Max Israel is founder and CEO of Customerville, creator of the design-driven customer experience management platform used by companies in over 20 countries. Founded in 2003, Max’s company currently works with brands in a wide variety of sectors, including airlines, hotels, medicine, insurance, banks, and retail.
At Customerville, Max leads an innovative team who blend technology, art, and behavioral science to make the customer feedback process engaging and actionable – both for customer and employee. Customerville has come to be known for aggressively pushing the limits of what people can expect from customer experience surveys and reporting.
Israel has served as a board member and board president of Seattle’s nonprofit Ballard Food Bank and the World Trade Club, and presently serves on the GFAC Advisory Board for the Gymboree Corporation in San Francisco.
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[00:35] Mary Drumond: Welcome to a special episode of Voices of Customer Experience. Today, October 2nd, we are celebrating Customer Experience Day, and to mark the occasion, we've invited a special guest, a brilliant man who is well known and loved in this industry, design revolutionary Max Israel. Max is founder and CEO of Customerville, the design driven customer experience management platform used by companies in over 20 countries. At Customerville, Max leads an innovative team who blends technology, art and behavioral science to make the customer feedback process engaging and actionable both for customer and employee. Customerville has come to be known for aggressively pushing the limits of what people can expect from customer experience surveys and reporting. Welcome to the show Max.
[01:26] Max Israel: Hi Guys, thanks for having me.
[01:28] MD: Max, for those who are not familiar with your work and what you do, would you mind telling us a little bit about your background, what you started off doing, if you accomplished that, what you set out to do initially and then ultimately what your goal is, what your mission is in customer experience?
[01:53] MI: Absolutely. My name is Max Israel and I'm the founder and CEO of Customerville. And what we're really known for is this concept of design driven feedback. Design driven feedback has at its heart this idea that you can only really make a CX work and measuring CX work by mixing great technology, of course with art and behavioral science. You want to make this a fulfilling experience for the people who are sharing feedback, but also a deeply fulfilling experience for the employees who you share it with. That's been a 15 year mission for us. Oh my God, guys, I feel old just saying, but 15 years of trying to transcend the paradigm of CX measurement.
[02:42] MD: Well, that's wonderful. Well, I know that one thing that you're famous for, let's say, is your vlog 40 Billion Reasons Why, and this title is on your website as well on Customerville. Can you explain a little bit about that concept, how you came across it and what you're trying to do with this concept?
[03:04] MI: Yeah. Great question. I'll tell you two things. The first is that at one point a couple of years ago, we tried to get our arms around, well, you know, one of the things that's important to Customerville is challenging this assumption that when you actively seek feedback that you're engaged in an active data collection, right? Most customer surveys are horrible. They, they look like filling out your taxes online in the Soviet Union or something. They're really, really bad. And the question we started asking is why do we accept that? Those surveys break every rule of how humans seek information face to face that you've known since you were three years old. Why do you accept that? But then somebody brought up this point, how often does it happen?
[03:51] We realized we didn't really know. So we work with some colleagues of ours at GMA Research, and we came up with a number and it turns out that at that time Americans alone were asked for feedback via a survey 40 billion times a year, and nearly all of them were terrible. All of those survey experiences were just horrible. So from our point of view, it creates all kinds of problems. The fact that you ask for feedback in ways that create the impression that you don't really care and you're not really listening, creates all kinds of collateral damage in terms of how customers perceive the brands that go down that path. Also, it creates the impression that companies are really only interested in your money, that they'll spend billions of dollars when they're trying to get your money, but when they want to actually listen to you, they'll put only a token effort in.
[04:49] That's a problem. And we think from our point of view, that's 40 billion reasons why we ought to try and make the act of listening at scale using technology ring with the same kind of authenticity that you would strive for in an any personal relationship that you have. So that's the backstory on 40 billion reasons, 40 billion reasons draws from this notion of 40 billion surveys. The backstory on the backstory is that later, as you know, we've had other people challenge that number kind of humorously in and give us a hard time seeing the truth is, it's probably very significantly larger than that. At this point we've already kind of owned up to this name, the 40 billion number so we're running with it. But the truth is problem number one, what else are you going to do? It's daunting enough, like at some point a gazillion. At some point it's just a big number that we all agree is wildly out of this. Wildly wrong. Right? So that's, that's the name of it. I'm glad you liked the vlog by the way.
