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Bobby and Me

This was originally written and published in August, 2002.


This is a story about customer experience, a topic about which I’m endlessly interested. It begins in what will feel like left field with a confession: I’m not much of a baseball fan. I should be, but I’m not. I’m a sucker for history and mystery, ritual and experience, and baseball is nothing if it’s not all that. But for whatever reason, I never caught the bug. 

This little disclosure matters because this story is about a trip to a baseball park to pick up some tickets for an event I wasn’t even going to attend. Actually it’s not. It’s really about an errand that turned into an experience which leads to a question I’ve been pondering: what really are the keys to delivering a great customer experience? The answer, as it turns out, was “Bob and Me.”

So with that set up in mind, it was with some amusement that I got a call from my good friend Bob Cronin while I was in Boston not long ago, inviting me to accompany him to Fenway Park, home of baseball’s Boston Red Sox, (remember, I don’t like baseball) to pick up tickets for the then upcoming Ted Williams . . . well I guess you’d call it his wake or going away party, I’m not actually sure what it was. 

Ted Williams, for those who don’t know, was roundly regarded as one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a reputation that was only enhanced by the fact that he was an ace fighter pilot in two wars, and was one of the finest fly fisherman those who know have ever seen. The Red Sox faithful were all invited to come down to the park and say their goodbyes to their recently deceased hero, and Bob was to be one of them. But you had to buy tickets, thus the need to head on down to the Back Bay Basilica, Fenway Park. It was a nice day, I enjoy Bob’s company, and had nowhere else to be, so why not? So off we went.

Going anywhere with Bob is fun. Among his many virtues, Bob is a walking sports trivia encyclopedia (a term familiar to all those who grew up in the pre-Internet era), with really deep tabs for baseball and the Red Sox. Better still, his knowledge and enthusiasm for all things Red Sox is delivered with a master story teller’s gift for detail, delivery, and timing. By the time we got to Fenway, I was actually thinking that seeing the old place might even be kind of fun.

Once there, we discovered to Bob’s great pleasure that there was a tour just forming up. Why not? I had my camera and Bob is great company. If nothing else, I figured that a walk around the old ball park would be a nice opportunity to chat and take pictures. What I didn’t expect was the glow that wrapped itself around us as the tour unfolded, which leads me back to a version of the question I posed at the beginning of this epistle. What are the keys to delivering a branded customer experience, or in this case, what was it that turned an errand to pick up some tickets into a magical mystery tour?

Magic in the Air

It’s possible it was something about the facility itself that did the trick. Lots has happened since Fenway opened on April 20, 1912 including a couple of devastating fires, but in so many ways, very little has really changed. It’s true they’ve replaced some of the seats with modern plastic contraptions, but there are still row upon row of narrow, cramped, blue wooden seats that have welcomed fans for ninety years. There are luxury boxes and a big soundproof area called the 600 Club, but beyond that, the greats of the last nine decades, players like Cy Young, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Collins, Duffy Lewis, Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper, Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski would all feel right at home. It’s kind of a dump in many ways, but a clean dump, and one that’s steeped in history and memories. 

It’s possible that it wasn’t so much the place, but the sense of history that pervades it that was the magic ingredient. The ghosts of those great Red Sox were never far from sight as our group of about 30 people trouped this way and that in the company of two delightful young ladies, both of whom were named Carrie. (I’m not sure if this was a coincidence, a hiring requirement, or a put on, but it’s true.) We sat in the seats, we walked up to the press box, and we Ritzed it up in the 600 Club. We heard stories and boned up on our Red Sox trivia (Bob knew all the answers and then some). The two Carries were enthusiastic and fun, and one of them, a graduate student at a local university, told us that being a tour guide at Fenway was in her mind the absolute apogee of possible summer jobs.

That sense of history and place became even more pronounced as we were ushered down onto the field with repeated and explicit instructions to “stay off the grass.” So we tiptoed along the warning track, sneaking our toes and more onto the grass when we were sure nobody was looking. Bob scooped up some dirt and put it in an empty film canister. We sat in the dugout, the very dugout where all those greats sat, and sweat, and swore, and cried, and cheered, and scratched and did all the other stuff that big leaguers do. 

