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Shep Hyken on fostering the cult of the customer

What’s changed in customer service over the past generation? Nothing. See also: everything.


What hasn’t changed is people’s innate desire to be treated as the valued customers they are while having their problem solved. What has changed, however, is the underlying technology that powers these interactions and, ideally, makes them a lot smoother than the bygone days of toxic hold music.

There are now more ways than ever to help your customers solve their problems. And while more paths of communication mean more opportunities to make a positive impact, they also require you to tailor the right messaging to the right channel.

Take chatbots, for example. Customers don’t mind knowing it’s automated, but they like it when the experience feels natural and personalized. And just in case their issues go beyond a bot’s capabilities, it’s important to get them in touch with a real person as soon as possible.

These are just a few of the ideas Shep Hyken covers in his newly updated book, The Cult of the Customer. He’s spent his career advocating for customers, going all the way back to the age of 12, when he performed a magic show for children at a birthday party and his parents taught him the importance of sending thank-you notes to clients and asking for their feedback.

Since then, he’s made an art out caring for customers as a New York Times bestselling author, C-suite advisor, and the “Chief Amazement Officer” of his company, Shepard Presentations. He’s also been inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame alongside famous speakers such as Zig Ziglar and Norman Vincent Peale.

We sat down with Shep to discuss everything from self-service to how to chart your customer’s journey through your organization. Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. Customers want the same thing they always have: to be valued and to have a good experience. But the way we go about delivering that experience has changed.
  2. Here’s the key to personalization in the world of automation: Keep it conversational and escalate the most challenging of conversations to humans as quickly as possible.
  3. Shep’s book covers five “cults”: uncertainty, alignment, experience, ownership, amazement. Once you’re operating at the level of amazement, it’s very difficult for a competitor to come in and steal that business away.
  4. Customer service is a philosophy, and if companies don’t embrace it, they’ll wither. One way to avoid this slow death? Map out every touchpoint between you and your customer and focus on making them as positively unforgettable as possible.
  5. Many view memberships and subscriptions as the model of the future. What makes a member? It’s when a company recognizes you by name, knows your preferences, and delivers on them.

If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


Ali: Hello, Shep. We’re really excited to have you today on the show. To get us started, for any of our customers who might not be familiar with your work, could you just give us a bit of a background on yourself and your career to date?

Shep: I started my business in the 1980s. I know I look much younger than I am, and I jokingly say my very first presentation was when I was 12 years old when I was hired to do a magic show for a birthday party. There were a bunch of little kids screaming, and I entertained them for about 45 minutes. But I graduated from that into working in nightclubs, went to college and had regular jobs as well. But when I graduated college, I saw a couple of motivational speakers. I thought: “You know what? I could probably do that. That looks interesting.” I had a little business background. I’d had regular jobs. I had entertained, so I was comfortable in front of people. And when I went to the bookstore and looked for something to speak, I was drawn toward customer service books. And there weren’t that many of them.

“Not much has changed, but everything has changed”

So I bought them all, and I devoured them. And I realized that this is what I believed in my entire life. When I was a little kid, and I did my magic show, my mom said, “Write a thank-you note.” My dad said: “Call them up, and make sure they’re happy. Ask them what they really thought, and make your show better based on their feedback.” And I didn’t know that’s what companies do today. Big companies, small companies — every company does it. So really, that’s where it all started. And over the years I’ve been so lucky to work with some of the greatest and biggest companies in the world and some of the greatest, small companies in the world. I’m teaching them and working with them on building out a culture that’s focused on customer service and experience. That’s what I do.

Ali: Fantastic. I heard that you are also a member of the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame. That is extremely impressive. Can you tell me a little bit about what led to that?

Shep: I’ve been a member since the late 1980s, and they have four or five people every year go into the Hall of Fame. And these are the who’s who of professional speaking, people like and Zig Ziglar and Norman Vincent Peale – just amazing speakers – and then many speakers you haven’t heard of but who are doing incredible things around the world. I was nominated 11 or 12 times, and I finally got in. They said: “You know what? Let’s give this guy a break.”

Changing expectations

Ali: You mentioned some of the things that drew you to customer service early on, and you’ve had a pretty varied career to date. Can you take us a step beyond that initial interest to what has kept you connected within this realm of customer service over time?

