Episode 255 – Experimenting with Steven Van Belleghem

Steven Van BelleghemSteven Van Belleghem sees opportunities to experiment everywhere. When he works with brands like Google, Microsoft, and Disney to help them combine technology and behavioural trends to create outstanding customer experience, but also when he writes. He wrote the first business book to include augmented reality, he writes fiction to explore the possibilities of the future, and his latest book features a specially composed soundtrack.

He’s also developed a unique approach to structuring and writing his books, which he generously shares in this conversation, and encourages us all to find the courage and curiosity to experiment for ourselves…


Steven’s site: https://www.stevenvanbelleghem.com/

Steven on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/StevenVanBelleghem/videos

Steven on Twitter: https://twitter.com/StevenVBe

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Professor Stephen Van Belleghem, who is widely regarded as one of Europe’s thought leaders on customer experience. He recently shared a stage as a speaker with Barack Obama. He works with brands including Google, Microsoft, Booking.com and Disney to help them combine technology and behavioural trends to create outstanding customer experience.

Steven is an award-winning author. And to reflect his work, he tries to use technology to engage readers and create beyond-the-book experiences. We’re going to talk about this, it’s really, really fascinating. So his last book, Customers the Day After Tomorrow, was the first business book to integrate augmented reality. And for his new book, The Offer You Can’t Refuse, he worked with a composer to develop an accompanying soundtrack.

And Steven has also just published his first futuristic thriller based on what he’s seen on inspiration tours that he’s led around some of the world’s leading tech companies in China and Silicon Valley.

Welcome to the show, Steven.

Steven Van Belleghem: Hey, Alison, thank you for having me.

Alison Jones: There’s so much to talk about here, I’m genuinely so excited about this and I love the way that you mix the technology. We were just talking before about the medium and the message and how you’re such a great example of those working together. So let’s dive into it.

Let’s talk first about The Offer You Can’t Refuse because it’s such an intriguing title and it begs the question right there in the title. So what the hell, let’s start: ‘What is the offer that you can’t refuse?’

Steven Van Belleghem: Well, the story is about the future of customer experience. And I try to write a positive view on the future, to inspire companies on how they can make their customers happy. How they can add value to society and how they can grow their business. And the model that I use in the book consists of four different dimensions that customers value these days.

And the most obvious one is a good product and price. I mean, that’s been important for forever and it still is. That’s one of the minimum needs. But what you see is that on top of that, people today also expect digital convenience. In the last 10 years, when you were really good with digital convenience, you could really become a successful company.

And we’ve all seen the famous examples like Amazon, Booking.com, Uber, that really changed the business thanks to digital convenience. Today in 2021, digital convenience has become a commodity. If you have it, customers just think it’s the most normal thing in the world. And if you don’t have it, you’re in deep trouble and you will lose market share. So in my opinion, next to product and price, digital convenience is just as obvious these days.

So then the question pops up, what do people expect that goes beyond convenience? And in my book, The Offer You Can’t Refuse, I work with two dimensions there. The first one is what I call becoming a partner in life of your customers.

And this is not about selling your products. This is not about optimizing your sales process. This is about understanding the human behind the customer. You know, every individual has like a movie of their life in their head, right. You know, it’s with things that you hope that will happen, things that you dream of, things that you fear, things that you hope will never happen. We all have that kind of movie.

And if an organization understands that, they can create services that go beyond the product and that actually add value in the day-to-day life of their customer. And here, if you want to become a partner in life, it’s not about optimizing the customer journey. It’s about optimizing the life journey of customers. And that’s one dimension where you can make a huge difference these days.

And then the second dimension that I play with is adding value to society. Not changing the world, but changing your world. Not every organization has the power to change the world, but everyone has the power to change their world.

And I invite companies to think about the strengths that they have and how they can leverage those to create value for society on a number of levels that you can create value by being sustainable, by creating social value, by tackling some global challenges, by having an opinion about a topic like racism and discrimination. Organizations can add a lot of value and you see that customers basically have a higher level of trust in business leaders than in government leaders.

