How to Provide Certainty Even During Times of Uncertainty

Last month, at the XM Institute, we held our second ever XMPN Virtual Meetup. We met with experience management (XM) professionals from around the world, with most reigning from the APJ region and Africa. 

The bulk of the conversation was centered around applying XM during this time of crisis. We anchored this part of the discussion around four experience design-based tips for leaders, one of those tips being “choose certainty over uncertainty.”

The importance of this tip was emphasized by an XM practitioner from New Zealand who pointed out that organizational leaders are struggling to communicate with certainty because of the uncertainties at the national and local governmental levels and the uncertainties among the leaders above them in the organization. In other words, uncertainty has a tendency to spread. 

This got us thinking – while these chains of uncertainty are common, they are certainly not necessary!

Why Choose Certainty over Uncertainty?

As many of us are learning the hard way right now, humans respond much better to certainty than uncertainty, even when the certainty might be bad news. Many airlines have come to embrace this principle, communicating things as simple as flight delays with detailed timelines and updates. Flight delays are almost always bad news, but knowing what, why, and when helps us (as consumers) manage and cope. 

In fact, in times of crisis and uncertainty, human beings actively seek out certainty and stability. And this is the case for many employees and customers around the globe right now. 

How to Break the Chain of Uncertainty

While uncertainty spreads aggressively when left unchecked, here are 3 simple steps that leaders can take to break the chain:

  • Make the uncertain, certain. First, clearly lay out the issue and acknowledge the uncertainty facing everyone. Avoiding the issue can actually make things worse. For example, many remote employees are wondering if and when they might be asked to return to the office. And for many organizations, there is no definitive answer to this. As a leader whose employees are looking to you for guidance, be frank with them that you don’t know and neither does the organization. That fact, at least, serves as some form of certainty.
  • Clearly share what is certain. Next, transition to communicating what is certain, even if the news is not great. Building on the scenario above, while you may not know for sure if and when the team will return to the office, what you do know is that it is not for at least the next three weeks. Share those details and outline the relevant state or local guidance your company is relying on. Also share any known dependencies, such as if and when your team returns to the office, there will be new policies and procedures in place to protect people. 
  • Provide a path for more certainty. Finally, build on what is certain by sharing any known timelines for when updated decisions may be made. For example, you may let employees know that you will be providing updates every Wednesday with the latest information. You could also share the resources that you are using to drive the decisions, which will allow them to stay informed. This step requires some work upfront on your part but is well worth the effort. 

In summary, even when we are surrounded by uncertainty, it is almost always possible (and highly desirable) to provide some level of certainty.

Three Phases For Heading Back To Business

I’ve studied human behavior for decades, examining how people respond to their environment as customers, employees, and leaders. Humans are amazingly resilient—for the good and bad. Even after facing disruptive events such as an epidemic or a recession, people tend to revert to their old ways shortly after the shock dissipates. People will go back to congregating, shaking hands, shopping at malls, and going without washing their hands more quickly than we’d think at the moment. Behavioral norms are hard to break.

That does not mean that the future will look exactly like the past. The evolution to a new normal will be a tug of war between people’s heightened anxiety about staying safe and their desire to return to highly engrained normative patterns of behavior.

Some Changes Will Persist Beyond The Crisis

While people don’t tend to change, there are some emergent behaviors that appear to have the momentum to stay longer. For an activity to continue, it needs to be economically favorable, fulfill an unmet human need that persists beyond the crisis, and nurtured into an evolved form as the crisis subsides. The ones that jump out to me as candidates for ongoing change are:

  • Group video interactivity. Although people will not remain separated, the use of group video events will continue. People will go online for family gatherings, global training, college courses, and group workouts. This pandemic has accelerated the hurdle of trying and adopting these activities, and they fill a latent need for connection that exists beyond the replacement of in-person interactions.
  • Blended delivery models. Now that a large portion of the older population has been pushed to order groceries, necessities, or meals online and either have them delivered or picked up from their local market, they’ll likely keep doing it—at least in some ways. I expect the use of blended models will become a standard component of everyday life, especially for older consumers.
  • Streaming media consumption. People have turned to content services like Netflix, Disney+, and YouTube to fill their days. While the volume of binging will subside, these behaviors will likely continue to replace other media options. This shift, however, may decelerate if these services don’t actively keep first time users engaged with appropriate pricing models and content.
  • Work from home. Not all of the current home workers will continue spending workdays in their makeshift offices. But some will. And the need for organizations to enforce social distancing will push these activities for a longer time than many other temporary behaviors. Now that leaders and employees have been exposed to the benefits of working from home (and recognized where there are limitations), we’ll see more job descriptions allowing people to at least partially work remotely.
  • Omnichannel medical care. Gaining access to healthcare services through channels beyond visiting a medical office or hospital had to become a mainstream activity at some point. It has all of the right advantages of a persistent norm, it’s better economically, while also being more convenient. The only thing that will hold this back are slow-to-move government regulations.

Three Phases Of Returning To (New) Normal

As the world returns to some semblance of normal, changes will represent ongoing trade-offs  between safety-oriented behaviors and the desire to return to old ways. Given this behavioral struggle, I suggest that organizations plan for three phases as they head back to business:

202005_ThreePhasesXMrecoveryIcon

  • Phase 1: Explore: People will quickly start doing some of the things they haven’t been able to do. The activities they do and the way they do them will be the result of balance between ongoing anxiety and the desire to get back to “normal.” This will be a somewhat chaotic period, where organizations need to be observant and responsive, and make sure they meet the rapidly changing desires and attitudes. They need to try new operating models, and refine them as they learn; all while providing evidence of their commitment to safety.
  • Phase 2: Reorient: During this next phase, customers and employees will start to settle into patterns of behavior that will stick beyond the crisis period. In this stage, organizations need to aggressively reposition their existing offerings and messaging, and create future-looking operating norms. There will need to be a lot of alignment, as this change will affect suppliers, employees, partners, and customers.
  • Phase 3: Normalize: After the new patterns emerge, organizations need to lock into operating models that support the new norms. During this period, organizations will likely formalize new offerings, look at the market through new customer segmentation models, develop supporting processes and systems, and go to market with a refined ecosystem of suppliers and partners.

