The importance of customer experience and fostering a culture of innovation. With Stephen Spencer

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Stephen Spencer, Founder of Stephen Spencer + Associates, a collaborative consulting and training organisation.

Stephen Spencer + Associates is a collaborative consulting and training organisation with a simple purpose: to help you extract maximum value from your customers’ experience of you.

“How do we focus in on every customer’s experience, and maximise every interaction so that we get maximum value out of it, both for the customer and for the business?”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Why is customer experience is so important right now
  • How to maximise interactions to drive value
  • What can attractions do to foster a more innovative culture

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

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The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson 

Our guest, Stephen Spencer


Kelly Molson: Stephen, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, it’s really lovely to see you again.

Stephen Spencer: It’s an honour and a pleasure, thanks very much, Kelly. 

Kelly Molson: So many people have recommended that we speak to each other. But, as ever, this podcast, we’re going to go straight into our icebreaker questions. So, I would like to know, what is the worst job that you have ever had?

Stephen Spencer: Oh, that’s easy. One Easter, when I was a student, I worked for an employment agency, so it’s a different job every day. And, the worst job was cleaning out the undercarriage of a private jet that belonged to an Arab Sheik. There’s a bunch of us put in a van, we had to wear so much protective clothing, and visors, and things over our heads, that you literally couldn’t see, and then you had high-pressure hoses. And, you could just glimpse the luxury within the jet through the open door, but we were underneath just spraying out the oil, and grease, and dirt, and god knows what else. It was a horrendous, horrendous day. I sort of thought, “My life is over before it’s begun. If this is how I’m going to spend my life, what I’m going to do?”

Kelly Molson: You were so close to the luxury, you could almost touch it.

Stephen Spencer: It was. You could see it was all very beautifully, ornately designed, in keeping with the culture inside. But, underneath it was just a regular old, filthy old bit of kit. 

Kelly Molson: I feel like that sums us all up, right? Inside, we’re all just regular, normal, filthy old people. 

Stephen Spencer: Well, you speak for yourself. I thought we were all looking up to the stars. “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up to the stars.” That’s the quote, isn’t it?

Kelly Molson: Maybe, I’m trying to keep real, Stephen. I’ve gone a bit retro with this one, so I’m hoping that you remember this program. Do you remember a program called Stars in Their Eyes? 

Stephen Spencer: I do.

Kelly Molson: Excellent. Okay. So, let’s go back. If Stars in Their Eyes was a thing now, who would you perform as?

Stephen Spencer: Oh, it’s easy, Elvis. Absolutely. Elvis is my go-to for karaoke. Funnily enough, I’ve been a massive fan of Elvis since the day he died, because he wasn’t obviously relevant in 1977, but the day he died I spent the whole day playing all his music. I just got absolutely hooked. And years later, there’s an attractions connection here, I got to meet and work with a heroine of mine, the late Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, at Chatsworth. I discovered that she was a massive Elvis fan. And, what I didn’t know, but later read in her autobiography, was that she too became a fan the day he died, because she saw all the programs and heard all the music. Anyway, yes. No contest, I would be Elvis.

Kelly Molson: What song? You said he’s your karaoke go-to, what’s your karaoke song?

Stephen Spencer: Funnily enough, it’s a song that he did I think very well, but not originally his song, it’s My Way. Which, kind of also is my personal theme tune. 

Kelly Molson: I love this.

Stephen Spencer: I never do things anybody else’s way, it’s always my way. But, not in a command and control way, just, “This is my way, and if it facilitates stuff, that’s great, if you don’t like it, there are lots of other people who will do it your way.”

Kelly Molson: Excellent answers, I’m enjoying this very much. Let’s move on. I would like to know what your unpopular opinion is.

Stephen Spencer: Well, I think my unpopular opinion is that Line of Duty is increasingly disappearing up its own fundament.

Kelly Molson: Oh, gosh.

