Customer Experience Thinking with Mike Wittenstein & Akos Tolnai

11 min readFeb 8, 2021

These are challenging times we’re living in — living through might better capture what we’re going through globally. Not only are the people feeling the strain, so are the systems we have designed to support us.

When it comes time to rebuild the severed connections and broken systems, we will need to make sure that we don’t end up with more of the same. We need a more citizen-centered approach, and it turns out that Customer Experience Thinking can help. It has the tools, principles, and methods to put all the dysfunctional decision-making behind and get to the global problems at hand.

I, Bryan Szabo, recently sat down (virtually) with Mike Wittenstein from StoryMiners and Akos Tolnai — both Customer Experience experts. We talked about how we can use Customer Experience Thinking to approach some of the largest problems we’re facing as a planet. We’ve edited the interview for clarity and brevity.

Interviewer: Thanks for joining me today. You live and work in very different places. Mike, you live in the United States, in Atlanta, right?

Mike: That’s right.

Int: And Akos, you live in Budapest, Hungary.

Akos: Yes, that’s right.

Int: The two of you, though, are seeing the same thing in terms of the gap between how your countries are responding to the pandemic and what Customer Experience Thinking tells about how they should be responding. Before we dive in, can you both introduce yourselves?

Mike: I’m a five-time entrepreneur. Before starting Storyminers in 2002, I ran a digital agency in the ’90s and worked as IBM’s eVisionary at the turn of the millennium. I’m the founder and the managing partner at Storyminers, and we’ve been working in the customer experience and business strategy areas since. We’re very good at helping leaders get clear on their stories, Ideas, and strategies, and we help them convert those into experiences that their employees and their customers can become a part of. We’ve worked with about 800 companies, helping create around $2 billion in value for our clients.

Int: Excellent, and how about you, Akos?

Akos: I’ve been running AbilityMatrix since 2010. We are at the intersection of customer experience and innovation, and we help companies with product market fit and go-to-market strategies. We help companies find the best innovation built around customer rationality and behavioural economics.

Int: How would you define Customer Experience?

Mike: The layman’s definition is simply this: it’s everything a brand does for its customers. minus everything the business does to them (e.g., the waiting in line, the hassle, the friction, etc.). Subtract one from the other and you’ve got Customer Experience.

Akos: I agree. It comes down to understanding customers’ perceptions. It’s about understanding people. It’s similar to marketing, but it’s not just about communication. It’s also about substance, and how we can use that substance to create an emotional experience.

Int: Great, let’s dive right in. 2020 was, to say the least, a crazy year. The global pandemic has raised the stakes. More than ever, we need honest and substantive communication, but there seems to be a movement in the opposite direction. How would you grade your respective countries on their response to the pandemic?

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Akos: I’d give Hungary something lower than an F. I’d give them a K, but they’re not alone. Almost every country has failed this test. Rather than trying to solve this collectively (as a WE), countries all over the world have tried to do what’s best for them (for ME).

Mike: I’d go even lower for the US response. Something like a U seems about right. For a long time, it seemed like average people had a better understanding of the problems at hand than the folks who are supposedly in charge. There’s been a lot of good work since the transition of power from Trump to Biden, but there’s still a long way to go.

Int: What’s the largest problem?

Mike: Our infrastructure has failed us. It can’t handle global-pandemic-size problems. We’ve got global-scale problems, yet we don’t have an infrastructure designed to work effectively at that scale. We’re set up to work on a state-by-state basis. Regarding COVID, we can’t move medical supplies fast enough (yet). We can’t share facts or educate broadly (yet). We’re using our great-grandparents’ thinking tools, governance, and we continue to invest in tired ways, using old metrics and old organization styles. We need a reboot.

Akos: I think we need more than a reboot. We don’t want more of the same or even some repaired version of the same. We need to reinvent, especially in key areas. Infrastructure is one of these. Most importantly, we need to rely on experts, and it’s their perspectives that need to come through when politicians communicate with citizens. When thousands of people are dying, we need to hear from experts, not from self-interested politicians.

