josh linknerLeading up to this week’s Genesys G-Force 2015, we connected with keynote speaker Josh Linkner, founder and former CEO of ePrize and two-time New York Times bestselling author of Disciplined Dreaming and The Road to Reinvention. Linkner is a four-time tech entrepreneur, having served as founder and CEO of each of his companies and driven a combined exit value of over $200 million. He is also a professional jazz guitarist, weekly contributor to Inc. magazine, Forbes, and Detroit Free Press, and a top-rated public speaker and founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners, which aims to help rebuild his hometown.

Here, he shares his perspective on why customer experience is the new competitive battlefront and why to succeed in the world of CX and business it helps to know how to play jazz.

The CX Report: You’ve said that customer experience has become a top priority for business competition today. How has CX changed? Why is it so crucial now?

Josh Linkner: Back in the day, Henry Ford launched a car and said you can have any color you want as long as it’s black. And that was fine—at that point all you needed was function. That was the entry to play. The particular form didn’t matter. Experience didn’t matter. But of course things changed and soon customers wanted function but also beautiful design. Today you wouldn’t buy a car if you couldn’t choose the color or you didn’t feel it was beautifully designed.

Similarly, looking at computer technology today, consider how much attention goes into creating beautiful forms like the iPad, which blends both function and design. But what this means is that design also became just the entry to play. So now customers expect products and services to have beautiful design and have great functionality too. So you say, well, where do you go next? Where is the next competitive battlefront?

The next competitive battlefront is customer experience, and there is still plenty of wide-open territory for businesses to craft emotionally charged and memorable experiences for customers. And those experiences often become the difference-maker between winning a shootout and losing one.

CXR: How has paying attention to the customer experience impacted your own businesses?

JL: I’m constantly thinking about every touchpoint that my customers have with my organization and I apply a five senses test, asking questions along the lines of: What does it look like? What does it feel like? Is it tactile? What does it smell like? And so on. I always try to put myself in my customers’ shoes and say, all right, how could this experience be better? And when you do that, and you really isolate each touchpoint, going that deeply into each of the five senses, you will discover a huge amount of opportunities for both creative expression and competitive differentiation.

CXR: How did your former company ePrize, now known as HelloWorld, use web and mobile channels to create new customer experiences?

JL: In 1999 when I started the company, promotions was a large category of the marketing mix, but it was largely dormant online. So everyone was focused on Internet advertising, and promotions was kind of like this old-school network. And so what I tried to do was to stretch the thinking and inject new technology into an old-school industry, and that bit of innovation really made all the difference in the world.

So we used online technology to help our customers—which turned out to be large brand advertisers like Coca-Cola, and Microsoft, and Nike—to better connect with their customers. We created these really immersive digital experiences and contests. Customers would be participating in games, and their loyalty would be rewarded. So we were designing these very immersive brand experiences, and that really resonated. We became a dominant player in our field. And eventually our customers included 74 of the top 100 brands. So it was a powerful way to help our customers connect with their customers to deliver an exciting and truly innovative experience.

CXR: Based on your experience, what’s the biggest obstacle to being innovative in the delivery of customer experiences?

JL: The biggest obstacle actually is fear. Fear is that poisonous force that robs us of our most creative thoughts. The research is very clear that all human beings have enormous capacity to solve complex problems in creative ways. But the reason we don’t do it as often as we need to is because we’re afraid of making a mistake, or looking foolish, or getting in trouble. So the antidote is creating cultures that support responsible risk-taking, prioritize creative thinking, and ensure that employees feel safe to take those risks. Because if you can create an environment where people are allowed to share ideas freely, allowed to try little experiments, that is a guaranteed recipe for success.

CXR: You began your career as a jazz guitarist. Has your musical background impacted your business career?

JL: Definitely. Jazz is spontaneous creativity. It’s the one art form that’s real time. In other words, if you’re painting something you can go back the next day; if you don’t like it you could touch up a mistake. But in jazz you’re creating art in real time and delivering it to your customer, your audience, in real time. So there is a thrill to it, but also it forces you to really push the boundaries.

Jazz cultures are very fluid and creative. If you are playing jazz and you play it safe you kind of get laughed off the stage. Yet if you take a risk and you screw up, everyone is very supportive of that. So I think it’s been a wonderful training ground because it’s helped me make decisions in complex, difficult situations. Sometimes you have to recover if you stumble. But basically you’re having to sort of create without the notes on the page in front of you. In fact, only one percent of the notes in jazz are on the written page, and the rest you have to improvise.

So with that as a backdrop, when you think about what we do in the business world, and trying to differentiate ourselves through a superior customer experience, today we play jazz. I mean, there’s no company that I know of where they’re handing the team members a full score of music and saying all you’ve got to do is play these notes and you’ll be fine. What’s happening now is that we have to perform at our highest levels in the business world and the notes on the page are sporadic, which means that we have to figure it out as we go. We have to make stuff up in real time. We don’t have a choice anymore. And so for me, again, my jazz training has been spectacularly helpful because I feel that the best business leaders today really are playing jazz.