We think of innovation as something that happens behind closed doors, but what would you be able to unlock if customers felt they were part of the creative process?
Today, most innovative solutions arise from the collective efforts of multidisciplinary teams, with each member bringing their unique strengths to the table. And when it comes to innovation in customer service, who knows about customer needs and hopes better than the customers themselves?
Chip Bell is an author and consultant in customer loyalty and service innovation who is widely recognized for co-developing the concept of customer journey mapping, which to this day is a cornerstone of how companies develop a deep understanding of their customers and how to engage with them.
In 1980, Chip founded the consulting firm Chip Bell Group to help companies build a culture of long-term customer loyalty and service strategy. Throughout his 40-year career, Chip has written a staggering 24 books and over 700 columns for various businesses journals and magazines.
The premise of his latest book, Inside Your Customer’s Imagination: 5 Secrets for Creating Breakthrough Products, Services, and Solutions, is quite simple, and yet its potential is massive. By creating an atmosphere where customers see themselves as partners and feel welcomed to contribute to the relationship, you can unlock their participation in new and innovative ways.
In today’s episode, we caught up with Chip Bell to chat about how building co-creation partnerships with customers can tap into a well of creativity that will drive your business forward.
Here are some of the key takeaways:
- Approaching customer inquiries with genuine curiosity forms a foundation that transforms interactions. Ask questions beyond the basics in order to encourage a collaborative relationship.
- Boiling the company’s mission down to the essence helps you focus on finding a way that can serve the customer’s needs but is still in sync with your core values.
- Building trust in customer relationships begins with the fundamental practice of truth-telling – keeping promises becomes a cornerstone of establishing customer trust.
- By embracing risk-taking as a learning venture, you can encourage customers and employees to explore new possibilities.
- While AI’s potential in CS is immense, it cannot replicate the depth of human empathy and emotions that underpin genuine relationships.
If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
Liam Geraghty: Hello and welcome to Inside Intercom. I’m Liam Geraghty. Organizations need to offer customers breakthrough products, services, and solutions to effectively compete in today’s innovation-hungry economy. The challenge is customers often don’t know precisely what they want. As Henry Ford is reputed to have said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.” So, how do you surprise and awe your customers? Today’s guest, Chip Bell, advises developing co-creation partnerships with them. Chip is the author of Inside Your Customer’s Imagination: 5 Secrets for Creating Breakthrough Products, Services, and Solutions. And Chip, you’re very welcome to the show.
Chip Bell: Thanks, Liam. I’m excited. This is going to be good.
“You co-create the experience with the customer. It happens at the moment. You can’t stockpile it, you can’t predict how it’s going to be like you could on an assembly line making a product”
Liam: Before we get into the nitty-gritty of it, how did you get into the world of customer service in the first place?
Chip: I don’t remember, it was a long time ago. I’ve always been passionate about the customer, and I got an opportunity to study customer service in college, graduate school, and so forth. I worked with an organization where I focused on helping them develop strategies around building long-term relationships, which we’ll get to talk about. And so, many years ago, I started my own company to help other organizations. Working with one company was fine, but it was boring to me after a while. In my role, I get to work with a lot of different organizations, which means I get to learn a lot, which I enjoy doing, and then bring the experience learned from one organization to another, so it cross-pollinates the opportunity to share knowledge. I’ve been doing it for many, many, many years, and it’s been a great ride.
Liam: I love it. I’m just imagining you like a little bee flying around to all these different companies.
Chip: You got it. That’s it.
Liam: As I said in the intro, in order to surprise and awe your customers, in this book, you recommend developing these co-creation partnerships with them. What is a co-creation partnership exactly, and how do you go about creating one?
“Because the customer senses this different relationship, not just as a transaction, but as a relationship, they’re more apt to participate in an imaginative way”
Chip: Here’s the backstory behind that. We already do co-create experiences. If you think about it, when it’s the customer buying a product, somebody else made it, designed it, put it there, and you come to pick it up and buy it. It’s really not a relationship with a product, although Harley Davidson’s people would say different, but nevertheless… But when it comes to service, you co-create the experience with the customer. It happens at the moment. You can’t stockpile it, you can’t predict how it’s going to be like you could on an assembly line making a product. The relationship matters. It’s already a partnership, but organizations too often treat the recipient of their service more like a consumer than a partner or a co-creator.
