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What makes for a repeat customer? Podcast host Mio Adilman weighs in

After two years of hosting the Webby-nominated Repeat Customer podcast, Mio Adilman has learned a thing or two about customer experience. But it has been a journey. Before each episode, Adilman does extensive research on the brand he's interviewing. This prepares him for the interview, but rarely for those 'aha!' moments when he uncovers the reason behind a company's success. These moments are different from brand to brand, but always relate back to the customer.

Adilman got his start as a writer, actor, and producer for a host of Canadian television programs before catching the audio bug once he was asked to do some radio hosting. That eventually led him to podcasting, where he fell in love with the storytelling opportunities offered by the medium. Today he works on up to four original podcasts a year for Audible and other companies.

This October, Adilman’s bringing Repeat Customer to the stage at Zendesk Showcase San Francisco where he’ll host a panel interview with CX leaders from Ro, Lever, and Getaround—three very different, dynamic companies with unique customer experiences. Before he does, Adilman took time out for an interview, from his basement studio in Toronto, to provide some insight into a few of the lessons in customer experience that he’s learned along the way.

When you agreed to host a podcast about customer experience, what was your initial reaction? What, if anything, did “the customer experience” mean to you at the time?

I have to say that when I was offered the opportunity to host this podcast, I was very nervous. Because as a podcast host or producer, you kind of have to become an expert, and you have to understand what that expertise is.

We'd done enough business podcasts to know that business is a science. And not only that, the business listening audience has very specific needs. The first thing that they're listening for is advice. They're listening for case studies. They want to learn, and they want to learn in a way that they can apply these lessons and these key takeaways to their own businesses. So I was just worried about my ability to speak knowledgeably at their level. But what I found over time is that we all have that connection to the customer experience—we’re all customers.

Growing up, my father was a journalist and for several years he had a restaurant column in Toronto. And so, two, three, four times a week we would go and eat out at restaurants. And I'm like five, six, seven years old when this is happening. So we would be part of the test. We'd go to this restaurant, order a bunch of food. We'd be assessing not just the food, but the service. My brother would go down to the washrooms and it was his job to make sure the washrooms were clean. I would count the amount of tables and chairs. And there'd be conversation afterwards. It wouldn't make it into the article, but my father would talk to us about the experience. And like so many other people growing up, I worked in retail as a teenager.

Mio Adilman

Two years and two seasons later, how has your understanding of CX changed?

The stuff I’ve learned has just been so fascinating. What leading customer-focused companies are looking at, assessing, and hoping to build for their customers is aspirational. One of the first episodes we did was about Trader Joe's. By looking at the customer experience, you’re looking into the soul of America, at the psychology of America more broadly.

There are simple strategies like, ‘We’re going to light this wall better for Instagram so that customers can tell the story when they come to our retail locations’—in 2019, that's a current thing, right? But learning the theoretical economics and just understanding how people think, how they want to be a customer…. When we did the Trader Joe's episode, there was this idea of decision paralysis—and we learned about how Trader Joe's designs their stores to incorporate all that psychology. It's just unbelievable to me. At that point, it's not even about business anymore; it's about humans.

Or when we talked to Tom Lee at One Medical, his idea that doctors needed to not just be doctors, they need to be designers. It’s just so fascinating. You're taking a bunch of people who trained eight to ten years to provide urgent health care—and then you have this idea that they should also be designers, and it makes total intuitive sense. But it's only intuitive when it's pointed out to me. Once a doctor becomes a designer, that informs our physical space. You know what I mean?

Right now I’m doing a podcast for Audible about marriage, and there are very similar themes about what goes into a successful long-term relationship and what goes into the customer experience.

Can we stay with that a minute—what are some of those similarities between CX and marriage?

Well, I think listening to each other. Let's just use the standard relationship advice: communication is always important, but listening is even more important. So if a brand doesn't listen to its customers, we see where that gets us. If they focus on the business model solely and don't listen to their customers, then they fall out of touch. Customers don't feel considered. And really what we're talking about is this idea of empathy.

Communication is always important, but listening is even more important. So if a brand doesn't listen to its customers, we see where that gets us. - Mio Adilman

So, and obviously, in a marriage or a long-term friendship, the strength of our relationships is partly only as good as how much we walk in that other person's shoes. The empathy, and requirement to be able to value empathy, is incredibly high for any relationship. And I think that goes for the customer experience as well.

[Watch: 6 tips to practice empathy and improve the customer experience]

On a more tactical level, what are some of the key lessons that you've learned about CX?

We start every episode by looking at the existing industry before the featured company entered into it. The most shocking thing that I cannot overstate—my jaw drops every single time—is how little legacy companies have been listening to their customers, and how little they've been looking at the evolving industry. They’ve left themselves vulnerable for other companies to just walk into.

Then there’s the role of design, both physical and digital design. This insistence on a frictionless experience—and not just paying lip service to it, but actually walking through that customer journey yourself. Leading companies, I think they do that.

This last season we spoke to a few companies that started, let's say in the late 2000s, and so they were part of that first exciting disruption. And the interesting thing is that the companies that have survived have realized that even though they were disruptors, if they don't evolve, they're going to fall prey to other companies.

SeatGeek is a great example. They followed the customer journey. They solved one problem and then, because they were focused on the customer journey and as a result of getting beyond the first pain point, they realized they were in new pain point territory.

Once you solve a pain point, you're in a new environment. And if you can keep looking for those new pain points and keep growing, man, now you're really on the customer journey. These are companies that haven't just listened to customers in order to solve their problems, but have listened to their customers about where they would like to see that company go.