Shep: As I mentioned, at age 12 when I did my magic show, I didn’t even know it was called customer service. I worked at a gas station, and an elderly lady pulled up on a very cold day and I went out and pumped her gas and my manager said: “Hey, we’re a self-service station. Why did you do that?” She was frail-looking, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. I’ve always believed in that. And when I started to read these initial books I found, I said, “I can relate to so many of these examples, because I saw that around me as I was growing up.” And more and more of the companies I work with teach me new things all the time, so what really drives me and keeps me interested is that there’s always something new.

Customers’ expectations are changing based on what’s available out there. They’re being educated as to what great service looks like and what a great experience is

People ask me what’s changed in customer service. Really, not much has changed, but everything has changed. And by not much, I mean by what people want. Nothing has changed as far as customers wanting to be treated right, to be valued and to have a good experience. But the way we go about it has changed in the form of the technology that is being used today to drive a better experience and to help companies create a better experience. It’s exponentially higher than it used to be.

There’s an old idea called Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore was one of the inventors or early pioneers of the microchip, and for a period of time, the power of the microchip kept doubling every so often. And I feel that’s what’s happening in the customer experience world too. There’s so much new artificial intelligence. I just interviewed a guy earlier today who gave me a great story. He said: “If you lived 200 years ago, and you went to a store and were treated right, you wanted to come back. But we wake up now in 2020 and think, ‘Oh my gosh, things have changed.’ But at the end of the day, people still want to be treated the right way.” So like I said, nothing’s changed, and everything’s changed, and what’s changed is exciting.

“A communication channel of any kind, is just another way to connect with a customer”

Ali: Your career was born in the pre-internet era, and you have helped companies to navigate through this new world and these new expectations. What do you think that tech companies – and in particular SaaS companies – can gain from some of the things that you learned in the early days of your career?

Shep: What we have to understand is that the customers’ expectations are changing based on what’s available out there. Also, they’re being educated as to what great service looks like and what a great experience is. Companies like Apple and Amazon are setting benchmarks that are pretty high for a lot of people. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that nothing’s changed. If you think about it, even a website or any digital channel that’s being created today is being created by a human. Even though it’s digital, but it’s meant to be used by a human. So the only thing that’s in between human and human is this new technology. Whether it’s a website, whether it’s a communication channel of any kind, it’s just another way to connect with a customer.

Now here is the potential danger. If you become so digital that your company loses its personality, you immediately go into the world of being a commodity, and there it’s hard to differentiate yourself from others. It’s very difficult to create empathy and an emotional connection. Very, very few companies have been able to do this on a digital level. But when you can, it’s amazing. But most companies, at least not today, are able to do that. You have to have the balance between technology and the human interaction if you want to keep that emotional connection with your customers.

How to personalize in an era of automation

Ali: Something we’re really big on here is keeping internet business personal. It’s a difficult thing to approach, but I think that if we across all teams keep that in mind ultimately will help to keep us on the right track. What advice do you have for companies that are looking to introduce more self-service options into their customer experience model? And how can they keep that goal of being personalized as they do so?

Shep: There are really two questions here about personalization and self-service. Self-service is giving control to the customer. Years ago, self-service was pulling into a gas station in pumping your own gas. This is kind of the same thing. Don’t want to wait for the attendant to come out? You thought, “I’ll get it done quicker and faster myself.” And it’s even a little less expensive to do so, because back when self-service was introduced at many gas stations, there was an attendant. Well, self-service became so popular that most gas stations today are self-service. I actually write about this in one of my books, called The Convenience Revolution.

“Our goal is to reduce friction, and that’s what self-service does”

Giving control to your customer is the second of six convenience principles, making it easier for them to get information to get answers to their questions. Do you resolve problems on their own? If I want to make a dentist appointment, I might be notified via email from my dentist that it’s “time to make your appointment”. Well, I’ve got a choice: I can call, wait for a staff person to answer the phone, have them pull my name up on the computer, look at my file, and finally we make an appointment. Or I can log into their site, look at the calendar, and boom, I’ve got my appointment. That’s self-service.

Self-service in the support world is all about giving the customer the information they need so they can get their answers quicker than any other way. I even considered a chat bot as a self-service because you’re able to really get it quickly. You don’t have to wait on hold for a rep to come on and talk to you. You can ask some questions right away about quite a few problems. This is a really powerful way of getting the customer the information that they need. Our goal is to reduce friction, and that’s what self-service does. It helps reduce friction and become a more convenient experience.

People can know it’s automated, but they like the fact that they’re typing back and forth in a messaging environment to a normal human being”

Ali: How do you create these automated or self-service experiences without losing that personal element of it?