The picture below provides a good metaphor for these phases. Before designing the landscape for Lafayette College’s quad, architects observed how students used the space. Once they saw patterns emerge by the beaten down grass that formed pathways, they built the asymmetric walkways that exist today. You’ll need to let people walk in phase 1, identify the patterns they take in phase 2, and then pave the paths in phase 3.

Tap Into XM Along The Way

As I’ve discussed in the past, Experience Management (XM) is a critical capability during times of change. That’s because XM is all about staying connected with people (customers, employees, partners, and suppliers) by continuously learning (how they are thinking and feeling), propagating insights (to the right people in the right form at the right time), and rapidly adapting (to an increasing flow of actionable insights). In these fluid times, XM provides the human-connected adaptability required for organizations to successfully navigate their way back to business.

As you can see in the chart below, organizations will need a different approach to their XM efforts across the three phases in returning to the (new) normal: Explore, Reorient, and Normalize.

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As your organization begins its journey towards normalization, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Chart your back to business phases. The three phases will occur in different ways and at different times across industries and markets. The way that people interact with the airline industry in the U.S. will normalize at a different rate and in a different manner than they do with retailers in the UK. Every organization needs to make its own unique plans for the three phases.
  • Practice intentional patience. The early stages are primarily about trial, error, and learning. Even if something seems to work in the Explore stage, the success of that approach may not be persistent as people’s needs and priorities change. You need to maintain very quick cycles of sensing and adapting early on, while holding back on locking into a long-term direction until persistent patterns emerge.
  • Capitalize on persistent changes. One of the most dramatic opportunities to disrupt your competitive environment is to tap into new behaviors and attitudes that persist beyond the crisis. The list above provides some areas for innovation, but there will likely be others as well. Make sure that you are tracking attitudes and behaviors of your customers and employees, and not just attempting to return to “the good old days.”
  • Tap into engaged employees. Navigating through these back to business phases are much less about a great strategic plan, then they are about tapping into the insights and energy of your employees. Especially in the early stages, employees are your eyes and ears about what’s working and what needs to be changed. If you don’t keep your workers engaged, then they’ll never make the changes that you need at a pace that’s required in the market.
  • Keep XM action-oriented. Late last year I labeled 2020 as “The Year of Insightful Actions.” Even before the pandemic, it was clear that organizations were most successful when their XM efforts focused on driving improvements and making better decisions. That’s the direction that many organizations have been forced into during the last few months. Don’t fall back into the pattern of using XM primarily as a source of metrics. Leaders should continue to ask the two ultimate questions: “What have you learned?” and “What improvements are you making?

John F. Kennedy once noted that, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.” During this path to a new normal, don’t just aim to recover. If you come out of these three phases doing exactly what you were doing before, then you will likely fall behind. You need to identify how you will emerge with improved capabilities and enhanced offerings.

The bottom line: Stay focused on people as you head back to business.

Tapping into the Six Traits of Human Beings During a Crisis

Experience Management (XM) is all about human beings. Customers are human. Employees are human. Partners, leaders, suppliers, prospective customers… all human. In the current environment, where many people are facing hard times, it’s more critical than ever for organizations to find ways to demonstrate their humanity and build deeper emotional ties with all the people who interact with them.

This, unfortunately, is easier said than done. Human beings are complicated and can be difficult to understand. So to adapt your experiences to address the shifting concerns of the people you care about, consider their needs across all Six Traits of Human Beings:

  1. INTUITIVE. People use two different modes of thinking to make decisions and judgements: Intuitive Thinking, which is fast, automatic, and emotional and relies on cognitive biases and heuristics (mental rules of thumb) to make decisions, and Rational Thinking, which is slow, effortful, and deliberate and relies on logic and reason to reach conclusions. While humans always tend to use Intuitive Thinking more frequently than Rational Thinking, our dependence on it intensifies during times of stress and uncertainty. So emergencies often exacerbate our existing biases – such probability neglect, availability bias, aversion to uncertainty, and herding behaviors – leading to “irrational” reactions, like buying mountains of toilet paper.
    • Customer Example: Reduce customer uncertainty by proactively communicating how your company is addressing the current situation (e.g. new safety precautions, expanded channels for reaching customer service, plans for waiving certain fees or penalties, etc.). Studies show that during an emergency, communication is most effective when it is timely, credible, empathetic, emphasizes useful individual actions, and is tailored to specific audiences and segments.
    • Employee Example: Engage employees’ Rational Thinking by providing them with a continuous flow of relevant data and insights and then holding them accountable for using that information to make evidence-based (rather than intuition-based) decisions.
  1. SELF-CENTERED. Everyone views the world through their own personal lens, which is informed by their unique life experiences. Unfortunately, this individual context can make it hard for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. However, in the current environment, where empathy is paramount, organizations must actively work to help leaders and employees escape their individual context and instead demonstrate understanding and compassion for each other and for customers.
    • Customer Example: Instead of continuing to survey customers about the company’s performance, shift your Voice of the Customer efforts to understand how your customers are doing on a personal level. Shorten surveys to only a few open-ended questions that ask people how they are feeling and how the organization can help them get through this challenging time.
    • Employee Example: Engender empathy in employees for both coworkers and customers by sharing people’s stories in their own voice – whether that’s through contact center recordings, customer verbatims, or inviting employees to recount their experiences during team or company-wide meetings. 
  1. EMOTIONAL. As Maya Angelou once said, “People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you make them feel.” Human beings remember experiences based on the most emotionally extreme points and how it ends – a phenomenon known as the “Peak-End Rule.” Because of the heightened emotional climate, people are going to be particularly sensitive to how organizations make them feel right now…and will remember those emotions long after this episode has passed.
    • Customer Example: To create positive emotional peaks, review your major customer journeys and find moments where your organization can add a special moment of surprise or delight, such as sending a customer a handwritten note, waiving a fee, adding a small gift to their package, or empowering employees to spend a certain amount of money to go above-and-beyond to make a moment special.
    • Employee Example: When conveying bad news to employees, lessen the negative emotional spike by carefully preparing for the conversation in advance rather than leaving it up to chance. Think through how you will explain the situation and its causes, communicate with transparency and respect, deliver the news in an appropriate setting and format, and allocate plenty of time to answer their questions at the end.
  1. MOTIVATED. All people strive to fulfill four intrinsic needs – a sense of meaning, choice, progress, and competence. These four motivations are especially important for a company to tap into during a time of crisis as people often feel stalled and discouraged, and the business may not be in a position to incentivize people with extrinsic motivators, like money or formal recognition.
    • Customer Example: Tap into customers’ desire for choice by offering them a variety of solutions to problems they encounter, such as canceled flights, out of stock items, or long wait times for the contact center. Studies show that when companies give customers a variety of potential solutions to choose from to resolve an issue, they are ultimately more satisfied with the outcome.
    • Employee Example: Tap into employees’ desire for meaning by finding ways to redeploy your organizational capabilities to help the community (e.g. repurposing factories, donating products, providing logistical support, etc.), and provide opportunities for employees to contribute to these efforts – both within the scope of their everyday roles and on a volunteer basis. 
  1. SOCIAL. People are naturally social, and we particularly enjoy connecting with other people and institutions who are “like us.” Because people are more attracted to brands who are able to give them a sense of community and belonging, in this time of social isolation, companies should actively create opportunities for employees and customers to connect with each other around shared interests.
    • Customer Example: Give frontline employees space to emotionally connect with customers by waiving efficiency metrics like Average Handle Time.
    • Employee Example: Studies show that the greatest predictor of a person’s success and happiness during a challenging time is his or her social support network, so encourage all employees to start every day by reaching out to someone in their social network – a coworker, family member, friend, etc. – to briefly express gratitude and appreciation. This will help people to feel more connected and recognize they have more social support than they may think.
  1. HOPEFUL. People flourish when they envision a positive future. When we are optimistic, our brains perform better across a number of different categories – such as intelligence, resilience, and creativity – compared to when we are feeling neutral or pessimistic. To help people focus on the positive amid the continuous barrage of bad news, organizations should articulate a compelling vision of the company’s future that specifically addresses people’s personal needs and aspirations.
    • Customer Example: Instead of only communicating with customers to convey negative or disappointing news, share inspiring stories from around the business as well as positive lessons the business has learned that will be carried forward to make the company – and its customer experience – better than before.
    • Employee Example: Start every company meeting by highlighting successes, praising team members, or sharing something you’re excited about. Priming people with positivity will change the way their brains process the challenges you are about to tackle.