[05:51] MD: Oh, I love it. It's great. You did a great job. Just the production itself is wonderful, but the message that you get across this great, and it's one of the things that brought us to you, but I think you're so right in that sense that you have these companies that invest, I don't know how much money, I'm going to say millions just for the sake of putting a number to it, of dollars in creating an identity of a visual identity and to get this notion out that they're disruptive, that they're innovative and all of that. And then when they finally talk to their customer, their survey doesn't look like that at all. It looks like something institutional. It looks like something that's boxed in, it looks like something totally old fashion and it does, like you said, destroy the identity that, that the company has for the customer in the company, in the customer's mind. And that's absolutely right. And I hadn't stopped to think of that.
[06:44] MI: Yeah, it goes, I think beyond just old looking, old school, and old fashioned. We wrote this concept of design driven feedback that we coined that term and that's kind of what people associate with Customerville. We wrote a book on the subject which we cleverly titled Designed Driven Feedback. So that was maybe not our most inspirational moment, but there's a chapter in this on something called "breaking the fourth wall." Have you ever heard that term guys? This a theater acting technique when you're watching a television show or a play and at some point they kind of break the paradigm and they look and talk to you directly in the audience. So I know that Kevin Spacey is a kind of a controversial figure, but my favorite example is actually the show House of Cards. Have you guys ever seen where the president's character turns to the camera?
[07:41] Yeah. And so here's part of the problem. It's not just the surveys look old fashioned and that the problem is, oh, we need to make the UX slicker and easier and put some pictures in there. That is not the problem. Unfortunately, that's what a lot of companies think is the problem, but it's not. The problem is that when a company like General Motors or Starbucks or whatever spends not millions, but billions of dollars to develop their brand, that brand and all of the hardworking professionals in the company whose job is to look after that brand, is targeted at selling to you. Right? So let's talk about General Motors for a minute. General Motors, you know, the brand is, is tied up in their company logo, their colors, their fonts, the images of the cars, and the way that they want you to perceive yourself when you own a general motors vehicle. All of those things are going to be consistently and beautifully executed through the experience when they're advertising on Superbowl Sunday, when you walk into the showroom, it should look like that and their brochures should look like that.
[08:42] That should be a seamless experience. Here's the problem. That wonderful brand fails completely when it's time to listen, when it's time to talk to the customer. Putting the company's logo or the photo of this season's car on the survey to make it look more like the website or more like the app actually seems like the right thing to do, but it's not. What you need to do is break the fourth wall, very much like a theater actor would break the fourth wall on the script. And instead of featuring pictures of the car or whatever fiction picture features of the employees behind the scenes, right and tell a little bit of their story. These are some behavioral science cues in terms of what you do in your personal life when you're seeking information. You don't just roll up to somebody and ask them questions.
[09:29] You're going to do a series of things first to set the stage, and then they're going to open their hearts and open their minds and tell you things. That is a very different application of the brand, or let's call it maybe a modification of the brand, than every other use of the brand, and so that is the problem guys. The problem is not that they just need the survey to look slicker and more modern. That is what a companies with all due respect to our friends at Qualtrics and those companies, that's what they think the mission is, and they've got a half a billion dollars in venture money trying to get them to do that, but it's not. With all due respect to them, that's not the problem.
[10:30] James Conrad: I'm wondering as well as some of our listeners are hearing what you have to say around design in the survey and they're probably going to have to go back now and look at what we're asking our customers, and how it looks. What have you seen tangibly in the difference where you, maybe you've gone into a company and you've designed something and seeing how the feedback is changed or you've gone in and built a survey from scratch. What have you seen with the customers you've worked with when you've elevated the experience in terms of generating feedback?
