January 2018
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Joseph's Blog

Empathetic Design – As Close to the Holy Grail as You Can Get

Do you have a “go to” song you sing when you are at a karaoke bar? How about a signature dish you like to prepare the first time a new visitor comes over for dinner?

Customer Experience Design Strategies

For me, my “go to” strategies for product development or experience innovation involve components from my “empathetic design” toolkit. For fellow empathetic designers, you know that there are a lot of tools available which help business owners and leaders “step into the shoes” of their “user” or “customer.”

For those who don’t work in product or experience design on a daily basis, you probably just want to have an overview on how to “build products and services from the customer perspective.” For a contextualized dive into this topic, I recommend a fairly recent Harvard Business Review Article titled 5 Ways to Design Products Customers Love. In that article, Dorothy Leonard details many “empathetic design” strategies including:


Ethnographic research

User simulation

Customer culture immersion, and

Cognitive artifacts

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll highlight each of the design strategies so you can get a feel for which of these tools might be right for you.


User-designer approaches involve looking for solutions by regularly using existing products to explore strengths, limitations, pain points, and opportunities. Many first generation products for entrepreneurs come from users who have an idea for a “better mousetrap.” As such a product users make a few modifications, produces a prototype of their solution, attracts the interest of possible future customers, and goes to market with the new and improved product offering. Dorothy cites the founder of the company Osprey as starting his company through a “user-designer” model:

As a teenager, Mike Pfotenhauer loved to hike, but he hated how uncomfortable he felt carrying the backpacks then on the market. So, at age 16, he created his own, sewing all the pieces together himself. He went on to design and deliver customized outdoor equipment to clients who’d heard of him through the grapevine, and eventually he founded Osprey…

Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research takes its origins from fieldwork in cultural anthropology. Anthropologists have sought to be minimally intrusive as they have observed the nuances of newly discovered cultures.

Ethnographic research in product and service creation takes many forms including “shop alongs” in retail – where a researcher joins a customer for a shopping expedition and inquires about elements of their experience in real time. It can also involve such things as “customer diaries” or “structured customer interviews.” Generally, the methodology has elements of either participant observation or interviewing key stakeholders.

User Simulation

User simulation is a technique that “role plays” a customer journey. For example, my team and I might audit an automobile shopping experience for a client like Mercedes-Benz “as if” we were going to purchase a vehicle. During the simulation, we look for pain points and opportunities for experience enhancement. When we deploy this technique we frequently simulate multiple buyers across all core buyer segments.

User simulation differs from “secret shopping” in that secret shopping typically is a service assessment process where quasi-objective secret shoppers are looking for the presence of key service elements for which team members have been trained to deliver.

Customer Culture Immersion

Customer culture immersion involves embedding yourself in a community of product users to understand what they think and value so that you can begin to shape products and services from their worldview. You can think of this like a reporter who “embeds” with a military unit gaining a different perspective on the military conflict than one who reports from outside the battle lines.

Cognitive Artifacts

Finally and very simplistically “cognitive artifacts” are the mental models people use to organize and process information. You can think about cognitive artifacts as they way people “label” files in their mental filing system. We all organize complex and diverse information in ways that link to personal high-value keywords and that help us makes sense of the world around us. You can imagine that if the designer was asked to develop an information technology system just for you, they would benefit from understanding your internal organizing processes. A wide variety of tools exist to cull for the cognitive artifacts of consumers so we can design around their cognitive organizing principles.

The Forest Not the Trees

Ok enough of this somewhat academic treatise on “empathetic design!” Irrespective of the tool you choose from the empathetic design toolkit, the underlying principle that should guide your activity is captured in the following quote from graphic designer Joshua Brewer:

“Socrates said ‘Know thyself.’ I say, ‘Know thy users.” And guess what? They don’t think like you do.”

Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies. Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

{Guest Post} How Employee Engagement Impacts Your Company’s Performance and Results

Guest post by Zorian Rotenberg:

As more and more hard evidence surfaces indicating the impact of employee engagement on company performance, it’s clear that organizations actively addressing this concern will outperform their competitors. Many forward-thinking enterprises are employing ongoing performance management tactics like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and continuous feedback loops to help teams a sense of purpose in their roles. Yet, as engagement is historically considered a “softer” area of focus in organizations, other business leaders still wonder: how much of an impact does it really have on performance and results?

Let’s take a look.

