Experience Design as a Secret Way to Communicate with Customers

Mike Wittenstein advises that all CX professionals are to try their hand at experience design – not only to look at things from the customer's perspective but to organise the business in a way that delivers better CX.


  • We are living in a blender of change, which presents a challenge for brands that typically rely on predictability to sell their products, says Mike Wittenstein, CX Coach, Consultant, and Founder at Storyminers. Marketers and CX practitioners are dealing with a sea of change. It may be time to go back to the basics.

    At Storyminers, Wittenstein does three things: customer experience, strategy, and story — all of which are intimately connected, he says. Growing up in Orlando, Florida, he had a lot of friends who worked at Walt Disney World, and they came with stories of how things worked behind the scenes. They talked about going on stage, performing, and staying in the story—all key phrases that built an environment of magic and delight for customers. “I took Disney courses and have spoken on stage with Disney people. It’s just fascinating to learn how good a customer experience can be.”

    Interestingly, Disney World will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023.

    Wittenstein started his career at IBM as their e-visionary in 1999. “I was connected with a guy named Lou Carbone. Carbone is the founder of a company called Experience Engineering. I sold my first IBM account to McDonald’s to help them figure out what their wireless or digital drive-through would be like—imagine ordering from your phone instead of waiting to get it to the loudspeakers to get your food.”

    Carbone taught Wittenstein about experience design. He began to see it as a secret way to communicate with customers that went beyond what went in the box. It taught him how to look at things from the customer’s perspective and how to organise the business to deliver a better customer experience.

    Excerpts from the interview;

    How is the role of the CX leader changing, and what are the new responsibilities?

    The role of the customer experience leader is still evolving, emerging, and maturing. It used to be that this person was in charge of metrics or testing out new software in call centres, reservation systems, and the like. Today, the customer experience leader’s role is far greater than that. It encompasses everything a company does to and with its customers. It goes beyond metrics, project management, operations, and service design and into the company’s strategy. Customer experience can be that language that unites all parts of a business, allowing them to work together. I’m excited to see the first CEOs who started in customer experience, particularly for service brands. This is where the role is headed.

    What advice would you give leaders to build a culture of data-driven decision-making?

    I wouldn’t do that. I’ve seen so many businesses that have taken data-driven decision-making to extremes, resulting in ludicrous decisions, terrible for customers yet seemingly beneficial to the business. They try to take less, and that culture can be detrimental to the business’s long-term success. Therefore, while I appreciate the value of good data, it should be balanced. There should be a consideration of how to make more money efficiently, as well as how to provide customers with more value. Value for customers could include feelings of belonging, transformation, and heritage connection.

    A customer council can provide a balancing factor in this quickly changing world. This council should include several customers and represent a wide range of people. As things change, such as inflation or strategic shifts, it is important to consult the customer council to gauge their response and get their insights. If you are building a data-driven business, do it—it will teach you a lot and help you run more efficiently—but also focus some of those metrics on your customers. It will help speed up the process of learning and doing. To do this, start a customer council: your customers will tell you what you need to know.

    What is the main challenge brands face that impacts customer loyalty and retention?

    Everyone is facing the same challenge: change. Everything around us constantly evolves—supply chains, buying behaviours, technology capabilities, interests, and preferences. We are living in a blender of change, which presents a challenge for brands that typically rely on predictability to sell their products. Customers now expect more, different, and new things. As a CX leader, it is important to keep the promises that were originally made to them. This involves forging relationships within the company to deliver the same promise in a new way. In order to succeed in this ever-changing environment, businesses must be able to adjust and remain calm.

    Customer expectations have evolved; should we be evolving the metrics we use to measure satisfaction?

    Customer experience metrics are often outdated. The trick in a good leader’s pocket is to pick the right metrics. The old adage is true that you get more of what you measure. If you want more sales, you measure sales. However, a missing metric in today’s constantly changing environment is the creation of customer value. We think about lifetime customer value as how much money the company brings in, but we also need to measure how much value the company creates for the customer.