And three quarters of the global population expect that business leaders actually use their power to make the world a little bit better. And that’s the top of the model. So creating an offer you can’t refuse, that works if you invest in these four layers, good product and price, digital convenience, becoming a partner in life and adding value to society.

That’s in short, the pitch of this new book.

Alison Jones: And those themes feel very timely. The move away from the transactional to the relational, that sense that we’re all in this together. And it’s not just about that moment where you sell, but it’s actually about your contribution to your customer’s life, as you say, but also to the wider society.

You talk in the book a little bit about how COVID has accelerated that as well, and particularly also the digital delivery. So just tell me a little bit about how your thinking has evolved, given what’s happening, and also how that impacted on your model and how you went about writing about it, and the examples that you’ve drawn on.

Steven Van Belleghem: To be honest, my research for this book was ready in January 2020. I had been working on it for a year and I had my scheme, I had my examples, I had my structure. I had the whole thing and I was planning to write it during my international trips in Spring 2020. So that plan changed dramatically of course. And I was worried in the beginning, I was like, okay, this thing looks like a major issue in the world. Back in March, I was still a little bit naive, but still, you could feel that it would have a huge impact. And I was worried that my ideas wouldn’t be valuable anymore when the book came out.

So that was my first priority, just to look very closely to what was happening in the first two, three weeks of the pandemic to see if my theory was confirmed or if I had to start from scratch. And pretty soon I saw indeed that most of the things that I talk about and write about were accelerated because of COVID-19.

Of course we have the big digital jump of 2020. 2020 was the biggest digital training course the world has ever seen. And everyone knows now that this is here to stay. So that’s one evolution. The second evolution, that became clear after a few months, is that mental wellbeing is a huge challenge these days for a lot of people.

My sister-in-law, she runs a pharmacy and she told me last week, she said, we’ve never sold so many products against depression than the last few months. It’s terrible. So mental wellbeing is a key priority today. And by becoming a partner in life of your customers, you can deal with that.

So I saw a connection there and then the third evolution that really got accelerated because of COVID was some sort of a global solidarity organizations that try to help, even if they were in trouble. Plus maybe more importantly, a global population that suddenly took all the global challenges more seriously, health, discrimination, climate suddenly it became all more urgent.

And again, there was a link with my story. So, it’s strange to say it was a horrible year last year, but in my field of expertise, it was really fascinating. And it really created a completely new mindset amongst organizations to really take the customer and the evolutions in the world more seriously.

And, to be honest, that excites me. I’m really happy to see that evolution.

Alison Jones: And after that first sort of flush of relief, that when you realized actually what I’m saying here not only holds true, but is more so, you know, it’s accelerated. You mentioned that you were planning to write on international trips, which I hear quite a lot, the interstitial nature, just to be able to write on planes, be able to write in hotel rooms away from the normal distractions. It can be a really fertile time for writing.

How did you go about writing in lockdown? How was that different?

Steven Van Belleghem: It was completely different. But the plan to write it on planes and in hotels, that was also a first-time experiment that I had planned. All my previous books, I created basically some sort of a lockdown for myself with the four previous books. I always took four weeks. And then I isolated myself from the rest of the world and I wrote for four weeks in a row.

And the first two books, I did those that was 2010 and 2012 during summer, while my wife was pregnant with our first son and our second son. So the two of us were at home and I was writing, she was reading, my wife does the editing of my books. So she was doing that , we were working together on that.

And then book three and four, I told her, I said, I don’t want to do this at home anymore. I want to do what everyone else does. I want to have a cool location. So for the third book, we went to Italy for a month and rented out a small apartment there. And the fourth one, we went to California to Oceanside, close to San Diego. And there we had an apartment at the sea and that was a lot of fun.

So now writing it on planes was a new experiment, but the story of what actually happened is really boring. I was at home behind my desk, writing the book. That’s basically what I did, completely depressed because all my life experiences were gone and I couldn’t find happiness in presenting through a screen.

