Customer Experience Needs More Practical Wisdom

I recently watched a video of a TED speech by Barry Schwartz, the author of the seminal book The Paradox of Choice. His TED talk was called Our Loss of Wisdom. Wow! It’s a powerful speech.

Schwartz references what Aritstotle called “practical wisdom,” the combination of moral will and moral skill. He uses anecdotes about janitors at a hospital who alter their prescribed work routines in order to cater to the needs of patients and visitors. His key point is that these janitors believe that human interactions involving kindness, care and empathy are an essential part of their job, even though their job descriptions don’t mention anything about how they should treat other people. According to Schwartz:

These janitors have the moral will to do right by other people. And beyond this, they have the moral skill to figure out what “doing right” means…. A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule… A wise person knows how to improvise… Real world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing.”

My take: Great customer experience requires employees who exercise their practical wisdom. Unfortunately, as Schwartz discusses, companies tend to create bureaucracies that suppress practical wisdom.

There’s an outstanding article written by Sumantra Ghoshal in 2005 called Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices. Ghoshal describes how management practices operate on the assumption of Homo Economicus, a model of people as rational self-interest maximizers. This economic perspective leads to the belief that employees can’t be trusted to act on behalf of the firm and, therefore, controls must be put in place to align their efforts.

As a result, management interprets success and failure in the light of their controls. If things are working well, then the controls are seen as being successful, so more are added. If things are not working well, then it’s viewed as an insufficiency of the controls, so more are added. In all cases, more and more controls are piled on to employees.

In this environment, employees lack the empowerment to exercise practical wisdom.

As it turns out, companies can unleash practical wisdom by focusing on the four customer experience core competencies:

  • Purposeful Leadership: Provides employees with a higher calling and permission for improvising.
  • Compelling Brand Values: Provides employees with an understanding of the true goals of the organization and a framework for improvising.
  • Employee Engagement: Provides employees with a reason to care about the company and its customers.
  • Customer Connectedness: Provides insights into what customers really need and fuels empathy.

The bottom line: Organizations need to cultivate more practical wisdom

About Bruce Temkin
I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, marketing, interaction design, customer service, and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

7 Responses to Customer Experience Needs More Practical Wisdom

  1. janessal says:

    To be successful customer experience work needs to avoid becoming another “management theory” and maintain focus on the human experience – for both customers and employees. Excellent post..

  2. Reblogged this on Optimizing Healing Healthcare and commented:
    In this article by Bruce Temkin, he highlights what Aristotle called “practical wisdom,” which refers to “the combination of moral will and moral skill.” Temkin highlights an example cited by Barry Schwartz in his TED speech “Our Loss of Wisdom” about hospital janitors who cater to patient, family, and visitor needs and believe doing so is as essential to their job as what’s on their job description.

    “Practical wisdom” is absolutely critical in the work of optimizing healing healthcare. For a similar example of such an amazing patient/family experience in a hospital made possible by a maintenance man full of “practical wisdom,” see my upcoming blog that will be published the week of December 3rd by Hospital Impact, a blog written by and for hospital executives, physicians and other healthcare thought leaders.

  3. Jeff Toister says:

    It seems a lot of leaders just can’t help themselves. They struggle with the notion of giving employees the authority they need to exercise what you’ve termed “practical wisdom.” Ironically, the cost of these controls in terms of pure expense and lost economic opportunity often make them an economically irrational decision.

    • Bruce Temkin says:

      Jeff: Great points. The management education over the last couple of decades has been focussed on operational controls and analytical models, not people. I think we need to put people (customers, employees) back into the notion of management.

  4. Jill Widdifield says:

    This article, specifically promoting unleashing employees to exercise ‘practical wisdom’ speaks to me, thank you. While I have seen great results in our own environment when we promote this, and further witness our own leadership supporting the employees who engage, I am still struggling to understand how to influence 3rd party leadership to empower their people to improve the customer conversations, moving beyond the initial ask or tasks the customer wants, and helping them move to supporting the next anticipated need in the life cycle. I suspect that It may be the contract that dictates how the bpo is managed and measured, and have reason to believe that it is also the culprit in restricting how a bpo manages their environment and people. I personally have no influence in the contract definition or negotiation. Are there success stories out there, or any suggestions on how we can best encourage the front line teams to truly engage with customers and still meet the operational measurements that a contract may dictate? What needs to change in this type of environment to see consistently delivered delightful experiences for customers? What metrics need to be included, so that the 3rd party parallels the customer centric behaviours of their client? I believe support should be more of a conversation than a single event, encouraging that ‘practical wisdom’ to become a major part of every interaction.

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