Rob Curran of NCA: customer experience – the good, the bad, the blindingly obvious

I have a confession to make. For the past five years I have sat in pitches, multi-agency meetings, customer experience (CX) conferences, holding group strategy events, and I’ve been secretly stealing slides. I’ve been screen-shotting slides that claim to define CX – and I’ve been compiling them in a slide deck.

That deck currently contains 372 slides. Yep – 372 different ways of overcomplicating the beautifully simple. 372 “correct answers,” all different. 372 attempts to physically hold a buzzword in your hand. 372 overthought and overwrought efforts to define the self-evident. Some are pyramids, some circles, some “onions”, some are ladders, one of them is a picture of a fish, inexplicably (the head is the “Branded Interaction Layer”.) Every one of these slides represents someone thinking they’ve really cracked it, and that once they’ve nailed their vision for a “5-level-concentric-circle-of-branded-customer-service-experience-design” they’ll be fighting off customers who’ve crawled through glass for the privilege to be counted amongst their brand’s customer base.

CX is, in actuality, embarrassingly simple. And thank god it is – it’s what makes it such an amazing thing to spend your career doing. Here’s the secret to CX – it turns out people like things that are good, and they don’t like things that are rubbish, or annoying, or even just mediocre. Shocking isn’t it. It’s a revelation – if your business offers great things, and treats customers really well, people like it. And if your company is a bit rubbish, and if it annoys and frustrates customers, then they don’t like it, and they go elsewhere. If it’s great, the business will grow, if it’s rubbish, it will eventually shrink. That’s… it.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with clients and companies who intuitively understand this. People like Walmart (the ultimate “less talk, more doing” company, they are awe-inspiring in their roll-your-sleeves-up-and-start-solving-problems attitude.) People like Uber (digital perfectionists who move stunningly fast. I shudder to think what it’s like to compete against them). People like Selfridges (who truly understand the ROI of taking big creative risks with their CX, without the need for the false sense of a security you get from an 80-page business case.) People like Lloyds Banking Group (who have the most fearless and passionate CX leadership I’ve ever seen) and Dyson – (auteurs, genuine innovators who’ll move mountains to meet a challenge that others would shrink from).

All these people understand that when you make a promise in your communications, you’d better back it up with an experience to match. They understand that it is necessarily that simple, and they’ve set about doing it, with, in some cases, a healthy dose of NCA help and direction (I had to get the NCA plug in somewhere.)

All of these companies have one thing in common, something I’ve observed from close up – they all understand that CX is an emotional battlefield. When it’s done right it’s creative and bold. It needs rigour and science, but it needs instinct and emotional intelligence more. It’s a thing done in the absence of any glamour, more for the satisfaction of making a customer’s life a bit better or easier than for the glory and glitz of award ceremonies. It’s also so much less about technology and personalisation and big data, and so much more about making someone smile, making them think “that’s nice that. They’ve really thought about that.”

Those thoughts fuel the growth of companies. It’s about making things less rubbish. And replacing the rubbish bits with great bits. It’s about eradicating the complexity that makes customers feel like they’re wading through treacle.

Now don’t get me wrong, this simplicity doesn’t mean is CX easy. At NCA we have CX at the heart of our agency, where it needs to be if you want even the slightest chance of making a coherent difference. We’ve worked exhaustively to find the most elegant ways of improving things, and crucially, working out precisely which things to improve. We’ve built ways of understanding people, because one of my favourite things about customers is that they’ll never tell you what they actually think or feel. You have to put the work in – a survey on your website just doesn’t cut it. It’ll give you the wrong answers.

But CX is a bit like climbing Everest (stay with me) – the goal is simple to understand – I mean if it takes you 372 slides to say “get to the top of this mountain” then something’s really wrong – but that doesn’t make it easy to do.

You don’t have to look far back for examples of where the simplicity of the goal has been corrupted by needless complexity. Take the (somewhat) recent Waitrose loyalty scheme. Firstly, a disclaimer – I’ve presided over many a multi-agency s**t-show of a project. Which is why I’d never want to be too critical from the outside. I know how these things happen ‘cos I’ve been complicit in so many of them. It’s one of the things that bonds us agency people together, we’ve all watched the car crashes happen, in slow motion, and from inside the car. It’s why I’m sure that there’s no one person to blame – the power of group-think and a seemingly bulletproof Powerpoint deck is so strong.

But the new/old Waitrose loyalty scheme is a pure demonstration of what happens when a good experience is replaced with one that’s simply worse. I’m also sure that the first basic law of CX was broken, and that is “Can you explain your new thing to someone in a pub, and does it sound like a good idea?”. Walk into a pub and say “We’re replacing free coffees and newspapers with an algorithmically-defined-carousel-of-rotating-personalized-context-aware-multi-offers-based-on-future-purchase-behavior-and-big-data-trends…what do you think?”

Turns out, people like free coffees. Maybe let’s do more of that.

Rob Curran is a co-founder and chief experience officer of New Commercial Arts.


  1. This is brilliant. The ‘372 slides to communicate something really simple’ and ‘people like what’s good’ insights also apply across the whole of advertising, to be honest.

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