When you change that paradigm and begin to look at the customer as truly a partner, meaning their participation and inclusion is very critical and the way in which I communicate is very different, all of those things change. And because the customer senses this different relationship, not just as a transaction, but as a relationship, they’re more apt to participate in an imaginative way. Have you ever thought about this? They contribute to your innovation in ways they wouldn’t if they were simply a consumer. I don’t call HP and say, “Have y’all ever thought about making a printer like this?” But when I go through a McDonald’s, and they don’t deliver the experience, I can say, “Next time, you might want to try doing it like this.” I participate more readily.
Liam: You mentioned a breakthrough product or service. How do you define that?
Chip: Well, I call it breakthrough when it’s unexpected, unpredictable; when it’s, “Wow, that’s different. That’s unique.” It may not be necessarily a breakthrough in the eyes of the organization, but in the eyes of the customer, it’s very different. I’ll give you an example. My wife has a new car, and she loves this new car. She traded in her old car, and a week after she had her car, she turned on the radio for the first time and discovered they had programmed in her radio stations from her trade-in. That’s not something you’d expect. That was something totally unique, and it was something very simple to do. But it’s something she now talks about. She doesn’t talk about her car – she talks about the radio. For her, that was the breakthrough. If the customer thinks it’s a breakthrough, it’s a breakthrough.
Liam: I love that. Especially because sometimes those can be really tricky to get right yourself, those radios. I stay away from them.
Sowing seeds of wonder
Liam: In the book, you share five secrets for creating these breakthrough products and services, the first of which is curiosity. You really emphasize the importance of curiosity in developing a deep connection with customers. Could you share some examples of how a company can cultivate curiosity within its customer service team to enhance those relationships?
Chip: If you approach the customer inquiry with an air of curiosity, like, “I don’t know the answer, and you know the answer, and I want to discover the answer with you,” that’s curiosity, rather than, “I already know the answer, but I’m going to ask you anyway and you’ll tell me what I already know, or what I hope you’ll know.” It’s a whole different frame. I don’t accidentally start the book with curiosity, because I think it is a foundation for everything, particularly in the relationship with a customer – demonstrating that intense interest and desire with an air of discovery.
“We started asking what we came to call dreamer questions. What is something the pizza delivery company could do that nobody’s ever done?”
And that’s a critical aspect. One of the examples I use in the book, which is a pretty good example of how you demonstrate curiosity with a customer and its outcome, is that I was working with a major pizza delivery company. This company asked us to help better understand the customer. And so, we went in doing focus groups and asked the usual questions. And frankly, after doing a number of focus groups, we were getting bored, because we were asking the same questions we already knew, getting the answers we were expecting. And we go, “In the next one, let’s try something different. Let’s just ask some weird questions.” And so we did. We started asking what we came to call dreamer questions. What is something the pizza delivery company could do that nobody’s ever done? And now you put the customer in a different mode of going, “Hey, have y’all thought about doing this?” And you’re approaching it from the standpoint of, “We’re interested in discovering this with you.”
Somebody in the audience, on one occasion, said, “The box. Have y’all ever thought about doing something with the box?” And we go, “The box?” “Yeah, I get the pizza in a box, and guess what I do with the box after. I throw it away.” We go, “Well, what do you have in mind?” “Well, you could figure out a way where you could use the inside cover of the box for a puzzle, or a map, or I could cut it out for a Halloween mask, or all kinds of things.” So we go, “We’re onto something. Let’s ask other questions like that.” And we were learning all kinds of stuff. And sure enough, years later, I’m working with a major paper manufacturer which happened to make the boxes for this worldwide pizza delivery company, and sure enough, on the inside, there’s find Waldo, or a puzzle, or something kids can do. What they’d simply done is cover the inside with plastic. So even though it was covered with a pizza, it didn’t affect the inside.
Liam: That’s brilliant.
Chip: It’s simple, but nevertheless, it’s that kind of discovery that you’re seeking. I think you only acquire that with a customer by approaching it with this intense curiosity. Ask questions you don’t know the answer to, ask questions that may not get you anything but may surprise you with what you learn.
“Sometimes, you may be looking at, ‘What is the product not doing that you would like it to do? What is something that the service or product has that leaves you confused?'”
