CX and the next pandemic

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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.

2020 was, to say the least, a pretty crazy year. The global pandemic has raised the stakes. Mike and Akos, two customer experience professionals from two continents discuss what customer experience base thinking can teach politics and how it accelerates “global thinking”. Thanks to Bryan Szabo, who handled the interview and edited the interview for clarity and brevity.

More than ever, we need honest and substantive communication, but there seems to be a movement in the opposite direction. What problems do you think this has highlighted? How would you grade your respective countries?

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 (2021 begins a new presidential term), but there’s still a long way to go. I think the problem comes down to our infrastructure. 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. With regard to COVID, we can’t move medical supplies fast enough. We can’t share facts or educate broadly. We’re using our great-grandparents’ thinking tools, governance and we continue to invest in tired ways, using old metrics and in old organization styles. We need a reboot.

Akos: I think we need more than a reboot. We don’t want the same thing. We need to reinvent, especially in key areas. Infrastructure is one of these. Most importantly, experts have to drive how politicians communicate. When thousands of people are dying, we need to hear from experts, not from self-interested politicians.

How would you define customer experience?

Mike: The layman’s definition is simply this: it’s everything the brand does for their customers. minus everything the business does to them. When you subtract one from the other (e.g., the waiting in line, the hassle, the friction, etc.), it boils down to how the customer feels.

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.

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 the customer experience tool set is optimal for that moment. It forces you to look at WE instead of ME. Rather than concerns like “Will this help me get re-elected”, you’re looking at the end state that’s best for everybody.

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.

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. That will show us which changes to make. These inside changes become solutions which we can push outwards in the best interests of the nation and the planet.

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. People experiencing the same “pain? put in here the sight word pls.” at the same time. Every other event was either local or didn’t affect the whole world at the same time. This is why we should be leaning on 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 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.

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 they simplify decision making. People who chose to admit rumors feel they don’t have to think so hard. You don’t have to do your own research if you put your faith in rumours. People are afraid, and they’re unsure, and this is driving them into the arms of people who traffic in rumours and half-truths. Graeme Newell, a friend of mine, has done some great work on this, looking at how our biases can trick us.

It seems we don’t know who to trust.

Mike: Yes, and customer experience-based thinking can help us out. Brands make promises, and then the employees have to deliver on those promises for the brand to be successful. 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 to they do from any other brand. 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.

Brands make promises, and then the employees have to deliver on those promises for the brand to be successful. If you sell soap but can’t deliver that clean fresh feeling, you’ll quickly go out of business.

Akos: Transparency is important here. Brands that are strong on fulfilling promises are transparent: 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 public, but crucial information needs to be universally accessible.

Mike: 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 look at the same data set, somebody is going to see something that other people have missed. When we’re open handed with data, nobody can claim ignorance, and this helps generate accountability. It puts pressure on the system.

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, contributing in broad ways.

I love the sounds of that, but I’m curious about the polarisation we’re seeing. Do we need to code switch? 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 behavioural science, you can prioritise different groups, and you have to make sure to communicate with the required sophistication or on the contrary, with simplification. 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.

Mike: Yes, that connects. I think it’s less about what we tell them, and more about the stories they tell 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 can find a representative in the group we want to reach. Give them the experience of going through the change you’re proposing. Then, let them tell their own story.

In their own language.

Mike: Yes! So, you empower storytellers, letting them have the experience of positive transformation, and then sharing that experience. It’s more believable and it happens at scale much faster that way.

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 barrier, and suddenly it was possible for more people.

Akos: Yes, stories to 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 it to benefit themselves, the ME, not the WE. If stories are to be really effective, they need to have a longer arc. They can’t just be personal. They need to have a larger goal and a bigger narrative.

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. Make the story a global one. The pandemic is showing us how important it is to do this.

It feels like we’re at least looking in the right direction, even if we’re not moving there quite yet. If we do start to feel ourselves moving in the right direction, how can we make sure we don’t backslide. 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 named StoryCorps® (, who are preserving and sharing incredibly human stories about the American experience. To collect stories, they travel the country, have fixed story centers, and use apps to interview people, asking them to tell their stories. Listening to these stories is a powerful experience, and I recommend it for everybody, especially for people trying to understand how people cope with change and translate these changes into stories. These are stories that we can believe in, and, if we’re going to move forward, we definitely need something we can believe in.


  • Response to the pandemic almost globally was awful
  • Not having a standard set of ‘truths’ hurt us
  • Many decision-makers put their personal interests ahead of the citizens in their care
  • Customer Experience-based thinking can help in responding to global crises
  • Customer Experience-based thinking allows for multiple parties to ‘win’ at the same time because it is design-thinking-based
  • Making clear promises–and keeping them–works in business and it should work in government
  • Have the people affected by change to through the change and report on it (using stories about their experience) to pave the way for greater adoption

Our experts:

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.

Akos: I’ve been running Ability Matrix 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.



Our thanks to Bryan Szabo, Editor and Copywriter, who sat in as our interviewer and then compressed and polished the resulting transcript.



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