This week, we’re exploring why it behooves businesses and business leaders to look at their users, consumers, customers, etc., as humans first. Slightly shifting perspective to consider the humanity behind purchasing decisions can lead to greater loyalty, more frequent use, and genuinely happier users, all of which add up to more business success and better outcomes for the world. Together with my guests, we discuss how human-centric decisions apply to various industries and how you can build better relationships that lead to success for all of humanity.
Guests this week include Charlie Cole, Neil Redding, Dr. Rumman Chowdhury, Ana Milicevic, Cathy Hackl, Marcus Whitney, and David Ryan Polgar.
The Tech Humanist Show is a multi-media-format program exploring how data and technology shape the human experience. Hosted by Kate O’Neill. Produced and edited by Chloe Skye, with research by Ashley Robinson and Erin Daugherty at Interrobang and input from Elizabeth Marshall.
To watch full interviews with past and future guests, or for updates on what Kate O’Neill is doing next, subscribe to The Tech Humanist Show hosted by Kate O’Neill channel on YouTube, or head to KOInsights.com.
Kate O’Neill: When you buy something, you’re a customer. But — to paraphrase a line from the movie Notting Hill — you’re also just a person, standing in front of a business, asking it to treat you like a human being.
Over the last two decades plus working in technology, I’ve often held job titles that were centered on the experience of the user, the consumer, or the customer. In fact, the term ‘customer experience’ has been in use since at least the 1960s, and has become so common that a recent survey of nearly 2,000 business professionals showed that customer experience was the top priority over the next five years. And while generally speaking this emphasis is a good thing, my own focus over the past decade or so has shifted. I’ve realized that the more macro consideration of human experience was a subtle but vital piece missing from the discussion at large. Because when we talk about experience design and strategy, no matter what word we use to qualify it—customer, user, patient, guest, student, or otherwise—we are always talking about humans, and the roles humans are in relative to that experience.
In order to refocus on human experience instead of customer, you have to change the way you think about your buyers. You owe it to yourself to think not just about how people can have a better experience purchasing from your company, but also what it means to be fully human within the journey that brings them to that moment, and the uniquely human factors that drive us to make decisions leading to purchase or loyalty. A recent piece by Deloitte shared in the Wall Street Journal echoes this idea and offers five ways to be more human-centric in business: 1) be obsessed by all things human, 2) proactively identify & understand human needs before they are expressed, 3) execute with humanity, 4) be authentic, and 5) change the world.
That’s what today’s episode is about: using empathy and strategic business-savvy to understand what it means to be human, and how that intersects with the worlds of technology and business.
Neil Redding: “When you look at everything that has to do with buying and selling of things, it’s so closely tied with what we care about, what we value most, value enough as humans to spend our hard-earned money on. And so, the realm of retail reflects something really deeply human, and profoundly human.”
Kate: That was Neil Redding, brand strategist and self-described “Near Futurist” focused on the retail space. He’s right—buying and selling things has become deeply entwined with humanity. But when we purchase something, it’s not because we think of ourselves as “customers” or “end users.” We buy because we have a need or desire to fulfill, and sometimes that need is purely emotional. A ‘customer’ buys your product—a human buys your product for a reason.
84% of consumers say that being treated like a person instead of a number is an important element to winning their business. It does seem like business professionals are catching on, as 79% say it’s impossible to provide great service without full context of the client and their needs. But understanding something isn’t the same as putting it into practice—only 34% of people say they feel like companies actually treat them as individuals.
One major difference is the question of framing. Customer experience frames the motivator as, ‘how effectively the business operates the events related to a purchase decision.’ It drives companies to focus on improving their own metrics, like bringing down call center wait times. These may yield worthwhile outcomes, but they’re inherently skewed to the business perspective and aligned to the purchase transaction. Focusing instead on human experience shifts the perspective to the person outside the business, and what they want or need. It allows consideration of the emotional state they may be bringing to the interaction, which leaves greater room for empathy and context. A human experience mindset suggests that each individual’s unique circumstances are more important than aggregate business metrics, because the reason why that person is interacting with your company probably can’t be captured by measuring, say, how long they might have to wait on the phone. You could bring that wait time to zero and it still may not have any impact on whether the person feels heard, respected, or satisfied with the outcome — or whether they want to engage with you again.
