Issue 36 | January/February 2021

A year ago February, just before our world got turned upside-down, I was talking to the senior vice president of a respected insurance company. He said at the time, “We’ve got plans to move 30% of our workforce to work-at-home over the next two years. It’s an aggressive timeline, but we’re determined to get there.”

We caught up a couple of months later—April 2020—and I asked how things had changed. He chuckled: “Okay, that 30% in two years became 100% in two weeks.”

Your story is probably similar. You helped make the impossible happen. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

We got through this past year. Now, how do we get really good at managing in this environment? How do we create a vision and culture and an approach that ensures we’re leading the way in the months ahead?

I hope you enjoy this issue.

Warm Regards,

Brad Cleveland

Everyone Has a Role in Customer Experience Innovation

The world is changing, and customer expectations are evolving. So, innovation is the heartbeat of customer experience. But how do you innovate?

Innovation, the late Peter Drucker points out in his landmark book, The Discipline of Innovation, is the “effort to create purposeful, focused change in an enterprise’s economic or social potential.” He adds that it’s different than other disciplines. You hire accountants for accounting, marketers for marketing, and lawyers for your legal department. But where are your innovators? Your employees! Innovation comes not from genius or exceptional talent, Drucker concludes, but from a “conscious, purposeful search for innovative opportunities.”

The challenge is, many employees see innovation as risky. In some cases, it’s shot down subtly. Mention a new idea, and your manager might respond with a question: “Isn’t our service level under some pressure right now?” Or an unconvincing “Sounds good, we’ll have to take a look.” A colleague might snicker, “We’ve never done it THAT way.” In many cases, the organization’s top leadership is fully committed to innovation—but they are unaware of how it plays out with managers, supervisors and employees in the ranks.

Someone at Work, Cardiff State Beach near San Diego

Innovation is a cool word, but at its heart is change. So you have to be intentional about encouraging and enabling innovation. Your goal should be universal participation in product and service innovation. Anyone can have the next great idea. Here are five keys to seeing that happen.

Identify and remove barriers to innovation. This first recommendation is overarching and ongoing: find and remove (as possible) barriers that stand in the way of innovation. There are many ways to identify barriers. You can, for example, include this question on surveys, work it into informal conversations, or conduct focus groups with employees. Common barriers include no time, not sure what to do with an idea, nothing happened with past ideas, and spending time and focus in this way could jeopardize other performance objectives. You may hear things that are appalling—but the bigger the barriers, the larger the opportunity.

Ensure managers see it and track it. The innovation learning curve is steep—and it’s common for managers, especially, to hold tightly to entrenched approaches and processes. You need an environment where new ideas are shared during team meetings, coaching sessions, and informal discussions (as well as through formal channels). You’ll need managers to advocate for employees’ great ideas, and coach them through the process, rather than passing the idea up through the chain with a perfunctory “thanks.” The goal is to see innovation become an inherent part of the employee journey.

Establish an effective process for capturing, analyzing and implementing ideas. You’ll need a process and supporting tools for gathering, consolidating, evaluating, and tracking ideas. Without a thoughtful approach, ideas will get lost, become separated from the contributor, or be blocked from going further. Should that happen, employees will initially ask, “What happened to my idea?” Then they’ll quickly give up: “Why bother?” On the other hand, where employees see ideas firing everywhere, they understand that innovation isn’t just a “program.” It’s a critical and expected part of the culture.

Tie recognition to strategic opportunities. If new product innovation is the key to revising an aging product line, be sure to make that connection when acknowledging those contributions. If customer service innovation is a strategic focus, recognize employees who contribute ideas that impact the service channels. Of course, don’t limit the generation of ideas across any area. But concentrate brainpower in critical areas and communicate priorities through recognition. This is how programs like 2020’s Earthshot Prize, a UK climate change initiative, are so effective— they incentivize and reward innovation, while drawing broad attention to the initiative itself.

Tie innovation contributions to the impact they have on customers. As you capture and tell stories, include the germination of ideas, details about the employees who developed them, and (as possible) examples of customers impacted by the ideas. An insurance organization created life-size cut-outs of their quarterly innovation prize winners, along with summaries of the employees’ innovative ideas or projects. After being displayed in the lobby each quarter, they were moved to the main hallways. This created a visual reminder of the company’s priorities.

Your employees notice whether products and services are fresh and evolving. They’ll look at practices and processes. They’ll pick up on what gets recognized at town halls and team meetings. Innovative organizations make innovation a priority.

Recent Issues


Since 2009, a stock portfolio composed of the publicly traded simplest brands in our global top 10 has outperformed the major indexes by 679%. (Source: Siegel+Gale)

Customers that continue to support your brand over time will spend 67% more than new customers. (Source: Edelman)

By 2022, 70% of customer interactions will involve emerging technologies such as machine learning applications, chatbots and mobile messaging, up from 15% in 2018. (Source: Gartner)

To Do's

Here is a simple self-assessment of how well you support innovation in your organization, department, or team. I encourage you to go through it, then compare your answers with those from others on your team.

  • You routinely identify and remove barriers to innovation.
  • Supervisors and managers effectively support innovation.
  • You have a process for capturing, analyzing and implementing ideas.
  • You recognize and reward innovation; it is seen as a key part of your culture.
  • You share and celebrate innovation stories—and tie them to how customers are impacted.


Recent articles:


Two of Brad’s LinkedIn Learning courses, on Leadership and Quality, are now available in Portuguese

Brad will provide the welcome keynote at ICMI’s upcoming conference, ICMI Expo, a Digital Experience, April 2021


*Brad delivers private keynotes, workshops, and executive briefings to organizations and associations. For more information, contact

Brad has devoted his career to maximizing the value of customer-facing services. As a speaker, consultant, entrepreneur, executive, and president/CEO, he has seen change from many perspectives and has a deep understanding of the critical importance of customer service delivery to an organization's success. He has worked across 45 states and in 60 countries, and has been privileged to assist in the evolution of service delivery for clients such as American Express, Apple, Coca-Cola, USAA, and others, as well as for governments across the globe. Brad serves as a senior advisor to the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), and is an in-demand speaker and consultant.

To inquire about consulting or speaking, connect through any of the channels below.

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