A conversation with Todd Allmond, Director of Customer Experience Center of Excellence at Microsoft

“Three-quarters of enterprise customers and around 67% of consumers primarily buy and compete on experience. And we kind of know that intuitively. Think about it, we pay extra for certain brands that we feel connected to. And it’s one of the interesting things I’ve been talking more about. There’s a great quote…’The best experience anywhere becomes the minimum expectation everywhere.’ –Todd Allmond

In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Todd Allmond about his years of enterprise experience, where he learned to better understand customers through quantitative and qualitative research. He used those insights to improve their digital and non-digital experiences and the role service providers play in Customer Experience. We discuss how a market research field studies trip led to his early career change and passion for all the humans involved in the customer journey. We then discuss why digital customer experiences should be treated as products.  Listen in to hear actionable tips for mitigating blindspots in the CX research process.

Show Highlights

[2:15] How Field Experience Led to an Early Career Pivot
[4:30] Factoring in the Mediators of Experience
[13:30] The Best Experience Anywhere Becomes the Minimum Experience Anywhere
[22:45] Mitigating Blindspots in Customer Experience
[27:15] Accessibility of CX Research Efforts[35:15] Empowering the Service Providers

Todd on LinkedIn

About the Guest

Todd Allmond is a part of Microsoft’s Customer Experience and Success (CE&S) organization that brings together reactive support, proactive experiences, and customer success to orchestrate a cohesive set of experiences for their customers.  Within Microsoft CE&S, Todd is the Director of the CX Center of Excellence at Microsoft where he is responsible for experience research and future state of customer experiences across all modalities and phases of the customer life cycle.  Prior to joining Microsoft, Todd worked as the Director of Innovation and Experience at Mindtree and at IBM as an Enterprise Design Thinking Thought leader, working closely with our client partners to transform their product & services ecosystem and reimagine their overall strategy and customer journeys. 

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

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Full Transcript

Douglas:  Welcome to the Control the Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly control the room facilitation lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real-time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab. If you’d like to learn more about my new book, Magical Meetings, you can download the magical meetings quick start guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at voltagecontrol.com/magical-meetings-quick-guide.

Today, I’m with Todd Allmond. Todd is a part of Microsoft’s customer experience and success organization, where they bring together reactive support, proactive experiences, and customer success to orchestrate a cohesive set of experiences for Microsoft customers. Welcome to the show, Todd.

Todd:  Thanks, Douglas. Thanks for having me.

Douglas:  Of course, man. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. Always enjoyed our chats. Let’s get started with just a little bit of background and how you got your start and how you got curious about working in this way.

Todd:  Yeah, it actually goes back to the first job I got out of undergrad. I was one of the millennials that they were still telling me at the time pick a major that you just love and the jobs will come. So I did a history degree. And so my first job out was not really using it as a research aspect, was at a manufacturing company called JCB. They make heavy equipment and farm equipment. And it was an interesting time. It was right before the great recession really kicked off. And we’re going through a trainee program and starting to get exposed to market research and these words of customer experience. And one of the things that really stood out to me before I left there was we started doing… I started going out in the field and we started doing field studies and learning things around, designing for someone’s experience, understanding the journey of the day in the life of someone and what they’re doing on a job site and how they use the machines.

And one of the things that I found in that space was that the operators that were using the equipment weren’t the customers, and there were the littlest things that impacted their ability to do their job. I remember one thing that stands out in my mind was the cup holder being big enough for a big gulp, because they’re sitting there for hours and just wanting to be able to stay hydrated. And so it really opened my eyes to understanding all of the different individuals involved in a journey and what the human experience is, and that it’s not just about designing for the person buying it, but there’s also users and partners that go into it. And so I got exposed to that. The company brought in a consultant to help us really understand how to utilize these tools. And I was so enamored by what this person did, I actually turned in my resignation a week later, kind of just took the risk, went back to graduate school to do a pivot in my career.

Douglas:  That’s amazing. It’s so wonderful to be in the field doing work and just have the epiphany, go off and realize this is the right way to do things and just go explore that passion around getting the skills and even the language to go take it to the next level. So that’s really amazing that you did that.