But as fuzzy as it is to talk about human experience, we know that measurement is fundamental to business success, so we have to find a way to define useful metrics somehow.
For each business, that number is likely a bit different. So how do you know whether your customers feel like they’re being treated as humans instead of just numbers? Charlie Cole, CEO of the flower delivery website ftd.com, believes one answer is obsessing over customer satisfaction metrics.
Charlie Cole: “The best way to win this industry is just kick ass with the customer. We obsess over NPS scores, uh, as kind of leading indicators of LTV scores.”
Kate: If you’re not familiar with the acronyms, allow me to decipher: NPS stands for Net Promoter Score, which measures how likely the customer is to recommend the business, and LTV in this context means ‘lifetime value,’ or the amount a customer may spend at your business over the course of their lifetime.
Charlie Cole: “But remember, it’s not the receiver’s lifetime, it’s the sender’s lifetime. I mean, think about it. My stepmom is—just had a birthday April 9th, and I sent her a plant. If I went on a website and picked out a Roselia, and she received an Azelia, she’s gonna be like, ‘thank you so much, that was so thoughtful of you,’ and I’m gonna be pissed, right? And so like, we have to make sure we optimize that sender NPS score. It was shocking to us when we looked into the NPS, when we first got to FTD, our NPS, Kate, was in like the teens! My CTO looked at it and he goes, ‘how is this possible? We send gifts, who doesn’t like receiving gifts?’ And so we were looking at this stuff and we realized like, this is how you win. And I think when people look at the world of online delivery, there’s very few companies that are extremely customer-centric… and in our world it matters. It’s births, it’s deaths, it’s birthdays, it’s Mother’s Days… it’s the most emotional moments of your life that you’re relying on us for, so I think that gravitas just goes up to the next level.”
Kate: Net Promoter Score offers directional insight about the customer experience, but it still isn’t quite measurement of the broader human experience. The typical NPS question is phrased, “How likely is it that you would recommend [company X] to a friend or colleague?”, which forces customers to predict future actions and place themselves into hypothetical or idealistic scenarios. It is also measured on a 1-10 scale, which is pretty arbitrary and subjective — one person’s 9 would not be another person’s 9. A clearer way to ask this and gain more useful human-centric data would be with simple yes/no questions, asking people about actual past behaviors. For instance, “in the past 6 weeks, have you recommended [company X] to a friend or colleague?”
Other alternative measures include PES, or Product Engagement Score, which measures growth, adoption, and stickiness of a given product or service, and doesn’t require directly asking customers questions about their past or future habits. Instead, data comes in in real-time and allows for a clear measurement of success relative to a product’s usage.
While these metrics are useful in various ways, one thing missing from them is emotion. As humans, we are animals deeply driven by our emotions: research from MIT Sloan finds that before humans decide to take an action—any action, including buying something—the decision must first go through a filtering process that incorporates both reason and feelings. Reason leads to conclusions, but emotion leads to action. And if a customer feels frustrated by the customer service they’re experiencing—perhaps they feel like they are being treated like a number, and not a person—they’ll file a complaint, share on social media, and tell their friends and family to avoid the business. These actions can be quite time-consuming, but people will give up their time to right a wrong they feel they’ve experienced.
All this is to say that if you want to retain human loyalty or attract new people to your business, you have to create a positive emotional response in your customers, which means understanding more about who they are than simply what product they might want. Many businesses have discovered that one of the best ways to create an emotional connection with people is through branding. A great brand image can forge a permanent bond with someone who feels strongly that the company shares their values and practices what they preach. Once someone has connected a brand to their own identity, it becomes much more difficult to convince them to switch to another company—even if that company provides the same product at lower cost—because switching companies feels like losing a part of them.
Dr. Rumman Chowdhury, Director of the Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability team at Twitter, explored the concept of branding with me when she came on my show last year.
