Creating Purpose–led CX today: In conversation with Ian Stokol


Jul 31, 2023 | 5 mins read

Multiple award-winning customer experience expert Ian Stokol admits that he never planned to become a CX professional, it happened “by accident”. It stemmed from a desire to “fix broken things,” and observing how design elements in the world could be “better than just mediocre.

Over the last few decades, Ian has been deeply involved in maturing organizational design and delivery capabilities. He has helped enterprises understand their customers’ desired outcomes and deliver customer- centric experiences.

In a conversation with Ozonetel Communications, Ian highlighted the critical aspects of CX, shared insights on delivering value at each step of the customer journey, and answered the question: How has Customer Experience Changed?

In its current form, Ian explains, CX has only been around for ten years. It evolved from work done at Motorola in the 1980s, then was adopted by General Electric and others in the 1990s. The term “customer experience” fell out of favor until recently, when it re-emerged in its modern form. However, Ian admits,

“The idea of customer experience itself is as old as the oldest profession. Where anybody exchanged something of value, you wanted your customer to be happy, and not come back and beat you to death because you gave them something that wasn’t as expected.”

Like other experts we’ve spoken to (such as Adrian Swinscoe), Ian is keen to stress the distinction between customer experience and customer service. The latter is just a part of the CX discipline, he says, “There’s still much confusion about how the service component sits within the overall customer experience, particularly in the realm of digital products.”

How Customer Loyalty Relates to Repeat Business

Ian admits he “struggles with the idea of customer loyalty” because he feels not enough attention is paid within CX design to the fields of behavioral science and behavioral economics.

“The simple truth is that our relationships with one another are not black and white. […] We might fall in love with a brand because it represents who we are. It’s not about the brand but about what the brand enables us to be.”

Talking about his love for his Mini Cooper car, for instance, Ian admits he hates how the windows wind down – the control isn’t where you expect it to be. This is an example of poor UX – even after six years that design flaw still irks him.

The factors that influence whether users find a brand meaningful to them or not are complex, in other words. The term “loyalty” (and the aim of building it) is too simplistic. However, if you keep delivering value to your customers, and listening to their needs, you’ll achieve a better result in terms of customer lifetime value, CLV, a metric that measures repeat business.

As Ian says, quoting Goodhart’s Law“When a metric becomes a target, it’s no longer a good metric.”

Which KPIs are Meaningful within CX?

KPIs are a valid way to measure value, but they are not the only way. As consumers, we value privacy, years of use, and time regained through our product choices, for instance.

Ian has a useful notion of “alternative currencies” we can use to avoid reducing everything to monetary value. These alternative currencies include treating people with respect or personalizing a customer’s experience. These qualities provide experiential value which can’t easily be quantified. 

They make users feel good.

“Different industries have different ways of establishing value and measuring performance and I’m not comfortable criticizing that. […] it comes down to the culture of an organization and an industry.”

Different businesses will measure their success or failure in different ways. For example, very innovative companies may have a first to market mentality and prize this quality over all others. Alternatively, a hierarchical company such as a bank may be more risk adverse and use quite different metrics. Sometimes these metrics are very out-of-date.

Ian gives the example of the second-stage rocket boosters on the original moon mission. They were the width of two horse’s backsides, as commonly described. This weird measurement reveals the history of the process which led to their construction on this scale. 

Built far from Cape Canaveral, the boosters had to be transported by old railways constructed to the scale of traditional Roman roads, which were the width of one carriage pulled by two horses set side-by-side. This meant that effectively, the metrics for the rocket boosters dated back to the Roman era!

Similarly, the measures and metrics we use in industry are often based on outdated historical precedent and may often need revisiting.

How to Measure CX Success

The first task, Ian says, is to figure out what the essential purpose of the contact center is. What job is it performing? Does it fulfil the expectations of customers?

Essentially contact centers exist because customers don’t always get what they want from a product. This means we must decide whether we should solve recurrent customer problems upstream, by changing the product.

Alternatively, we may admit that we cannot satisfy every customer’s want or need without changing the business model excessively. In this case, the call center exists to answer the queries of unsatisfied or partially satisfied customers.

Both are valid choices, for different industries with different priorities. For instance, a complex SaaS platform will certainly require a helpdesk to assist new customers as they become familiar with a challenging product. However, a simpler physical product may necessitate a call center for complaints about delivery or quality issues that cannot be predicted.

“Start with the reason your call center exists and say, is this solving problems upstream, or is it part of core business (providing subject matter expertise).”

Omnichannel Communication as Part of the CX Offering

Businesses are using a host of methods to contact customers, including online chat, email, SMS, phone, and video. As Ian points out, “customers don’t know what omnichannel is, or they don’t care.” 

It is therefore up to the business to ascertain what degree of control the customer would like to have regarding their interactions. When browsing for fashion items, for instance, the customer is usually in total control – the ecommerce site attempts to replicate the experience of browsing in a physical space. All of this can be done without talking to another human being. The customer has total control. 

However, at some point they may have a query, which needs expertise to answer. This entails less control since the customer is now awaiting a helpful and accurate response. 

Once the customer hands over their money, control is completely given up. They are now at the mercy of the retailer and fulfilment partner, to deliver the correct product. What helps return control to the customer, Ian explains, are updates, status reports and other notifications, with the delivery medium chosen by the customer. 

This is a great use of the power of an omnichannel approach.