Stephen Spencer: … Or should we say, that Jed Mercurio has believed his own hype. The last series was a sort of ragbag of references to the previous series, a completely flimsy plot. I’m not just saying the ending was disappointing because it was, spoiler alert…

Kelly Molson: You can’t do that, what if no one’s… 

Stephen Spencer: I said spoiler alert, people could have switched off at that point. The thing that got me slightly suspicious of Jed Mercurio was The Bodyguard, that one-off series that he did. Where, we were expected to believe that a man wearing an explosive vest would be allowed to walk from one end of London to the other to go and visit his wife and children, rather than being taken out before he could put the entire population of Central London at risk. I just thought, “This is ridiculous.” So, I spent part of lockdown watching all the previous series of Line of Duty, and the early ones, absolutely brilliant. 

But I tell you a series that’s better than Line of Duty, and that’s Spooks. There was never a bad episode of Spooks. I think it was nine series, we watched about 100 episodes, and there wasn’t a single bad episode. And also, they constantly refreshed the central characters. Whereas we all love Ted, obviously…

Kelly Molson: Who doesn’t?

Stephen Spencer: … And Kate, and Steve, it is inconceivable that that man would still be in that job, considering everything that he’s, for the best of intentions, done and got himself mixed up in. It’s ridiculous. 

Kelly Molson: Oh my gosh, Stephen.

Stephen Spencer: I’m sorry if that’s an unpopular opinion.

Kelly Molson: I think it is an unpopular opinion.

Stephen Spencer: Now we can nearly go back to the pub, or we can go back and sit outside, we need to keep ourselves warm, there’s no point in everyone just sitting around saying, “Did you see Line of Duty, it was really good, wasn’t it?” No, let’s actually be real here.

Kelly Molson: I think this is really going to split our listeners. I do know that there was a lot of people that were really unhappy about the ending. And, if I’m completely honest, I was one of them. However, I have loved every single minute of Line of Duty. And, I did love the final season, if it is the final season, we’re not quite sure.

Stephen Spencer: I don’t think it will be. Clearly, if they want to do another series, there’s more to uncover. Maybe they shouldn’t bring it back. Unfortunately, it’s a bit like what happened to Doctor Who, which was amazing when it was rebooted with Chris Eccleston. I’m not talking about the latest incarnation of the Doctor, I’m all for that, but it’s just the fact that the writing got more and more self-indulgent. And, if you’re writing Doctor Who and it’s unbelievable, you really should take a look at yourself, I would suggest. 

Kelly Molson: Okay, let’s move on. So, Stephen Spencer + Associates, it’s a collaborative consulting and training organisation. You’ve got a simple purpose, and that is, “To help extract maximum value from your customers’ experience of you.” A few topics that I really want to cover today, but let’s start with the biggest one which is, why is customer experience so important right now?

Stephen Spencer: I think right now, clearly, it is really important because it has changed so much, and the changes are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. We’ve had this dramatic, probably five years of accelerated adoption of online and, as we’re doing now, remote meetings and so on, people shopping from home, in a year or less. So, straightaway, businesses don’t have that personal contact with customers that previously they could have actually exploited or at least known what was going on. 

Secondly, there’s still going to be an element of public health and social distancing, people are going to be nervous. There’s going to be a need for businesses to continue to demonstrate that they’re providing a safe, healthy environment for customers, which risks creating an experience that’s compromised. 

And thirdly, I think, for the foreseeable future, there’s probably going to be less customers around. There may well be fewer staff serving them. And, there’s probably going to be less money in the system as well. For many attractions, obviously, the international market is going to take, quite possibly, two to three years, if not longer, to recover. That’s what all the predictions say. So, it means we’ve got to do more with less. So, fundamentally, how do we focus in on every customer’s experience, and maximize every interaction so that we get maximum value out of it, both for the customer and for the business?

Kelly Molson: Maximizing interactions. And, I guess, it’s understanding what elements of the experience drives the most value. How do attractions do this at the moment? What are the steps that they need to go through to look at how they can make that happen? 

Stephen Spencer: Well, I think something that could be done a lot better in many attractions, and I’ve worked in many attractions and with many attractions, is a much more joined-up approach between marketing and operations, and possibly finance and strategy as well. The challenge with being a Customer Experience Consultant is a lot of what you’re saying, sounds like stating the bleeding obvious. But, the reason you have to state it is because it passes a lot of organisations by, for all sorts of reasons, good and not so good. But, really, really understanding who are your customers, breaking them down into recognisable subsets.

