Joseph A. Michelli on “Being Driven to Delight”: An interview by Bob Morris

MichelliJoseph A. Michelli, Ph.D., C.S.P., is an internationally sought-after speaker, author, and organizational consultant who transfers his knowledge of exceptional business practices in ways that develop joyful and productive workplaces with a focus on the total customer experience. His insights encourage leaders and frontline workers to grow and invest passionately in all aspects of their lives.

Michelli is a Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, Nielson Bookscan, and New York Times #1 bestselling author. His latest book is Driven to Delight: Delivering World-Class Customer Experience the Mercedes-Benz Way, published by McGraw-Hill on December 8, 2015.

Joseph’s other titles include Leading The Starbucks Way: 5 Principles for Connecting with Your Customer, Your Products, and Your People, The Zappos Experience: 5 Principles to Inspire Engage and WOW, Prescription for Excellence: Leadership Lessons for Creating a World-Class Customer Experience from UCLA Health System, The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary, The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, and When Fish Fly: Lessons for Creating a Vital and Energized Workplace which was co-authored with the owner of the “World Famous” Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle.

Joseph holds the Certified Speaking Professional designation from the National Speakers Association (NSA) and is a member of the Authors Guild. He received his Masters and Doctorate from the University of Southern California. Joseph has won the Asian Brand Excellence Award, is an editorial board member for the Beryl Institute’s Patient Experience Journal (PXJ), and is on the founders council of CustomerExperienceOne. He was named as one of the Top 10 thought leaders in Customer Service by Global Gurus.

Having journeyed with a close family member through a six-year battle with breast cancer, Joseph is committed to social causes associated with curing cancer as well as abating world hunger.

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This is your seventh business book, with prior bestselling books also examining leadership and customer experience execution at brands like Starbucks, Zappos, and The Ritz-Carlton. How did it all begin?

I started working as a disc jockey when I was 13 and continued radio broadcasting while I went to college and past graduate school. For a long-time I thought of myself as a professional communicator – mostly of the spoken word — and certainly did not view myself as a writer. While interviewing a guest on a nationally syndicated show I did for the Business Radio Network, a book idea came to mind and I mentioned it to the guest. Without missing a beat, the guest said, “You should send my daughter a proposal on that; she runs the publishing branch at our company.” Being naïve and unaware of the process, I stayed up that night researching how to write a book proposal, crafted a rudimentary outline for my book idea, and submitted it to her. By the end of that week, I had signed a book deal. So in a nutshell, I started writing with a single idea, sufficient ignorance, and the absence of fear.

In addition to writing, you are a consultant and professional speaker. How do all three work together?

Early in my career, I held a number of disparate jobs. Faculty member, radio personality, employee of a hospital system. A colleague of mine at the time gave me an invaluable piece of advice that changed my future. He said, “It is fine to do a lot of different things as long as they converge.” I am blessed to have true convergence. When I write a book about a company I have consulted for, say Mercedes-Benz USA, it gets read by other corporate leaders, say at Godiva Chocolatier, who then hire me to consult for them. My books also fuel interest in my keynote speeches which in turn open up new opportunities for more consulting and book writing.

How does one train to do what you do?

Most of the literature on career readiness suggests something like an 80/20 split, with 80 percent of preparation coming from on-the-job experience and 20 percent from formal education. I had a fabulous set of teachers and mentors in Systems Psychology at the University of Southern California while in pursuit of my masters and doctorate. Moreover, colleagues and clients have rounded out skill areas that weren’t necessarily covered in graduate school.

What is your most significant accomplishment or challenge?

On a personal level, my wife’s six-year battle with breast cancer was personally daunting, as was the impact of her death on my children. On a positive note, I think my greatest accomplishment continues to be having an impact on the customer experience of brands I respect greatly.

When or why did you decide to write Driven to Delight?

This will start a bit personal, but I promise to get to your question quickly. My wife was in end-stage breast cancer after a 6-year battle. I had worked with Steve Cannon, the CEO at Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA), to arrange a benchmarking session with leaders from Ritz-Carlton, Zappos, and MBUSA. Fortunately, I was able to complete that obligation and then be with my wife in her final days. Despite the fact that I was providing a service to MBUSA, I felt very supported by the leadership team and sensed their care and concern for the needs of others. My sense of their “otherness” and commitment to transform the Mercedes-Benz customer experience inspired me. In fact, another luxury automobile brand approached me to consider a book about them but the personal connection with MBUSA pulled me in that direction.