It’s also possible that it was just the day itself, a day when the sun shone extra brightly, the grass seemed extra green, and the sky shone a special shade of blue. All you had to do was close your eyes and listen. Listen to the chatter of the players in games gone by. Listen to the hum and then the roar of the crowd as the ball jumps off the bat and heads into the night. If you squinted, you could almost see the corn fields out along the Green Monster (the big wall that protects Lansdowne Street from a hail of homerun balls): “if you build it, he will come.”

These were all factors I’m sure, but there was something else, actually two something elses, that seemed to take all that promising fuel and turn it into a regular customer experience bonfire. The two secret ingredients were Bob and Me. I’ll come back to that theme in a bit.

Brand and the Customer Experience

Over the last couple of years I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of customer experience. It actually began quite unintentionally at a breakfast conversation some years ago where the topic of branding came up. One of my colleagues, Bruce Nelson, now the Chief Marketing Officer at Interpublic, a massive ad agency holding company, opined that the first audience of any brand is the employees of the company. For some reason that struck me as incredibly profound. It’s also a point that most companies completely miss.

This same point is taken up quite eloquently by Scott Bedbury in his book A New Brand World. He was the head of corporate advertising at Nike during the glory years that began with the breakthrough “Just Do It.” As if that wasn’t enough, he then went on to be the Chief Marketing Officer at Starbucks as that company went from something that a lot of folks on the west coast knew about to one of the most recognized brands in the world. So his point of view probably counts. He says . . .

Though it is important to demonstrate consistently to the outside world that you know what your brand is about, ultimately it is even more important first to demonstrate this internally and to continue to do so at every opportunity . . .

. . . Grasping core brand truths emotionally as well as intellectually enables employees to understand the value as well as the potential risk of a proposed innovation. An organization that has a low brand IQ across the rank and file is often lethargic and process-driven to the point of vapor lock. Innovators become dispirited after exerting themselves to the limit, only to discover that they were innovating in the wrong area altogether, or that their work undermined the essence of the brand. Old Brand World command-and-control organizational structures that leave all brand decision making to a select few will not compete well against companies that undertake growth initiatives along strategically defined brand values, which are broadly shared by employees who have internalized them. When all levels of a company grasp the core truth of a brand, there is less friction, dilution, and delay between idea and action. Inspiration replaces frustration and the creative process is unleashed intelligently.

I’ve read this quote about ten times. I’m predisposed to agree with his point anyway, but Bedbury’s monster Nike and Starbucks credentials give it some real oomph. 

If you know anything about Nike and Starbucks, you know that both places are deep with people who are hardwired with each firm’s brand DNA. And both firms deliver a palpable, differentiated, branded customer experience, albeit in very different ways. But in both cases, the foundation is built on a deep and abiding belief in and understanding of the brand ethos that every employee brings to life, all the time and everywhere.

Indeed, I would suggest that this same point is true of any organization that delivers a terrific customer experience. Those organizations deliver a great experience because of the presence of the brand promise. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that without a clear brand promise, it’s not possible to deliver a consistently great customer experience. 

The people working in great customer experience organizations understand the brand DNA and know how to translate it through the hundreds, thousands, and millions of decisions they make every day. Those people understand and trust the brand promise because there is a deep reservoir of lore that supports it. In the process of delivering on the brand promise, those people become woven into the brand itself. Indeed, for many customers, it is the employees that literally are the brand brought to life.

Infusing employees with the brand ethos isn’t a matter of sloganeering. It is the result of a rabid commitment to hiring the right people, and often to providing considerable ongoing training and coaching on how to do the work of the organization in such a way as to deliver the brand.

As I said before, I think this is a point that is mostly overlooked by firms. Though the subject of branding has fallen into a modest state of disrepute—as has so much else as a result of the business excesses of the later part of the nineties—it was a relatively easy topic to contemplate if all you thought it meant was spending a lot of money on advertising. It’s a completely different issue if at its core, brand is about grappling with and making explicit to your employees, and later your customers and prospects, what it means to be you, and then putting the entire weight of your organization behind that sensibility. Now we’re talking about something much larger, much more profound, and much harder to do. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

This lurking sense that there was way more to branding than advertising led me to compile a list of the four factors I thought needed to be in attendance if a company was going to deliver a branded customer experience, something I defined as follows: 

Customers have a branded experience when there is a differentiated and unique promise and payoff associated with their interactions with your people, processes, and offers. This comes from delivering your brand promise through a lifetime of personalized, valuable, branded interactions when, where, and how the customer wants. 

