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82: Building for a Tech-Enabled World with Howard Tiersky of FROM.Digital

Published June 15, 2021
Run time: 00:49:28
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Digital transformation looks a lot different for today’s companies than it did in the 90’s. Howard Tiersky, founder of digital transformation agency FROM, joins the show to chat about the rapid evolution of technological innovations, how organizations can shift their mindset to the “new normal,” how solving customer pain points leads to competitive differentiation, and how to balance cost and thoroughness when conducting customer research.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How digital transformation has evolved
  • Why companies should rethink their business for a world that’s digitally centric
  • How the global pandemic has changed customers’ behaviors
  • How the pace of change has impacted everyone, even crime and warfare
  • How to create points of competitive differentiation
  • What pain maps are and how they lead to opportunities
  • How to balance cost and thoroughness when it comes to customer research
  • How experiential retail is using tech to compete with e-commerce

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded June 8, 2021 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski

Show Links

Howard Tiersky on LinkedIn | https://www.linkedin.com/in/tiersky/

FROM, The Digital Transformation Agency | https://from.digital

Winning Digital Customers: The Antidote to Irrelevance | https://winningdigitalcustomers.com/freechapter

Registration for Tim’s upcoming talk at the Twin Cities Business Webinar on Technology: Fraud Prevention Tips | https://tcbmag.com/events/tech21/

JMG Careers Page | https://jmg.mn/careers

Email careers@jmg.mn

Connect with Tim Bornholdt on LinkedIn | https://www.linkedin.com/in/timbornholdt/

Chat with The Jed Mahonis Group about your app dev questions | https://jmg.mn

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at building and growing digital products. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

A quick note before we get into this week's episode, we at The Jed Mahonis Group have a lot of fun projects coming in the door. And as a result, we're looking to expand our team by bringing on some iOS and Android developers. We place an emphasis here on fit as opposed to skills. Skills are something that can be taught and fostered through mentorship and experience. Fit, on the other hand, it's harder to define, but we've outlined some of the traits we're looking for on our careers page at jmg.mn/careers. So whether you have a year of experience or 20, if you're interested in talking with us, we'd love to hear from you. So please reach out at careers@jmg.mn. We'll put that email address and a link to our careers page in the show notes as well.

Today, we are chatting with Howard Tiersky, founder of digital transformation agency FROM, which has won over 100 awards for user experience design. We have a great conversation about digital transformation and how you can help your organization shift its mindset to our new normal of rapid technological innovations. So without further ado, here is my interview with Howard Tiersky.

Howard, welcome to the show.

Howard Tiersky 1:32
Well, thank you so much for having me, happy to be here.

Tim Bornholdt 1:34
I'd love for you to introduce yourself and tell my audience hear about your agency From Digital.

Howard Tiersky 1:40
Sure. Well, I've been working with large brands on digital transformation for, I'm scared to say, the last 25 years, since I was running, since I was working with Ernst and Young consulting and I was just a kid. And I was the kid they were grabbing and bringing to the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, so I could explain to CEOs, what is the web? And why would you want to have it? That's kind of how long I've been doing this,which sounds maybe kind of crazy. But so I worked for a very large consulting company for about 15 years. And it gave me the unbelievable chance to, like I said, just work with a huge, huge number of large brands on their digital transformation. Of course, it was a different era that they were trying to do then is nowhere near as ambitious as what companies need to do today. But they were moving towards e commerce.

And then about 14 years ago, I started my own company. And that's called From Digital, andsame type of work really, working with large brands. We work with companies like NBC, the Avis Budget group, JPMorgan Chase, ADP, A&E, Universal Studios, those types of large brands, and our task is always different, but in a sense, always the same, which is, how can we help the company make more money, create greater customer love, customer loyalty, increase the opportunity to do something amazing for the customer, and therefore help the business get something great in return. And increasingly, because digital is such a central part of everybody's lives, so much of what we do is about figuring out how do we deliver a more elegant digital experience for our clients customers? Because so often, that's where you get the love.

Tim Bornholdt 3:20
I laughed when you said like, you know, being a young kid and getting thrown into the boardrooms with these people and you having to explain, you know, what is the internet? What's changed in the process? Like in these boardrooms, I would imagine that back then there was more maybe not hostility, but more just kind of like, either indifference or like just a bewilderment of why do we need to care about this stuff? Is there still like, kind of that similar pervasive attitude? Or was that an attitude? Or like, just what are some of the differences you're seeing between then and now?

Howard Tiersky 3:54
Yeah, well, certainly, now, I don't hear anybody saying, Why do we need to care about it? Back then, sure. I think back then it was, you know, people were getting educated. And it wasn't considered something that was so important, right? It was a sort of a niche thing. It was not going to be, at that time, anyone's major way of communicating or anyone's major way of doing business. So it was more like, let's dip our toe into something new and cool. And I'd get questions like, So is this kind of like AOL? You know, and I'd be like, Well, kind of, in a way. You know, that's, again, we're talking about, you know, like the mid 90s. But, you know, so there wasn't a lot of resistance to it then as much as just a need to be educated because there wasn't a lot of risk.

