What restaurants teach us about human experience

In the realm of human experience, few businesses are subjected to the same degree of customer broadcast (aka reviews) as restaurants. Without including personal social media accounts, there are at least half a dozen large mainstream review aggregators, led by the likes of TripAdvisor.

The volume of reviews is vast, and the factors influencing the experience are highly nuanced. The standards for the hospitality industry, which by definition is all about people, go way beyond just being hospitable.

From a human perspective, eating food that has been prepared by someone else requires a high degree of trust. As ordinary citizens, we can write off the possibility that someone might want to poison us, but we do want to know that proper hygiene protocols have been followed. We also want them to tell us the truth in terms of the use of ingredients that are either allergens or which contravene religious dietary laws.

Our culinary likes and dislikes are deeply subjective, often having their roots in experiences we can’t even remember. For example, someone who is otherwise happy to eat cauliflower would hate cauliflower purée if they can’t abide the texture. Just because there’s no rationality behind this dislike, doesn’t make it any less valid.

Of course, our deep emotional connection with food mostly manifests positively, which explains foodie culture. We own more cookbooks, with more recipes than we can ever cook, we watch thousands of hours of cooking shows on TV, and we follow top chefs on Instagram.

It’s when things go wrong that restaurateurs have a problem, and the thing is that one can upset diners with perfectly good food that just happens to fall foul of deep-seated dislikes. And, because the dislike has its roots in emotions, there is no surprise that the customer complaint can become ‘emotional’.

Further complicating the matter is that we tend to regard our preferences as being an absolute standard. Instead of saying, “this is not to my taste”, we’ll pass a judgment along the lines of, “this is terrible food”.

Of course, the basis for a customer complaint could be an actual technical fault, or just limited cooking abilities leading to flavourless or uninteresting food. In the case of the latter, it’s probably the judgment of the restaurateur that what is being served is ‘fine’. Whether it’s front of house, or in the kitchen, the culinary experience is riven with subjectivity.

The same applies to the décor or ambience. The shiny gold curtains loved by the restaurateur’s interior design sister-in-law might not necessarily appeal to a broad audience.

With possible customer complaints covering the spectrum from actual technical faults to personal taste, being a successful restaurateur requires an especial prescience in designing the experience, as well as a unique set of management skills. This industry is not for the fainthearted.

The hospitality industry is a useful example of the effects of the human dimension. However, it’s not unique; it just happens to be an extreme case study of what happens in a less overt version in other industries, whether it’s banking, retail, healthcare or education. Behind every wallet there is a human.

Restaurants open their doors every day knowing that they cater to nuanced human preferences. I’m not saying that this type of awareness is completely absent in other industries, but it appears that it’s not as acutely felt.

No business is immune from getting the human experience right. Indeed, it could be argued that low-cost challenger brands (like Capitec) succeed as a result of getting the experience right, not just because they cut the costs for their customers. In fact, the opportunity to disrupt is generally created by incumbents losing track of the human experience.

Given the layers of nuance in human experience – as we see in restaurants – it’s no surprise that management attention at corporates gets focused on issues that are tangible or easy to work with. However, that doesn’t remove the risks implicit in human experience.

(This article first appeared on MoneyWeb)

When Doves tweets

When Doves tweets

Managing brands’ social media accounts could be one of the toughest communication jobs out there. Within the tight confines of character limits, and the possibility that someone is going to get upset about something that wasn’t said or intended, the brand attempts to speak with ‘voice’, to build relationships and generally contribute to marketing and sales goals. Social media isn’t just one-to-many, it’s also an opportunity to listen to what customers are saying about your brand. Sometimes the many-to-one gets uncomfortable, as you’ll see in a bit.

Few brands would take the risk of entering the space with the sass of James Blunt; and building the personality of Wendy’s on Twitter requires having a professional like Amy Brown at the controls (although she has is no longer there).

At the very least, successful brand social media has a personality, preferably with a dose of humanness.

But what happens when you’re an undertaker (ok, funeral director)?

One could understand the need to play it safe around grief and bereavement. And, even if one isn’t in the middle of dealing with a loss, people are generally awkward about death. Funerals aren’t things one buys regularly (preferably hardly ever), and they probably fall into the category of grudge purchase. So, it’s not like your regular FMCG. I get that it’s complicated.

