Tech Unknown Podcast With Brian Solis: Customer Experience In The Age Of Distraction

Tamara McCleary

Tech Unknown | Episode 3

Featuring guest Brian Solis and host Tamara McCleary

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“We’re designing customer experience strategies for people who vomit rainbows.”
– Brian Solis, Principal Analyst, Altimeter

Technology is enabling businesses to collect, store and synthesize ever more customer data. How can industry leaders use that data to enrich customer engagement and create more memorable customer experiences? And what role does the human touch play in ever more automated customer service?

Most people are drowning in digital distraction right now — and that includes your employees and your potential customers. We need to create customer experiences that not only attract attention, but also earn and reward that attention.

Businesses have more data available to them now than ever before. The challenge is to use that data to deliver next-generation customer service, and to create experiences that resonate in this distracted age.

Our guest on this episode of the Tech Unknown Podcast is Brian Solis. Brian is an expert on customer engagement and experience, and brings a unique perspective on how businesses can better use data to humanize the customer experience.

“What we’re really talking about is building a mechanism within the organization to understand what people don’t even realize about themselves, to deliver moments that people will value.”
– Brian Solis, Principal Analyst, Altimeter

Listen to learn

  • How to create more meaningful customer experiences
  • How businesses can more effectively use data to promote customer engagement
  • How digital distraction affects employees, customers, and business leaders
  • Brian’s “starter kit” for improving customer experience

About our guest

Brian Solis is a Principal Analyst at Altimeter, a Prophet Company. He’s also a futurist, keynote speaker, and best-selling author. His latest book is Lifescale: How to Live a More Creative, Productive, and Happy Life that is all about reclaiming our lives and taking control.

Brian Solis is a Principal Analyst at Altimeter.

“If we look at customer journeys the way that we’ve always looked at them, trying to optimize and modernize them, we’re going to miss the humanity of them.”
– Brian Solis, Principal Analyst, Altimeter



Did you miss our last episode?

Learn how to connect your business’ islands of innovation with guest Kirk Borne. Click here to listen.




Episode 3: Transcript

Tamara: Technology is enabling businesses to collect, store, and synthesize ever more customer data. How will industry leaders use the data to enrich customer engagement and create more memorable customer experiences? And what role does the human touch play in ever more automated customer service? In this episode, we’re going to explore how customer engagement and experience will evolve in the next few years, and how executives should prepare for what’s next.

And who better to help me talk about customer experience and engagement in 2020 and beyond than Brian Solis. And Brian is a principal analyst and futurist at Altimeter, a profits company, a keynote speaker, and best-selling author, actually a very prolific author. And we’re gonna get into that. Brian studies disruptive technology, its impact on business and society. And in his reports, articles, and books, he really humanizes technology and its impact on business in society to help executives gain new perspectives and insights. Brian’s research explores digital transformation, customer experience, and culture 2.0., and, of course, the future of industry trends and behavior. Brian Solis, welcome.

Brian: I’ve got to take notes about what you just said in that introduction because that really made me sound smart. I ought to use that again. Hello, hello.

Tamara: Well, you know, Brian, I had to brag a little bit, because, well, I’ve known you for a long time and you are amazing. And, you know, one of the things I wanted to ask you, your newest book which, people, if you have not seen this book, you’ve gotta get it because it really is one that does fuse that depth of humanity, and that soulfulness, that consciousness, that connected-ness to our lives and business. And gosh, Brian, you know, ever since technology has really woven its way into our existence by having AIs in our pockets and purses, I have to say that we are living into a distracted life in this book of yours “Lifescale,” which by the way is, “How to Live a More Creative, Productive, and Happy Life,” is so necessary in our culture right now because we are living into the culture of destruction. So tell me more about “Lifescale.” And for those who haven’t read it yet, it’s really kind of a departure for you, right? I mean, it’s a little more personal, infused with business, but it’s more personal than business focused.

Brian: Yeah, absolutely. It’s my eighth book, but my first personal book. And I had no intention of writing it. It wasn’t even in my road map. I was actually trying to write another book that was going to follow up “X,” and just sat, and sat, and sat, and churned, and churned, and churned on a proposal. And even had to hire a developmental editor to help me kind of communicate the ideas that I had for it. And I just ended up giving up and getting frustrated. And it wasn’t coming out of me the way that other books had come out of me. And, you know, at the same time, I had noticed that the earlier books, they were getting harder to write and the duration of the time between them was getting longer. But at the same time, my research reports that I have always locked deadline for, were going through similar edits. And I just kind of went through over the next year, this soulful, sort of introspective, reflective journey of looking at everything in my life. And it turned out that it wasn’t just writing books or writing research reports, turned out that my relationships were suffering, my friendships were suffering, my depth and creativity were struggling.

