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CX pioneer Jeanne Bliss on building customer-centric businesses

Building a business is not unlike building the best version of yourself. What do you want your legacy to be?

This question has been shaping customer experience expert Jeanne Bliss’s career for as long as she remembers. Jeanne is one of the leading voices on customer-centric leadership. In fact, she wrote her first book, Chief Customer Officer, long before that type of role was even widely known. She’s been coaching business leaders for over 30 years, helping them build more customer-centric initiatives and create long-lasting, memorable relationships with their customers. Nowadays, she’s the founder and CEO of Customer Bliss and the co-founder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association.

Over the course of her career, she has coached about 20,000 leaders, given 1,500 keynotes, and written four books, all with the goal of empowering businesses and leaders to unlock the benefits that come with being more customer-centric. And if there’s one thing she’s realized throughout her career, it’s that the reactive nature of customer support is holding back customer experience leaders from reaching their potential. For businesses to grow, they must rise above the constant stream of issues and deflection strategies and shift to a proactive CX approach.

We recently spoke with Jeanne to learn more about what it takes to create a sustainable, customer-centric business strategy.

Here are some of our favorite takeaways from the conversation:

1. What will your legacy be?

Our favorite point Jeanne made came from an anecdote about her father. When she was a child, he had a shoe store, where he prioritized providing excellent, personalized customer service. He took such great care of his customers, in fact, that when he retired, people lined up to say goodbye. The lesson? Your leadership style, the way you conduct your business, even the kind of person you are, year after year, will define how you’ll be remembered. When coming up with a business strategy, ask yourself: when you retire, will people line up to say goodbye?

“I watched him take care of people and he became a part of the story of people’s lives, so much so that when he retired, a line of people three-blocks long stood to say goodbye to him. And that’s my work today, encouraging people to find their ‘three-blocks long’. How will they be remembered when they interact with people for how they improve their lives, for how they behave, or how they show up as people?”

2. Ditch the reactive approach

Over the years, Jeanne has outlined the five customer leadership competencies she believes all customer experience leaders should learn. They all share one common goal: to take the reactive nature off of the work. It’s not about tackling problems as they pile up or chasing survey scores, it’s about building the foundation for customer-driven growth.

The five competencies:

  1. Customers as assets
  2. Align around customer experience
  3. Build a customer listening path
  4. Proactive experience, reliability, and innovation
  5. One-company accountability, leadership, and culture

Jeanne calls this customer-centric framework a cycle of virtuous growth:

“My approach really pushes people to know who they are, to know their customer’s goals, so they can build it and live it and sustain it. I keep evolving because you have to and also because I think that my role is to help people recognize that this is an ongoing way for business growth. It’s not a program or some kind of a cool thing of the moment. It’s sustainable”

3. It’s not about you

Jeanne has her own podcast where she chats with customer experience leaders around the world. At the end of every episode, she always asks “What do you know now that you wish you knew then?” The reason, she tells us, is because she had an epiphany back in the 1990s, right out of her first job as a customer experience leader at retailer Lands’ End. This epiphany helped her not only scale professionally, but understand the core mission of her job a lot better:

“You’re going on your learning curve, and the biggest thing is to check your ego at the door. You need to shine a big spotlight on others. This work is about uniting and engaging and giving people the ability to do their best work, not only alone but together. That’s the function you provide – a comprehensive view and the ability to unite”

Caught your interest? We’ve gathered a list of articles, videos, and podcasts you can check out:

This is Scale, Intercom’s podcast series on driving business growth through customer relationships. If you enjoy the conversation and don’t want to miss future episodes, just hit subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify, or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. You can also read the full transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity, below.

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The three-blocks-long hypothesis

Dee Reddy: Jeanne, you are so very welcome along to Scale today. We’re delighted to chat with you about your work as president of Customer Bliss and beyond. To kick us off, I think a lot of our audience will be very familiar with your work, but do you want to give us a bit of background on yourself for anyone who hasn’t come across it before?

“He became a part of the story of people’s lives, so much so that when he retired, a line of people three-blocks long stood to say goodbye to him”

Jeanne Bliss: Sure, absolutely, and thanks so much. It’s lovely to be with you. My work in building humanity into business started when I was a child and my dad had a Buster Brown shoe store. I watched him take care of people and he became a part of the story of people’s lives, so much so that when he retired, a line of people three-blocks long stood to say goodbye to him. And that’s my work today, encouraging people to find their “three-blocks long”. How will they be remembered all throughout when they interact with people for how they improve their lives, for how they behave, or how they show up as people?