Managing the Working-From-Home Employee Experience

Last week, my colleagues Steve Bennetts, Sally Winston, and I held a webinar (watch it here) focused on how organizations should manage their employees’ work-from-home experience. While we covered several meaty topics, we also tried to keep the discussion light and lively. In fact, we covered this topic while working from our own homes and at certain points during the webinar, you can clearly hear children playing and laughing in the background. This is indeed the world we are living in right now! 

Importantly, each of us represented different global regions, with Steve based in Sydney bringing perspectives from the Asia, Pacific region, Sally based in London with perspectives from the EMEA region and myself, based in the U.S. bringing a North American perspective. 

Here is a summary of our discussion:  

  • Organizations must understand the human experience cycle. We started the discussion by anchoring on a basic understanding of the human experience cycle. This is a foundational concept for experience management (XM) that explains the determinants and outcomes of human experiences. We focused heavily on expectations – a core component of the human experience cycle that influences how humans perceive experiences. Among the components of the cycle, we agreed that organizations have the greatest direct impact on the experiences they deliver to their employees and the expectations they set and manage. We also agreed that employee expectations of their employers are very likely to change in the future, based on the dramatic and emotionally-charged experiences they are going through right now. 
  • Now is the time to adjust Employee Experience (EX) Management programs. Next, we dove into the most tactical topic of the webinar, starting with an overview of our research that employees want to be asked for feedback during times of change and are actually more engaged when they are. This is precisely the time when organizations should ask their employees for feedback. However, we also vehemently agreed that conducting a business-as-usual survey is not appropriate and that organizations must be extremely sensitive to employees’ concerns and uncertainties (e.g., safety, job security). We closed this section by concluding that one of the hallmarks of a strong EX Management program is its agility and we pointed to resources that answer other common, tactical questions about EX management programs. 
  • Employee health and well-being must be top-of-mind. To be clear, organizations should always be concerned with employee health and well-being but it is especially important right now. Many employees are working remotely for the first time ever and have lost their social networks (at least physically). This has the potential to dramatically impact employee mental health and physical well-being. Steve Bennetts, who brings a strong background in clinical psychology and workplace safety, explained that “employees are having a normal reaction to abnormal events”. He suggested that organizations and its leaders attempt to “normalize” peoples’ reactions to this unprecedented situation. We closed this section by discussing practical tips for people leaders managing remote teams such as creating new, virtual touch bases (e.g. daily standups, virtual lunches, virtual happy hours) and getting to know employees in this new, virtual world. The latter point is important because employees may behave very differently in this novel environment. 
  • Strong people leadership is even more important right now. While there are tons of articles providing direct tips for remote workers, we acknowledged that far less has been published for people leaders. As our founder and CEO, Ryan Smith, pointed out in his recent article, “right now the work needs leadership, and it has to start with people managers”. We discussed several global examples of organizations that have actually created sub-task forces focused specifically on front-line people leaders and the ways in which they have trickled tips and tricks. Our discussion ventured into performance management and goal setting and how people leaders play a critical role in continuously aligning their newly-remote workers’ goals and expectations.  
  • Employees’ expectations of their employers are likely to change. Our discussion came full circle, back to the human experience cycle and the role of employee expectations. Here are 3 changes to employees’ expectations that we think are likely to persist:
    1. Employees will expect to bring their whole selves to work. Employees will expect that the blending of their personal and professional lives will not be counted against them in the future.
    2. Employees will expect more workplace flexibility. Not every employee will want to work from home but many will expect more flexible policies from their employers in the future.
    3. Employees will expect greater global alignment. While the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a horrific global event, it is also globally unifying and employees will expect an increased level of global alignment in the future.

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and we all learned something about how different global regions are handling this crisis. Our overarching conclusion from the session was that organizations that are focused on XM during this time, are the ones who will thrive when this crisis ends.

Adjusting Your Employee Experience Program In Times Of Crisis

In times of organizational crisis and change, the company looks to their HR leaders for guidance and reassurance. This is especially the case, now, given the disruptions associated with COVID-19 and the related economic crisis.