I hadn’t given any of this any thought until Doves Funerals tweeted what amounted to a get well soon message for Sbahle Mpisane after a serious motor accident. They deleted the tweet, and apologised, but it just seemed opportunistic and insensitive, considering that her condition was so serious that recovery couldn’t be taken for granted.

After another round of getting flamed this week, the Doves Funerals account appears to have been renamed. My tweet to them was answered by the Doves Insurance account, in the form of a standard message that was repeated to 30 other people. All very robotic, and not that human.

Whilst their posts are dripping in schmaltz, they don’t convey authenticity. All the images linked to their posts appear to be stock photos – maybe it’s just me, but nothing shouts “Fake!” quite like stock photos.

Is there space for Doves Funerals on social media, and what should the messaging be?

I think they’d get away with posting public service announcements related to drinking and driving or wearing seatbelts. These could make a powerful statement.

The campaign that drew the flames is captioned “Make those memories today”, which is not necessarily a bad idea. The problem is that the execution doesn’t convey authenticity.

I happened to visit my brother at his new home in the final weeks before he passed away in 2015. There wasn’t any indication that this would be a significant visit, but after he died it left me being able to say, “I’m grateful”. Short videos with real people telling their “I’m grateful” stories strike me as being a more authentic treatment of the “make those moments today” concept (especially as compared with the stock photos version).

Gratitude has underrated power. And it’s undeniably human.

The terminal illness of Morrie, in the book Tuesdays with Morrie, is central to the wisdoms and life lessons that get shared. Maybe this story has themes that could be inspiration for something heartfelt.

We have licence to “honour the dead”, especially if some time has passed since their passing. It doesn’t need to be confined to September (i.e. heritage month), but there could be a whole campaign built around heroes or leaders from the past.

In similar vein is the forgotten art of the obituary. In the past weeks I’ve read some startlingly brilliant obituaries of non-famous people. Regardless of our grief, we all appreciate it when people speak well of our deceased family and friends. Doves could either host an obituaries website, or post them to Instagram (Humans of NY-style), or run an obituary writing competition.

Aside from the emotions, death has a bunch of financial implications that are crucially important to plan in advance. Perhaps those realities – which do make occasional appearances in the Doves timeline – are the only ‘safe’ space for a brand like Doves.

The question remains interesting, though, and the first part of the answer should be: “keep it human.”

Human dimensions to technology

London cab drivers, famously, end up with larger posterior hippocampi after spending years acquiring The Knowledge. Learning stuff does – literally – result in profound changes in the brain (well, parts of it).

GPS navigation systems make The Knowledge redundant, and they become even more useful when they incorporate traffic information (such as Waze, with its crowd-sourced updates). Of course, cabbies get to know which routes to avoid at what times of day, but they wouldn’t necessarily know about a snarl-up as a result of a crash.

While navigation isn’t AI, it certainly counts as automation. Like workers in other fields, technology is presenting cab drivers with a variety of threats. Uber is the high profile one, self-driving cars are waiting in the wings, and who knows what will follow them.

There are a number of human dimensions to what is unfolding:
– the cabbies’ loss of work
– the experience of passengers in an Uber or driverless environment (this also relates to the post- and pre-ride experience)

Automation gives rise to an existential debate relating to the possible role of humans in the future economy. What functions in the economy are human-specific? What work will humans do when they have been displaced by technology? How does our education system have to change in order to prepare people for different roles?

Similarly, once the process has been changed to remove the humans, how does one deliver it in a ‘human’ way (or, ‘keep it human’ even though humans are absent)?

Making the business case for removing humans, as in the instance of an app for ordering takeaway meals, is easy. In fact, there is massive financial investment in the development of technology that is specifically aimed at replacing humans. Robots don’t take ‘sickies’, they don’t demand benefits, and they have a handy on-off switch.

On the other hand, there isn’t anywhere near the comparable investment in putting humanness into transactions or processes. In fact, when I do my elevator pitch about auditing the human experience delivered by products or services, I am often met with bemused confusion.

London cab drivers are their own neuroplasticity case study. If we can change our brains in response to the skills we learn, then we surely can be re-skilled in more ways than we might initially anticipate. This is easier said than done, judging by taxi drivers’ protests against ride hailing apps. The most dramatic, arguably, have been in Johannesburg, where taxi drivers have channeled the spirit of the Luddites, in causing physical harm to Uber drivers, their passengers, and their vehicles.

