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.”