The Customer Confidential Podcast
“To me, strategy is the story of where we are going in the world. And if you can’t tell it as a story, then maybe you don’t have a strategy.” That’s Beth Comstock, former GE executive and author of Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change (Currency, 2018).
Early in her GE career, she recalls one executive referring to “10% growth” as a strategy. “A mission is not a strategy,” she says. “Do I get up out of bed every day as a customer because you’re making 10% profit or growth on me? No.”
Beth spent nearly three decades at GE. As vice chair of business innovation and, before that, chief marketing officer, she led efforts to accelerate new growth, develop digital and clean-energy initiatives, seed new businesses and build brand value. As president of integrated media at NBC Universal, Beth oversaw TV ad revenue and new digital efforts, including the early development of hulu.com. She was also part of GE’s pioneering efforts to adopt Net Promoter® and learn how to use it—both as a metric, which is a familiar feature of the GE culture, and as a vehicle for telling customer stories, which was new to the company and its executives.
She joined me on the podcast to discuss the important role of storytelling in business innovation. Beth has a long and successful track record of not only finding the stories within a company, but also using those stories to create strategies, build entrepreneurial teams and take imaginative risks. Beth also shares how she earned her position as chief marketing officer at GE, a role that the company hadn't filled in decades and one that not everyone was convinced they needed.
In the following excerpt, Beth talks about the importance of exposing people within a company to the real voices of customers.
Rob Markey: The people who are leading customer experience transformations are change agents, very much the way that you were through your career. If you were going to give somebody new in the chief customer officer role advice—two things—what would your two things be?
Beth Comstock: Well, start with the customer. Every chance you can bring whoever the decision makers are and the integrated team around that customer, start there.
Rob Markey: And when you say start with the customer, what are some tangible ways you would do that?
Beth Comstock: Just bring in the radiologist or the radiology tech person who's actually using your mammography unit. Bring them in so that the engineers, the salespeople, the supply chain [hear from them]. They are the voice of the experience. Don't go do a statistical . . . yeah, you might need your statistical report, so I’m not saying don’t do it . . .
Rob Markey: Support it . . .
Beth Comstock: Support it, and say, okay, there’s 80% of our people who feel this way, but bring the story to life, bring the voice to life. Too often, we translate it. So create those moments where everyone can experience the issue directly. That is profound.
Rob Markey: Make it visceral, make it human.
Beth Comstock: They have to experience that. You often have to see it to believe it.
Rob Markey: And we’re talking B2B here.
Beth Comstock: I know! And honestly, I’m not sure I’d do much more than that. I’d start there and then you have to work through a process: Okay, what are we going to do to change it?
Then you need the supporting mechanisms. Then you do need your operating system. What we came to do in our Innovation Ventures group was more of a growth board approach, which means we're going to invest in certain new ways, we’re going to have to find a way to fund it, we're going to do a lot of experimentation to prove what works, we need to develop the customer, we're going to expect less profit, but then we're going to be able to scale to more.
So I think there's a systematic way, once you've kind of gotten that insight, to figure out how we create new value for them and us. So that's what I would do. I’d expose yourself to the customer and then I'd make sure you had a very systematic approach to working through the options.
Rob Markey: I love that. You're getting people to kick in System 1, the emotional and instinctual part of our brains, as they get a visceral understanding of what the customer is living. And then you're supporting it with systems, you're supporting it with the rational data and making sure that the handful of observations you've made really plays out.
Beth Comstock: The best is if you can go there. I remember when we were trying to do super-inexpensive but high-tech healthcare products for tier-two and tier-three hospitals in India, where their issue was that they didn't have continuous electricity. And you didn't know that until you were in the exam room, so you need to go there and see the customer using it.
This isn't something to do from headquarters. If you're a customer experience leader and you think you can do this all [from headquarters] or you think we're all going to come together and have a customer come and talk to us . . . yeah, you need to do that. But go. Go see them. Go live it. How do you know the experience? It’s empathy.
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