Today, it's totally different. Today, what we're talking about is not, Hey, shoot, put a few pages on the web to tell the world who we are, if they want to reach us on the channel, but rather, you know, should we potentially completely rethink our entire business for a digital world? And so on the one hand, I don't think there's anybody out there of any significance who's saying, I think this digital thing might be a fad. I'm not sure we should be worried about it. But what I do think you have is a resistance to the scale of transformation, because I think there are a lot of companies that are perfectly willing to invest in, you know, apps and websites and all these things. And no one would deny that's important part of business. But what I don't think many boardrooms and people in many boardrooms fully appreciate is that companies that are going to succeed in the future are going to look a lot more like Google and Netflix and Uber, than like, today's companies. And, you know, sometimes, I think people, senior executives, who are from another generation, see all of those companies as tech companies, and say, Well, we're not a tech company like Uber. But Uber is not a tech company. Uber is in the transportation business. Netflix is not a tech company. They're in the entertainment business. Amazon does have part of their business, which is a tech company, because they provide cloud services. But if you think about the retail component of Amazon, that is not a tech company, that is a retail. That is what it looks like when companies in those industries are transformed, or at least that's one version point to look like. And I think a lot of people still resist the level of transformation that's going to be necessary to really be successful.

Tim Bornholdt 6:04
That makes sense. And I would think like, along that same mindset, when you've got big companies that don't see themselves as tech companies, maybe it could be like phrased it other way, it's, they're hesitant to use tech in a way that would advance their main objectives. And I like that you said, like, you know, Uber, a lot of people hold up Uber as like the prototypical example. When we get approached to build apps, it's what we want to be the Uber of x. And it's like, well, if you want to be the Uber of x, like you have to have your domain knowledge, obviously, for whatever industry you're in down pat. And what Uber has done is invested in their technology in such a way that they look like a tech company for all intents and purposes, but like you said, it's really not. They're really a transportation company trying to facilitate matchmaking between a driver and a passenger.

Howard Tiersky 6:51
Well, that's absolutely right. And if you look at someone like an Uber, though, what you see is that, yes, it is, as you said, investment in technology. But it's much more than just algae. It's a different way of thinking about how you deliver the fundamental value proposition in this case, ground transportation. It's a different way of thinking about it in a world that is digitally centric, because the fundamental idea of building a ground transportation company where instead of buying a bunch of cars, and hiring a bunch of drivers, you create a platform and ecosystem where people with cars and spare time, sign up and get assignments and all that, would have been impossible 15 years ago. There would literally been just no way to do something like that without everyone having a smartphone and GPS and things. And so, you know, you're talking about a business that isn't just technology enabled, but is built for a world that is technology enabled.

And a lot of what I call kind of legacy companies, and no disrespect to them, you know, the world is filled with tons and tons of fantastic brands and fantastic companies that have been around a long time. And my mission in the world is to help them be around for the next 100 years. So I'm all for that. But it does require recognizing that, you know, it's not just about doing, you know, it's like one thing I talked about in my book is this term ecommerce. And what I love about the term e commerce is that it's this hypenate, right, It's like, let's take commerce, the thing we were already doing. And then let's just pick an E on the front of it with a hyphen. And a lot of companies when they first started in digital, that was what they did. They said, Well, we sell these products, and we're just going to sell them through another channel, you know. You can go into the store you can buy but you can also buy them on our website. Or if you're a car service company, you know, you have a limo service, let's say. You just create a website. So instead of calling somebody the opportunity to book a reservation through your website. Now there's nothing wrong with that, right? That's great. But the thing is, that doesn't really fundamentally change your business. It creates another doorway, another avenue into the business. And again, there's nothing wrong with that. Except, if you look at the companies that are having dramatic success today, they're doing a lot more with digital. They're not just operating. Netflix does not operate like an entertainment company from the 80s and 90s. They are operating in a way that would be impossible, without, you know, ubiquitous broadband both at home and to mobile devices everywhere you travel. And so this is the difference. It's the difference between sort of running your company the way you've been running it for three decades or more, but just trading digital touchpoints or channels, or rethinking your business for a world that's digitally centric, the way that we see these types of companies doing.

Tim Bornholdt 9:33
I guess to me, then, that kind of begs the question like, how, if I am a company of like, like, you know, pick any entrenched player that's been around for, you know, 100 years, you know. How do you go into a company like that and find a way to change that mindset? Like do you have like a good systematized approach for getting people to think a certain way or like what are some steps that you take when you want to go in and find a organization that wants to start behaving more like a company that was founded, you know, a few years ago, as opposed to something that has all these entrenched processes and ways of doing things that it's scary to make changes?

Howard Tiersky 10:13
Yes. Well, Tim, as a matter of fact, I do. In fact, I have a book called Winning Digital Customers, the Antidote to Irrelevance, which goes through a five step process, which is, I will be happy to describe to you here, but which is a result of my having had really the great opportunity to work with many, many dozens of large brands on their digital transformations, and I'll be honest with you as many failures as successes, but we learned from all of these things. And it's given me the opportunity to really learn what works and what doesn't work. And while I would never suggest there's only one path to success, this book is my best attempt to bring together the practices that I've seen work so that any company that wants to take that journey has a step by step blueprint for how to go about.

Tim Bornholdt 11:01
That's awesome. And yeah, I certainly recommend people go and check out your book, because I don't want to obviously give away all the content here for that.

Howard Tiersky 11:10
I'm happy to give away as much time as we have. So there's nothing held back other than the fact that, you know, we could never cover it all in a pocket. But I'm happy to talk about any aspects.

Tim Bornholdt 11:20
I mean, even I think just even get it getting a taste of like, what's the first step like how how do you from, we know that we need to evolve or, you know, be caught in the dust, you know, what would be just like step number one.