Once you solve a pain point, you're in a new environment. And if you can keep looking for those new pain points and keep growing, man, now you're really on the customer journey.

You’ll be talking to an audience of CX leaders in San Francisco; What would you give them kudos for?

I think that they often have to bear the brunt of scale. I know what goes into preparing your help center or knowledge base. I've gotten the sense about what CX teams have to do anytime there's a shift in business or the business is scaling.

Also, if you're a company moving into a space where service is high touch or there's an element of timing, things need to be addressed right away. And then, of course, dealing with all of that technology. People who are now implementing AI into their help centers… on the one hand it's a blessing because of the help, but It's a really complex job that they're doing. So, an exciting job, but incredibly complex. And I don't think people realize that; people just assume that the knowledge base is going to be there. They just assume that it's really simple to create a call center or offer live chat, where you’re going to get that immediate response, but it’s a science in itself. And you really have to chart it out.

Also voice—They’re in charge of formulating the voice and making sure that it remains consistent across all forms. That’s pretty amazing. That’s not easy.

[Read also: Keep brand voice consistent in customer support]

Each company you interview—even massive companies like Sephora and Disney Cruise Line—spends some time talking about challenges, but also about the future—where they’re going next, what trends they want to implement. What trends in the CX space do you find most interesting?

There’s a couple. Just trying to decide the role of retail is very interesting. Retail got totally disrupted by direct-to-consumer, and then direct-to-consumer decided that it needed, at the very least, to have some physical space to do experiential. But now you're seeing companies like Everlane realizing that they're going to have to go retail. Not just experiential, but actually retail. We're getting to this point where the dust is going to settle, right? And I think it's going to settle somewhere in the middle.

I also think that AI is super interesting when it comes to customer support. We spoke to a few companies that are figuring out how to use that to triage and to lessen bottlenecks—not just with bots, but also to scan emails and stuff.

I’m also interested in the effect of social media. I'm not just talking about Instagrammable lighting—although I have to tell you if you're in retail and you don't have Instagrammable lighting, you're really killing yourself, I’m serious. You're completely shutting down a massive free promotional opportunity. But I'm talking about selling through social media—just being able to buy concert or basketball tickets, for instance, on Instagram is very interesting. Seeing how digital can continue to make things frictionless.

And I think B2B is super interesting, too. What's the next iteration of freemium? And the decentralization of organizations to bring in software that they can really use without having to convince the CTO that it has to be a full organizational shake-up.

As consumers, we sometimes forget that there are faces behind a brand, and often really good intentions, and fascinating problems or frictions that many companies are trying to solve for. Has delving into each brand’s story and mission changed the way you interact with companies, or the companies that you interact with?

Yeah, I mean, that’s so on point. Before I did this podcast, being a consumer was almost an unconscious sort of just a fact of life, and I never felt empowered. Actually, the worst experience is when you go into a store, or you're online, and you feel disempowered, right? And not with every brand, but that has been a consistent feeling that I've had.

But now that I understand things... I actually say this—I'll be on a call with a customer service rep, or I'll be in the store, and I'll say, "This is not a positive customer experience." And I don't mean it personally, and I'll point out the point along the customer journey that I was disempowered: where I was not getting certain information, or certain options in the interface, or when there's something lacking in the product experience. Do you know what I mean? When a customer can actually discuss things like that, you're more empowered. But also, I think you get better service. Because you can either just expect a company to give you better service or you can agitate towards the point.

That's fair. If you can empower your customers to give feedback and be open to it, that helps everybody.

Legacy companies, traditional companies... Part of the problem is that—and I've learned this from the series—is that they keep building on top of their existing framework. So a company that's been around for a couple of generations is going to have 16 layers of different philosophies, techniques, and technology.

Each time they’re buying a piece of technology, they’re being told that this will save them money in the long run. But if you throw all of these technologies on top of each other, it's not saving you if everything's incompatible with everything else. That’s a very real challenge.

If you throw all of these technologies on top of each other, it's not saving you if everything's incompatible with everything else. That’s a very real challenge.

For me to say, "Well, you need to tear it all down and actually just build your stack up from the bottom again"—that's not necessarily realistic. But I think that a company could say, "You know what? There must be a way to simplify this because we've created this thing... I've inherited this system and I've added to it with something else. This is not helping the customer."

There are a lot of best practices in the industry, but at the same time, every company is different and each company’s customers have different needs. As you approach each episode, how do you go about telling the story or uncovering the impact of CX?

The magic of a podcast is when you learn about the larger world. That happens to me every single day. We did a Shake Shack episode and that's about selling hamburgers and french fries, but the way they do it is so different than your experience at McDonald's. And it's just the most mundane things in my life, but I get this new lens into them. I can see, again, the relationships, interconnectivity, and it just changes the way I see things.

I can tell you, I like going to Shake Shack, but before I actually went and talked to them, I couldn't tell you exactly why I liked them. I would just say the burger tasted really good. But I don't know why the burger tastes really good, you know what I mean? It gave me a look under the hood and helped me to understand their motivations, all the way through to the way that they tackle a problem to the way that, by using a customer focus, they were able to give me something that, intuitively, I just liked.

What can we expect from your discussion on delivering great customer experiences at Zendesk Showcase?

I'm really excited to sit down with this panel. We're not doing the show, but I think we're going to approach the discussion in the way that we structure a show. I'm excited for people to see how that works because I think it might be an interesting way of looking at the customer experience. What am I looking at? What do I think are the important aspects, just in terms of how we structure a story?

I'm also just super excited to talk to these brands. I can do all the research I want, but I can't tell you what the actual customer experience is until I talk to them. That’s because there’s a real story there, and I’m excited to hear the stories.

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