Lessons from Taranto and the Devastating Results from Inaction

Who is Taranto? It’s not who, it’s where. The Bay of Taranto is in the southern part of Italy and was the site of what turns out to be a very significant battle between the Royal Navy of England and the Italian Navy. The Battle of Taranto was a short battle during World War II, lasting just the days of November 11 and 12 in 1940.

The Battle of Taranto, November 1940

At this point in World War II, France had surrendered and the United States had not yet been drawn into the war. Britain alone fought the combined forces of Germany, Italy and Japan. In the Bay of Taranto, the Italian Navy had sheltered a strong fleet of 23 ships including cruisers, battleships and destroyers. Italy believed the shallow waters of the bay provided protection from torpedoes and other forms of attack.

But, on November 11, 1940, the British launched a surprise attack from a newly commissioned aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious. This, the first-ever air attack launched exclusively from an aircraft carrier, put half the Italian Navy’s fleet out of commission for the next six months. The Battle of Taranto advanced naval war strategy dramatically during the course of these 2 days. The power and importance of aircraft carriers were established for decades to come.

Two leaders, in particular, took note of the British success.

Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto drew comparisons between the Bay of Taranto and Pearl Harbor, where the America Pacific fleet was moored. In January of 1941, Yamamoto began devising a plan for attacking the terrific naval and air forces the Americans had stationed at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu. (In an interesting twist, Yamamoto advised his superiors that this was a death sentence for Japan. Their reaction was to assign him to lead the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

In November of 1940, shortly after the British attack on the Italian fleet, Admiral Harold Stark, chief of naval operations for the U.S., had the insight to foresee a similar attack on Pearl Harbor. He also advised his superiors in a letter that said, “If war eventuates with Japan, it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the Fleet or the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.” War with Japan eventuated in just that fashion.

The insights were developed independently by two admirals (Seeing What Others Don't, Gary Klein). Both were correct in the insights they delivered to their superiors. In fact, Yamamoto was correct twice. His insight delivered a successful attack on December 7, 1941 and woke a sleeping military to eventual devastating results for Japan. Yamamoto called it correctly on both accounts.

Stark called it too. In fact, reading Stark’s letter of January 1941 to the secretary of the navy is chilling. He told the secretary of the navy exactly what would happen and the naval and air bases at Pearl Harbor were still devastated. No torpedo nets were installed to protect Pearl Harbor. All of the air and sea assets were grouped together in convenient targets. Airplanes, in an apparent attempt to avoid sabotage, were parked in groups on the tarmacs making them easy targets for the Japanese airstrikes. The Japanese ships traveled 4,000 miles without being detected, and when the air strike was seen on the radar, it was ignored, brushed off as American planes returning to base.

What are the lessons we should take away from the insights formed at the Battle of Taranto? Here are just a couple:

  1. Insights can be very valuable. But, if we fail to act appropriately on the insights, those insights are worthless. Stark was brilliant and developed the insight to predict the attack. No action was taken and the value of the insight was destroyed along with 2,400 Americans. We see this constantly in the business world. The most brilliant insights about our customers and the experience we provide for them are worthless if we fail to take action.
  2. Some of the best information we can gather comes from our front-line employees. Yamamoto knew the ramifications of the attack on Pearl Harbor and he warned his superiors. He had seen and studied the might of the U.S. He warned the Imperial powers, even wondering if they had “confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.” All too often, the insights coming from the people who interact with our customers are marginalized in favor of a greater strategy that may or may not be customer friendly.

Developing insights about our customers is valuable and most companies gather some intelligence. The most successful companies use that intelligence to create strategies that address the needs of their customers. And they execute with abandon. Great strategies without execution are worthless. Great insights without action are worthless. In order to serve our customers and create value for our shareholders, we must take action. We must execute.

Five qualitative approaches to customer listening

Five qualitative approaches to customer listening:

  1. Customer advisory boards – Recruiting customers to provide ongoing feedback and participate in group sessions can generate excellent advice and improvements. Careful planning to recruit the right group of customers and structuring the sessions to focus on a few primary issues are important best practices.
  2. Focus groups – Focus groups can be conducted with a variety of small groups to obtain a well-rounded collection of insights. Expertise in managing the discussion is important to ensure all opinions are heard and to prevent anyone from dominating the discussion.
  3. Interviews – This technique is conducted one person at a time, either over the phone or in person. While it is more time consuming, it is a highly personal way to obtain terrific insights from various customers.
  4. Experience sessions – This complements techniques such as journey mapping. These sessions are about charting the ideal experience and leverage creativity and imagination to transform customer experiences.
  5. VOCE – Voice of the Customer through the Employee is all about understanding customers by asking the employees who work with them the most. Employees often are well aware of necessary improvements. 

