The Case Against Digital Transformation

Something that’s being sold to you as more convenient may well be a lost social interaction that you’ll never get back – Ben Holliday, Convenience Isn’t Digital

Last week a friend of ours told me a story about trying to get some support for his partner who was ill. He was stuck in an impasse between the NHS, the Department of Work and Pensions, and Social Services.

He kept being told that either he, or the GP, or his employer, or her employer, had not supplied some piece of information. Two of the agencies blamed the NHS. The NHS blamed him.

The repeated interactions he was having with people and departments who wouldn’t, or simply couldn’t, speak to each other reminded me of the closing lines from I, Daniel Blake:

‘I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. 

I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen.’

He described the slow progress he was making against systems seemingly designed to make it as difficult as possible for him to succeed.


What really made me think though was the resignation in his voice as he said – “They just don’t seem to listen to what I’m saying – they only believe what’s on their screens.


Myth #1: Every part of an organisation should digitally transform.

Not every company, process, or business model requires or is benefited by digital transformation.

Perhaps it’s time to pause the relentless cheerleading for transformation and consider the cost of digitising everything.

What does society look like when each and every interaction with citizens has to be digitally verified?

Today in business it’s heretical to suggest that it’s sometimes easier just to pick up the phone and have a conversation with someone. Big consulting has been very quick to point out the inefficiencies of talking to people – the implication being that everything is cheaper and easier online.

Are we allowed to mention that cheaper is not always better?

The digital revolution has meant lots of things but there’s precious little evidence it has improved customer service. On the contrary, as Gerry McGovern writes in his latest post, customer experience is flatlining. Organisations have often used technology to boost short-term profits with none essential expenses (like people) being reduced, outsourced or replaced altogether by machines.

The rush towards technology implies everything can be made better when the meddling influence of people is minimised.  Even if that were true the data systems we replace them with are designed by people – and inherit many of our human flaws. We rarely ask to get a second opinion on what our data is telling us.

A better starting point might be considering the case against digital. Which part of your customer experience are you unwilling to automate and make more efficient?

First Direct – one of the UK’s first and arguably best online financial service – have deliberately made their telephone service easier to use than any other bank. That’s conscious design, deliberately adding cost to the business with the trade-off being improved customer experience.

A couple of years ago we did an experiment where we sent two colleagues out to meet with customers – devoid of any technology. What we perceived would be a huge barrier to the test turned into a net gain – the colleagues told us it enabled them to have a better conversation by not having to repeatedly look at screens. We liked the results so much we built an entire service around it.

Ultimately we have to change the leadership model, not the technology. Customer experience isn’t all about efficiency, systems and protocol. It’s letting people do what they do best — knowing customers, personalising service, surprising people with the unexpected.

Being a leader in the digital era means resisting the insistence for efficiency at all costs – and deploying digital methods where it actually improves the outcome and experience.

Rather than the continual celebration of change and transformation, we should spend more time considering its social cost.

What we are really transforming into – and why?

Do Industry Awards Inspire or Inhibit Innovation?

This week Bromford was announced the winner of the ‘Outstanding innovation of the year’ recognising our approach to testing and developing new services.

Philippa Jones, our chief executive, said: “This is fantastic recognition for so many colleagues and customers who have been at the very forefront of helping us test and shape our new approach – evolving from the original Bromford Deal to our new coaching approach and trusting relationship with customers. I’m particularly pleased that the panel praised our rigorous and transparent approach to testing and piloting our service offers through the Bromford Lab.”

As someone (me, not Philippa) – who has frequently criticised sector awards for encouraging silo thinking,  and who has challenged arbitrary lists of power-players, I half expected to get called out for my hypocrisy in attending a glitzy ceremony.

10 years ago I was all over awards ceremonies – which culminated in Bromford being announced the winner of the overall UK Customer Experience Award, which had previously being won by the likes of First Direct.

As part of that I noticed two distinct types of organisation:

  • Those who were seeking awards and accreditations as some kind of self affirmation
  • Those who were using the networks they gained through the process as part of a journey of self discovery and learning

The latter was typified by First Direct – whose approach to learning drove their own innovation. They rarely even told their own customers that they had won anything – and even to this day are self aware enough to know that awards without customer endorsement are meaningless.

