Greg Kihlstrom is an award-winning digital strategist, creative director, author, and speaker. He is currently President and Chief Experience Officer at Cravety. Greg has worked with brands such as AARP, AOL, Booz Allen Hamilton, Choice Hotels, GEICO, Howard University, Marriott, MTV, The Nature Conservancy, Porsche, Toyota, United Nations and others. His work has won awards from the ADDYs, Webbys and others, been featured in books by HarperCollins and Rockport Press, publications such as Advertising Age, Communication Arts, Web Designer and Website magazine.
Greg writes for Forbes as a member of the Forbes Agency Council, and has contributed as a writer for Social Media Today and The Washington Post, The Washington Business Journal, Search Engine Watch, iMedia Connection and Website Magazine. He is also the author of three books, "The Agile Web" published in September 2016, its follow up "The Agile Brand" released in August 2018, and his most recent book "The Agile Consumer" released in July 2019.
Max: Welcome to another ... Greg, you'd be surprised how many times this has happened. For those of you playing the home game, I've opened another beer into my eye hole, and when the beer goes into my eye, it becomes increasingly difficult to ask questions of my guest, Greg. I almost screwed that up Greg, because we were talking about your last name and then I got beer in my eye and everything went sideways. What are you drinking Greg?
Greg: I am drinking Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA.
Max: In my eye, marinating right now, is the Cat's Meow by Exhibit 'A'. It's a good day. It's a good day, Greg. I didn't run out of beer, I didn't have tap into my wife's Bud Light Lime collection. Those are always fun, unfortunate days. Tell us what you do professionally.
Greg: Yeah, sure. It's an interesting time for me. A little bit of background, I had a digital agency for about 14 years and sold it a couple of years ago. I was working for the agency that bought my agency, and I actually just recently left, so I do a little consulting work for [inaudible 00:01:09] the company that bought my agency. But I've actually joined another firm, an experience design firm called Cravety. I am now president and chief experience officer at Cravety, and what we do, we do a number of different things, but we look at employee experience, customer experience, and really try to design great experiences for those different audiences really working both inside and outside organizations to ...
When you have a great experience on the inside, when employees have great experiences, it then goes outward to customers and you have happier customers, you have better products, all of those kinds of things. So I look at it as it's the new marketing for me and my career, and definitely still thinking about how we're selling brands and products and all of those things, but just a little different take on it.
Max: A little different take. It strikes me that it's a little different as well. I have a lot of beer, not because I'm a degenerate, but because I'm addicted to talking with smart people like yourself. Your explanation, when we first talked, struck me as something unique. I hear a lot about a customer experience. I don't hear a lot about blending employee experience and customer experience, or really embracing the idea that it is the employee experience that is the heart and soul of what will become the customer experience. Have you found that as well? Is Cravety sought after because of this differentiated offering, or how have other people caught onto this?
Greg: There's some people that are definitely catching on. I mean, I think it's part of a long term, I would say, migration from this ... Everyone talks about the Mad Men days of advertising, and brands spends so much money just trying to convince people to buy something, and the ones that also thought about the quality of the product and all of those tended up winning because sure enough they had a great product where after you buy it once you buy it again, because word of mouth and all of that.
But what I really see is, this is a natural progression from let's keep going deeper and deeper into an organization and figure out, again, if we make the people making the products, making the decisions, all those things, the happier they are, the less friction there is internally, the better products, the better service. All of these kinds of things are going to flow out. I think the marketing world that I come from is slowly moving into the customer experience world. So they're going one ...
If you peel back the onion, so to speak, the marketing world is going one level deeper, and they're saying, "Okay, well yeah, the customer experience is really important. It's not just about slapping a logo on a tagline on anymore. Let's think about the product and the experience." But that I agree with you, is there's less people that have cracked the next level or peeled back the next level, so to speak, and said, "Okay, well actually, if it's all about going deeper, let's go to the very core of what the issues are and go to the company itself."
Max: What is the biggest issue then? What led you to realize that you have to start with employee experience? What has been the biggest challenge at your client organizations where they say, "Yeah, that's it. We need to start there?"
Greg: Yeah. I mean I think it's when marketers start seeing that the tools that they've been using either have stopped working or working less well. So in other words, I keep spending all this money on advertising, I keep spending even money on social media marketing and some of these word of mouth tools, and it just doesn't work like it used to. What happens is, we always say word of mouth has been weaponized in places like everything from Yelp to Facebook to talk about Glass Door, even on the employee side is, we created all of these tools and marketers said, "Oh this is awesome. Now we get to connect with our customers."
