As someone in the user experience industry designing experiences for other people designing their own customer experiences ... I can tell you the term "experience" has been carrying a lot of water in recent years.
In new, post-COVID research from Salesforce, 80% of respondents said the experience is as important as the product.
82% of B2B buyers were willing to pay more for a great experience.
Not to get too far out there right off the bat, but: what does experience even mean, man?
Lost in a sea of expensive technology and epic marketing campaigns are the foundational tenets of human experiences: what they are, why they matter, how to create them, and how to know they're working. While experience-building can and often does accelerate revenue, fixation on that metric alone will blind you to the best opportunities to improve. Realizing gains from customer experience can take time, but it's well-documented and reliable.
Expensive marketing campaigns and new technology and great product design aren't the secrets to building memorable experiences. It's far more personal than that.
It's about meeting people where they are, addressing their concerns, measuring your effectiveness, and then making it a repeatable process. It's not complex, but it is difficult—because it means being vulnerable, listening well, and acting thoughtfully. It means doing all these things regularly and reliably, interaction after interaction. Then you're building advocates.
See, one reason experiences are more valuable to us than material things is because experiences can be anticipated. In a 2014 research paper published in Psychological Science, researchers concluded that we derive value from the lead-up to a positive experience, and that the effect was significantly greater than when you buy something material.
What is an advocate, if not someone who experiences positive anticipation related to your company? Someone who realizes they'll need to get in touch with you or make a purchase and is ... excited about it. That's far more than immersive marketing campaigns or personalized websites.
I'll show you what this looks like using a range of vetted and cited research, case studies from familiar brands, and clear next steps for you.
But along the way, we're going to talk about someone known for masterful experience-building: Jimi Hendrix. Why? Because the mythos of his life often betrays a series of thoughtful, reasonable decisions from someone who deeply understood the human-to-human component of experience.
He described his debut record as a statement: "Let us through the wall, man, we want you to dig it." That's an approach to experience-building that can keep you both grounded and motivated. How do you get through the wall and connect with someone?
Jimi Hendrix was left-handed, and often played a Fender Stratocaster with a distinctive reversed headstock.
That wasn't just for style. It was a guitar made for a right-handed guitarist, flipped over and restrung.
Guitars are not symmetrical. They're made for either right- or left-handed playing. The tone Hendrix was able to produce was unique because he was literally playing a different guitar—the slanted rear pickup now captured each string differently, and the altered tension of the strings changed the way each could be bent.
At first, Jimi played this way because left-handed guitars were hard to find and expensive early in his career. By the time they were more prevalent, he'd already become a master of this way of playing, and it gave him access to a range of tones few other guitarists could achieve—after all, you'd have to play left-handed to do it.
Hendrix didn't need the most modern technology to become one of the world's greatest guitarists. He mastered the fundamentals on the instrument he had—and later, that unique-sounding flipped-over guitar became an asset for a master of tone.
Great experiences do exactly that: master the fundamentals, then take advantage of opportunities to be unique and memorable.
I recently bought a RadRover 5, and electric fat bike from Rad Power Bikes. I went from complete unfamiliarity to literal advocacy within the span of a few weeks based purely on that purchase. They're an award-winning brand and this bike is the best selling one of its kind, so my experience is far from unique—but they give clear examples of what it means to master the fundamentals and take advantage of opportunities.
First, the fundamentals: it's a great product with solid reviews at a reasonable price. There's no getting around that. But if you've ever ordered a bike instead of buying it in-person, you know there's a lot more to consider. What if it's the wrong size? Can I do the assembly myself? Do replacement parts even exist? Is there a support department? How expensive is shipping going to be?
On practically every page of their well-designed website, they addressed these concerns clearly. But the way they address them is unique: shipping is free, so there's no math involved anymore. They offer a 14-day free trial and a documented process for sending it back, which completely eliminates concern about fit or size. These assurances about the customer experience set them apart from competitors, but it didn't end there.
On top of offering in-house expert support 7 days a week, the entire process—from ordering to shipping to assembly—was intentionally designed. Both written and video instructions were available and well-produced. Everything went exactly as expected.
Assembly is usually a thing you dread and then endure because you really want whatever it is you're assembling. But here, through deeply understanding the online bike purchase process, Rad Power Bikes can turn the process into something actively positive. I know that a company that cares this much about experience is likely to be helpful if I need something in the future.