Three ways to help sales teams

Retention and growth of existing customers are at the forefront of executive agendas, and we continually create new initiatives to help increase our odds of retaining and growing the customer base. Customer experience professionals can play a role in helping the sales team acquire the right customer. Here are a few steps to consider taking:

  1. Profile the leads at an organization level. If the leads are stored in a centralized system, start to profile them into various groups. This may include the size of the company, industry, perceived strategic fit and method by which they were acquired as a lead, to name a few. From there, look at how customers with the same profile have worked as customers once acquired. Which profile is the most profitable? What are their retention and growth rates? Which groups have a high cost to serve?
  2. Understand the needs of each group. Once you have a set of personas or profiles among the company’s sales leads, think about the needs of each group. What is causing them to put your company into their consideration set? That will help the sales teams determine specific strategies to help the leads convert to sales. You may need to do some exploratory work both internally and with customers to assist with this step.
  3. Move to an opportunity-level assessment beyond the higher-level needs. Once you have determined which profiles have the highest potential, think about the specific opportunity. Just because an opportunity with this potential customer has worked in the past may not mean it is a good fit this time. Make sure your company can solve a particular challenge they are asking for.

Seven ways senior leadership can advance CX strategy

Advancing your CX strategy is best accomplished through a partnership – grounded in active leadership on both sides – between CX professional and CEO. The ultimate ownership of customer experience resides with your CEO. Here are several ways CEOs play a role in advancing your CX Strategy:

  1. Use insights strategically. For CEOs, customer intelligence drives decision-making at key foundational levels. Fundamentally, customer-focused CEOs use customer insights broadly in ways that make a real difference for their customers and, by extension, their business.
  2. Set aside short-term financial gain. Usually, CEOs who are focused on customers are willing to set aside short-term financial gain for the longer-term benefit to customers. Knowing that positive, sustainable results won’t happen overnight, these leaders demonstrate patience and resist the urge to change course midstream
  3. Believe in the broader customer story. While CEOs are most likely to interact with a handful of top customers, these leaders know the full, true story is rarely anecdotal. Consequently, with objectivity and an open mind, they engage across the customer base, digging deeper to identify common issues, trends and needs.
  4. Coordinate across silos. CEOs play the ultimate role in creating and sustaining an environment in which collaboration among functional areas is encouraged. This is one of the most effective methods to break down silos.
  5. Encourage empathy for customers. When chief executives are focused on customers, they work to establish a culture that prioritizes the customer experience and puts customer needs first. CEOs cultivate empathy for customers among employees, which in turn motivates associates to be customer centric.
  6. Request information, advice. CEOs value customer insights, and those who are the most customer focused proactively seek it out. These CEOs are regularly requesting information, asking questions or seeking advice about how to improve customer relationships.
  7. Make the call on resources. If CEOs value the customer and can see how customer experience strategies have business impact, they’ll commit the resources necessary to develop and implement a customer experience that is proactive, personalized and seamless.

Barriers to CX strategy

Today’s CEOs say customer experience is the most effective way to differentiate from the competition. Yet far too many companies do not realize the full impact and potential. Here are three common barriers most likely to stall progress and threaten overall CX strategy.

  1. Authority – In many organizations, CX professionals don’t have direct responsibility for resources. They have to rely on their influence to get attention and then hope for success. This lack of authority extends to people, resources and the budgets necessary to drive customer-focused improvement initiatives.
  2. Access – The customer experience spans many organizational functions, levels and geographies, but too often the CX professional has limited access and exposure to the resources and is ultimately limited by the organizational structure. In attempts to work across silos, some departments may cooperate; others won’t, derailing CX improvements that require collaboration. Similarly, access to data is also a challenge.
  3. Action and Accountability – CX professionals can no longer afford to simply provide recommendations to the business. CX professionals must stay front and center until the experience is improved from the customer perspective. Without CX’s continued involvement, the effect of customer experience efforts is unclear and unsubstantiated, impacting the long-term viability of CX programs.

Storytelling – Two Essentials for Customer Experience Professionals

The customer experience (CX) local networking group in Indiana recently discussed the topic of storytelling. It is an important topic for any business professional, but based on the discussion, it's particularly relevant for customer experience professionals. The discussion prompted two key essentials for customer experience professionals: It's the CX professional's responsibility to ensure the RIGHT...