Shep: Especially in the messaging world, which is what you’re all about, you want to make it so it doesn’t appear to be automated. People can know it’s automated, but they like the fact that they’re typing back and forth in a messaging environment to a normal human being. I think that’s number one. Number two is that it’s not really about personalization, it’s about keeping the connection. If, at any time, I feel that my self-service option is not working the way I want it to work, there should be an immediate, seamless bailout to a human being who can pick up the conversation where it is, instead of having to go back and start over again.

Ali: Awesome. Keep it conversational and escalate the most challenging of conversations to humans as quickly as possible.

Shep: You said that a lot shorter.

Ali: I’m a product marketer. That’s my job.

Shep: Great summary of that. Excellent.

The Cult of the Customer

Ali: Awesome. So now let’s transition to talking a bit about your latest book, The Cult of the Customer. Can you tell our listeners a bit what they can expect from this book?

Shep: The original version was written about 12 years ago. It’s been updated. All the stats and facts are now no more than a year or so old, because they have changed. Interestingly, they’ve changed in the direction we wanted them to change, for the most part. There are some stories I took out and some I left in there that were still relevant, even though some of the companies may or may not be around. I had to get rid of one about a guy who’s now in jail. I won’t mention who that is.

“The word “cult” is derivative of the Latin word “cultus”, which is about care and tending”

With this book, I started to think about what it is that customers go through as they do business with a company. And by the way, the word cult is not a dirty word. The publisher came up with the name. I went, “Whoa, that’s a weird title.” The woman who suggested it came up with the Aflac commercial.

Ali: I won’t do the duck voice.

Shep: But you know what’s cool? You don’t forget the duck voice, do you? You notice it. You may not even like the commercial, or you may love the commercial. It doesn’t matter. And I asked her about that word “cult”, because I was considering not writing the book with that title. And she said, “Well, if you’re walking through the business section, and you’re looking through books, and you see the word “cult”, your eyes are going to be drawn to that, and you’re going to wonder what it’s about? I thought, “Great idea.” So I stuck with that title.

The word “cult” is not a bad word. It’s a scary word for some, because they associate it with some fanatical type organization. But the reality is that any group of people that gets together on a regular basis with the same beliefs is a cult. That means if you’re in a group of friends that meets every Sunday at the park to run and workout together like it’s their religion, that’s like a cult. So the cult of customers is a cult that most companies want to belong to, because they want to take care of their customers. And most companies are passionate if not fanatical about it. The word “cult” is derivative of the Latin word “cultus”, which is about care and tending. And if you create an organization that cares about its people and its customer and tends to their needs, I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t want to do business with someone like that.

“There’s a bigger gap between experience and ownership, because to own an experience you have to live it more than one time”

Ali: You list five cults in your book: uncertainty, alignment, experience, ownership and amazement. Can you take us through those?

Shep: The first time you do business with a company, maybe you’ve heard they have an amazing reputation. You want to do business with them, but you’re hoping that you’re going to have that same experience that you’ve heard about. Hope is like uncertainty. There’s this feeling of: “I hope it’s going to be great. I don’t know it will be. I hope it will. Let me see what happens.” So there’s your uncertainty.

Once you get into that company and start doing business with them, maybe you’re talking to a salesperson and starting to understand who they are. You’re getting into alignment with what they’re all about. Now you’re going to quickly move into experience, because you’re about to try this company and its products.

There’s a bigger gap between experience and ownership, because to own an experience you have to live it more than one time. You have to know what’s going to happen the next time, and typically that takes some repetition to say: “You know what? Whenever I call them, they always call back quickly. They are always knowledgeable. They’re always so supportive.” And that word “always” followed by something positive is what puts you into ownership.

“Even when there’s a problem, I know I can always count on them”

Shep: And by the way, I say positive, because you could have a bad experience too, I guess. But then you probably would be a not willing to move to the next cult, which is the cult of amazement. When it’s a positive, owned experience, and you know you can count on it, that’s when that company is operating at its optimal level with their customer. And by the way, when a company makes a mistake, or there’s a problem or a complaint, that customer immediately goes back to uncertainty. But the best companies have a system in place. They’ve trained their people well, and because of the way they handle it, they very quickly jump them right back into amazement.

And this is what we ultimately want our customers to say: “Even when there’s a problem, I know I can always count on them.” And once we’re operating at that level, it’s very difficult for a competitor to come in and steal that business away from a company that’s operating at that level. Even if they are thinking about leaving, they might give that company a chance to own and keep that business, especially in the B2B world. This transcends across B2B and B2C. Wouldn’t it be nice if the government caught onto this?