Int: If you had been in the driver’s seat, how would you have done things differently?

Akos: I would have relied on what the experts were telling me. There’s a similarity here between politics and business. Customer Experience extends outwards from the employee experience, and politicians should look at citizens like businesses look at their employees. You have to make them feel secure. What are their biggest fears and insecurities? When we listen to experts, we can bridge that understanding gap.

Mike: I’m not an expert in healthcare communications, but I know people who are, and I admire them for what they know how to do. At a certain point, though, we have enough data in hand. We need to act, and Customer Experience Thinking is optimal for that moment. It forces leaders, designers, and front-line team members to look at WE instead of ME.

Rather than asking “Will this help me get re-elected”, you should look at the end-state that produces the best outcomes for everybody.

Int: Absolutely. That really ties in nicely to what we’re talking about.

Mike: At the end of the day, it comes down to the citizens — not the politicians, celebrities, or even the scientists. We can succeed if we make people the heroes of the story and get them to start thinking about what a post-COVID world looks like. What would it mean to have freedom of travel again, to be free to see friends and family whenever and however they like? We need to work backwards from that point.

Akos: Yes, the keyword here is ‘global’. In terms of how broadly this is affecting us, we haven’t seen anything like this since WWII. There is pain and struggle everywhere, so our solutions need to be global as well.

Int: Where should we be looking for solutions?

Akos: We should be looking at business-infused solutions. These are the best-available solutions, and they can work on a grand scale. Start-ups are able to scale globally remarkably quickly, and global corporations are able to think broadly and act globally. Take Apple for instance: they had information based on what their subsidiaries were doing in China, and they learned from this data and used it to help them understand what would happen in other countries.

Mike: Yes, I think that the people running the show could learn a lot from business leaders. I think they need to focus on getting the right dashboards. My guess is that they are looking at a very limited amount of information, which is limiting their ability to understand cause and effect. They have good intentions, but they just can’t see things clearly, and they can’t lead effectively without the solid understanding that reliable information brings.

Akos: Yes, and there are tools that can help with that, tools that can help you follow the conversation, and tools that can help you gauge sentiment in real-time. You can then base what you do on what you’ve learned. This is what Mike means when he’s talking about the right dashboard.

Int: If we’re working on developing the right dashboard, how can we make sure we’ve got the right data? How can we separate fact from rumour?

Mike: Rumours are powerful because, for some people, they seem to simplify decision making. You don’t have to do your own research if you put your faith in rumours. People are afraid, and they’re unsure; this is driving them into the arms of people who traffic in rumours and half-truths.

Int: It seems we don’t know who to trust.

Mike: Yes, and Customer Experience-based thinking can help. Brands make promises, and, if they want to be successful, the employees have to deliver on those promises. If you sell soap but can’t deliver that clean fresh feeling, you’ll quickly go out of business. Citizens should be expecting the same degree of accountability from their politicians and leaders as they do from the brands they support. For example, if they promise to keep the citizens safe and to make their lives better, they need to deliver on that, and there needs to be accountability when they fall short.

Akos: Transparency is important here. Brands that are strong on fulfilling promises do so transparently: they don’t just say they are delivering; they show you exactly how they are delivering on their promises. Now, I understand that, in a pandemic, not all information can be shared freely with the public, but crucial information needs to be universally accessible.

Mike: That’s right. This taps into something that businesses already know: the more broadly you share raw data and information, the more solutions you’ll get. The more perspectives you have access to, the faster you’ll find the answers you’re looking for. With lots of people looking at the same data set, somebody is going to see something that other people have missed. It’s the wisdom of crowds theory. When we’re open with data, nobody can claim ignorance, and this helps generate accountability. More and better information applies pressure to improve the system.

Int: Yes, especially when we’re talking globally.

Akos: Yes, our experience with the pandemic proves that

Customer-experience-based thinking can work on a global scale. It proves that we have more in common than we might have thought. There may be cultural differences, but the fears and the problems are really the same.

