Mike Wittenstein Q&A

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When I came across Mike Wittenstein’s site Storyminers, I knew I wanted to learn more about how he captures customer-experience stories.

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Bio: Mike, a seasoned marketing/branding/operations/strategy execution veteran with more than 20 years of experience at both large and small firms, is chief experience officer at Storyminers. Focused primarily on service companies, Mike has a long track record at designing and delivering service innovations that help brands become more appealing — and more profitable. Mike has influenced key decisions at Air Canada, Apple, AT&T, Carlson/Wagonlit, CarMax, Delta Air Lines, Diversakore, Goodwill Games, Holiday Inns, IBM, iPay Technologies, Kinko’s, McDonald’s, MCI, SOHO HERO, Southern Company, Turner, US Forest Service, Val-Pak, and Wingate Inns. A former e-visionary at IBM, Mike introduced then revolutionary ideas that are now common. He also founded GALILEO, one of the nation’s first interactive agencies. Mike earned an MBA in international management from Thunderbird and a BA in foreign languages and cultures from the University of Florida. Mike represented the United States in exchange programs to the former Soviet Union and to Brazil and he speaks four languages. storyminers.jpg


Q&A with Mike Wittenstein:

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: During the grade school years, my parents sent me to Hebrew school to prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah. Year after year, we learned the same Bible stories, albeit with more details and added moral lessons each time around. Once, in junior high school, one of my friends used a Bible story that they had learned at (Christian) Sunday school to make a point. I shared a couple of the differences I noticed from the version of the story I learned and quickly found myself on the other side of a verbal fight. It was at that moment I knew the power of a good story. Not only can storytelling inform. It can stir one’s soul.
It wasn’t until two more decades past, that I learned the importance of story in day-to-day business communications. I co-founded one of the country’s first new-media agencies, Galileo, in the early 90s. My partner and the company’s creative director, Jackie Goldstein, taught me to never let technology interrupt the flow of the client’s story. What she did with evocative and beautiful imagery, I learned to do with words. As we learned to combine our efforts effectively, our level of success increased.

Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?

A: Like many others, I’m experimenting with various kinds of social media. The hardest part for me is determining the right formula for time spent and value received by others — and for my business. For people who market by their names, such as authors, doctors, speakers, trainers, accountants, and many other professionals, I have found a name-promotion service by QAlias to be extremely effective. They have a deal with the major search engines to put your name at the very top of the left hand side of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other search engines. Try it. Google “Mike Wittenstein” and see what happens. Sign up and you can get the same results.

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Someone recently told me about the notion of “ambient awareness”. It’s an academic term that describes our interest in the small and continuous goings-on of others. Much like a soap opera, where we sit glued to the TV screen to find out what happens next to one of the doctors in “General Hospital,” Twitter, micro-blogging, LinkedIn, many of the social media sites give us the opportunity to read a diary-like synopsis of our friends’ lives. The disadvantage may be the clutter of intermittent interruptive communications. The advantage may be a sense of connectedness it seems to generate. I remember mentioning to someone I hadn’t seen for a while something about the details of their life I learned on-line. They smiled. So did I.
What will become of all this social media, innovation, and energy? It’s too early to say, but, if this “stuff” goes the same way as software, sites that are popular today may become features of larger programs tomorrow. It’s been that way with traditional software, with automobile brands, and in financial services for many years. I don’t see that pattern changing very much with regard to social media.
I also believe that the staccato nature of this kind of storytelling makes it more important for each of us to become better communicators. In order to be understood by others, especially over long spans of time, we have to learn how to say what we mean and mean what we say.

Q: What future trends or directions to do foresee for story/storytelling/narrative? What’s next for the discipline? What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?

A: I honestly believe that story will become a synonym for strategy. Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Story is one way to do that. Simply writing a story about a business’s ideal future state helps socialize the idea internally and align various departments toward it. And, story is much easier to understand than a PowerPoint presentation. At Storyminers, we use storyboards to portray a visual representation of a client’s strategy and to capture all of the clues that make their signature experience compelling. After that, we write the actual story, using words.

