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  • Writer's pictureAnna Noakes Schulze

Helping Startups Get Awesome at CX

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

I’m not scared to call people out on their bullshit. — Clare Muscutt


In Part I of this podcast interview, Anna Noakes Schulze talks about customer experience in the startup scene with Clare Muscutt, founder of CMXperience. We cover a range of startup topics including launching a CX consultancy from her kitchen, training women entrepreneurs on customer focus, why every startup should be customer-obsessed, the entrepreneurial ego, burning platforms, how disruption is inevitable (but not necessarily fatal), and why empathy is a superpower.

Interview Transcript:

Anna Noakes Schulze: So when you did your first post of the year on LinkedIn, I saw something in there that I hadn’t noticed before, which is that when you started in your kitchen, you were providing workshops for startups and small businesses. And that to me was fascinating because that’s the group that I most want to help.

I think it’s a really underserved group and when I talked to other CXers [customer experience pros] here in Europe, most of them said that startups were terrible clients. Maybe it’s because their funds are very limited, or maybe it’s because they have other priorities. But in my work with Startplatz in Cologne and Dusseldorf, what I’ve seen is that startups can only have so many priorities.

And what they seem to believe in the most, from what I’ve seen so far, is they believe in sales, obviously, they believe in digital marketing and they believe in Google ad words. So already customer experience is way down the list of things that they think are important. And I’m wondering, how did you communicate to them the value of CX and what it could do for their business?

Clare Muscutt: Okay. So, I think the questions that you asked, if we go through them that way, we’ll get to all of those answers in a quite structured way. Because the first question you asked me was what? How did I end up doing that? Why was I helping startups? So, the simple answer is, when I quit my corporate job, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do.

I didn’t know I was going to start my own consulting business. I didn’t know that I would end up continuing in my speaking career to make that a business. So, I knew I needed to earn some money [laughter] and the beginnings of CMX [Clare Muscutt Xperience] was literally me having conversations with entrepreneurs who clearly needed some help with customer experience design and thinking, but didn’t have any budget to do it.

My initial foray into startups was, it was me basically doing what I did in big corporate organizations for them for nothing. [laughter] So I would do exactly the same kind of activities I do as a consultant with big businesses. I do it for them. So, where my skill set lies is in helping them to define things like what’s the proposition you want to offer and how do you deliver customer value through that. So, I think what I quite often saw is just a lack of any expertise in customer stuff. So, whether that’s customer service, customer experience as a philosophy, marketing more broadly. A lot of people that start startups come from, something like, I don’t know, an interest in technology.

So I guess one of the challenges is that you know when you’re an entrepreneur or you’ve got just you or you and your co-founder or a small number of people, there is just no expertise in this kind of stuff. So, what I was able to do is basically be like a cross between a consultant and a CXO [chief customer officer] to help them to define that starting point.

And it depended on where they were on their journey as to what I would do to help them. So thinking about things like if they already knew what they wanted to be and they’d started to develop a product, a digital product or service or whatever, helping them by checking in and saying, well, you know, what’s your brand there to do?

And how much more could you put into the experience that your customers have by thinking about the journey and the touchpoints? Sometimes it would be like, you know, they would review it and they’d be like, oh my God, like it’s so clear that this is not easy or simple and my brand is based on, you know, making life easier and simpler.

And they’d be like, right, I need to get back to the drawing board on a few of the things around the proposition. So slightly selfishly, I needed to build a portfolio of evidence of me being a consultant, which I did through offering these free services to startups. And that’s basically how my business took off and grew. So, it’s giving me testimonials and, the work that we did to be publicized and talked about. And I’ve been blogging about it, and the bigger clients came in off the back of the work I’ve been doing with these tiny startups. So, a bit of luck maybe, but that’s how I ended up doing that.

And then the other side was, a female members’ club in London called the AllBright. I go there quite a lot and they wanted to set up, basically, like a digital training program for female entrepreneurs. So, I’ve designed, built and delivered a load of content on user testing for startups, and then the reach expanded to help more women, with basically like, I think it’s about 20 minutes, half an hour video of how to think about customers when you were at a startup and the things that you can do to make sure they understood the benefits. And I’ve given some really practical advice and stuff you could do for nothing to be more customer-centric. And that I think that had 4,000 people that went through that program.

Anna Noakes Schulze: Ah, fantastic!