I’ve been talking with people over the past few months from Japan, India, and Pakistan, and it’s always the same mindset and the same problems.

Mike: I love that. I can’t say it any better. When we understand these commonalities, we come closer to the core of design thinking, which is all about understanding everyone’s needs. The best solutions don’t advantage one group. The best solutions help everybody, making contributions in broad ways.

Int: I love the sounds of that, but I’m curious about the polarisation we’re seeing. Do we need to code switch (i.e., change how we speak to adapt to the listener’s experience and expectations)? Do we need to describe the solution in different ways to different groups?

Akos: There’s a danger of oversimplification. We want clarity, but this doesn’t have to mean simplicity. With the aid of behavioral science, you can prioritize different groups, and you have to make sure that you are communicating, on one hand, with the requisite degree of sophistication or, on the other hand, with the right degree of simplicity. If you use network science, you can form a clearer picture of who you need to talk to, where the largest impact group is and who are the crucial messengers you need to target.

Int: How about you, Mike?

Mike: I think getting information and communications right is less about what we tell them, and more about the stories everyone tells their friends and colleagues. Instead of traditional hierarchical management, with the board telling management what to say, management telling mid-management, and so forth, we instead find a representative in the group we want to reach. First, we give them the experience of going through the change we’re proposing. Then, we let them tell their own story.

Int: In their own language.

Mike: Yes! So, you empower storytellers, letting them have the experience of positive transformation. Then they share that experience. It’s a more believable way of sharing a story, and it scales more quickly.

Int: Much more believable.

Mike: Exactly, it’s real. This situation is like the time Roger Bannister first ran the four-minute mile. He broke the long-believed-impossible barrier, and suddenly it was possible for more people.

Akos: Yes, stories do connect on an emotional level. If you want people to change and to build momentum, you have to connect on that emotional level. That’s what politicians are so good at — it’s just that they’re using that skill to benefit themselves, the ME, not the WE. If stories are to be really effective, they need to have a longer arc. They need to capture more perspectives and they need to connect to what we’re doing as communities, countries, and as a planet. They can’t just be personal. The narrative needs to be much bigger. We need to aim higher.

Mike: Yes, I think leaders can be much more mindful about the stories they tell. Rather than using stories to manipulate for personal gain, they can use stories to help us create public benefit. They need to use rhetoric to drive positive change, to make stories global. The pandemic is showing us how important it is to do this.

Int: It feels like we’re at least looking in the right direction, even if we’re not moving there quite yet. If we start to make positive changes, what can we do to make sure these changes are permanent?

Akos: Our duty is to start. We don’t need to worry too much about where it gets us or how sustainable it is. Our responsibility is to start the change. If we look ahead too far, we’ll start worrying about how long it will take and whether we’ll ever really get there. When we worry about these things, we don’t even start. It’s better to focus on what we can do now — to just take that first step.

Mike: I think we need to find something we can believe in, and that starts with harvesting powerful stories. There’s a group of people here in the US called StoryCorps®, and they’re preserving and sharing incredibly human stories about the American experience. They have fixed story centers, but they also travel the country, and they use apps to conduct interviews and capture amazing, first-hand stories. Listening to these stories is a powerful experience. I recommend listening and, if you have a story, get in touch and make your story part of their growing collection. It’s stories like these that we can believe in, and, if we’re going to move forward, we definitely need something we can believe in.

Int: That’s a great place to finish. Thanks so much, Mike and Akos.

We touched on at least a dozen other topics of interest during our chat, but we all felt that the role that Customer Experience Thinking can play in shaping communication in both the political and the business realm was by far the most important point that we touched on. Akos and Mike each feel strongly about this, and their passion bubbled to the surface frequently during our conversation.

The problems that we’re facing are truly global, and for solutions, we need to move away from self-interest. We need to harvest personal stories and harness them to larger narratives. We need less ME and more WE.

If you want to learn more about how Customer Experience Thinking can transform your approach to both the market and the problems we’re facing as a planet, Mike and Akos can help. You can reach Mike here and Akos here.

Originally published at on February 8, 2021.




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