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Customer Experience

Humanising Feedback – why the art of good storytelling could be the key to turning insight into action


In this week's episode, Alex Barker joins the 'pod booth' with Matt and Simon to discuss different approaches organisations need to take to bring insight data to life.

Alex Barker, Strategy & Experience Director

Guest Speaker - Alex Barker

Alex is running his own consultancy and works with Sabio to help develop a Customer Experience and Service Design proposition across the group. Over his 20+ years of experience, Alex has refined a methodology that enables him and his team to assess and improve the capability and culture of organisations to use user centred outputs in effecting meaningful and measurable change. This has led to him inventing the term User Centred Transformation® (UCT).

He’s worked on an enviable roster of projects with the likes of Disney, Brittany Ferries, Ofcom, the National Trust and Age UK to name but a few.

Connect with Alex on LinkedIn.

What people still in 2020 don’t quite understand, I think, and it’s a collective responsibility to understand this more is that you need to take people on a journey and understand the story that their customers go on. And I don’t think that happens in a joined up way. You put a huge amount of investment into a technology or series of technologies, which are incredibly capable, and will enable change, but will not be the change and the catalyst for that change in and of itself.

Discussion Topics

  • Spending on customer feedback technology and services is over 9 billion dollars per annum. If we’re spending so much money why do so many transformation projects fail and why are there so few examples of positive change?
  • What is good storytelling – and how can it help insight professionals?
  • What are the common mistakes people make when trying to drive action from insight?
  • How should your approach differ when trying to influence different people across your organisation?
  • How important is it to get the leader of your business on side and supporting your work?
  • How do you go about winning their attention and trust?
  • Who is nailing it in the market right now?


Simon – Welcome to CX Chat with Matt and Simon, that podcast series where we talk about the hottest topics in customer experience. My name is Simon Thorpe and as ever, I’m joined by my colleague Matthew Dyer. And as you probably know by now, we tend to describe ourselves as two chaps with bags of opinions and bags of enthusiasm for the CX industry.  For those of you that are new to listening to the podcast, and we just love to make it very clear we’re desperate for feedback, we’d love to know how you’re finding the podcast series so far. Please feel free to send in your questions, send in your suggestions for future topics. Look out for us on the hashtag #TheCXChat on all of your usual social media places and, you know, get in touch and let us know what you think. So, Matty, How are you this week, sir?

Matt – I’m doing very well. Thanks. I’ve been down the rabbit hole around psychological safety. Sandra’s podcast definitely triggered me into kind of looking into that area and a lot more detail. So, so yeah.

Simon – Have you done the test yet?

Matt – I’ve not done the test yet. I’m just kind of building up to it. I’m just wondering what I might find out.

Simon – Well, we’ve got another cracking theme to get through this week, all about humanising feedback and how CX professionals can use their art of storytelling to tell and to drive action and change. Now, this is something obviously very close to my heart having worked in insight for many years, but we thought we would invite a special guest onto the pod and to help us talk about this subject matter. So let’s get on with introducing him. He is a customer strategy and experience consultant and a UX specialist. He’s worked on an enviable roster of projects with the likes of Disney, Orange, Ofcom, Age UK, National History Museum, and it really goes on and on. He’s also been someone we’ve been working with very closely here at Sabio and it’s fantastic to welcome into the pod booth. Alex Barker, how are you sir?

Read the full transcript

Alex – I’m very well thank you, given the circumstances.

Simon – [Laughs] How is lockdown treating you so far?

Alex – Er, lockdown, lockdown is a mixed bag of successful homeschooling, unsuccessful homeschooling, increasing embarrassment about turning on my camera when I go on Zoom calls because my hair is looking atrocious. But otherwise we seem to be coping, we seem to be coping, at this experiment thus far is sort of fair to middling.

Simon – Good man. When I was producing your, doing a little bit of pre prep for the podcast I was I was looking through your bio and LinkedIn and something that I didn’t know about you and I got to know you over the past year or so. But something I didn’t know about you was your mentoring role for Google and the mayor of London’s office. What was that about?

