In today’s future of customer experience interview series, I am thrilled to bring you the thoughts and insights from Anthony Leaper (@ALeaper).

Anthony is the Senior Vice President and Sales GM for Enterprise Social Software at SAP. He is also a passionate advocate for customer experience and I think you’ll see what I mean in the interview below.

How do you define a customer-focused company these days?

You know, for me, it starts with culture and passion. Many companies focus on customer sat scores or responding to customers through social or trying to create customer designed products. But they do it because they have to, not because they want to. You have to create a culture that inspires them from the minute your employees get up to go to work, that all they want to do is delight customers and exceed their expectations and that makes them feel as much a part of the business as the employee themselves. A culture that knows that if you truly care about your customer and their needs and desires – then the revenue will take care of itself.

I always remember Tom Siebel telling us all in the early days how to think about the balance between customers and revenue, he said “If you are on a call with a customer regarding a $10m deal and you see an urgent email from a customer about a problem and issue that needs your attention to close, or a colleague is trying to pass a call with the upset customer to you. Apologize professionally to the prospective customer, explaining you have an urgent need to solve a problem with an existing customer and arrange a time to get back to them, then hang up and handle your existing customers issue in order to make them happy. Making your existing customers happy has to be the priority and if you get that right then it will encourage the new customers.

Roll forward to today’s world, where collaborative interaction goes on continuously between customers and the companies they interact with. Whilst the technology may make the speed by which these interactions happen faster and the visibility of who sees the issues and how you respond, greater, the same is still true, putting your customers’ needs first and spreading a culture that pervasively encourages that thinking is the best way to make sure everything you do is customer focused. Once the customer knows this, appreciates the fact you listen, decide and act at every opportunity to improve the relationship with them. Then they will donate their loyalty, ideas, and, subsequently, wallet spend in your direction.

How do you balance the need for a better customer experience with the return on that investment?

In the past, people looked at interacting with customers as almost an overhead, and at that point it was all about how do you offer the level of customer service and experience you can get away with at the lowest cost. Sad to say that some brands who have taken this route have now started to see their businesses decline and many top brands from the last 30–50 years no longer exist. Other companies from the outset have started from the premise of, we will build great products based on what our customers want, we will listen and refine, if a product fails we will replace, if we slip up somewhere – we will compensate and if we get a customer – we will respect and cherish them, the onus is on us to apologize and make good, not on the customer to prove and justify why we should offer a great experience.

A friend of mine told me a recent story, he made a considerable investment many years ago in a Tumi travel case, some many years later, long after any reasonable guarantee had lapsed and the Handle suddenly broke on the bag. He contacted Tumi and explained the situation, seeking to find out how to buy a replacement handle, the bag was still great, it just needed a replacement handle. The lady at the end of the phone asked for some questions and then just asked if he could send a picture of the handle to her by email. This he subsequently did and a few days later a replacement handle arrived in the post. Delighted he phoned the lady back to ask how much he owed her, the response, “Nothing, just thank you for being a loyal Tumi customer.” The bag is now repaired but no longer stands alone as his only Tumi travel suitcase/bag because his loyalty resulted in additional purchases of other format suitcases and bags from Tumi, and of course many references and recounting of this tale to all the people he meets.

The ROI of this engaging experience and interaction, hard to fully count, but probably runs into the many thousands, the cost to deliver this service – a couple of pounds.

We live in an increasingly networked age. At what point do the traditional ways of organizing companies to deliver customer experiences (headquarters, field, online, call centers, resellers, etc.) get rethought or replaced?

This has already happened, we all shop, check, and transact with our banks. Look for fixes to issues any time, any place, anywhere with the channel that is most convenient. I see a branch of my bank in a high street in a foreign location and I may go into it for service and support. You had better be able to know me and deal with me otherwise you may not be the bank for me in the future. I have an issue with a new item I have purchased, and I want answers now. Is it user error? Is it a fault? Am I the only one with the issue? And how does the company normally help people solve this? I don’t care if your office hours are only 9–5. Guess what, so are mine. I will be working tomorrow, so I may not be able to call you. How are you going to help me? It’s not my fault, I purchased your product.

Companies are getting wise to this. “Start Looking for a Fix” and a “Call Me Now” or “Instant Chat” pop-up can appear, and before you know it you are interacting with an individual who could be anywhere round the world, but is focused on solving your issue. Or your phone is suddenly ringing, and you are instantly relaxed into a feeling of inclusive and ever-present customer-focused experience.

I had a situation recently where I wanted to by some new phone equipment for my home office. So I finally got some free time and visited the Li-go UK Web site to browse through the selection available. There was so much to choose from, it was like being overwhelmed as a child in the old village candy/sweet store. I was getting to a point where it seemed too hard to make a choice when suddenly up popped a prompt, “Can I Help You”. This was 5:00 p.m. on a Sunday evening, so I thought, probably a system generated prompt and no one would be available so I ignored it for a little while. It dropped down out of the way, and I continued to look across 3 to 4 different products trying to work out which one to buy. The prompt appeared again “Can I Help You”. I was about to give up and thought, let’s just see how good this really is. So I opened the chat window and explained I was looking for a phone system for my office. For a couple of seconds nothing happened…. Then a response came back….. “I can see you have been looking at these models, what are the characteristics you are looking for etc”… I almost dropped my tablet…. The conversation progressed over about 20 minutes, me reviewing various options and then returning to the chat and finally a recommendation was made. The surprising thing was that this was one of the cheaper options, but the individual at the other end of the chat assured me this was the right option for my needs. The final element of excellence happened when I confirmed the items I was going to purchase, and the individual at the other end simply asked “would you like me to place the order for you and just send you a PayPal invoice, so as to save you the time…” talk about making it easy to buy and would I recommend them to others, I have done….!

