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E267 | Driven to Delight: Creating Exceptional Customer Experiences with Joseph Michelli

Do you want to create a customer-centric culture that prioritises exceptional customer experience? This week, we enjoyed learning from the internationally sought-after speaker, author, and organisational consultant Joseph Michelli. Joseph started his consultancy journey working for the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. Since those early days in his career, he’s worked with some of the biggest brands in the world, including Starbucks, Zappos, Mercedes Benz and Ritz Carlton. 

In this episode, Joseph shares some great stories about excellent customer service he has seen throughout his career and how leadership plays a pivotal role in prioritising a customer-centric culture. He dived into his work at Ritz Carlton, Mercedez Benz and Starbucks, all experiences from which he wrote fantastic books.

If you want customer service to be at the heart of your strategy. Joseph explains what do you need to do. How to map out the customer journey, finding those high-value touch points. 

An energising conversation. Download and listen to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • A passion for being of service to others
  • The Ritz Carlton’s standard of service
  • The pivotal role of leadership in customer service
  • Exploring the power of emotion 
  • Shifting towards technology-aided service

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Fish Throwing at Pike Place Fish Marketplace in Seattle

A customer-centric approach to creating great service

Joseph Michelli is an internationally sought-after speaker, author, and organisational consultant who transfers his knowledge of exceptional business practices in ways that develop joyful and productive workplaces with a focus on customer experience. His insights encourage leaders and frontline workers to grow and invest passionately in all aspects of their lives.

Dr. Michelli is a Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, Nielson BookScan, and New York Times’ #1 bestselling author. Some of his books include ​​His books include: Stronger Through Adversity, The Airbnb Way and The Starbucks Way.

Joseph holds the Certified Speaking Professional designation from the National Speakers Association (NSA). He is a member of the Authors Guild, an editorial board member for the Beryl Institute’s Patient Experience Journal (PXJ) and is on the founders’ council of CustomerExperienceOne. Other achievements include being inducted into the Customer Experience Hall of Fame, winning the Asian Brand Excellence Award, and being named one of the Top 5 Customer Experience thought leaders for six consecutive years by Global Gurus. 

Having journeyed with a close family member through a six-year battle with breast cancer, Joseph is committed to social causes associated with curing cancer and abating world hunger.

A passion for serving others

“My mum and dad taught me early on that we’re not on this planet to be served. We are on this planet to serve others. And it is through serving others that we are served. It’s kind of this wonderful ‘service serves us’ mindset.”

Joseph confesses that he didn’t know much about customer experience when working in healthcare and attempting to elevate the service quality there. He said they were naive, working from scripts and templates of what they needed to say. Over time, however, he’s grown into what it means to ‘envelop’ someone in an entire experience where they feel cared for and cared about.

He loves the word hospitality, but Joseph also reckons that people have a very limited window to it, not realising that hospitality can be found in many places besides restaurants and hotels. 

“Hospitality is a concept that should be infused in everything. For example, in writing a book about healthcare, I said they really have to have the hospitality of a Ritz Carlton in healthcare today. They have to have the safety considerations of NASA. They have to have the innovation of Apple. Hospitality is that dimension that warms up and humanises many of our technologies.”

Joseph believes that as service providers, we should elevate the human condition irrespective of how people are. Taking the example of Airbnb, some hosts play a transactional role in the process. But, for Joseph, there’s a missed opportunity to make a difference and leave a dent in customers.  

“Why not provide that to somebody with a little bit of sizzle, with a little bit of that warmth? And won’t that make someone want to connect with you again? I’m returning to an Airbnb for the fifth time because of the host. It’s a wonderfully novel, quirky place, but the host is amazing, and he gets it that I could choose a lot of other better places.

The quality of the product should never be compromised, but it’s the people who make an experience memorable.

The Ritz Carlton’s standard of service

In his book about The Ritz-Carlton, The New Gold Standard, Joseph talks about this company’s legendary customer service. He explains that one of the things that makes them stand out is their efficiency at solving problems, both at a customer level and at a root level. 

“That’s what drives this brand forward. It’s not like they’re perfect at the Ritz Carlton. They make their imperfections palatable.”

In a conversation on Mind Your F**king Business Podcast, Ritz-Carlton’s founder, Horst Schulze, said they don’t point out where to go. Instead, they take you there. Alongside that, they have $2,000 to spend to fix a problem. To that, Joseph adds that service has to be tangible. 

“If I say go over there, it’s over there. There’s no sense that I’ve served you in any way. If I physically walk with you, it makes it more tangible. If I draw you a map instead of pointing, it makes it more tangible.”

This is the expected behaviour at Ritz-Carlton. It’s of value to the team members and the guests. They’re not in it for the tips. As Joseph points out, there is a lot of prestige in working at the Ritz-Carlton. It’s a celebrated and elevated service profession. 

“We get servitude and service professionalism confused. People who provide me service are not servants. They can become service professionals if they elevate their understanding of how to create great experiences for me and add value. Otherwise, they’re transactional objects in a universe that is becoming less important.”