Alex – Yeah, so a few years, a few years ago now I was approached through the head of Google. Google Launchpad is a startup accelerator programme. And then head of Launchpad was working with doing some presentations at one of our events that the consultancy I used to work with. And he sort of, I managed to persuade him to get onto the programme. And, and it’s just awesome in that not only can you transfer your skills towards helping some of the more nascent energy filled ideas that are coming, coming out of startups, but also it’s quite analogous, increasingly analogous to what big business are trying to do with the increasing disruption that they that they feel throughout. Increasingly, because because they’re being disrupted all the time. And and actually using some of the startup culture, in big big businesses is actually helpful to try and get them to be a bit more experimental, a bit more reactive things a bit more agile things. That sort of ebb and flow I mean really I just I just used to get involved in mentoring events as and when they came up and as and when they needed more of a UX skill set but but no it’s been fascinating, loved it.

Matt – That sounds really good actually Al. Question for you. Did you get free tickets for Disney or can we get some from you?

Simon – [Laughs] Says the parents thinking how do we swerve a 2000 pound bill.

Alex – I wasn’t supposed to get but I did get free tickets to Disney. I did I did. Yeah, yeah. And this and maybe that’s that’s and I probably shouldn’t reveal this but what was what was fascinating about that is that we weren’t gonna we weren’t going to push that one, we probably could have done but we didn’t. But because the very nature of what we were doing with Disney and I won’t go into detail but we were we were doing research with with staff with as they call them cast members. And because that whole process of engaging directly in primary research with your with your customer, effectively was was such an effective way to build rapport. We just got offered them. And then of course, we didn’t turn them down. And we happen to be unfortunately happened to be over there, over a span of a weekend, so you know, what else were we going to do? Nice Nice. You don’t ask you don’t get. Well exactly what it was. It was kind of like that. Yeah. Yeah.

Simon – Excellent. So should we crack on with the theme gents, because I think this is, this has got a lot of yardage in in this topic. So we’re probably gonna run out of time and may have to revisit on the future podcast but let’s just set the scene for a second. Because what we’re talking about is this this art of storytelling and and how customer experience professionals can turn insight into action through humanising the feedback and the insight that they collect, but before we get to that point, question for you. I read the other day that customer feedback technology and services is now supposedly the spend is Over $9 billion per annum. So if we’re spending so much cash on this sort of stuff, why are Forbes still saying that most of the transformation projects fail? And why are there so few examples of positive change out there?

(If we are spending so much money on customer feedback technology why do so many transformation projects fail and why are there so few examples of positive change?)  

Alex – That’s a very, very good question. And it’s the it’s the 9 million pound question, isn’t it? I think, in my experience, and the reason why I’ve increasingly dedicated my intellectual property and my value proposition towards this, is that transformation is so associated with technology being a panacea to solve a problem. And so what people still in 2020 don’t quite understand, I think, and it’s a collective responsibility to understand this more is that you need to take people on a you need to take people within organisations on a journey and understand the story that those customers that their customers go on. And I don’t think that happens in a joined up way. You put a huge amount of investment into a technology or series of technologies, which are incredibly capable, and will enable change, but will not be the change and the catalyst for that change in and of itself. And I think there’s still a misconception around, there’s a job to be done. It has a finite remit, and it has an end goal and a big tick in a box. And that isn’t the way that people work. It isn’t the way that the relationship is evolving with, with customers. So so if you look at, so to your point around the whole, you know, the title of this podcast, if you if people can understand that story, then they’re more likely to empathise with the process of fixing it, rather than throwing something quite binary at it. And I think that’s that’s at a very high level what the problem is.

Matt – Do you think there’s a challenge as well in terms of the way organisations actually deploy the technology as well. So from your perspective, you’ve talked about doing the primary research, understanding the customers customer journey. Then off the back of it, right, okay, we can see a pain point or an area that maybe technology could support it. But is there a kind of this approach that if it doesn’t work, once you try it again, that kind of least the will to kind of, I guess, find, implement that change, and then they go back to the way they kind of operated previously. There’s a lot of finger pointing isn’t there in terms of deployment, I didn’t work because of x, y, and z. So it is a cultural thing as well. I guess what I’m trying to say.