Defining Employee Engagement

Engagement has become a buzzword in today’s business landscape, and while most executives and managers know what it means, taking a step back to develop a concrete definition enhance our perspective on the matter.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) states that employee engagement is “the connection and commitment employees exhibit toward an organization, leading to higher levels of productive work behaviors.” Gallup, too, has its own definition, stating that engaged employees are those who are actively involved in and committed to their organization. In a Forbes article, contributor Kevin Kruse writes that engaged employees contribute “discretionary efforts.”

In other words, engaged employees care. They’re willing to contribute efforts beyond the bare minimum requirements their roles demand from them. As you can imagine, having these committed employees working for you – instead of those who just show up – is far better for your company’s performance and results.

How Can We Measure the Impact of Employee Engagement?

Based on the very definition of employee engagement, it’s clear that it matters to company performance. Yet, to what extent does it impact your results? Is there even a way to quantify its impact?

Our methods for measuring employee engagement have come a long way, and by actively gauging these levels, we can form better insights as to how it affects organizational performance. To help us understand to which degree engagement impacts performance, let’s look at some of the most compelling recent research:

  • Companies with a 9.3 to 1 ratio of engaged to disengaged employees showed 147% higher earnings per share than other organizations. (Gallup)
  • Companies with the lowest engagement levels have 37% higher levels of absenteeism, which costs the U.S. more than $84 billion annually. (Gallup-Healthways)
  • Organizations within the top quartile of employee engagement outperformed those in the bottom 25% by 22% in profitability. (Gallup)
  • Disengaged employees yield turnover rates 12 times higher than those of highly engaged workers. (Glint)
  • Employees who are highly engaged are 36% more likely to stay with their organization. (Aon Hewitt)
  • In leading organizations, 86% of the workforce is engaged. (Aon Hewitt)
  • Organizations where 60-70% of the workforce is engaged have an average shareholders’ return at 24.2%. (Gallup)

Measuring the full impact of employee engagement is a complex challenge, especially when we consider the unique qualities of each organization and its workforce. Yet, the evidence above clearly indicates that it does indeed have a major impact on business outcomes. While it’s still impossible to know for sure just how significant a role employee engagement plays on each company, we do have the ability to measure – and improve – engagement scores.

Effective Ways to Improve Employee Engagement

By incorporating some effective tactics into their performance management strategies, managers can strengthen the communication they share with employees. This is critically important, considering Gallup reports that as much as 70% of fluctuations in engagement levels can be attributed to employees’ managers.

Here are effective strategies managers can use to keep employees engaged:

Develop Ongoing Feedback Loops

Employees need to feel that their managers are committed to their success in order to stay engaged. A weekly check-in with direct reports is one powerful way to establish an ongoing feedback loop with teams, through which managers can clarify priorities, discuss goal progress, and work through any impending obstacles.

Set Clear, Measurable Goals

Managers should work with their employees to set clear, measurable goals that are aligned with top-level company goals. In doing so, they’ll give employees a way to connect their own contributions with overall company success. Moreover, clear, measurable objectives give managers a way to track progress and provide detailed, constructive feedback, which also boosts engagement.

Measure Engagement Regularly

Lastly, a simple yet effective way to ensure employee engagement is on track is to measure it. Using tools like employee engagement surveys, you can anonymously poll teams to get real-time engagement metrics.

Ultimately, to make a lasting improvement on employee engagement, organizations must approach it as an ongoing activity rather than a one-time event. While implementing new tactics to improve employee engagement may at first seem like “added work,” these tweaks are easy to incorporate into a regular rhythm, and the tremendous payoff – improved company performance and profits – will be well-worth your efforts.


Zorian is CEO of Atiim Inc. (i.e. A-team), a SaaS company that makes sales and marketing teams more productive. Previously he was VP of Sales & Marketing at InsightSquared and has been a speaker at many industry conferences, including the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals (AA-ISP). He has also contributed to WSJ Accelerators Blog, Top Sales World Magazine and the Blog, among others. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

{Infographic} Make It Easy or Turn Out the Lights


Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies. Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli


One if by Voice, Two if by Drone – Make it Easy or Turn out the Lights

So, who’s in your home? Is it Alexa, Siri, or Google? If none of them occupy a nightstand or counter space, it is likely only a matter of time.

