Perfecting the Human Experience in a World of AI, with John Sills

Perfecting the Human Experience in a World of AI, with John Sills

Perfecting the Human Experience in a World of AI, with John Sills

Episode 102

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Episode 102

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John Sills is the Managing Partner at The Foundation & Author of The Human Experience. From working at a market stall in Essex 25 years ago, to advising organisations like Sky, UNICEF, Morrisons & eBay, John learnt from an early age what customer experience truly means and the impact it has on consumers. John has achieved incredible success at HSBC and now The Foundation, helping them innovate and build their customer-led approach. In this episode, we dive into customer experience success stories, advancements of AI, the balance of the functional and human experience, and answering the question “does customer loyalty truly exist?”.

Episode Summary


The Human Experience

In “The Human Experience”, John Sills gathers extensive research alongside incredible case studies that explain the value of a positive emotional experience as opposed to the functional experience. In this episode we dive further in, finding out what led him to write the book, and a further analysis on the world of CX today.

The three myths that John Sills believes impact customer experience:

  • The Myth of Loyalty
  • The Myth of Customer Feedback
  • The Myth of ROI

Curious to find out more? Buy The Human Experience now.


Artificial Intelligence

In this episode, we talk about artificial intelligence and what the future holds for these new digital systems. John talks to us about the important role that AI has and will continue to have in the customer experience world and the help it can provide to colleagues.

“Studies suggest that AI can improve the overall customer experience and accuracy for new members by 20%”

However, John still believes that humans will want to speak to humans when it comes to chat supports, even if the answer could be found on the website, or if they can use AI to put it right.

“There’s a human need to be heard by another human when they’re in a moment of difficulty”


Turnovers & Management

We also look at real life examples of good and bad management, from Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal to Brendon McCullum’s England Cricket Team. John discusses the distrust for businesses that people now face, and the impact that short-term CEO tenures have on the way companies function and operate.

“You can still make mistakes, but at least you’re making a mistake trying to do the right thing.”


To find out more about John, check out our full episode – available on all your favourite channels. Now including YouTube!


This article summarises podcast episode 102 “Perfecting the Human Experience in a World of AI” recorded by CX Insider.

Written by Octavian Iotu

Full Episode Transcript


John: I once tried to get an organisation to change their contact center metrics from average call waiting time to number of human lives wasted. So to try and say, well, if you total up the entire time people have spent on hold to you right the way through the year, how does that convert into kind of human lives? Just to really try and bring home the point that you should want to be good. It’s good for people, right? This is a bit of the problem with where we’ve got to. It shouldn’t be a delighter to say, I can phone up a company and they answer the phone and they answer a question that should be base level experience, but it feels like a real achievement, now if you manage to- if you managed to do that, 85% of people believe that organizations now have lost that human touch, 83% believe that organizations take customers for granted. 81% believe that organizations are more interested in cutting costs than creating a great experience, which are pretty damning statistics. You have to have that culture of empowerment and freedom to try things and let your people be people. It’s much better for colleagues in terms of their own motivation. It’s much better for customers as well.

Octavian: On today’s episode, we’ll be talking to the managing partner at The Foundation and author of The Human Experience, John Sills. We’ll be talking about customer experience success stories, the advancements of AI, the balance of the functional and human experience, alongside asking the question of whether customer loyalty truly exists. Enjoy the episode. And if you do, subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. This episode has been brought to you by ACF Technologies global leaders in customer experience management solutions. Now let’s get into the episode. Welcome back to the CX Insider podcast. I’m your host Octavian, and I’m joined by Alex, my co-host, and we have a special special guest that goes by the name of John Sills. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself, your career and your customer experience journey?

John: Yeah, yeah. Happy to. Yeah. And thanks for having me. Really nice to meet you properly and to be here and yeah, I mean, I suppose my journey starts for most people kind of a long time ago I started off in a market stall in Essex. I talk about a little bit in the book, and that was when I was 14. I kind of got roped into helping someone out on their market stall and found I really enjoyed it, really enjoyed being with customers and serving customers, seeing real people, having conversations with 50 different people every day. And then from there, I guess it’s one of those things you look back on your career in hindsight, but almost every job I’ve done since has been in some way related to customers. So, you know, I went from there and did some kind of Saturday jobs and week jobs at shops, joined HSBC. I was there for 12 years. First half of that was frontline in branches. So again, face to face with customers stamping cheques, losing money down the backs of drawers ended up being a branch manager during the financial crisis, which was kind of interesting and exciting and terrifying and scary at the same time. But you learn a huge amount about humans and people and how people work and react in different situations. And the one thing I said I’d never do was go and work in head office. And so in 2010, I got persuaded to go and work in head office. I thought it looked really dull and boring, but actually, you know, you realize you’ve got 10 million customers, you’ve got the chance to try and help them so… Launched our first mobile app there and then said, well, the one thing I won’t do now is go and work globally because I want to stay in the UK. And then I got persuaded to go and work globally. So I ended up looking after customer experience for HSBC Group. And then my final big decision that I got wrong was to say I’m never going to be a consultant. And in 2015, I decided I was going to go and be a customer experience consultant. And now I’m managing partner at the foundation and have been there for a while. So, you know, all the way through really, in my career I’ve either been frontline with customers, delivering the experience. I’ve been working in strategy and innovation teams, creating the experience, and now I work with other businesses to help them improve the experience as well. And I think it’s all because I just get really, really annoyed by bad customer experience. So I’ve just found a way to get paid to moan about bad customer experience and try and improve it, really. So that’s kind of my journey. I think from from the start to now.

Octavian: I can tell that you hate bad customer experience on your Instagram, LinkedIn.

John: It’s just so yeah, I mean, I suppose I find the writing and the Instagram just really cathartic, because it’s just so annoying. And I think what really annoys me about it is this is people’s lives and time, you know, and there’s one thing about things going wrong by accident and that happens. But when you come across an organization that doesn’t care, you think, well, you’re having a real impact on people’s lives. I once tried to get an organisation to change their contact center metrics from average call waiting time to number of human lives wasted. So to try and say, well, if you total up the entire time people have spent on hold to you right the way through the year, how does that convert into human lives? Just to really try and bring home the point that you should want to be good, it’s good for people, but they backed out at the last minute. But I do find that I’m now cathartic for other people, because if other people have a bad experience, they now get in touch with me and tell me about it. So I’ve got a kind of agony uncle thing going on as well. But yeah.