We’re hearing that customers want to be part of the development process, especially for consumer products. But people are also lazy and pressed for time. Are they really going to get involved? Why and how?

Imagine if that annoying little issue you have with your TV, dishwasher, washing machine, car…. you name it…. miraculously got fixed in the next version. Smart companies listen to what people are saying out in discussion groups and use that to influence better product design. Some customers get invited to help design, why do this, because if every day I use the replacement product in the future and find it fits my needs perfectly then I will clearly be far more satisfied than I was with the previous models. If I see others commenting on how well the product works for them, I can smile knowing I was a part of that, and if I know that I buy products from a company that takes its customers feedback into account, then I know that the item I am likely to buy is more fit for purpose maybe than similar from the competition.

Not every person will have the time, but my requirements are more than likely not going to be unique, someone will have mentioned them or commented on the challenges somewhere and now and again so will I. The point is whether at that point in time the company is bothered to listen. Sometimes the fact that an item is faster to use, more valuable in its applicability to me etc, then a few minutes here can save considerable more time maybe in the future.

What is the most extreme future that you could envision for the customer experience?

Becoming truly customer-centric by implementing systems that enable you to drive a C2B mentality. Consumer-to-business in a connected world of listening, deciding and then engaging in the most effective manner. Thinking about managed loyalty that is designed around the type of relationship and business results you want from each individual customer.

Will companies stop selling products and services and start selling experiences?

Companies like Virgin Atlantic already do this, so very very well! They sell me a travel experience, uniquely different every time, yet consistent, not focused on the flight, but the whole experience from when I look for my ticket to when I get back through the front door at the end of the trip. Trusted and comforting, yet they do get it wrong sometimes, and when they do, it reminds me that everyone is human, even my friends at Virgin Atlantic, and they clearly go out of their way to make it right. I recently then had an interaction with Virgin Money, and never guess what, they also treated me like they valued me and the experience they were delivering to me, and so that’s what the Virgin Experience stands for, and to me what I think of whenever I see a Virgin logo.

Many other companies are doing the same thing, those that are not become a commodity along with the products they sell, if I am looking for a bargain then I may go to them, but it will have to be cheap. On the other hand if I am looking for value, then price is not the issue, the experience is.

Research says that customers are going to want things extremely personalized and customized to them and that 3-D printers and distributed manufacturing will increase that urge. Do you agree?

Today you can personalize so many things, who knows where this will end up, the problem is, do I know enough to be able to decide what I want, a car is the best it can be through years of research and other peoples input, I am not sure if I designed it myself the result would be so enjoyable…. J

How important is customer experience for B2B companies?

Vital, we all know what we like and what we don’t like from our customer interactions in the non-B2B world, when we enter into a commercial interaction, we expect the same level of experience. I will measure how you treat me as an individual at all times, not how you treat my company, that’s hard to measure. I feel how you deal with me and my needs first, then I ask my colleagues how you dealt with them and their needs, and it is the aggregation of those individual impressions that will help me decide. Making sure companies deliver a consistent focused customer experience targeted at the people they interact with, designed to exceed their needs, is how they will win the business.

What technologies do you see as enabling better customer experience?

ESP. CRM chips in the brain. Facial recognition. One-to-one advertising. Who knows. Remember, the iPhone and iPad are old technology now, and who knows how revolutionary the next must have device is going to be. I think pervasive information will be the first big trend, conversations and connections that move from device to device irrespective of where you are. Mobile to car to TV, or wall to fridge to work surface to 3D virtual. Companies like Samsung are already heading this way with virtual devices, swiping from mobile to TV and windows on a window. I can dream of many crazy ideas.

When I was 11, I was asked to write a short story book for English on life in the future. I wrote this brave idea about computers for people, that could provide information like Encyclopedia Britannica and would be about the size of a desk with their own screen like a TV and a keyboard like a typewriter.  My report back from my wonderful elderly teacher said, “7/10 very farfetched and please correct the spellings” If she only knew, and thanks to modern technology, my poor spelling is a thing of the past.

What are your thoughts on the opportunity to use your purchase history to improve customer experience versus privacy concerns?

My view from the aspect of my data and a relationship with a company is as follows: My data is valuable, prove that if I share it with you that I will get even more value because of this, and not because you are going to use it behind my back to make money, then I will share everything you ask of me. Break my trust and more fool you, as everything I know about you is also valuable and I can, in today’s world, cause even more damage than having to deal with changing some of my key data..

Companies need to ensure that they encompass this in their culture we know that we leverage to deliver more value. But we respect the rights and the information you shared with us and treat it confidentially accordingly

How do large companies optimize the customer experience across all the channels available today?

By leveraging modern technologies, learning to listen, understanding and engaging such that they can connect to the customer when they need them, where they need them, how they need them in order to delight and exceed the expectations. Today’s connected world means Individuals can buy from home as well as work from home, connect this ability to all the other channels available and you can deliver an omnichannel experience that envelopes your customer, their needs and desires, leaving little room for the competition.

Anthony Leaper is a software, marketing and sales enthusiast, lucky enough to have been given a  job which aligns with his passion for making a difference in the world of customer interactions. Now heading up the team responsible for business development of SAP’s Social Collaboration products, including specialising in how they relate to the customer experience space. Anthony’s character is strengthened by a personal, almost manic, bias to exceed his customer’s expectations, which has come from over 25 years+ of experience in developing and selling systems for improving customer interaction. Prior to his current role, Anthony was responsible for the Solution Management and Go to Market activities of SAP’s Sales, Service and Marketing Solutions, pushing innovation to improve customer insight and intimacy in a way that delights customers and expands the abilities of companies to connect and engage with their customers and consumers. 

This post originally appeared on Business Innovation.

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