I’m a great believer in developing customer personas. And, one of my favourite ways to do this working with organisations is, “If this group, or this couple, or this individual was a celebrity, or a band, or a team, or a character in a soap, who would they be?” You find as soon as they’ve identified that person, then they can really start to put layer, and layer and a layer of, “How would we treat this person? What would this person want from us? What kind of communication would they appreciate? What would make them go, “Wow”?” 

And, I think what often happens is, the marketing focus tends to be on idealised segments, and the reality on the ground is real people. What really works is when marketing gets out there, and gets stuck in, and talks to the customers, and sees who’s coming in, and there’s a complete consistency between strategy and execution. Because, at the end of the day, whatever you do, the most powerful thing you can do for a customer is speaking to them and treat them the way they would want to be treated. And, the only way you can do that is if you are able to look and listen, and observe, and take that time to engage, and, again, keep listening, and give that customer the response they’re looking for. 

You see it time and time again, the most high-tech attractions, attractions that have incredible properties, whether it’s heritage properties or brands brought to life in amazing ways, it’s still the human interaction that’s the most powerful thing. So, understanding, which is important also, to give your team the confidence to talk to customers in the right way, understanding who they are, is fundamental for me, and that being consistent through the whole organisation. 

Kelly Molson: How does that change? We’re recording this, it’s the 11th of May today, so next week, the 17th, most indoor attractions will be able to open. We’re still looking at capped capacity, we’re still looking at a reduction in operation staff, probably front of house staff, for attractions. How do you look to monitor that now? And, how does that change as restrictions start to get relaxed and you get more, and more, and more people through the doors? How does that process change? What can people do? 

Stephen Spencer: I think, given what I’ve said, the most important thing you can do is to maximize your customer’s every interaction. Many people know this, some people won’t know this, in customer journey mapping, which is the classic way to think about your customer’s experience, you identify all the touchpoints, so all the interactions between the customer and the attraction. Obviously, starting with before they ever visit, so advertising, or the website, or review sites, whatever it is. And, you map all those touchpoints. Then, you identify, what we call, the moments of truth, which are the real make or break touchpoints. So, the points at which you could really deliver on the value proposition or not. 

By doing that, and then matching that customer journey to those customer profiles, you can start to say, “Right”… I think, for example, the work that people like BVA BDRC and Decision House have been doing, in terms of sentiment research, really plays into this as well. Because, they’ve identified some COVID personas, in terms of where people are at, in terms of their willingness to go back, their nervousness, or confidence about interacting again. So, you build all this in. 

So, what I’m saying is, bring your team together and say, “Let us work through the experience that we’re going to give to our visitors when they come back when we’re able to reopen. I hope that attractions have already been thinking about how they add something extra, really make visitors feel, not just welcomed back, but that there’s something extra special that’s been laid on to welcome them back. And again, that doesn’t have to be something very expensive, it doesn’t have to be something high-tech, but it just has to be something that is appropriate to the brand and relevant to the customer.

Bearing in mind, obviously that we’re talking, for most attractions for the foreseeable future, it’s the local/staycation market, rather than international. So again, just a great opportunity to say to the team, “Everything’s changed. Everything’s new. Isn’t it exciting? We’re opening up again, maybe we’ve done some work behind the scenes, a new exhibition, new information that we’ve had the chance to research about our site that we can share. Whatever it is. Let’s now plan the reopening or the next stage of reopening, almost as if we’re planning a family Christmas or a celebration. And, think what we can do.” Just get everybody involved, and everybody shares the excitement. 

Stephen Spencer:  We know that there are challenges for teams coming back who’ve been maybe furloughed, or new staff being recruited in a lot of cases as well who have never had the experience of working at the attraction before. And now suddenly We’re reopening, it’s a big deal. But, some of us weren’t here before, some of us are nervous about being back. It’s all a bit strange. Some of us have been here the whole time and we’re knackered. So actually, that is another reason to bring people together, not just for, what I call, pre-opening training, which is almost like going through the motions, but to make it really, really special.

