Episode #132: Extreme Humanism and the Customer Experience, with Tom Peters

Renowned author and management expert Tom Peters joins me for a two-part series on customer experience execution, the value of human connections, and the little things that can make a big difference. Today Tom and I talk about corporate amnesia, good (and not so good) customer experiences, and two-cent candy.

Tom Peters has written nearly 20 business books, and has been called “the Red Bull of management thinkers.” You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/tom_peters

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Grad 
All right, welcome to the CXM Experience. As always, I’m Grad Conn, CXO, or chief experience officer, at Sprinklr. And I have a very, very special guest today. Today we’re talking with Tom Peters, the world-famous author and management guru. Tom, of course, initially burst onto the scene with In Search of Excellence, which was a bible in my business school. So I’m a super, super fan, right now… very excited to meet with Tom and talk about his new book called Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism. And welcome to the show, Tom,

Tom Peters 
Thank you very much. It is a delight to be here. And thanks for the kind words. We were always happy when business schools adopted our books. And we were always amused when the ones with an attitude felt that they didn’t have enough references to totally obscure studies, or what have you. So there it is.

Grad 
Yeah, well, the thing like my business school, which was Queens Business School, now called Smith School of Business. But at Queen’s University in Kingston, we had a unusual faculty in that they actually worked really hard to try to get out there and try to practice. And they would jokingly refer to the fact that only business schools have faculty members who don’t know how to do the thing that they’re teaching. Right? And so they really embraced your book, because the book provided… it did for me, in some ways, had an academic quality to it, but told through the lens and the stories of actual real companies. And I think that’s what makes a real difference. And business leaders, I think, need to see examples of others to really take them seriously. I think the air in the sky, academic stuff is hard for people to relate to.

Tom Peters 
Yeah, it’s funny, everybody I know, large numbers of us, are reading a book by the woman by the name of Heather McGhee, and it’s called ‘The Sum of Us’ and it is about racial inequity. She’s a brilliant woman, she writes well. The power of the book is there must be 150 small stories, and the centerpiece of virtually every one of them is a normal human being. This is what happened to Rachel Webb. These are the things that happened to Doug and Mary. And you could avoid the logic in the argument as awful as the argument is, but you can’t avoid Mary, Jane, Bill, and Bob.

Grad 
Yeah, I think politicians do that well. You know, when they’re telling stories in the State of the Union address, there’s always a personal story that people can relate to and connect to. And I think In Search of Excellence did that very well. And you do that all through your new book, and it’s full of tons and tons of stories, also, I like your little call outs, like, you know, to dos and stuff like that, you know, sort of like, take a look at how you’re pursuing these kinds of policies.

Grad 
So, one area that I’d love to dig in is about, up to about a third of the way into the book, you start talking about execution in a big way. About execution in strategy. So let me sort of frame this up a little bit. So, people who’ve been listening to the CXM Experience know I talk about customer experience all the time. And typically, I’ll talk about from the framing of really great customer experiences that I’ve had, and I’ll use examples. And they’ll use those as sort of where we need to sort of try to get to. And one thing that I’ve found, kind of classically problematic is that everybody so far that I’ve met, everybody says the customer is important. And everybody says, I want to give great experiences to my customer. And I’ve never met anyone who says, I don’t care about customers. I’ve never met anyone who says that yet, the interactions you have with many organizations, and many firms would make you feel like they really don’t care about their customers. And they’re not intending to do that. And so, I think that what’s fascinating for me in customer experience is this gap between intent and action. And sometimes that gap is very, very wide. And so, my take on it is that while people have the best intentions, they’re hampered by the execution and systems inside their organizations, and they’re unable to kind of hit their intent. So that’s kind of my framing, sort of where my head’s on it. So, I wanted to talk to you but first, I love the quote, and maybe there’s some more to the story, but there’s this quote from a McKinsey director that you don’t name. He said, “Don’t forget execution, boys. It’s the all-important last 95%”. So, let’s talk about the last 95% and sort of how you view that and how you coach other people as they’re looking at how to change execution models.