Alex – It’s a huge cultural thing. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And and that’s where I think the conflation between technology being the panacea to solve the problem distracts from the reality that it is a it is a cultural problem. Transformation is a cultural process it is not a technological process, and therefore the finger pointing and the sort of the job justification process kicks in too soon, when you almost know that that that solution out of the box isn’t going to solve the problem.

So, if you understand the context behind it, then you can start to understand how you put that technology in place. Indeed, it’s even led it’s led me to, in recent years, coined a phrase which which sounds, which sounds a little bit awful, but actually, it’s, it really resonates with people and I call it the fragility of enthusiasm. And, and it’s a very simple, whereby, let’s take my world is consultant where I, increasingly people are understanding the value of customer insight and they understand that process of going on discovery and understanding what customers need. Yeah. So that that’s good. That’s a progress in the industry.

But what you tend to see is because that’s relatively outside of anyone’s particular responsibility, they usually they usually get someone like me in to do that job. There’s an increasing sort of sense of excitement that builds around doing research, feeding back insights and findings and making recommendations. And you get to a point within a transformation project, which is kind of like peak enthusiasm, where they’re like, wow, this stuff really makes sense, we really get this. This is really interesting, what I can see, I can see all the value that we’re going to start to bring you under the much more detail in terms of how we’re going to engage with our customers. And then what they don’t understand is that this is a series of tools for them to act upon, not a thing that you can turn on, and it will suddenly solve a problem. So then you get the downside of the bell curve, where the realisation is that they’ve actually got to do something in a coherent and collaborative way, rather than a piece of technology suddenly solving the problem. So you get this sort of drop off. And then eventually, the transformation project as as mooted, internally doesn’t deliver because the behaviour change that’s so so requisite within the business. hasn’t been a priority. And so it kind of starts to sit in a stasis and no one really knows what to do.

It’s increasingly my job to try and help clients understand what the process is to go beyond that peak point of enthusiasm that post discovery into into a world of delivery. What do we do? How do we how do we continue to tell this story to the rest of our colleagues? How do we shape our strategy around the insight that we’ve got that’s actually real and from the customer, what the customer has told us, and that’s really hard for for larger organisations to go on that on that journey successfully.

Simon – I have stolen your fragility of enthusiasm. Since we did the webinar together, Alex a brilliant phrase, and you’re right, that really does resonate with people. I mean, this this whole idea that technology is always going to be a silver bullet and and solve all your problems is a mistake that every company makes continually and probably it was wilfully under time. And one of the things I mean, that whole kind of enthusiasm drifting away and finding it difficult to influence and change the hearts and minds and, you know, get people to do things is the whole principle of what we’re talking about today, right? In the in the podcast, you know, when we’re talking about good storytelling. Lastly, what we’re talking about is how do you connect with people so that you influence them enough to drive some kind of change. And for me, that’s still one of the biggest problems CX professionals have is that they, you know, potentially gather some really interesting insight or data, but they don’t know how to turn that into language that will be received and acted upon by different people around an organisation all of which have different personal and business drivers and objectives. And it’s that kind of storytelling capability and understanding that different groups act and respond to different techniques or messages that sets people apart. So, just on that, I mean, to me good storytelling is is kind of relatability I always think of Stephen Fry. We’re talking about storytelling. Guys, Matty, what does good storytelling mean to you? I mean, in terms of the context of, you know, you’ve run operations all over the world, Matty, what what kind of kind of influence have you had to use to kind of drive people and make people change?

(What is good storytelling – and how can it help insight professionals? 

Matt – Yeah, I think funnily enough, I had a conversation with somebody today who was kind of struggling, didn’t really understand the contact centre space and was trying to understand what a specific thing a bit of technology did. I know this person used to play soccer I used to play football a long time ago. So I kind of use the analogy around that you’re going to play fire nor this weekend. Typically we play a three, five two, but because we’ve got data and insight in terms of the way the the approach a match, we’re going to go for four, two. So based on that, you’ve got the data, you’ve got the insight, now you can make that change. So you then converting that back into the technology and kind of go on to talk it through how that technology works. If you have the data, you could start to drive some CX change except for the guy went, I get that. So that’s for me, what I’ve kind of used is trying to know the person, know what their interests are, and then try and relate that back to them in some way. Whether it works or not, I’m not sure. But that’s the approach I typically take.