Voice Activated Assistants and Voice Internet Access

Of course, I am talking about voice-activated digital assistants and according to Brian Braiker’s Ad Age article titled What Really Works in Voice — And Why Google is Smarter than Amazon, 55% of all US households will have at least one digital assistant by 2022. Oh, and by the way, the trend toward voiced based internet access is likely to be even more striking globally, as it opens up the “next billion” internet users. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Eric Bellman notes:

The internet’s global expansion is entering a new phase, and it looks decidedly unlike the last one. Instead of typing searches and emails, a wave of newcomers—“the next billion,” the tech industry calls them—is avoiding text, using voice activation and communicating with images. They are a swath of the world’s less-educated, online for the first time thanks to low-end smartphones, cheap data plans and intuitive apps that let them.

I was an early adopter of voice-activated assistants (three of them are in my home at present, although I am slow to move from words to pictures) and like most others who use voice as a replacement for the typed word, I have chosen Alexa. In fact, Amazon’s Alexa is definitely leading the way with market penetration in the US.

In the Ad Age article mentioned above, Doug Robinson CEO of the Fresh Digital Group (a company that has built approximately 400 skills which enable voice assistants to perform tasks for various brands and non-profits) notes, “Amazon is clearly winning…the reality is from a distribution standpoint, they have the market share. Who’s smarter? Google.”

I won’t tell Alexa that!

It Comes Down to Ease

Irrespective of which of the big players will win the voice assistant battles, the future of voice-activated internet access and voice assistance cannot be ignored. These tools address a broader consumer trend of wanting to exert less and less effort to get their needs met (granted that the technology is far from perfect and frequently it’s easier to grab a remote control rather than having Alexa tell me she is having difficulty communicating with my Logitech hub).

Brands like Starbucks (the target of two my books The Starbucks Experience and Leading the Starbucks Way) were early adopters of voice assistant based ordering – as well as other platforms like voice-activated text-based ordering – which enable customers to make purchases as easy as possible.

Ease Beyond Ordering

From the standpoint of effortless and efficient delivery, Domino’s was the first company to make a commercial food delivery by drone:

Pizza Hut is betting on self-driving Toyota delivery vans referred to as e-Pallete to expedite and make pizza delivery even more seamless.

In an article for CNN Tech, Akio Toyoda notes,”Today, you have to travel to the stores. In the future with e-Pallete, the store will come to you.”

While e-Pallete is early in concept, a prototype is anticipated for deployment at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. That, however, has not stopped Pizza Hut from tweeting about the effortless future ahead.

I Am No Megabrand

Ok, you probably don’t have the budget of Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Starbucks, Google, or Amazon but you do have the capacity to watch and listen to your customers. Where are their pain or friction points in their journey with your brand? What are the “low hanging” opportunities you have available to reduce customer efforts?

Technology is one way to make a customer’s life easier! However, sometimes customer ease is as simple as making a change in a legacy process or training your people to anticipate customer needs.

When I asked Alexa how she can make the life of my customers better she honestly replied that she didn’t “know that.” I guess it’s up to me and I suspect it’s up to you as well!


Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies. Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli







{Infographic} Technology: Panacea or Tool?



Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies. Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

Technology – Panacea or Tool?

Recently I had a conversation with a brilliant IT professional who repeatedly referenced the “limitless possibilities” of technology. His zeal and enthusiasm for all things technology made him well-suited for his specialty but as we talked, it became increasingly clear that he lacked similar respect for the importance of understanding human behavior. In fact, at one point he suggested that “technology will help clean up all the ills of humankind.”

Much to be Done

While I won’t dispute that humankind has many ills, I am not convinced that technology will remedy all of them, and in some case, I fear it might even enhance some.

For me, technology is certainly leaping past unimagined boundaries, but ultimately the relevance of any technological solution is inextricably linked to its ability to address a human need. Fortunately, I am not alone in that thinking. Writing in Ad Age, Nelson Kunkel the Chief Design Officer for Deloitte Consulting notes:

Today…we’ve reached a point where the limits of technology feel almost nonexistent and where design and understanding of human behavior and needs are eclipsing the constraints of what’s possible. The challenge is shifting to how do we best use all this power to meet human needs. I believe this is truly the new frontier, one that can unleash new ambitions and possibilities in every industry, business, and society.

Understanding Human Behavior and Human Needs

Therein, is the core of this blog. How well do you understand human behavior and human needs – particularly as they relate to your core customers? Also how well do you deploy technological advances to meet the needs of your core customer segments?

