Numbers Aren’t Enough: CX Professionals Need to Be Storytellers Too

Published: Feb 09, 2017
Author: Cary Cusumano


People want to hear a story

Twenty years ago I learned one of the simplest but most powerful leadership lessons of my career: people want to hear a story.

I was a young manager, trying to impress my new director with my presentation skills. She listened patiently as I stepped through the tables, graphs and bullets I had assembled to describe my team and the projects we were working on.

She told me the slides were great: it was obvious I had put a lot of work into them. Then came the “but”. She said, “this is good information, but it doesn’t capture my attention. It doesn’t pull me in.” Seeing I wasn’t getting her point, she smiled and leaned forward. “This is excellent data, Cary, but it lacks meaning, it doesn’t tell a story. People want to hear a story.” Her words have stuck with me ever since.

Appeal to the heart, not just the brain

Charts and graphs convey information in a clear, direct way that gives an audience facts for consideration. But a story conveys fundamental truths that reach an audience on an emotional level that’s much more powerful. People will forget what you say and do, but they will remember how you made them feel.

We use this principle every day at Verizon Enterprise Solutions: it forms the foundation of a Customer Journey reconstruction discipline we call Customer Experience Investigation. Here’s how it works.

 Every reconstruction begins with a single data point — an anecdote. It might be a frustration-filled call to a service center, an executive complaint letter, or perhaps a free-text response on a post-transaction satisfaction survey.

Follow the thread to uncover the story

Then we look both forward and backward from that data point to find other journey touchpoints – order requests, additional calls, billing inquiries, customer emails, and sales quotes are some examples. We reassemble all of these touchpoints to create a coherent story, recounting all the events along that journey that ultimately resulted in that customer having to make their complaint.

The reconstruction reveals actions and events, often months prior to the complaint, that could have easily prevented the bad experience. And while every story is unique, nearly every reconstructed journey can be reduced to a handful of commonly recurring Customer Experience themes — themes that provide a basis for action.

Presenting the story

I recently presented one of these reconstructions to senior executives. It was a story that had only officially “begun” the previous month, when a customer made a routine call questioning a bill. But the story actually started more than a year before, when we made a billing policy change. In recounting this customer’s story, I paused to point out recurring themes — like missed callbacks — as they occurred. And to reinforce the emotional connection of the experience, I punctuated my story with actual audio clips from some of the calls this customer had made. Sharing the story in this way resonated with the audience and inspired them to take action.

 Except for one person.

 Like many people, they dismissed the value of examples and anecdotes: “Now you need to get more data,” they said. “Then you can see how often this CX problem is happening and prioritize actions based on where the highest number of issues are occurring.”

Anecdotes are just as important as hard numbers

But anecdotal, qualitative data is proper data. And when you’re prioritizing your CX efforts, in many ways anecdotes are more powerful than sterile charts and graphs. Anecdotal data, especially unsolicited feedback, captures not just how often issues happen, but the emotions that customers experience – how we made them feel.

Certainly, it’s important to collect and graph CX-related numerical data. But don’t let a focus on hard numbers undermine the importance of stories, and how they help you understand and empathize with your customers. It’s the stories that will enable you to distinguish simple irritations from the CX problems that really matter. And it’s the stories that will inspire you and your colleagues to keep working on driving change, every day.

So remember, people want to hear a story — and if you want to improve your customers’ experiences, then learn how to tell a good one.

A 2016 CX Impact Award winner from the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA), Cary Cusumano is a Customer Experience and Design Thinking practitioner in Verizon Enterprise Solutions.  He is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP) and Certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.

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