Tom Peters 
Well, let me do something else first. And I think this works with the kinds of software you’re talking about. But I want to talk about the ability in 2021 to have an insanely good person to person, phone experience. I was in the Navy, making no money, had no money, any idiot who would insure me or my car was a damn fool. There’s a San Antonio based company called USAA. And I have now dealt with them for 55 years. They are customer owned, I get an $800 check each year, for my bonus, I have never experienced, outside of human face-to-face, a more extraordinary customer experience, you call them, teeny bit more delay during the pandemic, and it is astonishing, if you don’t get them by the second or third ring. When you get them, they have all my data. You know, they always say, Lieutenant Peters, you’ve been with us for 51 years, thanks for your service, for your patronage. And that’s where we start. And we deal with our problems. And sometimes a guy will actually go offline to deal with somebody else so he can fix a little teeny piece of a problem, and the other one that just fascinates me, because it’s not supposed to be doable is they’re in San Antonio and we’ll start talking about the San Antonio Spurs. And we will go on for a minute and a half. And I will say to the guy, “I assume there is somebody standing behind you pointing a gun at the back of your head, telling you that if you don’t get your 39 calls answered in the next two hours, you’re going to be looking for a job”. And he said, “you don’t understand this at all”. He said, “the essence is they say make a friend out of Tom. He wants to talk about football, fine, he wants to talk about the pandemic, fine. And the other part, which I don’t think is inappropriate language, is they’re all in the US. And many of them are in San Antonio. And you know, if you’re above a certain age, which isn’t very old, you know the Texas accent. And, you know, they get the effing thing fixed. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, and it just amazes me.

Tom Peters 
The other one, which maybe is a bit elitist, and I had an experience just a couple of days ago, is American Express Platinum. I don’t know whether they do it for mortals. But you know, I’ve been with American Express for 50 years. And the same way, I had a problem. And it was an address problem. And I went to the goddamn website and I spent about half of my life and couldn’t get it clean. And I called and again, third or fourth ring, talk to somebody. And you know, and the thing that was really great about it, both cases, the guy would say I’m going to go offline for about a minute and a half, because I have to check this and see if I can get this connected with that and then I’ll come back to you. But you know, they are using an incredible amount of resources. And they are personalizing it. You could never get me away from USAA.

Grad 
Right. Well, and we do do voice, we do email, and we do all the connections to all the different other social platforms and blogs and forums and stuff, like our big belief is that you need to have a single unified platform with a single 360 degree profile so that when you call or tweet or whatever that is, they can say, Hello, Mr. Peters, you’ve been a customer for 51 years or Lieutenant Peters, excuse me, I have to call you Lieutenant Peters from now on. Hello, Lieutenant Peters, you’ve been a customer for 51 years. That is amazing and in our pre-show we were talking a little bit about company amnesia and people who listen to CXM Experience hear me talk about the 51st dates phenomenon where every time you talk to a company, they talk to you like they’ve never met you before. You may have spent 51 years as a customer or tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars and they don’t seem to ever know who you are and I think that amnesia inside companies is causing customers to feel weirded out because it’s disconcerting, you know this stuff about me. Why can’t you talk to me that way?

Tom Peters 
My term for companies like that would be gross stupidity. It’s ridiculous anywhere not to know your customer. And as you said, today in particular, that is pretty readily plausible. You obviously follow me a little bit on Twitter. I have a new Subaru Outback and I’ve been driving Outbacks for 20 years and I adore Outbacks and I bought a 2021 and the software is disgusting. And we don’t have time to talk about it. Nor is it our topic but what is our topic is I have been trash-talking them for a month or two enthusiastically. I do have, I’m not Madonna, but I’ve got a non-trivial set of followers, and presumably a set of followers who would meet the demographic of Subaru purchasers. Haven’t heard one word from them.

Grad 
I’m assuming there’s a brand manager somewhere in the Subaru organization who, to explain drops in sales this year, has got a picture of you next to the dropping chart. But it is like that, we do know that, in terms of a best practice in our industry, we do know that positive or negative, you have to get back to people. Now what’s interesting with Subaru, so I was looking for an SUV just before Christmas. And I put out a tweet, as I often do, saying, “Hey, I’m looking for a new SUV. What would you recommend?” Now to make it a bit easier because we call these jump balls, which people do this all the time? Thousands of people every day are saying, “I’m looking for a new car, what would you recommend?” Amazingly, almost no car manufacturers ever respond to all these essentially, ringing phones on people’s desks. So now to make it a little bit easier, I @ mentioned ten car companies, all within the same segment, kind of a mid-price segment. And as I @ mentioned them, and when you @ mention them, they should see it very easily. That’s like falling off a log for them. Of the ten that I mentioned, only three got back to me, which is interesting, and all three were Japanese carmakers. And Subaru sort of did. What Subaru does is Subaru has an ambassador program. And they retweeted it. And then Subaru customers who are part of this ambassador program started sending me messages. So, I had an overwhelming number of Subaru messages from owners, but not from Subaru. And then I had three other companies that reached out to me. But it was it’s always been a little bit disconcerting to me that when someone is literally saying, I would like to buy a car, that companies who sell cars, and that’s the only thing they do, like the automotive companies are pretty focused; their one job, sell cars. They didn’t bother. I ended up buying a Volvo actually, which I’ve been delighted with – the XC90, it’s an extraordinary car. And I will say the software is amazing.