The factors I identified were as follows:

  1. Deliver the essence of the brand. Infuse customer interactions with cues and clues that signal your brand promise and bring them to life through all the customer touch points. 

  2. Involve the customer. This may seem counterintuitive because of the huge premium we put on speedy service. As David Shi, President Fuhrman University says: “The Level of impatience in American culture is almost pathological.  We grow impatient when other aspects of our lives don’t match the immediacy of the computer – even if it’s just craving a pizza at 3 a.m.” But that doesn’t explain away the fact that we’re willing to spend huge amounts of time where we find value (as we define the term). With that in mind, there needs to be something “sticky” and valuable about what you do or sell; something that compels the customer to pay attention to your promise and to get involved with your offers. 

  3. Exchange information for trust. It seems obvious that knowing something about a customer is a good thing. Over and above all the things you could do with deep customer insights, the sheer act of exchanging information creates a relationship dynamic that begins the process of binding the customer to the brand. But customers are increasingly guarded and wary about who knows what about them. If we merchants want deep insights, we’re going to have to get the customers to trust us, and to do that, they’re going to want us to trust them. This is another way of saying you need to create a reciprocal relationship where we give a little information to get a little information, we give a little trust, to get a little trust.

  4. Adapt-to-enrich. One of the best ways to signal the customer that you’ve been paying attention—another hallmark of a true relationship—is your ability to use your ever-deeper levels of customer insight to adapt the offers and experiences to meet individual customer needs and preferences. It’s possible to have a great experience without any sort of adaptation or personalization, but it’s pretty much impossible to have a real relationship if the customer feels that every interaction is between strangers, that there is no recognition on your part of the trust, patronage, and value the customer has already offered. 

I still think this is a good list, but my experience at Fenway snapped my attention around to something I’ve been wondering about: Is it possible that the biggest part of a great customer experience is the customer’s expectation that he or she is going to have a great experience?

This isn’t a new idea, but it is intriguing. After all, when you see that Robin Williams or Chris Rock is on HBO, what are you expecting? I don’t know about you, but if I tune in to watch “Comedy”, I expect to laugh and do so at pretty much anything the comedian says. Why? Because I’m expecting that person to be funny, and in the case of a well known comic, I know generally what to expect (the brand promise), so unless he or she really steps in it, I’m going to laugh. The same is true with Starbucks, FedEx, UPS, Southwest Airlines, and all the other champions of branded customer experience. I have an expectation, and that expectation predisposes me to have a particular experience, and in many cases to fill in the missing pieces when the company in question falters.

Clearly this was a big part of what was going on at Fenway. I was predisposed to have a great time for at least three reasons:

  1. My friend Bob, someone I trust, filled my head and heart with facts and stories that set the stage. He created a context.

  2. I’m of an age and temperament where I pay attention to context and meaning, where history and experience and how things connect in the grand scheme of things matter. So anything that has any of that going on, like going to an ancient old ballpark, is already a candidate for a great experience. I infused the context with my own memories and stories that heighten my predisposition even before I have the actual experience.

  3. The facility itself. You’d either have to really hate baseball or be having a really bad day not to get swept up in the aura of the place. All the little cues and clues signal you that you are walking in the shadows of giants, drifting through a barely sealed time warp that enfolds the millions and millions of experiences fans have had these ninety years watching their hometown favorites play the national pastime down on the blessed grass of Fenway. The brand owner successfully paid off the promise and expectation with an experience, not just a transaction. 

Let’s face it, anyone under ten and over 40 is a pushover for the magic of going to an old ballpark. The young ones because their sense of wonder is still so beautifully intact; us older ones because of our accumulation of life experiences and deeply routed need to reconcile our lives to the inner call for connection, context, meaning, and purpose.

Indeed, the kids on the tour bounced from here to there and back, filling the air with all those great noises happy children make. Us middle agers and older sat in the old seats and touched the walls and surfaces as if they were the outstretched hands of the baseball gods who have long since passed and gone. All the folks in the Red Sox organization really had to do was open the place up, hire some people to haul us around and talk Fenway trivia, and let the imagination and longings of the young and older alike do the rest.