And it was all just a common pattern of years and years, call it, at that point, 11 years or so of just living online and living the mobile digital life, and a real-time always on life, having the effect of all of these things, kind of playing out. Ironically, the stuff that I studied in my career were starting to affect me professionally and personally. So I set out on a quest to figure out what… It had to be more than just using the technology. What was the story behind it? And as an analyst, and also, as somebody in Silicon Valley that helped launch a lot those companies, I had access to a lot of really interesting people. And I’ll just kind of wrap up… A short answer here is that, the design of the technology that we used, it’s called “persuasive design,” the variable rewards that go into a lot of the social technologies that we use, a lot of the gaming technologies that we use, are all designed to essentially make you use them more. And the distraction and the addiction that results from that is, let’s just say, by design. So it had its effects. And I was affected, and I needed to solve the problem. And “Lifescale” became the solution. But I’ll pause there because I could talk for hours on this. It’s literally a life-changing experience.

Tamara: Well, I can definitely tell the transformation. At least, you know, from afar, as I’m reading through it, it’s phenomenal that you actually spun yourself down into these pages. And I do believe what you’ve touched upon is really hitting the nail on the head for all of us right now living into this, you know, speed of innovation pace that we’re all, you know, treading water to try to, you know, maintain at. So, could you explain a little bit more for those that are listening in? How can business leaders be thinking about helping their customers’ life scale, as well as just grabbing these lessons and applying it to the business world?

Brian: So many psychological, and mental, and chemical things that are happening to us as we use this technology that we get, we don’t even realize that it’s happening. So when we perform. And so, for example, the only reason I figured out that something was going wrong is because I failed to deliver even a book proposal. And books are critical to my career. So I hit a wall. But every single day, when we go to work, we’re distracted, on average, about 200 times a day. And let’s just say you were writing something, or you were researching something, or you were going through numbers, or whatever your job is, and let’s just say you indulge a distraction, so it’s a text, you wanted to check Instagram, you got a notification on Snapchat, whatever it is, you got notes on Slack, or whatever, you know, instant messaging services you use at work, every one of those distractions will take you 23 minutes to get back into the zone of your work. And so if you add that up over the day, you’re losing hours of productivity. And so it sucks for you, and it also sucks for your employer because that adds up to all kinds of productivity and also opportunity costs. So it is absolutely important that we pay attention to this as individuals and also as executives. And we don’t wanna become draconian about it, like, “Okay. We got to shut everything off,” we just at least have to understand what’s happening behind the screen and inside of us, so that we can take control of it and use it in ways that are more productive, right?

So I’m not gonna stop using my phone, I’m not gonna stop using my networks, I’m not gonna stop using my favorite apps, I’m gonna use them more mindfully. But I had to go through a life-changing exercise to understand what was happening to me in order to take control of it. And look, the irony of that was going right back into the fire with a book about how to solve this. And then using all of the same tools and getting out there in front of everybody to spread the word. And, you know, I don’t know that I was mentally or physically prepared to do that because it is a journey. But it’s a choice I readily made to get out there and help start spreading the word and the solution. And then lastly, Tamara, I know this is a long answer, it’s a hornet’s nest because these are the things that are the new normal. And we’re challenging the new normal. And every bit about it is designed to make us feel good. So if I tell you that your productivity, your output level, your caliber of work, your quality of work isn’t even as good as it would be if you mono-tasked, if you focused for 25-minute bursts and just did one thing, and turned everything off. No one wants to hear that. And I never heard it. I never saw it. I never recognized it.

Tamara: So, you know, when I look at just for my own self, how I could apply this wisdom to even, you know, our organization through laminar and our customers, is how are people already distracted? And when we want to engage them, what is it that we can do to really help them to focus just a little bit on the message? So, you know, how do you see these practical applications, you know, that you talk about in “Lifescale,” translating to the business world?