Grad 
Okay, so I can tell you one crazy experience I had recently. And then I want to dig back into this Conrad Hilton story, which I love. So, I just ordered a pedestal, a little kind of 11 by 11 square inch, 40 inch high pedestal for a small piece of glass art that I wanted to make sure wasn’t damaged; I wanted to keep it out of the way and light it properly. And I searched everywhere, searched everywhere, and ran into this little company called Pedestal Source, it’s an American company, make everything in the US. And they have lots of different kinds of pedestals and they make them for trade shows and for art galleries and for people’s homes. Exactly what I needed. I got the exact one I wanted. I ordered it online, never talked to anybody and paid for it and assumed that it would just kind of arrive. So, I got emails from them saying ‘hey, we’re working on it. Thanks for your order’, very good tone. I liked it a lot, lots of confirmation. And you know, this is when it’s going to happen. So, I felt very comfortable as a customer and then I got an email about five days ago. And it said, ‘your pedestal is ready, take a look’. I was like, ‘take a look?’ So I opened the email and they had taken a video which is posted on YouTube. It’s a YouTube video and the person who made my pedestal, because they’re basically custom made, so the person who made my pedestal is standing in the factory floor so you can hear sounds and stuff, there’s those drill presses and benches, saws and stuff. She’s standing next to the pedestal she just built for me. And she’s like, “Hi, Grad, (Okay, hi Grad), we just built your pedestal and I just want to make sure you’re cool with it. And she gets out a tape measure. It’s 11 and a half inches this way, 11 and a half inches that way, 42 inches this way. And it’s white, and we’re really feeling great about it and she’s turning it around for me, and it looks really awesome. I think you’re going to really love it. And if you have any questions, you can call me. My name is Marjorie”. And I was like, “Wow”. And I’m now suddenly super-excited about this pedestal. Also, a really great way to confirm that what I ordered is what they built for me. Otherwise, I’d have to ship it all the way back again, it’s kind of a big piece of wood, right. So, it’d be nice to make sure that I was happy. So wonderful confirmation, but also what an amazing customer experience. This is a small company making wooden pedestals and when I say to people, I talk to companies all around the world, I’m like, if Pedestal Source, pedestalsource.com, can figure out how to delight me with a piece of wood that’s got a light in it, then you can probably figure out how to do it with your airplane or your hotel or whatever. So, let’s talk about Conrad Hilton.

Tom Peters 
I just want to add one story. Okay, it is not 100% related. Certainly 90%. I fell down a couple of weeks ago, and you know, I’m an old man. And so, they said, ‘go get a brain scan’. Fortunately, everything was okay. Point being, you go to the hospital, and you go into the room where the scan is going to be done. And there is a tech who takes care of you. I’ll tell you nothing about what she or he is saying. And then at some stage, you know, the film, the whatever we call film these days, this goes off to a radiologist who may be in the United States, or he may be in Sri Lanka. And he does all or she does all the analysis. Here was an experiment that was run. When Tom comes in, we’ll do this with something … we will forget my little whacked head…, but somebody who has an area where it might be cancerous or what have you. Tom comes in. And they say, listen, just for our records, would it be okay if we took your photograph? And I say, ‘yeah, that’s fine for me. I don’t care what you’ve got in your records. And so they take a picture of me. Now, the radiologist, at home or abroad, is looking at his screen with all the results from my test. And they’re wavy lines with graphs or they’re ones and zeros or whatever they are. And in the upper right-hand corner of his screen, is the photo of me. Okay? What’s the implication? The implication is that that radiologist spends twice as much time on my data as the one without the photo. And, you know, I think I’m using the right term, but problems discovered in your photo are called anomalies. An anomaly is a problem. And the guy or woman with the photo in the upper right-hand corner, finds twice as many anomalies, meaning that the test was insanely more effective. And yeah, the whole effing thing is they humanize the process with a little photograph of Tom, and the results are just wildly different. And I just love that kind of stuff because I think it is related exactly to what you’re saying, and in a slightly different fashion, and certainly to your pedestal experience.