Todd:  Yeah. It’s crazy to think about now. The Todd today probably would not take that, but when you’re young and idealistic, you’ll take those chances a lot quicker.

Douglas:  Yeah, no doubt. So I wanted to… Something you mentioned was human experience, and you said that when we were in our pre-show chat and it really jumped out to me because a lot of times people will talk about user experience, customer experience. And this phrasing of human experience is really delightful because it really honors this concept that there are so many different roles. There’s the economic buyer, and there’s this gal that has to drive this forklift and there’s not enough room for the big gulp she wants there or whatever, right?

Todd:  Yeah. We do this in our work today. So at Microsoft we’re looking at the experiences. And even before, when I was in consulting, one of the things that, there was an over pivot in the industry when the concept of outside in, human-centered research, human-centered design, we started looking at, okay, the customer, all that matters is the customer experience. And then let’s come up with an idealistic customer experience. Then we can build those platforms and technologies and processes around to uplift and support that experience. What the problem is, and we’ve seen this with services owners, they, in my opinion, we’re the first ones to really go after this, was that it is correct to go after and understand that end user journey, that end customer, the one in the most outer part of the ecosystem, and design for them.

But as part of that research, you need to look at the humans that are involved in the mediation of it. So if we’re using a service blueprint in a restaurant model, what is now the server’s journey? What is the back of the house journey? What is the supporting staff journey? Because I can’t, if I create an experience and I’m trying to bring that to life and I don’t understand the person delivering that experience and I don’t treat them as a human and understand what their needs are, I might design an experience and push for deployment of something that’s really great for the customer, but it might actually increase the workload or increase the stress or effort on the person delivering that.

And human nature is human nature. And we have always seen this. Anytime a new tool comes out, it’s typically a lower adoption rate. People are dissatisfied with it till they get used to it. And the only way to convince someone delivering an experience is to treat them also as that human and design that new experience in a way where it’s actually easier for them to deliver as well. Making it harder for them means you’re probably got a less chance that the experience you imagine comes to life because the person delivering it, you didn’t factor in what was important to them, what their needs were.

Douglas:  That’s so amazing. It brings up a few thoughts. One is this notion of measurements and metrics and how powerful they can be, but how they can also potentially lead us astray.

Todd:  Yes.

Douglas:  Because for instance, let’s take that example that you had, where we get really focused on that one user type. And let’s say we do a net promoter score on that user. And we’re really proud, and all of our actions are going into an optimizing that net promoter score. But what about all the other types of users and what’s happening to their scores because we’ve been so focused on optimizing that one, that’s sort of like having a local maxima. We climb that small hill when the mountains like nearby and it’s like, oh man, we’re going to have to climb down this little hill to even get over to the big one now.

Todd:  It’s an interesting spot. And I think everyone’s kind of pivoting to this. So within Microsoft CEnS, it’s a complicated ecosystem. I’m trying to change these experiences. So I run the CX center of excellence. So we’re the kind of earlier part of the trip, so to speak, so that human-centered research, that experience design, that ideal north star state. But, and I know, Douglas, you’ve seen this in industry as well, in the past it used to be thought that you just deliver those insights and all these wonderful concepts, and someone’s going to do something with it, but it’s really hard to go from ideal to operationalizing it. And one of the things that we’re doing at Microsoft now is we’re actually treating these experiences like a product. So bringing the best of product management, so release plans, measurement plans.

And the part about measurement that you’re mentioning is that there’s a few different buckets of metrics that are very important. When you deploy an experience, it’s great to track net promoter score, C-SAT and some other ones that are important to the business and industry, but it’s equally as important to identify what are metrics that we believe can help us understand the experience of the human. Are we improving that experience or reducing effort? So identifying those custom metrics that measure the journey to understand that impact is just as important.

And personally, from an outside in point of view, I’m more focused on those. I think it’s very important to drive towards business outcomes and the NPS and C-SAT, but I’ve also been in plenty of meetings over the years where there’s been a 5% increase in a C-SAT score, it might be statistically significant, and there might be one of 70 teams saying their project led to it. And so sometimes we get so on the one metric, like you said, we’re kind of missing the broader opportunity of really driving experience and improvement, and also being realistic about, did what we do really have that impact? Is it possible our project actually pushed a score down, but the gap was made up by an effort somewhere else? And that’s hard to tease apart.