Ali: You talk about amazement a lot in this book, but it’s also something that’s just central to what you talk about all the time. What are the key differences between amazement versus satisfaction, and what are some of the pitfalls of teams who may be focused too much on satisfaction without upleveling to that amazement?

Shep: Upleveling to amazement is not a difficult thing to do, because in just a moment, you’re going to say: “I don’t want to satisfy customers anymore. That’s a waste of time, and they’re not going to come back if all I do is satisfy them.” There’s a big difference between a satisfied customer and a loyal customer. Satisfactory is a rating. Loyalty is an emotion. Once again, that word “always” comes into play, because people don’t use that word unless you’re somewhat connected to who they’re doing business with in a positive way anyway.

“Whenever there’s a problem, the way you handle it turns that bad experience into an amazing experience – if it’s handled correctly”

But here’s the point with satisfaction. On a scale of one to five where one is bad and five is great or even amazing, three is average. And if you are a three, you think that being bad and average belong together, because anytime you can find something better than just okay, you’re going to move on and do business with them. I’ll quote Horst Schulze, who is the first president and co-founder of the Ritz Carlton organization. When he set out to create this world-class brand that would be recognized as one of the finest hotels in the world, he said that the way to do it wasn’t to be over the top every time, but just to be better than average. Being 10% better than average all of the time will make people say you’re amazing.

And once in a while, you’ll have a chance to be amazing when something falls in your lap. Maybe if you’re a server at a restaurant, you hear there’s an anniversary at your table, and you surprise them with the little dessert and the candle. Or maybe you’re the inside salesperson for a manufacturer, and you hear about a problem one of your customers is having, and you’re able to do something special for them. You expedite an order or whatever. And whenever there’s a problem, the way you handle it turns that bad experience into an amazing experience – if it’s handled correctly. So you can’t wait for those to fall into your lap or to happen. You’ve got to consistently and predictably be a little bit above average.

And by the way, your customers are going to define what average is, so find out from them what they think the benchmarks are. Then figure out a way just to beat it a tiny bit. When you do that, that’s where you’re in that amazing zone. Making it 10% better than average is attainable. Who can’t do that? But doing it all the time is what’s hard.

Ali: What you said there about identifying small moments to surprise and delight is actually something that’s really top of mind for our marketing team right now. We recently had an offsite where we talked about how you create those spark-like moments. If you seek them out, there are plenty of them available. But capitalizing on them consistently is what we all agreed was the challenge.

Shep: Yeah, you have to listen closely, because that’s where you’ll find those moments. A customer may not have a complaint, but they may say something to you that makes you realize, “Oh, there’s an opportunity to fix something here or make something better.” Or you find out something even personal about that customer, and you can surprise them.

Customer support is a philosophy

Ali: You’ve previously said that customer service is not a department, but more of a philosophy that needs to be embraced by everyone within a company. How can companies that are growing and scaling quickly instill this ethos across their whole organization?

Shep: Well, first of all, if they don’t do it, they are going to potentially die a slow death – or maybe a quick one – because everybody has to be on board when it comes to customer service and experience. A journey map is a great tool for simply plotting out the journey your customer has with you. And there could be multiple journeys: a repeat customer versus a first-time customer, a customer who buys this product versus that product. Or one who goes online versus goes into a store, if it’s a retail environment. So many of my clients have multiple customer journey maps. From there, you look at ways to improve the opportunity at each interaction point. Everything we’ve talked about thus far is about that. But now we’re going deeper into the company, the culture, the other employees. Look at what drives those touch points.

If I do a journey map – not just of the top line, but what impacts that top line inside – I’m going to hit virtually every department and every employee in the company who’s responsible for something that the customer is eventually going feel. We need to train people to recognize where that is and why their function is important. We need to remind them of it over and over again. When you do training, it’s not something you do once. It’s ongoing.

“When a customer comes into contact with any aspect of a business, they form an impression”

Shep: Let me give you a quick example: airlines. It all starts with Jan Carlzon and the idea of the moment of truth. When a customer comes into contact with any aspect of a business, they form an impression. He ran Scandinavian Airlines, and a passenger is his customer. Now, there are many people who work for the airline that will never see that passenger’s face, will never talk to the passenger, will never interact with the passenger. For example, the person who handles your bags underneath the airport: you see your bag go down that conveyor belt, and the next time you see your bag, it’s at your destination on the carousel. Probably a dozen people touched that bag. One person looked at the tag, they scanned it and made sure it got to the right pile. Then somebody put it on a cart and drove it out to the plane. Another person put it on the plane. Somebody in the plane moved it around. And then the whole thing takes place when you land almost in reverse.