Of all the great interactional moments in the illustrious career of the late Steve Jobs, my favorite involves his insights on the need for customer-centric technological design. Steve was addressing a group of engineers – some of whom had been working on OpenDoc, a software component framework, which Steve Jobs ultimately shelved in light of what he felt was a more customer-centric solution.

When confronted in a public forum by an disgruntled OpenDoc engineer, Steve noted, “I am sure there are some things OpenDoc does – even more that I am not familiar with – that nothing else out there does and I am sure that you can make some demos, maybe a small commercial app that demonstrates those things….One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you are going to sell it!

Starting with the Customer Experience

So what customer experience do you want to create? Desired experiences can vary greatly across brands. For example, in books like The New Gold Standard, Leading the Starbucks Way, and Driven to Delight, I’ve documented how leaders at Starbucks seek to deliver an affordable luxury experience that emotionally connects and inspires; whereas, a Ritz-Carlton experience is rich with nurturance and sensory enhancement. In each case, technology plays its role but only in the context of each brand’s experiential aspirations.

Where to Spend on Tech

As you think about your future technology investments, I strongly encourage you to heed Steve Job’s guidance “to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology” or in the words of Nelson Kunkel realize that:

All the algorithms, computational intelligence, emerging interfaces and realities, and shiny devices are only as valuable as our ability to use them deliberately and appropriately to enhance relationships, create more natural solutions, and advance the human condition.

What technologies do you see helping you enhance customer relationships, create natural solutions/customer value, or advance your ability to help your customers get their needs met

What technologies do you see helping you enhance customer relationships, create natural solutions/customer value, or advance your ability to help your customers get their needs met through you?

It is those technologies which (in the words of the IT professional that prompted this blog) will help us clean up – at least some of – the ills of humankind.


Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies. Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

{Infographic} Supercharge your business by letting go

Supercharge Your Business by Letting Go

During the last several months, The Michelli Experience added a new division – Business Supercharged (consulting/coaching services for an exclusive group of entrepreneurs and mid-sized business leaders). Previously, I worked almost entirely with senior leaders in Fortune 500 companies.

As I embarked on this new set of products, I spoke with many small and mid-sized business owners. Those conversations helped me appreciate how quickly the simplest components of business can become complex without guidance.

Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize

Those conversations also highlighted the challenges entrepreneurs face when it comes to prioritization and disciplined execution. As such, I thought I would take this opportunity in the new year to share a message about the finite nature of focus, attention, and resources.

Many leaders will begin 2018 with a long list of new strategic priorities. They will identify six, seven, or more new projects to add to business objectives carried over from 2017. All of those new initiatives may, in fact, be relevant to future success but few will likely garner buy-in and effective execution.

From my vantage point, the art of business success is identifying key business objectives and executing against them flawlessly. All too often companies drift in what I call “shiny ball syndrome.”

Lessons from Mr. Buffett

Having consulted for a couple of Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries, I have long been a follower of the concise and transformational business wisdom of Warren Buffett. On the topic of business focus, Warren Buffett is quoted by Scott Dinsmore as identifying a 5 step process for prioritizing true success:

1) Know what you want – List your top 25.

2) Pick your top 5.

3) Plan for your top 5.

4 ) Marry your top priorities.

5) Know your “avoid at all costs list” and stick to it.

One More Thing?

Forgive me for thinking I can add to the insights of the Oracle of Omaha, but I would include “give up things that will not enable you to achieve your “top 5” business objectives this year.

That means while other leaders are making a bevy of “new” plans for a “new year,” I challenge you to play a zero-sum game. For each new priority, I ask you to identify something you are willing to “let go of” or some new found set of “resources” you can access so that your new priorities can be fully achieved.

The notion of letting go of something to achieve something else is anathema for many people. However, my experience with CEOs at companies like Mercedes-Benz demonstrates the importance of not only looking for what you wish to “add” in 2018 but also what you will “subtract” to make those additions possible.

Sharing the Vision

While working with Steve Cannon, then CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, I saw the power of declaring a manageable set of transformational leadership objectives – one of which involved being a world-class customer experience provider (not just best in automotive but best across all businesses who interact directly with customers).

Not only did Steve stay on message concerning the overriding importance of customer experience differentiation but he also boldly stated that customer experience at Mercedes-Benz would be HIS #1 priority and HIS desired legacy with the brand. To that end, Steve not only spoke about customer experience prioritization but he also captured his vision of that journey in a visual depiction:

The Dump Truck

Steve’s map had a significant detail embedded in it – a dump truck with the words “get rid of” on its side.