Clare Muscutt: Yeah. So, all entrepreneur women. And again, kind of that’s how I ended up helping and influencing, supporting stuff. And I still get messages now, like from people that are going through the program, entrepreneurs going, I just never thought of any of this stuff. And I’m at a really early stage. It’s great. I can start to build it in now. And create this more sustainable business. That’s how it began.

Anna Noakes Schulze: So, what’s your program? Was it, modular? So, they can sort of check-in at various pieces at various times?

Clare Muscutt: The AllBright program was basically, if you’re a female entrepreneur, here are all the things that you need to do to create a brilliant startup. And it had things like finance and sales & marketing and like Cath Kidston was on one of the videos, like [Nicola] Mendelsohn, politicians and all sorts…

Anna Noakes Schulze: Various subject matter experts involved in that…

Clare Muscutt: Yeah. And then I was the customer person, basically.

Anna Noakes Schulze: Okay. Oh, fantastic. So, it was a collaborative effort then.

Clare Muscutt: Yep. It was indeed. Yeah. Brilliant program. Great to be involved in.

Anna Noakes Schulze: What can you pull out for me, what do you think were some the most important lessons about customer experience for startups? What made the biggest difference to them?

Clare Muscutt: So, I think there are a few questions wrapped up in being able to give you the answer.

Anna Noakes Schulze: You can unpack it any way you want. [laughter]

Clare Muscutt: So, thinking about the barriers to customer experience. So, we talked about already whether or not they have any expertise or understanding or it’s in your field of vision that it’s important. Cash we talked about, so your startups traditionally, typically would not have any money lying around to invest in getting a person like me to help them [laughter] or getting in resource to do the job of customer experience, especially in the early days. And you know, I said, I like helping women through the AllBright be able to do stuff for free. It makes it much more accessible. So, I think if you think about an entrepreneur’s mindset when they’re starting a business or designing a product or service, they’re only going to be able to do, what they know and then do more of it.

So, if I’m an engineer, I’ll be able to build this thing using my engineering mind and I’ll go as far as I can with what I know. If I’ve got no other resource or no other kind of input to it, it’s going to just be my thing and that a limitation to it. So, I think the kind of first thing is being able to explain the benefits to a startup.

Why is this [CX] important and the way I deal with this with any client, it doesn’t really matter whether they’re a startup or they’re more mature, if there’s a lack of appreciation of it, I help them to basically have a bit of a burning platform by asking them two questions. If you don’t do something about this, what’s the likely outcome? [laughter]

Or if you did do this and focus on customer experience, what would you be able to do because of that? So, when they start to think about the reasons of, you know, Oh, it’s going to cost me more if I don’t build this right. You know, if I go all the way to developing something that I’ve paid a lot of investment into creating a digital product that doesn’t work, or there’s no demand for it.

If I have not spent the time upfront doing the customer-led discovery and ensure our proposition is clear and centred around value. Basically, you could spend a year building something that’s never going to go anywhere. And once they see that, they’re like, oh. this is why it’s important.

They can draw conclusions about the disasters that they can avert if they spend some time now. Or conversely, you know, positive things. If you take that kind of customer-centric customer needs a led approach and you think about all the positive PR [public relations] you’re going to get, how many customers are going to engage with helping you co-design it. What a great story that’s going to be for PR.

And then their mind expands again back into the place that I’m most comfortable with and the things that they. already value. So, I think the skin in it is just being able to help people to find, their burning platform for themselves. [laughter] So like similarly, like big organizations. It’s the same, isn’t it? So why do I invest in customer experience?

Anna Noakes Schulze: It sounds like you’re helping them to paint a picture. Two scenarios: one scenario without a focus on customer experience and what will happen; and one with, and things that could happen.

Clare Muscutt: Yeah. But you can’t tell somebody it’s important and they’ll just believe you, the more smart way is to get them to come to the conclusion themselves, you know, that whole coaching approach. Yeah. So, and I think, you know, any entrepreneur is always thinking about risk and reducing risk. So, I think that’s probably one of the strongest points. If you think about your customers now, you’re going to reduce the risk of failure. No one ever would argue with that. [laughter]

Anna Noakes Schulze: That’s true. But you know, sometimes I find they’re trying to avoid another kind of risk that is actually not helpful to them, and that’s the risk that they might have to change their idea.