Brian: Well, it’s in every way possible, right? So obviously, the same things that are happening to us are happening to customers, and also employees because we’re all human beings. But think about this at a high level, and then we’ll reverse-engineer it into customer experience, or user experience, or employee experience, all the same thing. It’s why my last book was called “X” because they all have the word experience in it. And that’s, at the end of the day, a human emotional and physical reaction to a moment, right? So we now have to start thinking about those moments in a very human way. So if you just, let’s say at a high level, let’s not even talk about customer journey work, or persona development, or real-time, or predictive data, we have to take a step back because data’s worst enemy is cognitive bias. And if we tend to look at customers and journeys, the way that we’ve always looked at them and trying to optimize them, and trying to modernize them, we’re going to miss actually the humanity of this, which is where my work is centered. That’s one of the reasons I became a digital anthropologist. And this goes back, you know, into the late 90’s, when we had discussion boards and forums, and digital cameras were just starting to hit the market, no one ever thought about putting their pictures online.

In fact, one of my early projects was how to figure out humanity as a way to convince people that it was okay to put their pictures online. And there’s work that I’ve done that… Sometimes I wonder what was I thinking back in the day. But if you use Snapchat, you’re turning the conversation into a moment that will vanish. If you use Instagram, you’re glorifying a picture-perfect life. If you look at conversations on Facebook, especially these days, and networks and relationships, you’re seeing things completely polarized and becoming much more insular in terms of the networks. If you look at YouTube, you’re learning how to constantly distract yourself in a rabbit hole because it’s auto-play in videos that it thinks you’re gonna like. Same with Pinterest, it changes how you consume images and how you make decisions based on those images that you find. And so essentially, what that all adds up is that we’re accelerating our brains. And we’re becoming, accidentally I say, narcissistic. We’re becoming much more demanding. We’re becoming much more anxious. We’re becoming much more impatient. And so you add all of those things up, and essentially, what you have is a consumer who’s trying to run through their journey as best they can.

But stress and anxiety, lack of depth, these emotions are actually core to all of the decisions that you’re trying to make, whether they realize that or not. And so the journey as it exists now needs to compensate for delivering value and relief, and also utility in moments where technology has essentially hijacked our minds in society. So now we have to design for true experience. So when we talk about customer experience, I no longer talk about it as a strategy or as a technology, or as an investment, or road map, I talk about it with an apostrophe S. So I talk about it as the customer’s experience because we have to look at it both intellectually, and emotionally, and physically, from their perspective, so that we can then look at the journey as it exists, and not just optimize it and modernize it, but find ways to deliver value, and relief, and utility, and just a sense of space that they’ll instantly recognize that, “Wow, this isn’t just a touch point, this is literally a touch point.” And I appreciate that.

Tamara: it’s almost as if, you know, technology has this huge potential for good, but where there’s light, there’s dark, you know, as above, so below. There’s these two sides to everything, a duality to everything. What you’re talking about is the duality here is there’s all of this potential to be able to deliver. But on the low side of that, is that, if we are dealing with people who have lost the ability to wait, be able to delay gratification, to have control over their impulses, which, all of this immediate feedback, and you said, our expectations have changed, which they have, it’s really interesting. It’s almost as if we are trying to, you know, weave our businesses around growth and our lives around growth and experience in a culture that has become, you know, borderline personality disordered, almost.

Brian: It’s such a hard topic to discuss without people saying, “Boy, this is depressing,” but at the same time, it’s like anything. These technologies were… If you think about at the core of what they monetize, it’s your attention, right? So the more of that attention that they have, the more of it that they can sell against. Netflix’s Reed Hastings was asked in a shareholder call last year, “What was the company’s biggest competitor?” And his answer was a quip, it was sleep. And he’s exactly right. Netflix competes against sleep. It also competes against Facebook, it competes against Instagram, it competes against anything that you use your attention for. And the more that attention that they can get, the more they’re gonna be able to deliver shareholder, stakeholder value, just like any company. And I think that’s part of where the challenge happens. So I’ll give you an example. And this is happening to a great extent, and it’s accelerating and snowballing all around the world in every single industry. Japanese temples that are far away, let’s just say, out of the normal tourist areas are struggling because fewer people are visiting those temples, and now they’re having to re-imagine the temple experience for a modern consumer who uses like, say, Instagram, by putting disco balls and planetarium shows, and things that they can take pictures of themselves with, or become much more experiential because the old experience wasn’t good enough. So if a temple is having to modernize itself to attract itself to visitors.

Tamara: I am dying.

Brian: Right?

Tamara: Oh, my word. It’s like, we’ve lost the ability to appreciate the subtle.

Brian: Oh, yeah, exactly. And we’re designing customer experience strategies for people who vomit rainbows and…

Tamara: Amen, brother. Go ahead and preach it, Brian Solis. Oh, my gosh, that is so true. Well, you know, when we look at “Tech for Good,” right, technology for good, and, you know, obviously, it can go both ways. But I think everyone listening really has a genuine and sincere heart to want to harness technology in service to humanity. So if we look at really trying to please people, which is what this is, people pleasing, good customer experiences, obviously is great for business growth. You know, and it’s good for customers too, but what would you say what types of technology are emerging today, as leaders in driving this thing we do call customer experience?

