When I was in college, I worked as a secretary for the Vanguard Group, and was lucky enough to be the fill-in for Jack Bogle's executive assistant for several years.
One of the things I loved about the job was that he would get SO MANY LETTERS from people asking for financial advice, or thanking him for the work he and the company did. (I mean “hard-copy” physical letters - this was in the 1990s, before email was much of a thing.) We had a process for opening each letter, paper-clipping the envelope to the papers just-so, and sorting them into categories. For most of the mail, we'd generate standard response letters and attach them to the originals. Arms laden with piles of paper (is anyone but me still enthralled by the feel and smell of paper?), I would bring these letters to the company's founder so that he could hear from his customers directly. For some letters, he would dictate a personal response, or hand-write a personal note atop the standard reply.
He read all of them.
I'm not kidding.
His philosophy, ironically for a financial business, was that "the most important things in life and in business can’t be measured." Vanguard was a disruptive business that brought investment into the hands of people, and Mr. Bogle wanted to keep his eyes on how the people were doing.
Nowadays we have a more formal term and set of work around this business basic, called customer experience. This work involves knowing and understanding customers (of all types), and creating appropriately targeted experiences for them - in digital and real-life formats - by focusing on longstanding customer-organization relationships that inspire on numerous practical and emotional levels, and are measurable through metrics like increased spending and brand loyalty.
Looking at the world and your customers through a broad and more complex lens - understanding the journey, from initial contact through a long lifecycle, identifying and addressing needs, being intentional about how you make your customers feel, using myriad touchpoints and multifaceted mechanisms - is complicated. Defining your strategies, and making those visions reality, demands involvement and commitment from multiple departments in an organization, from brand and marketing and IT and customer service and the C-suite and every single human who interacts with your customers, and many who may never see a customer, but build and manage the systems that enable a good CX. And, it’s measurable. You are held accountable to your commitments - you can measure and refine, you can see hard truths that you previously could avoid, you face the reality of how your customers interact with you and the resulting impact on your business.
It’s thrilling and promising - and difficult. It is quite a challenge to understand customers, and to piece together all of the components of a managed experience, and then to measure multifarious data, and then to analyze and respond to those results. Marketing departments are pressured as never before, and the financial industry, with complex business and myriad customer types, faces exponential challenges. Throw in the tensions and different realities between physical and digital interactions, and it can be overwhelming from a business perspective.
Does a mid-sized bank invest in opening another branch or in enhancing its customers’ digital experiences? Which customers? Which experiences?
How does an AI “assistant,” monitoring credit card usage for fraudulent transactions, interact with people without seeming creepy or cold?
Is JP Morgan Chase’s Starbucks-esque banking center in Washington DC mitigating or ushering in the competitive challenge of the coffee titan?
How does Tim Buckley, the new Vanguard CEO, balance the company’s revolutionary and disruptive reputation when the company is now the world’s largest provider of mutual funds? Do their customers want an experience with a slick industry leader, or do they want the homey experience of a “crew” (what the company calls its employees) obsessively advocating for the owners, who are the shareholders themselves?
Those of us excited about customer experience, about piecing together the multiple aspects of customer interactions into things we can measure and see and refine and continuously evolve, need to keep in mind Mr. Bogle’s words. When you think about the amazing moments in your life - that hilarious game night, falling in love, the birth of a child, a fabulous day on the beach, your first job offer, the last time your mother hugged you tight - you’re not left with data. There’s nothing measurable - in fact, there’s nothing you can hold. There’s nothing there but the immeasurable bliss of contentment, of memory, that incalculable sense of being a little more complete.
This is not meant to undercut the importance of knowing and understanding your customers, of providing kick-ass experiences and being able to know and meet their needs. That we have the ability to perform this business basic so powerfully is more evidence of how technology can serve humans (and not the other way around). Our strategies and solutions can potently serve our customers and our businesses simultaneously - these interests can align!
Even 25 years ago, Mr. Bogle was grappling with the conundrum of working in a data-driven field that, nonetheless, must care at least as much about intangibles- of intention, eye contact, kindness, the sound of laughter, the connection of a hand-scrawled note from a financial titan. Even - especially - in our marvelous data-driven age, that challenge should remain.
Having come up as a software engineer, I love the models, the data, seeing and analyzing the results - using information to drive what matters. And at Phase2, we’re intent on constantly finding an elusive homeostasis between information-driven solutions - and the humans they serve.
Jack Bogle focused on immeasurables as foundational value for building Vanguard:
“As I have earlier noted, the most important things in life and in business can’t be measured. The trite bromide 'If you can measure it, you can manage it' has been a hindrance in the building of a great real-world organization, just as it has been a hindrance in evaluating the real-world economy. It is character, not numbers, that make the world go ‘round. How can we possibly measure the qualities of human existence that give our lives and careers meaning? How about grace, kindness, and integrity? What value do we put on passion, devotion, and trust? How much do cheerfulness, the lilt of a human voice, and a touch of pride add to our lives? Tell me, please, if you can, how to value friendship, cooperation, dedication, and spirit. Categorically, the firm that ignores the intangible qualities that the human beings who are our colleagues bring to their careers will never build a great workforce or a great organization.”
- John C. Bogle, Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life