Steven Van Belleghem is a global thought leader in the field of Customer Experience. His passion is spreading ideas about the future of customer experience. Steven believes in the combination of common sense, new technologies, an empathic human touch, playing the long-term game, and taking your social responsibility to win the hearts and business of customers over and over again.
Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Belgium, in a small town near the beautiful city of Bruges. There were two aspects that shaped my life. First, my parents owned a photography store. Looking back to how they ran their business, I realized that they were obsessed with their customers. During our lunches and dinners, they were always talking about what they could do better. Back then, I thought that was natural behavior for business owners. It was only later that I discovered how well they performed. So, the idea of customer experience was almost injected into my DNA by observing them throughout my childhood.
The second thing is that thanks to my aunt and uncle who live in the Bay Area near San Francisco, I was lucky enough to spend almost all my summers as a teenager with them. I really enjoyed it and had the time of my life. On top of that, I started to discover the positive mindset of Silicon Valley and the businesses out there. This increased my interest in technology, which led me to become a technology optimist.
And today, I talk and write about the future of customer experience, combining these two elements from my youth.
What is something you wish you’d have realized earlier in your life?
The value of getting inspiration. Most of the time we’re all living and working at 120%, with hardly any time to think or reflect. In the past 8 years, with our company Nexxworks, I started to organize inspirational trips to places like Silicon Valley, China, or Singapore. We take executives and visit 20 companies in the course of one week. After that week, everyone is so excited and full of new ideas. Taking the time to look for new inspiration is so valuable. I wish I had learned that earlier because it would have accelerated my own personal growth path.
What are some bad pieces of advice that you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Some managers tell me you need to draw a line in your customer experience. Because if you give them too much, they’ll get spoiled and it will have a negative impact on the business results. First of all, I don’t think the customer is always right; there are even situations where you can propose to a customer to cease doing business together. But it’s not because of these annoying customers that you should limit your efforts for all of the others. If you tell your team not to go all the way in customer experience, they will only deliver mediocre service. In my opinion, we need to make sure that as many interactions as possible deliver outstanding service because that generates excitement, which drives word-of-mouth, which propels your future growth.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How did you come out of it, and what did you learn from it?
Well, I’ve been extremely fortunate thus far. In my private life, I haven’t really had any dark moments until now, and I count my blessings every day. The most difficult time in my professional life was the first month of the pandemic. In the last ten years, I was in the privileged situation that my calendar was always fully booked with keynote presentations at the most beautiful locations all over the world. My schedule for the spring of 2020 looked awesome once again. And then, overnight, I ended up with an empty calendar as everything got canceled because of Covid. Frankly, I was panicking. I thought this is game over for me for at least 18 months. The first two weeks I was really depressed and couldn’t find any energy. Then, during a long morning walk, I decided to fight back. I asked myself what the core of my passion is. My conclusion was very insightful for myself. The core of my passion isn’t giving keynote speeches, it’s creating and sharing ideas about the future of customer experience. And, even in the midst of the pandemic, I could do that. I still had my online channels. So I decided to make more content than ever. As a result, more and more companies reached out and wanted to hear more. And, a few months later, my calendar was packed again with virtual presentations. And today I can even say that I had the best year ever in terms of business results.
What is the one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
My work ethics. I love to work hard and have no issue with working long days over an extended period of time. I have the habit of getting up early, doing a morning walk to think about my content, and then I settle down to work. I made myself a promise to deliver new content every week. I need to have at least one new video on YouTube every week, I need to reach out to podcast hosts at least every week, I need a new article on my blog every week. This isn’t just a promise to myself, but also to my audience. And I want to keep that promise, and so far it has worked out well.
What’s your morning routine?
I wake up at 5.50 a.m. By 6 a.m. I’m already outside the house and ready for my hike. Sometimes that’s a 1-hour hike and sometimes it’s 2 or 3 hours, depending on the schedule for the rest of the day. Then I come home, take a shower, have breakfast and the workday begins.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
One of the challenges in my life is the traveling part. I love to travel and speak to large international audiences, but the downside is that you miss out on quite a lot of family time. That was one of the upsides of Covid, that I could – for the first time – have breakfast and dinner with my family every day. But in the ‘normal’ world, I travel a lot and I miss my family because of it. About eight years ago we made the decision to work on that. So during the school holidays, we are always together. Either we are at home together, or we do a family trip or when I’m traveling for a keynote speech, my family joins me. So during Belgian school holidays, we are always together. That was a great decision.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I have a real old-school approach to this. Every evening I make a list of things I want to do the next day and then, no matter what happens, I always make sure the list is finished by the end of that day. This generates a sort of ‘need for closure’ feeling in me: when something remains unfinished, it makes me very uncomfortable.
What book or books had the greatest influence on your life, and why?
The first business book that had a huge impact on my life was Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. I read it back in 1999 when I was working on my dissertation about launching high-tech products. The vision of this book helped me to bring all my ideas together in a very compelling way. But there was more: for the first time, I understood the power of strong management models. Being able to describe something highly complex in an easy-to-use and easy-to-understand manner is quite rare. Since then I’ve made it my life challenge to do the exact same thing in my own particular domain. For the last 20 years, I’ve been working on inspiring companies to deliver a better customer experience. To succeed in that mission, I work with easy-to-apply management models that help companies think differently about their customer relations.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I am a big fan of the quotes of Winston Churchill. My favorite one is “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Over the past ten years, I invested a lot in sharing my ideas and philosophy through online channels. I love sharing videos on YouTube, ideas on Instagram, and new blogs on LinkedIn. When I started sharing content online, hardly anyone was watching or reading. It took me about five years to develop a loyal audience. Today, I’m very thankful to reach all those people, but it was only thanks to the philosophy behind this quote that it worked out. Most people begin with sharing their content and they give up because of a lack of short-term results.