Brian: If I look at the biggest trends of where companies are turning around and becoming far more effective in delivering meaningful customers’ experiences, they’re using data as sort of the core. Now, data is not anything new, right? We’ve had access to it for a long time. We just haven’t had access to clean data, smart data, relevant data, and nor have we had an infrastructure that can manage that data in a way that allows or brings every touch point together, and the organizations behind those touch points together to become much more human, much more real-time, much more personal. And also because we have access to AI machine learning, again, the early stages of it, so it’s like teaching a child how to learn, and how to talk, and how to act. You know, if we bring those together, combined with the social sciences, and a new perspective because we can’t build data platforms and machine learning platforms based on our existing biases. We’re gonna have a new model for business, a new operational model for relevance. And that isn’t just about being real-time, what we’re really talking about is building a mechanism within the organization to understand people and understand what people don’t even realize about themselves, to deliver value in moments that people will value.

So it’s about becoming real-time and keeping up, and understanding, and appreciative. It’s also using these technologies to become much more dynamic, and much more experimental, and creative. Also, using these technologies to be much more collaborative, and not siloed as we are. And then more importantly, to use them to become predictive. Because if we think any of this is gonna slow down, we’re still stuck in a previous business genre. And being predictive allows us to see where trends in markets are going to start investing in the things that we need today to be relevant. And then lastly, it’s changing how we think about touch points, right? We have access to all the right technologies, never had so many gifts. But at the same time, those technologies are also accessible by consumers. And we as consumers have never had so many gifts, but we’ve never had so many distractions either. I think it was Kristen Harris, who once said that we were given the gift of God’s but without the wisdom, so we’re getting drunk on all of this stuff. And it takes some wisdom, I think, and some utility, and value, and empathy, to understand all of these things that are happening and process the data with that filter, and then learn how to build the patterns or discover the patterns that allow us to test and learn. And we don’t have to take the last 100 years of business models and success standards, and pressure from boards, and shareholders, and stakeholders in order to realize that all of these things might appear as cost centers, but they’re actually investments in earning relevance among a new generation of consumers that we’ve never seen before.

And so all of those standards for success… And I always say success is a poor teacher for innovation. We’ve taken all of these standards and trying to force fit them for the future in order to continue to deliver the same type or greater shareholder value or returns that sort of show that we’re on the right path. But because of this momentum that we’re still drafting, in many cases, this is not true for startups, right? They have to go invent their markets. But for everybody else, this is your key. You have a choice, what you’re gonna do about it, how much you wanna experiment and invest in iteration, which is doing the same things better, right, through technology and innovation, which is using all this stuff to create and deliver new value. Because a combination of the two and whatever you wanna balance it out at, is going to lead to disruption, which is doing the new things that you create, and making the old things obsolete. So, I always say that disruption is a gift that is either given to you or that you give to someone else. But either way, one of those two scenarios is gonna happen.

Tamara: You know, and what’s your customer experience starter kit? I mean, what technology, employee skills, leadership, process elements, do you think businesses need to start with?

Brian: I think a lot of the challenges… I wrote this report a couple of years ago called “The Change Agents Manifesto,” it was actually just a year ago, and this seems so long. It’s called “The Change Agents Manifesto.” And it was about that, you know, what is the starter kit? The starter kit is perspective. It’s a blessing to be able to see things differently and let it touch you. The challenge is, is that we have all of our years of working experience that are essentially working against us. We have egos and we have politics. And if you think about, anyone who feels threatened within the organization because they didn’t change, they’re gonna take it out on the very people and things that are causing the change itself. And so we actually get in our own way. And a lot of these things internally are just about navigating the human challenges of innovation or transformation, and then allowing technology to be the enabler to do bigger or greater things. And so I had to write a whole paper about the psychology of bringing people to the table.

Tamara: And then do you have a couple of examples for us, Brian, of leading-edge customer experience, you know, that really next-gen data and tech-driven wow moments?  