So how can HR and employee experience (EX) leaders help their organizations appropriately manage employees’ experiences during these trying times?

The same way that all experience management (XM) professionals can: “by enhancing the capability to continuously learn how people are thinking and feeling, propagate insights into the hands of people who can take action, and rapidly adapt in this dynamic environment,” as Bruce Temkin points out in a recent article.

In most cases, this means making adjustments to the EX Management program.

5 principles for making changes to your XM program

As organizations consider changes to their EX management programs, it is important to anchor on foundational XM principles that apply to all XM professionals during times of crisis:

  • Show humanity. As you ask employees for feedback, you must be ultra sensitive to their existing circumstances and concerns and be clear about how the collection of their feedback can help them. In times of crisis, employees’ concerns shift to the most fundamental of needs such as their health and safety and whether they will have a job tomorrow.
  • Take a hiatus on metrics. Major organizational disruptions can have a dramatic impact on employee survey responses and scores. For example, many organizations observe drops in survey scores shortly after mergers and acquisitions. At times like this, you should still ask employees for feedback, but your focus should be on what’s important to employees right now, not on metrics and historical comparisons.
  • Ask less, listen more. As you adjust your existing employee listening strategy, shift your measurement approach to be more open-ended and less anchored on what questions have been asked in the past.
  • Build up your immediate response skill. Following up with employees on their feedback is always important, but it is even more critical in times of crisis. One of the core competencies within the XM operating framework is “RESPOND”, which is all about how organizations respond to and act on feedback. During these times, take greater care to ask about what you can act on, get feedback to the people who can do something with it, and communicate, communicate, communicate with your employees.
  • Accelerate your feedback cycles. Building on principles 3 and 4, it’s critical that you collect, manage and respond to feedback as quickly as possible. For most organizations, this likely means introducing new or different types of listening mechanisms, such as always-on feedback to digital employee experiences.

Common EX program questions in times of change

Over the past several weeks, we fielded dozens of questions from our EX clients and partners about the specific changes they need to make to their EX management programs during this time of crisis. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are answers to the 7 most common questions we’re currently being asked:

1. Timing for annual employee census – should we delay?

While there’s no one right answer to this, there are a few practical approaches that could make sense. Remember the first principle – show humanity. Much of the content of traditional employee census surveys will be (and will be perceived by employees) as irrelevant right now.

This was a key topic of a recent conversation we facilitated with numerous EX survey experts and the consensus was that this is precisely the time to survey employees but not about business-as-usual topics and themes.

In line with this, we have observed two productive responses to this issue. Mainly that organizations have either:

  • delayed their annual census but temporarily implemented targeted pulse surveys that focus on content that is highly relevant and actionable, or:
  • moved forward with their census but made significant adjustments to the content to be highly relevant and actionable

2. Should we adjust our expectations for survey response rate?

Organizations should expect to see changes in survey response rates, just as they would survey scores.

It is my belief, however, that the current disruptions from COVID-19 won’t directly impact response rates as much as when, how and why surveys are administered.

For example, one might argue that response rates will go down because ‘filling out surveys’ is the last thing on employees’ minds right now. That could indeed be true if the organization rolls out the same business-as-usual survey(s) as it has in the past.

On the other hand, the organization may actually observe an increase in response rates if it creates timely and relevant content, communicates a clear value proposition to employees, and asks for feedback in a seamless (effortless) way. Much like survey scores, we recommend taking a hiatus from tracking response rate metrics but if organizations apply the 5 principles above, they may very well see response rates increase!

3. How should we compare trends to past surveys?

It is very likely that survey scores will be impacted in some way. For many traditional census survey themes, organizations may observe score drops from past years, that are at least partially impacted by these disruptions.

But it’s also possible to see increases in certain areas, especially around communications and trust in senior leadership, if the organization is emphasizing these areas.

However, as we highlighted in the second principle above, survey scores and metrics should not be your main concern right now. Take a hiatus from your metrics, especially if they keep you from focusing on what’s important and actionable now. There is a time and a place for score trending, now isn’t it.

4. Should survey scores influence compensation?

Firstly, in almost every case, we recommend that organizations not incentivize leaders based on survey scores. However, we recognize that this is a reality for some organizations. Given the likelihood that survey scores will be impacted, this is an opportunity to refocus incentives on the actions leaders take in response to employee feedback vs. the survey score or metrics themselves.

In fact, when organizations implement incentivization tactics, it is usually a well-intended effort to build accountability for action. With any luck, this temporary change will stick and continue in the future!

5. What should we ask employees?

It is impossible to create an exhaustive list of topics that covers all situations and that is precisely why the 3rd principle – ask less, listen more – is so important during these times. In some organizations, a refined list of these timely, relevant topics may come from direct conversations with employees, open-ended items, focus groups, etc.

Nevertheless, in my recent discussion with several employee survey experts, we aligned on several timely and critical topics:

  • Personal safety and employee well-being
  • Roadblocks to getting work done
  • Ways that the organization can support employees better
  • Frequency and quality of communications about process and policy changes
  • Concerns meeting customer needs
  • Perceptions of senior leadership and their communications

Other areas that our internal experts and organizational psychologists recommend for certain companies, include:

  • Effectiveness of change management efforts
  • Role/job clarity in the new work environment
  • Perceptions of workload in the new work environment
  • Autonomy and empowerment
  • People leader enablement

6. Should we make adjustments to lifecycle surveys?

One of the hallmarks of mature EX management programs is that they are never static.

It’s critical that your EX measures are always relevant, timely and impactful to employees and the business.

If your core people processes, such as your candidate and new hires processes, have been disrupted in the short term, we recommend temporarily adjusting the survey content or if it’s more practical, pausing the existing surveys and creating separate instances of those measures while the temporary processes are in place.

7. Collecting feedback for both work from home and on-site employees

Applying the first principle, you should first acknowledge that many of these employees are in harm’s way at work and in some cases, for the first time in their careers. So before asking for any feedback, make sure that you show genuine appreciation for the work they are doing.

Secondly, acknowledge that they may be more concerned with their personal safety at work than ever before. These should come through in the communications surrounding any request for feedback.

