Expert interview


 Steven van Belleghem


Leading expert in Customer Experiences, Author, Key-note speaker and Entrepeneur

Steven van Belleghem is a leading expert in creating great customer experiences in our digital world. He has written many books (the conversation company) and he is a respected keynote speaker and an entrepreneur.

What did we cover during the interview?

In preparing this interview I saw a old TED talk where you stated that customers should become your friends. Can you elaborate on this?

The whole idea came from asking myself the question: who gets the best service from an organization? 

In an ideal world, every customer is treated in a fantastic way. But what you often see is that if you have a personal connection with someone in an organization and something goes wrong – you talk to that personal connection. Suddenly doors open and you get helped in a better way. If you go to a big bank and something goes wrong and you are following the traditional paths then if something goes wrong: it really goes wrong. However, if your neighbour or your friend works in that bank and you tell that person about your frustrations you will do everything that you can do to get those issues solved. You have a personal connection. Because I know you: It’s not about the companies reputation but it’s my reputation that is on the line. So when it becomes personal the efforts go up in terms of trying to help people. 

That was the message of that ted talk: if you only would offer extraordinary service if your customer is a neighbour your organization has a mentality that is not delivering fantastic customer service. In fact, every company should be treating every person like it’s their neighbour or best friend. 

You then have the commitment that your customers deserve. In many companies they talk about the processes and how can we optimize this. That is an important thing. But next to processes you have the intensity and the creativity in which the people use those processes. We can have the exact same process with company a and b. But you can have a different experience. In company A you can have the feeling you were helped by a robot and in company B that there is so much energy in the process that as a customer you have a WOW effect!

So the process is one thing and the energy intensity is the other thing.

Asking yourself the question as a business leader: do I have a team that HAS to be nice to customers or do I have a team that WANTS to be nice to customers?

It’s that what really can make a difference in the experience.

What if the customer is no longer part of the customer experience?

This is part of the whole evolution of AI and automation. I think in a few years we are going to move from e-commerce to A-commerce. Where you can outsource journeys to a machine. The most evident example is your food. In a household, about 80% of the things you eat are the same (week after week, month after month). That means there is a pattern. And if there is a pattern you can predict behavior, and if you can predict behavior you can automate.

So almost for every household in the world, you can create their consumption pattern. This means you can make sure that on Saturday morning there is a box with items that a machine knows that you need. So you don’t have to go to the store anymore. 

In that scenario, the customer is not part of the decision flow. It’s machines talking to machines and that’s a completely different ball game. It’s different than the human aspect. But the truth is, in many cases, you don’t need the human touch. In many cases your primary concern is efficiency. You want it fast, easy and convenient. But on the other hand, there are purchases that are more emotional and you need a bit more advice. Or something goes wrong in the automated process. In those moments you want to be helped in a more human way. There it’s not about efficiency, there it’s about a way that they help you. 

Both parts are parts of the customer experience of every company. Many families do a yearly trip. 

Every week we do a yearly trip to Tenerife. There is a pattern because we do it yearly. So I can imagine that a machine can remind me that I need to purchases the tickets for the trip when there is a good offer. Everything that has a pattern in your life can be automated. If there is no pattern then there is a different ball game.

Where do you see opportunities for b2b companies in terms of improving the customer experience?

I recommend b2b companies to play with three customer benefits.

1) faster and real-time services – how can you anticipate to problems of your customer? Solve a problem before there is a problem.

2) Hyper personalization – How can you personalize more than today.

3) Convenience – How can you use the most convenient interfaces you can ever imagine?

Examples: PPG

They make smart paint for the pipelines where oil and grass are going through. The goal of this paint is not esthetics but to protect the pipes against the erosion of the ocean. In this paint, there are sensors that send messages to the owners of the pipelines that say: ”I need a new layer of paint.”

This is faster than real-time. They are solving a problem before it becomes a problem because the paint has become ‘smart’. It’s completely personalized on that specific pipeline and it’s extremely convenient because you don’t have to do anything.

In terms of digital and customer experience, I think that personalized pro-activity is going to be a huge trend. The convenience part is going to be a huge challenge for some b2b companies because there are still people that believe that people don’t live a normal life outside of the doors of their homes.  I think that many b2b companies need to understand that the interfaces on the homepage of your mobile phone define the convenience their customers expect. They are trying to be ahead in a snail race. So they will look at their competitors and think they are ahead of them but in reality, they are still slow compared to the consumer interfaces.