Octavian: Can you tell us a bit about the work that you do with The Foundation as a partner?

John: Yeah, definitely. So it sounds a bit like a cult, doesn’t it? The Foundation, maybe it is and I’m part of it, I don’t know (laughs). So we’ve actually been around longer than I’ve been there. So we’ve been around since 1999. So 24 years now. And we were an independent consultancy. We’re based in London, work around the world, and we exist to help create customer led success. So we work with organisations of all shapes and sizes on their customer strategy. So, you know, how they’re actually going to try and earn more customer decisions in their favour on their customer experience and how you’re actually going to deliver that practically for customers, whether that’s through the design of your journeys or through the training that you’re delivering to your people. And then we work on culture as well. So how do you actually this is the biggest question, the biggest challenge, how do you set an organisation up to do this systematically and repeatedly in a way that’s commercially successful? Because being customer led, it’s really easy to say, but it’s really hard to do. Most people in most organisations want to do the right thing for customers, but yet organisations don’t end up working in that way. And so that’s a big part of our job, is working with those organisations and their leadership teams to kind of go, right culturally, how do you get closer to customers? How do you stay customer led? How do you turn that into a commercial success? So that’s that’s a lot of the work that we do. And as I say, yeah, we work across all industries. We’ve got a brilliant team of interesting people from different perspectives and backgrounds, and I get to spend a lot of time hanging out in stranger’s homes, asking them awkward questions with their permission (laughs). And that’s great fun, too.

Octavian: So you’ve recently published a book that goes by the name of The Human Experience, which is right here, and I want to know more about it. Can you tell the audience about it?

John: So the book came out in February. It was published by Bloomsbury. I started the first time in the idea for the book. About 4 or 5 years ago. I was on holiday with my wife and my son in the UK, and we had a day out on one of those beautiful old steam trains. And you’ll kind of know the type. I mean, like deep leather seats you can fall back into and oak panel table you can spread your food out on. And someone coming down the aisle handing out kind of home baked goods. And my son turned to me and he said, oh, daddy, is this what it’s like when you get the train into London every day? And so I kind of thought about it and laughed, and I was like, well, no, like emphatically. It’s not like I’m lucky to get a stranger sweaty armpit in a cold, wet panini or something.

Octavian: If you even get on that train.

John: If you can even get on the train yeah!

Octavian: Or if it gets cancelled (laughs).

John: Yeah, exactly. But it did get me thinking. So I was thinking, well, this train is like 40, 50, 60 years old. Isn’t that interesting that for all this amazing new technology we’ve got, surely the sign of progress is that you make things more efficient and more cost effective, but you keep the level of quality at least the same, if not improving it and making it better. And it started to feel to me like maybe in the past 20 years, particularly with all this incredible digital technology we’ve had arrive that while while we’ve kind of improved and focused on improving the functional experience. So being able to do more things, more ways, more quickly, more cheaply than ever before, actually, it felt like organizations have done that at the expense of the emotional experience, of the human experience of building that real connection with customers. And ultimately, that’s the thing I think that really matters, which is how you make people feel. So I thought, well, that’s interesting. I’ll go and write a book about that. And I thought I should go and check. It wasn’t just me that thought it and it wasn’t. I went and did a study. And, you know, 85% of people believe that organizations now have lost that human touch. 83% believe that organizations take customers for granted. 81% believe that organizations are more interested in cutting costs than creating a great experience, which are pretty damning statistics, really handy if you’ve just written a book. They’re great at promoting it, but that was really the point of it. And I just had that moment in a shower, like a lot of people do, about kind of humans and humanity. And I thought, that’s the thing actually, that I think is trying to describe and bring together everything I’m talking about that it’s, you know, organizations have kind of become full of humans that aren’t allowed to act in that human way. You know, they’re very restricted by processes and procedures, and that’s causing a real, a real problem. That’s really where the idea of the book came from. And then I’ve been writing, I write a newsletter, as I think, you know. So yeah, I’ve been writing that for quite a few years. And I thought, you know, actually I can collect together some of those stories and shape the book, and it never works out that way. It turned out it was a lot harder to write than I thought, and I wrote it 2 or 3 times in the end. But that was the principle of it brings some of those stories to life, show people, remind people what this is really like, but then use that to be able to make this point about, you know, we need to refine that human experience that I think we’ve lost in the past 20 years.

Alex: Is that also kind of the basis of your work, how you try to work through the different, let’s say, culture change that you’re trying to achieve?

John: Yeah, I think I think it is, in a way, at The Foundation. We never really talked about human experience before explicitly, but we did talk a lot about just being human, because what happens is in organizations, we all see the world from the inside out. Like as individuals, we all see the world from the inside out. We’re all closer to our own colleagues, our own business, our own regulator, our own policies, procedures, profits then we really are to our customers. And so it’s very easy in organisations to kind of have that inside out view start to dictate your decisions and what you’re going to do every single day. And I guess what we then saw is that kind of exhibits as a lack of humanity. And you know what I mean? Like, you’ll go to the pub tonight and you’ll have a normal conversation using normal words with real people. And then the next day you go into an office and the you walk through the doors or you open your laptop and all of a sudden we start speaking a different language. You know, we write emails that are far more formal. We say things in ways we would never normally. Say you have meetings with colleagues that you just wouldn’t speak in that way before you write things for customers that are in a very formal language, we forget all that humanity. It’s like we are a temporary kind of, you know, like men in black, where they flash the light in front of your eyes and all of a sudden you forget what it’s like, literally ten minutes before on your way to work. You’ve just been a customer in a coffee shop, and you know how annoying it was to be in a big queue and not have expectations set. And yet then ten minutes later, you’re going to the organization and people will make decisions that are going to cause those exact same issues for people. In the book, I talk about a letter that my nan got sent. My grandma got sent. In 1961 when she joined the London Telephone Exchange and the letter was from the CEO on her first day. And it basically said, look, you’ve got to remember what it’s like to be a customer. Like, you know, the difference between service giving grudgingly or service giving gracefully and essentially just reminding people, just remember you’re a customer. So whilst we weren’t specifically talking about The Human Experience, a lot of our work is how do you reconnect people with that outside view of the world, you know, see the world from the outside in. Remember what it’s like to be a customer. We get leaders to go and spend time with customers to really help them remember and reconnect with what really matters. And that forms the foundation of a lot of what we do.

