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June 4, 2024
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Podcast: Human connection has changed, what does this mean for CX?

Hosted by Andrew Lewis, Managing Director at TRA – The Research Agency, FRAME podcast explores some of the latest findings from the world of research.  

Each episode features thought leaders representing different human science disciplines. By layering their unique perspectives, Andrew searches for new truths in the data. The uncommon truths.

Episode 2 of FRAME continues to explore our latest research on Connection.

Episode 1 unpacked the findings of Connection – a major study exploring how people connect to brands. Finding that it’s not demographics, it’s not life stage. It’s not even the platforms that connect us. It’s our shared interests. Our interests are evolving to become a bigger part of how we seek belonging and acceptance in today’s world.  

Brands can deepen their connection with their audience by tapping into shared interest networks. It’s an approach that opens up new opportunities in comms and marketing, leading to surprisingly relevant partnerships, product launches and uncommonly interesting communications. But where does this leave customer experience (CX)?

In this episode, Andrew Lewis – Managing Director at TRA, Daniel Van Vorsselen – Customer Experience Lead, and Carl Sarney – Head of Strategy discuss the changing role of CX in a new era of connection.  

Episode Transcript

Andrew: Human connection is evolving. It's not demographics. It's not life stage. It's not even the platforms that connect us. It's our shared interests. Our interests are evolving to become a bigger part of how we seek belonging and acceptance in today's world. Brands that understand this can deepen the connection they have with their audience by understanding more about the network of shared interests that bind them, and this can lead to surprisingly relevant partnerships, product launches and uncommonly interesting communications.  

But where does all this leave customer experience? What is the role of CX in this new age of connection?

Hello, and welcome to FRAME, a podcast dedicated to the art of knowing people. I'm your host, Andrew Lewis, Managing Director at TRA, The Research Agency.  

Each week, we'll explore the theme of connection with leaders representing different human science disciplines. By layering their unique perspectives, we'll search for the truths others don't. The uncommon truths.  

In today's episode, we look at the changing role of customer experience in an age where the very nature of human connection is evolving. I'm joined by Daniel Van Vorsselen, Customer Experience Lead, and Carl Sarney, Head of Strategy at TRA. Hello to you both.

Carl: Hi, Andrew.

Daniel: Hey, Andrew.

Andrew: Last episode, we began to unpack the findings of our latest research on connection, exploring the changing nature of human connection and the impact this has on brands and how they connect with us. Today, we look at what this data tells us about the role of customer experience in creating connection and how this might be changing. We'll examine how this intersects with branding and comms and unpack what the findings mean for marketers.  

Dan, let's start with the data. What does the connection study tell us about how the role of CX might be changing?

Daniel: The research has been useful for validating the role of customer experience and interactions and how people form those connections.

The data tells us that customer experience is one of the most impactful ways that brands can build connections with their audiences. When we ask people what creates those connections with brands, they see customer experience was the second highest behind price.  

As more and more of our customers and clients move towards digital channels, and we see more brands being present online, we can create a shortcut for customers to generate that affinity and those connection points. But as we've moved online, it's created a lack of quality. We've got more quantity than quality now. Often that's where these in-person and tangible experiences come in. The research shows that they're a lot more impactful and create those connection points with customers, as digital can often feel fake, overly targeted, and even disingenuous in certain circumstances.

Andrew: Do you think that's reflective of how marketing and CX have adopted digital channels and their role in the journey?  

One interesting finding from the research is that personalisation, which we discussed in the last podcast, isn't a particularly strong method of creating connection at all. But that's the direction digital experiences have gone.

Daniel: It's a really interesting point that personalisation is not a particularly impactful way to build connections. When I first saw it, I was a little surprised, taken aback by it even, and then when you think a little about it, it brings up that distinction between personalisation and personal dialogue.  

We think about our own circumstances and the brands we interact with. We're constantly getting personalised messages and comms from different organisations, but we can often tell that the motivation behind that is selling a product or service. It feels disingenuous, like a one-way conversation with a brand, lacking nuance and emotional hooks. I think organisations should focus more on personal dialogue rather than personalisation.