My career began in a really wonderful way. I was at Lands’ End helping Gary Comer, the founder, grow that business. We went from $100 million to a billion-dollar company. I was the first version of a chief customer officer there, Gary called me the conscience of the company as we were growing over 80% a year. We needed to make sure that as we brought lots of people in, we stayed in concert with the values that made us grow in the first place.

And then, I went to a number of other companies learning and stretching and building out this role and this work. From Lands’ End, I went to Mazda Motor of America and then Coldwell Banker, where I was a senior vice president. Allstate, the first vice president of customer satisfaction and loyalty, and then finally to Microsoft, where I was the first general manager of worldwide customer and partner loyalty.

After that, I wrote four books. I am also the co-founder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association. I’ve been coaching leaders around the world since 2002. I’ve coached about 20,000 leaders, and I have given about 1500 keynotes.

One part data, one part empathy

Dee: There are so many points in that career that you could probably do an episode on in and of itself, but it strikes me, Jeanne, that across your 35-year career, you’ve really been at the forefront of modernizing the discipline that you work in. I love that your understanding of the role, as you alluded to with your “three-blocks long” ideology, it’s really deep-rooted in your personality and goes back to your childhood.

Jeanne: It is. It’s hilarious in a way, and it’s not just my dad, it’s also in my bones. I’m 100% Italian and so I think I’m just wired for this work. It’s also fascinating because as this work was starting to become understood and known, it didn’t really fit into any bucket if you will.

I remember when I was in my 20s and I was interviewing for a job, I think it was for the Gap. My formal degree is in retail marketing and I have another one in apparel design, and they put me through an assessment. This work is right brain/left brain. You need to know the data, but then you have to weave it into a story and engage people and make it real and human. They couldn’t figure out where to place me because I would have fit in both sales and marketing, which were the two things at the time. What’s fascinating for me is that it’s really about uniting and being glue. Gluing together organizations to understand life from the customer’s point of view.

Dee: That seems to have been an insight or a perspective that you’ve championed throughout your career. I always think that anyone that has worked in a discipline that’s evolved over their career has a really unique vantage point in terms of predicting where that discipline might go in the future.

“The importance of humanity is what really pushed me to the ‘three-blocks long’ ideology. How will you be remembered? Who are you as a person?”

Jeanne: Yeah, it’s been fascinating. I’ve lived through every derivation of this, total quality management, quality, all of those things, and at the end of the day, it’s about finding leaders to listen, taking it seriously, and taking it personally. A notion that we still do around the world called the customer room is something we began in 1984 at Lands’ End, where we hung up every kind of product around the room on the wall and looked at how they were all different and how we were telling a hundred different stories to the customers.

Today I’ve translated it to be around customer goals and how you listen. The work we do with leaders is now transformed into five competencies that are in my book Chief Customer Officer 2.0, based on how to embed leadership behaviors into business growth. And so you’re right, I mean, it’s taken me 35 years to keep sharpening it. During COVID, the importance of humanity is what really pushed me to the “three-blocks long” ideology. How will you be remembered? Who are you as a person?

My approach really pushes people to know who they are, to know their customer’s goals, so they can build it and live it and sustain it. I keep evolving because you have to and also because I think that my role, especially now as the old lady of the sea, is to help people recognize that this is an ongoing way for business growth. It’s not a program or some kind of a cool thing of the moment. It’s sustainable. But you have to keep evolving it.

Different books for different stages

Dee: I love that, along with that discovery journey, you’ve actually taken the time to map it out for other people because, as you mentioned earlier, you’ve written four books on the topic, including Chief Customer Officer and Chief Customer Officer 2.0. How did each of these come about, and what is the different story you wanted to tell with each?

Jeanne: The first Chief Customer Officer book came out in 2006. I had left Microsoft in 2002 and had started doing a lot of public speaking. We had an ill child right after that period, so I had a little bit of a break there for a year. She’s fine now.

I knew I needed to write a book about this work because nobody had written about the role or the grueling approach it took to glue silos together and to gain the engagement of the CEO and the leadership team. So I was grateful that Jossey-Bass and Wiley wanted to publish this book. They wanted to call it Customer Ownership, and I said to them, “This is completely the opposite end of the coin of what this is supposed to be.” So they begrudgingly let me call it Chief Customer Officer 2.0. The subtitle is important, “How to Get Past Lip Service to Passionate Action”. At that point, that book was a little bit of a rant. It was everything I had gone through in 25 years in helping people who were also going through it, figuring it out, knowing they had a friend in me. It was like being shot out of a cannon. It was fascinating and wonderful all at the same time.