Here's another quick example of nailing fundamentals. Recently, State Farm Arena, where the Atlanta Hawks play basketball, finished a nearly $200 million renovation. After this, the Hawks ranked first in the NBA in overall game experience—79% of fans said the experience was "great" or "outstanding" compared to 57% the year prior.
The Hawks EVP said that, in going through this big transformation, they looked not only at the physical arena, but to transform everything they do. I think that's great, but I want to point out how transformation doesn't always have to mean something wildly expensive, or even creative.
One part of this so-called transformation was introducing what is unironically called fan-friendly concession pricing, where prices were cut around 50% for 12 high-demand food and beverage items. Chips are $1, bottled water is $3, pizza is $4, and cheap beer is $5, among many other reasonably priced offerings. Unsurprisingly, the ability for lower- and middle-class families and friends to go to a game without spending $20 on a hot dog contributes to making the experience better in a measurable way.
Making obvious experience improvements like that pair well with the type of visionary work being done by Melissa Proctor, who became CMO for the Hawks in 2016. Under her leadership, the Hawks have become a more distinctly-Atlanta brand, drawing out culture and history that only my hometown can offer.
She helped launch MLK Nike uniforms honoring Dr. King, which generated a $100k donation to the city's Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, a business incubator for women-owned businesses. All of that together is what makes a great brand experience for the Hawks.
To apply this idea, let's go back to Jimi's backwards Strat. You want to use the resources and knowledge you already have to master fundamentals and take advantage of unique opportunities.
To do this, look for snags in the process of being your customer. What's more difficult or more opaque than it should be? What can you do just a little better than your competitors? Here, it's the little stuff: why do I have to constantly give the same information to tech support? Why do I have to call to cancel my subscription? How can I try this shirt on before I'm stuck with it?
One surefire way to get answers is to talk to your customers—actually, not just your customers, but pretty much anyone who interacts with your brand. Advocates are great, but you don't only want to talk to them if you're finding out what you can do better.
I won't go into this much here, but if you don't feel confident interviewing folks for research purposes, a little preparation will truly go a long way. I recommend looking into a few options based on your comfortability. If you're not able to invest much time or energy, at least research the 5 whys to give you one simple qualitative research technique. If you're new to research but are willing to learn, check out "Just Enough Research" by Erika Hall for concise expertise on getting the job done.
If you're looking to go deeper into the way you talk to customers, the jobs-to-be-done framework can give you a fresh approach to these conversations.
Finally, invest in snags you can uniquely address. Like Hendrix, what can you do that no one else can? For Rad Power Bikes, their willingness to offer a 14-day return window and not charge for shipping was tailor-made for bike shopping online.
At your company, these opportunities often show up as personal touches from the service or sales teams. If you're having trouble coming up with common issues you can uniquely address, go talk to those teams. Find out what they're hearing, and find out what's getting in their way. As we'll see shortly, those human-to-human interactions are key to advocacy.
The image of Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire is the stuff of rock legend. Without knowing the story behind it, the image easily slots into our mental conception of Hendrix as the genius, who was spontaneously inspired to create a controlled fire in front of tens of thousands of people. But the world's greatest experience-creators are rarely shooting from the hip.
Hendrix was scheduled to perform at Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, and it was to be his first major American appearance. Also making their first American experience was the literal loudest band in existence at that point in time: The Who. They'd set the record of 126 dB just weeks before and were known for a raucous show, complete with instruments being destroyed and the occasional piece of gear catching fire.
Hendrix and The Who were already competitive with one another, trying to show one another up. Monterey Pop Festival was a key opportunity, and—this is a true story—Hendrix only got to play after The Who because he won a coin toss backstage. Going on after the loudest band in the world is quite a challenge, and he'd already been told that just smashing instruments would seem repetitive and uncreative. But Jimi's secret weapon was a little bottle of lighter fluid he hid onstage. Late in the set, he grabbed the bottle, soaked the guitar, and created the iconic moment we remember today.
But what you probably don't know is that he'd tried this stunt earlier in the year—he was described as "lying on his back, striking matches for five minutes" in the middle of the set because they kept going out. This was opening night of a new tour, and he burned his hands so bad he went to the hospital that night.