I was really glad that I had the book to be honest, because I enjoy writing. I really like to write, and it was the one thing in March and April that gave me energy. So I was really thankful that I could work on that project.

Alison Jones: Oh, that is interesting. Isn’t it? Yes. I think you’re right. I was just talking to somebody this morning about how writing ‘fills the tank ‘ which does feel odd because it’s hard work and all the rest of it, but there is something energizing and creative about it, that is quite separate from our usual experience.

There’s so much in our lives that depletes us, isn’t there? So it’s interesting that you say that as well. Yes. It’s hilarious that the first time you decided to do an experiment, travelling, the world laughs in your face and locks you down at home. That’s hilarious.

Steven Van Belleghem: And I still see my own naive behaviour. I recently saw an email from myself that I wrote on March 3, someone asked me if I could give a presentation in Barcelona and I replied to that email. I said, no, no, that won’t be possible because I’m in Sydney that week. So on March 3, I was convinced that the last week of June I would be in Sydney and on March 13, our entire country went down.

So it’s, it’s crazy to see how naive I was back then.

Alison Jones: Yes, well I think we were all the same, it was that fast wasn’t it? Extraordinary.

Before we go on to talk a bit more about the writing, which I definitely want to do, and I’m really interested, as I said, to hear that it’s such an energizing thing for you, I just want to ask you about the soundtrack, because I had fun with this.

I followed the QR code. I was listening to the soundtrack as I was looking at the book. It’s interesting, I find it quite hard to listen and read and I cannot listen and write. I just can’t do it. That those bits of the brain can’t work together for me, but very many people do.

So tell me about the thinking behind that combination of the soundtrack, certainly the reading, I don’t know if it was part of the writing as well.

Steven Van Belleghem: No, it was not part of the writing, but it was an idea that was in my mind for a couple of years. Because if you write a book, it’s not a bunch of words on a piece of paper, you try to tell a story, you try to bring emotions. And even though it’s nonfiction and it’s a management book, and it’s very factual, I try to add personal stories into it.

The examples that I use in my books are, in 90% of the cases, companies that I’ve worked with, or at least that I visited. So I know these stories and I want to transfer an emotion to people. I want to share excitement, I want to create urgency.

And then I was thinking, you know, a story needs, if you want to enhance the emotion, if you want to increase the emotion, you need music.  Imagine watching a film on TV or a TV show without the music, just remove the music and it becomes boring. It’s like with soccer, if you see people playing in an empty soccer stadium, it suddenly becomes boring.

So I thought, okay, I need to add the same kind of emotion on top of my book, on top of my words. And then music was the most obvious way to do that for me. And I reached out to Ozark Henry, he’s a Belgian musician. He travels around the world. He has great music and I had the pleasure to work with him before, we brainstormed together.

He joined me on one of my trips to Silicon Valley, when we were visiting innovative companies over there. So, I reached out to him and I said, Pete, that is that his real name. I said, Pete, what do you think? Have you ever written a piece of music for a book? And he said, No, I’ve never done that. I said, Do you think you can do it?

He said, Yeah, I think I can do it. And I said, What do you need? He said, Well, I need your story. I need to know what it’s about. So I told him what the story is all about. And he said, Okay, let me work on that. And then he came back and people who are listening to this can go to my YouTube channel, there’s an interview where I talk with him about how he did it. And, he’s so excited about it. And he said, I wanted to create the urgency that I feel when I read your books and when I hear your talks, I always feel that urgency to start now. That’s the emotion that I wanted to put in the music.

And that’s what he tried to do. And I was really excited about that.

Alison Jones: And when you heard the music, did you recognize the book?

Steven Van Belleghem: I did, I did. And it was fantastic because I went to his recording studio. He didn’t send it up front. So he said, you need to come over here because he has that amazing sound installation, of course. It’s like you’re in the best possible environment to listen to that. So I was almost crying.  I mean, it went directly to my bones and the title of the song is Wir Schaffen Das.