Douglas:  Yeah. And it’s just like, if we’re optimizing for the metric, what does that mean overall, right? If we haven’t thought about the countermeasures, how could improving this metric create bad outcomes?

Todd:  Yeah.

Douglas:  That’s a fun workshop activity to have people consider like, hey, what could be the negative consequences of doing optimizing for this?

Todd:  Well, it’s understanding of human nature. I mean, not the call out in the company specifically, but there are examples of that in the news in the past, of driving towards a certain business metric. I’m always a positive person. I’m sure it was the best intentions in mind, but it unintentionally led to unethical behavior to try and hit those numbers. And so you’re right. It’s important to understand that, I’m a big fan of Jungian psychology. So what is that shadow side? Trying to anticipate the unintended consequences.

Douglas:  Absolutely. That even percolates into, and this might be a nice transition to how you use these processes internally, too, because we can’t turn a blind eye to the people that had to deliver these services and what’s their experiences for supporting the systems, for building the systems, for even whatever role they might play in it. And how do we support them as individuals and their strengths and personalities. And then how did those things co-mingle, right? When I hear a shadow side, it always reminds me of when we’re thinking about the collaborative kind of, let’s say makeup of a team, there are certain strengths that someone might have and their shadows to those strengths, right? And so when we’re putting those people together, we now need to acknowledge the fact that like, oh, that shadow might not coalesce well with this other person, right, and how do we acknowledge that and just work through it, right?

Todd:  I think the first step is just if you’re going to use the word CX, and it’s hard to get away from saying the word CX, customer experience, but if you take that internally to mean understanding the persona, understanding all the humans and treating them as individuals and understanding their specific journey, I think you’re off to a good start, because I think we talk about internal employees or maybe field employees, often they’re spoken to, to get information about the intended persona, the intendant customer, but we don’t always take the care to treat them like that customer and map out their journey, their wants, their needs, their hopes, their fears to really get at that. And I think that’s a good first step, is to identifying that if we’re going to work at customer experience, look at all the human groups, treat them all as special, understanding their journey, and then see how they all come together.

And we’re doing that. Microsoft are doing that. My team and a lot of other teams are involved in a massive effort to really have a particular focus on understanding the experience of the field, whether it’s selling or delivery or customer success, it’s really understand who is this human, what are they trying to get to do? Because coming in, one of the things I see in a lot of companies, there’s a lot of well-intended teams all across an organization building tools, building playbooks, building reports, and they’re trying to all drive towards the same outcome, but they’re like, we’re bumping into each other. And one of the things that we’re doing differently in Microsoft now is looking at these groups as humans, as what are their experiences are, what are they trying to accomplish? And now that we have a north star journey, that north star to experience, now let’s talk about the process and the platform, the playbooks and everything else that could bring that to life. So we’re actually enabling them, not blocking them.

Douglas:  I love that. We often think about the human experience with inside of organizations. So how collaboration happens, how work happens, and that can be a product in itself. And to your point, it’s not just talking to employees to get a lens in the customer or the buyer or these other folks that they’re running into, it’s more around, hey, what is it like to be you? And when you have to fill out this form or use this tool or whatever. And also what is our meeting cadence, what’s our culture around how we come together and make decisions.

Todd:  Yeah, it’s quite the shift. And I mean, I think everyone’s adjusting to this new paradigm shift. I think I saw some… So Gardner has some work out about this research. The Salesforce data as well, I talked about, I think it was like 70, so three-quarters of enterprise customers and around 67% of consumers primarily buy and compete on experience. And we kind of know that intuitively. Think about, we pay extra for certain brands that we feel connected to. And it’s one of the interesting things I’ve been talking more about. There’s a great quote, not mine, I picked it up back in the IBM days. I think lady’s name was Bridget van Kralingen, but there’s a quote that stuck with me. And it was pretty, I don’t know if it still said a lot, but I use it in almost every workshop, every engagement, “The best experience anywhere becomes the minimum expectation everywhere.”