How can we build deeper emotional value-based bonds? It comes down to engaging with customers on a more emotional level around their interests. What are they fundamentally engaging with? What's going to play a meaningful role in their lives as a connection point to create belonging and loyalty?

Andrew: That's super interesting. Again, something we discussed in episode one is this increasing role for us as humans in terms of these interest groups, in the way that we find connection and our place of belonging in the world. We'll come back to that.  

But what we're hearing from your take on the data is that CX is super critical to connection. It is one of the biggest tools we have for creating connection. There’s this shift online, and perhaps that direction hasn't necessarily aided the role of CX in creating connection – it's playing a different kind of role. Quantity over quality is a good way of thinking about it, and that this in-person element of experience is really important. Carl, what's your take on the online versus offline roles in CX?

Carl: I think what I've noticed is that humans, and the way they connect, are adapting to a new world that blurs digital with real life. Brands, on the other hand, have tended to think in terms of broad broadcasts on one hand, and super one-to-one personalisation on the other, missing the bit in the middle.  

If you think about how humans connect, as you were saying, Daniel, if I just said, "Hi, Dan," and remembered maybe a fact about you, that's not creating an emotional connection. But if I remember your favourite football team and say, "Hey, Dan, what a great game at the weekend! Did you see it?" you can feel there's more of a connection and bond. It's that shared interest.  

Between broadcasts that address everyone and one-to-one that addresses you as an individual, there's a middle ground that addresses you as part of a group, creating a sense of belonging. That's what humans want.

Andrew: From an experience point of view, are we talking about online and offline working together to bring this to the fore?

Daniel: Yes, 100%. What Carl is describing is a shared experience that builds on interest. We know we're interested in football and support the same team. But did you go to that game? Did you see that score? Did you see that try? These detailed talking points create a more granular, in-depth emotional connection.

Andrew: Clearly, customer experience is important. If brands get this right, it's a channel that can deepen connection with audiences. Dan, how can CX play an even more pivotal role for brands? What are the opportunities here?


It starts with understanding that you can't fake a good customer experience. When people interact with various brands, it's creating tangible evidence points that either validate or disprove their expectations.

Interacting with brands digitally creates expectations, but it's not until they have that more intimate one-on-one relationship with a brand that they can validate those perceptions.

Andrew: You're seeing these messages in the brand and comms world, but until they start layering in the experiences, it doesn't become real.

Daniel: 100%. I spoke about how digital can be disingenuous, with interactions programmed by algorithms and automation. It creates a facade of connection. It's only when you show up for an in-person experience that it strengthens or weakens that relationship.

Carl: We see that in interpersonal relationships too, right Dan? If you say one thing and do another, it interrupts the connection. If I'm promising something and not delivering, it affects how connected I feel to you.

Andrew: Dan, you said CX is critical for forming connections because it validates our expectations. This idea that we have these expectations going into an experience that are informed by something, probably the brand and comms activity we're seeing. Can you expand more on why that kind of validation of expectation is a really important role for CX?

Daniel: Definitely. It takes us back to what is traditionally the role of CX. In the past, CX has been driven by this mindset around resolving issues, facilitating a seamless journey, and addressing pain points. But what we're finding more and more with our clients and the experiences we are unpacking in our research, is that customers are looking for more meaningful connections – more emotionally engaging points.  

Often, CX plays a key role in validating those expectations. As people interact with various brands, they form these expectations. But it's not until they have that emotional engagement point from a CX perspective that they can validate those points. We're seeing more thought leadership around how to target those emotional stages in the journey.  

It's going one step further now to how CX can create emotional stages throughout the entire journey, creating a feeling of connection with brands not only at an individual stage but across the entire ecosystem in which a brand operates.

Andrew: That's super interesting because what we're talking about here is a CX experience that's much more integrated into what brand and comms are trying to do. We're going through layers of setting expectations to create a sense of relevance and belonging. The brand tries to express that it gets you and is part of your world. The CX needs to validate that idea and play a role in creating and stimulating those ideas with people, right?