Simon – I like that. I think that’s a perfect analogy. Where do you think people make mistakes Al?

(What are the common mistakes people make when trying to drive action from insight? 

Alex – Yeah. I totally agree with you there, Matt. So so to pick up on that, I think, if you if you think about storytelling as narrative, that’s just what we talked about Disney, didn’t we let’s just take Disney every time you watch a classic Disney production, you go through that classic narrative arc. And that narrative arc is all about playing with your emotion and the emotion goes up, the emotion goes down in a very deliberate sequence to to keep you hooked in and I just don’t think we do that. Enough with Business business is typically quite dry. But actually, if you go out and you speak to people, you spend a lot of time and investment increasingly speaking. And I don’t mean, you know, I mean, the both a qualitative and a quantitative sense, you know, you look, you look into the whites of the eyes of the customers, you understand the problem space in a lot more detail. A lot of emotion comes with that.

What I don’t think we do in organisations is, is appreciate how that emotion can translate to empathy, and how you can then tell a story, tell us to tell a story back to your customers, but also tell a story internally so that people understand that narrative arc of the relationship that they have with their customers. So for example, a really good, a really good way of doing that a tactical way of doing that is to create personas and customer experience maps, where you see the big picture. I think a lot of a lot of technology solutions, sort of have that sort of I will solve this problem at this point. And it’s in in isolation of understanding emotive context as to what different types of customers have with that organisation. If you can take people on a journey, that if you can describe a journey that their customers go on, then you can start to empathise with the actions that are then needed to make that journey come to life. And as I’ve said before, the technology hugely enables that to happen. But the behavioural mindset change that’s needed is a lot easier once you have that empathy. So emotion and empathy, I think is a really important thing to inject into our business processes. And I don’t, I don’t think it’s there enough.

(How important is it to get the leader of your business on side and supporting your work? 

Simon – Yeah, I completely agree. I’ve lost count of the amount of organisations I’ve gone into where insight and all of that fantastic effort however, insight has been collected and analysed, whether it’s surveys or, as you said, technology that enables, you know, things like speech analytics or Social Media Gallery, whatever it might be all the put all the persona development. And all of those fantastic techniques and tools and technologies. But when it’s shared across the business more often than not, it just boils down to a very, very stale board report or an Excel spreadsheet with numbers that might go up or down and NPS score might have gone up or down or, you know, there’s there’s very little as you say, emotion, and connectability back to the customer. And, and that number almost kind of becomes a blanket of Yes, we’re doing our CX strategy, but it doesn’t really dig into the emotional connection at the customers side, and it doesn’t really emotionally connect with anyone else in the business. And that, that whole point of trying to find ways that will connect whether it’s some kind of tangible link to the financial position that’s gonna get, you know, the leadership really interested or how it’s going to help the front line do better jobs or, you know, find ways of improving their careers. It’s got to have some kind of, as you say, personal connection to really get people to stand up and take notice.

Matt – Yeah Simon, you made a really good point there regarding leadership. And I think, from my perspective, and Al it’ll be good to get your take on this. But I think unless you got top-down appreciation and kind of influence of them seeing right yet we’re behind the CX experience, you’re not going to get the business to follow and that specific project will just go by the wayside. And I’ve seen it internally with us where we’ve kind of said, right, for every call, we’re going to enable video. And that’s been quite a good thing. We’ve seen the leaders doing that and everyone else is starting to do it. So you know, what’s your thoughts Al?

Alex – Yeah, that’s that’s a good point. And I was gonna come on more broadly to sort of where I made that point earlier about experience maps and humanising the insights that we gather about our customers being one step in the journey, then where where it tends to fall away and sort of go to a bit of a void is because of that, that shines a light on the culture of the organisation, and the lack of experimentation and agility that an organisation endorses or not, and typically more traditional command and control organisations just aren’t geared up to allow collectively the hive mind to actually act upon these outputs.