And so these conversations around B2B enterprise is different from consumer. It’s just not the case, because if you think about the fact that we’re humans, respecting and understanding the individual, that individual gets an experience from a two minute conversation with a credit card rep about a fraud experience, and it was a pleasant experience, they bring that expectation back to the workplace. And now in this connected environment, it’s not weeks, months or years. It’s a matter of minutes before what was acceptable yesterday is no more acceptable today because they got inspiration or exposed to a better way of doing it somewhere else.

Douglas:  I got a great example, a great personal example there. I had a Mini Cooper prior to my current car. Currently have a Hyundai Veloster, which I really enjoy. It’s a fun little car. But I got to tell you, the Mini Cooper customer service center is like night and day compared to Hyundai. I go to mini Cooper and it’s like walking into, if I were to compare it to department stores, it’s kind of like walking into like Arnie’s or something. They’re like, “Oh, good to see you, Mr. Ferguson,” take the key and they plug it into the receptacle and all my records come up and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I see. I know exactly why you’re here. Here’s a loaner car. It’s the new turbo, dual turbo with the BMW engine. Enjoy. We’ll let you know when it’s ready.” And you go to Hyundai and they’re like, “Oh, you have an appointment? Yeah. That was just to get you here. You’re going to have to wait until these other people that arrived are done.” It was like showing up at Walmart, it’s just a totally different kind of experience.

Todd:  Yeah.

Douglas:  Right? And so to your point, if you never experienced those things, then the expectations are different, but once you do, then you start to think, hmm, am I going to settle for something else, right? And I think I was telling you earlier about Jim Colson, who was the CTO of IBM Watson e-commerce.

Todd:  Yeah.

Douglas:  And I met him through my CTO days. He was telling me about how he was getting educated on design thinking, and he was kind of a naysayer at first, but then started to like really understand what it was all about. The amazing epiphany for him was watching customers start to really demand better experiences on the enterprise side, because it used to be that enterprise, they were locked in into these long contracts and it was like, well, here it is, here’s what you get. And now people are starting to get more and more sophisticated consumer applications that are just evolving and adapting, and it’s so competitive that they live by the customer experience literally day by day. When you’re comparing something that you get on your iPhone or your Android or your Surface to something that you’re having to use at work, the conversation shifts.

Todd:  Yeah. I was at IBM for three years and, might have been almost four, it left that very strong impression on me because I got there just when the IBM design thinking approach was getting standardized and popular within the company. And I was very fortunate. Week one, I was in Raleigh at the design thinking campus, and I got to go attend a workshop. And for me it wasn’t… Those workshops are engaging. They’re exciting. I’m a firm believer that if you work in the experience business, if you’re a human-centered design design thinking consultant, whatever your title is, it’s just as important to make the experience of those workshops of the engagements a pleasant experience as it is the experience you’re trying to create for them.

And when I was there, one of the things that really stood out to me about the IBM approach was some of the great stories they pulled outside of the business. There’s one, I won’t get into it, but it’s around, it is a pretty popular story with IBM facilitators, and I’ve seen it elsewhere, but an MRI machine that they spend a lot of time investing in. It’s pretty popular design thinking story now. And then they bring up the unintended impact of not talking to all the users and the story of children, and how they actually didn’t make a new machine, they came up with a skit that they can play games, like you’re on a ship and you’ve got to go under deck as pirates are coming in, it was just to help lessen the anxiety of the experience for them. And what impression that left on me was, between that and Bridget’s quote, about the best experience anywhere, it’s not something like a warning. If you embrace what the spirit of that is telling you, it’s also directing you where to go draw inspiration. And so that’s one of the things that we were doing.

I just got asked the other day by a colleague to talk about early engagement, where our team partnered with a lot of teams across Microsoft, to really re-imagine an area of what we called ease of doing business, that end-to-end customer experience. What is it like? And one of the things that we looked at the initial idea was around billing. But when we dove into the research, we’re like, well, we started talking about examples from people purchasing cars, and 90 days later they got the first bill and it was all this extra stuff in there they didn’t know about. So the bad bill experience started long before billing.