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Enhance employee engagement: seven tips

Activities like attracting and retaining the right people and engaging employees have become increasingly important to CEOs. Customer experience professionals can be a valuable resource in helping employees across the organization identify with customers. Here are a few tips:

  1. Identify targets of influence. Because talent management isn’t normally on the CX professional’s radar, probing to find targets of potential influence, building strategic relationships and collaborating with employee-related functions are important and can help create an organization-wide shift in culture.
  2. Leverage direct employee feedback.  Understanding what employees know, understand and think about customers is often the first step in determining how and where CX professionals can create the most impact.
  3. Support recruitment and hiring. CX professionals are in a unique position to help hiring and recruiting professionals develop a list of characteristics and attributes to look for when hiring employees. If associates are selected with customer focus as part of the criteria, they’re more likely to thrive and contribute to the organization in ways that help create an advantage.
  4. Get involved in onboarding. Describing to new hires how the company’s culture, strategy and customer-focused purpose create value for its primary stakeholders is an essential way CX professionals can impact employee engagement.
  5. Organize mentoring and training. Mentoring can be an effective way to expose employees to customer-centric ways of doing business. Pairing veteran employees who have a strong understanding of customer needs with newer employees can help bring customer focus to day-to-day responsibilities. Finding ways to supplement existing training with the customer journey map enhances connections between employees and customers, helping associates feel as if they are part of something significant that extends beyond their job.
  6. Identify rewards, recognition and even intervention. When actions result in improvements to the customer experience, CX professionals are in a position to nominate employees for awards, share recognition with supervisors and find other ways to highlight and recognize good work that benefits customers. On the flip-side, helping the organization deal with employees who aren’t aligned with the customer strategy is another responsibility of the CX professional.
  7. Promote through communication. CX professionals can work with those responsible for company communications and internal marketing to ensure customer focus is part of the messaging. This helps promote enterprise-wise solidarity, inspire new ways of thinking and engage associates “beyond the numbers.” 

Steps toward achieving world-class impact and return

Impact and return involve demonstrating how customer initiatives provide a financial benefit to the company. Metrics such as satisfaction and loyalty cannot be the end goal. Rather, they must connect with other business indicators and activities. When this is in place executives are more willing to invest in customer programs, knowing that results have been shown to positively impact financial performance.

Here are four steps you can take to achieve world-class impact and return:

  1. Start by aligning the customer perspective with other authoritative sources, such as financial, operational or employee metrics.
  2. Analyze the information to determine if there is a strong and meaningful relationship. As one area improves, is it having a positive impact on growth and profitability?
  3. For areas with a strong relationship, prioritize initiatives that will most directly impact the measure.
  4. As improvements are implemented, measure the business impact.

Every Day Questions

There are certain questions we should constantly ask ourselves. Every day, these questions should be on our minds. I’ll bet we can all come up with a list. Here is a starter list:

  1. Every positive experience you encounter as a customer should be followed by the question, "How can I provide that kind of an experience to my customers?"
  2. And the first question's sibling: for every negative experience, “How can I make sure I never do that to my customers?”Questions to ask yourself every day
  3. Every time you think about how strategic your customers are to you, ask yourself, "How can I be as strategic to my customers as they are to me?"
  4. “What did I do today to create value for my customers and my company?”
  5. Time is precious. Days, weeks, months, quarters, and even years fly by. So, “Did I accomplish what I set out to today?”
  6. “Why?”
  7. It’s easy to think about the things we should do, but “What should I stop doing?”
  8. Sometimes a clean slate would be nice. No baggage, no history, no constraints. “If I were new in this position, what changes would I make?”

Add to the list. I know there are many more, and one question just might cause someone to think and act in a new way.

Framework to deliver business outcomes

Customer-focused strategies have emerged as one of the best ways to give your company a competitive advantage, and CX professionals are the catalysts transforming CX. Here is a recommended framework to help CX professionals deliver business outcomes:

Step 1: Identify business outcomes. Business objectives are the outcomes defined as imperatives by the CEO and other stakeholders. Growing revenue from existing customers, increasing customer retention, reducing costs and increasing market share are examples of business objectives.

Step 2: Define success measures. Objective evidence is necessary to signal that the business objective has been achieved. Some are direct such as retention or growth rates.

Step 3: Develop meaningful insights, recommendations and alerts. This is the heart of a well-defined and well-executed CX program. It combines targeted customer intelligence with proactive and predictive analysis.

Step 4: Act on recommendations and alerts. Move beyond just delivering customer information and insights. Action plans are required to turn intelligence into catalysts for change.

Step 5: Track and measure results of actions. Use financial and operational data to validate the ROI of customer experience initiatives. It means showing the progression from what customers said to how you responded and then to the result achieved.

Step 6: Communicate successes. Laying firm groundwork across the steps in the framework allows for telling the story in a way that’s objective, fact-based and shows that success was achieved through improvements to the customer experience.