Octavian: So what has happened to see in today’s day and age? Do companies really go out of their way to ignore the human experience, or is there more than meets the eye when it comes to actions? Businesses take that impact customer service.

John: In a sense, I don’t think organisations are making a conscious choice to turn away from the human or the emotional experience. I think people would say they think it’s important. I think they lose sight of the fact they’re not doing it. Because you’re right. It’s much easier to focus on the tangible output of big numbers and big profits. And if you’ve got a shareholders there, then the easiest thing to measure every week is the share price and the profit number. It’s much harder to measure the direct impact of making things better for customers. I talk in the book about the myth of return on investment, and about how in a lot of customer experience situations or initiatives, people are asked to prove the value of what this customer experience initiative is going to create, what revenue it’s going to create. But the reality is, bad customer experience is really expensive to provide, but they tend to be looked at at different halves of the balance sheet so they don’t necessarily get seen. And so people take actions that seem to make sense but actually end up costing you money. That’s that principle of failure demand. The demands that are put on your services as a result of people not doing things right the first time, or customers having to phone you up because the app didn’t work properly, for example, it’s definitely a big issue that people presume they’ve got to focus on these logical numbers, but that misses a huge part of the experience that could actually make them more profitable and more cost effective.

Octavian: So we’ve discussed the myths of ROI, but let’s dive further in hearing a story from John’s work with HSBC.

John: When I worked at the global team at HSBC, one of the things we did was a global complaints review. So we wanted to look at working across 20 different countries, 20 different markets. We wanted to look across how each of those markets dealt with complaints. And all of the markets had a measure for how quickly you acknowledge the complaint. And all of the markets had a measure for how quickly you respond to the complaint, which makes logical sense to your point about- it makes logical sense. And that’s what the regulator was asking. And so the bank were about to spend quite a lot of money on, like a whole transformation of how we were going to do complaints to make it quicker to respond to complaints. And again, it makes logical sense. But when you went to speak to customers and you found out what really mattered to them, most customers said, well, actually, within reason, I don’t mind how long it takes to resolve the complaint, as long as you’ve kept me up to date. And I feel like when you respond, you’ve looked into it properly. But none of our markets had a measure for how often you keep the customer up to date, how often you set their expectations. And actually what we found was rather than trying to reduce it down and kind of get the complaints resolved more quickly, all that was doing was creating more repeat complaints. So we found that across the markets, on average, we had a 34% reopen rate for complaints. So we were acknowledging them really quickly. We were answering them really quickly. And then a third of customers were saying, well, I’m not happy about that. And then they just come back again. But those would be recognized on a different list. So they were never connected, those together. That just looked like more complaints coming through. And what you realized is rather than spending all that money trying to make the complaint process quicker, all you needed to do was just say to people, right, every couple of days, just give your customer a call or an email. Just tell them you’re still on it and take longer. Take a week longer if you want to look into it rather than doing it quicker. It will cost us less. It’ll be more cost efficient, but crucially, you’ll have less reopen complaints because customers will be more satisfied and customers will believe that you’ve looked into it properly as well. So we ended up scrapping that program, saving a whole load of money on that, making things a bit slower. Customer satisfaction went up, complaint reopens went down. But it just took that kind of different way of looking at it. That wasn’t just looking at the pure numbers, which yeah, logically, functionally makes sense. But when you look at it from a customer’s perspective, you can find all of these little things you can do that can improve the experience can be better for you commercially as well..

Alex: It’s weird how much you don’t know your customer once you actually get to listen to what they think, right?

John: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, it’s so easy to, you know, there’s this great saying isn’t there about treat the customer how you want to be treated. It’s a really dangerous thing. In that example, if you’re an executive in the bank and you’re earning £250,000 a year and you’ve got a premier account and a relationship manager and you know, someone that drives you everywhere, and maybe a PA that helps doing it. You’re so disconnected from the majority of your customers, you have to work really hard to remember what that’s like or to reconnect with customers. If not, you just get the data. You’re just starting to look at the data. And the problem with the data is twofold. One is it’s often focused on averages rather than actuals. So you’re being given a picture of an average experience that no one is really having. Rather than looking at the 10% of people who are in a brilliant experience and showcasing that, and the 10% of people that are having an awful experience and looking at what you do with that. And the second problem is that all of this data coming into organisations is presented on PowerPoints and PDFs. So, people are more likely to question the methodology than accept an inconvenient truth. So, if something comes up on the screen they don’t like, they’ll say, well, was that the right sample size or was something else going on at that point that got in the way? It doesn’t give you the conviction needed to get into action. That only comes from real, visceral connection with real people. That’s what helps to re-engage you and connect you. That’s how you stay outside in and that’s how you understand and unpick. I mean, I’ve got hundreds of stories of things we’ve done at the Foundation where we found out those kind of things where you thought one thing and customers, when you went to spend time and you realised there was a completely different option you could take, and nearly all of those examples were more cost effective for the organisation. But it was just because, yeah, leaders disengage and disconnect from what really matters to people.

Alex: So within your book, you mentioned loyalty and feedback as myths within the customer experience realm. Can you tell us what you mean about that?