From a practical perspective, surveying these employees usually requires different distribution mechanisms. Before deciding on a single distribution mechanism, ask yourself whether it is possible to survey those employees safely (i.e., without diverting their attention from critical/ dangerous work tasks, without increasing their exposure to the virus, etc.).

If the answer is no, use other listening mechanisms such as focus groups, one-on-ones and skip-level conversations. If the answer is yes, ask yourself whether there are technology-mediated or digital experiences that these employees engage in. Look for opportunities to embed surveys, questions, and feedback in those systems they are already using, e.g., point of sale devices, internal portals, mobile devices, etc.

Originally posted on the Qualtrics Blog.

Applying the Four P’s of XM Insights in the Current Environment

The way we live has changed due to COVID-19. As a result, organizations face the dual challenge of meeting dramatically different customer, employee, and partner needs while operating in a new economic environment.

The discipline of Experience Management (XM) can help successfully navigate through this time because it enables organizations to continuously learn, propagate insights, and rapidly adapt to meet new and evolving needs. XM leaders better understand and more quickly respond to these needs when they adopt the Four P’s of XM Insights:

  • Problems: Quickly find and fix issues.
  • Preferences: Identify and deliver the right features and experiences.
  • Possibilities: Uncover and satisfy latent needs.
  • Priorities: Prioritize the most impactful experiences.  

Even as customer, employee, and partner needs are rapidly changing in the current environment, so are the priorities for many organizations which may have to change business plans and work only on what’s most important for the foreseeable future. XM leaders will have to pivot quickly to meet these new needs and priorities.  

The Four P’s of XM Insights can help with this pivot. How? There are some typical alignments between these insight types and common categories of business objectives. Here are a few examples: Fixing problems decreases costs associated with broken experiences and also has a positive impact on satisfaction, retention, and loyalty. When issues that prevent service reps from resolving customer issues are fixed, it has a positive impact on both customer and employee satisfaction. Supporting preferences for things like product features and touchpoints for different types of interactions can increase satisfaction as well as revenue associated with loyalty measures like likelihood to rebuy. Understanding possibilities and designing to meet latent needs drives new revenue opportunities. And, knowing people’s priorities and delivering at the moments that matter most to them ties to satisfaction and retention.

XM enables organizations to meet the most important customer, employee, and partner needs and top business priorities. Structuring decisions by focusing on the 4 P’s of XM Insights and the most current business objectives will help XM leaders pivot quickly to meet rapidly changing needs that characterize the current environment.

Experience Management In A Crisis: Shift From Trending To Sensing

The world we live in has changed, at least for the moment. People are practicing physical distancing for COVID-19 while organizations are responding to a radically different economic reality. It’s critical that leaders make significant adjustments to this new environment. Can Experience Management (XM) help? Absolutely. But the emphasis needs to abruptly shift from the current rhythm of trending to an obsession with sensing.

Adjusting Your Leadership For A Downturn

Having worked during several recessions and actively advised companies through the last recessions I’ve seen what it takes for an organization to succeed in this environment. Here’s my high-level advice for leaders:

Be aggressively defensive in the short-term, while being increasingly aggressive for the long-term.

How do you manage this seemingly contradictory statement? By following these five pieces of advice for leading through a recession

  • Protect your values. You will be forced to make very uncomfortable decisions. Make sure that you don’t allow them to undermine your organization’s core values and its brand promises.
  • Be bold. The faster you can deal with the near term and become forward-leaning, the more time you’ll have to outpace your competitors on the backend of the recession.
  • Be clear. I’ve defined four steps for communicating during a crisis: 1) Don’t be shy with bad news, 2) choose certainty over uncertainty, 3) always share exact next steps, and 4) stay empathetic.
  • Prune against priorities. Take the opportunity to rethink your future direction and stop non-core efforts. It’s often much better to cut entire secondary efforts, than to enact across-the-board cuts.
  • Incubate for the future. Identify two or three big bets that you will want to deliver to the market in 18 to 24 months and go after them, even if you need to cut other efforts to find the funding.

Rapidly Adapting With Experience Management

Experience Management (XM) can play an important role in navigating this dynamic environment. XM is all about staying connected with people (customers, employees, partners, and suppliers) by continuously learning, propagating insights, and rapidly adapting.

2003_LearnInsightsAdapt

In this environment, “rapidly adapting” is a capability that we all need to flex a bit more. That’s why I’ve suggested making these changes to your XM programs:

  • Show humanity. If you’re asking for feedback, make sure that you demonstrate empathy for the current environment, so you don’t seem out of touch with the situation.
  • Take a hiatus on metrics. Rather than pushing customers and employees to answer questions to feed your historical metrics and then trying to explain the variances, cut them out for at least the next quarter and focus on more important activities.
  • Ask less, listen more. Think about analyzing existing communications (especially in your contact centers), and asking fewer, more open-ended questions like how are you doing? and how can we help? Also, this is a perfect time to add a voice of the employee component to your efforts.
  • Build up your immediate response skill. In this environment, you need to be more prepared than ever to make changes quickly based on what you learn.
  • Accelerate your feedback cycles. Think about adding more always-on feedback mechanisms to your digital properties as well as using more targeted pulse surveys with your customers, employees, and partners.

10 Questions For Identifying Emerging Signals

While many things are changing, the high-level goals for your XM program remain the same. XM should still be helping you:

  • Tailor efforts to the most important customers
  • Stay aligned with customers’ changing needs
  • Prioritize the critical projects, products, and services
  • Engage and learn from employees, partners, and suppliers

These XM program goals, however, are typically fine-tuned for tracking how organizations operate in a steady-state mode. But this is not a steady-state environment. So you need to shift from a rhythm of trending to an obsession with sensing.

This change in mode requires a pro-active hunt for important changes that are underway. Rather than spending time on tracking existing metrics and doing longitudinal analysis, XM programs need to intensely focus on what’s happening right now. In many cases, your historical data will actually distort your analysis of the current environment.

