios on the website. And there are videos, you can hear them talk. I was like, I'm buying from this company.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Yeah. Well, they've got a face. They've got names. They've got a personality, right? And I've experienced the same things with some clients . When you go to their website and it's a people business, a consulting business. And you don't see any names or photos of people, you just see, here's what we do, like it or lump it, you know. You need some personality in this world because that's what can distinguish you.

Ben Afia: Maybe I'm just skeptical, but when I see websites like that with, with no humans, I'm immediately thinking the shareholders are just grooming that business for sale.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Yeah, right. Yeah.

Ben Afia: They're all, they're all commercial and no heart. And why would I buy from a company like that?

Mark Reed-Edwards: Yeah, yeah.

Ben Afia: It makes no sense.

Mark Reed-Edwards: But the funny thing is that put some names and faces on there and you're going to sell the business probably for a higher multiple.

Ben Afia: Exactly. Totally.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Well, Ben, this was great. Can people go to Amazon and get this book, or benafia.com, what's the best way to pick it up?

Ben Afia: Yeah. So on my website, yeah, benafia.com/book is where you find the book and you can get a free chapter to get a sense for it. And on Amazon, if you just Google Ben Afia, and Afia is A-F-I-A, my name should come up. It's in the UK, in the US, across the world, and it's available now in paperback and Kindle. I still have to upload the hardback.

Mark Reed-Edwards: Yeah, wonderful. Well, Ben, thanks so much for joining me. This has been a great discussion.

Ben Afia: Thanks for having me on. Always a pleasure, Mark.

Mark Reed-Edwards: We'll see you on the next Confessions of a Marketer.