Daniel: 100%. The big learning here is that it's not enough to have that clean, green public persona; you need to have the experience to back it up. For marketers, all your marketing efforts and the brand perception you're creating ultimately go to waste if the experience doesn't reinforce that persona. For customer experience practitioners like myself, it means we can't just think about the ideal experience but must consider what the goal persona brand is when designing new experiences.

Andrew: This is fundamentally interesting because how we're thinking about CX is starting from a different place.

It's less about getting rid of pain points and more about validating what we're saying about ourselves as brands through our communications.  

Carl, last week, in our first episode, we unpacked how shared interests can help us deepen connection with audiences. The idea that we gravitate towards like minds, that they make us feel a sense of belonging. By discovering the shared interests the audience has, brands can connect with their audiences in new ways. I'm interested to get your thoughts on how this approach interacts with customer experience, how CX and branding could be more aligned on signalling shared interests?

Carl: That's right. What we're seeing is an opportunity to start with the shared interests that your target audience has. Look at the themes there, which can give you clues as to an organising idea that stretches across brand and marketing all the way through CX. It's emulating how people connect with one another. People want to connect and fit in.  

How do you (brands) fit in? By speaking like that group, dressing like that group, and having the in-jokes and quirks of that culture. A shared interest-based organising idea gives clues for big, all-singing, all-dancing brand marketing down to little implicit moments in the CX.  

Sometimes you call them signature moments, Dan, where you can show up in a way that fits with the shared interest your audience has. The net result is brand fit, where people see this as a brand for people like them and a brand they trust. When you know someone fits in with your group, you see them as someone like you and someone you can trust. The same is true with brands.

Andrew: Fantastic.

Daniel: If you take that kind of signature moment and use it as a point of interest, you can land on really surprisingly relevant experiences. There's a good example from Kmart and their collaboration with the Met Gala. They've taken extravagant Met Gala looks and applied their signature Kmart price point experience, creating a series of catalogues and ranges styled on a price point for those interested in high fashion but who can't afford designer labels.

Carl: And Dan, do you think with that example, because to me, that still feels quite explicit – having the garments at a surprisingly low price point because it's Kmart. Could they have gone even further with their CX?  

Down into the implicit details, riffing on red carpets, various other language, and in-jokes for people who are fans of the fashion in the Met Gala? Could they have taken those through things like what's written on the receipt or what shows up at the till or the landing page on the website?

Daniel: 100%. What does the store look like? Is it a cheapened version of the museum showcasing various items? There's a lot they can do around that.

Carl: It's great. It's a great example of understanding the shared interest and using it as an organising idea. Yes, it's clues for marketing, but you can carry that same thread all the way through your CX.

Andrew: Much like when we were talking about brand and comms and how it can lead you to surprising collaborations or unusual partnerships that you might not have gotten to on the surface. It can do the same in CX when we think about it as well, yes. As we understand the common ground that exists, the ideas, intonations, in-jokes that link the audience together, it gives us clues for designing experiences.  

It gives us ideas for shaping different channels and points to create emotions in an unusual but surprisingly good way – compared to if we just thought of ourselves as an entity on our own. By looking at these reference points, we can find ground to travel in how we design an experience that's different.

Carl: We’re talking about shared interest in what we're calling an ecosystem map – looking at all those connections and underlying themes across the shared interests your target audience has. You're referencing stuff that any human being can connect to, which means that in a team of collaborators designing CX and building brand marketing, you can grab onto an idea.  

For fans of fashion, fitting in with the hip-hop community, demonstrating unwavering fandom of a football team we're sponsoring – everyone can grab onto that. It becomes a sense check. How would we do a customer receipt if we're trying to demonstrate the fandom of this team? How would we do a bad news announcement? It gives clues on how to do it in a way the audience understands and feels connected to.

Daniel: I can imagine the Met Gala, Kmart invite receipts going out to people.

Carl: Exactly. It's fun, right? You get an organising idea, and you can riff off it in all sorts of ways, knowing that it's both surprising and relevant and in tune with that shared interest.