[11:05] MI: Yeah, that's a great question James. So, you know, there are a couple of things that you should see that are tangible and measurable, and then there are some things that are measurable but maybe a little bit harder. So let's talk about the first set. One thing that you should see is that we have this thing we talk about in the book and we've got it coming up in season two of 40 Billion Reasons called the "black tooth test." So the black tooth test is a lot of fun. Have you guys read the book? No, not yet. I'd rather go. We have got to send you copies of this because if you both read it, that will be like 15 people who've read it. So did you guys see the movie the Hangover 2? There's the scene where the American, a humorous Ed Holmes is missing a tooth.
[11:57] It's funnier than hell, right? It's actually, you know what, that's not CGI. He had a tooth that needed a crown, which needed to be replaced, so he went ahead and had the thing removed, and they shot it without that tooth. In the book, in the Black Tooth test, we show two pictures of the American actor Ed Holmes at the time he was shooting the movie, the Hangover 2. In one of them, he has all of his teeth and the other one is missing a tooth. Right? And what's interesting about this is we challenge you to cover the picture where he's missing the tooth and look at this picture. And that's a good looking guy. You know, he's an all American looking guy and looks very clean cut.
[12:39] And look at it and imagine that he's asking you, "hey Mary and James, I'd really like to take you out to lunch and pitch you on an idea. I've got something I've been thinking about." And think about how that would make you feel, right? And then we ask you to clear your mind, take a few moments and then a cover that photo and look at the one where he's missing a tooth. And we Photoshop the photo so he's wearing the same clothes, respectable business clothes, but he's missing a tooth, right. Ask yourself the same question, and 100 percent of the time people saying, try as I might, I can't prescribe the same level of credibility. Even though I know it's the same guy, there's something about that missing tooth that makes me instantly discount everything he says.
[13:22] MD: Even though the person knows they're being tested on top of it. Right?
[13:26] MI: You know you're in a test, and the problem with that is that you are hardwired over 3 million years of evolution to effectively score credibility. It is incredibly hard. Maybe impossible, even though you know what's really going on, it's very hard for you emotionally to change that calculus. You're going to score people for credibility, you know, based on, on a certain set of things about how they look, how they act, how they treat you.
[13:58] MD: Yeah. I do that with eyebrows all the time. Like, if a person has questionable eyebrows, they're out!
[14:03] MI: They're dead. They are dead to you. That's all right. So what's the problem? The problem is if the survey acts in ways that violate the social, kind of that kind of social compact around how people talk to each other, you cannot help but discount credibility and authenticity of the brand and the people behind it. Try as you might and as a consequence, you're going to go through that survey faster. You're gonna give less useful information. You're just going to do what people would naturally do. You're going to invest less time, less emotional energy into being thoughtful about it. So that's a problem. But when people get the survey right, when they get it right in terms of the design and how it transmit, how it flexes and responds in Human Ways and how it tells the story of the people behind it,
[14:52] What happens is that the eyebrows are right, the teeth are right so to speak. I'm metaphorically speaking. And, and so you're going to see that people take more time in the survey, and they're more thoughtful on each page about what you're asking them and how that makes them feel. And you're going to see more thoughtful comments. And those are both easy things to score to see the difference on. We have a chat with a big national department store chain. And one of the things you can do in a Customerville survey is you can upload photos and video and stuff like that. And some of our competitors have issues doing that for technology reasons. They can't really do that very well. But one of them was able to put a upload a photo button, and this department store chain said, "we tried it.
[15:36] Nobody does it. Nobody wants to put the photo in there." And our view was guys, photos have become a new kind of language. People use them 100 times a day in every form of communication possible. They're not doing it in your survey because you haven't sold them on the idea that a real human is going to see it, so you're wasting their time. They just think, why would I upload a photo that goes into a survey. That's ridiculous, right. So again, that's another example where when you get the form of the survey right, such that it's transmitting this human connection, it's creating a human connection. People will do all kinds of wonderful things that they won't do in a survey that fails those roles, and those all accrue to the company's and the brand's benefit.
[16:16] JC: Yeah. I love the concept, Max, and I can see the value in getting some really rich feedback by using some different techniques. As you've talked about, I know you use NPS and some other metrics, and you talk about it on your website. When you're thinking about metrics and things that you want to see move in relation to action, do you ever see any bias in having things designed very differently from company to company? I can see the value for sure in the feedback section, but how about metrics? When we're trying to look at things quantitatively, what are your thoughts on the application design as you're trying to think about also some consistency within the company on a metric or even if you're comparing companies within an industry, for example?