Regardless of taxi drivers’ protests, the way we move around cities will change. My tween nephews may learn to drive, but their children almost certainly won’t.

As with the business case for replacing humans with technology, there are rational reasons for changes in transportation. Who can argue against congestion, pollution, safety or efficiency?

It’s a lot harder, I’ve found, to get businesses to come around to the view that one needs to make corresponding investments in ‘keeping it human’. The answer may lie in the immediacy of cost savings or efficiency benefits. Their impact is not delayed. On the other hand, the risks in the human experience may not be acknowledged until after they have manifested.

In this respect, technology works to the benefit of customers. Grievances, or even just low-level dissatisfaction, are easily broadcast via social media (unless, of course, problem areas have been proactively addressed).

The qualities one would most likely associate with humanness – empathy and compassion – are controlled by part of the cerebral cortex. Unlike the navigation of 25,000 London streets, these brain functions can, thankfully, not be outsourced to technology.

This article first appeared on BizNews.com

Hx beats UX

The thinking that got me to Hx: The Human Experience started with UX, the tech world’s acronym for user experience.

Given that they are unleashing their apps on a population of diverse technical aptitude, it’s important that ‘users’ (their word) are able to use the apps without frustration. Of course, this goes just part of the way to giving people a great experience.

Most of the time everything works fine, except for when something has gone wrong, or when one needs a bit of extra assistance. Apart from the fact that it’s almost impossible to pick up the phone to someone, it is at this point that the whole thing becomes very tech-like.

I could outline the following example without mentioning names, but what the hell, it probably is relevant to the story. A few nights ago, at 20:01, I ordered burgers from one of my favourite burger joints, using Uber Eats. I specifically checked the likely delivery time, which was indicated as 20-30 minutes. Perfect.

Just before delivery was due, the predicted delivery time shifted out by five minutes, and then again. Thanks to the tracking facility, I could see that the order was not yet on its way.

At roughly 20:50, I engaged the help facility via the app, and was quickly connected with someone on online chat. So, this was now half an hour beyond the earliest possible delivery time, and therefore close to double the delivery time initially predicted.

As far as UX is concerned, the app is easy to use, and well done to them for connecting me to help so quickly. That was where the positives ran out.

As it turned out, the order was despatched while I was busy with the chat. It eventually arrived something like an hour after I’d placed the order. The food was ice cold, which indicates that the restaurant had done their job, but that Uber’s scheduling function had failed (i.e. surely the system can work out how long it’s going to take for the delivery people to work their way through the orders in the system).

While on the subject of this system failure, I should mention that Uber’s built-in navigation doesn’t work nearly as well as apps like Waze. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that Uber’s navigation is designed to default to the longer route in order to juice the fares.

At no point during the chat did the ‘agent’ make any attempt at an apology (in these circumstances, even the words “I’m sorry” can get you a long way). Unfortunately, I didn’t screenshot the entire chat, but the script threw these beauties at me:

“I understand that this has not been a great experience, but please know that this is not a regular occurrence and I hope your next experience will be a better one.”

“Please know that we do take consumer feedback seriously and we are continually working to make the Uber Eats experience better.”

“We are constantly aiming to improve our service to you and your feedback will help us do so.”

All of this is fine, except that I wasn’t interested in the next time (if it ever happens). All that mattered to me was that a promise hadn’t been kept. And I was hungry.

My response to the trite scipt was: “actually you don’t care. I may as well be talking to a robot.”

To which the response was:
“Please know that I am a human and tried my best to assist you.”

Yes, strictly speaking, he checked on my food delivery and communicated that it was on its way. However, no service recovery was attempted. If anything, the wooden handling of the situation made it worse.

Hungry people are prone to emotional responses. It goes with the territory. Uber Eats should incorporate that reality in training their help desk, as well as the scripts they use.

Taking care of the human dimension involves being aware of things like this, so that they can be incorporated into the customer experience. It’s important for all businesses, and especially tech-based ones that have hardly any human interaction.

Hx: Human Experience is here to keep it human.

Very Human Failures

My work is predicated on the view that corporates should be paying more attention to the human dimension. Within this realm, characterised as it is by subtleties and intangibles, lie as many business risks as the financial, or occupational health and safety.