Clare Muscutt: Yeah, I’ll send you the blog that I did that you can read and you can take more quotes out of that, but this entrepreneurs myopia, that I always see with startups and the closer the founder is to the idea because it’s their baby. It’s the thing that they’re nurturing. It’s like depending on how far they’ve gone with it if customers say they don’t like it or it’s wrong or…

Anna Noakes Schulze: Stupid customers, I need different ones! [laughter]

Clare Muscutt: They take it really personally. And it’s an ego hit. I guess that’s another thing about entrepreneurs. I can say this because I am one, but you know, we have got quite big egos. [laughter] That’s the thing that propels us to be brave enough to go out there and try stuff. But yeah, you know, depending on that, the innate level of leadership experience that person’s had, they might not have had any, you know, be self-aware enough of how myopic being so committed to your idea is rather than being open to getting feedback.

Anna Noakes Schulze: And how have you overcome that when you’ve encountered that entrepreneur’s myopia?

Clare Muscutt: Okay, so when you’re being paid as a consultant to give people advice or you’re not being paid at all and you’re helping someone [laughter] and they are interested in you giving them your, honest opinion and you know all, the things we talk about authenticity. I’m not scared to call people out on their bullshit.

Obviously, I’ll do it in the right way that doesn’t make anyone feel sad or upset or hate me. [laughter] But, you know, as I said, asking them open questions that will lead them to the answer. You know, just even asking, why are you scared to get feedback? Oh, I’m not scared. What was that? We’ll say, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen if you do this? And then they’ll say, Oh, but it’s going to cost money. And I’ll be like, well, here’s like 10 different ways you can do it for nothing, and just keep kind of coaching through the point that whatever barrier you’re putting up.

Is this something, you’re doing this because you’re putting the barrier up yourself because you’re trying to avoid an outcome when you haven’t really thought what the outcome is other than you might need to develop your idea. And also, you know, I guess I’ve got a lot of credibility having worked on such big businesses and done the job.

I’m in a more credible position or fortunate position to advise, my inverted commas advise, because I can give real examples of when I’ve seen or I’ve been inside organizations that have been developing products and services and they’ve not done this and the impact it’s had.

So yes, I think to summarize its three things. You know, play into the risk aversion that all entrepreneurs have, wanting to reduce risk, customer experience, thinking, management, design thinking, you know, user testing, whatever you want to call it, is a way to reduce your risk. And hopefully, that will tweak.

And then I guess, playing that role of being able to help someone who doesn’t have a boss [laughter] receive some of the feedback. If it’s them that is blocking their own business through not thinking about customers in the first place.

And then the third being, yeah. And I guess the opposite of risk is return, right? So, if you can demonstrate with evidence, you know, when, a similar company or similar idea did this, this is the return that they got. And you say kind of faster speed to market is a good one, isn’t it? Less failure once it’s launched to greater acceptance early on, you know, being able to scale faster, they’re all things that entrepreneurs want. So how can you connect customer experience, the reason to do it with something they already believe in.

Anna Noakes Schulze: The results that they want.

Clare Muscutt: So yes. So basically, if you can get them to establish what was it you actually want to do and try to do it. Okay, here’s all the ways CX will help you to make that happen. Great. [laughter] But that’s a kind of influence, right?

Anna Noakes Schulze: Yeah. And that feeds into another theme that I had, which was, competitive advantage. So, when you’re overcoming that resistance and risk aversion, you’re talking to them about, what CX does to give them a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Clare Muscutt: Yeah. So, when you asked that question on your list, I thought like two things, and I think kind of customer experience is just an expectation, now. It’s not a USP [unique selling proposition]. It’s not something that, you know, if you do it right, you’re going to get called out as amazing for, just good customer experience.

Anna Noakes Schulze: You can in Germany! [laughter]

Clare Muscutt: It has to work, and it has to be simple and easy to use. And if you’re not thinking about stuff like that, you’re just stupid. Like what makes you stand out is excellent customer experience that’s different to something similar in the marketplace. So, if you are more reliable, better service, nicer people, easier to deal with. The competitive advantage comes through differentiation. So if you’re in a competitive market and you’re designing something where something else already exists, how are you going to get, you know, if customer experience isn’t being used by the organization and it’s something that that product or service would warrant, you know, better service or experience for them, why don’t try to make that the USP rather than the branding and what it looks like, important still, but people keep coming back or returning or recommending based on experience. That’s a fact. Yeah.

Anna Noakes Schulze: Unfortunately, here in Germany, there’s a culture of holding onto customers by making contracts so extraordinarily difficult to break that customers are basically trapped, even if they hate the company that they’re dealing with. So, I feel compared to the US and the UK, customer experience is at a little bit more of an immature stage here. And. Some businesses don’t necessarily see it as a competitive advantage because as long as nobody else is any good either, they can get away with it.