How long did it take you to write Driven to Delight?

It was about two years in the making. While I was writing throughout my journey with the brand, the intensive writing and editing phase took approximately six months.

What was it like writing this book compared to working on your other books?

I liken writing books to raising children. You start with the hope that you can facilitate a successful and positive outcome and to do so you have to work with very different personalities. Brands also have different personalities and we talk about those personalities as culture. This book was a delight because the culture at Mercedes-Benz USA was transparent, fun, performance-oriented, and customer-obsessed. That said, don’t get me wrong. Mercedes-Benz is a global brand with strong leadership at Daimler in Germany, but the US division was empowered and entrusted to support my efforts without undue oversight by the parent brand.

What is the applicability of the lessons in Driven to Delight? Who is the target audience?

While Mercedes-Benz is a powerful, global, luxury brand, this book was designed to be useful to anyone attempting to improve experiences for their customers as well as to anyone who seeks greater customer retention, increased spend, and more word-of-mouth business. Often I will look at how a larger program at Mercedes-Benz like “brand immersion” can be accomplished on a much smaller scale.

You suggest that trust in leadership is critical to the credibility of promises made by the Mercedes-Benz USA executive team. Can you expand on that?

On a macro social level as well as within the context of business, I have been convinced that trust is one of the most essential — and most perishable — of social currencies. Trust is in short supply. Governments distrust one another. Political parties distrust and vilify one another. And certainly, customers, as well as employees, can — and often do — distrust corporate leaders. While some leaders might not care about whether they are trusted and others might be reluctant to make public promises for fear they will be held accountable, leaders at Mercedes-Benz USA specifically made three robust and very public promises about how they would transform the customer experience. Those promises involved providing tools and resources to support efforts throughout the organization. As I outline in Driven to Delight, every promise was fulfilled and organizational trust fueled momentum to rapid transformation.

What is important to you in Mercedes-Benz’s effort to share their customer-experience vision enterprise-wide?

Mercedes-Benz USA leaders are tireless and effective communicators. They are also smart about keeping their message about the vision very succinct and purposeful. In a nutshell, most of the people who represent the brand in the US play no role in the design or manufacturing of Mercedes-Benz vehicles but they do influence the way those vehicles are delivered in the market place. Leaders at Mercedes-Benz USA leverage their sphere of influence to inspire every person who represents the brand to execute at a level commensurate with the engineering precision of the products they sell. The fact remains that, if everyone at Mercedes-Benz USA headquarters is passionate about customers but even one employee of a dealership is not, the customer who runs into that employee usually concludes that Mercedes-Benz is not customer-centric.

Most leaders attempt to mobilize their people to affect change toward key organizational objectives. What lessons can be taken from Mercedes-Benz USA leaders as they sought alignment and engagement of employees throughout their organization?

Mercedes-Benz USA senior leaders take leadership very seriously. They own responsibility for moving their entire organization in the direction of their strategic priorities and they cascade that responsibility down throughout their organization through levels of management and out to everyone who interacts with customers. Rather than “trying” to gain buy-in, they see aligned action as linked to their own communication effectiveness and their ability to work through resistance.

You consulted on the Mercedes-Benz USA brand immersion program. What is that program and how is it relevant to leaders in other industries?

This is a dangerous topic to get me started on because I am so passionate about it. I will offer a quick overview of what brand immersion involves and then rapidly pivot to how any business owner can emulate it irrespective of budget. Every employee of every dealership, as well as all employees of Mercedes-Benz USA and their sister finance company, Mercedes-Benz Financial Services (MBFS), are expected to participate in the company’s Brand Immersion Program. It is offered year-round and class size is small for the multi-day experience. Attendees travel to Alabama and participate in a tour of the Mercedes-Benz manufacturing plant, drive Mercedes-Benz performance vehicles on a banked track, maneuver an off-road course, have hands-on training to appreciate the brand’s history of innovation and safety, and have advanced training on how to deliver the brand’s desired experience – delight. Since the details of the program are spelled out in my book Driven to Delight, I won’t belabor them here.

Suffice it to say, the concept behind the program is critically important to leaders in any other business. Those just hired might have been working for a competitor a week ago and need to have an understanding of the special history, products, and opportunities to positively affect customer lives. More importantly, they need to know what the optimal customer experience looks like at their company. In essence, we have an obligation to enrich their lives with the context and customer experience aspirations of our brand.

Mercedes-Benz USA helped its dealer partners assess the engagement of their employees. What is the significance or importance of this?

By now, most leaders know the high correlation between the level of engagement of employees and the level of engagement of customers. If not, a quick read of a book like Human Sigma will bring them up to speed. Leaders at Mercedes-Benz USA had been measuring and working to maximize employee engagement for their own staff for quite some time. In fact, they have routinely been the only automobile manufacturer on Fortune magazine’s best place to work list. What they hadn’t done – and what few partner businesses ever do – is become actively engaged in the operations of their dealers. Mercedes-Benz USA gently offered dealers the tools and consultation necessary to measure and improve the levels of employee engagement in their operations. What started as voluntary participation in employee engagement assessment has now become a standard business practice for Mercedes-Benz USA dealer partners.

Mercedes-Benz USA used internal resources to map their company’s journey. For those who have not as yet read Driven to Delight, what does that process look like? How is it different from other processes you have engaged with companies?

I have seen just about everything when it comes to mapping. Some companies hire a consulting team to interview staff, review customer feedback data, and create a draft of a journey map. Others, like Mercedes-Benz USA, create a “war room” where they fill the walls with butcher block paper and drill down on the mapping process by soliciting input from throughout the enterprise. Mercedes-Benz preferred to use external resources sparingly until they needed to digitally produce their map for distribution

Once the customer journey map was developed, it went through a process of refinement and simplification. How did the maps change and how are maps used now at MBUSA?

The leaders at Mercedes-Benz USA understood that various constituencies within the company had different needs with regard to customer journey maps. Therefore, everyone had to understand and empathize with the customer journey and have a line of sight with what they could do to improve it. Leaders, however, also needed a detailed understanding of contact points for strategic planning and resource deployment. As such, leaders used the more detailed map and then simplified those maps into customer experience wheels that were easily understood and acted upon by staff throughout the organization.

In the book, you suggest that Mercedes-Benz USA lacked the core competency of leveraging customer feedback. What do you mean by that and how did they address that issue?

As a rule, MBUSA, like other automobile brands, had become reliant on external customer experience evaluations done by companies like J. D. Power. Rather than developing their own “real time” listening tools, MBUSA looked at and attempted to affect “lagging indicator” metrics like the J.D. Power Sales Satisfaction Index. As part of their transformation, MBUSA leaders developed a real time listening tool so they could elicit feedback from customers at key points in the customer experience journey.

To be successful in their transformation, Mercedes-Benz USA had to measure the voice of the customer and align incentives to drive improvement in execution. How did they achieve that?

The key words in your question are “align incentives.” Once MBUSA leaders began collecting real time customer feedback, they had to reward dealers who were delighting customers and differentially compensate those that were not. I go into a lot of detail in the book about how MBUSA sought alignment with their dealer leadership advisory and now compensates and rewards dealers who are exceeding customer expectations.

What are the takeaways most business leaders or owners can glean when it comes to driving customer-centric process improvements throughout their organizations?

Leaders set the tone for customer-centric change and must influence others to make it happen. At Mercedes-Benz USA, leaders kept the customer experience “front and center” at all times. For example, they have peers nominate customer experience champions in every department and those who were selected helped drive the change within those parts of the business. In addition to leveraging “de facto” change agents, Mercedes-Benz rewards customer experience excellence and consistently shares customer stories to inspire and highlight optimal customer experience delivery.

Can you highlight a few of the processes Mercedes-Benz USA improved to enhance their customer experience? How can other leaders offer something similar?

It is difficult for book authors to “highlight just a few” of anything m because we are accustomed to having many pages to work with, but for present purposes, here are two key points: first, the MBUSA rapid response team (a newly developed approach to streamlining product launches by having representatives from all departments meet daily and fix issues which appear to be surfacing in the comments of dealers and social media posts of customers); also, MB Selects (a “no strings attached” pool of money ) is available to dealers to enhance the service experience and/or to produce delight during service recovery.

You link technology deployment to the objective of “making it easier for a customer” to do business with a brand. Can you offer a few examples of this from Mercedes-Benz’s transformation journey?

I do believe technology should be deployed to increase customer ease or, put alternatively, to decrease customer effort. Mercedes-Benz has developed an online service scheduling tool for all their dealers, they have deployed tablet technology to demonstrate features of vehicles that would be difficult to demonstrate at point of sale, and they continued to improve on-board communication technology (telematics) which will further enhance the communication between the car, dealer, and driver.

What is the significance of a program like Mercedes-Benz USA’s “Digital Service Drive”?

That program’s technology is designed to streamline the vehicle service experience. It integrates online scheduling, loaner car request, dealer communication, mobile payment, etc., to expedite the customer experience and improve transparency throughout the process. It means that customers don’t have to “wait around” or “stand in line” unnecessarily. It respects one of the most valuable assets customers have – their time.

You allude to a ‘technology/human interface’ in customer experience delivery. What do you mean by that and how does it manifest at Mercedes-Benz USA?

While technology can streamline repetitive tasks, customers often prefer to be served by a person (e.g. passing up a self-serve kiosk). People can do things technology probably never will be able to replicate (authentically listen, demonstrate empathy, show gratitude, etc.). Great brands offer the best of both options – outstanding technology and people who are well-trained to add value by emotionally connecting with customers. In the book, I outline significant investments by MBUSA leaders in customer experience training as well as technology innovation.

Big data is playing an increasing role in customer experience. Can you talk about data analytics in the context of Mercedes-Benz and in broader customer experience trends?

There will be a time in the not too distant future where cars will be sharing a great deal of information with the dealership. Similarly, the dealership will be communicating directly with drivers through the onboard computer. MBUSA is working to develop a dashboard to manage all of this data exchange so that they can continue to enhance experiences. Imagine the dealership having customer-centric documentation (more like an Apple ID than the VIN number approach used today). That “golden record” would provide product information, service history, driving behaviors, interests, and recent customer experience scores as well as subjective preferences of various kinds. It would include preferences you have for contact or even the setting you prefer for your power seats. More importantly the record will be populated with real-time information about your car’s performance, so you can become aware of emerging issues before they become significant and expensive repairs.

Leaders at Mercedes-Benz USA set a lofty goal when it came to customer experience. Essentially, they didn’t just seek to be best-in-class. Instead they wanted to be among the “best-of-the best” providers. What is this level of aspiration to important to the company’s success?

People want to be a part of something larger than themselves. They want to master the world around them and have their life purpose connect with the purpose of the organizations where they choose to work. They often want to be a part of achieving “audacious” stretch goals. MBUSA leaders set the bar in a way that is both aspirational and credible. They generate tremendous energy expenditure throughout the organization.

You make distinctions between customer experience victories and customer experience dynasties. What is the relevance of that distinction? What is the importance of such a distinction?

It is the difference between a musical group that is a “one hit wonder” and a band like the Rolling Stones. It is the difference between many college football teams and the Alabama Crimson Tide. While it is difficult to create success, it is even harder to sustain – to achieve a customer experience dynasty, if you will. Brands like The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company or Nordstrom recreate the greatness year after year and one customer at a time. MBUSA seeks to be thought of on that level, not just as being #1 on the J.D. Power Sales Satisfaction Index. They are determined to set the “gold standard” for their industry just as the Ritz-Carlton Company has for hospitality.

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Joseph cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His blog link

His Amazon link

Twitter link

LinkedIn link

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1 Comment

  1. Joseph Michelli on March 8, 2016 at 10:13 am

    Bob, you are one of the most amazing people I know. Your appetite for reading coupled with your intellect, ability to synthesize information, and generosity make you a special and most valued colleague. I will FOREVER be in your debt. Joseph

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