Great experiences are rarely spontaneous. You need precision to use lighter fluid to light a guitar on fire but not, say, burn the entire stage down or irreversibly damage your hands. You need some planning and practice. But there's nothing quite like a human being fully committed to creating a unique experience for others.
That's why your human touchpoints are so critical. Recent Salesforce research shows 91% of customers say they're more likely to make another purchase after a positive customer service experience. I'm not sure why this gets overlooked so often in customer experience discussions, it's pretty direct. If you want more sales, give people a positive customer service experience.
That same research shows that 83% of customers now expect to engage with someone immediately when contacting you—that's a 5% jump year-over-year, too, likely thanks to COVID.
That's why it matters who's on the other end of the line when someone gets in touch. Whether it's a phone call or chat or email or social DM, that human interaction is as much your brand as your logo.
This recent New York Times article told the story of someone making a "routine call" to Zappos customer service, but ending up in a 45-minute personal conversation with Crystal, who was on the other end of the phone. Obviously someone somewhere is very good at PR in order for a good customer service call to become a New York Times article, but it did mention that Zappos decided to create...
Customer Service for Anything, which was a dedicated phone line for anyone to ask ... anything. Get help with your order, call to talk, or apparently, get 300 pulse oximeters to a hospital in Australia.
Zappos was already known for customer service and a collaborative internal culture, so this was an easy opportunity for them to creative positive experience after positive experience. Many companies could've had the idea, but wouldn't have been able to pull it off.
The x factor here is internal collaboration across departments. Zappos is known for it, and Salesforce research shows high performers are 3.7x more likely to be very satisfied with this collaboration. It's not just departments working together to come up with creative ideas, it's departments working together to solve a customer's problem.
When individuals are empowered to create positive personal experiences, collaboration between them acts as a multiplier. These people aren't just representing your brand in a generic sense. They're spending their days having interactions with the potential to increase satisfaction, revenue, lifetime value and more.
These human interactions are your greatest opportunity to create advocates.
To seize this opportunity, you're going to need to set countless guitars on fire for small audiences. Hendrix had a tiny bottle of lighter fluid and used enough to put on a show without starting a forest fire. What's the little bit of extra that only you can provide?
These interactions don't scale by design. That's what makes them valuable, and that's why they create advocates.
Make sure you're empowering your employees to be empathetic and human at every point of contact. Hire people for these customer-facing jobs who care about others and want to help. Give them as much leverage as possible to solve problems quickly for customers.
High performing teams collaborate across departments, sharing successes and failures, and ultimately creating a more cohesive customer experience across the lifecycle. Allow teams to experiment and look for opportunities to apply more of that lighter fluid without burning things down.
Finally, find your company's lighter fluid by measuring employee satisfaction and customer lifetime value. There's a lot to say about how clearly research has shown that employee experience directly affects customer experience. You cannot pay someone a meager wage or force them to work long hours or abuse them and then expect them to create valuable customer experiences. You cannot ignore their claims of a hostile or sexist or racist work environment and expect them to collaborate and share freely.
Listen to your employees and give them a safe, creative environment to do their work.
Overlay employee satisfaction with a longer-term metric like customer lifetime value. You're looking for proven, high-value interaction opportunities that teams feel capable of doing (and enjoy doing).
You'll miss this if you're too exclusively focused on profit. You need reliable, passionate people who want to come to work every day to help others.
See, the hard truth is that corporate responsibility doesn't stop at your employees. Just as you can't build meaningful customer experiences while ignoring feedback from your staff, you also can't build them while ignoring your responsibility to the world around you. In "Trends in Customer Trust", Salesforce found that 95% of customers say their trust in a company makes them more likely to be loyal.
Building that trust can be daunting, because it requires public transparency and the willingness to engage in "social" issues.
Speaking of, here's one more Hendrix story for you.
Perhaps Jimi Hendrix's most iconic and iconoclastic moment was playing the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock in 1969. Much like the on-stage guitar fire, this moment in rock history can feel like pure spontaneity and creativity presented to a welcoming sea of hippie concertgoers—in reality, the path to this moment (and beyond it) is nuanced and difficult.
Take a look at another angle of Hendrix's Woodstock performance and you'll see that, actually, the crowd had dwindled significantly. That's because these pictures were taken around 10am on Monday morning, thanks to the closing set being delayed from the following night. So it's already not the storybook ending we might envision.