You can go on the other side and ask something about our product or service that you wish were there. For example, Starbucks asked that question to customers who were buying their coffee, and they were particularly buying the coffee to go. After the coffee is poured, the lid’s put on, but it’s got that little hole in the top, and people would say, “So many times, I’m trying to transport and hot coffee pours through that hole.” And they go, “I wonder if we could figure out a way to seal that hole, and that way the customer can take it out and use it as a stirrer.” And that’s why they came up with those little swizzle sticks they put in that hole. It seals it, and you can use it as a stirrer.
Sometimes, you may be looking at, “What is the product not doing that you would like it to do? What is something that the service or product has that leaves you confused?” Hampton Inn did a cool thing. Hampton Inn is a chain of hotels. When people travel with their spouse or significant other, you’ve got coffee in the room, and you make coffee. And you may end up saying, “Is this my cup or yours?” So, they said, “What if we did it differently? What if we made the cups so one had a mustache on it and the other one had lipstick, so they don’t look the same?” And now I’ve given a cue that would keep the customer from going, “Is this my cup or yours?” when you’ve got two people making coffee the same way from that little machine in your hotel room.
Liam: I love the fact that you’re pooling your customer base. It’s like it’s entering this hive mind of, “Why wouldn’t you use it?”
Chip: Yeah, exactly.
Finding your essence
Liam: You talk about this idea of grounding; about aligning customer needs and hopes with a company’s mission and values. How can organizations identify and communicate this alignment to create a high-performance collaboration with the customers?
Chip: Well, this is where a lot of companies miss the mark. We all know we need a mission statement and a core purpose, and we all have that. But sometimes, companies don’t boil it down to get the essence. The essence drives everything you do. People say an elevator speech – I say, “What if you could do your whole mission in three words? You’re limited to three words. Now what does it sound like?” I worked with Wrangler, the manufacturer of jeans, a long time ago, and they said, “Oh, we’ve got ours down real clear. Kick Levi’s ass.” It became a mantra and drove their whole competitive strategy about how we can out-Levi Levi.
“That’s the grounding piece – knowing who you are and then making sure it’s focused and aligned with what customers require”
I wouldn’t recommend one like that, but I’m just saying it’s boiling it down to your essence. And then, from that core essence of who you are, if you could get it down to three words, it becomes the platform on which you approach the customer to say, “How can we find a way that serves your needs and is in sync with our core value of who we are?” That way, you don’t create stuff that you go, “Oh, well, this is kind of off. Why are we doing this? This doesn’t make any sense.” It keeps you aligned and focused. And that’s the most important thing, particularly when you’re trying to invent with a customer. You don’t want to lose sight of your core focus.
I live on a beautiful golf course on a lake. And the easiest, shortest hole on the 18-hole golf course, is only about 300 yards, so it’s not very far, but you’re playing over the water. And it’s the most challenging hole until you forget about the water and just focus on the pin, which is not that far away. Just forget about the psychological aspect of playing over water. But the people who run the golf course tell me, “If you’re looking for extra golf balls, they’re all around the base of that.” They fall in the water because people get distracted. To me, it’s sort of like “be the customer,” and that keeps you focused, and grounded, especially if you know where you stand. That’s the grounding piece – knowing who you are and then making sure it’s focused and aligned with what customers require.
“You can scrape away everything else, but it comes down to keeping the promises you make. And from that, customers derive trust”
Liam: Trust is a vital element in any customer relationship. Could you share some tips on how companies can actively become almost custodians of customer relationships to build and maintain that trust?
Chip: Well, it starts with – and it’s one of my favorites – truth-telling. Len Berry, one of the greatest researchers in the field of customer service, said, “The number one attribute of great customer service is reliability.” You can scrape away everything else, but it comes down to keeping the promises you make. And from that, customers derive trust. “I can count on them, I can trust these. They do what they say.” But an element of that trust is: are you honest with the customer? What honesty and truthfulness does to the customer relationship, at an ethereal level, is purity, but at its basics level, it’s about, “I don’t have to look over my shoulder. I can be vulnerable with you because you’re always going to be honest with me.”
