Adam Castleton Of Startle On 5 Ways To Create a Wow! Customer Experience

Patrick Swanson / November 15,2022

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

People remember the ending too. How an interaction ends is equally memorable and should be designed accordingly. For example, hotel staff greeting a customer by name, or reducing the perceived wait time in retail with an “Occupied Wait”. Together with memorable peaks, these moments are known as the “Peak End Rule”.

As a part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Castleton.

Adam co-founded Startle in 2012 after identifying an opportunity to haul dated background music technology into the modern, highly connected era. Previously Head of Strategy at digital agency, Rawnet, Adam has extensive technical and operational experience, working with media companies such as Discovery and ITV to deliver exceptional digital experiences for their customers.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I started my first business at the age of six, charging my family to park on their own driveway! I soon realised that the parking sector wasn’t my passion, so since my first “proper job” in the leisure industry, my career has revolved around my passion for technology and experiences.

I’m anti “tech for tech’s sake”, so you’ll find me as far away from virtual reality as the metaverse will allow me to run! I’ve found that retail, hospitality and leisure environments provide the perfect real-life playground for using technology with intent.

There are so many opportunities to improve the atmosphere, gain efficiency and enhance the experience using technology in these spaces. And it’s exciting to think that our technology is shaping the customer experience of thousands of people each day, as they go about their lives. That’s what gets me up in the morning.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’m a self-taught software developer. And while knowledge of how things work is valuable in running Startle Music today, I’ve learnt to keep my hands off the code.

In the early days of Startle, I remember attending an awards ceremony in Manchester, and corrupting an important database from my phone. We didn’t win the award, and I spent the early hours in my room restoring backups over a patchy 3G connection!

There is a valuable lesson in every mistake, and that’s my biggest ‘take away’ — to learn from every one of them, as they will arm you well in the future.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

From a young age, I’ve been fortunate to work alongside leaders of successful young businesses. It’s now that I value the learnings I gained from these people, whether it was how I saw them manage people, any guidance or advice they gave me, or just what I learnt from overhearing conversations about their business in the office.

With the rise of remote work, I think it’s easy to underestimate the value that can be gained from time spent in the office, with the leadership of the company that you work within. I’d say I have all my old bosses to thank for helping me get to where I am today, and I hope that I’m passing on some wisdom in the same way to the Startle team today.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

In my opinion, an exceptional customer experience is as important as the product or service being sold. I intentionally use the term “exceptional” as everybody can offer a great experience if they try. It takes an exceptional experience to really stand out, and standing out is important. Here’s why:

Getting any customer to buy from you takes investment, whether that’s investing in marketing, a physical storefront or long-term building of a brand.

The customers you attract will either be ones you never see again, or loyal ones that repeat purchase from you and recommend you to others. These people will also pay more for your product, allowing you to hold your margins.

Loyal customers, referrals and higher margins become a natural byproduct if you’re consistently delivering an exceptional customer experience. Consistently delivering an exceptional customer experience is also significantly cheaper to achieve than continuously investing in ways to find new people to sell to all the time.

A transactional relationship where a product is simply purchased in exchange for money is easily forgotten. A stand-out customer experience is not.

Expectancy Theory teaches us that the way people perceive something is influenced by how they expect the experience to be. By delivering an exceptional customer experience you are influencing not only how the product you’re selling is received, but also how they will expect future interactions with your brand to be.

Not only does this earn loyalty with your customers now, it affords you some helpful forgiveness if, in the future, you do ever miss the bar.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

Like an exceptional experience, bad customer experiences can be remembered too. Anyone delivering consistently poor experiences are at risk of creating an army of detractors which can be difficult to bounce back from.

I think most people would agree that the vast majority of customer experiences are pretty average. I think we naturally put too much focus on what is being sold at what price, rather than the context of how it is being sold.

This is short term thinking. This unbalanced focus may deliver earlier revenues, but as I explained, these experiences are purely transactional in nature and easily forgotten. This means that your customers are back on the market for your competitors to acquire next time around.

This cycle leads to a tendency to buy customer loyalty through loyalty schemes. But in reality, loyalty is an outcome and not something that can be bought through discounting.

Typical loyalty schemes (and discounting in general) assume that price is the main reason that customers buy from you, when in reality, we know there are other more influential soft-factors at play.

Discount schemes also create a sense of entitlement. It’s not difficult to think of an example company where you would only ever buy from with a discount code (think pizza chains), or where there has been outrage when the terms of their loyalty scheme changed (think supermarkets).

True loyalty is more forgiving, and a result of a genuine connection made between a brand and its customer. And it is something that can only be earned by consistently delivering an exceptional customer experience alongside your great, properly priced, product.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Absolutely. Pressure drives a change in behaviour, whether that pressure comes from competition, inflation, supply chain issues or a staffing crisis.