And once we got into understanding about what does that procurement journey, how do we help them along the path of finding what they need and helping enable them and being clear and transparent about the cost of it and being their partners. One of the things that comes out of it in any billing arrangement with any customer, whether private or public, is around the idea of, you’re not always charged what you thought you did. So it was that credit return of money experience. And as we were diving in inspiration around what that north star experience should be, we thought back to that quote about experience anywhere.

So we started digging deep in different places and found inspiration from, I mean, personally I found inspiration, I just had my credit card, back to the story earlier, some charges are put on it. It was my Apple credit card. And it was a very quick and pleasant credit experience. And then it prompted me to go back and look at the video of that product launch. And some of the things they talked about that were pains in the credit card industry, that they were looking to design and improve. And ironically, some of those similar pain points existed in this enterprise journey. So we’re able to draw inspiration from what we’ve seen in the credit card market, in the consumer market to help maybe re-imagine what that experience could be at an enterprise level.

Douglas:  Yeah. I like that reframing as opportunity, right? It’s not just about, “Oh gosh, the stuff’s changing rapidly. Oh no, this is a predicament. We’re going to have to go change.” They’re showing you the roadmap. There’s lots of inspiration to draw from. So I think it’s more fascinating to look at what’s happening in the ecosystem and in other industries, rather than looking at competitors.

Todd:  Yeah, I would agree. I’ve said this a couple of times to some colleagues as I got here, there’s a natural obsession, like being at the same level or… it’s always better to be ahead of your competitor, best in industry. But, best in industry doesn’t always mean… Imagine you’re running a race and there’s only three people running. So first, second, third. So it’s not around being best in industry, it’s back to your point around looking everywhere. It’s about being a differentiated experience. Like what you’re offering, they can’t find that anywhere else. No matter what the industry, whether it’s individual consumer, non-profit, doesn’t matter. And that’s what, at least from a design standpoint, we aspire to, is a differentiated experience that you just can’t compare it to anything else.

Douglas:  Yeah. That’s better and just uncomparable, in a class of its own. Which one sounds better or what’s more attractive, right? I want to come back to that MRI example because you were talking about the people weren’t considered. And I think there’s another trap that’s a little more subtle that I’m just curious to get your thoughts on. And that’s where maybe we’re talking to people, but we may be not including all the people we could. And quite often this will lead to racially insensitive product decisions. And I have a humorous example where I was at the Culturati conference, which if people don’t know about it, it’s an amazing conference here in Austin and that’s focused on culture. The head of diversity from Twitter and the head of diversity from Target were both on stage and they’re both firecrackers, highly recommend checking them out. They were just having a good time.

And they started just roasting the hotel shower for the hotel where the conference was putting up the speakers, because it was one of these rain showers and it had no handle attachment. And she’s like, “Let me just tell you, as a black woman, this is an incompatible shower. Clearly no black woman was involved in deciding what shower to put in this hotel.” Right? And so I was like, oh, wow, it’s a racially insensitive shower. This is next level. So anyway, I’d love to get your thoughts on just how do we consider diversity. Even when we had the best of intentions, what about these blind spots? We’re not even considering around who we’re not talking to you.

Todd:  Yeah. I think there’s a few ways to go about it. I think back to, I did a pretty long engagement with, I’m not at the company I did it for anymore, but I’ll still err on the side of caution, a major motorcycle manufacturer. And what struck me as was so awesome in this engagement is the patience and investment and doing research before we even got into journey mapping and re-imagining entire end-to-end customer life cycle. This company had, we really tried to break down by age group, by demographics, by career industry, every way you could try to splice it up to make sure that we had a representative sample to speak to because each of those groups were unique in what they wanted out of the service, the type of products, how they rode, who they rode with. And so what was amazing about that is taking the time and doing a research plan and recognizing that it’s important to try and go after as diverse of a group as possible.

