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How to Create Memorable Customer Experiences in a Post-Covid World with The Michelli Experience’s CEO, Joseph Michelli

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Joseph Michelli who is an expert in creating memorable customer experiences has a vast range of enviable experiences up his sleeve over a long period of 33 years. From helping an obscure fish market in Seattle become a famous attraction for buyers worldwide, to working with Ritz Carlton Hotel and Mercedes Benz — he has done it all, and more.

His resolve to embrace fresh challenges with ease is evident in his penchant for mountaineering which he started by climbing a 14,000-foot peak. In this interview, he talks about a variety of topics including why leaders need to prioritise self care, and tips for engaging team members and customers while becoming a better leader throughout COVID-19. 

Becoming a Bona Fide Customer Experience Expert


Joseph Michelli is a bona fide customer experience expert. For 33 years, he has been helping leaders and frontline team members elevate the experiences they provide. As the Chief Experience Officer at The Michelli Experience, Joseph and his colleagues have worked with companies across many sectors (finance, retail, hospitality, insurance, etc.) and across all continents. 

Going Beyond Just Selling Fish

I came to customer service and customer experience design with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. The consistent driving force in my career has been a desire to help people be of service to one another. 

My journey started while I was working with the owner of a small fish market in Seattle, Washington. That entrepreneur, Johnny Yokoyama, was selling the same fish as four other fish markets within blocks of his stand and needed a way to differentiate.


Johnny, a Japanese-American, had a rough start in life. His family had been taken to internment camps after the Pearl Harbor attack, and his father’s business had been liquidated. Understandably, he wanted to keep close control over everything happening in his life when he started his business. However, he had to change his approach to become a servant leader – so that his team members would be inspired to serve customers. 

Fish markets tend to be transactional. They don’t create experiences that make customers want to visit and certainly don’t create raving fans. However, Johnny and his engaged team made the experience a playful one. Collectively, the team took a “world-famous” interest in those who approached the stand, and that interest inspired a spirit of playfulness.

In time, the Pike Place Fish Market became an attraction in Seattle. Tourists still go down to Eliot Bay and watch the antics of the fishmongers. Suffice it to say, Johnny and his team differentiated their fish market from all competitors – not through their fish -but through the experience they create as they sell fish. My work with Johnny led to a book which we co-wrote titled “When Fish Fly.” 

Those experiences led me to work with, consult for, and write about leadership and customer experience excellence at many other companies like Starbucks, Zappos, Mercedes-Benz, and The Ritz Carlton Hotel Company.


My career has been an unimaginably rewarding adventure. I get to work with awesome brands, flex my creative muscles, and collaborate with or learn from the best. For example, I was recently on a call with the Presidents of StubHub and Airbnb to discuss their approach to refunds – in the context of ongoing cancellations during the pandemic.

Both of these businesses are middlemen between consumers and their gig economy suppliers. Yet, their refund approach has been entirely different from one other. Airbnb refunded buyers all canceled stays, whereas StubHub gave customers a 120% value on future purchases. You don’t get your money back, but you get a credit if you book another event. That’s just an example of the diversity of brands I interact with and the complexity of customer experience challenges they face. 

3 Themes of Business Leaders

For my latest book Stronger Through Adversity I interviewed more than 140 leaders on navigating the pandemic and crafting engaging experiences for team members and customers and three themes came through resoundingly.

1. Leaders Need to Prioritize Self-Care

Especially at the pandemic’s beginning, leaders worked as much as 20-hours a day and felt a heavy mantle of responsibility. They had to take care of their people, ensure customers were safe, and protect jobs. Often this led to role modeling overwork and neglecting their needs for sleep, exercise, and rest.

In Stronger Through Adversity, I use the metaphor of ‘putting your own oxygen mask on first’. Airline safety announcements urge us to take that approach so we don’t lose consciousness before we place oxygen masks on our children. It’s the same in business. If you aren’t well-rested, managing your stress constructively, or taking health-promoting breaks, can you sustain your care of others?