John: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, definitely. So the myth of customer feedback, we’re kind of in this world where we’ve never had more customer experience and customer survey data coming into organisations than we have right now. And again, that kind of makes sense. You want to know what happens to your customers. You go and ask them a question about it. But the problem is nearly all of that data coming into organisations is at the thin end of the wedge. So if you imagine your customer’s life as this kind of wedge shape, then on one end you’ve got their real world and their real life, their hopes, dreams, ambitions, the things that really matter to them, the challenges they’ve got, the things that get in the way, the services they used to help. And then right at the thin end of the wedge is you and your organisation, you know, the things that your role in their life. But nearly all of these questionnaires and surveys are at the thin end of the wedge. What do you think about us? What do you think about our product? What do you think about our service? Would you recommend us? So this deluge of data is all very inside out. It’s all about the business. It’s not about the customer. And the problem is and the reason it’s a myth and the reason it’s a dangerous myth, is that having all this data, it convinces leaders that they’re close to what matters to customers, whereas in truth, they’re only close to customers opinions of their business. It’s a very subtle but a very significant difference. Whether you really understand your customers and can work out how to be useful to them, or whether you just understand what they think about you, and even then, it’s only the people that can be bothered to reply, that data coming in stops leaders going to really connect with customers because they believe they are connected, because every week they get a thousand surveys coming in. So it convinces them they are close, but they’re really not, and it gets in the way of doing it. So that’s why it’s a myth, because that myth of feedback suggests that as you increase your volume of surveys, you’re understanding your customers more, and it’s simply not the case. It creates an illusion that you are when actually you’re not. That was the first of the myths. The second of the myths is the myth of customer loyalty. And this is the one I’ve had the most pushback on since the book came out in February. Um, which makes it sound like hundreds of emails. It’s not. It’s like three emails, one from my sister, because she didn’t understand it, you know? Um, but I don’t believe customer loyalty exists as a concept, really. Where I live, we’ve got a local taxi firm called Neales, and they’re great. They’re local taxi firm, loads of cars, low prices. But you could never pay by card. You could only pay by cash. And you never knew where the car was. It was always just around the corner. You know, whenever it was late, it was always just around the corner. So then this service called Uber appeared. You might have heard of it. And all of a sudden there was this service that arrived, loads of cars, low prices I could pay by card, and I knew where the car was because it was on the map. And that was a more useful to me than Neales. So this service I’d been using for years. Overnight I just stopped using it and I started using Uber instead. The only problem with Uber is you couldn’t pre-book, so you still had to be on demand. And that was a bit unsettling. If you live a little bit out of London. About a year later, Nils brought out their own app, so my local taxi company bought out his own app and now I had a service that was local. Loads of cars, low prices I could pay by card. I knew where the car was and I could pre-book. So overnight I stopped using Uber and I started using Neales again. Now it might be that I’m just not very loyal person, but for me what we’re talking about is usefulness as an organization. And you’ll know this anyway because it’s you know, we all know it inherently organizations you need to stay more useful to your customers than the competitors or the alternatives.

John: And if you do, your customers. Stay with you, and if you don’t, your customers will go elsewhere. It’s kind of that simple. There’s no inherent loyalty within that. Now, where you do get loyalty is in friends, family, communities. So, you know, some of the football clubs, for example, that have gone into administration recently, you’ll often see the whole community come out to support them. They’ll help clean the stadiums. They will help raise money whether they like football or not. Even when, you know, we’re trying to raise all this money for the football clubs, you don’t see that outside Wallis or BHS and some of these shops from Debenhams when they’re going because they’ve just stopped becoming useful. Now there is a version of usefulness which is about psychological usefulness. So you know what that brand says about you. So that’s where like in an Apple or a Tesla for example, you might be prepared to pay more for a product that’s not necessarily better than something that’s half the price, because that brand represents something about who you are to the outside world. And so there’s an element of psychological usefulness in there. But even that is not loyalty, because even that if you look at, I don’t know, say Tesla, for example, say, for example, the owner of Tesla went and did something silly, like buying a social media company and then set about systematically destroying it and showing the world he was a horrible person and a terrible manager.

John: That might suddenly make Tesla seem a little bit less cool than it was six months ago. And actually their share price from the point Musk said he was going to take over Twitter has kind of plummeted partly as a result of that as well. So it’s a kind of a long answer to your question, but the principle is that that loyalty doesn’t really exist, but that leaders in organizations use loyalty as a shorthand to talk about usefulness. And that’s maybe okay, but the reason it’s dangerous is because if leaders believe that their customers are loyal, then they stop trying to impress them. They focus on acquisition and onboarding, bringing customers in at the start, and then they take them for granted and just kind of presume they’re going to stay. And then, of course, they don’t stay and they go. And again, that’s bad financially because you’re focusing all this money like banks do it all the time, they pay you £250 to come and join us. They don’t put in any effort at all to then create a great service to help keep the customers in longer terms. So it’s just going out the other side. Two of the the three myths that I talk about, and I think that the reason they matter is because they really change the behavior of leaders and organizations and then drive decisions they’re making away from what would be a much better decision for customers in the business.

Alex: You should never settle in a way.

John: Never settle, never take it. Yeah. You should- You know, I can’t remember who said it, but you’ve got to rewin your customer every single day. Guy Singh-Watson, who’s the founder of Riverford, one of the people I study in the book, he talks about this and he says, you know, I mean, he swears a lot. So he’s actually he’s brilliant to interview, but then very hard to write down what he said. You really can’t write a lot of it down. He said. You know, he was just exasperated. And he said, I can’t understand if leaders in businesses aren’t spending at least a day a week with their customers, what on earth are they doing that’s more important. And when he says it in such a simple terms, you think, well, he’s right, of course he’s right. But yet when I work with organisations and you say to the leaders, right, we’re going to get you to go and meet customers, it’s like, okay, let me see when I can fit that in my diary. Maybe in three weeks time for an hour, because I’ve got all these other internal meetings taking priority. And it’s a real indication of how businesses work, because of course, if your business depends on customers making decisions in your favour, then of course you have to spend time with them. Surely you have to spend time with them. So yeah, it’s a real example of that really, of seeing how if you’re not close to your customers, you just take them for granted. And you have to remember that no one cares about your business as much as you do. Ultimately.

Octavian: There are lots of implementation examples of leaders thinking about end goals, rather than thinking about how to get to that goal with short tenures, and constant changes in management. But what has led to such high organizational turnovers in recent years?