To make the pivot towards sensing, you need to actively look for emerging signals. Here are the types of questions to focus on as you re-orient your XM program, none of which require any strong comparison with the past:

  1. How are our customers using our products and services differently, and is there an opportunity to adopt and scale those changes?
  2. What emerging needs do our customers have that aren’t being met, and how can we create new offerings in those areas?
  3. What product and service features are most important right now, and how can we adjust our development plans accordingly?
  4. How are people responding to our brand, and what messages do we need to dial up or dial down?
  5. What topics are our customers and employees most concerned about, and how can we tailor our communications to deal with those areas?
  6. What new obstacles are customers, employees, suppliers, and partners running into, and how can we shift resources to solve those problems? 
  7. What opportunities are our suppliers and partners seeing, and how can we collaborate to address those opportunities?
  8. Why are promoters turning into detractors in this environment, and how can we make changes to keep those issues from snowballing?
  9. Why are customers becoming our advocates in this environment, and how can we replicate those activities?
  10. What practices are currently keeping employees engaged right now, and how can we spread those across the organization?

The bottom line: In this environment, assume that you’re starting a new trend line.

It’s A Perfect Time To Show Our Humanity

In a recent post I wrote for the Qualtrics blog (Adjusting your CX program to deal with COVID-19), I laid out these five principles for making changes to your Experience Management (XM) programs in this challenging environment:

  1. Show humanity
  2. Take a hiatus on metrics
  3. Ask less, listen more
  4. Build up your immediate response skill
  5. Accelerate your feedback cycles

While all of these are important for your XM programs, one is particularly critical right now for everyone around the world… Show Humanity.

With all of the discord and tension throughout the world, it seems like a good time for all of us to refocus on what’s most important, our collective humanity.

That’s an excerpt from a post from December 2017, when we labelled 2018, The Year of Humanity. It may even be more relevant right now. As we all fight the pandemic and deal with the economic slowdown in our own ways, it’s really important that we also look out for one another.

As we did a couple of years ago, I’m looking to reignite a focus on the following mindsets that we defined for humanity:

  • Embrace diversity. Applaud our differences and find ways to treat people as individuals.
  • Extend compassion. Tune into the condition of the people around us and care about their well-being
  • Express appreciation. Proactively look for and acknowledge the positive aspects of the world around us.

Check out this video we created in 2018, Humanity: You Have A Choice!

Here are some of my previous posts about humanity:

The bottom line: Let’s show our collective humanity!

Adjusting Your CX Program To Deal With COVID-19

Given the spread of Coronavirus and the downturn in the economy, every organization needs to rethink how it operates. As Experience Management (XM) professionals, you can play an important role in helping your company weather the storm. How? By enhancing the capability to continuously learn how people are thinking and feeling, propagate insights into the hands of people who can take action, and rapidly adapt in this dynamic environment. That’s what XM is all about.

To support your organization in navigating these changing times, you will need to adjust your XM efforts. Luckily, this won’t require abandoning the XM competencies you’ve been building. Instead, you’ll need to reprioritize your efforts to align with the changing needs of the organization. Hopefully this post provides you some guidance.

Five Principles For Making Changes To Your XM Program

As you think about making changes to your XM efforts (including Customer Experience, Employee Experience, Product Experience, and Brand Experience), here are some principles to keep in mind:

  1. Show humanity. If you’re asking for feedback, make sure that people understand that you’re doing it for their benefit, so you don’t seem out of touch with the situation. People are worrying about a lot of things these days, and so they likely have less patience for self-absorbed companies. Make sure your communications are designed in such a way that the customers and employees recognize that you care about them and that you aren’t just continuing with business as usual.
  2. Take a hiatus on metrics. I’ve found that large-scale disruptions like this have an impact on how people are feeling and the sentiment they share. Rather than pushing customers and employees to answer questions to feed your historical metrics and then trying to explain the variances, cut them out for at least the next quarter. This way all of your energy can be focused on reacting to the current environment.
  3. Ask less, listen more. Since the situation is fluid, your normal barrage of questions may not capture the right information. Most voice of the customer systems are built to track well-defined, ongoing operations. But that’s not the case right now. So think about analyzing existing communications (especially in your contact centers), and asking fewer, more open-ended questions like how are you doing? and how can we help? Also, this is a perfect time to add a voice of the employee component to your efforts, so you stay abreast of what your front-line employees are seeing.
  4. Build up your immediate response skill. In this environment, you need to be more prepared than ever to make changes quickly based on what you learn. This is what we call the “Immediate Response” skill within the “RESPOND” XM competency (one of the six XM competencies). While this is always a core skill for XM programs, it’s probably the most important one to build out in the near-term.
  5. Accelerate your feedback cycles. The ideal pace of feedback is defined by an organization’s capacity to act on what it finds. As you build up your capacity to make short-term changes, you’ll want to increase the pace of feedback so that you can test those changes and prioritize new ones. Think about adding more always-on feedback mechanisms to your digital properties as well as adding some more targeted pulse surveys with your customers, employees, and partners.

Answering CX Questions From Clients

The Qualtrics Customer Success organization, which supports a large volume of companies around the world, shared a number of questions that they’re hearing from CX clients. While this is not the complete list of questions that CX leaders may have, hopefully it’s a valuable start at helping you think about the changes that you need to make. So here are my answers to the first batch of questions:

How do we understand the impact of COVID-19 on my longitudinal data? Should we isolate the results?

Assume that there will be an abnormality in the data for at least the next quarter, so I’d definitely isolate these results. In many cases you might want to stop tracking that data and focus your efforts on insights that help the organization understand and respond to the moment.

Should we change our current survey or distribution?

Most likely yes and yes. Think about shifting your insights away from tracking the existing business and focusing more on gathering actionable insights about the current situation. That may mean targeting a different group of customers and asking a different set of questions. Rather than continuing with a bunch of scaled questions that you use just for the sake of reporting, consider fewer questions about important and emerging areas, and use more open-ended questions to understand what people are truly feeling. Also, make sure to look for insights from existing interactions in the contact center and tap into the observations of employees. I’d even recommend a weekly review of the questions you use to make sure you’re asking as little as possible and are focusing on the insights that the organization really needs.

How do we handle changes to COVID-19 relative to metrics, reporting, and compensation?

Those things will likely need to change. I’d tighten up on the metrics you report on, focusing on only those that are critical right now. You may need to introduce some new items that are becoming critical. Your reporting should focus on this tighter set of metrics, and you should probably increase the cadence of reporting. As for compensation, I’d recommend an executive decision to disconnect compensation from metrics for at least the next quarter, unless you can introduce a metric relative to the current environment. That way you’re not pushed to collect data just for the sake of fueling compensation cycles.