And a lot of journalists asked me, is that a political message? Because that’s what Angela Merkel said a couple of years ago. And some people hated the fact that she said it, some people were really excited about it. And he said, no, it doesn’t have anything to do with politics, but it’s just that mentality of, if you want to do something, you can do it. You just need to start.

And that was the message that he wanted to put into it. And that’s why he named it Wir Schaffen Das.

Alison Jones: It’s so interesting to hear the story behind it and capture that sense of what he saw in it, and then he reflecting it back to you.

So the idea of you playing with modes, with that idea of capturing the emotion in the music and creating a sort of different translation of the book into a different kind of format, it makes me think as well of the fact that you are bilingual and that you have obviously written this in English, but there’s a Dutch version. I don’t know which came first , that sort of flexibility of mind, that way of producing the same thing, but in different instances of it really intrigues me.

So do you think that being bilingual changes how you approach the writing process? Does it change the way that you see the creation of a book?

Steven Van Belleghem: Hmm. I don’t know. I don’t think so. I often think in English because it’s the language that I speak most often professionally. So it’s for me, very natural to do that. Most of the research that you dive into, most of the articles that you read are in English or in this field of knowledge and expertise, English is the common language. So sometimes even when I give a presentation in Dutch, sometimes it’s very difficult to do it 100% in Dutch. Sometimes I just add English sentences to it. And in some Dutch-speaking countries, like The Netherlands, they don’t like that at all. They like it to be completely in Dutch.

So sometimes it takes an effort for me to talk about my work in Dutch, to be honest.

Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. Yes. I’m convinced that there’s something about learning a language that gives you a sense of possibility. I was talking about this with my son, who’s learning German at the moment at school and doesn’t really see why he should, because everybody speaks English, the arrogance of a 12 year old.

And I said because it forces you to recognize that people express ideas differently and how you express an idea reflects back onto how you formulate the idea in your head. And there’s that sense that if you only have one language, you don’t notice what you don’t have. You know, you’re not aware of the different ways that people can interpret the world.

Maybe Dutch and English are so closely related that you don’t particularly get that benefit. I don’t know.

Steven Van Belleghem: Yeah, well, sometimes the danger is that you would miss some sort of a nuance, right? And that you don’t know certain sensitive terminologies or words. And that’s one of the biggest challenges for me, that when you travel to all kinds of places and you talk with people, you learn so much about other cultures and in the beginning of the pandemic, if you would have asked me, what do you miss most Steven, I would have said, well, a live audience. That’s what I miss most, to share my stories with.

Today, I still miss live audiences, but I’m okay with talking through and via screen. But what I really miss is the informal contacts that I have in all these countries that I could go to. And before a presentation, after presentation, having dinner with some people, you learn so much about what is important in certain markets and countries, about what is sensitive, how people think, how people think differently than in my part of the world.

And I miss that. I really miss that. It was like a couple of couple of weeks ago, just before Christmas, I had this virtual presentation with an international sales team. And at a certain moment I said something like, yeah, but guys, internet is like electricity, I mean, you cannot imagine not being connected anymore.

It’s just part of our basic elements that we need in life. I said something like this, which was completely normal for me. And suddenly someone turned on her camera and she’s like, Hey I’m from Brazil. I just wanted to let you know that we have this area here, where 60 million people live and they have been out of electricity for two weeks.

And I was like, Oh my God, I cannot even imagine that. I live in Belgium and we are constantly complaining that restaurants are closed and that we can’t get a haircut anymore. That is like our major concern. And then you hear that 60 million people, six times the size of my country, were out of electricity for two weeks.

I cannot even imagine being out of electricity for one hour. It’s a disaster, you cannot do anything anymore. Imagine two weeks. And those kinds of stories that put your feet back on the ground. That is what I really miss from traveling these days.

Alison Jones: Yeah. And it feeds right into the the whole argument about getting diverse viewpoints in a leadership team as well. Doesn’t it?

Steven Van Belleghem: Exactly that is so important because we’re more isolated than ever before because of COVID. We look through our own media, we stay in our own country, we stay in our own bubble, literally, and it narrows our point of view very, very rapidly. And I think, I really hope we will be able to change that in the course of this year.