Tom Peters 
You know the value of that, for God’s sakes. I’ve been writing about it for roughly a hundred years now, and I remember my … I don’t think it was In Search of Excellence, it may have been my second book, it doesn’t matter. And I wrote about what came to be known as the two-cent candy experience. And it would just be simply a check-out at a regular grocery store, and there was a little jar, and you could take a peppermint. And you know, I guess it’s more common today than it was then. But I said, ‘Holy Smokes’. I’ll remember that peppermint until my last breath. And it’s the case, but the photo one that matches the technological manipulations of the sort that you’re talking about.

Grad 
That’s super interesting. Yeah. I’m sure you’ve read Clay Christensen’s books, you know, Innovator’s Dilemma and he wrote a book called the Innovator’s Prescription in sort of the late 90s, early 2000 period. And it’s a pretty interesting book on the issues and challenges in Healthcare, and he talks about this depersonalization a lot, and that creates a real problem. I recently had knee surgery on my left knee, at the Hospital for Special Surgery, actually here in Florida, and Dr. David Altchek did it. And David Altchek is a world-renowned knee surgeon, potentially the best knee surgeon in the world, certainly one of the top two or three at the very most. And he did a brilliant job, my knee is like 100%. It’s incredible. And the experience, and you talk a little bit about this in your book, I can’t remember which section it is, but you talk about very few patients talk about good suturing or things like that, you know, people don’t talk about the necessary bits and pieces of the healthcare experience. But I had this fascinating experience, but it goes to this whole amnesia thing and sort of executional problems. So, you’ve probably been in hospital, or I don’t know if you’ve had any surgeries, but I haven’t had zillions of it’s always been on my knees.

Tom Peters 
My surgery was knee replacement of my left knee,

Grad 
So, you know exactly what I’m talking about. So, they do this thing where they’re like, we want to confirm your name, your birthdate, and which knee we’re operating on. And they repeatedly ask your name, birthdate, and knee over and over and over again, it gets kind of funny. At one point, I’m kind of half-sedated, and one leg has been completely shaved. Dr. Altchek put an indelible X on it with some kind of magic marker, it took weeks to wash off. It was really kind of hard, there was a cloth underneath it, so it was pretty hard not to know which leg you’re operating on at this point. And they kept asking me so to just to kind of throw them I changed the knees. Because it was kind of fun to watch. And they all jumped about a foot. And we all joked about it. They ask all these questions, and they’re and they’re very, very diligent during this experience. And another question they asked you is, “Are you allergic to anything?” and I’m allergic to nuts, particularly peanuts and macadamia nuts, particularly macadamia nuts, oh my god, but peanuts are a big problem for me. And so, they repeatedly asked me and so, they made sure they didn’t spread peanut butter on me during the operation. So, it all worked out great.

Grad 
The fascinating thing is that on discharge, and this is your two-cent candy experience, on discharge, they gave me a little gift bag, kind of like, ‘Hey, thanks for letting us cut you up, friend’ and inside it were a bottle of water, post-operative instructions, an ice pack bandage, little goodies and stuff like that. And a little energy bar which was, you know, made out of peanuts. Thank god someone was …  I mean, I don’t think they would discharge me without someone picking me up but the person picking me up knew about my peanut allergy and I was actually kind of hungry. I was ravenous coming out of the surgery. And she’s like, ‘you’re not eating this’. And I was thinking what an interesting …. like, after all the work they put into fixing me, they almost killed me. Right at the very end. ’Cause their discharge system is disconnected from their intake system. And even though I said that I was allergic to peanuts at least a dozen times, there is no way to record that into the system where the bag …., and this for me is the customer experience challenge, right? This is the execution challenge that people have over and over again, of course, nobody at HSS would want that to happen. No one would think that was occurring. No one aspired to that and obviously everyone was appropriately horrified, actually, when I went back and told them about it.

Grad 
But that’s enough medical talk for today. Before I start, you know, showing off my scars and talking about other, you know, gross things that’ve happened to the body, let’s stop for a sec. In fact, we’re going a little long. And this has been an amazing conversation. So, I don’t want to extend this for too long. I want to actually go to Part Two. I’m going to cut it off for today. Tom, thank you very much. What we’re going to do is we’re going to pick this up again tomorrow and continue this amazing conversation. So, for today, I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr here with Tom Peters, world-famous author and raconteur and of course the author of In Search of Excellence and many other books and I will see you … next time.