“Omnichannel is about addressing the needs of those different stages, of the customer’s different degrees of control over the process.”

Omnichannel vs Multichannel

Ian explains that omnichannel adds a greater degree of fluidity and interconnection between the channels. Users can move between them, and no information is lost.

Not many companies are yet accomplishing a true omnichannel approach, Ian says. This is an area where improvements can be made.

How to Deliver a Great Customer Experience

Businesses put a lot of stock in new technologies such as personalization and AI, to deliver improved CX but there’s a much easier way to analyze and deliver great CX. As Ian explains, 

“You are a customer […] We expect organizations to deal with us as if we are the hero of our own story. In other words, we want to feel important, like we matter. That is the essence of a great experience—that you matter.”

A business, in effect, helps its customers get things done. This personal approach is easy to achieve when the company is small. As it scales, the distance between customer and business grows, making it difficult to achieve that level of intimacy.

Another problem is the reliance companies place on technology to achieve CX, rather than focusing on the basics—delivering value and ensuring their products and services are just what the customer wants.

The many options a customer enjoys can become a threat. Ian gives the example of Netflix, which has many, many competitors offering video streaming content. However, those aren’t the true competitors of Netflix, which include any draws upon a consumer’s leisure time, whether it’s reading a book, going out for dinner, or taking a walk. Explains Ian,

“You need to understand what people think is valuable, for the job they are trying to do.”

Digging into the customer’s values will help a business align with true demand.

Where are the Opportunity Gaps in CX?

The incentive structure within a business can be unhelpful. It’s traditional to reward salespeople for the sales they make, and for improved ROI. These hard financial metrics rule the roost.

Less attention is paid to customer retention and happiness, on nurturing existing customers with changing needs. It’s hard to change a traditionally sales focused company to a CLV-driven one. A lot of components must change to make this philosophical change.

Furthermore, in a highly competitive market, it’s harder to differentiate one product from another. Winning and keeping customers at scale over multiple product lines is a real challenge. To make matters worse, it’s difficult to obtain the money, time, and resources to make the necessary shift towards better CX in this competitive environment.

Fortunately, CX professionals love identifying problems to solve. And these problems are often far-reaching:

“The question is, which problem do you fix? […] It’s not just about the customer-facing teams or the digital touchpoints that need to change, there’s also compliance, there’s legal, there’s accounting, finance, sales. […] Change impacts everyone.”

As well as listening to customer and experts from outside, it’s also important to make sure that your team wants to drive change. If imposed by leadership, the attempt to change is doomed to fail, Ian believes.

Gaps will not be thin on the ground, he explains, when you sincerely begin looking. Prioritizing them may be the real quandary.

Trust and the Privacy Paradox in CX

While customers expect personalized experiences, they worry about sharing too much personal data. Addressing this paradox is paramount.

Ian says that fraudsters and criminals have always preyed upon customers; what has changed is scale and reach. Reassuring customers that you are personalizing your service to be fairer may help. Building trust is a process of becoming fairer and then being consistent.

“When you make changes, you need to tell people, you need to prepare them. And when they give you feedback, encouraging you to make changes, you’ve got to come back and say, ‘yes, we heard you, we have made these changes. That’s called closing the loop. […] It’s just good manners.”

Again, scale makes consistency and fairness harder. Having well-written and fair policies helps, as well as providing good training and enabling decision-making on the part of front-line support personnel.

Upcoming CX Trends

Ian believes there is some wonderful technology available to enable better CX. However, it is expensive and requires training, integration, and upgrades. Data management, personalization, analytics – all have been revolutionized by technology.

“You know who pays for all of this? The customer pays for it.” Ian reminds us.

This makes it vital to ensure that the technology is well chosen and used. The bottom line, Ian says, is the business model. Re-examining the business model, and how it aligns with customer needs, is paramount.

“Listening to customers is not about listening to what they want; it’s listening to how they feel they are being treated, and what jobs they are really trying to get done. This requires understanding.”

It is this willingness to understand human nature that makes the difference between good and excellent CX, Ian believes. Having the courage to change, using technology as an enabler of change, rather than a driver of it, in other words.

On Thought Leadership within CX

Like many CX gurus, Ian is reticent to be described as a “thought leader”.

“It’s not modesty. I’m just a curious person with an opinion,” he says, a little disingenuously.

He holds the most important activity to be the sharing of knowledge and ongoing learning and experimentation. Having a scientific curiosity means you are always restless and willing to change.

Ian ends by telling a tale about going to his grandfather and asking how he might deal with self-doubt. His grandfather asked him why he would want to reduce self-doubt, since it can be a very useful corrective.

Thought leadership, and good leadership in general, is being open to feedback and the possibility of improvement.

Final Takeaways

  • CX may be a new discipline, but it is an ancient concept.
  • Metrics alone will never deliver real customer satisfaction, or improved CX.
  • The purpose of a contact center is dependent on the business model.
  • Use omnichannel communication to return control to the customer.
  • Making the customer feel like they matter is the essence of great CX.
  • Understand a customer’s values to achieve better alignment of product and consumer.
  • Change will fail unless it is motivated from within a team, not imposed from outside.
  • Customer trust can be won with fairness and consistency.
  • Re-examining your business model can be highly instructive when improving CX.
  • Remain curious and open to change, and you will become a better leader.

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Senior Newswriter at Ozonetel

Creative Content Editor with extensive project experience from concept to development. Talents inclu...

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