But the other way… I don’t know if you can ever mitigate it, but you can always reduce the risks and expand your insights. And one of the ways I think is, is designers, design researchers, we’re just as guilty as everyone else. We can get stuck in our process, and forget that it’s an approach. We never stop researching. We never stopped ideating. So the idea that I’ve wrapped up my research phase, I don’t operate that way. I think it’s important, like you talked about, as I think I have an understanding of the ecosystem, but I’m actually listening in those interviews, not for just what they’re saying, but clues about another group I haven’t thought about or perspective of a group that hasn’t been considered that I need to go out and reach. And if we’re already in the design aspect, we’ve already got a journey, we’re still researching because we might find something unique that could go into a later design sprint or a later roadmap.

So I think never stop researching and always using every interview as a possible inspiration or reference to go look somewhere else you never thought to look for is a good way combining it with trying to look at all the different ways and all the different diversity groups, whether it’s background experience, age or so many different ways. And sometimes you got to think about the product group that you’re in and the people that you serve generally, and have a lot of time thinking about that breakdown.

Douglas:  It also struck me as you were talking that there’s heavy doses of humility and curiosity to make that work well.

Todd:  Yeah. And you know what, at least for me, where I’ve found I’ve gotten the most of that, going back to that motorcycle example, is what we’re doing right now. You have most likely a list of questions, but you’re not reading it off. You have topics that you’re trying to get at. And if you’re doing interviews, you’re trying to at least get basic topics from everyone, but you’re also allowing them to take the story where they want it to go. And at least for me, running those research interviews in that format increase the chance that they would share unique information that would make me recheck my assumptions, rethink my personas, rethink scope.

Douglas:  Yeah. I think anytime that I walk out of the interview feeling like I heard things that were, like I’m happy, like I heard things that I wanted to hear, it feels nice at first, but then I just start getting this really painful feeling. That’s like, oh man, that’s confirmation bias. What did I miss?

Todd:  It’s hard. It really is hard. And kind of going back to your diversity question, another way I think mitigating risk is considering the diversity and the diversity of experiences of the team performing the engagement, because each person brings their own personal background culture and experiences into that. And so having that broad, deep and wide, and diverse research and design team, or just B team in general as we call it a Microsoft, increases that chance because I don’t know what I don’t know, I haven’t experienced something, but one of my coworkers did. And if we have an open and collaborative and safe environment to share ideas and challenge and our research plans, it increases the chance that they’ll point out something I was going to miss. And so that’s another way to mitigate it, I believe, as well.

Douglas:  Yeah. I think to me, I’ve found that visuals can be really powerful just to make sure we’re getting past any confusion around metaphor or is there some language barrier that we’re having trouble understanding each other on, either having sketching with the user or having them react to some kind of visuals is always really pretty profound because then it’s almost visceral, this data that we’re collecting.

Todd:  Yeah.

Douglas:  So I want to talk a little bit about accessibility, and specifically from the perspective of remote work and maybe hybrid, that seems to be, assuming Delta kind of gets tamed down, definitely more and more requests to do things in person and then people can’t travel. So we’re kind of in this world now, and I don’t think it’s changing. And so just curious in general, in the work that you’re doing, how much accessibility comes up in your research efforts, or just in the process?

Todd:  Well, in general, one thing I’ve been impressed since coming where Microsoft is the care and attention to accessibility and inclusivity. A lot of companies come from the consulting side, they have the buzzwords, they have the posters, they have the training, but they don’t live it to its full potential. And I see that being lived out and there’s, I want to say compliance, but there’s almost those safeguards to check. Like what about accessibility? What about inclusivity? But if you take it to the remote question, it’s pretty cool what I’m seeing even more one, what the company is doing and how we’re focusing on it. So from a company standpoint, Microsoft is really embracing this idea, because if you think about Teams, for example, just the monthly users that exploded and how it changed business environments.

I’ve been a consultant for a long time. I’ve been remote traveling for the last eight years. I’ve been based out of my home and traveling out of a plane. And I remember the days of, “Hey, you need get on a plane first thing tomorrow morning for a two hour meeting. It’s crucial.” And then COVID changed that. All of a sudden now, I could just have the meeting online and it was perfectly acceptable. So as far as like, including those… I’ll answer the question in two parts. One is how do we consider accessibility when conducting the work? It’s having a mindset around what factors in accessibility in remote workers when you’re planning a project and executing it. And some of those, I think companies that fared better during the shutdowns, were ones that were already doing it.

