Interview with Phil Terry

Phil Terry knows people. He knows the ‘real people’ who try to use complicated products and the corporate people who build them. And, even better, he knows how to connect the two. If there is such a thing as an ‘executive whisperer,’ Phil is it; he’s able to coax actually executives out of their offices to watch real customers in action. If you meet Phil at an event, he will immediately think of at least 10 people to introduce you to (for someone like me, who has trouble remembering names even right after I hear them, this seems truly magical). And, for as long as I’ve known him, I never knew about the depth of his commitment to humanitarianism — and his rich history before he was dragged kicking and screaming, and luckily for us, into the world of business.


In the six weeks I spent in Nigeria, I felt like my eyes had been ripped out of my head and put back in again. It made me see everything in my life, the Western world, and in Africa in a wholly new, different way. I think if you are open or sensitive to them, those kinds of cultural experiences — where you are in theatre or you are involved in politics or you are traveling — make you see different perspectives. I think they push you to acknowledge and see things in new ways, and acknowledge the importance of multiple dimensions.

The central purpose of the Councils and the thing I am most excited about is teaching executives how to ask each other for help. In particular, my goal is having them learn how to ask for assistance that will help them build better, more customer-centered companies. There are two values there, and they are complementary. Part of it is really just simply teaching human beings how to better connect and ask each other for help. I think there’s terrific value in creating environments for that. That’s what people do naturally. It addresses some of the isolation and bad decisions that get made in our world both at a political level and at a business and cultural level.


Conducted by Tamara Adlin on February 28, 2008 12:43 AM

Phil Terry is more interested in real people than anyone I know. This uber-connector shares his adventures, which trace his path from rebels in Nigeria to tech executives stuck in old habits.

Tamara Adlin: Today I am very excited to talk to Phil Terry. He is one of the founders and currently the CEO of Creative Good. I’m very fond of Phil because I was on one of his customer experience councils for a long time when I was at Amazon. I think it’s one of the greatest things out there for people in customer-focused businesses.

Creative Good as a whole offers a lot of services, and Phil and other people in the company serve as advisors to the senior management of leading businesses. Phil himself is a regular voice in the debate about the evolution of brands and the customer experience.

Thanks for taking the time today

Phil Terry:  Thank you, Tamara.

TA: When you were a kid, or as early as you can remember, what fascinated you?

PT: I’ve always been passionate about building communities, and was, in fact, a community activist. I never thought I’d be in business. I got into business because I needed medical benefits.

I started my business career at Moody’s Investors Service about 15 years ago. I’d been in theatre, youth programs, had done work in Africa and Europe – but I never thought I’d be in business; never wanted to be in business; never thought business was something valuable to spend one’s life in.

When I joined Moody’s Investors Service – and I joined for the simple reason that I needed medical benefits – I was hired by the technology department as a technology trainer.

Ever since high school I’d been working with digital technology, but I hadn’t trained as an engineer. That’s probably an advantage that I have.

I had been using PCs since the first IBM PC came out in 1981. I had always used it as an important tool in community organizing and the work that was I was doing. So when I needed a day job, I went into a technology group – but as a trainer, not as a tech support specialist, or programmer, or developer.

What I learned when I got in the business was that I had been previously naive about the business world. My assumption had been that it was a one-dimensional place, but it turned out that like anything else humans create, it’s multidimensional.

What’s at the core of that, of course, is that business is a human activity, and I know a lot about human activities and organizing human activities. That is my wedge into this world of customer or user experience.

Fundamentally, in the realm of customer experience what we are talking about is real people – employees and customers and partners – and if somehow you forget that, you end up making loads of mistakes and creating all kinds of problems for yourself and other people.

If you remember that, it turns out you can have a better business and a better life.

TA: I want to come back to how and when you started thinking about “human activity”.

First, can you tell me a little bit more about the work you were doing before you needed medical benefits? It sounds like you traveled all over the place. Did you study communities?