[17:04] MI: Yeah, we get into all kinds of trouble about that, James. I think it's just a misguided discussion, and it's a horribly unproductive discussion. James, when I woke up this morning, I showered, I shaved it, put on a fresh start. You did too, you know, we all did these things because if we didn't, we ran the risk of failing the black tooth test. Do you see what I'm saying? And so the very idea and the fact that our industry comes from research, which unfortunately today as research has kind of evolved into the technology, the technological advances and the methodology of voice of the customer, we have unfortunately taken with us this antiquated notion that how we asked for feedback needs to be sort of aseptic.
[17:57] And that by injecting any notion of humanity into it, we run the risk of biasing the answers. Guess what? You biased the hell out of every answer, every question you ask in human to human conversations all day long, right? And so the notion that we need to be careful to avoid a biases, with all due respect, is completely misguided. I'm going to bias the living daylights out of every answer people give us. What we want to do though, if you're not careful, what you can do is you can create a bias that avoids the truth. If you're willing to push to the point where you're not just biasing, but push a little harder, maybe sometimes a lot harder. And this is where we get into sometimes hot water and we have to do what I call a cocktail diplomacy with the brand people in a company.
[18:44] You need to make the survey not just create a human connection with the employees behind the company, but a connection that is so authentic that people are willing to tell you the truth, even if the truth is painful. And you need to give people in the survey that design and the form, both in terms of how the technology deploys it, but also frankly the creative in the survey needs to give people the needs to express the power of vulnerability, right? We acknowledge we don't do everything right. I wake up everyday trying to make this company do all the right things, but let me just tell you, I know right now there's somewhere we're doing something that isn't right, and so it's okay for you to tell me that. If you do that, then you kind of push beyond this notion of bias and you get to honesty.
[19:30] MD: Well, it seems to me, correct me if I'm wrong, that you're using these very traditional methodologies like NPS for example, but you're trying to do more with it. You're trying to provide more than just a number for the board. You're trying to actually go beyond that and get into the human part of it. So maybe perhaps the whole argument of bias,etc., doesn't really matter for what you're trying to accomplish with the responses you get from customers. Is that right?
[20:02] MI: That's exactly right. NPS, though, with all due respect to our friends who use that number, is something that's kind of going away. A lot of our clients aren't using it anymore, And I want to just say two things that'll get me in hot water, but I'm just going to say them because they're true. One of which is, I think NPS has value to some extent as an overarching metric that can be used at the c-suite level in terms of benchmarking, but it's in no way useful as a front line leadership tool. What we need is, let's ask ourselves what do we need? We need to know that we have a grasp on the things that really count right in our customer experience, but frankly, even more important is that 100,000 employees of a company are being thoughtful about that.
[20:51] They're thinking about it. And I've come to the conclusion that it almost doesn't matter what metric we show the employees. What matters is we have this concept of the self narrative gap, which I can tell you a little bit about if you, if you don't already know about it, but this idea that if you're making employees inspired, that counts. You can trouble them. You can show them information that inspires them, which is great, but frankly I'll take trouble if I can show them information that makes them concerned about their company and their job in the right ways. I'll totally take that. What I care about is that on the drive home from work, they're thinking about it because if they're doing that, then they're being conscious, mindful. They're thinking about how their actions shape the impressions and key moments with those customers. That's the real thing, right? And that has nothing to do with net promoter. Those metrics, going down the path of metrics, metrics, metrics, metrics are vitally important, but they are not the be all and end all. The be all and end all are the best companies and the best brands have authentically engaged employees, and you don't get them there by winning their heads. You get them there by winning their hearts, and that isn't done through a metric.
[22:03] MD: I was about to bring that up. When I watch your videos, when I watch you speak about your mission and what you're trying to accomplish, I feel a lot of heart. There's a lot of passion in that, and I see that when when other members of the Customerville team speak about the company and what you guys do as well. So I feel like what you're trying to do is include heart and passion and emotions into a very metric-oriented industry.