How should we think about transactional vs relational programs moving forward due to COVID-19?

You need to keep transactional programs, and even increase the focus on closing the loop. There’s nothing more precious in these times than an existing customer. As for relational programs, I may alter the approach and go to more of a pulse mode, asking a smaller set of targeted questions to a more targeted set of customers on a regular basis. I would focus more on what would make someone repurchase in this moment, than what the long-term data says is the largest drivers of loyalty.

Should we stop surveying my customers all together?

In these times of change, the last thing you want to do is to lose a connection with your customers. You need to be listening and responding even more than you have in the past. That can take on many forms beyond just surveying, especially tapping into your existing customer contacts and learning from the observations of employees. But when it comes to surveying, you should trim what you ask to what’s truly important in this moment. Assume that customers will have less patience for providing feedback if they don’t see how it will benefit them.

Should we disregard or throw scores out for a set period of time?

I would make the assumption that any trending data will be thrown out for at least the next quarter. Not all of the data will end up being abnormal, but I don’t think you should be spending any time trying to figure out how to trend and reconcile the data during this period, when there are many more important areas of insight to focus on.

Does it make sense for us to change compensation models for agents now? Forever? For only a period of time?

I would rethink all comp models that are tied to specific CX metrics. Compensation should reinforce the behaviors that you want to see. I can see an argument for keeping the model in place if you want to maintain consistency in the face of all of this change. Otherwise, think about what changes you’re asking people to make and see if there is a different comp model that supports some of those new behaviors.

Are most companies delaying their relationship surveys for the next few months due to COVID-19?

I haven’t checked across companies, but I’d recommend going with more of a pulse model than a traditional relationship study right now. Ask questions that help you adjust what you’re doing in the near term. Most relationship studies cover a lot of topics that are important for long-term tracking and analysis, and are designed around how the organization has traditionally operates. I think you need to focus less on what drives promoters in the long-term, and more on what changes you need to make to keep customers happy in the near-term.

Should we delay any survey launches for the time being?

Not necessarily. Understanding and responding to customers’ changing needs is even more critical in this environment. If a new survey helps an organization to adapt to the current environment, then go ahead. If it’s more focused on metrics than insights, then now’s not the right time to launch it. But don’t think of any survey in isolation. The goal is to drive actionable insights across the organization, so companies need to think about their portfolio of activities and channels, to make sure that launching a new survey doesn’t pull them away from more important activities.

What should my company consider doing right now related to relational NPS?

Your insights work needs to focus on understanding and responding to people’s needs right now. Many relational studies are more focused on longer-term analysis. If you have a short NPS study, and have strong closed-loop mechanisms for learning and responding, then it makes sense to continue it. If your program is more focused on tracking the metric and longer-term analysis, then I’d shift my focus on to other areas of insights.

A big airline has turned off their surveys … should we do that as well?

A good rule of thumb is to only ask customers about things for which you plan to take action. So I’d stop any surveys if you can no longer take action on them. For instance, many airlines are operating in a crisis mode – where they need to focus all of their efforts on operational issues. If that’s the case, why bother asking customers for feedback if you aren’t going to do much with what they say.

We’re in the healthcare industry, should we wind down other surveys & only focus on what’s critical?

Yes. But this is true for every company and every industry. In this environment, you need to focus even more than ever on what’s critical. As I mentioned with the airline industry, sometimes organizations are faced with critical operational situations that require a different approach. Healthcare organizations are definitely facing some capacity shortages, so it makes sense to rethink what type of customer feedback they need to support their current priorities – such as triaging customers’ needs and forecasting their near-term demands.

Should we change our survey to ask COVID-19 specific questions?

No. As with any question, only ask about COVID-19 if it helps you understand and respond to your customers’ needs. While asking about the virus may seem timely, people will get tired of questions that seem more trendy than caring.

How do you manage executive and company-wide compensation tied to CX metrics?

You need to communicate actively and clearly. I’ve actually written a blog post about how executives should communicate in this environment, which outlines four strategies: 1) Don’t be shy with bad news, 2) Choose certainty over uncertainty, 3) Always share exact next steps, and 4) Stay empathetic.

How much COVID-19 communication is appropriate?

As much as is required. People will get flooded with information, which can cause a couple of problems. First of all, your communications may get lost in the chaos. Secondly, all of that information may actually heighten people’s concerns about what changes you are making. I suggest being very succinct with your communications, and simplifying the actions you take so that they can be easily understood by your target customers. You may have some great ideas, but if they are hard for people to understand then they will likely be problematic. Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Originally published on the Qualtrics Blog.

Tap Into XM To Navigate A Recession

Given the spread of Coronavirus and recent losses in the stock market, we’re facing the threat of a prolonged economic downturn. So it’s no surprise that I’ve been asked to share my opinion about how experience management (XM) would be affected by a recession.

If the downturn occurs, it would become the third recession of my professional career. During the last recession, I advised many companies on their strategies and even used this blog to provide advice to leaders on how to weather the storm.

The Great Recession started in late 2007, at which time I was a VP at Forrester Research focusing on customer experience (CX). While the overall environment was challenging, my area of the business was booming. That’s right, the CX business was booming. It turned out that companies increasingly recognized the importance of CX as a tool for actively prioritized customer retention.

I think XM will see that same type of surge if we fall into a recession. This isn’t a forecast about spending on XM technology or services, but instead it’s a prediction that leading organizations will become increasingly committed to XM as a strategic discipline.

To understand how XM will be affected in a recession, it’s important to look at how organizations respond to downturns. In general, companies take one of two approaches to navigating these difficult periods:

  • Manage their way through it. In this approach, executive teams react to market conditions by making widespread cuts in an attempt to maintain short-term profitability targets. After the recession lifts, these firms will often need to rebuild their employee and customer relationships.
  • Lead their way out of it. In this approach, executives intensify their company’s focus on the long-term purpose of the firm and make targeted cuts in areas that are not core to that purpose. After the recession lifts, these firms are set for a quick shift into growth mode.

Five Recommendations For Leading Through A Recession

One of the best perspectives for thinking about a recession is conveyed through this quote by John F. Kennedy:

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.