Howard Tiersky 11:34
Sure. Step number one is to understand the customer. Because this, first of all, one thing I talked about extensively in the book is if your goal is business success, which generally that's the goal. And generally, that's measured in things like revenue, revenue growth, you know, profit, net revenue, and the value of a company, which is largely driven by revenue. If that's your goal, then most business success is a result of successfully driving human beings. And while there are several different types of humans that matter to business, such as their employees, and their shareholders, typically the most important humans are the customers. Because if you can get the customers to do what you want them to do, you're probably going to have a really good business, even if you aren't perfect in every other way. You can get them to buy, to buy more, to not return their products. You can get them to tell their friends how awesome you are. If you can get those behaviors, you're gonna be in really good shape. And, you know, if you can't, then no matter what else you may be doing well, like you could have the world's best, you know, accounting system or SAP implementation, it's probably not gonna matter too much if the customers aren't, you know, doing what you what you need them to do.

So the biggest challenge I think many companies have today is making sure that they're delivering the kind of experience that's going to drive desired customer behavior. And by the way, that's made even more difficult as a result COVID because your customers have changed, their behaviors have changed, their habits have changed, their priorities have changed in small ways and in big ways. And they're changing again, because they changed as we went into COVID, and everyone was living under lockdown, and now they're changing again, as we emerge, but they're not necessarily going back exactly the same way they were before COVID either. And so it's critical to make sure that you really have your finger on the pulse of, what does your customer really want, need? Where are you delighting them already? And where are you letting them down? What needs do they have that are in your domain, of whatever your business is, whether you're a plumber, a baker, a candlestick maker, whatever, an airline, but, you know, what are their unmet needs, that you would have the opportunity to really delight them if you filled them.

So, you know, Uber did a great job of looking at something very old school, getting a taxi, basically, and took away some key points of pain. If I want an Uber and I'm in New York City, right now, if I wanted a taxi, I gotta go wait in the corner, I got to stick my arm out, I might have to fight someone else for a taxi. And I got to get in the cab, I got to tell him where I'm going, Oh, my God, how like 1990. I got to tell the cab driver where I'm going. Now then when I get there, I can't just hop out of the cab. I got to like, pay, right? All these points of pain that Uber has removed, they've created a better experience. And that's why they're successful, not because it's an app. And so that's why the first step is to really understand the customer. Because just changing, just transforming isn't the path to success. The path is to figure out how to create a better experience to create more value for the customer. And in order to do that, it generally requires transformation. But you want to drive the transformation with a vision of how you're going to create a better customer experience to create more value for the customer. So they'll be willing to give you more value in return.

Tim Bornholdt 14:48
That's so beautifully said. One thing I was thinking about while you were saying that was like some of these older companies, I'm sure the pace of change that customers demand has probably evolved significantly over the last, you know, say 30 years, as technology starts to become more ubiquitous and things. Do you find that, like, tech has forced changes faster or have we always lived in a world where businesses need to evolve as rapidly as they do, given our modern climate?

Howard Tiersky 15:20
Oh, it's definitely changing much faster than before. I mean, there was a time when you could get a pretty good business model in place, and a pretty good way of operating your business, and you might be able to run it pretty similarly for a couple of decades, you know, occasionally coming out with some kind of new and improved product that was really basically the same thing with a small twist, continuing to advertise and market in very similar ways, maybe just a slight facelift to your ads, your ad campaign, but basically continue to do very much the same thing over and over and over for years. Whether you're an airline, keep flying the same routes, or you're a, you know, accounting company, every year, people have to do their taxes, and you do it more or less the same. And so there's definitely been periods where that was true across many, many industries, and digital started, in a few industries, started in financial services and travel, you know, back in the 90s. And then it's not every industry has moved at the same pace. But today, it's really hit everybody. And whether you're a hospital, or a university, or a manufacturing company, or certainly a travel company, or a retailer or media entertainment.

Just imagine I mean, just think about this, crime has transformed. Crime, right? If you think of all the aspects of our lives that have been changed by digital, the way we work, the way we date, the way we socialize, you know, the way we shop, criminals, if they want to be successful, they've got to figure out how to become hackers. Because that is where the money is. You can't expect to rob someone on the street now and find hundreds of dollars in their wallet. That's just not how it works. If you're a criminal, you've got to be prepared to transform, darnit, if you're going to be successful. That is how, warfare, right? Everything we do has transformed to be digitally centric, and maybe someone can come up with an exception to that rule. And I'm happy to entertain that. But barring any, you know, exceptions that prove the rule. Yes, that pace of change has been rapid. And it's nearly total. And by the way, that's why we see so many dead companies over the last 10 years or so, you know. I don't mean to be morbid, but you can see so many, whether it's Toys R Us or Circuit City or, you know, and on and on every year, we hear more and more brands that are going out of business, much more than we saw in prior periods. Because the pace of change is so rapid and those that aren't keeping up, you know, they're falling like flies. I'm sorry to say. And that's why honestly, I titled my book, Winning Digital Customers, the Antidote to Irrelevance, Because, and I don't like to say something, I'm a positive person. I believe everything's possible. But I think, you know, you asked the question earlier, how do we get people to really change? I think one of the things is making sure people understand the burning platform, making sure within organizations you're communicating the facts about why this is absolutely imperative and urgent.