Rumman Chowdhury: “Human flourishing is not at odds with good business. Some of what you build, especially if you’re a B2C company, it’s about brand. It’s about how people feel when they interact with your technology or your product. You are trying to spark an emotion. Why do you buy Coke vs Pepsi? Why do you go to McDonald’s vs Burger King? Some of this is an emotional decision. It’s also this notion of value. People can get overly narrowly focused on value as revenue generation—value comes from many, many different things. People often choose less ‘efficient’ outcomes or less economically sound outcomes because of how it makes them feel. A frivolous example but an extreme example of it would be luxury brands. Apple spends so much money on design. Opening every Apple product is designed to feel like you’re opening a present. That was intentional. They fully understand the experience of an individual, in interacting with technology like a phone or a computer, is also an emotional experience.”
Kate: If you’re able to understand what people connect to about your brand, you can invest into magnifying that image. If your customer loves that you invest into clean energies, it becomes less important how much time they spend on the phone waiting for a service rep. Operational metrics can’t show you this emotional resonance, so instead you have to think about what makes you stand out, and why people are attracted to you.
Sometimes, however, human emotion has nothing to do with the product or brand in question, and more to do with the circumstances surrounding it. There’s perhaps no better example of this than flowers, which can be given for myriad reasons, and usually at the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum. I’ll let Charlie Cole explain.
Charlie Cole: “For us, it’s buyer journey by occasion. So, you are sending flowers for the birth of a newborn. You are sending flowers for the tragic death of a teenager. You are sending flowers for the death of your 96 year old great grandfather. You are sending flowers for your wife’s birthday. I would argue that even though the end of all those buyer journeys is ‘flowers,’ they are fundamentally different. And you have to understand the idiosyncrasies within those buyer journeys from an emotional component. You have to start with the emotions in mind. You’re buying running shoes. The buying journey for like a runner, for like a marathoner, a guy who runs all the time, is emotionally different than someone who just got told they need to lose weight at the doctor. Someone who travels for business all the time versus someone who’s taking their first ever international…travel. Like, my wife retold a story the other day to my aunt about how her first European trip was when she won a raffle to go to Austria when she was 17. And her, like, single mom was taking her to Europe, and neither of them had ever been to Europe. That’s a different luggage journey than me, who used to fly 300,000 miles a year. And I think that if you take the time to really appreciate the emotional nuance of those journeys, yes there’s data challenges, and yes there’s customer recognition challenges, so you can personalize it. But I would urge every brand to start with like the emotional amino-acid level of why that journey starts, and then reverse-engineer it from there. Because I think you’ll be able to answer the data challenges and the attribution challenges, but I think that’s a place where we sometimes get too tech-y and too tactical, as opposed to human.”
Kate: Another challenge unique to flowers and other products usually given as gifts is that there are two completely different humans involved in the transaction, each with different expectations and emotions riding on it.
Charlie Cole: “There’s two people involved in every one of our journeys, or about 92% of them: the buyer, and the receiver. So how do I message to you, I don’t want to ruin the surprise! But I need to educate you, and oh yeah, I’m a really really nervous boyfriend, right? I wanna make sure everybody’s doing it right, and it’s gonna be there on time, and I need to make sure it’s going to the right place… So the messaging pathways to the sender and receiver are fundamentally different. If you kind of forget about your buying journey, and imagine everything as a gifting buyer journey, it just changes the messaging component. Not in a nuanced way, but darn near in a reciprocal way.”
And while some businesses struggle to connect emotionally with the humans that make up their customer base, the tech industry—and specifically social media companies—seem to fundamentally understand what it is that humans crave, in a way that allows them to use it against us. They thrive because they take something that is quintessentially human—connecting with people and sharing our lives—and turn it into a means for data collection that can then be used to sell us products that feel specifically designed for us. Like most of us, Neil Redding has experienced this phenomenon firsthand.