John: I think there’s something very particular happening at the moment in the last 10, 15 years that’s driving a lot of this, this kind of perfect storm. Part of it is this distrust in business. And I think we’ve got a new generation coming through now who probably became adults around 2008, 2009 and came into this world of huge distrust for businesses. I think that’s kind of affecting things. But alongside that, this real short termism. So CEO tenure is dropping and dropping and dropping. So you’re starting to get CEOs and executives that are going into the role for 2 or 3 years. And really that drives a behavior that says, I want to get in the role. I want to deliver something quick, get something on my CV before I move on. Again. That’s not how you build a sustainable business or economy. You do that by having long term thinking, long term vision, long term decisions that are really sustainable and that requires leaders that are in role for, you know, five, six, seven, eight. I mean, some of the great organizations you look at the likes of Apple, Tim Cook, Steve Jobs, Microsoft, you know, General Motors, some of the brilliant organizations, they have CEOs, they’re there for five, ten, 15, 20, 25 years who’ve got a real long time vision and so can weather the storm. So many organisations are struggling at the moment because of that quick turnover of tenure. And that means these bad decisions get made because they’re not there to see it through. They’re not bothered about what it looks like at the end.

Octavian: So many organizations and all sorts of fields, you mentioned football. Even in football that happens. Where managers might stay for a few years, 1 or 2 years..

John: Like you say, football is a great example. Arsenal a good example where Mikel Arteta came in. It wasn’t a great start. Arsenal were bottom of the league, lost three games in a row and at that point the owners offered him a new contract, which I thought showed incredible belief. And then they’ve gone on to do really well. The England cricket team, with the kind of not so great at the moment, but with the bazball, the coach came in and said, I want you to attack, and if you attack and you get out, you won’t get dropped because you’re doing what I ask. And the first 2 or 3 games, people thought, well, that’s not true. If I get outplayed in a stupid shot, I’m gonna be dropped. But then people weren’t dropped and it gave them this incredible belief and confidence and clarity about the singular thing they were being asked to do. And so then they went on this incredible run and did win the World Cup of playing fantastically because they had that long term vision of this is what we’re trying to achieve and this is what we’re going to do. And so you can see it translate through so many industries, but back into organisations that if you don’t have that long term ambition, strategy, leadership, you can’t build anything. And that’s where you get football teams like Man United at the moment that are basically 4 or 5 different managers, players bought in and they’ve got no vision, no structure, no way of working together. So how are you ever going to create a successful team like that? Chelsea in exactly the same position at the moment. But you’ve got to hold firm. You’ve got to have leadership that can hold firm and weather the storm because you will get criticised rather than just bowing to that kind of short time pressure.

Alex: To allow mistakes at a certain degree, I guess, to enable people to learn and build on that.

John: Yeah, you’ve got you got to make mistakes. You’ve got to, you know, you’ve got to fail. You’ve got to get stuff wrong. You’ve got to try different things, both at an organizational level but at an individual level. So Alam Riley at Chiltern Railways, you know, he said that when new members of staff, every new member of staff that joined, he’d go and meet them and he’d say to them, right, your singular job is to make the decisions that are right for customers. That’s what I want you to do. You won’t get all the decisions right, and if you do things that aren’t quite right, then I’ll come and have a chat with you and I’ll help you understand what could be better. And you kind of go again. But his view. And it’s the same with John Roberts at His view was I’d rather people were being human and trying to make things better for customers and making honest mistakes that we then need to coach around. Then everyone kind of locking down, hiding behind process, doing things they know aren’t going to make customers happy for fear of getting it wrong. You have to have that culture of empowerment and freedom to try things and let your people be people. It’s much better for colleagues in terms of their own motivation. It’s much better for customers as well in terms of the experience they get. And I think if we could all be a bit more human, you’re still going to make mistakes, but at least you’re making a mistake trying to do the right thing rather than because you’re sticking to a process.

Octavian: We are now in the age of artificial intelligence with organisations implementing processes driven by AI through John Sills’ Research. Why is the perception of interactions with humans versus AI, and how will it help employees deliver a positive experience?

John: It’s a really interesting question, and it’s one that I answer with full expectation that I’ll be completely wrong in the next 4 or 5 years, you know, because you just you just don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like and it’s going to come from it. I think for me, AI is going to be such an important role in the future of customer experience in people’s lives, particularly, I think with customer experience in how it’s going to help support colleagues give a better experience to customers. So I see the AI role far more almost like back office helping get answers quicker, give better quality answers, maybe write better emails, or save some things that are a bit better. You can do a lot more coaching on the job with that kind of support there. You know, I’ve seen some studies that suggest that, uh, it’s at the moment in contact centre teams where AI has been used. It improves the overall customer experience and the overall accuracy for new members of the team by up to 20%. For experienced members of the team, it doesn’t make any difference at all. So it suggests their AI can be used to help train and coach people to get them up to a good level.

John: But once they’re up to that good level, they’re good without the AI and Zendesk have been doing some really interesting stuff recently. It’s worth looking at Zendesk’s recent AI drop about 3 or 4 weeks ago with some of the new tools and technology they’ve got coming through. Having said that, I do still think that humans will want to speak to humans, particularly if they’re angry or there’s a problem, because I think there’s this naturally human thing and you can tell me if you agree or not. If you’ve got a problem with a company or there’s something you’re unhappy about, you kind of want to speak to someone and make sure that you’ve been heard by another human. So I think we all do that thing where, you know, you phone up and while you’re on hold, you’ve kind of got this 30 second script that you’ve prepared in your head that says, when someone answers, this is the points I want to make and you don’t want to be interrupted. You just want to kind of get it out there. It’s quite cathartic. This is the problem. This is everything I’ve been through and all you need is that other person to go, I hear you, I understand I’m going to help you put it right.