Beyond that, the nice folks at Fenway paid absolutely no attention to the other three dimensions. There was no real involvement. We just walked around, mostly lost in our own reverie. There was no exchange of information or trust. Nobody asked me a question. I didn’t sign anything. I didn’t hand over my email address. I can’t say that anyone there earned enough trust as a result of my visit to get any personal information from me. And there certainly wasn’t any adaptation on my account. From what I can tell, the tour was the tour was the tour. The one ahead of us and the one behind us were probably pretty much the same. 

The Missing Link

In many ways, it’s too bad that the Red Sox don’t have a better sense of how to take a great experience and turn it into a relationship. The tour ended in the gift shop, presumably with a hope that I would buy a cap or beer mug. That was it. Given the sorry state of baseball economics and how much the latest owner paid for the team, you’d have thought they’d do something to harvest the warm glow they’d just generated through an eight dollar tour to create a relationship with me.

Lesson number one: If you’re going to do something that delivers a great customer experience, regardless of how random and accidental that might be, give some thought to starting up the other three dynamics: involve the customer, exchange information for trust, and adapt to enrich.

The more interesting points, and the one that I think I and many others have missed, are the first two: what I previously described as the “Bob and Me” phenomena.

As amusing as the two Carries were, Bob was a huge key to the entire experience. He is, what Malcolm Gladwell calls in his book The Tipping Point, a Maven, someone who has deep knowledge about a topic and whose social instincts and abilities make him capable of sharing his knowledge in a way that works for people whose interest is far more casual than Bob’s, but no less valuable to a brand owner.

People like Bob are immensely important to brand owners like the Boston Red Sox. Bob and people like him are deeply informed and deeply committed and they do it out of love. There are people like Bob in every corner of commerce, who if not committed to a particular brand, are committed to a particular category. In other words, they may not be a fan of your company in the way that Bob is a fan of the Sox, but they are deeply knowledgeable about what you do and sell, and can be widely influential in a great many purchase decisions that you’ll never know about.

Lesson number two: There are people in your customer base who are disproportionately influential. You need to find them and figure out a way to get them on your side. They have the power to tip an entire chunk of the market in your direction if they choose to.

Finally, there is my own role in this adventure. I am at a time in my life where I find my sense of myself and my priorities changing. It’s not just me; it’s true of most of the other 78 million people in this country between the ages of 45 and 64 as well. The incessant drive to make money and accumulate things that characterizes all of us in our 20s and 30s gives way to a certain mellowing as we begin to wonder, “What does it all mean?”

What’s significant isn’t that I feel this way or that others do. Maslow, Jung, and others point out that this is a foreordained stage in life. The significance is that more than in any other time in recent history, people in the “fall” of their lives are allowing themselves to be much more open about their desires to find meaning and context: to self actualize in Maslow’s term. 

This presents an enormous challenge and opportunity to marketers. The challenge is that while our society glamorizes and celebrates hip hop culture and the beauty of youth, the 25-44 year old age cohort is shrinking in every industrialized nation on earth. More importantly, the fall segment (45-64 years old), a segment that is largely misunderstood or not understood at all, represents immense purchasing power, fully 50% more power than the 25-44 year old cohort.

The opportunity is to understand that the “Bob and Me” phenomena is very real. I’m less motivated today than I was yesterday by the features and benefits of an offer. Give me no other reason to do business and sure, I’ll buy the best package of price/performance I can find. But I’m much more influenced by the context and quality of the interaction, by how the experience feels versus simply what something is, does, or costs. 

Lesson number three: If you want to do business with “Me”, you need to understand the psychological drivers that are motivating me, the ones that go way deeper than my current needs for this or that product and that exist at an archetypal level where meaning and context matter.

The key to a great customer experience? The missing ingredient? It might just be “Bob and Me.” Finding and wining the hearts and minds of the “Bobs”, so that they can help create a context for the “Mes”, so that I’ll show up predisposed to want what your organization should be hardwired to deliver: A branded, customer experience infused with a bit of meaning, a dash of connection, and a smidgeon of magic. Starbucks does it. Nike does it. Fenway Park does it. So can you.