Q&A with Jim Gilmore, Business Consultant

I teach classes on shopping! I know a lot about why people buy things and I try to help people who sell things to do a better job. And not just a better job of selling things, like physical toys, but a better job of selling what I call experiences, like going to Disneyland.
October 3 rd 2008

Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.

Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?

Jim Gilmore: I'm like a teacher for grown-ups. In a way, I teach classes on shopping! I know a lot about why people buy things and I try to help people who sell things to do a better job. And not just a better job of selling things, like physical toys, but a better job of selling what I call experiences, like going to Chuck E. Cheese's, The Little Gym, Disneyland, ESPN Zone or The American Girl Place. You do realize your parents have to pay for these experiences they take you to, don't you? And they buy experiences for themselves too, don't they? Netflix movies, fantasy baseball camps, cooking schools, and spa treatments.

"I teach classes on shopping! I know a lot about why people buy things and I try to help people who sell things to do a better job. And not just a better job of selling things, like physical toys, but a better job of selling what I call experiences."
—Jim Glmore
Jim Gilmore

Comment: What first drew you to this work?

JG: When I was at CSC Consulting, I had worked on several service projects—for Whirlpool and Kellogg's, goods manufacturers—involving the examination of grocery-chain wants and needs, and came to the conclusion that every customer wanted certain elements performed differently. I started using the term "mass customization" to convey the need to design processes capable of doing different services differently. Then I came across a copy of Mass Customization at a Barnes & Noble on Mayfield Road in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. I bought the book, and read the book, and noticed in his acknowledgements that B. Joseph Pine II (now my business partner) had concluded by expressing "the greatest debt to the Lord Jesus Christ, with whom anything is possible, without whom nothing is worthwhile." This Joe Pine guy had not only written a book on the very subject that was consuming my professional life, but he confessed faith in the same Lord and Savior as I do. I wrote him a letter, and the rest is history. I retained Joe to work with my Process Innovation practice. Mass Customization led to The Experience Economy, which led to Authenticity.

Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?

JG: As a novice? As a young student, seventh-grade math class stands out as a milestone event. We were the last class to use a textbook called SMSG. I can't remember what it really stood for, only that we said it stood for Some Math Some Garbage. I can remember the softbound yellow cover to this day. Because the book was being phased out, we students were allowed to write in the book. This was unheard of in the days before workbooks! Something about being immersed in the pages, actively writing in the book, motivated me to learn. I learned how to learn.

In college, as a country kid from rural Pennsylvania, I learned as much from the streets of Philadelphia as from my courses at Penn. I loved to walk the streets exploring for serendipitous finds, people, places, and things. I also remember attending a ten-part film series, presented on campus by Penn Crucible, of Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? I later heard Schaeffer speak at Tenth Presbyterian Church's 150th Anniversary worship service and was taken by his admonishment to pursue "true truth." I embraced this as my objective in learning.

My first job at Procter & Gamble was managing their fleet of 170 railroad tankcars, right after the Carter administration had deregulated transportation. The opportunity to be creative in an industry that had stifled any innovation for a hundred years was an incredible learning experience. I learned to challenge conventional norms, but it was easy as my field of study was creatively unexplored territory.

Later, after I left P&G, and worked as a business consultant, I discovered a copy of Edward de Bono's book, Lateral Thinking, on a discount table at a bookstore in Battle Creek, Michigan. I bought it for $2.95. It blew my mind. I went to hear him at a three-day seminar, taking copious notes. I gathered up all De Bono's acetate rolls left behind each day by his overhead projector. I read everything I could by him. I went to be certified in De Bono's Six Thinking Hats and Lateral Thinking methodologies. I learned to think laterally by teaching lateral thinking.

Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?

JG: In my late twenties, I once sat on a plane next to a successful small-business owner, maybe thirty years my senior. He told me he had this decision-making measurement called ROB: Return On Bother. He always asked of any task, of any potential action, "Is it worth bothering?" That same gentleman inquired as to whether I played golf. I said I did and aspired to shoot 90. He told me to treat every hole as a par 5! What I liked about this man's advice was the insight about how one can re-frame one's approach in order to think more constructively about any situation or subject-matter.