Neil Redding: “We spend more and more of our time in contexts that we are apparently willing to have commercialized, right? Instagram is kind of my go-to example, where almost all of us have experienced this uncanny presentation to us of something that we can buy that’s like so closely tied to… I mean, it’s like how did you know that this is what I wanted? So myself and people close to me have just said, ‘wow, I just keep buying this stuff that gets presented to me on Instagram that I never heard of before but gets pushed to me as like, yeah it’s so easy, and it’s so aligned with what I already want. So there’s this suffusion of commercial transaction—or at least discovery—of goods that can be bought and sold, y’know, in these moments of our daily lives, y’know, so that increasingly deep integration of commerce and buying and selling of things into our self-expression, into our communication, works because what we care about and what we are willing to buy or what we are interested in buying are so intertwined, right? They’re kind of the same thing at some deep level.”
Kate: Part of the reason this works is that humans crave convenience. Lack of convenience adds friction to any process, and friction can quickly lead to frustration, which isn’t a mind state that leads to more business. The internet and social media has made keeping up with friends and gathering information incredibly convenient, so an advertisement here or there—especially one that looks and feels the same as everything else on our feed—doesn’t bother us like it might in other contexts. And when those advertisements have been tailored specifically to our interests, they’re even less likely to spark a negative emotion, and may in fact encourage us to buy something that we feel is very “us.”
The big question for business leaders and marketers then is how do you digitize your business so that it emphasizes the richness of the human experience? How do you know which technologies to bring into your business, and which to leave aside? There are plenty of established and emerging technologies to choose from: Interactive email helps marketers drive engagement and also provides an avenue for additional data collection. Loyalty marketing strategies help brands identify their best customers and customize experiences for them. Salesforce introduced new features to help humanize the customer service experience with AI-powered conversational chatbots that feel pretty darn close to speaking with an actual human. Virtual and Augmented Reality website options allow customers to interact with products and see them in their hands or living rooms before they buy.
With all the choice out there, it can be overwhelming. And t oo often, businesses and governments lean into the “just buy as much tech as possible!” approach without thinking integratively about the applications of said technology. Many companies are using that technology to leverage more data than ever before, hoping to customize and personalize experiences.
David Ryan Polgar, a tech ethicist and founder of All Tech Is Human, explains why this method may not yield the results you think—because humans aren’t just a collection of data points.
David Ryan Polgar: “Are we an algorithm, or are we unique? I always joke, like, my mom always said I’m a, a snowflake! I’m unique! Because, when you think about Amazon and recommendations, it’s thinking that your past is predicting your future. And that, with enough data, we can accurately determine where your next step is. Or even with auto-suggestion, and things like that. What’s getting tricky is, is that true? Or is it subtly going to be off? With a lot of these auto-suggestions, let’s say like text. Well the question I always like to think about is, how often am I influenced by what they said I should say? So if I wanna write, like, ‘have a…’ and then it says ‘great day,’ well, maybe I was gonna say great day, but maybe I was gonna say good day. And it’s subtly different, but it’s also influencing kinda, my volition. Now we’re being influenced by the very technology that’s pushing us is a certain direction. And we like to think of it, ‘well, it’s already based on you,’ but then that has a sort of cyclical nature to actually extending—”
Kate: “Quantum human consciousness or something.”
David: “Exactly! Exactly.”
Kate: “Like, the moment you observe it, it’s changed.”
Kate: It’s so easy, especially when you work with data, to view humans as output generators. But we’re living in an age where people are growing increasingly wary of data collection, which means you may not know as much about the people whose data you’ve collected as you think you do. Becoming dependent on an entirely data-driven model for customer acquisition may lead to faulty decisions — and may even be seen as a huge mistake five years from now.
Instead, I always talk about “human-centric digital transformation,” which means the data and tech-driven changes you make should start from a human frame. Even if you’re already adopting intelligent automation to accelerate your operations, in some cases, very simple technologies may belong at the heart of your model. Here’s Neil Redding again.
Neil Redding: “Using Zoom or FaceTime or Skype is the only technology needed to do what a lot of stores have done during COVID, where their customers expect the store associate interaction when they come to the stores, they just create a one-on-one video call, and the shopper just has this interaction over videochat, or video call, and kind of does that associate-assisted shopping, right? And so you have that human connection, and again, it’s nowhere near as great as sitting across a table and having coffee, but it’s better than, y’know, a 2-dimensional e-commerce style shopping experience.”