So for example, a great way to take the outputs of insight and turn that into tangible action is to do a design sprint. Now, that’s a targeted pilot project analogy that says, right, we’ve identified through our insight that we’ve got a pain point here, and we’ve got an opportunity to solve that point. Rather than turn that into a 12-18 months sort of project which which is stalled and is confused and unnecessarily bloated. Just get a multidisciplinary team of people in a room, solve that problem, test it, learn from it, and get it live and keep testing it but it’s it’s astonishing really how few organisations won’t allow that type of experimental behaviour to just run.

And I think going back to the point around, you know, mentoring startups, that’s why we see increasingly startup mentality being introduced into larger organisations because they’re seeing the benefit of that sort of rapid agile, let’s prototype something and learn from it and get a problem solved and get another problem solved and treat it incrementally. And so, don’t see transformation purely in a technological term, see it and see it as a collection of well, let’s look at the experience that we want the customers to have. Let’s look at the capabilities that we have as an organisation. And let’s make sure that our, in a slightly more philosophical point, let’s make sure our culture is future fit to enable that to happen. So it’s absolutely about leadership and if leaders are acting by example, then it’s only going to send the right message to the rest of the organisation.

Simon – I think that really plays into your fragility of enthusiasm piece as well. Because I think the other problem I see why people get bored of these transformation programmes is they don’t, they tend not to give any material quick wins. So if someone does something with insight that that is maybe too broad or too big or too unwieldy to, you know, they want to change the world. Well, surely, it’s far better to get some, as you said, incremental quick wins on your belt, prove that there is a methodology that works, prove that you can get deliver change, you know, rapidly, you know, that’s where we’re going with our agile CX, right? You know, we’re living in a time now where agile CX has never been more important. So the more you can prove that there’s value in this kind of effort, the better.

I also think, as much as leadership is hugely important, in as Matty’s point, you know, terms of you know, echoing and setting the standard across an organisation and also backing any kind of commitment to change. We also think there’s as much need to engage and humanise at the frontline. And I’m seeing a worrying trend of businesses almost kind of removing insight from you know, the guys and girls that are our kind of brand advocates are people on the phones or in the stores or, you know, on the trains, you know, the people that run, rub shoulders with customers all the time. And unless they know what’s going on and less, they’re getting that feedback and they can kind of take some ownership of their own behaviour and development and use insight to try and kind of self correct and self improve. You kind of you know, you’re missing out a huge opportunity to kind of get everyone on that kind of CX journey and that that kind of collective kind of consciousness and direction. So I think both sides of the of the business are really, really important.

We’re gonna we could talk about this thing for hours and hours and hours. But just one final thing that I wanted to touch on as a group is, I mentioned in the in the kind of introduction that, you know, there’s very few examples in the, in the market at the moment of kind of real success stories or wins. But that being said, There’s got to be a few companies that we can pinpoint that are maybe nailing it right now. So, Matt, is there anyone that’s kind of jumping out at you that you’re seeing at the moment that’s doing anything that you think’s pretty good?

(Who is nailing it in the market right now?)  

Matt – Yeah, so I saw a really good one, actually, you know, I love Twitter. Well, somebody literally tweeted to Tesla basically saying, We need a dog mode. And then Elon Musk tweeted back, yes. So obviously, there’s the interaction. That’s what we want. That’s what the customer wants. He’s just said yes, but no, nothing else to it a few months later, from the Twitter handle from the Tesla handle, introducing dog mode. So basically, you can set the cabin temperature, and then from the car perspective, it lets people outside to know that the temperatures at the right mode. So that for me is a classic bit and a genius bit of listen to your customers, implement a solution and yeah nailed it.

Simon – And get some brilliant PR from it. Nice, what about you Al?

Alex – Well, from a practitioners point of view, I’ve recently been impressed with the work that Forester have been that they they seem to get the pivot towards making this a lot more humanised. And I’ve shared a stage with Forester and unfortunately that we were saying a very complimentary message and I think they genuinely understand the need to inject more empathy and humanising that process of insight, which is, which is what their core business is all about. But interestingly, it’s shining a bit. It’s actually I mean, I would say this because I’m a I’m a loan consultant, but it’s shining a light on the big big consultancies in that they’re, they’re relatively sort of playbook formula approach to this stuff doesn’t always work because I think it that those those approaches in in themselves can hit the skids when you don’t understand the nuance of each organisational sort of dysfunction and each organisational nuance in terms of how people, what’s the breakthrough moment where people are going to, so getting into the organisation, really understanding the the capabilities in the staff within that organisation as well as their customers is is crucial to making this stuff happen in the future.