Tim Bornholdt 17:59
And one thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is around like this, the idea of change and going with just people that are in charge and worrying about change, it's like for a while and growing up, especially, I mean, people would wear their, like, Luddite status on their shoulder of, you know, just being taking it as a point of pride that they don't understand technology, or they don't understand, you know, this fancy internet thing. And, you know, it used to be almost like a badge of honor. And these days, it's almost like, Why are you proud of that? Like, wouldn't you want to know how you can use these technologies and it's so pervasive, like everything, like you said, even crime. I'm giving a talk soon on how you can protect your business from threats and things like that. It's just like, all stuff that we wouldn't have had to worry about 20 years ago, because no one was there. But now everybody is digital, everything is digital. And I agree, like if you can't find a way to, to take that information and apply it to your own business and find what, you know, listen to your customers most of all, and hear what they want out of your services and offerings, like if you're not going to evolve in that then, yeah, it is like you are going to fade off into irrelevance because somebody else is going to listen to your customers, find that solution, and deliver it to them.

Howard Tiersky 19:17
I think that's absolutely right. You know, there's this great sort of mini series, I guess you could call it, now on HBO, about Fran Lebowitz. It's done by Martin Scorsese. I don't know if you've seen that, or if that's kind

Tim Bornholdt 19:27
Not yet.

Howard Tiersky 19:28
of a New York thing. Well, I recommend it. It's very funny. I think it's six or seven episodes that Martin Scorsese and Franny, which was a longtime New York, columnist, kind of figure, and I guess you could say comic, and she's now in her probably in her 70s. And one of the things that's interesting about the series is like, she's constantly talking about the fact that she doesn't have a computer. She doesn't have an iPhone, she doesn't use the internet. You know, she types her column or whatever she writes now on her old like, IBM Selectric typewriter or whatever else, you know, that is her world. And it's so unusual that Martin Scorsese made a television series about it. Like, that's how unusual it is. So yeah, there's always somebody out there, right, that's, you know, still, you know, making their own paper or something by cutting down trees. But, it's a rare exception. And I agree with you years ago, I remember when I was a kid at Ernst and Young and Capgemini, you know, the senior partners, they would have their secretaries print their emails out for them, you know, and then they'd sit there and they'd read through their emails, and they'd write a note on the email of what they wanted the response to be. And they give the stack of papers back to the secretary. And she would send all the email response. Yeah, I don't think that's a successful executive today. And I don't think there are many like that anymore. I think that we are in a digitally transformed world. But there are some companies that aren't really all the way there yet. Because it's a lot easier for a person to transform than it is for a whole company to transform, you're talking about a massive undertaking.

Tim Bornholdt 20:50
Right. And I think, there is something to be said about, you know, setting aside technology and getting us, you know, like you hear about people that will like go to a cabin and turn off all technology and get away for a while to process. But it's almost like a point of privilege these days to be able to get away from it. Because everything has moved to real time in your face, any piece of information you want at any point and it's like, it's kind of table stakes now. You can unplug, but if you're choosing not to, then yeah, you're obviously quickly fading into irrelevancy.

Howard Tiersky 21:29
Yes, yes. And I mean, I have a friend who, once a year, she goes on a Silent Retreat. She doesn't speak for a week, you know, so there's always some value in a cleanse, right. Uou know, have nothing but juice and budos oil and don't speak for a week. That's great. That's a great way of resetting yourself. But when you get back to the real world, yeah, you know, and by the way, you know, there have been all kinds of interesting studies done about how important digital devices are to people in their lives. And I'm not saying it's a good thing, necessarily, it just is the world we operate in. But you know, they'll do studies and people will say, if they had to choose between their smartphone and working an extra day, you know, a week, 75% of people would work the extra day. If they had to choose between their smartphone and not going on vacation, 75% of people say, I'll skip vacation, I need my smartphone. In fact, 1/3 of people say that if they had to choose between sex and their smartphone, they'd take a smartphone. So, you know, at that level of importance in people's lives, you got to know that it's not just a nice to have. If your brand isn't digitally elegant in the way it interacts with your customers, not only are you not meeting your needs, but you're somehow reflecting that you don't even get what they're about and what's important to them. And that's pretty damaging to a relationship.

Tim Bornholdt 22:44
Oh, 100% agreed. Well, you were mentioning the real world. And you have certainly done a lot of stuff in the real world. And one of the things that caught my eye was you built the first watch app in the rental car industry with Avis and I really wanted to pick your brain about that. And I mean, it won, you know, JD Powers number one award in the industry for it. I'm sure you took away a ton from working on that project. So what were some of the the critical takeaways from it? And how did the development of a watch app, like, why does Avis need a watch app?

Howard Tiersky 23:17
You know, I think, just like any type of business, the rental car industry needs to be thinking about how to make customers lives easy, particularly in a business like that, because let's face it, people don't rent a car for fun, you know. Or if you do, if you're one of the few people that maybe is renting, you know, a convertible to drive around for fun, the experience of renting the car is not fun. In other words, your goal is to get as quickly through the shopping, the reservation, the pickup of the car, you know, and just get to the using the car, right. And so making that as hyper convenient as possible is critical from a competitive perspective. And so you know, we've worked with Avis on a large number of different projects that have massively improved the customer's experience, everything from making it easier to reserve a car, to making it easier to add things like insurance and turning the Sirius XM radio on in the car, things like that, to make it easier to pick up the car, making it easier to switch the car if you get the car and you're like, Oh, I reserved a mid size. But now that I'm here with my nine suitcases and six kids, I'm thinking maybe I need a bigger one. And then you look at that line and you're like, but I don't want to go wait in that line. I'm on vacation. Now you can just pick up your app and say, You know what, what car do I want to switch to? Here, I'll take this one. And it's says fine, you know, six spaces over there's a larger car, we're gonna charge a few extra bucks or whatever. And you can go do it without having to go wait in line. And you know, the watch app is just part of a larger ecosystem of making sure that we're making it easy for people to get through the process with as little friction and pain as possible to get exactly what they want.