But sure enough when customers didn't like what they were seeing or experiencing, they started saying, "Okay, well. Now I have this outlet to start complaining, and all of a sudden, these tools that we thought were so great, and now we get direct one-on-one with customers, they have been turned against us." I think, again, to solve that problem is to get to the core and make it better from the start, and that that stuff, I mean it takes time. Nothing's easy but a marketing campaign in comparison is easy because you can say whatever you want. You can say where the next best thing since sliced bread don't really have to [crosstalk 00:05:56]
Max: Putting on a new coat.
Greg: Exactly. Exactly.
Max: You don't change, you just put on a new coat.
Greg: Exactly. Exactly. But then, the proof's in the pudding when people actually buy the product, and now again, are able to review it, to talk with others, so on and so forth.
Max: We've been living in a superficial marketing world that has been easy. It's been tempting to take shortcuts to put on the coat, which is a random analogy, but the solution is to dig deeper, better products, better employees, and at the end of the day, as tactics change and come and go, that's the staying power. People are starting to respond to that now that they've invested in so many different technologies and tactics, and saw a spark of hope, and then, "Oh, everyone has this now, and we have a shitty product."
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there's a lot of factors in this. I just released a book called The Agile Consumer. I'm on this agile kick. Before that it was called the ... The second one was The Agile Brand. There's tools like agile developments, which comes from the software world but has been easily co-opted by marketers, even by organizations. So there's methodologies like agile, which tell us, "Listen, we don't know what we don't know, and we just have to accept that. We're human, we cannot predict the future, we can plan all we want, but we are not going to know what's going to happen in two years, no matter how much we plan. We should predict, we should pay attention to trends, all those kinds of things."
But using agile principles and also just listening to customers and the whole concept of design thinking, where, again, we're not sitting in a room somewhere and saying, "Okay, well. I know exactly what a customer wants," but actually involving customers and consumers in the design process. That combined with an agile approach of we're going to iterate, we're going to get better over time, we know we're not going to be perfect at first, those two things have really changed the way that companies are able to adapt to this world. Because otherwise, you think about how long does it take to develop a car? Right?
They're planning these things. It's getting shorter over time. But it used to take 10 years to plan a new model of a car. By the time the car rolled out, like these days, trends would completely change. People don't want station wagons anymore. They're buying crossover. All of these things, it's so hard to be in an industry that takes five to 10 years to actually plan something out.
Max: I have a bit more of a sense now for the underlying intellectual property. You talk about some of the challenges, and now you're talking about agile design thinking. Is that representative of the key ingredients of the solution here, or are there some other things that you could talk about speaking to this unique strategy that you've developed for your clients?
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. I mean yeah, there's definitely a few other components. There is a behavioral science component to it as well. So understanding there's two big components to it. One is understanding an organizational culture. Every organization has its own ... let's call it its own DNA. You can make some changes to it, but that's a slow process, and top down, it's from the founders, it's baked into the company itself. What you want to do is you can change that over time and you can get steered in the right direction to be ... Let's say you want to be more innovative, but you're a little bit old fashioned, you can steer a company in a direction but you can't completely change it overnight.
So what you want to do, you want to find the right people to join that company that are going to be able to not only relate to the current culture, but also be able to change it in a positive way. So that's at the organizational level. Then at the individual level, there are things that motivate any individuals. So there are extrinsic motivators or things like money and benefits and things like that. What we know from behavioral psychology is that you can throw money at people and to a point it works, and then there's lots of terms for it, but I heard one the other day, the hedonic treadmill.
It's like you get on this path, and you keep throwing money at people, and they keep wanting more. All of a sudden, you're like, "Man, I gave this person 100% in raises, and they still want more. It's a losing proposition." As opposed to these extrinsic things, we focus more on intrinsic motivators. So these are things that never change about an individual. But there are things like someone who's motivated by altruism, they are not only ... They may be someone that's likely to donate, volunteer. They may also be really likely to be a mentor to someone else in the organization. Or someone's really motivated by learning, so they want to read everything on a topic and stuff like that.
Or there's the innovator or there's someone that wants a little more autonomy. So really, really understanding everyone has some degree of these things driving them, but there are generally two or three of these things that really drive you or me or anyone. So understanding that means a few things. So one, everybody is a little bit different, so you can't just literally have one employee compensation package and expect ... These programs, they were a great idea, but they don't work because they don't work with everyone. They work with a small subset of people. It doesn't speak to me if I'm motivated by something completely different. So that behavioral pieces is really important.
Then I guess, one last part is just the overall organizational maturity when it comes to understanding experience. So we've built a maturity model of ... We've ranked organizations from a one-to-five scale. So one is, they're like, "I've heard this term experience but don't really know what it is," to a five, they're like, "they don't need our help. They've got it, they're running with it already." What we do is we look at organizations across 10 different dimensions, looking at how aligned are they across every part of the organization when it comes to experience, are they adopting AI and machine learning, and things like that? So 10 different ways.
