Differentiating through experience and perceived value

Rory Sutherland must be one of the finest raconteurs we have.

On a recent appearance on the Diaries of a CEO podcast he talks about the importance of customer experience and perceived value as a key differentiator for brands today.

He argues that if Eurostar wanted to improve the experience of its service for its passengers one option would be to make their trains go faster.

This feels like the best thing to do that will result in the highest levels of passenger satisfaction.

This sounds great in principle, but to achieve it would require huge capital investment, engineering innovation and lengthy timescales.

Another option to improve the passenger experience would be provide great food, free wifi, comfortable seats, clean toilets, excellent service etc.

The latter would be much more achievable than the former and would probably yield similar results from the perspective of reported passenger satisfaction and loyalty.

So following that logic perhaps customer experience is one of the most cost effective strategic areas of focus for organisations because it provides a relatively fast and cost effective way of directly improving customers perceptions of the value that products and services provide them.

Sutherland also argues this has an environmental benefit too.

By improving their perceived value of an experience we are improving something through intangible means that manifest as how someone thinks about something – so it doesn’t exist per se and thus generates no detrimental environmental impact to create, maintain and dispose of.

Perceived value is a hugely interesting area.

Trying to get to the bottom of what people perceive to be the value that they will get from a product or service helps you to focus your marketing on the things that matter the most to people.

So much of this comes from the nuance of communication, the language and imagery that is chosen and the story that is told that creates the narrative around the value of products and services.

I see this a lot in my work.

Peoples behaviours and actions are hugely influenced by what they believe to be true and how they perceive things as opposed to what the actual truth might be.

I remember a research session where a customer of a food delivery service noticed a photo of a delivery van driving in the snow and said “They look great, they will deliver to my elderly mother whatever the weather’ – the truth was quite possibly a different story.

In a recent research session I asked someone how they wanted a financial report to make them feel.

They talked about wanting to feel like their life savings were in safe hands, that they could trust the company and feel like it was something that they no longer needed to worry about.

A well designed report will reinforce these feelings and beliefs whereas a poorly designed report will quickly raise questions, unease and possibly a loss of custom.

In order to design successful things we have to develop a deep understanding of the way that people perceive the world around them, their preconceptions and beliefs as these are the things that will ultimately drive their behaviours.

Once we uncover these sorts of beliefs we can get to the bottom of what people really care about, the questions they have and what they need from the products and services they use to meet their real needs.

Core design competencies

In his wonderful book ‘Imagine If‘ Ken Robinson talks about the flaws within the educational system.

He argues that what students need from their education is to become proficient in some core competencies in order to prepare them for the economic, personal, cultural and social challenges they will face in their lives.

The competencies he identifies are curiosity, creativity, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure and citizenship.

Here’s how Ken breaks them down in his book :

Curiositythe ability to ask questions and explore how the world works

Creativitythe ability to generate new ideas and apply them in practice

Criticismthe ability to analyse information and ideas and to form reasoned arguments and judgements

Communicationthe ability to express thoughts and feelings clearly and confidently in a range of media and forms

Collaborationthe ability to work constructively with others

Compassionthe ability to empathise with others and to act accordingly

Composurethe ability to connect with the inner life of feeling and develop a sense of personal harmony and balance

Citizenshipthe ability to engage constructively with society and to participate in the processes that sustain it

I’ve often thought about what being a good designer actually means and I think that these competencies would be a brilliant framework to use to help work that out in practice.

When I think about the best people I’ve worked with I realised that it is these things that they’ve been really good at.

As a designer being good at the tools and methods is one thing but if you don’t have these competencies then you’ll struggle.

They aren’t just relevant to designers of course, but feel really useful to help us to recruit people, set objectives and design our own training and development.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Ken’s book, it covers many other fascinating and important subjects such as creativity, positivity, sustainability and systems thinking.

The get a feel for his work check out his TED talk on ‘Do schools kill creativity‘.

Try and break your new business ideas as quickly as possible


It’s great fun coming up with ideas for new businesses, apps, services etc.

Uber, but for [context] etc..

Many of these ideas are in reality, absolutely awful, and that’s ok as long as you don’t invest lots of time, effort and money trying to make them real.

A good habit to get into is to try and break your ideas as soon as possible by interrogating them with some simple questions like…

  • What problem does it solve for people?
  • What evidence do I have that this problem actually exists, is worth solving and that my idea will solve it?
  • What the cheapest and fastest way that I could find out if my idea actually solves this problem and that people value this problem being solved?
  • What are am trying to learn from doing this?
  • How much of my time / effort / money am I willing to invest in pursuing this idea?
  • Why will people use my idea vs what is already available? How sure am I that I am right?
  • Why might my idea fail?
  • What feels like the riskiest assumptions that I have made that underpin the success of the idea?
  • In a perfect world how will my idea work from the perspective of the people who use it?
  • What feel like the most important questions that I should ask my potential customers to explore the idea further?
  • What’s the most logical next thing to do to help me decide to pursue this or not?