John: Even if that person then goes and uses AI to go and put it all right. Even if you could have got the same answer just by doing it on the website. I think there’s a human need to be heard by another human when they’re in a moment of particular difficulty, and I don’t think people would accept just going to an AI to do that. Part of the reason I also think that is because everyone likes to think they’re unique. So I like to think that my problem is different to your problem and different to your problem. At an organizational level, they might go, yeah, we’ve got 50,000 problems each year and they’re all exactly the same. But that doesn’t matter to me because I want to feel like mine is unique. And so it’s going to be really interesting. There may come a point where the AI is so good, that really is a minimum. But yeah, I do think there’s an innate human thing in the same way that loads of people still want to use the phone.

Alex: I was going to say it’s not- for me it’s not just between AI and the human experience. Like sometimes you can send an email, but you prefer to get the person on a call just to see their reaction, just to get that feeling of how much effort are they going to put in this and so on, especially, as you said, when there’s a problem or an issue.

John: I completely agree. Some great data by BT. The last few weeks in the BT autonomous customer report is called, and it showed that 70% of customers still prefer to use the phone, but it’s the channel that they’re currently least satisfied by because organizations are trying to pump money into all the others. And, you know, so I told a story. I wrote a story about it a couple of weeks ago when I was- my mum was ill a couple of years ago, and I had to very quickly find out whether or not I could drive her car. And so I phoned up and he said that my insurance company, I phoned up the insurance company and, you know, I had to punch in a whole load of numbers. And when I thought I’d got through to the right place, an automated voice came on and said, oh, you can do this online and just hung up, automatically, hung up on me, did it again, same again. Did it again, same again. Eventually, after 15 minutes, I managed to get- it was like an escape room. I got the right code to get through and I said to the guy that answered, look, I just need to know under my policy can I drive my mum’s car? And he said, oh, well, you know, this is just in your policy booklet. And I was like, yeah, but I’m a normal human, so I don’t carry my insurance policy booklet around everywhere.

John: And he went, okay, yeah, you can drive your mum’s car. That took 15 minutes. Overall, it would have been an incredible experience if I’d phoned up and he’d answered and he just told me the answer. And the thing is, it would have taken about 15 seconds. It would have saved him a load of time. It would have been a really quick call. My experience, I would have been highly recommending them for being so good. And actually that shouldn’t be a delighter, right? This is a bit of the problem with where we’ve got to. It shouldn’t be a delighter to say I can phone up a company and they answer the phone and they answer a question that should be base level experience, but it feels like a real achievement. Now if you manage to- if you managed to do that. The reason I’m kind of telling that story is because sometimes the reason you prefer to ask the phone is exactly as you say. You want to fill the other person’s reaction, how much effort they’re going to put in. Sometimes it’s because you want that reassurance of the person on the phone. You know you want to hear it. Sometimes it’s more convenient. So the reason I was phoning him was because I was doing a whole load of other stuff, and I had my earphones in and I didn’t want to search it.

John: But for me, the biggest point is that sometimes you don’t know what the question is you want to ask. Now, I did in that example, but a lot of the time, you know, if it’s insurance or banking or a complicated market, a complicated industry, you don’t necessarily know, you know the outcome you want, but I don’t know the right question to ask. And the answer might be on the website, but it might take me about two hours to find it on the website because I don’t really know what I’m looking for. And so speaking to someone and just saying this is what I’m looking for, I now need you to apply your knowledge of the industry that is much greater than mine, to help me get from where I am to where I’m going, even if that answer is go on the website and look at this specific page, that’s fine. But if you don’t know the question you’re asking, it’s really hard to go and search and find out what it is. So there’s always going to be that role for that. And it’s my probably my biggest pet hate actually, at the moment is how hard it is to try and speak to organisations.

Octavian: So we’ve talked about the negatives and positives of talking to customer service representatives. But what does John think of artificial representatives? What does he think about the growth of AI chatbots and the criticism that seems to surround them?

John: I feel kind of sad for chat bots, really. I feel like they’ve been thrust into the world, but they’re clearly not ready. And don’t get me wrong, there’s some of the Zendesk stuff. There’ll be some amazing chat bots coming that that will definitely get a lot, a lot better. And so I’m quite confident in that. But the bigger question for me is why? How have these chatbots been allowed to be put out for public use when clearly they’re not fit for public use? And again, you’re going to go back to what we were saying. You think surely if a CEO sees that chat bot isn’t able to do that, he’d go or she would go. Don’t, don’t let that go out. But I think they’ll get a lot better and then they’ll find a good usefulness. But yeah, I feel even though they don’t exist, I feel quite sorry for the collective because they’re so easy to take the Mickey out of.

Octavian: John has advice on very high profile clients like Sky, eBay, Volkswagen, Morrisons and Unicef. But what is some advice that John applies to a lot of his clients, and are there any interesting stories from any of his clients that he can share?

John: Yeah, I think, you know, it goes back to the thing we were saying about the need to see the world from the outside in. So repeatedly in all of the clients that we work with, the thing that’s most powerful is getting them to firstly go and spend real time with real people to understand what really matters, and secondly, look outside their own industry to what’s going on with other industries. You know, I remember I did a project with a food manufacturing company. A few years ago and the second biggest in the UK, and it was about the future of ready meals. You know, the future of convenience food and so with the CEO. We went to interview a lady in her home, and then we went shopping with her and we went into her home and she said, look, I’m never going to use any kind of ready meals or convenience food. She was in her 40s, yoga instructor, you know, body is a temple. And it kind of checked out in her house. She had a whole load of recipe books, a whole load of ingredients. And so we kind of left and he was a bit disheartened of like, oh, I thought she might be. But no, you know, definitely not going to do it. An hour later we went shopping with her in Waitrose. We’re going up and down the aisles and we get to one of the aisles and she throws in a ready made mashed potato and a ready chopped red onion.