 We’ve been recently working with a museum that actually was closed already before the pandemic for a major refurbishment, and also rebrands, and a repositioning of the museum. And, we created, first of all, with a workshop that we ran for all teams across all departments, a fact-finding workshop. And then, translating that into pre-opening training that was much more about exactly what I’ve been talking about, “What are we going to do? How do we take this great new shiny vision that we’ve got and turn it into customer interactions? Who are our customers? What do we know about them? What do we need to do? What would we do if it was our granny, or our brother, or our friend coming, what would we do?” And, just turning it into a mission that is translatable to everybody’s role and everybody’s capabilities.

Kelly Molson: I love that idea, that you position it as a real celebratory event. It’s such a nice way of looking at it. And, what does that mean to people? Like you say, for attractions, you’ve got such a different range of people that will visit, what does that celebration mean to them? How do you apply it to that individual person? I think that’s such a nice way of framing it. Also, one of the things that attractions have been really good at as they’ve been talking about reopening and that process of how they do that, is most attractions haven’t been talking about reopening and going back to normal.

They’ve actually been embracing the idea that they don’t have to go back and do the things that they used to do, they can embrace something different. And, like you say, they might have a new attraction, they might have a new collection, they might have something new that they’ve got to celebrate. But, even if you don’t, you still can improve that customer experience by shifting the way that you do things. 

And, that’s the next thing that I want to talk about. How do attractions reimagine what they’ve been doing and be a bit more innovative moving forward from being able to open again?

Stephen Spencer: For just the reasons that you said, I’ve always been slightly wary of the expression, “Build back better” because, superficially, great. But actually, I think it implies that we’re trying to get back to what we were doing before but just a little bit better. Well, I don’t know about you, but before the pandemic and before I knew there was going to be a pandemic, I had this feeling, and I think a lot of people did, that we couldn’t go on the way we were going.

Whether it was overtourism, obviously there was a lot of inequality and division in the world, we were literally on course to destroy the planet. And, it just felt like this isn’t great. And then, we had that period of reflection in the first lockdown when if you had a garden, if you had access to green space, you had time on your hands, it was just wonderful to be able to reflect on, “Wouldn’t it be great actually if the birds every year we’re able to be born into a world that was that much cleaner? Or if the canals in Venice, bring it back to tourism, ran clear all the time, rather than views of Venice being dominated by these enormous ships?”

So, I‘ve really tried to talk about building forward better, because I think it is about this process of true innovation, which is actually creating something new and different. So, to do that I think you have to be really, really clear on, what is your purpose? What is your reason for being? What is your vision? Organisations and consultants use smoke and mirrors to talk about purpose, and mission, and vision. But, when I talk about mission, I’m really referring to why we’re in business, what we’re trying to achieve. It’s different for the public sector, and private sector, and third sector organisations. For the private sector, it may be about share price, or it may even be about selling the business at some point in the future. For museums and charities, it’s about a very long-term project.

And then, vision, I say, “Why is that of interest to the customer, the visitor, the person that you’re aiming that experience at?” And, within purpose is also values, and I think it’s a great time to revisit mission vision values and say, “This is what we believe. This is the difference that we want to make in the world. Now, how do we go about it?” An example of that, back in 2012 I was helping to launch the Emirates Air Line cable car, in the run-up to the London Olympics and Paralympics. It had a very complex structure because it was ultimately owned by Transport for London, TFL, and then Docklands Light Railway, DLR, and then it was operated by the cable car company Doppelmayr. The front of house team was Continuum, which I was working for. The sponsor was Emirates. There was a security company and a cleaning company. I think there were about eight different stakeholders. 

And, we had to design what the passenger experience would look like. And, we created, what we call, a passenger charter, which is basically everything you need to know as a new employee, and they’re all new employees, and they’re all coming from Newham in Greenwich. Most of the recruitment had already happened in Newham in Greenwich for the Olympics. So, we were sort of hoovering up what was left in a way. And, I mean that actually very positively, because what we got was a whole load of people who’d never worked in customer-facing roles before. Some of them had really interesting and quite often harrowing backstories about how they came to even be in London. And, there were 40 ethnic backgrounds across 100 initial recruits. And then, as I say, all these different brands. 