[22:37] MI: Yeah. It's like a recipe for losing a lot of RFPs, basically. If you're in the right culture, and we're not here to be everything for everybody, right? If you're in an RFP situation, our clients, just to talk a little bit of inside baseball with you, our clients are not small businesses. They tend to be midsize and large enterprises. And as they go through the long term evolution of the CX movement, many companies have kind of come up the learning curve and tried version 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and they tend to come to us at the point where they're looking for 3.0. They figured out how to get these metrics, how to distribute them broadly throughout the organization, how to use them, but it's still not delivering or certainly warranting the very large investments that they're making in them. At the point where they realize that this is a really only going to reach its potential when they're able to turn this from a data collection to kind of a storytelling exercise that gets their employees deeply engaged and
[23:49] That's what's missing, then that's where we win, right? That's where we're the right fit. I shouldn't say win, but that's where the were the right fit. Before that were kind of not the right fit. So when we show up and talk to a company and we see that these guys have metrics breath, right, that's a good sign that we need to be talking really directly with them about what we see as a trend that probably was very prominent several years ago, but now is on its way out and why. And if we can connect on that, then great. We're a good fit. If not, we want to be really careful about letting them get to wowed by the cool stuff they see in Customerville without understanding if what's at our core is a fit for them.
[24:54] JC: Thinking about front line employees and how we get information to the right people within the organization. You have this concept, you talk about a publisher versus the postman, and it really resonated with me. Could you talk to our listeners a little bit, and most of them will be CX folks that are trying to think about how to get the right information with the right people in your organization to make change and to drive change. Could you talk a little bit about the concept and how our audience can sort of capitalize on some of these ideas?
[25:29] MI: Yeah, that's a great question. And just let me say, James, that we're at a point right now where some of the technologies that are becoming available, inexpensive, and readily available to all of us, including CEOs like you and me, who run the companies that provide this infrastructure are putting us in a new kind of golden age of CX. I'll explain what I mean by that by going from being a postman to a publisher. You know, really we've come through and we talk about this in our book Design Driven Feedback that that CX has gone through two phases or I should say it's gone through one phase. It's in the second and we see it going into the third. It started in what we call the portal phase where people realized, hey gosh, we can replace these paper surveys with online ones and have all the information instantly available on a portal for us to analyze.
[26:17] Which was great. And then we went into the dashboard phase, which is where mostly we're stuck right now where we, we think about this as a many to many relationship, many surveys coming in. And then people talk about this idea of putting the right information in the hands of the right people at the right time, which is another way of saying we're going to load into this dashboard the hierarchy of the company, and we're going to have some permission-based access to it. So people are seeing the right information that pertains to them. And that's, look, that's been a big deal. We were a huge part of that. Unfortunately, it fails in one critical aspect, which is that it assumes that all people at the same level of the hierarchy are motivated by and driven by the same things, and they're not.
[27:03] So what we want to do is go from the portal phase through the dashboard phase and, into what we call the publishing phase. And this requires that companies embrace this notion of curation be that they become what we call a curated CX enterprise. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is if you look at how any, let's use the example of magazines. We talk about this in the book and we've also talked about this in our vlog. Look at how magazines target their audiences, and I think we used a couple of examples like Men's Health and Cosmopolitan, and you can kind of pretty readily identify who are their readers, and then you look at how the publishers, who have done a wonderful job of gathering this information, gathering these stories, now turn the focus to the reader, to the audience, and they ask themselves, how can I package these stories and make a whole lot of editorial decisions and design decisions in ways to get them to really bite on these stories to engage.
[28:04] Heck, you pay to engage, right? That's how hard they want you to bite on this. Let's say you've got a company who's got call centers, and we're going to make sure that all the people who are on the phones get the same report, and then all their managers get another report and their managers above them maybe group managers and another report. Let's push beyond that and acknowledge the fact that at the call center level, one person sitting in one seat worked there for five weeks and the person next to them has worked there for five years. One of them is a man, one of them was a woman, one of them's on a company sponsored management track. The other one is not.