This is the approach we learned from – and tried to follow – at Bromford. We never saw getting the award as the end of something – merely as a waypoint on a journey.  The 2009 seminar I did with Helena Moore on the learning we gathered from that cycle was entitled “Lessons from an Imperfect Organisation” , recognising that awards mean nothing, unless what they stand for reflects the day-in-day-out experiences of our customers, colleagues and partners at Bromford.

Awards and accreditations can act against the interests of customers.

  • They can encourage people to aim at the prize rather than the journey. I’m pretty sure Einstein didn’t develop the theory of relativity in order to get his hands on a cheque from the Nobel prize committee.
  • They can encourage organisations to tell good stories rather than promoting transparency and encouraging learning from failure.
  • They can imply that innovation is a single event, when it hardly ever is. Truly significant change is achieved over years, sometimes across generations.
  • And awards ceremonies can actually embed silo thinking – by promoting innovation at sector level when the really wicked problems need a more joined up approach.

With all that said – I’m delighted that Bromford have won this award as it marks a truly significant point in our current journey.

  • Colleagues have begun to embrace what has been a counter-cultural approach to problem definition, testing and piloting. To doing less, not more. They’ve been patient with us whilst we develop new methodologies that are evolving and imperfect.
  • Customers have worked alongside us during the , often difficult, mobilization of a new service model. That’s a whole mindset change away from the transactional SLA type relationship we used to have with customers – towards one of reciprocity, experimentation and personalisation.

It’s not done and never will be.

Awards should be used to track learning from failure rather than merely celebrate success.

Plaudits and accreditations can only be a driver for innovation if they help us forget the past and prepare for an increasingly uncertain future.


NEWS: We are about to enter Phase Two of Bromford Lab and need an Innovation Assistant to ruthlessly prioritise what we work on and grow our innovation network.  If you know someone who wants to embark on a bright new career – please share this link by 7th May. Thanks

Don’t Listen To Your Sector: Be More Weird

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Had a bit of drama over the past week. I’ll recap it for you as quickly as possible – as most readers of this blog don’t work in the same sector as I do.

Essentially Mick Kent, my CEO, wrote a challenging piece setting out why we have embarked upon a different service vision. Bromford are celebrating 50 years in business – so you wouldn’t think it particularly controversial to reflect on the past and consider the future.

Not so. The piece sparked some astonishing responses – especially on social media. Many in the sector expressed derision and even outright contempt. How could one of their own say such things?

But experience suggests this is just a natural crowd reaction to someone stepping out of line and being different.

You’ll never see a sector – be it Housing, Care, Support or Health, drive innovation. It’s simply not in the interests of the majority to reward disruptive behaviour.

It’s one of the eternal challenges for industry bodies – they have to reflect the views of their average member. And the views of the average member are, by definition, average.

You’ll never find a sector that is wholly admirable either. Be it banking, retail, travel or charitable – you will find the good, the indifferent, and the bad.

And you’ll also find a few disruptors – pacesetters who are pushing forward with a bold new vision. Often that vision will be treated with initial scepticism – sometimes by customers as well as industry peers.

In the last month the 2013 UK Customer Experience Excellence Top 20 was announced. You’ll see that it’s made up of companies who have faced criticism precisely because they challenged the accepted order of things.

Let’s glance at the Top 10 :

10 – Waitrose – Broke out of their southeast heartland despite people saying, “It’ll never work in the north”.

9 – M+S – Launched Plan A (“because there is no Plan B”)  a programme to instil innovation across 81,000 employees and lose their old fashioned image.

8 – Ocado – A High St store “without any stores “ founded by three guys with no experience of retail. “A disaster waiting to happen” said critics.

7 – Lush – Showed cosmetics can be ethical and environmentally responsible, whist also being super indulgent and pleasurable. ” We hire for values , not skills”.

6 – M+S Simply Food – Darling of the middle classes opens branches in railway stations , airports and hospitals. Critics predict failure – “People will resist the idea of carrying high cost food shopping around with them.”

5 – Virgin Atlantic – Challenging the establishment, improving service and astounding its customers: “We’ve never been afraid to upset people”.

4- Amazon – From “destroyer of Book Shops” to “destroyer of the High Street”. Adored by their customers.

3 – First Direct – The only bank people love. Launched with two ad campaigns:  a negative one showing the everyday aspects of normal banking. A positive one showing how good First Direct would be. The banking sector was appalled. Customers applauded.