Stephen Spencer: So, how did you bring it all together? We came up with the very simple, what we called our vision statement, “Inspiring Journeys”, and so everything had to be measured against inspiring journeys. So, the uniforms, they looked, rather than TFL uniforms, they looked like airline uniforms. But, when it came down to more mundane things like selling a ticket, issuing a refund, handling a lost property inquiry, we did not use the TFL standard procedures, which were, to put it mildly, bureaucratic and not very customer-friendly, because it wasn’t inspiring journeys. We talked earlier about pre-opening training, when we ran pre-opening training on the passenger experience and presented each of the new recruits with their passenger charter, they were whopping, and cheering, and yelling, and stamping their feet at the end of these workshops. I’ve never had a reaction like it.

I had people asking me to autograph the charter for them because they felt it was such a special thing that they were doing. And within three months… Bearing in mind, we opened literally… It was such a steep learning curve. We had 30,000 passengers a day, almost from week two. We were moving ropes and stanchions around. I had to move 1000 people while they were all standing in these ropes and stanchions because it wasn’t working, the queuing system. Again, that goes back to every interaction. You don’t just look at a load of cattle in a pen and say, “Okay, that’s the guest.” You think about, “Hmm, the way they’re queuing, it’s not right, it’s not working.” The end of that story is that we came top of the TFL passenger survey for London within three months. From a standing start, never had a cable car before, these people had never worked in customer-facing roles before, but they all got what we were trying to deliver.

So, for attractions, obviously, not everyone can open a cable car, but you can go back to, “What is your essence?” This museum I was talking about earlier, they were founded in the 19th century and had quite a set offering, and they have re-imagined it for the 21st century in a way that makes it accessible to everybody. It’s totally accessible. There’s no one who can’t actually find an angle for this to be relevant to them. So, I think it starts with that.

We’ve created, not just for COVID, but for the long term, what we call our innovation toolkit, which facilitates this process. And, the middle part of the process is the fun part, because it’s the brainstorming, it’s the innovation facilitation. Where we say, “You’ve clarified your purpose. You’ve clarified your vision. You’ve also identified your assets. Because you’ve got some challenges, you’ve got some burning issues you have to deal with, whether it’s financial or other issues that you have to deal with right now because otherwise, you’ll be out of business. But, beyond that, you’ve identified what are your core assets. Now, we need to think about who are the potential audiences for those assets. And, of course, some of them, who were there before, are not there for the foreseeable future, or they’ve changed. So, we look at trends as well as segments. 

Then, we look at all the different business models, all the different revenue models that you could… It doesn’t have to be purely revenue, but because we’re very much about sustainability and recovery, I think it’s important that we identify every revenue opportunity. And we say, “If you take your asset where you’re particularly strong, and you apply it to these audiences where it really resonates, and you’ve got these potential business models that you could…” I’m talking for attractions, it could be anything from a virtual curator tour to a new family play area, to a new petting zoo, it could be anything. Virtual, physical, or a combination of the two. 

 And then, you do some evaluation based on effort vs reward. There’s a simple matrix that just allows you to prioritise your long list down to a shortlist, and now you can start to work out, “Which of those ideas can we turn into reality?” Some of them we can probably do very quickly, some of them are medium-term, others are longer-term aspirations. But, what should come out of that is something completely new. Because, you didn’t start with, “This is what we do now, how can we make it a bit better?” You started with, “Why do we exist? We don’t exist in a vacuum, so for whom does that matter? And what could we do?”

Kelly Molson: One of the things that you talked about earlier was about getting the whole team involved, from marketing to operations, to front of house, in that whole customer experience journey. How do you do that from an innovation perspective? What can attractions do to foster a more innovative culture within their organisation so that people feel that they’re part of that process, they can input to it? 

Stephen Spencer: I think one of the exciting things that definitely happened in the last year was that organisations had to become less siloed. 

Kelly Molson: Definitely.