Brian: You know, for the instant gratification folks, I have a channel called BrianSolis.TV. And I talk to nine CMO’s and CDO’s that were all examples of, I think what you’re asking, and they were also very surprising in their own way. You had Home Away, for example, that was taking real-time data, and they built a whole unit around real-time data to quickly understand the mobile journey only. They didn’t care about the digital journey. They didn’t care about the old physical journey, they only concentrated all money and resources towards understanding the mobile journey. And they set out to use data to uncover what not to do because they were finding a ton of things that they could fix just doing that, and where they were losing engagement, where they were losing conversions. And then they also, once they fixed that, then they found ways to do great things and new things. Airbnb went through a similar journey. They used data to understand how they were attracting the wrong hosts and also how they were attracting the wrong guests, this counter-intuitive thing of essentially using data to find out what not to do. And then you have groups like Carnival Cruise Line, that are using data, and then in turn, engagement strategies to actually omit the people that they don’t want in order to focus their finite resources on the people that they do want, and then finding the specific culturally relevant channels and means to engage them in ways that they’ll appreciate. So essentially, they’re using technology to do less, which I thought was really interesting.

Tamara: You know, since we’re talking about customer experience and engagement in 2020 and beyond, really focusing on that future projection, which is brilliant because this is your wheelhouse. You know, you talked about AI, machine learning, the ability to even…this level of predictive ability that we have now. You know, there’s this fine line, we’ve all talked about it, but it’s still there, and we have to address it as AI and machine learning becomes even more exquisite now that we have technology such as 5G, with this increased, you know, speeds, decreased latencies. I mean, how do we avoid that creepiness factor when designing customer experience based on the data? Because, you know, how much personalization is too much, in your estimation?

Brian: This is a really interesting question. I think new generations of consumers don’t have the same concerns as older generations do because they’ve tasted privacy.  Just think about every data breach or privacy breach that Facebook has had in the last year alone, enough to sink a company, yet we don’t care because the fix that we get from using Facebook is greater than the violation of the privacy that… Look, there’ll be more. There’s certainly more, but we’re moving so fast, and we’re getting the things that we want so quickly, and every time we do, it becomes a new standard. And look, I don’t think any of this is really healthy for the long-term in terms of personal health well-being and wellness, but every single time, it becomes a standard. And we have to understand where that line is for each and every one of us. So you’ll see conversations that are happening all across networks, that are essentially examining that line. So, for example, is Facebook listening to my conversations because every single time I have a conversation in the real world, I come back and I see an ad for that thing? That is a line that people are clearly communicating is being crossed. Facebook is denying that it’s happening. You have investigative journalists who are trying to get to the bottom of this. And yet it’s happening. And no one’s taking credit for it. But look, at the end of the day, sometimes those hats are fried on and is it a creepy factor? I think the easy answer is, it’s user-defined. But without any kind of stamps or any kind of consequences, or any kind of line for ourselves, if we’re not taking the time to have these conversations, that line is gonna just keep being pushed for us.

Brian: I think that line is now crossed for me. And I needed to understand what my relationship was going to be with technology because you could let as much and as much out as you want. But at some point, I realized that, look, as an analyst studying this stuff, and as an anthropologist studying the impacts of this stuff, and then as a human being realizing the effects, I think the biggest awakening for me was that I was not in control of my life. And with that, comes everything, relationships, happiness, success, you know, whatever those definitions are, presence. And when I realized that I was not in control and that I could be in control, that it’s a choice, everything changed.

Tamara: Wow, mic drop. That’s amazing, Brian. Well, I cannot thank you enough for joining us. Do you have one last word before you leave to let everybody know your biggest takeaway?

Brian: I’m just gonna express gratitude for the opportunity to spend time with you, Tamara. It’s been a long time and also for the platform to share my work. And my takeaway is, just find reasons to say thank you to people.

Tamara: Well, thank you so much, Brian. If you guys have not seen his book, you have to check it out. It’s “Lifescale: How to Live a More Creative, Productive, and Happy Life.” Brian Solis, this has been such a pleasure. And thanks for discussing customer experience and engagement in 2020, and beyond. And I cannot wait to maybe revisit this conversation in the beyond with you, Brian. Thank you so much.

Tamara McCleary

About Tamara McCleary

Tamara McCleary is CEO of Thulium, a social media analytics and consulting agency, driving Smart Social through proprietary data analytics and award-winning storytelling. Tamara ranks in the top 1% in influence globally. Named the #1 most influential woman in MarTech by B2B Marketing, recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine as one of 10 Online Marketers to watch, and named Top Digital Marketer by Brand 24 in 2019. Featured multiple times in Forbes for her pioneering influencer marketing strategies on social media for B2B and Enterprise, Tamara serves as a unique advisor to leading global technology companies such as Verizon, IBM, Mercer, MMC, SAP, Dell EMC, and AWS.