Lots of people touch the bag. None of them see the customer. But if they fail to do their job, they are failing the passenger and somebody else. They have a second customer, an internal customer. And in that case, it happens to be the poor person who stands in that baggage claim office as customers come in and scream at them about their lost luggage. So almost everybody, even if they’re not dealing directly with the customer, supports somebody who has some level of responsibility that will impact the customer experience.

The model of the future

Ali: Switching gears a little bit, you recently interviewed Tien Tzuo, founder and CEO at Zuora. and you two spoke about the subscription model being the future, which is a track they’ve been on for the better part of the last decade. Can you tell us about how your own membership model approach fits in with the customer experience?

Shep: You can look at a customer a number of different ways. One of my books was called The Amazement Revolution. And the first of the seven strategies had to do with membership. When you start looking at your customers as members and not just customers, what does that really mean? I used American Express as one of the main case studies throughout the book. What do they say? They call their customers “members”, and they say membership has its privileges.

“The idea of subscription is things come to you on a regular basis. You can count on them. Customers love that consistency”

They’re a credit card company, and you can get other credit cards that give you similar benefits. But their goal – and what their culture is about – is treating a customer like a member. So what is a member? And again, this subscription model is important, because if you’re a member of a club, you typically pay dues. If you subscribe to a software program with a monthly recurring fee, that’s a subscription model. You may not call somebody a member, but it is ongoing revenue.

The idea of subscription is things come to you on a regular basis. You can count on them. Customers love that consistency. They love the confidence that it’s always going to happen. If it’s a software company, they know that they’re going to get the upgrades automatically, and they just keep subscribing. And that’s the beauty of it. By the way, Ali, are you a member of a club?

Ali: I am a member of a gym, which feels a little bit like a club. And sometimes a little bit like a cult.

Shep: Yeah. You’re not a member of a fancy club, but you’re a member of some place that you pay money to get into. Because without paying those membership dues or that subscription, you’re not going to be allowed in. And what do you get from a gym? You basically get a nice place to work out. You get a towel. You might get a shower.

“You can call them customers, you can call them patients, you can call them clients, guests – whatever you want to call them. But have a membership mentality”

So I mean, somebody could call you a customer or a client, but what if they treated you like a member? You don’t have to call somebody a member to treat them like one. And what would a member get? You would recognize them by name, you would know who they are, you would know their preferences. And I think that’s the beginning of a membership mentality. You can call them customers, you can call them patients, you can call them clients, guests – whatever you want to call them. But have a membership mentality.

Ali: Before we wrap up, we typically like to ask our guests if there are any leaders in their space who inspire them. Is there a customer service or customer experience leader that you really admire?

Shep: Wow. I would say I’m a cliche when it comes to this question. Nobody’s ever asked me this before. I’ve had mentors in my life, but as far as my customer service heroes: Horst Schulze from the Ritz Carlton. Jeff Bezos. How could you not admire that guy? His whole company has been all about being relentless and focusing on the customer. Tony Hsieh, who created Zappos, which eventually was bought by Amazon. Why? Because you know the model, it’s very similar.

I look at those people and say, “Wow, it would be amazing to sit down with them and just spend time understanding how they think.” Jeff Bezos, especially. You know the rumor is that in the boardroom, there’s an empty chair. That’s a chair for the customer. They’re always keeping the customer in mind, foregoing a chunk of profit so they can become innovative in giving their customers a better experience. Because longterm, they’re going to pick up more customers. They’re going to more than make up for what they might lose in profitability by putting that money toward great ideas. Those are some of my idols.

Ali: Thank you for sharing that. Lastly, where can folks keep up with your work?

Shep: My Twitter handle is @hyken, my website is hyken.com. You can find me on LinkedIn. I have a great YouTube channel at ShepTV.com. I have 600 plus videos on there, many of which are just tips that I share on a weekly basis. So there’s lots of content out there. Don’t forget the book: The Cult of the Customer. I would love for everybody to get a copy. It’s a great book, and everything we do in our daily workshops that we charge our clients lots of money for – all the forms and exercises are actually in the back of that book for companies to use. So I hope they take advantage of that.

Ali: Thank you, Shep. It’s been really great to have you on. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Shep: My pleasure. Thank you.