“I basically gave away my whole coaching approach. People thought I was nuts”

A couple years after that, I wrote a book called I Love You More Than My Dog: Five Decisions that Drive Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad. All of my books are there for a different reason. The CCO books are about helping to navigate the silos and the methodology around uniting an organization. The dog book and then the other are about inspiration and showing people the beacon companies. It’s really about deciding to believe, deciding with clarity of purpose, deciding to be real, deciding to be there, and deciding to say sorry. It was about fundamentally shifting leaders and organizations.

In 2015, I rewrote the CCO book because I had been coaching leaders for so long and felt that it was important to give them a more rigorous framework. And so I basically gave away my whole coaching approach. People thought I was nuts, but again, it’s been lovely and wonderful, and I’ve had the best time engaging with people and coaching them on that content as well.

And then, in 2015, I felt like CX had become this very complicated thing, we were losing the forest for the trees on it, focusing way too much on mechanics like voice of the customer only or journey mapping only, which turned into 4500 Visio maps. So I wrote a book called Would You Do That to Your Mother? And that book has been wonderful.

Building a customer-driven growth engine

Dee: Let’s get a little bit more into the weeds in some of the work you do in terms of coaching. I’ve seen that you’ve written that for CX to drive growth it must rise above the fray of being defined by reactive problem solving to the most recent customer calamity or chasing survey scores. I have to say I really love that insight, and it led me to a framework that you’ve devised called The Five Competencies. I’d love to delve into each of those if we can, but before we get really deeply involved in each one, would you be able to list them off in a quick way?

Jeanne: Sure. The Five Competencies are these things that came out of these 35 years of doing work. Honor customers as the asset of the business – at the end of the day, it’s the customer voting with their feet that tells you if the experience you delivered was worth it for them. Then, align around experience, around customer’s goals, not your internal goals or what you think is important. In a lot of companies, you ask them what their journey map is, and it’s their pipeline, their funnel. That’s not a [customer] goal map.

Then, build a customer listening path, which means aggregating multiple sources of information by each goal, and have a customer early warning system or proactively reach out knowing the KPIs or the metrics that are important to your customer, not you. And then, prove its competency – prove to your employees that you’re lining up or putting your money where your mantra is by supporting their ability to deliver value.

Dee: I love it. So maybe we could delve into each of those in a little bit more detail. You said that a company needs to start treating its customers as assets. How can somebody start the groundwork on that?

“Instead of it being what you want to get from a customer, rewrite it to be what goals your customer wants to achieve as a result of working with you”

Jeanne: Well, the whole point of this is math. You need to build a one-company version of the truth, as I call it. As a result of the experience we delivered in this month or quarter, or year, how many new customers did we bring in, volume and value? That takes everybody agreeing on what is new and what is a customer because a lot of the time, the salespeople feel like they own this information.

Then the math is, “Okay, how many did we lose in this month or quarter or year?” Either customer that walked away completely or customers who downgraded. The real number in customer asset growth is the net growth or loss of the customer base. At the end of the day, that’s what we need to care about. That builds the whole path for caring about the why and implementing and living the rest of the competencies.

Dee: That makes a lot of sense. You’ve said on your website that you recommend a blueprint for storytelling over journey mapping. Do you want to expand on that a little bit for us?

Jeanne: Sure, that’s what I call a goal map, and it’s really rewriting the blueprint for the organization to, instead of it being what you want to get from a customer, rewrite it to be what goals your customer wants to achieve as a result of working with you.

Dee: Brilliant. And then, in terms of a listening path, what advice would you give to a CX leader who wants to move their team beyond surveys?

Jeanne: I think this is about aggregating a lot of sources of information. What we do is we present survey results and everybody goes scurrying off, or we present the verbatims from complaints and everybody goes scurrying off. This is about gluing the way you categorize information together and then aggregating multiple sources by goals so you’re telling a balanced story of the customer’s life.

“You need to know before your customer tells you that things have gone off on the rails. If you’re waiting for complaints or survey results, the customer’s got their foot halfway out the door”

Dee: Brilliant. And then your fourth one, which you touched on earlier, and it’s something that speaks to us here in Intercom, it’s celebrating proactive support. You’ve called that, and I love this analogy, revenue erosion early warning system. Can you tell us a little bit about why you feel this is so integral as part of The Five Competencies?

Jeanne: Well, you need to know before your customer tells you that things have gone off on the rails. If you’re waiting for complaints or survey results, the customer’s got their foot halfway out the door. And again, this is about recalibrating the metrics in what you measure. If you’re only measuring things you care about and not what the customer is going through, then you may think everything is hunky-dory. You’re giving yourselves green dots all over the place, when in fact, from the customer’s point of view, they’re red because we’re not really doing what they need. And so, this is about knowing when those red dots are happening from the customer standpoint and having a path to reach out and prevent value erosion.