John: You know, that’s interesting because that’s not quite what she said. But so, you know, should we ask her? And we say, what’s that about? And she went, oh, well I haven’t got time to peel and chop vegetables. Like that’s ridiculous. I’m a busy person. Then she looked at us like we were crazy for thinking that didn’t match up with what she said before. Anyway, so we carry on and we get to the the end of the supermarket where all the good stuff is, you know, all the chocolate and the wine. And again, we think, well, we’re going to fly past here because, you know, body is a temple. But no, no, she swept in a whole load of chocolate, a whole load of prosecco, white wine. It was like Supermarket Sweep, you know, everything going in there. And we said, well, how does that match up with, you know, your healthy lifestyle? And she said, oh, that’s girls night on a Friday night. That doesn’t count. And it was so interesting and interesting for that CEO, because what you realized is that’s why you have to observe people and you have to see people because people lie. They don’t intentionally lie, but we all tell each other a version of ourselves that we want to be true. You know, we all tell each other the good stuff. We don’t tell everyone else the vices because we don’t even want to admit we have some of those vices.

Alex: Not even to ourselves sometimes.

John: Yeah, we always lie to ourselves constantly, and sometimes that’s useful and sometimes it’s not, you know? And so what we see time and time again is when you get to those customers, you find these things again. We work with one of the big energy companies, gas companies, back in 2018, and they had a big focus on smart meter adoption. So the regulator said every customer has got to have a smart meter in by the end of 2020. And they’d spent they’d done over 50 research reports. They’d spent so much money effectively trying to bribe people to take smart meters. So we will give you free energy, we’ll give you vouchers, this, that. Nothing worked. We went straight to customers. It’s really obvious when I spoke to customers and they said, you don’t have to pay me. I’m quite happy to have a smart meter. Sounds like good new technology, more than happy to do that. But if you’ve got to come and install it for four hours and you can only come and install it between 9 and 5 Monday to Friday, then I’m not going to take it because I’m not going to be at home.

John: And if I am going to be at home, you’ve got to switch my energy off for four hours while I’m doing it. So if you want me to have it, you’ve got to come in the evening or the weekend. And they hadn’t spent any money on research reports on that or any money on that. And you suddenly realize if you take all of that money, you’re offering all that free energy you’re giving away and all that bribery and the vouchers, and just put it into a few engineers being able to do evening and weekend appointments, and maybe they take along a generator with them so they can keep your power on instead of your power going off. That’s how you get more people to do it. It’s kind of Rory Sutherland describes it as uncommon sense, but you’ve got to got to get into real people’s real lives, and then you start seeing these examples everywhere. So that’s all of the clients we work with. That’s the main thing that we really see and we really do with them.

Octavian: John talks a lot about culture and getting top management to change it. But does this process happen organically within an organisation? And if that’s not the case, how can the company and the CEO work on it?

John: I probably almost go as far as to say it very rarely happens organically, unless you’re a founder led business and you keep that founder all the way through, then it often is organic. If not, it needs to be something you really work on. It’s like a habit you need to build. It can be top down or bottom up, but if you’re looking top down from leadership, what you’re really talking about is belief. Do you have belief within the organization that being customer led is going to lead to commercial success? And to do that, you need to take some big bets. So if you look at the story of Easyjet between 2010 and 2017, Carolyn McCall went in as CEO and they were in a pretty bad place in 2010. And so she believed strongly that putting the customer at the heart of your business helps you be commercially successful. And so she looked at the top ten pain points for customers, and the number one was not having allocated seating. So if you remember, it used to be on Easyjet that you didn’t get a seat and you’d turn up and everyone would just like fight onto the plane and you try and get the best seat that you could. Customers hated it, but the belief in the organization was you can only turn the plane around quick enough and get it back up in the sky if you just let everyone bundle on, because otherwise, if it takes more than 25 minutes, you start to be unprofitable.

John: So Caroline, you know, went to look at other industries, went to look at Formula One and the fact that they change all the tires at the same time. And so they thought, well, what if we board from both ends rather than just boarding through one end? What if we board from both ends? That should maybe not quite, but nearly half the time it takes to board the seat. And everyone said, well, we can’t do that because we’re not allowed to board on the tarmac. So they decided to set themselves an objective of finding a way to board to get customers on the plane and turn around the plane in 25 minutes and get it back. In the air by boarding from both ends, and that started by pushing the airports to let them board on the tarmac because they don’t own the tarmac, Easyjet. So they got agreement from Gatwick. Right. You can board from both ends and they chose one route and it was up, I think, to Glasgow and back to Gatwick again. And they practiced and practiced and practiced and it took 18 months and everyone was really skeptical. And eventually they did it. They managed to do one flight, one route within 25 minutes, board from both end, everyone on the plane with allocated seating, and they turned it around in 25 minutes.

John: And this was this huge catalyst within Easyjet, this huge moment of belief where they realized they could do really good things for customers, and it was commercially successful. So they did the next one, which was business loyalty schemes. They did another one, another one, another one. And over that seven year period, they just had repeating moments of belief that built belief in the leadership team, built belief in the organisation, ended up doubling their profits, tripling their share price as a result of putting the customer at the heart. Carolyn left in 2017. Some of that belief went with her and then they started tipping back down the other side again. And that’s why it’s such a precious thing that you really need to keep nurturing and keep working at. Because really, you are talking about an organizational level belief that it’s the right thing to do, and you have to keep proving that to people, because the outside pressures of finance and money are so much more obvious and tangible and so can easily be chipped away. And again, that’s what happened with Tesco at the end of their big run as well. So yeah, belief is the big thing. You need an organization.

Alex: And you said you can do it bottom up if you like. Yeah. What’s the role of the management in that case.

John: Yeah. Bottom up is about making sure you’ve got a systematic way of delivering your customer experience. So top down you’re talking about culture and belief. But bottom up is saying, well, do you have a clear vision of what the experience is that you’re trying to create? Job number one, do you actually know, not an NPS number? Do you have a vision for what you’re trying to create? Then how do you prioritise effectively? How do you design and how do you assess the experiences you’ve got at the moment? How do you measure and how do you measure that links into the vision that you’re trying to create, not a random NPS number. Again, you know, and how do you do that in a way that helps you stay connected to customers? So if you put that system in place, you can end up creating a great experience in a customer led organisation through the ways of working and the things you’re doing. And again, that needs to be nurtured too. You need a bit of both. The best organizations customer pioneers have both. But in the absence of leadership, you can build the system. The challenge is, do you have the permission to build the system without the leadership supporting you.