And just look at my example. I mean, just think of that story. Think of one customer who's standing they're realizing that they, you know, it's like, on the website, all the cars look really tiny. They're just little pictures. So it can be hard to tell. When you're sitting there realizing you need a different car, if you can just do that process easily, not only are you happier as a customer, but you've also, we just upsold you, right? Avis is now making a few more dollars because you're renting a more slightly more expensive product, versus the person who looks at that long line and thinks to themselves, I don't want to deal with that and just takes a smaller car and is unhappy in it because they didn't want to deal with the 45 minutes or whatever it might be. And of course, sometimes the lines are not that long. But when one of the challenges in any travel, not just car rental is, because it sort of peaks and valleys, right? You know, there's certain times a day when a lot of people are traveling, there's certain times a year when everyone's traveling, it's just very, very hard, nearly impossible, to staff so that you can always deal with people quickly, because the number of people we need to deal with an hour can change so abruptly. So that's a problem you have in any travel company, right, you have it in hotels. I don't know if you've ever shown up to Las Vegas hotel and had to wait 45 minutes to check in, or obviously going to the airport and waited forever. So anything we can do to take away that kind of pain is key. And you know, make it easier for you to know when the bus is coming, all these kinds of things, so many opportunities to take pain out of the travel experience and make it more enjoyable. And when you do that, you create either a point of competitive differentiation, or if some of your competitors are already doing well, then you're playing catch up. But at least you're not letting your competitors be differentiated compared to you.

Tim Bornholdt 26:30
So I really like what you said about the main goal that you were thinking about, like when anyone's ever using an app like that is, like get through it as quick as possible. And I think that's something when we're building digital products, a lot of times people think that the app is this baby that everybody loves and wants to be doting over and involved with intimately. But from our experience, when you're working with apps, most of the time, people don't want to use your app, right? Like they want to get something else done. So I really appreciate that you were actually, you know, sitting through and listening to the users to actually get some of those insights as to how can you make that process less painful and get through the check in process so that they can go off and get things done. And having those little insights of like, Oh, I want to switch my car at the last second. Like, were those insights gleaned from just your team sitting down and brainstorming with Avis? Or was it like, were you doing a lot of like focus groups actually collecting user feedback? Like how do you like synthesize and come up with those different ideas?

Howard Tiersky 27:29
Yeah, most of the work that we do is based on customer research. You know, I'd like to say we're so clever, we know what to do, but in reality, it's really mostly a matter of getting out there, and in a variety of ways, getting to observe customers, and how they're currently engaging with the process. So for example, one thing we do very often is we bring people who need to book a rental car into some kind of a research session, either by sitting with them in a room or getting them on a tool like Zoom or something and saying, Alright, well, you know, you have a trip coming up. They'll say, Yes, I'm going to Cleveland to visit my family. Okay, great. Well, are you gonna need, let's say we're studying rental cars, Do you need a rental car? Yeah, I'm gonna need a rental car. Okay. Well, we'd like to just observe, like, let's deal with it right now. Like, how would you go about that process? And we just observe what they do. And we ask them to speak aloud so we can understand what's the thinking. For example, some people might go to Orbitz, or you know, Expedia and start comparison shop, some people might go to Google, some people might say, Oh, you know, I always go to Hertz or whatever. And they go to the Hertz website, and they say, Okay, I got a price. Now, I'm going to go to the Avis website, and I'm going to compare the price or things like that. So just to really understand how people are going about that, and what their needs are. Because when you observe that you often find people that hit a problem. They're like, Oh, man, I want to know this about the car. But the website doesn't tell me, or gosh, you know, I want to reserve it in this way. But there's not a way to do that. Or, you know, or they just may have usability problems. I'm entering my credit card and I keep getting this weird error message. And I don't know what the problem is, you know, I know my credit card's good. And maybe they're confused about the form.

And then but of course, some parts of the rental car experience and a lot of experiences are like this, aren't done at your computer. And so we also spend time on the lot and behind the counters observing what happens when people wait for the bus, get on the bus, get off the bus, go get in line, stand at the counter, have a conversation, sign their forms, look for their car on the lot, get in their car and try to figure out how it works because it's a car you've never been in before. Where's the Start button? How do I open the window? How do I adjust the side mirrors And we actually create what we call a pain map. We've identified hundreds of points of pain in the car rental process, for example, and it's not specific to Avis necessarily. These are just like I said, you get into a car, you can't figure out how to, you know, where to turn the lightson , right. I mean, that's not specific to any one car rental. But it's a common problem for anybody renting a car. And so then our goal is always say, Alright, well, these are all the areas of opportunity. Every one of those points of pain, every one of those moments of frustration and friction and inconvenience, just like with Uber, where point of frustration is hailing a cab, when a frustration is having to tell the driver where you're going, and not being sure if he understands what you said, those types of things. And then you say, Okay, which of these can we do something about? Which of these might we be able to alleviate in terms of customer effort and pain? And you can't fix everything, right? In a perfect world, you'd walk off the plane, and your rental car would be waiting for you they are right on the tarmac with your luggage in the trunk. Right? I mean, that would be the perfect day, and you just hop it? Well, you know, I don't think we have a way of doing that. But we'd like to ideate, then all of the different possible things that we might be able to dress and figure out which ones are practical. And so it's really that is the route. The research doesn't necessarily tell us the solution. But it tells us the problem and the severity of the problem, because of course, the problems that are the most severely felt are the ones that are the juiciest, the greatest opportunity for impact.