Kate: As a parallel to video conferencing, Virtual Reality has opened up avenues for new human experiences of business as well. Cathy Hackl, a metaverse strategist and tech futurist, explained a new human experience she was able to have during COVID that wouldn’t have been possible without VR.
Cathy Hackl: “I’ll give you an example, like with the Wall Street Journal, they had the WSJ Tech Live, which is their big tech conference, and certain parts of it were in VR, and that was a lot of fun! I mean, I was in Spatial, which is one of the platforms, hanging out with Joanna Stern, and with Jason Mims, and like, in this kind of experience, where like I actually got to spend some 1-on-1 time with them, and I don’t know if I would have gotten that if I was in a Zoom call, and I don’t know if I would have gotten that in person, either.”
Kate: Virtual Reality and video technologies have also opened up new avenues for healthcare, allowing patients to conference with doctors from home and only travel to a hospital if absolutely necessary. Marcus Whitney is a healthcare investor and founder of the first venture fund in America to invest exclusively in Black founded and led healthcare innovation companies; he explains that these virtual experiences allow for better happiness, healing, and comfort.
Marcus Whitney: “Going forward, telehealth will be a thing. We were already on the path to doing more and more healthcare in the home. It was something that they were trying to stop because, is the home an appropriate place for healthcare to take place? Lo and behold, it’s just fine. Patients feel more secure in the home, and it’s a better environment for healing, so you’re gonna see a lot more of that. I think we’re finally gonna start seeing some real breakthroughs and innovation in healthcare. Most of the lack of innovation has not been because we didn’t have great thinkers, it has largely been regulatory barriers. Remote patient monitoring was a huge one that came up in the last year, so now we have doctors caring about it. What moves in healthcare is what’s reimbursable. They were always trying to regulate to protect people, but then they realized, well, we removed the regulatory barriers and people were fine, so that regulation makes actually no sense, and people should have more choice, and they should be able to do telehealth if they want to.”
Kate: And that’s just it: humans want choice. We want to feel seen, and heard, and like our opinions are being considered. There’s another technology on the horizon that could give people more power over their technology, and therefore freedom and choice, that will likely cause massive change in the marketplace when it is more widely available: Brain-computer interface. Cathy Hackl explains.
Cathy Hackl: “So I’m very keen right now on brain-computer interface. The way I’m gonna explain it is, if you’ve been following Elon Musk, you’ve probably heard of neuro-link—he’s working on BCI that’s more internal, the ones I’ve been trying are all external devices. So I’m able to put a device on that reads my brainwaves, it reads my intent, and it knows that I wanna scroll an iPad, or I’ve been able to turn on lights using just my thoughts, or play a video game, or input a code… I’ve been able to do all these things. And I’m very keen on it, very interested to see what’s going on… I think the biggest thing that’s stuck with me from studying all these technologies and trying them out from an external perspective, is that my brain actually really likes it. Loves the workout. Like, I’m thinking about it, and I’m like, the receptors here, pleasure receptors are like lighting up, I’m like ‘ohmygosh!’ So I’m still sitting with that. Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? I don’t know, but I think these technologies can allow us to do a lot of things, especially people with disabilities. If they don’t have a hand, being able to use a virtual hand to do things in a virtual space. I think that’s powerful.”
Kate: That story also illuminates the fact that there are many different types of people, each with different needs. Digital transformation has given people with disabilities a new way to claim more agency over their lives, which creates a brand new potential customer-base, filled with humans who desire freedom and choice as much as the next person.
Now, let’s talk about some companies who are doing at least a few q things right when it comes to the digital transformation of human experience. Starbucks, for instance. One of the worst parts of shopping in-store was waiting in line, and then the social pressure from the people behind you wishing you would order faster. If you weren’t a regular customer, the experience could be overwhelming. When they launched their mobile order app, it tapped into a number of things that made the experience of buying coffee faster and easier, with all sorts of fun customization options that I never knew existed when I only ordered in-store. Now, even brand new customers could order complex coffee drinks — meaning in that one move the company may have brought in new customers and allowed the cost per coffee to increase — all without people feeling pressure from other shoppers, and without the inconvenience of waiting in line.