Stephen Spencer: You see lots and lots of organisations for all sorts of reasons, some of it historical over very long periods of years, but others quite new. When we had the cable car, we found that there was a different culture on the north side to the south side. The team members started saying, “Can we work on the south side today?” And when you probed and said, “Why?”, “Oh, it’s like being on holiday over there, it’s lovely.” And, part of the reason was because the management team was on the north side, so there was a bit more scrutiny, a bit more structure. And, we were like, “Crikey”, that shows how quickly culture forms because that was within three months that happened. 

So, not being siloed is a really difficult thing. But, because of COVID, so many organisations had to think across all departments, across all of those touchpoints, because they had to plan safe and also viable visitor experiences, visitor journeys. I think it’s really important to keep that going. It’s really important that departments all work together. The organisation and it surprises people when I say this, that I’ve worked in that was the least siloed was actually The Royal Collection. I’m very old, so I was lucky enough, one of the perks of age, to be around when Buckingham Palace first opened to the public, so I got to do the shop. We had a single mission at that time, which was to raise £37 million to restore Windsor Castle after the fire of 1992.

I realise for many of your listeners it will be a revelation that Windsor burned in 1992 because they probably weren’t even born, but look it up in the history books, it happened. And, it was really important that we raised this money, because the Government had tried initially to say the Government would pay, and there’d been a public outcry, and so it was declared that the Royal Household would raise the money itself. And so, opening Buckingham Palace to the public was one of the ways that it did this. 

What I found was, we worked in an office where it didn’t matter which department you were in, curators, curatorial people, marketing, commercial people, we were quite a small team, but we literally worked all cheek by jowl. So, you could pop into the office of the keeper of Queen’s pictures and say, “I want to crop this picture to put on a range of stationery. I can’t quite decide which bit to crop.” In a lot of organisations, I know the curator would say, “You can’t crop it. Don’t put it on a range of stationery, it’s not appropriate.” Whereas, in an organisation where you might think that would be the reaction, it would just, “Yeah, I’d take that bit, because that’s really fun if you do that. Look at the expression on that woman’s face, that will really capture people.” They loved helping. 

Stephen Spencer: Part of the reason was because we had a single objective, “We’ve got to raise £37 million, everything we do has to be commensurate with who we represent.” Sorry, I always get a bit… It was such a powerful mission that we’re all on. We didn’t have big budgets. I was talking about the Duchess of Devonshire earlier, she was one of our trustees, and back before the current Queen’s Gallery, the old Queen’s Gallery was a real Heath Robinson affair. The shop was awful, it was a brightly lit Formica unit, harsh, totally unsuitable environment for what we were trying to do. Back in the day it turned over about £400,000 a year, even however bad it was. But, the Duchess kept saying, “This shop is a disgrace. It absolutely is a disgrace. Something needs to be done.” We didn’t have a big budget, but we had to do something because we had Debo on our case. So, we were given 25 grand, and it was about 1500 square feet of shop, and it needed everything doing, so it wasn’t a lot of money.

We managed to get an off-cut of a carpet that was being woven as part of the restoration of the castle, which literally an off-cut carpeted the entire space. We borrowed some antique furniture. We found a fantastic designer called George Carter, who can make things look amazing with paint, and just great design, and great lighting. We transformed the shop, and the following year it took one and a half million pounds. The point was, we did not have a big budget. We had to use our ingenuity to find somebody who could do something on a very small budget, relative. We had to really translate what we thought a shop that was attached to Buckingham Palace should look and feel like, so that we could showcase products that people would want to buy. Because, they clearly couldn’t get them anywhere else, and because they felt they were almost buying literally a product from the Royal Palace. That’s what actually is important, that people are excited, people are emotionally stimulated. 

On that customer journey, there is… Somebody I really admire called Colin Shaw, who is a bit of a guru of customer experience, and he talks about the peak and the end experience being the two most important for the overall creation of emotion and memory. And, of course, creating the right emotions, the right memories, is so important because so much now is dependent on word-of-mouth, and recommendation, and of course loyalty as well.