It is not hard to take the cynic’s view that businesses’ focus on maximising profits means that they will cut corners wherever they can. Or, even if there isn’t outright profit-mongery, that neglect of the human dimension is a consequence of lack of care.

Of course, the opposite of profit is loss. Eventually, loss-making businesses run out of money and go bust. Money is an important signalling mechanism.

However, for all its human failings, one could make the argument that business makes a more reliable contribution to society than government. The primary reasons for this are that businesses can go bust, and they have competitors.

By contrast, politicians (in South Africa at least) seem to suffer no consequences. They can even break the law without losing their positions. In other words, they do not have to concern themselves with the politician’s equivalent of going bust.

Of course, in ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the system worked this way for a while. A powerful person who seemed to be heading in the direction of tyranny could be voted out, Survivor-style. Votes were cast on shards of pottery (ostrakon, from which we get the word ostracise). The practice was stopped when a truly powerful person subverted the system to get rid of an opponent.

Government is (supposed to be) for the people, but there is massive evidence against. One doesn’t need to be a cynic to take the view that the only humans benefitting from government – well, the South African government – are the politicians themselves.

Using the human dimension as benchmark, our government has failed us. One could also use the examples of failed or failing SOEs by way of financial proof of government’s failure. I’m choosing to address this from the human perspective, because even if one is a financially inept manager, one could be guided by basic humanness. Surely?

Maybe not.

Fortunately, there is substantial data that supports this view. This is not conjecture.

Let’s start with schools, specifically the provision of sanitation, which is a legal requirement under the South African Schools Act. While there has been progress, according to Passmark.org.za there are still 37 schools in the country that have no toilets at all. One-third have pit latrines, which are not only illegal (in terms of the Act), but also dangerous. In recent years, at least two young children have died after falling into pit latrines at schools.

There are a number of safe and hygienic low-tech alternatives that don’t require running water, and yet Angie Motshekga’s promise, to comply with the Act’s basic sanitation requirements by 2016, has not been kept.

It is therefore no surprise that the real purpose of her department’s existence – education – is not delivering on its basic requirement of educating young people so that they do not become trapped in a cycle of poverty. Many studies relating to levels of numeracy and literacy have shown South Africa to be lagging its peers internationally. And this is before we start drilling into the detail of what happens at matric level.

Similar failures characterise other departments that are supposed to be looking out for the most vulnerable members of our society.

Given the scale of corruption in our government it would be easy to put the non-availability of resources for providing essential services down to kleptocracy.

On the other hand, let’s assume that we had good, well-intentioned politicians who were held to account (i.e. there would be consequences resulting from non-performance). A recent study by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team turned the behavioural science spotlight on policymakers.

Real-world data proves policymakers to be as prone to cognitive biases as the citizens whose behaviour they hope to influence. The bottom line is that they may be the cause of failure of their own policies. If ever there was a justification for the view that politicians are far less capable than they think they are (which probably means we have too many of them), and that we give them too much power, this is it.

At least for these reasons, if not the cynical ones as well, our politicians are likely to fall short of the performance required. Add to the picture massive levels of disagreement between political parties, and we’re even less likely to implement effective policy.

Having loud arguments isn’t going to get us closer to solutions. Far better to use evidence by way of arbitration. Even in a situation where everyone agrees (and where everyone is honest), randomised trials are an invaluable method for determining the most effective course of action.

Billions of aid dollars are spent in the developing world every year, much of it directed by respected practioners and academics. Even they don’t know which programmes will work. Famously, Michael Kremer and Ted Miguel showed that cheap, school-based deworming in Kenya was far more effective at achieving educational outcomes than any other intervention. One of these, at great cost, provided schools with learning aids, and yet this was less effective than a simple pill.

There is a risk – an understandable one – that policymakers feel the need to write complex specs for their programmes, if only to protect themselves from scrutiny. Imagine if the relevant education authorities in Kenya had written a one-paragraph policy that they would deworm every child at school, and thereby produce a measurable increase not just in school attendance, but also academic results, and earning potential when those kids are adults. It wouldn’t get taken nearly as seriously as a weighty document that proposed the spending of large amounts of money. Dare I add that an international consulting firm should also be involved in its drafting?

