HKS’ Jennifer Hatton Harper on Why Customer Experience is Key to Design Thinking

Jennifer Hatton Harper recently joined HKS as Principal in the firm’s Interiors sector. Jennifer will work alongside her peers Mark Williams, Norman Morgan and Kevin Underwood, in the Venues, Community and Place sectors, respectively, as she focuses on building relationships and influence among HKS’ Interiors sector clientele.

Having devoted her career to marketing and communications for design firms, Jennifer is a keen observer of how clients and customers experience design, and the way that collaborating with architects and designers can improve organizational performance. We sat down with Jennifer to discuss why the customer experience, or CX, is so central to business thinking today, and why it matters deeply to designers, too.  

Q: As someone who has spent their career working in sales and marketing, there is a lot of chatter about CX (customer experience). What does this mean to you?

JHH: CX or the customer or client experience is essentially how a person *feels* about working with a particular organization based on a myriad of intersect points along a journey. With CX, everything matters as each interaction informs the wider experience. 

This ranges from the very tactical application such as how, if and when an in-bound call is answered to the very broad such as what are the company’s values and how are they embodied.

One example of the customer experience visualized through design would be the Emergency Department Pods at Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH) in Chicago. ED’s can be very intimidating and stressful. HKS designers recognize that and found a way to create soothing places in the ED for patients and families to await test results. Putting patients first in this instance enables the hospital to devote more space elsewhere in the ED for critical treatment. It’s a CX win for both patient care and operational efficiency.

Like NMH, the organizations that are nailing CX look at the entire customer journey and put concrete, measurable actions in place to deliberately map and perfect every aspect of the experience. We are looking to do this for our HKS clients, too, which is precisely my jam.

Q: Along the CX journey, what do you think stands out most to clients?   

JHH:  Beyond love, universally the greatest human need is to be understood and accepted. I think we can also add “known” to this list. When great companies are competing at their best, the margin of variability between their services or products, people and fees increasingly narrows. At that point, the real differentiators become softer and more intangible. This said, most every professional services company will say that they listen to their clients, but what really matters is if a company truly knows their clients. Gone are the days of “this is business, not personal.” If we are to truly serve our clients and customers, we need to inherently know them and developing an authentic relationship to do so is imperative. It really is personal.  

If we are to truly serve our clients and customers, we need to inherently know them and developing an authentic relationship to do so is imperative.

Q: How do you think technology is changing the client experience and how we measure it?

JHH: There have been profound advances in AI, data analytics and the way seemingly every interaction we have is tracked and measured. From chatbots and surveys, to almost eerie back-end reporting on digital readership, heat mapping and eye tracking, we can compile, analyze, index and resource more data than ever before. And though there is absolute value in weaving those tools and data findings into the customer experience journey, I firmly believe nothing is more important than being in the physical presence of one another when it comes to serving our clients. There is no substitution for face-to-face meetings and spending time together in person. 

Q: On the topic of physical presence being essential, how do you think this parlays into where we work?

JHH: We are facing the most serious mental health crisis of our time. Despite technology and social media connecting people in ways we’ve never seen, there is a pervasive sense of isolation, loneliness and depression. Human interaction and knowingness are not something that can be fabricated by an algorithm. They are a basic, biological need.

As people have moved further away from their extended families, there is a real loss of community in the way we have come together in generations past. I think the places we work continue to have a real opportunity to bridge that gap, and by further melding the workplace with residential, hospitality, health + wellness, entertainment and education, our work family may very well be the next evolution of community creation that people so desperately need. The key is being in-person with others whether they are clients or colleagues, family or friends. The line between those groupings have never been more blurred.

Q: What surprises you most about CX?

JHH: Most organizations don’t understand the need to connect all the dots and are only looking at more traditional metrics for success: revenue, profit margin, sales growth and earnings per share. I have spent countless hours working with clients and peers analyzing and reporting on key performance indicators (KPIs) that only tell part of the story. It’s like doing a puzzle but stopping after you have the border complete. It’s all those good pieces in the middle that come together to complete the picture.

HKS’ recent research on the Future of Work sets the stage for how organizations might start looking at different metrics—human-centered metrics—to define success.

Q: We are so excited to have you join HKS. Tell us about what formed your decision to come on board?

I have long admired HKS for many years and consider the firm at the pinnacle of architecture and design forethought and execution. The people, work and operational efficiency are stellar, and I see my role as helping shine a light on that existing HKS sizzle to the outside world.

I’ve spent the last two decades working with Fortune 500 companies who often need a complete suite of services related to their real estate portfolios and seek to do so with a streamlined single-source partner as well. Between its global footprint and vast areas of expertise, I am so excited to provide that offering to clients and be a part of the HKS legacy, vision, and CX dream team here.