Alison Jones: Amen to that. Yes, we are speaking obviously fairly early in 2021 with the lockdown as a reality at the present, but the vaccine rollout giving us a little bit of hope for the future. So yes.

Coming back to how you write, Steven, what does it look like for you? What do you love about it? What do you find surprising? What you find difficult?

Steven Van Belleghem: For me, the most difficult part is creating the structure.  And I have a very strange methodology that I developed for myself, but it kind of works. Usually what I do is about 12 months before I’m starting with real writing process, I take an empty piece of paper and I try to draw a structure that I think would make sense and that carries the message that I want to write down.

And then I add some ideas, some examples, to each of those parts of the structure. And then I leave it and I don’t look at it anymore. And then two months later, I do the exact same exercise without looking at my first drawing.

And then I do it again. And then I compare it to it, to see what the evolution in my thinking was. And I do that every two months. And then about three months before I start the actual writing. I do it more professionally. I take a Word file and I draw the structure that I have in my mind at that moment, with all the research that is linked to it, with all the case studies that I want to add.

And then that becomes a working document. And then typically I work in that document every week, changing things, adding things , from that moment I’m very receptive to seeing case studies and discovering research that fit into the plan that I made.

And once that part of the work is done, then my result is like a Word file of 20-25 pages that holds the complete structure, with all elements that I want to write in the book. And then for me, the easy part begins. That’s the actual writing. Then I just sit down and it’s like that, I sit down every day and then I just start and then it rolls out of my fingers.

And then usually it takes me 3 – 3.5 weeks to write the book. And that’s the part that I really enjoy. And I have like mental peace when the first part is done, right. When I have this word file of 25 pages and I know, okay, this feels good, this is okay. I dry run that with some people and then I can start writing and that’s pure enjoyment for me. That is everyday enjoying the fact that I can write it down, that I’m moving forward and that I can see the result. And that’s the part that I really enjoy.

Alison Jones: So it’s all about getting the structure right. Getting the planning done, getting the groundwork, the foundations dug, and then you can go. Does it ever change as you write?

Steven Van Belleghem: Oh, yes.  And usually throughout the year before the writing, I make presentations and I share the ideas with lots of people. And then sometimes I have the feeling like, Oh, I know so much about this topic and I can write a chapter about it. And then I begin with a chapter and then after half a page, I’m like, okay, I don’t know anything about this. And that’s also a cool moment. Then you realize, that writing a book really requires in-depth knowledge about your topic and that you need to have your research done. And then I can really enjoy doing that additional research and then, you know, structuring those ideas.

And then I go for a walk, sometimes a walk up to two or three hours and constantly thinking about what are the elements that I need.

And by the time I’m home, I’m ready to move forward. So it often changes. But 90% stays the same. And the hard work for me is the year of preparation and preparing everything. My wife is always mad at me. People ask me then sometimes Steven, how long did it take to write the book?

And then my answer is sometimes, Oh, three weeks. Now, my wife’s like, no, it’s not three weeks. It took you a year of research. I said, yeah, but the actual writing, and we always have a discussion point about that because I enjoyed the writing part so much.

Alison Jones: That’s very funny. Yes. You don’t get to just sit and write for three weeks without having done the year beforehand. Unfortunately.

Yeah. I’m going to ask you Steven, for your best tip for a first time author, it’s very, very clear that you have refined your process over at what four or five books now. But if somebody is sort of sitting there with a head full of ideas and not much else and they haven’t done this before, what is the best tip you would give them?

Steven Van Belleghem: My tip would be to create a PowerPoint presentation with your story. And, before you do, try to really get the essence. Force yourself to say, okay, what are the three key points that I want to talk about and then build your story about those three key points and build a PowerPoint and then share that story. And this may sound crazy, but maybe 50 to 100 times with other people.

And after a while, you will start to feel what resonates and what doesn’t resonate. You will see where people react, you will feel when you’re talking if some things don’t make sense and it will force you to study more about your own topic when it’s needed.