Building a catalogue of customer experiences

Over the years, Joseph has gone through an incredible journey consulting some of the most recognised brands worldwide. It all started with a little fish market in Seattle. The owner was near bankruptcy, and competitors were outperforming his market. His fish was great, but their customer service was letting him down. 

“I was in graduate school, and I came up, and we tried to figure this out and it became clear that they had a horrid way of treating people. Great fish, though. They had excellent fish on the stand, but it was overshadowed by how bad they treated people.”

Joseph helped them transform the environment from there, turning ‘a fish morgue’ into an exciting and dynamic place. From that experience, Joseph started working for Howard Schultz at Starbucks and wrote a book about the coffee chain experience. From there, his consulting journey continued, going from Ritz-Carlton to Mercedes to Zappos and Amazon. 

“It’s a journey, I mean, these brands are not perfect, but it’s our journey to try to improve the way customers are cared for and cared about.”

But what do these companies do differently to get customer service right? What do they have in common? Joseph says they have one thing in common, which makes it easier to make this happen. That is a senior leader who prioritises customer experience as part of the strategy. 

“If you work for a company that doesn’t care about people, it’s pretty hard to do what these brands have done.”

Customer service starts from the top

For Joseph, every day is ‘customer day’. He is not interested in working with companies that don’t share that customer-centric mindset. ‘This isn’t something you put on like a costume. You’ve got to believe and live it.’, he says. A great example of a business with that mindset is Mercedes Benz, for which he did some consultancy work in the US. 

“This leader was all in. He slept, drank and believed it. He said he doesn’t make the cars; they do in Alabama, but not in the division supporting the Mercedes Benz USA dealer body. So ‘we don’t make the cars. What we do is facilitate the dealerships to create an experience for customers. We support them in that journey, and I’m going to be all in on it. That will be what I’m known for. I will be driven to delight our customers.'”

That became the title of one of Joseph’s books. And it was an incredible lift, he says. 

Mercedes had multiple consultants for several years, and they moved the needle on their customer-facing metric, the JD Power Customer Satisfaction Index. They went from 33rd in the auto industry to first. The key, says Joseph, was the incredible amount of commitment at the top of the organisation. 

“We said it was going to take four years. It took two and a half because they looked at every touch point, they trained every individual. We created immersive experience training. It was a big lift, and you have to have a lot of will to make that happen.” 

Getting emotions right

After all these years, Joseph still doesn’t understand why people fight the power of emotion. 

“We act like businesses like this very logical, linear, cognitive thing, and I’m interacting with you, and I’m creating practical and instrumental value for you, and thus we continue to purchase. We justify everything with that kind of tone and that intellectualness, but we’re making choices right from our gut and our heart all the time.”

Joseph argues that brands don’t understand how to be ‘top of heart’ instead of ‘top of mind’. As part of his job, he spends a lot of time with brands trying to get people to say, ‘What do you want people to feel when they interact with you’. And, for him, if you don’t figure that out and don’t claim that space and teach everyone in your business that their job is to leave customers walking out with that feeling, you will lose in the marketplace.

“Look at that Ritz Carlton. You should feel that the ultimate feeling state is that you have entered the home of a loving parent. You have been loved by a loving mama or a loving dad. And that’s the job.”

The reality is that, unlike manufacturing, where you get consistent raw material, impose a process, and look for 0.1 defects, on the human service side, the raw product is wide-ranging, with all kinds of variations. 

“We do impose processes, and you need to impose processes in your service world, but even in those cases, you have to nuance your process in line with whatever the raw material is with a goal to some kind of an outcome. And that outcome should be what you want people to feel.”

The shift towards technology-aided service

In their book The Experience Economy, authors Gilmore and Pine were the first to articulate that we are now in a time when service is in not enough. It needs to be ‘enveloped’ in an experience, and you need to stage the entire experience. 

“You need to think about your workplace as a theatre where you’re creating emotion, you’re creating environment lighting, and every touch point needs to be considered.”

The world is shifting, says Joseph. Service is not just human service but technology-aided service. And, he argues, the latter is more important because most of us would rather engage with technology that efficiently works to resolve an issue than have to engage and wait for a person to do that. 

“We really need technology to do the very things that Amazon was talking about early on. And that is, it’s got to help anticipate needs so that we don’t actually have to reach out to a human to have them taken care of retroactively. They should be proactive in their response. So I’m a big fan of using technology in the Human experience journey.”

Joseph works mapping customer journeys all the time. It’s a matter of defining your core customer segments and creating their journeys by looking at all the high-value touchpoints. 

There are a million touch points, but there are only so many of them that you can manage the ones that will cause customers to churn, make your brand memorable or cause them to tweet something terrible about you immediately. 

“So, how do we make sure that we can remove as many of those pain points with technology as possible? And if people do want to opt for a human, how do we have the right amount of humans available? And how do we train them well, maybe even using AI to help them inform their response? So, I mean, truly, the journey now is a combination of technology, people and process. And it’s knowing when and how to use each of them based on your resources.”

Book recommendations 

The Experience Economy

The Airbnb way

The New Gold Standard

The Starbucks Experience

The Zappos Experience

Driven to Delight

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