Dee: Your last one is the prove-it-to-me competency. Is this something that has to come chronologically after the others, or is it something that we should be doing from the ground up?

Jeanne: No, we work on these simultaneously. I mean, a lot of times, we’ll work on a prove-it-to-me action item early in the game. For example, we’ll get our people involved in identifying stupid rules that get in the way of delivering value and kitbashing some of those rules so that our employees have hope and realize that we’re, again, this is a real thing that we’re committed to.

Dee: Yeah, and I think a lot of CX leaders that we’ve spoken to over the course of this series have said that giving their teams the ability to have a creative input and some control over the decision-making process really helps in terms of building accountability amongst the team.

Jeanne: Yeah, very true.

Dee: So then, from your experience in implementing these five competencies, what sort of results have organizations seen by adopting the framework?

Jeanne: I call it a cycle of virtuous growth. It’s proactive, but it also culturally changes how you choose to grow. One of the things we also do are non-negotiables, or build a guide for decision-making goal-by-goal, what will we always do, what will we never do. It unites leadership. It removes the reactivity of the work from reacting to survey scores to have a consistent pattern and path for understanding, growing, and continuing forward.

One epiphany later

Dee: Jeanne, I’d love to hear a little bit about your podcast, as a fellow podcaster. I’d love to hear how that came about and how it’s going for you.

Jeanne: Oh, it’s going well. We’ve done, gosh, I think 300 of them, at least. My goal has always been to share the real-life stories of other people leading this work so a) people can take action items from it and b) so that they know that they’re not alone. And so yeah, we’ve been having a lot of fun. For me, it’s about giving and giving back. It’s called the Chief Customer Officer Human Duct Tape Show.

Dee: Fantastic. I love the title. Do you have a guest that really stands out as your favorite episode?

Jeanne: I wouldn’t say favorite because they are all wonderful in many ways. I’ve been honored to have some really cool people on. As we got into COVID, I wanted to bring brain-expanding people on. And so, Tom Peters joined me for an episode. Seth Godin joined me for an episode. Horst Schulze, the founder of Ritz-Carlton, joined me for an episode.

Those people have been really wonderful and very generous in gifting their time. I wouldn’t say those are my favorite because the brave people out there are wonderful, and I just have so much admiration for all of them. We’ve really enjoyed these folks we don’t get to talk to all the time, and it’s been a joy to have those folks on the podcast as well.

Dee: This series is really about hearing how companies can scale their growth. Before we wrap up, I’d love to know, was there a turning point in your career that helped you scale professionally?

“You’re going on your learning curve, and the biggest thing is to check your ego at the door”

Jeanne: Well, what’s fascinating is as you go through doing this work, things evolve. And in fact, that’s why the last question in my podcast show is always: “What do you know now that you wish you knew then?” For me, I had an epiphany. It was between Lands’ End and Mazda, I think. I was quite young. When I left Lands’ End, I was only 32.

You’re going on your learning curve, and the biggest thing is to check your ego at the door. You need to shine a big spotlight on others. This work is about uniting and engaging and giving people the ability to do their best work, not only alone but together. That’s the function that you provide – a comprehensive view and the ability to unite.

Dee: It’s definitely something that, having read about your career and chatted to you, you’ve championed the whole way along.

Jeanne: Like any young person in business, we’re encouraged to achieve inside of organizations by making our own star go brighter, and having metrics that are about us. And this is different than how you normally rise inside of an organization. It’s fundamentally a shift. If somebody brings a chief customer officer on, the CEO really needs to understand this isn’t about pinning on their back increasing NPS three points, right? It’s far broader than that.

Future plans

Dee: Love it. And what’s next for you, Jeanne? What are your big plans or projects that you’ve got lined up for 2021?

Jeanne: I’m really working on this notion of helping people and companies build their “three-blocks long”. It’s been a really fascinating journey. Like everybody else, I’m also looking forward to having a life again where we can go out and travel and hug our friends and our relatives.

Dee: I think we’re all looking forward to some in-person conversations as well. I can’t wait to get some guests back in the studio, I must say. So lastly then, Jeanne, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Jeanne: Great, thank you. So my website is easy to find, customerbliss.com, and @jeannebliss on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Dee: I love it. As somebody whose surname is Reddy, I always appreciate someone with a word that can be used in a website for their name. Jeanne, it’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you today. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us.

Jeanne: My pleasure, and stay safe.