And, by the time you’ve done that, you have normally enough material and enough self-confidence that you can start writing in a way that you are sure that this is a story that people will like, and that it will resonate with the audience that you are looking to attract with the story.

Alison Jones: That is an absolutely genius tip and it works on so many levels because it forces you into being concise, it forces you to identify what are the key points because you have to fit them on a slide, and it also forces you to talk about those ideas and to get other people’s perspectives and see what lands, rather than locking yourself away and writing the whole book and then sharing it with the world and having the blank look back at you.

Steven Van Belleghem: Yeah, true. And the reason most people don’t do this because they are afraid that if you share so much content upfront, that once the book will be out, that everyone will already know the message and that no one will buy the book anymore. My experience is that it’s just the contrary.

Your book will be much richer because of the fact that you talked so much about it. The people who have seen your story will talk about it as well. And you start with a higher brand awareness than when you don’t talk about it. You know, many authors are very silent about their book and then they launch it and then they’re surprised that no one knows about it.

Well, if you don’t talk about it upfront, no one will know that it exists. And if it’s your first book, it’s good to build up some audience before you launch the book.

Alison Jones: Yes, I could not agree more. And it’s so interesting how people are fearful that, Oh, well, nobody will read the book if I talk about the idea. Rubbish, get the ideas out there, it’ll be a better book. And as you say, it will build that engaged readership.

Yes, absolutely. I always point to Joe Wicks who, I don’t know if you know, Joe Wicks? He’s a bit of a lockdown hero here because he did PT classes for kids all through the first lockdown. But he’s a huge kind of Instagram sensation. He’s now done lots of bestselling books, but the reason that his books were best sellers was because every single recipe in them he’d done on Instagram in public, they were available for free. It didn’t make anybody not want to buy the book. The fact that he had built that following was what propelled him to bestseller status with the books.

Steven Van Belleghem: Exactly. It’s like the concerts that are always sold out in no time are those concerts of artists whose songs are shared online all the time.

Alison Jones: Yeah, absolutely. Good.

A business book recommendation from you, please, Steven. And I’m really, really interested to hear a book that you have particularly enjoyed and would like to share with listeners.

Steven Van Belleghem: Well, I would like to recommend the book of Peter Hinssen, The Phoenix and the Unicorn

Alison Jones: Yes.

Steven Van Belleghem: And Peter Hinssen is a good friend of mine. And I think he is a brilliant author, a brilliant storyteller and his book, The Phoenix and the Unicorn, is really cool because it doesn’t talk about examples of companies like Tesla or Facebook or Google.

No, it’s a book that really focuses on how large, corporate organizations can reinvent themselves. And he has examples from large healthcare companies, large retailers, that figured  out a way, how to fight back against those technology players. And even though they are, let’s say conservative, they are from the previous century, they are large.

They still know how to do it. And that’s what he has done research about, and he explains that in a wonderful way in his book.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you. And it’s a book that I’ve heard of, but haven’t yet read. So it’s really great to have that shunted up the to-read pile. Thank you for that.

And Steven, if people want to find out more about you, more about all your books and the work that you do and check out that soundtrack, where should they go?

Steven Van Belleghem: They can go to my website, obviously. That’s my name’s Steven Van Belleghem.com. I would invite them to go to my YouTube channel. I share a lot of content there, a lot of my keynotes, a lot of stuff about the book, interview with the guy who did the the music part. So there’s a lot of content there and Instagram, I share a lot of content about customer experience on Instagram.

So always fantastic to welcome people there.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I’ll put those links up on the show notes of course, at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com as always, where you’ll find the transcript for the whole conversation as well.

But thank you so much for your time today, Steven, we didn’t even get on to talk about your fiction writing, which I really wanted to do, because that sounds fascinating.

Steven Van Belleghem: Next time. Next time.

Alison Jones: Exactly. Could you write another book and then come back and talk about it, please? That’d be great. But thank you for your time. It’s been just a fascinating conversation.

Steven Van Belleghem: Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun talking to you.

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