Typically I see businesses take one of two directions. The first is a short term view again, minimising costs at the expense of customer experience as an attempt of survival. The second is to invest themselves out of the situation.

Brands that take the short term view are simply extending their runway, but often, and predictably, go out of business eventually. Brands such as Toys R Us, Mothercare, Blockbuster and Debenhams are all good examples of this.

On the other hand, brands that knuckle down and invest in a great customer experience typically see more longer term success than their competition. Not only do they survive the tough times, they come out stronger on the other side.

I’m a big believer that there is opportunity in adversity, and that’s because usually the whole market is facing the same challenges as you are. You just have to navigate the adversity better than others to end up in a better position. That takes a cool head, calculated risk taking, unequivocal belief, and above all dogged persistence. That’s certainly the approach I’ve taken at Startle.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

A big part of our customer experience comes from the relentless support we provide our customers. We could certainly cut costs, scale back our support operation, and still exceed the market expectations. But our support is so impactful that we see it as an investment rather than an operational cost.

An example would be a customer calling to cancel their contract with us as they were retiring. Although this was a shame for business, we believed the human connection was much more important, so we sent them a retirement gift in the post.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

This genuine act of kindness eventually became good for business when the person retiring referred us to another mutlisite operator. And from there we were able to build our reputation and client list further within the industry. It’s an example of an above-and-beyond approach to business paying off in the long term.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. People remember the peaks. Peaks are stand-out and unexpected moments in the customer journey. Consider your customer journey as a whole, and identify areas that you can introduce intentional peaks. Think, a random “on the house” coffee from Pret, or how Costa helps customers who have their hands full with small children by helping them carry their item to the table. These virtually free moments will create a long lasting memorable impression on your customers.
  2. People remember the ending too. How an interaction ends is equally memorable and should be designed accordingly. For example, hotel staff greeting a customer by name, or reducing the perceived wait time in retail with an “Occupied Wait”. Together with memorable peaks, these moments are known as the “Peak End Rule”.
  3. Look outside of the industry for inspiration. It’s easy to be blinkered which can lead to lost opportunities and unintentional mimicry. I think it’s best to intentionally look outside of your industry for inspiration when designing your customer experience. For example, we have an office space client using a sports fashion retailer as inspiration for their background music. Being distinctive in a sea of sameness will not only make your brand stand out, you’ll be more memorable too. This is known as the “Von Restorff Effect”.
  4. Consider the environment as a whole. A lot of thought is put into the visual merchandising of physical locations, but often the wider atmosphere is often considered in isolation (or not at all). Impactful experiences are ones where the look and feel of a space works in harmony with the sound, lighting and everything else that contributes to an atmosphere.
  5. Underpin your thinking with the principles of behavioural science. Humans are unpredictable creatures, and can often behave seemingly illogically. I’ve mentioned some behavioural principles that we use at Startle, these are established heuristics within the field of behavioural science. Instead of guess-work and wishful thinking, these heuristics can be used to design an environment and customer experience with real intent.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

There is nothing more powerful than word-of-mouth and referrals within the industry we operate in. So we approach our customer experience in the same way that we teach our clients to, by using the principles of behavioural science to make our business and proposition stand out. This is reflected in our marketing, how we sell and how we manage client relationships.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

  1. Price alone isn’t a USP, nor does it drive genuine customer loyalty. D2C brands are opening on the high street because they realise they need to make more emotional connections with customers that isn’t possible purely in an online transactional environment. Allbirds and Gymshark are two examples of this.
  2. If anything this proves that there is opportunity on the high street.
  3. With Amazon, they’re investing/testing tech (like “just walk out”) which is so expensive that retailers would never create it themselves. Let them haemorrhage cash while learning the mistakes and refine the technology. Amazon’s play is to ultimately sell the technology to retailers, not to own every shop on the high street — and that’s a long, long road which doesn’t replace excellent customer experience.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Over the last decade our lives have become increasingly digital. The Coronavirus pandemic made many of us realise the value of in-person interactions, whether that’s in our personal relationships, visiting a restaurant with friends, meeting in person instead of over Zoom, browsing the shops on a Sunday afternoon, or even re-realising the convenience of in-store click and collect.

I love tech, and there’s definitely a place for it in retail, but I’d love to see a movement that promotes real life, in-person experiences over making our lives increasingly digital. I’d like to see less time invested in projects like the metaverse, and more investment in real human connections.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

In that vein, I’d rather meet you for a coffee than follow me on social media, but in the meantime you can follow Startle on…



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