Alex: Focusing on the touch points and how those work and making them more efficient.

Octavian: So you help out with the Young Enterprise charity. Can you tell us more about the work you do with them?

John: Yeah, young enterprise, brilliant charity that I’ve known since I was about 14 years of age. Lots of people that are listening will know them. So they work with secondary schools and they run programs in secondary schools for sixth formers to build and create their own business. So the point of the charity is to kind of foster entrepreneurial mindsets, enterprising mindsets, you know, entrepreneurial thinking you don’t necessarily get in other parts of your school life. So lots of people when they’re 16-17 take part in the program is a big nationwide competition. They get given a tiny bit of money to start with and then they’re told, right, go off, build your own business. You’ve got nine months off you go and you get some incredible businesses built as a result of it and some incredible experiences as well. So I’ve been involved in a number of ways. Did the program myself at school, HSBC were one of the big sponsors, when I was there, I helped out at a kind of area and regional level in terms of being a business support they’re called. So people that go in and advise the students doing the businesses and then help kind of do some of the judging. And now we as the foundation work with their leadership team, both in terms of helping them develop as a leadership team, but also helping give them content, I suppose, that they can use to share with the teams of how you build a really good customer led business. So I love it. It’s so energizing. It’s the best part of my year. Every year when I get to go to the finals and you see the businesses, these 16 and 17 year olds have created real energy, real excitement. And yeah, there are really brilliant, really brilliant charities to be involved in.

Octavian: And that concludes the end of the episode. Thank you to everyone for listening. I’ve been Octavian and I hope you’ve enjoyed the conversation. Let us know what you think by carrying on the conversation on LinkedIn. This episode has been brought to you by ACF technologies Global Leaders in customer Experience Management solutions. Now let’s get into some quick fire questions. What’s your favourite film?

John: Oh, such a tough question. It depends on my mood. I’m a big fan of Tarantino. I really like Reservoir Dogs. I actually really like IB. I think it’s a brilliant film. Uh, and things like Shawshank Redemption. Although I also really like Wayne’s World. I still got that 90s kid inside me, so I’d probably go for, uh, probably. Yeah. IB and wayne’s world as my weird combination.

Octavian: Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction. Tarantino is amazing. So you’re an Arsenal fan? And I wanted to ask you, what is your favorite Arsenal player? Past and present. One for each.

John: So my favorite Arsenal player growing up was Paul Merson because I just loved- he always play with the smile on his face. He kind of played a similar position to I did that kind of middle of midfield. He scored some great goals. He looked like he was having loads of fun. Obviously as I got older, I realized why he was having loads of fun. Uh, and the drinks were probably not quite so good. He’s still my. Still my favorite player. Uh, and my current favorite player. That’s a great question. I mean, it’s I think it’s got to be Saka. Yeah, I think for a similar reason, you know, lovely kid. Plays with a smile on his face again. Looks like he’s enjoying himself. You know, he’s such a humble kid as well. There’s that clip of him going to ask Beckham for a signature and Beckham saying I should get yours. So he’s a, he’s a we call him our star boy at Arsenal. So I think probably him at the moment.

Octavian: He deserves that title. You know you could tell he’s going to be loyal with Arsenal. You could tell he’s there to stay.

John: I won’t say it, but I hope so.

Octavian: Well you’re an Arsenal fan. Yeah. Clearly spurs your rival. If you had to choose a player from Spurs to take into Arsenal, who would it be?

John: I mean, I wouldn’t I’d be clear, I wouldn’t describe Spurs as rivals because they’re never close enough to win, to be fair.

Octavian: To be fair yeah. (laughs)

John: And more like an annoying little brother. Um, I love Son. I think Son’s a great player. He’s the player that whenever we play Spurs, I really fear him more than I. More than I fear Kane. Even when he was there, for example. Son, I think he’s a wonderful, wonderful player. So I would I would take him and also that would stop Spurs winning so many games as well. So I’d be happy about that.

Octavian: What is one thing you’re excited about going into 2024? Oh, I’ve got.

John: Loads of loads of things, actually. I’m trying. I’m not sure If I have said this publically. I’m trying to write a novel, so I’m quite excited about that. It probably won’t ever get anywhere, but I’m quite- I just love writing, so I’m really quite excited about that as well. From the business point of view, actually, we’ve got we’ve got real momentum at the moment. We’re doing some really great work. So I’m excited to see kind of what comes from that as well. And obviously excited about Arsenal winning the league (We’ll see how this ages). Yeah, which is gonna happen. But yeah, I think just trying to do trying to do more writing, I think is the thing that I’m really looking forward to. At the moment.

Octavian: Is there any living person right now that you admire the most? It could be a celebrity. It could be someone you’d know.

John: That’s a really tough question put me on the spot. Living person I admire. This is very ironic given what we’re doing, but one frustration with a lot of podcasts and a lot of interviews, for example, is there with people that are public figures, you know, people that are doing good stuff and have maybe had a bit of luck on their way to get there. And actually, if you look at the Jake Humphrey High Performance podcast, you know, he’s great. He goes and interviews Gareth Southgate and that’s brilliant. But Gareth Southgate’s coaching some of the best players in the world. But then what I really admire is people that are under the radar every day, people that are maybe trying to manage single parents with three kids, trying to manage two jobs. And so there’s people I know in my life that actually I have a lot more admiration for than any kind of famous people, because they’re just doing good stuff in their life, enjoying life. They’re brilliant parents. They’re making a big difference to their kids, and they’re the kind of people that I admire more because they don’t get any kind of fame or spoils or anything like that, and they’re the people actually, I would much rather to hear on podcast to hear about, well, how do you do it? Like one of my close friends is a wheelchair user. He’s recently been given an MBE for his services to the police force. You know, I’ve got huge admiration for the work that he’s done and the way that he does it. So that’s my slightly sycophantic answer. Maybe. I’m not sure.

Octavian: That’s such a good answer. Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Octavian: Yeah. Thank you so much for coming on, John.

John: Thank you. I really enjoyed it

Octavian: It’s been an amazing episode. Yeah.

John: Brilliant. Thank you.