What that speaks to is, in my experience as a consultant, everyone that I've always worked with had great, amazing ideas, but they're not always the right idea at the right time for our clients. You go in, and you actually identify how mature an organization is and if they are a two, we're not going to give them an idea that would be great for a five. We're going to give them an idea that's great for a two, and then we're going to work in an agile way to get them from a two to a five, and that may take five years or two years, something like that.
Max: How does one pay you for this wisdom?
Max: You knew that I was going to ask that, right?
Greg: Yeah, yeah.
Greg: Yeah, yeah. So we do a-
Max: It's nothing that awkward.
Greg: We accept all kinds of currency but ... I mean, most of it looks like, initially, some type of consultation, let's call it a project or something. But the real work is a long term, I would say, some kind of ... either a retainer or a TNM type of relationship, where at large organizations, we would actually embed a few people within an organization, someone like a project manager to help actually coordinate client teams to do some of this. We'd embed a few people there, but the stuff, the design piece can take a few months, sometimes upwards of that.
But implementing it, and again, using that agile process of, "Okay, we're going to bite off low hanging fruit and then keep iterating and improving," I mean, to really make substantive change at a company with a hundred thousand plus people, that is going to take years to really do, get them from a two to a five in other words. That's a lot of effort. That's a lot of coordination. That's a lot of organizational change that sometimes we're not even involved with. Sometimes we're coaches to other people. We're focused on what improve employee experience or customer experience, but we don't always necessarily touch everything. I mean, sometimes that's just the nature of an agreement.
Max: There's workshops that you're doing with your client. I guess the question in my mind is, how do you inspire them to take action? You've got this set of principles that you can evaluate their maturity level today, and you understand what's required over the next quarter or six months or annually. I mean, maybe in some cases, but it doesn't sound like you're just throwing services at the problem saying, "Hey, let me do this for you." There's a bit of knowledge transfer, there's some coaching going on. So how do you make sure ... The biggest push back I get when I talk to people about the value of strategy is, well, strategy is worth nothing without implementation, and we're the only people that can do this work for our clients. How do you ensure that something happens at your client organizations?
Greg: A lot of our engagements are actually us coaching our clients to do some of the work and make behavioral changes themselves, in the way they do it. So some of our engagements look like an agile monthly process where we're actually ... I would say we have a fairly minimal role of ... We are basically, let's call it, a coach, and a few other people doing some work, but we are actually coordinating other teams and saying, "Okay." It's basically like a check-in of, "Okay, last month our sprints ..." to use the agile terminology. "Last month, our sprint, we agreed this team was going to do this, this team was going to do this. Everybody check in, everybody's measured according to their progress and held accountable to their progress."
So we're involving our clients often in the solution to the problem as well. Because at the end of the day, I mean I get ... I've been doing consulting for 15 plus years. There's only so much you can do from the outside. I mean, again, we will sometimes embed people within organizations, but even then, they're consultant, they have a window into things, but it's really ... we have to change mindsets of the clients themselves. So the workshops that you mentioned, that's a great way, particularly in the beginning, to get everybody off their feet.
Instead of me or somebody else in the organization standing up and presenting and saying, "Hey, you guys should do this, this and this," we're actually getting them off their feet and like, "Okay, let's talk about employee onboarding. Let's talk about a customer process to buy a product. Let's get off our feet and actually design what would the best process possibly be," and then we work with them to say, "Okay, how can we get there? We're not going to get to ideal state overnight, but let's work with you because there's things that it would take us years to know because we just don't work there every day."
Max: Let's imagine you'd agree with the statement that it'd be nice to help more people with less effort.
Greg: Yeah, sure.
Max: Just imagine that for a second. I know you're working on some things in pursuit of that vision. What are you working on?
Greg: Yeah. In addition to the consulting work that we're doing, we're also building a software product. So this makes things very, very interesting. I mentioned some of our clients are very large organizations with upwards of 100,000 employees, and so for us to go one by one and coach an employee and say, "Okay, this is what you should do." So on and so forth. Obviously, that's just simply not going to happen. The other part of that is when we talk about ... On the customer experience side, and there's plenty of studies that point to this, we are all used to personalized experiences when we buy stuff. Right?
Everything from Amazon back in the '90s started doing it too. I assume that when I buy something from someone, they understand me and know me and all those things. I'm annoyed when they don't know me. Right? Why isn't it like that when you work for a company? In other words, when you work for a company ... My employer knows everything about me. They know my social security number, all of these things. Why is my employee experience not personalized if my customer experience is when they're placing cookies and they're trying to collect information about me wherever they can? My employer knows everything about me, why don't they understand me more and tailor things more to the way that I want to work, that would make me happier?