[28:43] These people are vastly different and if you can understand that and, by the way you already have that data available to you, you can start to curate the stories that you're gathering through your CX initiative and deliver it to them in ways that are optimized to get them to look forward to receiving it and think about it and be thoughtful. You're essentially, a lot of this, by the way, is very similar to the automated curation that you see in social media on Facebook or LinkedIn, right. They are mastering the three levers that you pull to make that happen, and they've mastered it with social media. There is no reason why we shouldn't be applying this, and at Customerville we do, to how we deliver this, going beyond just pushing information to the hierarchy and go to curating it at the individual recipient level.
MD: And this is the behavioral science that you use in your company?
[29:39] MI: Yeah, yeah, that's a part of it. I mean, there's some of that, but the curation techniques are kind of known in the world of - we talked about it on our vlog and I can talk about it to you briefly here - but essentially, you know, what you want to do is figure out how do I give the software enough information that it is, obviously if the survey is crappy, you're going to get crappy information in and that's not very useful. So when we talk about going from being a postman to a publisher, the postman, he collects an envelope and doesn't care how. It's just not his job to care how good the information in the envelope is. And his job is done when he drops it in the mailbox, but It's also not his job and he doesn't really care whether or not you read what's in it or if you're thoughtful about it or it inspires you or any of those things.
[30:28] But a postman has to go beyond both sides of that equation. The publisher doesn't just collect information. The publisher needs to make sure that the publisher collects the information. Yes, but he needs to make sure he's getting the scoop. His journalists need to get you to open your heart and your mind and provide this great story. And just like the postman, the publisher needs to get information to people, but he has to go beyond what the postman does. He can't just deliver it. he's got to make sure you read and engage at an individual level. And so from our point of view, there are kind of tricks or techniques to making sure that you're training the software to make those editorial decisions. And once you've got these great stories, statistics and photos and videos that you're putting the right ones in the right way, in front of people at an individual level, not just based on where they are at the hierarchy. That's the brass ring. That's the next objective in this entire industry. It's brilliant. It's only brilliant if we can do it.
[31:34] JC: Of course. As we're winding down, Max, you've been doing this now, you said 15 years you've been on this mission, and as you look out into the future and thinking about where CX measurement is going and survey metrics, et cetera. What do you think the next big thing is? What do you think is coming and as you look to the horizon, as you mentioned earlier, what do you see for CX as we head into the future?
[32:01] MI: I think that from my point of view, the future of cx is the future of the employee (EX). CX measurement is, from my point of view, a tool to activating the employee experience. I think people don't talk about that enough, that there is really no substitute for deeply engaged, you know, really kind of almost in your face they're so into it employees. You can't replicate that. That is the number one, number two and number three thing. And it's really remarkable how important that is. Everything that you guys do and that we at Customerville do, should be in the service of creating a powerful, authentic, and for heaven's sake, productive emotional connection between all of those customers out there and all of those employees.
[33:03] I want you to create employees that have a spring in their step. In theory, if the employee of the companies that their kid's soccer match saturday morning and somebody says, "what do you do?" I want you to think about how the person feels exactly in that moment. If they look at their conversational partner and say, "I work for a car rental company, I worked for Hertz," whatever, and then they move on, that's not good. If they look at them and they feel a little swell of pride and they feel something like they feel socially valued. If they feel like they do something important in people's lives, that is the brass ring, and we and frankly only we have the ability to make that connection really happen. This is an incredibly important part of company cultures. But can we just stop talking about the money and the business and all that for two seconds? Think about the consequences in society. Think about the consequences in people's lives and making people feel like that.
[34:03] MD: Wonderful. Max, this was a great conversation. I think that there's so much to learn from what you're saying, and to be honest, it's refreshing because it's the first time that I've heard a lot of the concepts that you went over and I'm just really glad that you were here with us today, and I hope to bring you back more often so we can continue this conversation.
[34:26] MI: This has been a lot of fun. You do a wonderful job. Thanks for the compliment on our vlog, 40 Billion Reasons. But I have to tell you, you guys do an amazing job yourselves with this podcast, and I'm looking forward to sharing it with all of my colleagues at Customerville and all of my own contacts. It's a wonderful resource and thank you for doing it.