Having invested so much in the policy, the likelihood of them modiying implementation based upon feedback (or even allowing for feedback) is highly unlikely.

Most often, the simple solutions are found by trying a bunch of different things, preferably with government staying out of the way. In the time it takes to spend months (if not years) fighting over something in Parliament, one could have trialled several different options.

Without getting into a debate whether it’s more effectively outsourced (i.e. privatised), part of the reason for government’s existence is to provide basic human needs and rights. Perhaps if politicians felt a closer connection with ‘the people’ they would be more inclined to do the right thing.

Similarly, there is scope for businesses to pay more attention to the human dimension. Even if the founding reasons for their existence relate to the production of profit, eventually the money flows will match the human experience.

For the sake of balance, you could argue that I should be using the human dimension benchmark on business. However, I can’t think of any single business that has the potential to damage the entire country the same way as a state entity in the form of Education, or Health or Eskom. In any case, the market has a straightforward way of dealing with non-performers. They go bust (that’s one of the benefits of capitalism).

Time to focus on the human dimension.


Being Human: Just Do It!

Old-school salesmen are big on compiling the features and benefits relating to a product. For example, the particular type of braking system on a motor vehicle is a feature. The corresponding benefit is safety.

Benefits, especially measurable ones, are rich fodder for sales types.

Similarly, one of the first things I was taught about advertising is to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” This is a similar take on the benefits vs features story.

Viewed from these perspectives, Nike’s newest campaign breaks the rules. The ads make no claim that their products improve performance, or are more comfortable, or conform to whatever traditional yardstick consumers might use for making a purchase decision.

Instead, the ads are a call for us to recognise that we’re all humans, regardless of race or gender or physical disabilities, and that we have a right to be treated with equal respect and compassion.

Of course, Nike isn’t the first to deviate from product-centric advertising, and its “Just Do It” strapline is solidly in the territory of the motivation to get out and exert oneself physically. It’s about sweat and heart rate and pain experienced by Average Joanna athletes as they overcome the call of the couch. It might be gung ho, but it certainly qualifies as human.

The campaign features a variety of sportspeople who achieved against all odds, perhaps none more so than the one-handed NFL player, Shaquem Griffin. There isn’t anything obviously political about Griffin, although his inclusion makes a statement about whom the world considers to be able-bodied. Serena Williams could be played purely on the basis of her tennis prowess, but she is illustrated in a manner that calls out the hypocracy of varying dress codes for male and female tennis players.

Nike could have taken the politics as far as LeBron James, who recently co-founded the 240-pupil I Promise school. But they went to the heart of Mordor when they led with Colin Kaepernick. They must have known that there might be pain, but in their own lexicon, they ‘just did it’.

It was a brave move. No matter that ‘taking a knee’ is a soldier’s mark of respect, selected as a compromise for showing respect to the flag and anthem at the same time as peacefully protesting injustices, there is a big chunk of Americans that can’t tolerate to the stand taken by Colin Kaepernick. Predictably, this has triggered calls for boycott of Nike products (and some hilarious social media posts relating to destruction of Nike products).

The political landscape – perhaps intensified by the particular way that tribes coalesce in social media – has become binary, if not outright polarised. If you’re not for something, you must therefore be totally against it. There is no room for nuance or sensible conversation. Debate is out of the question.

Nike has taken an inspirational lead, in giving changemakers and their causes the same visibility as divisive tweets from Donald Trump. Dare I suggest that Nike have given their iconic campaign a dose of EPO, combined with a some steroids?

I may be guilty of operating from my professional perspective, that corporates should be paying more attention to the human experience their products and services deliver. However, my view is that this is a macro theme, on a global level. We all want more humanness. The time is right for Nike to run this campaign. In fact, it’s shocking that we need to reminded how far we still need to go in righting injustices.

There are multiple layers to Nike’s inspirational message with these ads. From my own experience, completing tough physical challenges is about the human more than the equipment being used. Even if I’m never going to be a sportsman at anything close to the level of the Nike changemakers in this campaign, I can be inspired by their journeys.

Perhaps the transformative power of sport of part of its sizzle. Maybe this campaign is selling sizzle after all.

How well the campaign works for Nike remains to be seen, but Nike’s position certainly reinforces my view that corporates need to be paying more attention to the human dimension.