So the next time a new idea pops into your head, use these questions to help you to work out which to spend your hard earned money and rare free time on pursuing!

Questions are the answer

Ben Holliday’s UXBristol talk about ‘Asking Design Questions‘ really resonated with me.

As a consultant, you can often feel like you are supposed to have all of the answers.

I think it’s more about having all of the questions.

Every challenge presents a problem to solve.

You can’t understand the problem without asking good questions.

They are fundamentally important throughout the entire process.

You need to question your brief in order to understand it properly such as…

  • Why are you doing this?
  • Why are you doing this now?
  • What do you think are the reasons behind the problem you are seeing?
  • What is the cost of the problem to the organisation today?

Successful early meetings are grounded on asking questions such as…

  • What problem are you really trying to solve?
  • How will we know if we have succeeded?
  • Who should we involve?
  • What should we know at the end that we do not know today?

Questions, questions, questions.

Our research starts with identifying the big questions that are on our clients minds such as…

  • Why has our conversion rate dropped?
  • Do people understand and value our proposition?
  • What are the most challenging aspects of choosing a university course?
  • Why do people choose our competitors over us?

We explore the business context of our work by interviewing senior stakeholders and asking questions such as…

  • What are you trying to achieve as an organisation?
  • How does this piece of work contribute towards your vision?
  • What is the impact of this problem?
  • What do you want to get from this project?

Questions, questions, questions.

We explore these within our research with people by asking them questions such as…

  • When did you book your last holiday?
  • What are you looking for in a new car?
  • How do you go about choosing a new savings account?
  • How do you find out about planned changes to your local area?

Once we’ve completed our research we’re still asking questions such as…

  • What have we learned?
  • How can we communicate our learnings in the most effective way to the people who need to hear them the most?
  • How can we apply what we have learnt to improve what we are working on?
  • Which problems should we tackle first?

Questions, questions, questions.

When our work comes to an end we’re still asking questions such as…

  • What went well?
  • What would we do differently next time?
  • What have we learned?
  • Which of our initial assumptions and hypotheses proved to be true?

But it’s not just the project team who are asking questions.

Our customers are full of questions that they need answers to before they can complete their everyday tasks such as…

  • Is it good quality?
  • Do I like the look of it?
  • Do I trust them?
  • Can I return it if I don’t like it?

The best products and services second guess (and then answer) the questions of the people who use them.

What’s the most important question you need to answer to improve your own project, career, product or service?

Questions are the answer.

What are your superpowers?

I love asking people what their superpowers are.

It’s a cracking opening gambit, particularly over a few drinks.

I’ve learned all sorts of amazing things about the people I work with.

One colleague can guess the price of any banana by simply weighing it in her hands.

Another knows exactly where they are on their commute without looking out of the windows of the bus.

Since an early age I have been able to throw cricket balls unfeasibly long distances.

All good stuff!

It’s a really useful question to consider from a work perspective too.

Your superpowers are the things you find easy, that other people value and find very hard to do themselves.

Perhaps you find it really easy to build rapport with people or you might be completely un-phased by giving presentations to large groups of people.

Knowing what your superpowers are is a superpower in its own right.

I’ve started to adapt it further when interviewing senior stakeholders about their business strategy.

I simply ask “What is your organisational superpower that your customers value and your competitors find really hard to do themselves?”.

It’s a nice way to liven up what can sometimes be quite dry conversations.

Businesses should not only be trying to get better at the things they do badly, but also to optimise their superpowers – as it is these that their competitors will always find so much harder to match.

Take a moment to think about your own superpowers and ask your colleagues about theirs too.

You may never look at them in the same way again!

Master the basics of your business

Recently I listened to a the ex-England rugby player Will Carling talk about his time as captain.

He described a time when his team were experiencing a poor run of form.

He decided the team needed to reset by focussing on doing the basics well.

His thinking was sound.

His plan was to go back to basics and become better at them than anyone else in order to win more games.

First he asked his team to identify the basics.

Some argued for the line out, some for kicking, some for scrummaging.

They quickly realised they all had a completely different view on what the basics of a relatively simple game are!

What chance do you have of success if you can’t agree on what the basics are that you need to get right!

Every business has a set of ‘basics’ that it needs to master in order to succeed.

An airline has to have access to a fleet of well maintained planes.

An ecommerce business must offer a great delivery & returns service.

A photographer must have mastered the technical aspects of their equipment.

A business consultant must be able to build excellent relationships and trust with their clients.

Consider your own business.

What do you think are the basics that you need do brilliantly in order to succeed?

I bet you think it’s obvious but then when you give it some thought it becomes less unclear.

Ask your colleagues to do the same thing and compare your ideas.

If you all agree it’s good, you’re aligned.

If you all disagree then it gets really interesting!

Without this thinking and alignment how can you know where to focus your finite time and effort?

You can’t do everything, but you have to get the basics right to stand any chance of success.