"A business absolutely devoted to service will have only one worry about profits. They will be embarrassingly large."
That was Henry Ford, who died in the radio age. Here in the 21st century "the customer experience" is the holy grail. Companies hold it up like a silver bullet from R&D. It's worth remembering that even architects of mass production saw the customer, not the product, as the road to success.
In our customized world we want more than a well designed product, we demand the whole kit and kaboodle. With hit brands now, every user expectation is managed, every touchpoint is controlled, every molecule is polished. Take MINI, or the Smart ForTwo. They're as socially-engineered as they are machine-engineered.
Established brands are an evolution, constantly adapting. Designed brands are born adapted. The IBM customer experience evolved; Apple's was designed. British Airways: evolved; Virgin: designed. The cafe culture in Milan: a random evolution; the Starbucks empire it inspired: designed with a caffeinated eye.
What's more user-centered? A hole-in-the-wall espresso bar in Milan, or the Starbucks on West Street in Anchorage? Starbucks—the designed version—hasn't risked competing in Italy, but their model once printed money. Starbucks is a better business, but which is a better experience?
Designed experiences are gym-built, muscles trained to win. The bar is high, so the fall is harder. Recently I bought an iTunes gift card at a Mac store. It didn't work. When I took it back, I was turned away: Mac can't service iTunes. Mac the beautiful? Can't service iTunes? If I'd bought it at Safeway I'd have had a new card or refund in a heartbeat. When a controlled experience like Mac screws up, it's a startling glitch in the matrix. How about Facebook selling your history? Rotten karma.
Here's one. In April last year, I stayed at the W Hotel on 49th Street in Manhattan for the last time. Ever.
W is part of Starwood, a grab bag of 9 hotel groups. It was created to answer user demand—lifestyle for hipster business travelers—and to plug a gap in the corporate spread. 'The difference with W is in the details', we're told. And there's no shortage. Textures, lighting, music, phrases like "storybook encounter of style and soul".
W hotels are a bit precious, a bit self-conscious for my taste. But I was a Starwood member and the location was perfect. When I checked out I realized I'd left a portfolio case. So I called the front desk. They'd check and call. No call. I called the Concierge who called Housekeeping. No answer, so she gave me the number. I called Housekeeping from the airport. No bag. They promised to get back to me.
It's October now and the leaves are falling. No word yet. It's been 18 months, and in my dark moments I wonder if it really is true love. But then I wipe away the tears and read back through the 84 emails that the W and Starwood marketing machines have sent me since I last saw my bag. And apparently I'm still totally on a backstage pass with them, I'm absolutely a sleek prince in their "Climate of Cool". So our relationship must be solid after all.
But the truth is, when I walked out of the hotel I left the relationship. They blew it, by paying the stylist more than the staff. All form, no function. Bad design.
I'm out one portfolio bag, $50 at Pearl Paint. They're out one lifetime customer for nine hotel chains worldwide. Oh, and my word of mouth.
Graham Button is a writer from London who worked in advertising for more than twenty years. He took the scenic route to Genesis, passing through agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto and finally New York, where he was a creative director and executive vice president at Grey Worldwide. He has created advertising in most media for every kind of brand and all sorts of companies, including Diageo, Kaiser Permanente, Molson Breweries, GM, and South China Morning Post Newspapers. Beaver Creek, one of the Vail Resorts brands, chose to follow him to Genesis from Grey. Work he originated as a copywriter or championed as a creative director has been recognized in awards shows in Los Angeles, Toronto, New York, London, Cannes, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sydney and has been featured on America's Funniest Videos and Larry King Live.