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On the personal front, I’m co-authoring my first book, titled Go Away! with Randy Sekeres. The book is about the unwritten customer experience rules that many companies break — and how not to do the same thing in your own business. Randy is a truly gifted writer, and I’m learning so much from the process of working with him. Oh, I suppose I should take the opportunity to use this interview to plug the book. You can sign up for a prerelease notice by going to www.MikeWittenstein.com

Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?

A: Listen. No matter how good you are or think you are already, make the effort to continuously improve at this skill. Listening and storytelling skills go hand in hand.

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Many people believe that storytelling is about talking, or relating one’s past experiences or making something up. Good storytellers are, first and foremost, great listeners. They have the ability to find important details and small nuances, and to put words to hard-to-describe feelings and emotions. These are the essential ingredients story consumers need to process what they hear and create their own meaning. Without those valuable little clues, stories are nothing more than poorly written, foreign-language instruction manuals, taking us step-by-step through difficult to understand processes with poorly illustrated pictures.

Q: Your company’s Web site states: “Storymining helps you hear the real voices of your customers.” You and your company seem to believe that the customer-experience story is the most important one an organization can tell. Without giving away all your secrets, can you talk a bit about the Storymining process? Have you encountered organizations whose customers have very few positive things to say about the company? How do you turn around a situation like that?

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A: Storyminers is a business strategy studio with a focus on customer-experience design. Storymining™ is the trademarked name for the proprietary process we use. The “secret” is this: We teach our customers that brands make promises that their businesses must keep. We show them why the best service brands use customer experience as a differentiator and as a way to achieve sustainable competitive advantage (the holy grail of marketing). Then, we take them through a process of finding the soul of their business — their story. Clients are often surprised to find out that it’s not their story that becomes the focus of attention. Rather, it’s the story a contented customer tells their friends and colleagues about the experience they just had. The retelling of customer experiences as stories is the genesis of word-of-mouth. By focusing the entire business on the stories customers tell their friends, the entire business becomes focused on the customer and the experience they provide to them. In my opinion, that’s the beginning of a great brand!
The rest of the Storymining™ process involves change management, organizational alignment, process, training, people, and technology. Once we have the story, we can engineer the right kind of experience. With the detailed experience design in hand, we and the clients’ teams can determine the operational requirements for the business to deliver on its promises. Once we know what the business has to do, we work with clients to help them figure out the best ways to do it. This may involve drawing pictures of who owes what to whom and creating other governance tools such as Governing Principles and a Reason For Being.
It’s not uncommon to run across prospects, whose promises are unfocused and weak, or whose operations are sloppy — to the point that there is no good experience or good story to tell. If, through our due diligence, we find that the people in the organization aren’t honest, don’t care about their own employees, or don’t want to listen to the voices of their customers, we simply won’t engage. For those clients we do take on, if they decide not to do the hard work of changing the way they work to create better value and better outcomes for their customers, we also disengage. Working with those visionary, intrepid and people supporting leaders who are left is a great deal of fun and the work is quite easy. Generally, they are very excited about having the tools they have been looking for to make their brands better. It’s all about delivering a better customer experience, based on a great story that yields raving fans.
Interestingly, as Frederick Reichheld proved in the mid-90s, treating your employees well leads to happy customers. And happy customers lead to happy shareholders. In summary, a great story supported by a great experience, helps improve the bottom line. I think the world is ready for that message now and I’m excited to be a part of the community is helping to make it available to mainline businesses.
Personally, I’ve found it quite interesting to witness the transformation as hard-nosed, bottom-line-oriented leaders make the transition from believing that their businesses make money (only the US mint can really make money) to realizing that their operations must deliver highly engaging experiences to win the attention — and loyalty — of their customers.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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