    The more we are able to do with our technologies and service people, the more people will want to work with us, refer us, and spend on us, assuming it is something they need. People will only spend so much, of course.

    The metrics always need to evolve, but the core metrics need to shift from what the company gets to what the customer gets. As soon as a customer experience practitioner can figure out the right metrics that drive loyalty, referrals, and purchases while also working well for the company, they are in the right spot. This answer cannot be found in a textbook or best practice—companies need to figure this out by understanding their customers.

    Talk us through the connection between stories and customer experience on the inside.

    Customer experience and storytelling are closely related—they are two sides of the same coin. Experiences happen to you or that you enjoy, but what do you do with them when they are over? You convert them into stories. Word of mouth is born from sharing experiences as stories. When someone hears a story, they are not only listening, but their brain also has an experience of their own. Understanding this connection can help you take advantage of how our minds work. Experiences beget stories, and stories beget experiences.

    When it comes to larger issues, such as customer experience, which touches everything from call centres to databases to artificial intelligence, one of the fastest ways to move forward is to share your idea for the next generation of customer experience as a story. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen to write it down, or if you’re feeling creative, you can use animations or videos. Putting people into the future and changing the circumstances so that it works well and can help people believe what the future can be. This is the same formula used in movies, shows, and plays—they get people to suspend their disbelief and imagine they are in a different time or place. You can also use this reaction to shape the customer experience strategy and the strategy of your entire firm—just by using stories.

    The connection between stories and customer experience is deep, rich, and worth exploring.

    Chatbots are being used to ease the load on customer contact centres – is there a way to inject empathy into dialogue flows?

    Chatbots – sometimes you love them, sometimes you hate them. Most people need to understand that chatbots need to be trained, and it takes a while for them to start to comprehend what normal customer requests are. This is where most of the attention is directed. But customers can become frustrated when they ask questions beyond the norm, creating dissonance in businesses.

    There are a few ways to get the best results from chatbots while keeping customers happy. First, anticipate what customers are going to ask. When having a digital conversation, you can figure out which app they are using, where they are, and with permission, what time of day it is. You can also check their record to see what their last interaction was. Use logic to predict if there was a recent high ticket purchase, return, or problem with their order or account. This will limit the number of choices and improve the customer’s options.

    Second, context is important. Customers may prefer to speak to a human when dealing with something sensitive, like an issue with a bank account. This is because chatbots aren’t able to access the most private parts of an account and make changes. Therefore, chatbots need to be able to reroute calls to a human agent.

    Finally, personalise conversations by applying a learning library. For example, suppose a customer is having trouble with a washing machine. The chatbot can bring up instructions that other customers have used to dry their blankets faster without causing damage. Additionally, the chatbot can suggest to the customer that they can report back with the results so other customers can benefit from their experience.

    In summary, anticipate customer requests, use context, transfer to a human when necessary, and personalise conversations using learning libraries. These are four things that can make a difference in the customer experience.

    What advice would you give marketers to tackle inflation pressures and the consequent impact on customer spending habits?

    It’s important to understand that marketers have little direct influence on inflation, as it is a complex issue involving countless companies and government decisions, plus the supply chain.

    One of the things marketers can do to address the negativity around inflation is to tell stories based on the facts, explain what’s happening in a particular industry or company, changes to pricing, level of service delivery, and so on. Product manufacturers understand inflationary times well; for example, the sizes of candy bars and boxes of cereal have fluctuated over the years.

    Raising prices to combat inflationary pressures in the service industry is not advisable. Instead, customer experience designers and managers should look at the inflationary pressures and study their customers to determine which combinations of service, product, and support best meet their needs.

    As customers look to rebalance their spending with all the various groups they work with, marketers can position themselves to deliver more value and increase their chances of keeping and gaining customers.


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