This insight is at the heart of my high-level advice to leaders during a downturn…

Be aggressively defensive in the short-term, while being increasingly aggressive for the long-term.

How do you manage this seemingly stark contradiction? By following these five recommendations:

  1. Protect your values. You will be forced to make very uncomfortable decisions. Make sure that you don’t allow them to undermine your organization’s core values and its brand promises. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Continually ask yourself: how will this decision affect the core of who we are?
  2. Be bold. During a recession, you have three choices for how to make decisions: 1) hold on to the past, 2) respond when required, or 3) get in front of the wave. The first two option keep you locked into the past, while the third option allows you to start looking ahead. And that’s critical. The faster you can be forward-leaning, the more time you’ll have to outpace your competitors on the backend of the recession.
  3. Be clear. One of the realities of a recession is that just about everyone is anxious, especially your employees who are going to wonder what changes are coming. As I discussed in my recent post about coronavirus, follow four steps: 1) Don’t be shy with bad news, 2) choose certainty over uncertainty, 3) always share exact next steps, and 4) stay empathetic. Also, human beings are hopeful. We flourish when we envision a positive future. So paint a picture of how your organization will be better in the future. This will also be helpful with customers and partners.
  4. Prune against priorities. During a recession, companies have less opportunity for sloppiness so they need to more effectively align their offerings and efforts to the specific need of target customers. Take the opportunity to rethink your future direction and stop non-core efforts. It’s often much better to cut entire secondary efforts, then to enact across-the-board cuts.
  5. Incubate for the future. While you may not be cutting back on new products and features during a recession, don’t cut back on your innovation. Identify two or three big best that you will want to deliver to the market in 18 to 24 months and go after them, even if you need to cut other efforts to find the funding. Set your sites on coming out of the recession with a vigor.

XM Will Fuel Recession Winners

So how will the use of XM change if there’s a recession? Many of the organizations that successfully navigate the downturn will do so by actively adopting XM. During downturns, organizations are forced to intensely focus on what’s most important. For the Great Recession, that meant using CX as a tool for customer retention.

Over the last decade, organizations have recognized that employees are as critical to their success as their customers. So I expect to see leading organizations respond to a downturn by attempting to better understand what their customers and employees are thinking and feeling, put that information into the hands of the people that can do something about it, and make fast adjustments. That’s XM.

Here’s how we describe the capabilities that XM enables:

  • Continuously Learn. XM helps organizations more effectively sense and interpret what’s going on all around them, collecting and analyzing signals from the actions and feedback of employees, partners, vendors, customers, and even competitors.
  • Propagate Insights. XM helps organizations put actionable intelligence in the hands of people across their ecosystem who can use it, creating seamless access to the right information in the right form at the right time.
  • Rapidly Adapt. XM helps organizations act on the insights they’ve uncovered at an increasingly faster pace, finding ways to create new experiences and renovate existing ones.

These XM capabilities can be the foundation for success during a downturn as they will help organizations:

  • Tailor efforts to the most important customers
  • Stay aligned with customers’ changing needs
  • Prioritize the critical projects and programs
  • Engage and learn from employees

In addition, XM will be a critical ingredient for organizations to accelerate after a recession. The ability to stay connected to market signals will be woven into the operating fabric of new offerings that organizations incubate for the post-downturn era. Think about it, if you were building an organization from scratch, wouldn’t you want it to be able to continuously learn, propagate. insights, and rapidly adapt?

To better understand the capabilities that XM provides, here’s a chart from the report, Operationalizing XM.

2003_LearnInsightsAdapt

Previous Recession Posts

In case you’re interested in more information on managing in a recession, here are some older posts that I’ve written on the topic:

The bottom line: Use XM to weather a recession and to thrive in its aftermath.

Leaders: Four Experience Design Tips To Deal With Coronavirus

As the Coronavirus situation evolves, organizations are being forced to consider a number of changes that affect every one of their stakeholders—suppliers to employees to customers. It’s critical that leaders not only focus on making the right decisions, but that they also focus on how they implement those decisions. Experience design plays a key role in this area.

This global health crisis requires leaders to make a different set of decisions than they are used to making. This situation is particularly difficult because:

  • Leaders have no control and little visibility over a fluid environment.
  • There are broad social and political implications to the decisions.
  • Stakeholders are concerned about both health and professional issues.

As you think about the myriad of operational, risk management, and business continuity decisions you are making, keep in mind that the way you implement those decisions can be as important as the decisions themselves. And while this emotionally charged environment may be unique, the needs of human beings remain the same.

With all of that context, I’ve identified four experience design-based tips for leaders to keep in mind throughout this crisis period:

  1. Don’t be shy with bad news. You are likely to make some decisions that will negatively impact some people. While it may be uncomfortable to share this information, you need to overcome that discomfort and let people know the information right away. It will not make the news any better, but it will give people more time to deal with it. In the long run, people may not appreciate what you’ve done, but it’s much better than having them hold you accountable for the impact of any delays.
  2. Choose certainty over uncertainty. We often think that people are just looking for leaders to make decisions that benefit them as individuals. But people are more complex than that. As an environment becomes more complicated, people often thrive for order and certainty. In many cases they are best served by hearing negative news rather than being left in a state of uncertainty. One of the great ways to mitigate some uncertainty is to provide regular and clear status updates — even if the situation hasn’t changed. You should also bias your process towards making definitive decisions as proactively as possible.
  3. Always share exact next steps. No matter what decisions you make, be very clear about the activities and timing of what follows. This does not mean that you must have everything worked out before you share information, but you can at least let people know exactly when they can expect to hear from you next with more information. The clarity of setting and meeting these expectations will likely have a significant impact on how people remember your decision.
  4. Stay empathetic. You’re going to be under a lot of stress, so it’s easy to lose sight of how your decisions may affect other people. Make sure to take a moment after you make decisions and think about the people who will be impacted and consider ways to mitigate some of their loss and discomfort. And remember, even if you believe that you are making the right decision, people have the right to feel badly about it.

One of the key lessons in my life came from when I worked at GE and CEO Jack Welch would regularly tell us, “Deal with the world as it is, not as you’d like it to be.” I think those words of wisdom are particularly important right now.

The bottom line: Use experience design to help navigate difficult situations.