Tim Bornholdt 31:04
And whenever I've done customer research like that, whenever you like, actually sit down with someone and use the website or even get behind the counter and watch people go through these interactions, I can't tell you like, it doesn't take many, you know, like I was gonna ask you like how many on average you end up doing, if there's ever any like certain number, but like, I would imagine, like right away, you're collecting valuable insights just from person number one, and then you get to person two, and it's like a whole new set of insights that just pop up where you're like, Oh, my God, I didn't even think about that. And then you get like person number three that contradicts person number one, and you learn new pain points there. And I would imagine just like the more people that you watch, and the more interactions that you are able to gather, the better that map at the end of the process becomes and being able to actually create a pain map that would show your clients like Avis or whoever else you go with that you can be like, Here's the problems that we need to solve. And then let's sit down and find ways to solve them.

Howard Tiersky 32:01
Well, you said it exactly. Yes, it's a diminishing return curve. So yes, I always say if you haven't talked to any customers, one is going to feel like a lot, you know. You'll learn so much more from one customer than from zero customers. It's unbelievable. And you're never going to see as big a difference between zero customers and one customers ever again, by just adding one more customer. But yes, of course, then what you don't know is, you know, is that one customer typical? Or might they be an outlier? And, you know, if you're talking about similar types of customers, then I often find that by the time we've seen 10 or 12, or 15, we've probably got a good sense of the pattern. And we have a good sense of what are common things because if something comes up only for one of 12, you know, common comments, something's coming up for 3, 4, 5 of 12, then that's starting to sound like something that's an important pattern.

But then the only thing I would say is, you know, then there's the issue of segmentation, right? Because yes, if you look at 12 similar customers. Let's tsay with rental cars as long as we're talking about it. So, you know, you might spend time observing different types of customers. But also when you get some international travelers, people coming from Europe or Asia, and they may have some different needs. They may use using different types of credit cards, unfamiliar ones, like JCB, or they may want Wi Fi devices for their cars, because their mobile phones don't work in this country, because they don't have SIM cards, things like that. So all of a sudden, they may not have the same kind of driver's license, or they may need to know information about the traffic regulations. They have some different needs that some domestically traveling may not have. And then take, again, with rental cars, you've got airport rental car locations, but then you've got ones that are not in the airport, like they're in a city or something. And so that's a little different. People are often renting for a different type of purpose. It's not like they're traveling, usually. So that's when you then start to segment and say, Well wait a minute, I might want to see 12 to 15 people, but I might want to see just 12 to 15 international travelers, because they're a little different than the domestic travelers. And I might want to see 12 to 15 people renting locally that aren't on a trip, and so on and so on. And so then when you start to do that math, sometimes, depending on what you're studying, how many different segments there are, you know, someone who walks into Baskin Robbins to order a birthday cake for your child's birthday party has quite a different set of needs than someone who walks in to just get an ice cream. And so you have to figure out what those segments are. And very often, depending on the project, you may not care about all of those segments. You may say, Nope, this project is only about birthday cake orders. So I only care about those people. But that's the process really I find is figuring out how many subjects do we need to talk to for a given study.

Tim Bornholdt 34:32
And I'm sure it is very highly dependent on the industry and the size of the business and everything. I mean, you can continue to slice and dice your audience and, you know, the bigger it gets, especially, you can slice and dice it in so many different ways. But I think that again, keeping the key points in mind would be you're trying to solve enough problems for enough people that you're making progress, going in the right direction and knowing that as your audience gets to be the size of, I would imagine someone like Avis or Baskin Robbins, when you're dealing with millions of people a year, you probably don't need to get, you know, you can get super far in the weeds, especially if you're a smaller organization. You want to make sure that like you're just getting the right core group of people and then going off of your insights from there.

Howard Tiersky 35:18
Yes, you have to decide how you want to balance costs and thoroughness. And like as I said, it's a diminishing return curve, which means that speaking to 200 people will give you more detailed and accurate information than speaking to 100 people. But the question is, how much more does it cost me to speak to another 100 people? And how much more accuracy does it give me? If it gets me from, you know, 80% accuracy to 92% accuracy, is that worth it to speak to another 100 people? And the answer kind of depends on, Well, what are you researching? How much does it cost? If it's driving $100 million investment, then yeah, maybe it's worth spending another two weeks to talk to another 100 people, you know, to get that extra ten percent. If not, then it maybe it's just not worth it and you can deal with a little bit lower down that diminishing return.

Tim Bornholdt 35:57
No, that makes perfect sense. You know, one thing, being that our company here is based in Minnesota, I figured a lot of people listening to this might be interested in the work that you've done with the Mall of America. So I'd love it if you took a bit to talk about the work you've done, and especially with how you're able to help them digitally engage with their customers.