You recently released your latest book the offer you can’t refuse where your describe how we can react in an appropriate manner to the new generation of customer expectations (The Offer You Can’t Refuse) 1 of the solutions you mention is ultimate convenience and making interfaces more automated. What do you mean with this?

The offer you can’t refuse just came out at the beginning of September in 2020 and it’s a story on how to predict expectations of future customers in the next 3-5 years. 

My hypothesis is that if you have an offer you can’t refuse you need a number of components. Of course, you need the obvious: a good product, price, and services. But that’s obvious because that’s a minimum need. 

More and more we are starting to see that automated interfaces are creating the ultimate convenience.  Making life as easy as possible through digital interfaces is becoming a commodity. In the past years, we had 4g, mobile and social that came into the world. Today they are mature technologies. One of the consequences is that digital interfaces are now part of today’s world. It’s not something you can differentiate, it’s a minimum demand. And as a company, you need to build on top of that.

A partner in life strategy 

I call it a partner in life strategy when you offer a broader set of services that go beyond your own product. The top of the offer you can’t refuse model is about how can you use the strengths of your organization to have a positive impact on society and the combination of these elements. And the combinations of these elements then you have an offer that people can’t refuse. 


What are companies that have this partner in life approach?

There is in the Netherlands that I really like which is called Centraal Beheer which is an insurance company. Of course, they have good insurance products. Over the years they have built good digital interfaces. But now they want to go further – they want to become a partner of your house. They were looking for services that they could implement for their customers. In the Netherlands, it’s going to be obliged to have a smoke detector in your house. They send a letter with what kind of smoke detector they need and if you want we can come to your house to install that. They are helping out, and not just announcing it. Think further than that. you can order solar panels from the Centraal Beheer website(an insurance company). It’s as easy buying something on amazon. They have apps called klushulp that is like a uber for house chores.

By taking care of the solar panel infrastructure they are also solving the energy discussion we are having around the world today. Centraal Beheer is playing and having an offer on each of these dimensions.

In this digital world we see a rise of usage of conversational interfaces (instant message, voice).
What is your view on adapting bots and/or AI/ML in conversations?

I see that the adoption has increased significantly. Many websites where you going to just have a chatbot available in case your searching for information and they can help you in real-time. I see more and more support functions. I think today that they are good at answering basic and simple questions. Because of that, you have 24/7 availability. On the other hand, I’m still waiting for the iPhone after the blackberry moment for chatbots. I have the feeling it’s nice but I also have the feeling that we are not there yet. If you describe the dream of what we hope that chatbots would be. We are on our way there but there is still a huge potential to improve it.

We are going from machine to human. I see a scenario where we go into the other direction for instance when I talk with a human in a service kind of conversation. Together we solve the problem (the hard part). Then the humans send the bot to the rd part is covered, maybe then the human sends we have it all covered and the human will send you back to the bot instead of moving from the bot to the human.

AI is not new – they have been working on it for decades but we are now at a point that it becomes really valuable for a broad kind of applications and that evolution is still in its early days. It’s still at the beginning of that adoption curve. There is a number of these technologies that are becoming more natural like AI, 5G, the Cloud, and robotics. This is the moment we are installing freeways for digital applications. We have been driving on small roads, but now we are installing digital freeways. It’s a new evolution we are going to see. In 10 years from now, we are going to have a totally different way of interacting with machines and with each other due to a larger maturity in these technologies.

Do you think that because of all this autionation and technologies that there will only be a few companies that are providing for customers or do you different players?

If I look to Asian markets. you have super apps like Grab and Wechat that are real partners in life for people. That is an extreme situation. The whole ecosystem is built around that. The small businesses are working through WeChat and Grabb.

If you look at western products we are not in that situation. Amazon is one of the most fascinating ones – I would assume that the end game of amazon is to make sure as many transactions as possible happen through their platform. They have the technology, the logistics, and Alexa in place for that. But personally, I believe we will never have that super app ecosystem as we see in China. I think it will be different in European and US markets.

I see so many companies strengthen their relationship with the end-user and in that way increases their brand power. That is what you need if you want to have a world with different companies to choose from. Which is what I believe is the best possible outcome. I’m not a fan that everything would happen through Amazon. I would like to have a broader variety of choices. But we can be sure it that Amazon will everything can do reach that position.

Where can people find you?


Books on Amazon:

  • Conversation Company
  • When Digital Becomes Human
  • Conversation Manager