Practicing self-care doesn’t have to be overly time-consuming. Just get up out of your chair between calls, draw a deep breath, clear your head, or take a short walk. The pandemic has become a marathon instead of a sprint, and as is the case with marathons, we all need to stop at care stations along our journey.  

2. Leaders Need to Trust The Terrain, Not The Map

I love to hike mountains. As I was training to climb my first 14,000-foot peak, my instructor said, “when the map and terrain differ – always go with the terrain.” Throughout the pandemic, leaders shared how their strategic roadmaps lost value. Some tried to cling to those maps, while more effective leaders relied on their eyes and ears.

The successful ones surveyed customers and team members more. They asked lots of questions and were attentive to verbal and non-verbal elements in those responses. They made swift course corrections based on rapidly changing data and set weekly (if not daily) goals instead of annual or quarterly ones. In short, they followed the terrain and discarded maps that were crafted for different conditions.

3. Leaders Need to Get Out of Their Comfort Zones by Shifting Their Leadership Style

In a wild horse herd, the alpha mare leads from the front, the alpha sire leads from the rear, and other horses shape herd behavior by being part of the pack. As humans, we also tend to develop a preferred leadership style. Some of us like to be out front promoting our vision. Others like to sit back and only engage when our teams need help or roll up their sleeves in the middle of the group.

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The pandemic taught many leaders that they had to resist their desired position and shift from the front to the middle, or to the back based on the need at hand. Enduring crises brought on by COVID-19 call for fluidity, adaptability, and resilience.

Technology vs. Human Element

2020 and 20201 have accelerated the importance of technology. We’ve managed to run successful businesses and maintain client relationships despite enforced lockdowns, primarily fueled by digital tools

I used to run workshops where I’d ask attendees to imagine a world where they could only deliver their services digitally. In 2020 and 2021, that future state became now! For example, I challenged a home construction company to think about how they could deliver their products and services with no human interaction. 

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Digital natives are already pushing for digital-only service options. The rise in self-service functionality is a testament to modern consumers increasingly wanting efficiency over human-mediated service. 

After the construction company considered their digital-only customer journey, I asked them to craft a journey with no technology. In reality, few customers want a digital-only or human-only path. People may have a preference, but they usually carve out a hybrid path across a brand.

The key to successful experience delivery is to make it technology-aided and human-powered by ensuring customers can choose a person or a technology at all critical moments in their brand journey.

Make it Personal

Video conferences can be draining – prompting the term “Zoom fatigue.” Online meetings are essential for most businesses today, but they come with a significant loss of intimacy compared to face-to-face interaction. Due to the constraints of these platforms, it has become even more important to establish rapport and develop something I refer to as PEC’s (personal emotional connections).  


I am not talking about long “get to know you” sessions. You just need to ask a few questions to communicate genuine interest in the person or people on the screen. Nobody enjoys staring at a gallery of faces for hours every day, but it is even less pleasant when we don’t engage our humanity. 

Add multiple strings to your bow and learn when to move from one leadership style to the next so you can get the most from your people. Sometimes you might need to bring clarity to your vision. Other times, you will need to keep quiet and listen. 

The Positive Business Perspective Ahead of Us

It takes a rare type of person to see 2020 as one massive opportunity instead of a long, unwanted challenge, but there are lessons that we can learn. 

For starters, the enhanced focus on digital-first customer experience will only increase going forward. Businesses of all shapes and sizes will need to be more flexible. We’ve all had to adjust to new ways of working rapidly, and most are adapting well.

Leaders should always react to the unique circumstances in which they find themselves. Don’t box yourself in, believing that you’re a certain type of leader. Instead, try to be the most adaptive leader for this moment. 

Joseph Michelli, CEO of The Michelli Experience

Lesson Learned

  • Leaders consistently need to practice self-care. Make sure to put on your own oxygen mask first.
  • Look for ways to stretch your leadership style based on situational needs.
  • Making personal connections is essential across all platforms – especially when video conferencing on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Take a moment to engage on a human level. Get to know people, share something about yourself, and most importantly, demonstrate you authentically care.


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