Howard Tiersky 36:17
Yeah, sure. Well, Mall of America, of course, is very future minded organization. And they really want to create the best shopping experience possible. And they're always looking at how to use technology to do that. And you may know but the company that owns Mall of America, Triple Five, also now means the new American Dream Mall just opened in Secaucus, New Jersey, which happens to be near me, which is a fantastic facility with indoor skiing thing, and waterpark. And it's just fantastic. So, Mall of America clearly knows a lot about creating an amazing customer experience. And in fact, I think they really represent the future of retailing. Because I mean, let's face it, there's so much that we can do through e commerce right now. That, you know, why would I go to a store? And you know, there's some answers to why I would go to the store. But the bottom line is, anytime someone's going to make that choice about whether to get in the car and drive to a store and deal with parking and deal with, you know, standing in line to pay and all those things versus just ordering online, you have to ask yourself, Well, is it worth it? Is it worth the extra effort to get myself, to get my atoms physically to that store? And I think the Mall of America has done a great job, a genius job of creating environments that really are worth the trip. And say, Well, I can go there, I can shop, there's great dining, there's great entertainment, there's all kinds of things that make that experience. And it's not just Mall of America, they also have another mall in Canada. And of course, this one in New Jersey. So I think just before we even talking about the digital component, I think that if we think about the importance of experiential retailing, to compete with digital, essentially, I think the Mall of America is doing a great job.

Now, having said that, of course, they're also, I think, doing a great job figuring out how to use digital as part of the physical retailing experience, because as we know, we're all walking around malls with mobile devices. And so thinking about how do you help plan a trip? And how do you provide the kinds of tools within the facility to make it easy for someone to find their way around? And well, again, it's the same theme really, it's removing points of pain.

So Mall of America, for example, has created kiosks, really, really good informational kiosks that we help with throughout the mall to help people walk up to a touchscreen and be able to figure out what they're looking for within a mall. And, you know, it's like, you know, I don't know if you've been to a mall where you walk up to one of those printed things and you've got to like know what store you want, you got to look it up alphabetically, and then you realize, no, I gotta figure out is it shoes? Or is it accessories? Or is it apparel? You know? And then it says, okay, it's J7, and you're like J7, okay, and then you're trying to look at this map. And then you finally find J7. And you're like, Where am I now? And then you're scanning the map for some kind of like little You Are Here sticker, which sometimes it's there and sometimes it's not there, you know. There's a lot of pain associated with trying to find your way around a mall. And of course, because Mall of America tends to create some of the largest shopping facilities available in the country, the problem has the potential to be compounded, right? Because if you're in a small mall, and you can just kind of like take a gander around and go, Ah Macy's, there they are. But obviously, that's a lot harder when you're talking about a giant facility.

So a lot of the work that we did there was around how do we just create a better experience? How do we make sure we understand what will make, what will give the guests a better experience, mostly in terms of understanding what's there and finding what it is they want and finding an easy path to get there. Because one thing that I saw in some of the research we did was one of the reasons people leave malls is that they get frustrated, you know. Either they get frustrated, like they had enough. You ever have that moment at the mall, you're like, Okay, I've had enough. I'm going home. Even if you have more stuff to shop for and one of the reasons that people get to that emotional state is the aggravation of trying to find a way around the mall dealing with the navigation. And then the other thing is that because there's so much in a place like Mall of America, but I think a lot of businesses have the same opportunity, how do you make sure you're surfacing all the things you could do while you're there? Because that's the other thing. Once you've gotten someone to come to your location, whether it's a store or anything else, how do you make sure they stay as long as possible? How do you make sure they do as much business as possible with you? So it's about reminding someone, Hey, glad you're here. Did you know that there's a sale on potato skins at blah, blah, blah, bars Happy Hour? Or why don't you hang out for happy hour? Did you know that there's going to be a concert in the atrium in two hours? You know, why don't you grab some lunch. And then there's a great concert you can go to and it's free. Or at bla bla bla store, they're giving a pottery demonstration or there's free makeovers at Nordstrom or whatever else, just making sure that you're surfacing to them all the great things that are there. They've already made their, they've already gotten themselves there. How do we keep them there as long as possible and give them a great experience and make it be more of the fun and less of the pain. So that's a lot of what we worked on with Mall of America, but also a lot of what I think many, many types of businesses can take home.

Tim Bornholdt 41:00
I was at a mall in in Wisconsin, just yesterday, a couple days ago. And I had that exact problem that you were describing. It was like I needed to find a restaurant because my kids are super picky eaters. So I had to find a place that would work for them. And so they had their food was like sectioned off into two different, there was like specialty foods and like dining or something, like it was just so bizarre the way that they did it. I'm sure it made sense to somebody somewhere. But to me, as the user, I was sitting there just trying to figure out, like, where do I go to find food. And like having an experience where someone can maybe more help, you know, tailor to you know, there's this food court has these foods and this food court has these foods and, you know, having it digital would make it so much easier. And I also completely agree with that fatigue that you get sometimes going to the mall. I mean, the Mall of America is just overwhelming in terms of how much stimulation there is there of all the different stores and activities and attractions and things like that, where I totally can see why there would be some fatigue. So it's cool to know like that those were some of the insights that went into, I see those kiosks now all over the mall, and being able to like tap on it and give you directions or at least like it gives you kind of an arrow to point you, you know, start going this way. And you'll find it eventually. Having those experiences, and it's like, it seems like it's just kind of phase one, you know. I could see there being so much more potential, especially as we start to see more like AR glasses or other kind of wearables that can help like direct people to the right place. It's gonna be like such an exciting time in this digital transformation life that you've grown for yourself here. Like just being like, seeing it from the beginning of just what is the internet to now it's like the possibilities are continuing to evolve, and it's all in the service of how can we help people figure out how to get what they're looking for?