We have lots of examples in our world where the company doesn’t tell the whole truth, or they act in a certain way, and you go, “Wait a minute, something’s wrong here.” I’ll give you an example. You pull up to a fast food restaurant, and they say, “It’s going to be a few minutes. Would you mind pulling over to the side? We’ll bring your order out to you.” And you go to a parking lot and park there. Now, think about that. Why are they moving me over there? They’re moving you over there because you’re messing up the time spent in the drive-in. Their numbers. But it’s a false read. If you said, “No, I’m just going to sit right here, and you prepare my meal, and then hand it through the window because that way you get a true, honest sense of the wait time I’m experiencing. You may get bad numbers, but that gives you the incentive to fix your system.” But no, they don’t want to do that. They don’t want to mess up their wait time numbers. So, they’re going to send you to that parking lot, which is terribly inefficient when they could just hand your food through the window. But look what’s driving it. What’s driving it is a number, and the number is not real.
Another example I use in the book is that on-time arrival really means not really on time. You’ve got a 15-minute window to still be called on time. I asked a pilot, and “on time” means within 15 minutes of the time you’re supposed to arrive. Can you imagine? Do you remember My Fair Lady?
Liam: Oh yeah.
Chip: “Get me to the church within 15 minutes of the wedding.” I don’t think so. That’s an example where you go, “Wait a minute, it’s not really on time. You said you were going to land at 4:14, and it’s 4:24.”
Liam: You write about this thing called daredevil learning, and I’m imagining someone on a unicycle going across a tightrope while they’re trying to learn. What is it?
“He would start every meeting with, ‘Here’s something I screwed up this week and what I learned from it'”
Chip: Really, daredevil learning is risk-taking. If you look upon risk-taking not as, “I’m just taking a chance,” but rather, “I am learning, I’m taking risks,” you have given the customer permission to try new things, to work together in a partnership. It’s really reframing learning to say, “Let’s take the risk.” Because the essence of learning is making mistakes. Customers don’t want to make mistakes in front of you, and employees don’t either. But if I approached it from the standpoint of taking risks together, it’s fun.
And I’ll give you an example. I used to work with Harley Davidson when Rich Teerlink was the CEO, and he was a great guy and CEO. He would start every meeting with, “Here’s something I screwed up this week and what I learned from it.” And then, he’d ask his people, “Now, what’d you screw up on this week?” That’s daredevil learning, “What’d you screw up on this week?” “Well, I screwed up on this, but look what I learned.” He was always giving leadership permission to say that when we make mistakes, we learn. Yeah, we’re going to make mistakes. Isn’t that great? We are so excited we get an opportunity to make mistakes.
Can’t replace human touch
Liam: I love it. Before we wrap up, I can’t let you go without asking how you see AI and customer service working together and how you feel about it.
“AI can do a lot of wonderful things. But it cannot, at the end of the day, demonstrate the kind of human emotions that customers come to value as the core of interpersonal relationships”
Chip: Well, that’s a great question. I wrote an article about three months ago for Forbes Magazine about whether AI and ChatGPT deliver grandmother service as your grandmother would give you. And there are a lot of great things AI can do, but it can’t feel my pain. It can’t show true empathy. There are sides to it that are wonderful and that are going to be important, and I’m excited about AI and what it can do, but there are human elements that are part of a relationship.
The crazy way to say it is, do you think AI would make a great wife? And the answer to that is obviously no. AI can do a lot of my chores, it can help, it can do a lot of wonderful things. But it cannot, at the end of the day, demonstrate the kind of human emotions that customers come to value as the core of interpersonal relationships. It has limitations, and I think it will always have limitations. I’ve done a lot of research around what it can do and what it’s predicted to do, but at the end of the day, it can’t be human. It can simulate humans, but it can’t really be human. So I think we should accept it as it is – a great tool, but never forget, there are things that only humans can do if the goal is a relationship.
“There are aspects of humans that need to be left to humans”
Liam: I suppose it’s about knowing when to hand over to humans who can tackle those emotional, difficult, or challenging queries.
Chip: Yeah. Do you remember 2001: A Space Odyssey? The astronaut was able to defeat HAL. Not because he could outsmart him because he couldn’t, but because he could respond in a way that was creative that HAL couldn’t do. And that’s what I’m saying. There are aspects of humans that need to be left to humans.
Liam: And a great movie to end on as well. Lastly, where can people go to keep up with you and your work?
Chip: Well, my website’s chipbell.com. I write all the time and do lots of fun things.
Liam: Perfect. Well, Chip, thank you so much for joining me today.
Chip: Thank you, Liam.