So as far as like remote workshops with remote tools or hybrid workshops, how do you have people not on a call, but interactively on a touch screen from their home desk, with people in the conference room? I was privileged enough to actually be able to do that off and on for different clients over the years. So for me, the pivot was subtle and learned a lot of great lessons, the easy way and the hard way. And one of those is just making sure that people are equally included in the outcome.

It seems obvious now, but I remember so many years it was pay a bunch of money to fly everyone into a conference room and three days of workshops, and talk about back to the diversity and being holistic in your approach, and not everyone can get on a plane. It’s even more difficult if they’re halfway around the world. So do you have a bias sample in the room? And then you say you’re going to go validate later, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, once those things have been formulated over five days of hard work, a couple of interviews with people remotely is not going to change a lot of those assumptions.

So the remote aspect of performing the work increases your sample size, the diversity of thought experience and background. So I think that’s a great way of performing the work as far as how to make people feel more included from accessibility standpoint. There’re subtle things that we pick up on. The fact that we have our cameras on. I picked this up from my mom. She’s been a remote worker since 1998, but she was adamant about having a camera on. There’s something about seeing a human when you’re having a conversation that increases, that connection increases the chance that they’re engaged in the conversation, don’t feel left out.

Douglas:  Yeah. I think that’s really important. And you can see it when you look into cultures within companies around how they collaborate and how they work together and the level of safety that you see and how they communicate with each other. So cameras on versus cameras off is a signal for sure. I want to come back to this notion of applying this stuff internally and kind of thinking about employees. And I’m kind of curious, what was the moment when you realized the power of winning it inwards? Because you mentioned being on the job site, seeing the folks running this machinery and the big gulp, et cetera, but at one point, what was the trigger for you?

For me, it was as a CTO, I was in charge of making sure that we were adopting best practices around DevOps, et cetera. And just this notion of this focus around, because essentially DevOps is basically like the developer experience, right?

Todd:  Right.

Douglas:  And so that was one of those early moments when I started realizing like, oh wow, we can actually shape the way that these people are supported and how they do their best work. And that really moves the needle for the customer, too. And so anyway, I’m just kind of curious what that moment was for you when you realized, oh, there’s a lot of juice here when we actually help our employees in these ways.

Todd:  There’s actually two moments that pop in my head. One was probably that molded me, but I didn’t realize it until later. I think one was in college. I love the service blueprints, combined journeys, especially the restaurant scene because that’s where I spent most of my time in college. Waited tables, cooked in the kitchen, prep, bartended, did it all. So that experience, there was kind of a, I joke with some friends that you almost feel like there should be an for everyone to spend a little bit time in the service industry, you become a lot more appreciative of the effort it takes and all the work that goes in behind the scenes to make your journey pleasant at a restaurant or a bar or anywhere else. So I think that left an impression on me.

I didn’t realize it until there was a particular engagement years ago that we did with a company that helps you… you can buy concert tickets, events, just coordinates your ability to purchase tickets. And it was around the call center, the support experience. This company would get thousands of calls a day in, and you have hundreds per person a day that they’re having to deal with. And so the idea originally was like so many companies, there’s a new dashboard, there’s a new system to sell on, new processes, and someone’s making all these decisions to make it easier for the person calling in. Someone had an idea like, oh, would it be cool if we had this data? And so all of these decisions were made or being made, we were asked to go in and I actually was given the opportunity to, you always ask for it, but you’re normally told no, our team was given the opportunity to go to a ride along, something that you usually only see in UX or like studios where there’re concepts and you’d watch people.

I was fortunate enough to learn this research technique in grad school from behavioral psychology, where you set up a condition and you observe them in the condition, you learn so much. And we got to do that. And one of the things that I saw was, everything they were trying to do to improve the experience in the call center as far as the tools they use, it was great, but the one thing they forgot was to actually watch and sit down for a few hours so the person taking the calls, solving the problems, and seeing them physically opening 40 screens and moving stuff around, and then that data that was so important, watching them click it and then click a category and just randomly pick one so they could close it out. Because there would be five sub categories, they’d spend two minutes finding it, and the requirements of their job doesn’t allow them to exceed a certain amount of time. So they would just throw bad data into the system.