So, the peak experience, if you go to The Tower of London, visiting the Crown Jewels. Is that a fantastic experience, or is it absolutely awful because you had to queue for an hour and there was no entertainment or cover, and it was raining, and you were shoved through, and everyone was rude to you, it just felt like it was a blur? Or, was that experience facilitated because there was entertainment for the queue, maybe Henry VII’s jester was wandering up and down, and when you got inside you were allowed the time to interact with the exhibits, and you came out saying, “Wow, that was incredible”? Obviously, straight into the shop. 

Stephen Spencer: And then, the end experience, which of course for different attractions might mean different things. It might be the toilets. Really important, Duchess of Devonshire took us into her toilets, the gents toilets at The Orangery Restaurant at Chatsworth, to show us the mint and hand-painted tiles. And, told us, “The toilets are the most important part of the experience”, and I’ve never forgotten that. But, it might be whether somebody says, “Thank you”, or wishes you a safe journey, or crouches down to the children’s level to talk to the children to find out what they thought of the experience. It’s that that sends you off…

We always talk about first impressions last, but last impressions are incredibly important. It’s like when you have a lovely meal in a restaurant and you build up a rapport with the waiter or the waitress, and at the end, somebody else brings you a bill, and it’s like, “Oh”. It’s like you’re having dinner in a friends house and suddenly a complete stranger came to bring you your coats, and you didn’t get to say goodbye to your friends. So, it’s really powerful, but yet actually really quite simple. 

Going back to what we started with, you go back to, “Who are my customers? What do they want? What’s that emotional journey, as well as that physical journey? How well does it deliver on the brand promise, the value proposition? What are those memories that we’re creating, and those emotions?”

Kelly Molson: It feels like, from that story that you just shared as well, that the one thread that runs all the way through this, from all of the things that we’ve covered today, is about everybody in that team having one shared vision. 

Stephen Spencer: Yes.

Kelly Molson: That everybody has that one shared vision. And, that is the core that runs through everything that you do from a customer experience.

Stephen Spencer: Yeah. I was incredibly fortunate in my career to go and study at the Disney Institute. The Disney Institute, they don’t currently, but they did run programs in the UK, and I know quite a few colleagues who’ve been on them. They weren’t as good, because you weren’t at Disney. Going to the Disney Institute is a totally immersive experience. But, the point is, the person in the laundry, the cleaner, it doesn’t matter who you talk to, they have the same vision. And, that’s how it always was from when Walt was around. They went through a wobble after Walt and then his brother Roy died. There’s a really interesting book by Michael Eisner, who now runs Portsmouth Football Club, but he turned Disney around in the 90s about that. It is that idea that everyone has the same vision. Everyone knows and has the same vision of who the customers are. Everyone knows what we should be doing for them.

If you follow that up as far as possible with empowering people to do the right thing, which is probably a whole other podcast, that is very powerful too. Because, if people are on the same page they will know what is the right thing, and it’s giving people confidence. We recommend teaching people storytelling techniques and communication techniques, as well as just teaching people about service standards. If you teach people that actually this is a skill, and it’s a science, and it’s an art… Going back to my earliest days in customer experience, we used to talk about French waiters and the fact that they have this immense pride in being a waiter. It’s a profession, it’s not a job that you just do while you wait for something better to come along. 

 So, if you can convince the people on the front line that they genuinely are as important… I go back to this museum that I was talking about earlier, that’s their new approach, is that front of house and back of housework together. Back of house will regularly appear at the front line and talk to visitors. Is one team, because everyone’s role is equally important. I don’t know many organisations that really, really practice that. A few that might preach it. And, I’m not saying that it’s not difficult to do, it’s jolly difficult to do. It’s jolly difficult, because if you’re the leader of the organisation you have other pressures on you that quite often people out in the organisation don’t know about or see.

But, by the same token, I also learnt that delegation is just the greatest skill to learn, because the more you delegate, if you do it right, the more you empower people, the more you build them up, the more you develop them, the more you allow them to reach their full potential. And then, when the going gets tough, people don’t stand back and say, “What are we doing now, Boss? What’s your plan?” Everyone just instinctively gets stuck in. As we know, in visitor attractions, you never quite know what’s going to happen from day to day. If everyone gets stuck in no matter what, it’s more fun, it’s definitely more productive, and it’s definitely better for the customer. 