"The telephone, and especially the cellphone, has become this age's greatest intrusion on being still, on living a life of contemplation and prayer. Why ruin the luxury of not having to be accessible by carrying a phone?"
—Joe Gilmore
Jim Gilmore

Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?

JG: Inspiration? What stimulates my mind? Individual words: I love my Roget's Thesaurus. Music: Right now, I can't help but sing to myself, based on that one word, inspiration, the Tom Waits' lyrics from "Grapefruit Moon," "You became my inspiration | Oh but what a cost | 'Cause every time I hear that melody | Well, something breaks inside | And Grapefruit Moon, one star shining | Is more than I can hide." The title of the preview of The Experience Economy is "Step Right Up," which also happens to be a Tom Waits song. That song inspired the very first paragraph of the book. And magazines: A magazine rack is my intellectual candy store. Every magazine represents a different consumer mindset. Study magazines, especially new ones that emerge and find an audience. And examine how long-established magazines alter their image and content over time. New and old alike, both can inform you on what people seek in their lives today.

Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?

JG: I own no cell phone. I do not check for voicemail or e-mail while traveling—and I average over two days a week on the road. Travel is my time to read and think and prepare for talks. I generally write at home, in my home-office. Even there, if writing, I turn off the desktop phone and immerse myself in newspaper clippings and recently read books. The telephone, and especially the cellphone, has become this age's greatest intrusion on being still, on living a life of contemplation and prayer. I'm blessed that my life's work does not involve keeping factories, warehouses, or service centres running. My speaking engagements are generally booked far in advance. So why ruin the luxury of not having to be accessible by carrying a phone?

Comment: What are your favorite tools?

JG: As already mentioned, De Bono's lateral thinking techniques. I once used a DOS-based program called "Ideafisher," and used it as long as DOS was still buried in my computer software somewhere. "Google," of course. And whenever I hear of a newly invented experience, say crossgolfing or swooping, I usually go to YouTube and surf around for footage. Usually I must surf a bit to find truly representative video of such experiences. Or when I hear or read of some person of interest, I'll Google and YouTube them. I did that when an friend first e-mailed me about Mark Driscoll. That proved most interesting!

Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.

JG: Every book is a project. There is great delight in holding a bound copy of one's own book for the first time after publication. But my greatest delight is our annual "thinkAbout" event, where we have an opportunity to practice what we preach about experience-staging. The design of new-to-the world exercises and excursions to guide participants through each year is probably the most rewarding work for me. In 2009, we're going to host the event in Philadelphia, and it will be especially thrilling to stage thinkAbout there, given my Philadelphia roots.

Comment: How do you plan your work?

JG: I don't do much planning. If one has good decision-making heuristics in one's head, and a very short list of long-term projects—also in one's head—one doesn't need to do much planning. I remember once hearing De Bono say, regarding creative output and the fixation on capturing output, that if the thought is that good you'll remember it. For me, being aware of my own thoughts, constantly thinking about thinking, helps me organize. I strive to keep mental notes, literally, mental notes. The best thinking is written down in one's head and committed to in one's heart before ever being written down on paper.

Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?

JG: I have trouble sleeping; I prefer to be awake—reading, thinking. I hate to sleep. I don't exercise enough, preferring to snuggle up with a book or magazine or late-night talk show. My family tires of my incessant observations about what is happening around us at any moment in time. I'm cursed with an insatiable appetite to observe and analyze. Cursed, I tell you! But I do like to disconnect my work from other aspects of my life. I love escaping to the ballpark to watch the Tribe, or playing Wiffleball with my kids in the front yard. Or watching really bad TV, which is when it's at its very best. And I rest on Sunday, firmly convinced we are called to honour one day in seven as a day set apart from work. I'm convinced such rest is the very best way to connect work with life. All of life.

Topics: Business

As co-author of The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage (Harvard Business School Press, 1999), James H. Gilmore literally wrote the book that spawned worldwide interest in experience design, customer experience management, and experiential marketing. Tom Peters rightly called The Experience Economy "a brilliant, absolutely original book." Now published in eleven languages, the book continues to find new readers across myriad industries as businesses find their goods and services commoditized and customers increasingly spending their time and money on experiences—memorable events that engage them in an inherently personal way.