So they were doing all this work to get data, which wasn’t reliable, they’re basing decisions off the bad data, and they’re actually negatively impacting the quality of the calls and the time that they could allocate. So just having that ride along, it was like an epiphany. It reminded me back of being in the restaurant and understanding the people providing the service and what they’re actually have to go through to do that. It’s an important thing not to miss.

Douglas:  Well, that brought up so many memories throughout my career, there’s no shortage of examples of those types of situations. Maybe my favorite story is how Jeff Bezos, well, I’m sure he doesn’t do it anymore because he’s left, but he was a big fan of just kind of randomly appearing on a customer service call.

Todd:  Yeah.

Douglas:  And this particular story that I was reading, gosh, it might’ve been 10, 15 years ago, but he’s on this ride along just listening. And the customer service person was processing a return. They didn’t really ask them any questions, they just processed it pretty quick, which seemed a little abnormal based on how he had seen them process a few other returns. So it didn’t seem like this rep was negligent or shoddy in the work. And so he asked the rep, “Hey, what, tell me about this. That seemed a little odd.” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, this thing gets returned all the time.” And Jeff’s like, “What?”

And so he invented a whole system where people could literally take stuff off the production line, like literally a support rep can say, “Hey, there’s a problem here. Take it off the site.” And of course it gets flagged and someone leans in and deals with it. But apparently, the problem with this product was that it had bad packaging, and so it would get broke in shipping. And so let’s fix the packaging so it doesn’t get broke in shipping, this is like… And so it’s similar to the gang bang cord from Toyota, right? Anybody on the production line can stop it. So it’s not only about do we sit down and have interviews with these people, but how do we empower them and give them tools to shout, give them a megaphone. We don’t have to be there in the moment.

Todd:  Yeah. It’s empower everyone, and then everyone’s… That’s one of the things that Amazon is known for, the customer obsession, everyone’s customer obsessed. If you ask someone who’s in charge of customer experience at a company like that, it’s everyone. It’s not centralized into one team over here. It’s an interesting model. And I think a lot of us have seen companies like that and other companies have changed back to the earlier our expectations of what we want for experiences elsewhere.

Douglas:  Absolutely. It’s really fascinating. And certainly as a user of software, I appreciate it when companies care. So often I’ll send emails into support@somerandomcompany.com and I get back this like response that assumes I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I’m like, oh man, this is going to be painful. But it’s delightful when it’s different. And you can tell the companies that are really putting effort in.

Todd:  Yeah.

Douglas:  So anyway, this stuff matters. It’s been so fun chatting with you about the human experience, servers, blueprints, really taking to heart the role that everybody plays, not only buyers and consumers and the forklift driver and the employee but everyone in the whole value chain. So I want to just say it’s been really great. And I want to give you an opportunity just to leave our listeners with a final thought.

Todd:  No, I appreciate that. Really appreciate our conversation as well. It’s a lot of fun. I think a couple of thoughts would be, one is, going back, maybe it sounds a little bit altruistic, but focusing on the individual, that human experience and think about all the humans that are involved in something and taking the time to understand their wants needs and the journey they’re on. Because it’s not one person in the band, it’s how it all comes together, and everyone has their own journey and their own desires. The second part is, I know this might be an opportunity to plug, I don’t have a book to plug or a podcast, but I’d say I really enjoyed speaking with folks and engaging with people in this space. I wish there was more of us out there. So I love connecting and chatting. So you’re more than happy to find me on LinkedIn, reach out, connect. I love setting up these chats and love to share what you’re doing in the industry. I can share what we’re learning so we can all grow together and evangelize this human experience effort more broadly.

Douglas:  Awesome. Yeah. Please do connect. And we believe in the power of ecosystems, so. The more people can network and grow and elevate the conversation around this stuff the better. So I love that that’s your call to action. And then yeah, let’s grow the ecosystem together. Again, it’s been a pleasure having you, Todd. Thanks for the great conversation.

Todd:  Thank you, Douglas. Look forward to next time.

Douglas:  Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.