It is a line we use at my house when a product or service is unusually challenging.  It could be that bottle or package that requires a hack saw and a blow torch to open, or it might be the service that has way too many steps to finally reach your desired outcome.

Our most recent experience was the black pepper container that added an “open the whole box top” feature instead of only the shake side, scoop side, or pour side.  We found it challenging to seal shut this new feature.  The result?  The whole top of the can unexpectedly opened, dumping a box of pepper in your soup instead of the dash you desired.  Reviews on the pepper company’s website are harsh suggestions of what to do with the product’s designer.

We all know the value of making products and services tamper-proof, shoplifter proof, and over-the-top safe.  Buy a new ladder and you will have countless warning stickers to remove, each a likely response to a ladder lawsuit.  Governmental regulations dictate full disclosure, transparency, and accommodations to consumers with unique needs or restrictions.   We accept these boundaries as well-intentioned defensive efforts.  Yet, it too often seems enterprises place “delight the user-consumer-customer” far down their list of priorities.

My business partner, the late Ron Zemke, and I pioneered the universal practice now known as “customer journey mapping” in the late 1980s. The back story is the classic “let the CEO open it” saga.  You can read about our early work in Ron’s 1989 book, The Service Edge, and our 2003 book, Service Magic.

We were consulting with a large phone company and focused on what customers went through when their telephone did not work.  After countless interviews, focus groups, ride alongs in telephone repair trucks, and sit alongs in call centers listening to customers, we decided to graph what we had learned as if the customers were telling us their story in sequence.  Customers’ answers to each, “and then what happened,” had to be confirmed by customers’ actual words.

We took our diagrams to senior leadership.  Their classic answers were, “No wonder the customer is angry when they finally speak to a call center rep, look at what we have put them through,” or “We sure make customers wait a lot,” or “I would be confused if I were the customer.”  When we drilled down to understand better customer expectations around each encounter (moment of truth), we were instructed by the customer on how to make their experiences better.

Remember, people within organizations cannot accurately see through their customer’s eyes since employees know too much and are blind to details customers experience.  But there are ways to come closer to “being the customer.”  It demands the CEO open it.  Here are three ways for the C-suite to gain close inspection from the customer’s purview.

Stop Thinking Boardroom Briefings Are the Voice of the Customer

“How do you know what really matters most to your customers?” is a question I have asked many C-suite leaders.  I often hear reports of briefings conducted by the chief customer officer complete with slides, graphs, and survey stats.  When I reference the fact that customers’ connections with the organization is through a relationship and then rephrase the question to end with the word “spouse” instead of “customers,” I get a less confident tone.  While the parallel is admittedly extreme, it dramatizes the point that customer encounters are emotional and thus far from the sterility of a data point.  When all the pepper dumps in my soup, “strongly dissatisfied” is not the evaluation I would use.

Create a board of customers and rotate membership so no member loses objectivity or the capacity to be candid.  Hold “What’s stupid around here” meetings with front line employees to learn about impedes their capacity to effectively serve customers.  Invite customers to board meetings for direct feedback.  Turn all receptionists, security guards, and drivers into valuable scouts learning about customer experiences and priorities.  Meet with them frequently to get their scout reports.

Go Where You Can Hear the Voice of the Customer

I was working with a client in Miami and stayed at the Biscayne Bay Marriott.  Checking in, I spotted a familiar face behind the check-in counter a bit further down from me.  It was Bill Marriott.  This was years ago when every property sported his portrait with his father in the hotel lobby.  As I got on the elevator with the bellman carrying my luggage, I confirmed my observation.  “He has been here a couple of days,” he told me, “spending time in various departments.”  In his eighties, Marriott still visits over a hundred properties a year.

Become an expert on your own products and services and, if possible, get in your “customer’s shoes” to experience them exactly as customers do.  Marriott told a group of senior leaders, “Leaders should spend time with the frontline, not to make them feel better, but to learn.”  When you speak directly with customers, ask them questions about their hopes and aspirations, not just their needs and expectations.  Turn customer interviews and focus groups into a treasure hunt in which you are likely to be surprised by the answers, not a dialogue to confirm what you already know or suspect.

Take a Bold Step to Improve the Customer’s Journey

Years ago, I consulted with a major bank.  Correspondence to branch managers at that time was mainly through inter-office mail and couriers.  Interviews with branch managers revealed managers were severely restrained from spending valuable time with customers and branch employees because of the time required to respond to various bank departments for information or reading reports they were expected to read.  When I mentioned my findings to the regional bank executive, he hit the roof.  He had a branch manager box up all the requests for one week, rented a van, and had the boxes of paperwork delivered to the CEO’s office.  Stacks of boxes sent a powerful message, and the process was changed to ensure someone was always aware of the whole picture..

Knowing the real world of the customer is only the first step.  It then takes execution that makes a delightful experience by customers right up there on the priority list with safety, security, and accommodation.  To paraphrase poet Maya Angelou, “customers will remember how you made them feel long after they have forgotten what you did for them.”

Originally published on January 11, 2021 in Real Leader.

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books.  Global Gurus in 2020 ranked him for the sixth year in a row in the top three keynote speakers in the world on customer service.  His newest book, released in 2020, is the best-selling Inside Your Customer’s Imagination.  He can be reached at