For those folks who think a protest song at Woodstock was obvious and easy, it's worth a reminder that taking a meaningful moral stand is almost never obvious and easy, especially for a mixed-raced veteran. Hendrix had played a version of the national anthem 30 times in recorded sessions alone. It was thoughtful and rehearsed and intentional. He'd been getting death threats for playing it. Death threats for notes on a guitar.
It might seem like not saying anything at all about anything ever is the safest move for a company. But in a recent "Trust Barometer" report from Edelman, they found 81% globally said the ability to "trust the brand to do what is right" is a deal breaker for buying decisions.
Let's start with an example that will terrify your boss. Back in 2011, Patagonia ran an ad in the New York Times on Black Friday with a picture of their jacket and, in huge letters, "Don't Buy This Jacket". Yes it's provocative and yes, it probably did register some form of reverse-psychology-purchase effect, but it's clear Patagonia was sincere in pointing to their values and responsibility over making another sale.
It's clear not only because of the explanation Patagonia gave at the time, but because of how they've acted before and since. Their consistent commitment to corporate responsibility is well-documented. A decade before the "Don't Buy This Jacket" ad, Patagonia made a donation to Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit providing reproductive healthcare. They responded to complaints by donating an addition $5 for every negative phone call. Sales were fine.
In the decade since the ad, they've continued to donate 1% of all revenue to environmental conservation groups, sued presidents to protect national monuments, boycotted Facebook, and donated to fight voter restriction laws in Georgia. Sales are still fine.
Early in 2021, Sephora released "The Racial Bias in Retail Study" along with a slew of initiatives and goals designed to promote diversity, inclusivity, and equity. These were the culmination of internal efforts started in 2019 to address feedback from customers and employees.
When Sephora faced public accusations of bias and discrimination against BIPOC shoppers—including one very amazing SZA tweet—they didn't dismiss or downplay it, nor did they attack the accusers. They got to work. They listened more, established plans and goals, and announced them publicly so they can be held accountable.
And this builds on what we talked about before: all of Sephora's good planning won't matter without empowered employees who believe in the changes and want to help customers. The human touchpoints are still the most critical moments of the customer experience.
Being corporately passive isn't an option if you want to survive and grow. You have to find a space to make a positive difference in the world in a meaningful way as a company—like your own personal Woodstock, sharing a powerful message with advocates who care.
Much like the backwards guitar, start by looking in an unexpected place: what sort of criticism do you receive from customers or employees? Engage with it honestly, and be curious. If you're at a loss for how or why your company would take a public stance in your industry, customers and employees will likely have the right ideas. Advocates want to be able to say things about the companies they support.
If you're not sure you understand a critique, run a research interview. Find out where their passion is coming from and what they want from you instead.
Take a hint from Sephora and engage with established community leaders if you're getting involved in a cause or movement. More than likely, a nonprofit or individual is already doing great work in your community—partner with them and avoid the temptation to do everything yourself. Community leaders will give you the honest feedback you need, and they can maximize the use of your funds and volunteer hours.
Finally, lead transparently and acknowledge mistakes. Study after study is showing that customers want to be able to trust a brand to be a decent global citizen, but have record low levels of that trust currently.
Even Patagonia has faced criticism, but they dealt with it directly. Around 2011, they did a social responsibility audit and discovered what they called "modern slavery in our supply chain". It would have been easy—and, sadly, normal—to dismiss this concern by saying it's too pervasive to be fixable. Patagonia said it was pervasive, but also personal and urgent for them. They partnered with an NGO to fix the problem and publicly documented the process.
That sort of sincerity and accountability breaks through the wall. People dig it. You can do it, too. Here's what we talked about today:
We talked about finding your Stratocaster: how can you go hard on the fundamentals, and then use that skill to your unique advantage? Find out what's hard about being your customer and invest heavily in fixing it.
We talked about finding your lighter fluid: how can you empower everyone in your company to be empathetic with customers and vulnerable with colleagues? Employee experience is strongly correlated with customer experience, so how well are you treating your people?
Finally, find your Woodstock. Where are you willing to stand and do hard work with conviction? How can you engage meaningfully and transparently with criticism? How is your company truly impacting your community, culture, and world?
Building advocates with experiences is simple, but it's not easy. It means being thoughtful and responsible individually, collectively, corporately, and societally. It means doing the hard work that no one sees to create moments everyone talks about.