Then there’s Wal-Mart, who during the pandemic instituted ‘Wal-Mart pickup,’ a service where people can shop online and pick up their goods without ever having to step into the store. The service is technically operating at a financial loss, but Wal-Mart understands that solid branding and convenience are worth more to their company’s bottom-line in the long run than the amount of money they’re losing by investing into this particular service.
Of course, some businesses are better suited for the online-only world than others. As more companies attempt to digitize their businesses, it’s incredibly important to tap into the human reasons that people wanted to engage with your business in the first place. In some cases, businesses have failed to make this connection, assuming that “if people liked us as a physical product, then they’ll continue using us when we’re digital,” or worse, “if we simply make people aware of us, they will become customers!” This assumption ignores human nature, as Ana Milicevic, a longtime digital media executive who is principal and co-founder of Sparrow Digital Holdings, explains.
Ana Milicevic: “To be relevant in this direct to consumer world, you also have to approach awareness and customer acquisition differently. And this is the #1 mistake we see a lot of traditional companies make, and not really understand how to pitch to a digital-first, mobile-first consumer or a direct subscriber. They’re just not wired to do it that way, and often times the technology stacks that they have in place just aren’t the types of tools that can facilitate this type of direct interaction as well. So they’re stuck in this very strange limbo where they are committed to continuing to acquire customers in traditional ways, but that’s just not how you would go about acquiring a direct customer.”
Kate: Acquiring those direct customers requires an understanding of what humans want—a large part of which is meaning. And how people create meaning in their lives is changing as well. Long before the pandemic, trends were already pointing toward a future where we live more of our lives online, but those trends have also been accelerated. So beyond digitizing your business, it may also be useful to invest time, money, and energy into discovering how the humans of the future will create meaning in their lives. Cathy Hackl discussed some of the trends she’s seen in her own kids that show how today’s children will consume and make purchasing decisions in a very different way than most modern businesses are used to.
Cathy Hackl: “Something else that I’m noticing… y’know we’re going to brick and mortar, but we’re going to brick and mortar less. So you start to see this need for that virtual try-on to buy your makeup, or to buy clothes, and it’s also transitioning not only from the virtual try-on into what I’m calling the direct-to-avatar economy. Everything from virtual dresses that you’re buying, or custom avatars, y’know you’re starting to create this virtualized economy. And this is the reason I always talk about this now, is my son recently did his first communion, and when we said, ‘hey, what do you want as a gift?’ he said, ‘I don’t want money, I want a Roblox gift card that I can turn into Robucks,’—which is the currency they use inside Roblox—’so that I can buy—whichever gamer’s skin.’ And, y’know, when I was growing up, my brother was saving up to buy AirJordans. My son doesn’t want that, y’know, he wants Robucks, to buy something new for his avatar. This is direct-to-avatar; is direct-to-avatar the next direct-to-consumer?”
Kate: Our online avatars represent us. We can customize them to directly express who we feel we are. Part of the reason this idea is so attractive is that many people—increasingly so in the context of online interaction—seek out meaningful experiences as our ‘aspirational’ selves. We gravitate to the communities that align with facets of who we wish we were. And perhaps less productively, we may also choose to present the idealized version of ourselves to the world, omitting anything we’re embarrassed by or that we feel may paint us in a negative light. But honestly, all of this makes sense in the context of making meaning, because humans are generally the most emotionally fulfilled when we feel empowered to control which ‘self’ we present in any given interaction.
With this much freedom of choice and expression, and with the complications of the modern supply chain—which I will talk about more in depth in our next episode—it’s important to acknowledge that creating convenience and improving human satisfaction aren’t going to be easy tasks. Behind the scenes, there is a tremendous amount of work that goes into providing a satisfying customer experience. Let’s go back to the example of flowers and see what Charlie Cole has to say.
