For Smart Customer Engagement, Think Like a Fighter Pilot

Think Like a Fighter Pilot
Taking inspiration from famed military strategist and fighter pilot John Boyd, Walker advocates using the OODA Loop decision cycle, an acronym for “observe, orient, decide, act.”

This content is part of a program managed by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Accenture and Pegasystems. “Digital Evolution: Adapting Business for a Digital World” aims to shed light on the world of digital business—the strategic imperatives, challenges, complexities and pitfalls. All “Digital Evolution” content can be found here.


Having spent a lot of time scrutinizing data, reports and analytics on the interactions between customers and businesses, Rob Walker, VP–Decision Management at Pegasystems, has examined many botched transactions in minute detail. And it doesn’t take a complex algorithm to understand why consumer experiences elicit far more complaints than compliments, says Walker. It’s simple: Customer service is pretty bad.

In the battle to improve interactions and create a more responsive service economy, businesses have to start thinking like fighter pilots. Taking inspiration from famed military strategist and fighter pilot John Boyd, Walker advocates using the OODA Loop decision cycle, an acronym for “observe, orient, decide, act.” Customer service reps have to be able to “recalculate” when a customer provides new information.

This more improvisational approach—backed by relevant, timely data about the customer—can transform customer service. Here, Walker explains how companies can put an end to frustrating customer service experiences and start winning the loyalty of satisfied consumers.


Q: Many companies are tracking their customer interactions and analyzing the data, so why hasn’t customer service improved?

A: It’s not just customer service that’s lacking. Improvements need to be made across the customer life cycle. I think all these interactions typically suffer from the fact that they’re not dynamic. They’re not contextual. Companies that are struggling with customer service may have scripted a reply that they want their reps to use, but that’s not how humans normally talk. Human conversation is a much more dynamic process that involves “listening.”

Q: In terms of a remedy, what’s more important—having a really good, well-trained representative or having really good data the rep can use?

A: Even the greatest of representatives on the phone have to have the right data; if they don't see what a customer just did in another channel and how he struggled or what he was asking about, they won’t be well-equipped to respond. Humans in general try to follow patterns, especially if they’ve been successful in the past, but that leads to lots of mistakes. If you look at analytics, data-based recommendations to agents may seem like they are coming from left field, but they are usually accurate.

Q: Is the answer to completely automate the script based on what the data recommends?

A: No, you need the combination of data and human common sense, paired with relevant recommendations. Agents feel empowered when the recommendations are clearly contextual. So, if a customer says something like, “I don't want your platinum card,” or “That interest rate is too high,” the system can be recalculating and recommend relevant responses: “In that case, you should be asking this or saying this.” Agents actually like that kind of recommendation once they find that it is effective.

Q: What kind of data should be used to give you the best picture of a consumer and how encompassing and accurate is it?

A: We typically focus a bit more on the owned channels. The data is obviously a lot better because this is your customer. You know what this customer has done, he has told you his preferences, you’ve recorded his responses to offers or suggestions that you’ve made.

Q: Can you explain how the OODA Loop applies to customer service?

A: The OODA Loop is a very formal, almost scientific methodology of how to make a decision—how to observe, orient, decide and act. It applies to litigation, it applies to gaming and it also applies to customer interaction, especially because the alternative approach, a campaign, is also military-inspired.

Q: This seems like much more of an improvisational approach.

A: Yes, I agree, although “improvisational” sounds like there is no empirical foundation to it—but there is. Improvisational also has connotations of “making things up.” In this case, there’s a lot of real-time math going on under the hood, so I prefer terms like “contextual” or “situational.” Also, it doesn’t have to be reactive. The “observe” part may well include predictions on likely consumer behavior.

Q: A manifestation of this approach seems to be Pegas’ next-best-action methodology, which offers the best customer service strategy in a given situation. Can you talk about how that gives companies visibility into the customer journey?

A: In the context of customer experience, next-best-action is a paradigm that acknowledges the complexity of a customer’s behavior and the reality of an ever-changing context instead of trying to script an interaction in advance. Companies are using it in a lot of channels, in particular real-time channels. Take a bank. They’re using next-best-action when a customer is in front of an ATM, when she goes to the website, when she talks to the voice response channel, when she calls the contact center. It’s all connected to a customer decision hub. So, no matter where a customer is touching the bank, that system will ping that hub and say, “OK, I have someone here, she’s asking about this, this is what we know about her, what should I say or present?” It’s all part of one customer journey, one story and it’s used in all the real-time channels that the bank has. It will help sales and service, but, at the same time, we see customer satisfaction go up because they have a relevant conversation.

Q: The recommendations are all based on probability?

A: The recommendations are based on two things: For many of the potential underlying actions, you have a probability that a given recommendation is the right thing—it’s based on cumulative experience with other customers who are like you. And there are also corporate objectives. Next-best-action is a balance between what a business predicts customers will agree to or are happy with and what the business objectives are. We have the brand to consider and operational feasibility to consider and, obviously, profitability.

Q: There seem to be a lot of variables that might derail the customer journey. How do you help guide it?

A: It’s tricky. It’s where that OODA Loop comes in. No plan survives first contact with the customers and you need to be ready to situationally “improvise.” Modern customers are more fickle than ever and use multiple devices to connect to a company. It’s tempting but naïve to assume customer interactions can be reliably anticipated and scripted.


I like to say a customer’s journey is more like a pinball machine than a carousel. It has now become possible for a company to use the OODA Loop to formulate an intelligent response to customers instead of hoping that customers will behave as they would like them to. As we all know, hope is not a strategy.


Customer Service Platform comparisonIt’s time to evolve. To stay competitive, you’ve got to keep up with your customers—and they’re moving fast. The right systems and software can help you stay out in front. Learn more about how Pega’s Customer Service app can help you evolve your customer service: Download the Pega Can whitepaper.