That image of the “get rid of dump truck” was Steve’s way of signaling the importance of “letting go” of unnecessary demands, priorities, and cultural legacy components that would have hindered Mercedes-Benz’s customer experience transformation. This “letting go process” was particularly important since Steve knew that success would need to happen without increasing headcount or making major expenditures.

First Hand

At The Michelli Experience, we’ve certainly had to let go of historic aspects of our business as we readied to launch Business Supercharged in 2018. I suspect you too might need to “let go of some of the old” to make room for the high priority items that will help you achieve and sustain your success in the year ahead!


Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies. Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli





{Infographic} Retail Armageddon, Chupacabra, and Other Myths


Retail Armageddon, Chupacabra, and Other Myths

A simple Google search for the phrase “retail Armageddon” produces 413,000 results.

Many of those references are very recent. Here are just a few of the search findings from this year:

May 5th, Retail Armageddon: More bankruptcies in four months than all of 2016

June 3rd, It’s a retail Armageddon as over 1,000 stores close in one single week

October 20th, Stores Struggle to Find Workers Amid Retail ‘Armageddon’


The “sky is falling,” doomsday predictions for retail have a lot in common with myths like the chupacabra – a folkloric beast whose Spanish name literally translates to goat sucker. These mythical creatures were purported to attack and drink the blood of livestock. Like any good myth, there is some truth to the legend. In the case of the chupacabra, people likely observed feral dogs infected with rabies and conjured up images of creatures of various sizes and shapes. In the case of the “retail Armageddon,” passive observers and some industry analysts confused the closure of “traditional retail businesses” or reduced traffic at locations like malls with the annihilation of all retail.

Just the facts

Fortunately, the best antidote to a bad case of retail Armageddon mythology is a sizable dose of facts. For example, one need look no further than early numbers from the 2017 Christmas shopping season. Irrespective of all the store closings that took place in 2017, US retailers had the highest sales since 2011. Year-over-year numbers are up 4.9%.

Yes, Virginia, there is retail in America, and it is not on the verge of collapse.

Retail (like everything else in life) has simply changed with the times. In fact, this year’s impressive sales numbers were generated, not through the retail channels of my youth – malls and catalogs – but through technology platforms of today – tablets, smartphones, and orders placed by digital assistants. In fact, online retail increased 18.1% this year.

Amazon continues to be a big winner. In their post-Christmas press release Amazon reports impressive sales volumes:

More than one billion items were ordered from small businesses and entrepreneurs worldwide this season – and over just five days, from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, nearly 140 million items were ordered from small businesses and entrepreneurs. Amazon Devices also had its best holiday yet, with tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices sold worldwide. Echo Dot and Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote were not only the top-selling Amazon devices this holiday season, but they were also the best-selling products from any manufacturer in any category across all of Amazon.

Beyond the pure sales numbers, Amazon highlights the growing trend to mobile ordering and even the use of Augmented Reality technology in the shopping process:

The top five items ordered on a mobile device were the Echo Dot, Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote and the TP-Link Smart Plug.

Customers worldwide shopping on the Amazon App increased nearly 70% this holiday season.

More than 1,400 electronics products were ordered per second on a mobile device this holiday season.

AR view saw the most usage on Cyber Monday. The most popular item viewed with AR view throughout this holiday season was a black chair with ottoman. Top categories viewed with AR view are furniture, toys, Amazon devices, kitchen items and consumer electronics.

Lest you conclude that brick-and-mortar stores are dead, realize that the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day alone is estimated to produce 69 billion dollars in retail revenue, about 11% of the season’s total. Most of those purchases will occur in traditional stores as customers initiate returns.

The art of retail

The art of retail is having the right product for the right customer – where, when, and how that customer wants it. There will always be retail stores and technologies to make the shopping experience more pleasurable. The core principles of customer experience excellence remain in retail and all sectors:

  • Listen, observe, and understand the wants, needs, and desires of your customers
  • Focus on product and service quality
  • Price fairly
  • Have well-trained people in place who demonstrate care for your customers
  • Reduce the effort your customers expend to get what they want
  • Invest in infrastructure that makes the shopping experience pleasurable
  • Demonstrate your appreciation for your customer’s patronage

These are NOT the end times for retail…they are simply times to adapt to changing needs for consumers. Afterall one moment we might be selling and the next we ARE buying!


Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies. Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli