Talk about the Experience Economy and it won’t be long before someone mentions Apple, Wal-Mart or Starbucks. Aside from being the pioneers of experience management, one thing they all have in common is Emily Chang, the SVP of Marketing for Starbucks. She has built a career at the world’s most iconic brands, shaping the experience for billions of customers. As part of our Customer Experience Visionaries series, we caught up with Emily to explore how asking the right questions, at the right time, has been the foundation for her success.

What’s your regular order? Who are you buying that dress for? Are you a part of the loyalty program? Do you normally stay at this hotel? — if you’ve had a conversation like this while standing in line, there’s a good chance you just met Emily Chang.

Emily is passionate about hearing directly from customers and has spent a career looking to understand what drives them and how she can make an emotional connection that will turn customers into loyal fans.

a key underrated leadership quality is curiosity

“I’m always talking to the person in line next to me,” says Emily. “I think a key underrated leadership quality is curiosity. We should unceasingly seek to understand what people are thinking, hungering to unpack their decision-making process… and here’s the fun thing: People are generally open to talk, and they want to share what they’re passionate about or why they think something’s worth waiting in line.”

It’s not a new approach for Emily — in her previous roles at Procter & Gamble, InterContinental Hotels Group, and Apple, the ethnographic approach to customer feedback has been key to shaping their experience as she looks to understand the emotions behind the actions customers take.

The personal approach is just one of the ways she stays in touch with customers, with technology helping her get a view of the bigger picture. Every day, twice a day, she blocks out time in her calendar to dive into social channels, scrolling through customer comments and reading real-time digital experience feedback.

“It’s essential to be in touch both online and face-to-face because there are things you see that numbers and words on paper can’t tell you,” she says.

“I can see for myself where the pain points are, I can see all the questions out there, and I can see what the reactions are. I can see the swells and dips in sentiment around products and services, as well as pick up changes in the marketplace.”

‘LOYALTY IS AN EMOTION – IT’S A VERY VISCERAL THING’

“Loyalty isn’t a card or points system or a database,” says Emily. “Loyalty means I will come back to you again and again by choice because I love how I feel when I’m with you. That’s loyalty.

“It’s an emotion, it’s a very visceral thing. It’s surprise and delight, it’s engagement, it’s recognition. There are some human truths I believe in, like people want to be part of something bigger. They want to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. At any given destination, you can choose one of numerous hotels. Why would you go out of your way to find the Kimpton Hotel? Because we invite you to “raid the bar”. Hey, you not only get to bring your dog, but we treat her like an honored guest. And those who love Kimpton hotels, feel like they’re part of a select group. We greet each other in line as we wait to check in: “Don’t you love it here?! Look how cute the dog dish is! I traveled 8mi out of the way just to stay here.

“If you think about customer loyalty in a check-mark fashion, focused on what numbers that you’re trying to hit, you might constrain the way you’re thinking about it. But if you think about the desired outcome, which is that people love what you offer and your engagement and they want to come back again and again, you might think more laterally about what has to be true to end up in that state.”

The secret sauce, according to Emily, is to understand who your customers are and get intentional about how you engage them.

“There’s always targeting, there’s always a thoughtfulness or an intentionality behind who you want to talk to and how, when, and where you want to engage them,” she says. Customers coming to the store to browse what’s new in electronics are in a very different need state than those coming to the Genius Bar looking for help. So trying to intersect and hard sell someone who has a broken laptop isn’t going to land well. The store employee wouldn’t come across as thoughtful or understanding. But seeing someone enter the store and head straight to the back, we can considerately approach Mr. Smith and greet him, “Mr. Smith, hello! I see you’re here for your appointment a few minutes early. Can I check you in right now?”

Whether it’s a group of highly engaged, loyal customers or a conversely disengaged group, the questions she asks are always the same, and always designed to get to know that group better than anyone else.

“We should always come back to the who,” she says. “How would I define this particular group or person or persona? What is the content that would most engage them? Then where do I place that content, and what’s my desired customer reaction?”

avoid the trap of setting broad mission statements and objectives that are never really translated into tangible experiences for the customer.

For Emily, it’s not just about having that insight into your customers, but being able to use it to intentionally design products and services that deliver on customer expectations, and avoiding the trap of setting broad mission statements and objectives that are never really translated into tangible experiences for the customer.

LET EMPLOYEES LOOSE TO DELIVER ON THE EXPERIENCE

I believe that people rise to your highest expectations or fall to your lowest

Key to delivering on that experience, particularly in the service industry, is to enable employees.

“I believe that people rise to your highest expectations or fall to your lowest,” she says.

“A leader’s job is to make sure that the right person is in the right role first. Second, employees should have the support model, network, mentorship, and engagement with leadership that they need to be successful. Then we should let them loose on what they’re excited and empowered to do!”

Something Emily’s learned over the years is to be more direct when people come to her, and stop to ask, ‘How can I help you?’ or ‘What would you like me to do?’.

“It’s easy to assume somebody’s sharing an issue with me because they want me to solve it, but that’s not always the case,” she says. “Sometimes they just want to talk. Other times, they’ll raise a concern but actually, it is an invitation to say, ‘Please come in and help me with this thing’.

“I think it changes the dynamic because if there’s even a little assumption on both sides in terms of the ask for help, and then the perception of the ask for help, either nothing happens or too much happens.”

A CAREER SHAPED BY ASKING QUESTIONS

Whether in her approach to customers, or to employees, it’s clear Emily is driven by a deep curiosity, asking questions at every turn, rather than simply offering solutions. It’s an approach that has formed the foundations of a CV that reads like a who’s who of the world’s most iconic brands.

Emily’s career started on a path toward an MD in pediatric oncology, before a switch onto an MBA program and ended up with roles at Proctor & Gamble, Wal-Mart, and Apple before she joined Starbucks in 2017.

Her time with Apple saw her introduce the brand in China, where she was Head of Retail Marketing for Asia before joining IHG in 2014 as CCO and helping to shape the experience for guests at six hotel brands and four loyalty programs across Greater China.

Those diverse experiences, and growing up in what she describes as ‘a very Chinese family’ have shaped Emily’s worldview, helping her stay humble, open-minded, and ‘constantly curious’.

There’s this sense that you don’t totally fit in anywhere, which is good because it keeps you open-minded and humble.

“When I’m in China, I’m still seen as more American. When I’m in the States, I still have a lot of Chinese characteristics,” she says. “There’s this sense that you don’t totally fit in anywhere, which is good because it keeps you open-minded and humble.”

“It creates a different way of looking at opportunity. I just posted on LinkedIn recently about not judging, because I think the more of the world you see, the less judgmental you become. Because you’re like, well, who am I to decide whether that is a good or bad thing?”

“There’s so much you can learn from other places. The more you travel and the more you experience, the more you realize ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way before’  — those realizations are opportunities.”

With such diverse experiences and a career most would die for, it’s hardly surprising Emily is regularly sought out by those just starting out in theirs.

Her advice?

what I would say is if a door opens, go.

“I didn’t plan anything, so I’m not the right one to ask. But what I would say is if a door opens, go. As divergent, as lateral, and as broad as you can go, go.  You can always go deep later, but going wide first will enable you to get a much better feel for the kind of place where you thrive, the kind of manager you best learn from, and the kind of work that fuels you.”

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