Charlie Cole: “If it’s too cold they freeze, if it’s too hot they wilt, if UPS is a day late they die. And then, the real interesting aspect—and this isn’t unique to flowers—the source is remarkably centralized. So the New York Times estimated that 90-92% of roses that are bought in America for Valentine’s Day come from Columbia and Ecuador. And so, if anything goes wrong there, then you really don’t have a chance. Imagine the quintessential Valentine’s Day order: A dozen long-stem roses, New York City. Easy, right? I used to live on 28th and 6th, so let’s say Chelsea. Okay, I’ve got 7 florists who could do it. Who has delivery capacity? Roses capacity? The freshest roses? The closest to proximity? The closest to the picture in the order? Who has the vase that’s in the order? Did they buy roses from us? Because I like to be able to incentivize people based on margins they already have. And so without exaggeration, Kate, we have about 11-12 ranking factors that educate a quality score for a florist, and that’s how it starts the process. But then there’s all the other things, like how do we know somebody didn’t walk into that florist that morning and buy all the roses, right? And so there’s this real-time ebb-and-flow of demand because our demand is not ours! They have their own store, they have their own B2B business, they might take orders from some of our competitors. They might have their own website. We have no idea what any given florist happens in real time because they are not captive to us. What we’ve learned is the place we have to get really really really really good is technology on the forecasting side, on the florist communication side, and the customer communication side. Because I can’t control the seeds on the ground in Columbia, but I can really control the communication across the entire network as far as we go, as well as the amounts the we need in various places.”
Kate: Creating that small-scale, emotional human moment where someone receives flowers requires immense computing power and collaboration between multiple businesses and workers. Which is part of why Charlie Cole also believes that in some cases, the best way to help your business succeed is to invest in helping other businesses that yours interacts with.
Charlie Cole: “Small businesses… I think it’s our secret sauce. And I think COVID has shined a light on this: small businesses are the core of our communities. Right? They are the absolute core, and I think it was always nice to say that, but now we know it. And so here’s what I think we do better than anybody else: we’ve invested more in helping our florists run their own small business independently of us than we have about optimizing our marketplace. We launched new POS software. We launched a new local website product where we’re like the first person ever to become a reseller for Shopify because we made a custom platform for florists. We’re just their website provider. They’re actually competing with FTD.com in a lot of ways—but I think that’s where we’re gonna differentiate ourselves from all the other people that are perceived as, by small businesses, (their words not mine) leeches. Right? I think to actually effectively run a marketplace which is fulfilled by small businesses, you need to invest as much in helping them win their local market independent of you.”
Kate: You could make the case that there is no more evolved human experience than choosing to help others. So if your business is engaged in activities that allow other businesses—and therefore humans—to thrive, you may also be building your brand in a direction that creates more customer loyalty than any exit survey or great service interaction ever could.
Beyond understanding human emotions and needs, you can help your business by leaning into understanding how we create meaning. At our core, we are compelled to make meaning. Whether we realize it or not, meaningful experiences and interactions are the driving force behind many of our decisions, financial or otherwise. Meaning is different for everyone, but having it is vital to our happiness. If you are able to engage with potential customers in a way that helps them create meaning, or allows them to use your product to make meaning on their own, you are aligning your success with your customers’ success, and that bodes well for the long term.
At the end of the day, making any of these changes starts at the very top of your business. Leadership needs to set the tone, creating a culture that allows room for workers at every level to engage more meaningfully with customers, and with each other. (By the way, for more discussion on creating or changing work culture, you can check out our last episode, “Does the Future of Work Mean More Agency For Workers?”) Your effort will benefit not only your business, but society as a whole. Remember the Deloitte piece in the Wall Street Journal I mentioned at the start of the episode, with ways to be more human-centric in business? Number 5 on that list was “change the world,” and research from Frontiers suggests that the well-being of any society is directly linked to how the people living within it feel about their lives and purpose. How we do that may be as simple — and as complicated — as helping people to experience meaning at any level.
While the technologies around us keep changing, the opportunity becomes increasingly clear for people who work around creating customer experiences and user experiences to open up the aperture to see humanity through a fuller lens. This way, as you set your business up for longterm success, you also advocate for making human experiences as meaningful as possible — and you just might be changing the world for the better.
Thanks for joining me as I explored what it means to think of customers as human. Next time, I’ll be exploring the supply chain and how, despite the vast technology involved, the closer you look the more you realize: the economy is people.