Relentless pursuit of ‘total customer experience’ pays off for Experience Engineering

“The Industrial Age was about making and selling,” Carbone said. “Now it’s about sensing and responding."

Great changes sometimes hinge on small things. So it was for Lou Carbone, who built a new career on the difference between a two-ply and a four-ply napkin.

In the 1970s, Carbone was a New York-based ad executive whose accounts included Howard Johnson’s. Once the nation’s leading restaurant chain, HoJo’s had fallen on hard times and was focused on cutting costs — right down to thinner napkins.

Meanwhile, one of Carbone’s other accounts, the Walt Disney Co., was relentless in searching for ways to make its customer experience the best it could possibly be. Reflecting on the difference in the two approaches, Carbone began thinking about the importance of customer experience in business success.

After moving to the Twin Cities with Grey Advertising, Carbone struck out on his own in 1994. The name of his Bloomington-based firm, Experience Engineering, reflects its focus on helping businesses create a total customer experience.

“The Industrial Age was about making and selling,” Carbone said. “Now it’s about sensing and responding. It’s not how the customer feels about the company — it’s how the company makes the customer feel about themselves.” It’s not how the customer feels about the company — it’s how the company makes the customer feel about themselves.”

Carbone comes across as a mix of Mr. Spock and Deepak Chopra: low-key and logical, yet speaking of grand metaphysical topics. There are 18 “deep metaphors” that influence all human thinking, he says. Companies have to deal with their customers not only on a rational level but on an emotional and even unconscious plane. The companies that can tap into these deep, unspoken areas of human experience will win loyalty and business.

Example: Pizza Hut’s United Kingdom division. The U.K. operation had lost a third of its business in nearly a decade of declining sales. “They were offering an awful buffet of cold cardboard,” Carbone said. The insight was to turn a trip to Pizza Hut into a pizza experience.

Experience Engineering created a “pizza parade.” As fresh, hot, pizza came out of the oven, waiters brought selections around to the tables in a dramatic presentation. Carbone’s group even hired a choreographer to develop the serving flourishes.

Along with Disney, Apple is the example Carbone most often points to in describing the importance of the overall customer experience.

“Steve Jobs understood unconscious thoughts and metaphors,” he said of the Apple co-founder. “People don’t always know what they want — I never knew I needed an iPad until Apple created it.”

Carbone, with co-author Stephan Haeckel, wrote what’s considered the seminal journal article in defining experience value management as a business discipline. He’s working on revisions for the 10th printing of his book, “Clued In: How to Keep Customers Coming Back Again and Again.”

Experience Engineering employs a dozen consultants and posts sales of about $7 million a year. Carbone said he’s content to operate the firm at that size, leaving him time to write and speak as well as run the business.

“In the last decade, we’ve learned more about neuroscience and psychology than we have in the entire history of those disciplines,” he said. “I wish I could live 50 more years so I’d be around to see where we go next.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/09/2012 - 07:24 am.


    Did Mr. Carbone have to pay for this ad?

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/09/2012 - 07:58 am.

    There’s more than a few contradictions

    in Mr. Carbone’s pitch. For example, the notion that “It’s not how the customer feels about the company — it’s how the company makes the customer feel about themselves” is contradicted by the fact that he “never knew I needed an iPad until Apple created it.”

    If Acme Electronics had created the iPad, he wouldn’t have felt the need to buy it. It’s only because of how he feels about Apple that made him want one.

    Also, “The Industrial Age was about making and selling. Now it’s about sensing and responding.”

    Well, the industrial age was about sensing and responding too. Factories sprung up to make things that people wanted and needed. If they were wrong in their “sensing and responding” assessment, then as now they’d be out of bidness.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/09/2012 - 10:44 am.

    I prefer Carbone’s pizza to Pizza Hut’s.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/09/2012 - 10:48 am.

    Total Customer Experience?A

    Total Customer Experience?

    A well-made product, made and presented by people who care about the product.

    There, saved ya’ millions.

    Who gives a damn about a “pizza parade” if the pizza is crap and the staff is sullen.

  5. Submitted by Jerry Buerge on 07/10/2012 - 05:33 am.

    Value Management

    Like it or not folks, tha man is correct, as only the customer can determine the value of the item or service received.

    WE return to those places and continue to purchase those items or services that WE consider to have delivered the value that WE recognize, even though WE may only sense the pleasure during OUR experience with the particular provider.

    Simple, egh?

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/10/2012 - 08:42 am.

    Howard Johnsons?

    Everyone knows what happened to Howard Johnsons right? HoJo?

    Every now and then I write a blog that summarizes interesting stories in the Strib and NYTs Sunday editions. One thing I like to do is just grab the headline from the NYTs “Corner Office”, a regular feature in the business section that taps into the genius of corporate America. There’s never any good reason to actually read these articles but I make a note of these headlines because most weeks they pass for straight satire with the inane observations one could possibly imagine such as: “Never Swerve When Driving The Bus” and “Let Everyone Swim But Make Sure You’re In The Pool”.

    I have long declared one of the problems with the US economy is the mediocrity of it’s executive class. One sign of that mediocrity is this practice of hiring “Consultants” or attending seminars wherein mundane observations are peddled as new found wisdom and state of the art business acumen. Worse, the peddlers of such tripe who do little more than recount someone elses success are then celebrated as geniuses themselves! A cross between Spock and Chopra? (Actually I’m not sure that’s compliment)

    Listen: If you’re a business person and you need a former marketing exec (who counts a failed hotel chain amongst his former clients) to tell you that Apple has run a superb marking and branding campaign; or if you think customer service and branding are concepts that were discovered in the late 80s- you need to be mowing lawns or something for a living because you have no business running a business.

    If you think sensing and responding can replace making and selling, and that the product itself is irrelevant, please do us all a favor and get a job selling cars or something. If you think THIS is state off the art business advice, you know nothing about business. Dr. Pepper has always had the best commercials, never made a dent in Pepsi or Coke sales. If apple weren’t producing amazing devices, no one would care about their customer experience. It was Apple’s GUI interface, not their customer experience that put them on them on the map. And obviously making a better pizza, not making people feel better about eating cardboard, is what brought Pizza Hut back from the brink. A guys says: “Hmmm, our pizzas take kinda like cardboard, let’s put more cheese on them” and his a genius in this country that runs for president. Obviously good customer service can build brand loyalty, but that’s….. obvious, not a deep thought.

    I’m not saying business is easy, but these are completely mundane (and contradictory) observations pretending to be deep thoughts. The fact that people not only make a living, but are celebrated for dispensing this kind of advice is just another sign of executive mediocrity.

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