Kelly Molson: I think that’s a very good note to end our podcast interview on.

Stephen Spencer: I thought so, a little sound bite there.

Kelly Molson: I’ve got one more question for you before you go, where can people find you? If they want to find out more about what you do and what you offer, where’s the best place that they can find you?

Stephen Spencer: Absolutely. The website is stephenspencerassociates.com. On social media, is Positive Stephen. On LinkedIn, we have a company page, and I’m on there as well. Do have a chat. We may have something specifically that we can offer, our Toolkit we’re very excited about, and we’ll be rolling that out over the next two to three months to show how it can work in different sectors. As you can tell, I just love talking about this stuff. So, if somebody just wants to have, let’s say, a discussion about Line of Duty vs Spooks, then call me.

Kelly Molson: Okay. If you want to do that, listeners, we will put all of Stephen’s details in the show notes. So, if you missed the website address don’t worry, just head to the show notes and they will all be there. 

We always end the podcast by asking if you have a book that you would recommend, so something that you love, or something that’s helped shape your career in some way? Whatever you like. 

Stephen Spencer: Absolutely, I’ll show it to you, although the listeners won’t be able to see it. It’s a book called The Pursuit of Wow! By Tom Peters. I didn’t know who Tom Peters was, in 1997 I was very lucky to go on a five-star fam trip to Atlanta to find out about the merchandise mark there, and the facilities for retail buyers. But also, we were shown the very best of Atlanta from Martin Luther King’s church, to the Jimmy Carter Library, to CNN, Coca-Cola. We had breakfast with Tom Peters. 

 For those who don’t know, Tom Peters wrote the first business bestseller called In Search of Excellence, in 1982, which identified, “What are the traits that make companies successful over the long term?” They’re still the traits that we would talk about today. Tom’s still going strong. He blew me away with the power of his message and his delivery. It was very much about, We need to get back to, and he still talks about this today, people being the most important raison d’être for any organisation. The little things being the big things, so the details being the really crucial things that make or break experiences, make or break the business. He’s passionate about women, as he says, “Women buy all the stuff, they make all the decisions, they’re far better leaders than men.” He’s been saying that for about 30 years.

The Pursuit of Wow!, which is a book I went to buy when I’d heard him speak, I was just like, “Wow, I need to know more”, is literally about how you can take any experience, however small, whatever size your budget, whatever sector you’re in, and you can turn it into a, “Wow!” Experience. In other words, “Why should anyone be excited by this?” How many meetings have we sat in where we’ve planned things that, quite frankly, we’re not excited about, so why should anybody else be excited about it? So, although it was written 20, 25 years ago, it is still my favourite book of Tom’s. 

His brand new book, which is just out, is called Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism, so you can tell he’s still talking about the same things, and this is his post-COVID. He’s 78 now. I’ve met him a couple of times, I’ve interacted with him on social media. And, I said to him, “I can no more believe that you’re 78 than I can that Captain Kirk is 90.” I got some smiley faces in response. 

 He’s basically saying what I’m saying, which is it comes downs to customers interacting with people, and everything else is the luxury that you’re afforded by either the fact that you have a site that is already set up, or you have big budgets. But, it will stand or fall on that human interaction. So, that’s a message for everyone.

Kelly Molson: Absolutely. I very much like the sound of Tom. 

Stephen Spencer: You’d love him, honestly, he’s brilliant. 

Kelly Molson: I’m going to go and follow him.

Stephen Spencer: Yes.

Kelly Molson: Listeners, if you are interested in winning a copy of that book, as ever, if you head over to our Twitter account and you retweet this episode announcement with the words, “I want Stephen’s book”, then you will be in with a chance of winning it. Stephen, thank you so much for coming on today, I think this was an excellent discussion. I’m intrigued as to what the response will be for your unpopular opinion. 

I do hope that people take you up on your offer to have a chat, because I think that there’s some really exciting concepts that you talk about there, and I think that they should be at the heart of what attractions are looking to do now they’re reopening. So, thanks for coming on and sharing that.

Stephen Spencer: An absolute pleasure, Kelly, thank you so much for having me.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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