Simon – We could go on and on chaps it’s a really interesting subject this and surely something that we’ll revisit as time goes on. And like we always do at when we’re wrapping up the podcast if you really go to to pick your brains about what are the you know, the top three things that our listeners could be thinking about, on this subject things they could maybe go and check out in their own steam or know maybe some close up actions that we could offer. So, so Al let’s start with you.

(#1 Takeaway – Reinventing work movement)  

Alex – So in terms of that further reading and given that how the conversation flowed towards organisational culture which is which is a large part of this, I highly recommend a book by La Loux which is ‘Reinventing Organisations’ it seems to be taking hold increasingly and it’s part of the sort of reinventing work movement that’s developing ahead of speed. And, and it’s it’s not a typical UX CX, how to book it’s, it’s all about the future of the workplace and how people work together and the benefits of self management and the way that organisations should work in a more agile way and adopting more progressive principles, which which then in turn, facilitate and allow a culture of experimentation and an ability to put this stuff into action, which I think is that is currently the missing link.

(#2 Takeaway – Is your data timely, reliable and digestible?)  

Simon – We will put the link in the in the social and the and the podcast description. That sounds like a good one. I think from me, mine is something that I am referring to quite regularly when speaking to clients and, and people that are involved in the collection and analysis of feedback and insight and that that’s, it’s like a four step checker really before you start distributing this stuff. These are kind of four things that I suggest to everyone that they think about before they start pumping this information out into the wider business. And the first is is it timely? So is this information that they’ve collected current? And it’s telling a story that’s relevant to now. So if it’s taking, you know, aeons to collect, it’s probably outdated and it’ll be questioned.

The second is, is it reliable? So is it you know, data, that’s statistically confident, you know, the last thing you want to be doing is getting into a data debate. Is it compelling? So you know, as much as you may have spent huge amounts of time finding out what you think is interesting unless there’s some kind of value to the business that will give some kind of profit or cost saving change, then it’s unlikely to capture much attention.

And also, the final one is is it digestible? I think, you know, lots of CX professionals make the mistake of using too many acronyms and, you know, start talking about regression analysis and language that doesn’t necessarily relate to people that haven’t done this sort of thing before. So coming back to that relatability point of view, try and, you know, make your language and the way you’re sharing information as accessible as possible.

(#3 Takeaway – watch Humanising Feedback webinar)  

Matt – Yeah, I think from my perspective, I think I’m gonna make a shameless plug for you boys, actually. There’s a great webinar that Simon and Al did in terms of humanising the process of insight. And I think my takeaway will be for everyone to go and watch that webinar.

Alex – It’s a cracking watch.

Simon – [Laughs] You’re too kind Matty. Hopefully, we’ll live up to the shameless plug. Thank you. And, Alex, thank you so much for joining us today. Have you enjoyed it mate?

Alex – It’s been an absolute pleasure. Yeah, thank you very much, chaps. I’d love to talk more. You’ve got me going now.

Simon – It’s the theme we could we could go on for many, many, many hours on. And thanks for joining us, mate. I’m sure we will, we will invite you back to where to pick up the discussion. Matty. It’s been a good one this week.

Matt – Yeah, really enjoyed it.

Simon – We’re becoming we’re becoming sort of experts on lots of different themes aren’t we. It’s, it’s, I’m feeling like we’re educating ourselves as we go.

Matt – Definitely learning a lot levelling up my expertise, which is good.

Simon – Yes, we’ll well, long may it continue and so chaps big thank you as always, and an even bigger thank you to to our listeners for joining us this week. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and keep your questions thoughts, topic ideas coming into us on the social and we will be leaving as part of the podcast information. Alex’s contact details and how to find them and all those sorts of things. So I hoped you enjoyed it. Thanks for tuning in. Until next time, bye bye.


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