Daniel: I love your example, Carl, about the Warriors and their collaboration with One NZ. When you're starting up your phone and get that "Up the Wahs" message, it's a nice connection and collaboration point. They're a sponsor of the team, and it shows their support for everyone interested in the sport.

Carl: Sometimes I've always thought with CX, to really have that impact is where the audience experiences it and goes, "Oh, you didn't have to do that." It's clear that you've gone above and beyond to demonstrate your fandom of this interest group you're playing into.

Andrew: We've discussed how the increasing role for CX is about validation, and that validating the ideas we have about a brand based on what we see in brand and comms helps to manage expectations. Why is that important? What does that do in customer experience terms?

Daniel: That role of customer experience and validation is key to building trust and connection with brands. Think about the brands we interact with. When we interact with them, we have a perception of who they're going to be. When it's not the same as what we thought, it feels like being catfished by a brand. Conversely, brands that are clear, honest, and upfront about what to expect and deliver on those expectations, even in the most basic circumstances, often have more satisfied customers who are likely to come back and re-experience that brand's customer experience.

Andrew: CX, in the role it plays, is changing. It's certainly less about pain points and ironing those out and creating seamless experiences. It's more about validating our expectations of a brand and providing proof points that support the messaging from a brand and comms perspective.

The role of CX is as a central block in building that connection with brands and organisations. When we combine it with the idea of tapping into the shared interests networks, CX goes to a different place.

Starting from a design perspective of validating brand and comms, working with brand and comms, and starting the process with uncommon and surprising connections in a customer's world, there's an opportunity for CX to go somewhere quite different. If that's our starting place for design, where we might end up in terms of the experiences we create and validating a brand built from that space could be quite surprising and interesting. Don't you think?

Carl: Yes, and also relevant. By relevant, I mean understanding things from a shared interest point of view means you can do distinctive things with your CX that match up with your brand. The audience might think, "I didn't expect that from Brand X," but it makes sense and creates a connection.

Daniel: Often, those unexpected collaborations make a brand seem more versatile and involved. It shows that the brand understands more than we thought, and kudos to them.

Carl: Right, and playing around with this can break the rigidity in designing marketing and CX. With a shared interest insight that you know is true and relevant and will resonate with your audience, you can create friction points where people do a double take and think, "This isn't what I expect, but I like it."

Andrew: Exactly. Well, that's all we've got time for today. It's been a fascinating conversation. I'd like to thank our listeners. Thank you, Carl, and thank you, Dan.

To wrap up, we've talked about how CX is still critical and one of the most important ways to build connection with people as a brand. We've discussed how that connection is evolving with the growing role of digital versus in-person channels and the importance of both. We've highlighted how you can't fake CX and why it's crucial in building connection through validation. The role of CX is shifting from removing pain points to validating emotional connections. We've also emphasised the importance of brand and CX working closely together, leading to uncommon and interesting places with CX.

Thanks for listening to FRAME, a podcast by TRA dedicated to the art of knowing people. TRA is an insights agency. By layering perspectives from the science of human understanding, we see what others don't—the uncommon truths.  

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June 4, 2024
Contributed by
Tagged with
Behaviour change
Brand & creative
Customer experience
Cultural insight
Andrew Lewis
Managing Director
Andrew is passionate about anything related to data. Highly skilled in all facets of Quantitative research, advanced analytics, market sizing and financial analysis. Extensive experience in Financial Services, FMCG, Utilities, Telecommunications, Social research, Government projects. Andrew is exceptional in providing clients with the confidence to act based on a sound understanding of the opportunities and issues they face.
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Daniel van Vorsselen
Business Director
Daniel is an experienced CX researcher and strategist, helping organisations collaborate and engage better to drive customer outcomes. He has extensive experience across Financial Services, Retail, Automotive and Tech across NZ, Canada and Australia.
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Carl Sarney
Head of Strategy
Carl has over 20 years of insight industry experience. He is specialised in brand and comms strategy with a proven history of effective work for his clients, including several gold awards for advertising effectiveness. His research work has taken him to just about every town in New Zealand. He's conducted qualitative research while based in London and spent seven years as an ad agency planner before joining TRA.
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