Clare Muscutt: I think capitalism and globalization are going to mean that that’s not going to stay the same way forever. The environment that’s restricted to locality now is not going to be the same and bounded in the same way in the future. So, if you’re putting all your eggs in the basket that nobody else is going to make that shift ever, all customers are not going to be able to access products and services outside their locality. So quite a risky move, I guess. [laughter]

Anna Noakes Schulze: Well we’ve already seen a shift in expectations with Amazon over here, and local businesses complained that Amazon’s prices are thrashing them, but it’s actually not price that Amazon’s winning on, its service.

Clare Muscutt: Yeah. Convenience. Yeah. And they disrupted the UK, massively, it just happened to us sooner. So, we all looked to our game faster, and I worked in a retailer at the time, the second-largest retailer, we were absolutely petrified of Amazon. But you know, it’s things like Deliveroo. Uber Eats disrupted retail as well. You know, kind of digital disruptors that come in and just put themselves in between you as a business and your customers and give them something better, lower cost to them as an organization.

I think that’s pretty what we’ve seen in taxis, hotels with Airbnb, you know, all those disruption type conversations. Who is safe from that, realistically in the future, you know? So, yeah, so not just like big giant organizations, but international ones with reach, that means they can just come into your country with what they’ve already got and start selling here. So, it depends. I guess it depends on the startup. But I think back to your question and kind of how do you stand out, for me customer experience is a really broad church so it depends on your customer experience geek point of view, as I always say, we’re massive geeks about these things.

So, to me, marketing, communications, customer service, the value proposition is all customer experience. So when you can see your organization, your startup from the outside-in [from the customers perspective] instead of the inside-out [from the company’s perspective] all the time, you’ll start to be able to have a more open mindset to why this is important and what could change.

Anna Noakes Schulze: I guess part of the problem here is I think you actually wouldn’t believe me if I told you some of the things that pass for normal here, for example, restaurant websites. They could have, long histories of the family and pictures of the dog, but no opening hours. Or they have posted opening hours, but they don’t honour them and there’s a phone, but they don’t answer it. The email is broken, the contact form doesn’t work. There’s a mobile phone, but it’s switched off and there’s this sort of constant level of friction with customers from not honouring sort of basic, respectful things, basic, respectful terms of business. And that is still a huge problem here…

Clare Muscutt: Nobody stops going to those restaurants or leaves them or like leaves, bad reviews, or anything. Is that not…

Anna Noakes Schulze: I see local businesses fail all the time. Nobody seems to connect the dots. That terrible customer experience actually is what hurt them.

Clare Muscutt: But maybe the thing that they don’t understand is, what customer experience really is, and for a lot of even big businesses, they think it’s the interaction between two people in a service interaction, like giving them the food or having a conversation on the phone.

The way that I just described it is every moment that your customer interacts with your brand or business trying to fill their needs, small businesses wouldn’t necessarily understand that. So, I guess. Like, is there a route through education awareness [laughter] that could help to create that shift? So, you know, if, if nobody knows about the opportunity or understands it, nothings ever going to change.

Anna Noakes Schulze: Yeah. And I’m afraid that just the habit of thinking about another person and what they need and being able to shift your perspective around that way, that kind of outside-in thinking, it has to be learned. And it’s not a strong part of the culture here. So that whole culture is going to have to shift a little bit.

Clare Muscutt: Well, that was interesting I had exactly the same conversation with the lady in Norway. Also, an ex-pat herself, she’s lived in Norway for like 15 years or something, and she says you know that people think that no one wants good service [laughter] was what she said to me. I’ll have to connect you two together because you probably have a more similar experience to discuss. But that’s not the reality. And like you said, you know, you’re seeing businesses go under left right and centre because they’re not doing this stuff. But that connection is not being made. So how can vocal women like yourselves be the ones to start to talk about this in a way that resonates. With maybe, I don’t know, email business owners and helping them to connect with empathy. Always, the first thing is it, right? [laughter]

Anna Noakes Schulze: It’s an empathy issue. Definitely.

Clare Muscutt: But yeah, to be honest, having never worked in that culture, I don’t have any quick answers for you. [laughter] Sounds like a fun challenge though!

Coming soon: Part II of my interview with Clare Muscutt of CMXperience about helping startups get the customer experience edge.

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