So we're working on software that actually ties into those intrinsic motivators that I mentioned earlier, actually helps an organization hyper-personalize an employee experience. You think about the onboarding process or even off-boarding or review processes, all of those types of things, how would you design something differently if you knew that I was really motivated by altruism? Again, not every single thing is going to change.
But there are certain points in time where we can say, "Wow. Okay, Greg really wants to be a mentor to other people. This other person over there, they just want to learn stuff. They don't really want to help people, but their value is in another thing. But Greg really wants to mentor people. What can we do? How can we make his first three months on the job really, really exciting and valuable? Well, let's get him into a program where he's teaching something that he knows to someone else." Again, at an organization with 10, 20 hundred thousand people in it, you can't possibly pay that level of effort to a single individual without some way of personalizing just like you would on the company side.
Max: Which is brilliant by the way. It's exactly what I'm talking about. What else besides software? I often find when people are developing software products, it's because they have found a set of intellectual property, and software is ... because they've reduced barriers to entry over the years and everything's open source nowadays. The barriers to entry for building a software product has lowered. But that isn't to say that the barriers of entry to build a software product are lower than say building a courseware or group workshops that can be distributed via events, corporate events and that sort of thing. Is there some underlying mass education that you're putting together and things besides that that get to compliment your software product?
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, we're doing one very soon, an all day event to actually educate people on the value of the experience from a number of different perspectives. This is something where we're taking what we might do for our clients. With a client, we might do a two day workshop, again, doing some of those design thinking exercises. We're turning this into either a half day or a one day event, and actually planning several throughout the country to actually ... Because what I'm saying-
Max: For multiple companies?
Greg: Exactly, yeah. Bringing multiple companies into a room, there's always that awkwardness of, "Okay. Well, what if Coke and Pepsi are sitting side by side or whatever?" But you know what?
Max: Let them fight it out.
Greg: Yeah, exactly. Or put them at [inaudible 00:22:28] All of that. Those are [crosstalk 00:22:32]
Max: Keep your enemies closer.
Greg: Exactly. Exactly. But educating people, because I mean, and you touched on this earlier, which is I don't think there's a lot of people talking about this in a substantive way. I think there's lots of people talking about, "Oh well, millennials, this and that. We've got to attract them and retain them and all of this." But really thinking about how do we change an organization for the better, how do we really focus on these experience things, we do feel a need to educate the market. Some of that, it's not all altruistic. Some of it is self-serving because obviously we have consulting and product to sell, but we really feel like we've got to educate the market because this is where sophisticated companies are headed, big or small, the ones that really get it.
I mean, there is going to be such a gap between those that really double down on experience and being more agile and just embracing ... people call it everything from digital transformation to a number of different things. But that gap is growing and it's growing quickly. AI adoption, all of those things. It's like the companies that get it, they get it and they're doing it for a reason, and it's really all retention of customers and employees, all of those types of things, and it's about a long term plan. Definitely, educating the market is something that we're doing. Yeah. So these events, we're doing one in the D.C. market where I'm based pretty soon, and then definitely planning others throughout the country.
Max: Well, the thing that's allowing you to do that, from my observation, is that you've put a lot of effort into documenting and making these maturity models and these systems that you've gotten into your head into something that can be taught, and that requires a lot of documentation and a lot of working on the intellectual property, not just showing up everyday holding someone's hand and saying, "Let me do this for you."
Greg: Yeah, yeah. No, absolutely. It's a lot of thinking, it's a lot of diagrams, it's a lot of thinking through processes.
Max: Drawing, thinking, writing.
Greg: Yeah. It's all fun. Right? It's a ...
Max: Well, yeah. I mean, hey. But now that I'm digesting what you're saying a bit, and it reminds me that I've never really lost sleep over losing a customer. But [crosstalk 00:25:03] I will never forget losing some of my best employees.
Greg: Yeah. Right? Yeah, that's true.
Max: By some miracle, if my audience is sober enough to follow up with you, how would they do that?
Greg: Sure. My personal website is gregkihlstrom.com, and then Cravety's website is Cravety, C-A ... I can't even spell. I had too much beer, I guess. C-R-A-V-E-T-Y.com. Yeah, we'd love to hear from people. Definitely LinkedIn is a very easy way to connect with me personally as well.
Max: Well, cheers. Was that a 120 minute? Was that a 90 minute? Was that a 60? What are you working with there on the Dogfish?
Greg: Only 60 [inaudible 00:25:48] weight.
Max: Okay. Bless you. All right. Well, you never know. You never know.
Greg: Oh yeah.
Max: Under the spirits, you know what I mean? Well, for those of you listening, don't drive through aggressive traffic while listening to Beers with Max. But when you get home, go ahead and binge on it. See you next time.