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Welcome to the first edition of Customers Matter, a monthly podcast for executives of organisations of all shapes and sizes grappling with three big questions:

1. How can I better know and serve my customer or target audience?
2. How do I meet the challenge of digital disruption – and even turn it to my organisation’s advantage; and
3. How can I innovate to stay ahead?

My name is John O’Neill and most weeks I’ll be podcasting from Australia, where I’m based – although I do expect to speak with you and my interviewees from other parts of the globe as our podcasting journey unfolds.

This freshly minted podcast is my attempt to share with a broader audience some of the “thinking and doing” which my colleagues and I are involved in as we work with organisations grappling with these big questions – and as we grapple with them ourselves. But before I turn to those questions, you may wonder why have we chosen podcasting as our primary communications platform … Last year, I noticed my wife had acquired a new habit – loading up her iPhone with a fascinating public broadcaster-produced series on psychoanalysis, one of her passions. She wouldn’t leave the house on her morning walk without ensuring she had downloaded the latest 20-30 minute episode. It seemed the perfect length for her multi-tasking – and it effectively rewarded her for doing her otherwise somewhat mundane daily exercise regime. (Although some might differ with that description of the beachside promenade along Sydney’s glorious Maroubra Beach.)

I’d also noticed some of the hype in the mainstream media about the podcast Serial (LINK) and started to realise that podcasting was a communication format that I had not properly considered. It had not been swept away by audio-visual content, after all … Or, at least, has not yet. Why not? Well, the key is this multi-tasking. As with my wife’s exercise regime, podcasting can be used for infotainment, education or just plain entertainment while you do other (usually mundane) things: housework, gym and, especially, on a commute. There is a lot of hype about the driverless car but it is still some way off and, in the meantime, a trend has emerged in the US – where else? –colloquially described as the home of the “automobile university”. Most people in the US – and in Australia – have a 20 to 30 minute commute at least twice a day. Streaming is cheaper every month and cars are now podcast enabled.

And, not surprisingly, increasing numbers of people prefer while commuting to consume: content of their choice, and connected to their passions and interests rather than being bombarded with stop-start advertising and/or listening to a range of content only some of which is relevant to their interests … But back to the main topic: How can and are organisations combining Customer Experience Strategy and Design with Digital Know-How and Management Consultant-style thinking to stay ahead?

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure, through a not-for-profit organisation that I was chairing – an adoption advocacy group founded by Deborra-Lee Furness called Adopt Change – to meet and get to know Paul Tranter, Boston Consulting Group’s global chief of staff. Paul is an Australian who grew up and worked on a dairy farm west of Cairns in the tropical north of the Australian state of Queensland, not so far from the equator. His is a fascinating and little known global success story and he is someone I hope will share his remarkable career from those most remote beginnings in a future podcast. Anyway, Deb’s husband, the highly talented and acclaimed Australian actor Hugh Jackman, had been extremely generous in supporting BCG when it celebrated 50 years in business in the US. Paul and BCG returned the favour, in part, by providing our little social enterprise with substantial pro bono advice personally guided by Paul.

As a result, over lunch in a restaurant on a finger wharf reaching into Sydney’s spectacular harbour, Paul and I got to talking more broadly about BCG’s philosophy and his observations of the business world . When I described to Paul our obsession with Customer Experience Design and Digital enablement – now the topic of this podcast – he stopped, looked at me and said: “John, those are challenges being posed not just by senior executives in Australia and the US. Those are the questions pre-occupying of the directors in the Boardrooms of the biggest companies on the globe.” My fascination with the convergence of the customer and the digital age first started coming into focus back in 2009 after my two business partners and I put together our agency. We did this by merging a web publishing software business based in Australia’s second largest city, Melbourne, with a digital design business based in my home-town of Sydney.

We knew from day one we didn’t want to be an online banner shop for above-the-line creative agencies who didn’t understand the power of digital and continued to look at the world through the prism of what we saw as expensive, wasteful “push marketing” combined with the so-called Big (campaign) Idea. We felt there was a more interesting opportunity – to take our company’s “digital know-how” and help businesses solve business problems. Sort of a digital agency for grown ups. That was, after all, essentially what we were doing (in a much narrower way) whenever we designed and built web platforms for a vast array of organisations, as we continue to do today. One of my two partners is Keith Stanley – himself one of Australia’s most formidable marketers and a veteran on the retail and travel worlds who I have interviewed in one of our three launch episodes. Keith made me slap my forehead in a Homer Simpson “Doh” moment. What about the physical world?” he asked at a board meeting in 2011. “You’ve forgotten the physical world!”

He was right, of course. A digital agency thinking only about digital channels might superficially make sense but can it really when we all live, work and breathe both online and offline? As is the way with Mr Stanley, we took the discussion further over some serious Shiraz and started to mull a range of extraordinary retail success stories including JC Penny, Amazon, Zappos and Apple out of the US and Keith’s home-grown, gravity-defying Australian alma mater – Flight Centre, among
many others. We also considered the failures – the businesses for whom what another close colleague calls their “Kodak” moment had come and vanquished them to irrelevance if not death. Our conclusion was startling simple.

The companies that succeeded and thrived in this convergent, disruptive, exponentially data-driven digital world were those who really understood their customers and anticipated and met their needs across offline and online channels. Naturally, digital has become more and more important, including to enhance the physical experience. Today we work with organisations of all shapes and sizes including universities, listed corporates, plenty of mid-market business, and a range of high profile not-for-profits and government agencies. We do our best help them understand their customers (and often learn from them in other ways while we are at it). Inevitably we are also collaborating with them on ways to leverage digital tools and technologies, and the data that yields, to help them get an unfair advantage while also better serving their customers. Going forward, each month, I am determined that we will share our thinking and insights via extremely interesting interviews incorporating case studies and including leading global thinkers among our interviewee talent.

We will not covertly “sell”, I promise. We will be single-minded in exploring with super smart people how to attain competitive advantage in this era of accelerating digital disruption. We’ll explore an array of topics with our talent from very practical perspectives. We’ll ask – and have them answer – some of the simplest and yet most vexing of questions, such as: How do we understand our customer and
anticipate his or her needs? What is digital strategy and where does it begin and end? What is innovation and how do you do it (and why is it such an overblown, overused term – and so misunderstood?). Does marketing technology need to be so expensive? (No! And we’ll explain why not …) And, while we’re on that theme, what is Open Source Software and why on earth aren’t more people using it?

(Think of the impact of generic drugs have had on the price and availability of life saving medicines and you’ll understand where we’re headed.)

Our format will always be interview driven and I guarantee the quality of the thinking and the stories our guests will share will inform and inspire you. We will bring the intellectual rigour of Harvard Business Review to our topics with the passion and the energy of talk-back radio. We will design our interviews to elicit top tips based on what our interviewee talent has learned, often the hard way. We’ll be seeding our content from this primary platform in an array of digital channels – including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. I hope you enjoy your podcast journey and thank you for subscribing. It will take us to a world of interesting destinations every month and I look forward to your company on our travels.