Howard Tiersky 42:58
Yeah, this whole space of search and wayfinding is a great opportunity space. And we've done that not just with Mall of America, but like, for example, working with some sports leagues, on how do you make the stadium experience better? And so you're sitting in your seat, thinking you might want a beer. But you know, you're like, yeah, I wonder of all these different little places around the stadium where they sell beer, I wonder if any of them had Sam Adams on draft, or Guinness, or whatever your favorite beer is, and they might but you know how sometimes it's like different at different places. And so you don't know where to go. Plus, you don't know how long the line is. Is it worth getting out of my seat, you know? So it's like, how do we make it easier for someone to ask a question, not just look at a static map and say, Well, here are all of the, you know, venues, or here's the burger place and here's the cheese steak place or whatever else but to know right now, like who's got what? What's on the menu? How much is it? How long is the line? So I can really make an intelligent decision. And again, we're taking away pain. We're making it easier for you to figure out what you want, and you're increasing sales. Because yeah, you might discourage someone if the line is super long, but what you're really doing is if the line is not long, you're not having people sit in their seats assuming the line is too long, when in fact, there's no line. And if someone knows that they can get the brand of beer that they want, you know, maybe they're more likely to go get it or to have another beer or whatever, you know. I mean, obviously, the more any business can increase the total share of wallet or the total sale from that customer while they're at the venue, it only makes sense. And there's so many scenarios where people don't even realize all the things that are available to them in an airport or a mall or an amusement park or a sports stadium or places like that.

And there's not, you know, I think there's so much headroom in terms of making it easier for someone to discover that and find where they're going. And I agree with you about things like AR. I think part of what we're still working on the technology still improving is the blue dot, you know. Do we really know exactly where you are, right? And that technology continues to improve but it's still not perfect because indoor environments and outdoor environments, you know, they're very complex radio signals bouncing around. So we put Bluetooth beacons and other things, and yet, we're not always right about where we think you're standing, you know. We know you're at the stadium on the north side, but we may not be exactly correct in terms of exactly where you are. So when you try to use something like augmented reality for wayfinding, it's even more important that it be accurate. Otherwise, we're really confusing somebody. So I think as the accuracy of that kind of crosses a threshold and goes from 92% to 98 and a half percent or whatever that magic line is where we say good enough, then I think there'll be a whole explosion of new kinds of wayfinding tools that make Google Maps and MapQuest of today look completely accurate.

Tim Bornholdt 45:39
Well, and I think kind of tying this all together here that we were talking before about businesses being afraid to change, and maybe not even being afraid, but just being stubborn or whatever. Like being that they're hesitant to change, we've been seeing such a change in technology over the last, you know, several decades. And now we're at this point where, you know, if you were sitting in a boardroom in the 60s talking about how do you make your mall experience better, I mean, you were thinking on different terms than what we're able to think about now. And it's just so interesting to see, like, we're able to do things now that were unfathomable, and that were pipe dreams. And now it's like, we're not there yet, like you said with location. I do a lot of work with autonomous vehicle companies and knowing where your position is, if you think it's important to know where you are when you're standing in a sports stadium, it's probably more important to know where you are when you're driving 60 miles an hour down a freeway that's covered in snow, no doubt. Yeah. So you're right, like the location accuracy is still something that we're working on improving, but it's like we're in this time where there's so much excitement of things that are our potential down the road. And it's got to be so exciting to be in an industry where you're able to see these changes happen, and that you can go back to your clients, you know, year after year and say, Okay, we're like this much further down the road. So what possibilities are now open? Like, go back to those pain maps of your customers, see what the problems are, and how can we keep inching towards that dream of, you know, being able to say I want a beer and then all of a sudden in your AR glasses across the arena, you can see the most convenient stand that has the the craft beer of tap, you know, of choice on tap, that's, you know, only a two minute wait, as opposed to this one over on the other side, which is a four minute wait and like being able to have all of that stuff going. It's just going to be such an exciting industry to be in to just be able to dream like that.

Howard Tiersky 47:34
I can't deny it. Absolutely.

Tim Bornholdt 47:36
Oh, man. Well, Howard, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. Can you please tell our audience how they can get in touch with you, where they can get your book, all of that good stuff?

Howard Tiersky 47:45
Sure. Absolutely. Well, thank you again so much for having me, Tim, it's been a great conversation. Well, if you'd like to read my book, it's available wherever books are sold, but you can also go to winningdigitalcustomers.com. And on that site, you can also in addition to getting links to different places to buy, the usual suspects, of course, you can download the first chapter for free. So if you want to just check it out for free, read the first chapter, you're welcome to do that. And if you want to learn more about my digital agency, which is called From, the digital transformation agency, our URL is from.digital and I'm very active on LinkedIn. So feel free to come check me out, follow me, connect with me on LinkedIn. I do live cast twice a week and publish a lot of stuff right on.

Tim Bornholdt 48:20
Thank you so much, Howard. I really appreciate it.

Howard Tiersky 48:23
Yeah, likewise. Thanks, Tim. Have a great day.

Tim Bornholdt 48:25
Thanks to Howard Tiersky for joining me on the podcast today. You can learn more about his work at FROM.digital.

Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the captivating Jordan Daoust.

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