2 – QVC – Almost universally derided on its UK launch in 1993. Now a global leader in video and eCommerce retail. Just launched QVC Sprouts, a crowdsourced competition to search for the best up-and-coming entrepreneurs and new products

In first place? John Lewis.

A few years ago I was talking to John Lewis employees at a conference where they had been speaking. They told me that far from being lauded by their own sector they were often criticised. People said it was arrogant and pretentious they had their own language (colleagues as “Partners” for example). Their recruitment practices and culture had been described as “a cult”.

“People just think we are a bit weird,” they told me. “But we’re not bothered by what the industry thinks. Just the customers.”

I imagine the retail sector were cynical about the fuss around The Bear and The Hare , the Christmas advert by John Lewis . As was I.

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Nearly 8 million YouTube views. Number 1 in overall UK Customer Experience. Profits of 415 million.

A lesson for innovators – don’t listen to your sector: Be Different. Be More Weird.

5 Lessons in Simple Customer Experience (Indonesian Style)

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A new report puts Amazon, McDonald’s and First Direct as the leaders in the top ten of the UK’s ‘simplest’ brands. The companies that are the easiest to deal with.

Whatever you think of them most of us could learn from their “frictionless” customer service. It’s interesting to ponder how sectors might be transformed if we had Amazon Health , McDonald’s Housing and First Direct Care.

“Our survey reveals that both in the UK and on a global scale, consumers would pay more for simplicity” says the report.

There is a huge irony here in a week when three of the brands in the bottom ten , Npower , British Gas and SSE, have announced huge price increases. Simply put – we are being asked to pay more for the companies we value the least.

I’ve been out of the UK recently and it’s led me to ponder how – as customer experience seems to get more complex –  it gets easier in places like Indonesia. Now the worlds fourth most populous country and packed full of newly aspirant Generation Y , Indonesia is tech savvy and connected. The number one consumer purchase is the smartphone. It’s a country unencumbered by bureaucracy, rules and rigid infrastructure.

No-one tells you that’s not the way to do it.

Here are 5 examples I saw that remove the friction from customer service:

You know that moment when the plane hits the runway and everyone takes their phones out only to be told you can’t use them? Annoying right? Well Qatar Airways  say it’s OK – you are free to use your phones. Texting your parents to say you’ve arrived isn’t going to kill anyone.  Which is why it’s great to see that British Airways is the first European carrier to end this outdated “rule”. Don’t create rules for your customer that are meaningless. Or at least revisit your rules often to check they are still relevant.

At Circle K and the convenience stores that are on every corner – WiFi is freely available. Benches are put up to encourage locals to park their mopeds , buy a coke and sit chatting and browsing online. These community hubs – dotted all over the place , bring the internet to everyone. If all the supermarkets in the UK did the same – we’d have a better connected society. And people would spend more in stores. Simple.

The Pop-Up Bar
The Pop-Up Bar

One of best things about South East Asia is that everyone seems to be an entrepreneur. It’s hardly ever “not my job”. A lovely example of this are the Pop-Up Bars on many of the beaches. Take one cool box, an umbrella and a couple of chairs , and hey , you’re a bar owner. On hearing that he didn’t stock what we wanted,  the “owner” left us for 10 minutes while he popped out to stock up – specifically for us. As a counterpoint – two nights after I got back to the UK I was in a bar where I heard the waitress tell a customer that they had “run out of chips”. The customer asked whether she could go to a local supermarket (literally next door) and buy some potatoes. The waitress replied that company policy said they couldn’t buy potatoes from another supplier.

On arriving at Komeneka – everyone seems to know your name. Even the gardeners greeted us as “Mr Paul and Miss Karen” as if they’d known us forever. We only stayed a short time but in 72 hours Komeneka had built a deep and meaningful customer relationship that most businesses couldn’t build , or rather couldn’t be bothered to build, over a lifetime. The Manager also told me about his unique service vision “We compete on experience. We try to be unique. Our food and wine doesn’t come with the usual hotel surcharge – we want you to stay here so you have a better experience”.

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Arriving at another hotel I apologised for being so early and said we’d wait around whilst the room was prepared. “It’s OK” they said “The boat company you used told us what time you were getting here – so we got ready early”. Despite the fact I’d used a fairly budget boat transfer they had noted where I was staying and had forwarded on my arrival time. To make it easier for me. How many times does your organisation make your customers day a little bit easier – not because there’s anything in it for you – but just because you can?

The lessons here?

  • Don’t create false rules – check them for relevance
  • Give your customers something free – or something that “feels like free”
  • Go out of your way to personalise – people remember you for it
  • Build deep and lasting relationships – even if the experience is brief
  • Make your customers day a bit easier – just because you can

It’s not complicated. Let’s get simple.

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5 Surprising Customer Service Experiences ( and what they tell us )

customer-relationship-management-2If you put “Customer Relationship” into Google you will most likely get a diagram like this.

Which doesn’t look like any relationship I’ve ever had.

Another January, more High Street woe , more stories of how customer service is declining.

My belief ? Service is actually improving in the UK. But far too slowly compared to other countries and the best online providers.

Why? Because it too often focuses on transactions rather than building relationships.

And if you focus on transactions, CRM and cross-sell , you slowly become disconnected. You think “inside out”. Like the company. Not the customer.

I’ve recently been on a trip outside the UK and would like to share 5 examples where the service focused on relationship building.

1 – The Customs Official Who Smiled

Anyone who has been to Singapore Airport will understand why it consistently appears in the Top 3 airports in the world. From free wifi , to a sublime check-in experience, to free cinema’s and botanic gardens – it’s as if Disney did airports. My stand out moment? Being presented with a tray of sweets by the Customs Official (!) , greeted by my first name , and wished a pleasant stay. Not the experience I got on returning to Manchester. Singapore Airport provides the same function as everyone else – putting planes into the sky – but they do it differently.

2- The Restaurant That Doesn’t Say No

You are the last customers in a restaurant – it’s well past closing time. You order a final couple of drinks, but they have run out of vodka. You’d be asked to change your drinks order or offered something else, right? At Again and Again they didn’t do this. The owner got on her moped, disappeared for 5 minutes and came back with a new bottle. Leaving two customers she had never met before sitting alone, and trusting that they would be there when she returned.

This tiny six table Thai restaurant is run by a Mother and her daughter. The service can be a bit slow as Mum has to cook everything from scratch and the daughter helps out in between doing her homework. But the service is provided as if you were a guest in their home. Which , funnily enough, you are. They live upstairs. And that’s the trick – by treating every customer as a house guest – you have turned a transaction into a relationship.

3- The Bank That People Love

Whilst I was away I had to phone First Direct. My comment on Twitter speaks for itself:

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First Direct continue to be a worldwide benchmark through their utter obsession with focussing on the relationship they have with you.

I’m amazed that whenever I mention them on social media I always get fellow fans joining in and adding their own experiences.

Fans. Of a bank. Aren’t we meant to hate them?

4- The Hotel That Apologises Before You Complain

A Hotel puts on a beach fireworks display. Fireworks are aimed at the guests rather than the sky. Several guests have their dinner ruined as they dive for cover. An unfortunate incident but no-one was hurt. (And if you were sitting in the right place it was actually pretty funny.)

But the Buri Rasa Koh Phangan then did something amazing. Some businesses would say something stupid. It issued a letter to everyone in the hotel – apologising and refunding one nights stay. For everyone. No argument.

By showing extreme honesty, by compensating customers before they had a chance to complain , it ensures everyone goes home happy and tells this story.

5 – The Bar That Threatens To Kill Rabbits

Imagine you go for a drink and the first thing that happens is the manager introduces herself and lays a pet rabbit before you. She then threatens to barbecue it unless you agree to eat there. This is the slightly unconventional service offered at Jip Shop , who have transformed an ordinary bar into somewhere memorable through humour and just being….weird.

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Jip will tell you that she only manages the shop. The owner is actually a tyrannical cat who refuses to pay the staff decent wages. The rabbit , Dollar , was captured by the cat and employed as a mascot. Dollar is seeking freedom by jumping from table to table to help guests. (I swear no hallucinogens were involved here).

I went in a fair few bars whilst I was away but which one stands out? Lesson for us all – Be memorable.

The death of the High Street is exaggerated – it’s just going through a necessary cycle of renewal. The big brands who forgot about relationships needed to make way for the next generation. Hopefully it will be a generation who understand that the only way to compete with online is through memorable and surprising experiences.

By the way – we went back again to Jip Shop again. Dollar survived:

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