PT: I was one of the very few political science majors who wasn’t actually studying political science to become a lawyer. I studied political science because I was interested in human societies and politics in the broader sense of the word: How human beings create together, live together, and figure out how to manage together.

I guess some time in high school I became ‘political,’ in that I was thinking about these issues in a political and cultural way. When I got into college, I was very involved in both theatre and politics, and saw them both as a continuum of human activity.

I don’t remember where I first picked up that human focus or humanism, but it was definitely somewhere along the line in high school. Then in college, probably one of the most important books that I read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X : As Told to Alex Haley.

It was a must-read for activists in the ’60s. It should be a must-read for any American, actually, or anyone in the world. It’s a terrific book. Malcolm X went through a real transformation in his life. He is not the person most people think he is.

That book had a big impact me. It gave me a different way to see the world.

Then I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and ended up working in Europe and in Africa with the ANC (the African National Congress. I ended up getting a summer fellowship to study the international press and its coverage of the struggle for liberation in South-West Africa (known today asNamibia). It was a colony of South Africa at the time, and was basically being used as a battleship or aircraft carrier base to support Jonas Savimbi and the rebels who were fighting the Angolan government. The Angolan government was supported by the Soviets, and the Americans and the South Africans supported the rebels.

It was a big mess down there. I ended up getting involved in that and going to Nigeria as a supporter of those organizations I couldn’t actually go down to South Africa, but they had outposts in Nigeria and I met there with some of their activists. I ended up meeting some musicians like Fela Kuti, who is a well-known Nigerian musician. If you haven’t heard his music, you should go out right now and buy something of his! He is a terrific musician.

I had the pleasure of spending the day with him in his home in Lagos, Nigeria, and spending time at his club, and traveling all over the country. In the six weeks I spent in Nigeria, I felt like my eyes had been ripped out of my head and put back in again. It made me see everything in my life, the Western world, and in Africa in a wholly new, different way.

I These kinds of cultural experiences – where you are in theatre or you are involved in politics or you are traveling – make you see different perspectives. I think they push you to acknowledge and see things in new ways, and acknowledge the importance of perspective, and the importance of multiple dimensions.

I think that is a natural complement to a humanistic approach to life. If you have that, and you are involved in business, then you can’t but help ask the question, “Well, who exactly are we creating these products and services for, and why are we doing it in the way we’re doing it?”

I see it as a holistic piece. I know not everyone would necessarily see it that way.

TA: The underlying theme, from my perspective, is that all of this is about understanding, and then drawing communication from that understanding. Theatre, politics, and Malcolm X certainly fit that description.

When you were in Africa it was a very immersive and important experience in your life.

PT: I was there when Nigeria was ostensibly celebrating 25 years of independence from England, but what was really happening was the American companies that had gained access to the Nigerian market when Nigeria went ‘independent’ were celebrating Nigerian independence.

I spent time in the poorest neighborhoods and the most rural areas, and the majority of the Nigerian people were not really better off, yet they were incredibly decent. There is a very rich cultural heritage there.

Nigeria is not a tourist country. You don’t go there to go on safari – there are no safaris. There aren’t many westerners there except in those in the oil industry, which is how westerners now hear about Nigeria today.

TA:  You came back to New York and decided to get a job so you could get medical insurance. That must have been a gigantic mental transition for you.

PT: Yes, I hated it. I came back and spent some time in New York building a youth program in the inner city that was teaching young people how to take responsibility and build something for themselves in their neighborhoods. It was focused around performance and development and theatre. It’s gone on to be wildly successful.

I came back from Africa expecting to spend my life doing that kind of work, but unfortunately it doesn’t pay very well and doesn’t include medical benefits, and I found I needed to make more money and get benefits.

So I took a job at what I initially considered just a day job so I could continue to do that kind of work as a volunteer.

The first year at Moody’s was an incredible culture shock for me. The people who hired me were terrific. My boss, Donna Chermack, is still there, I believe. She’s one of the people I owe a lot to in my life.

She liked the fact that I had an unusual background. Not many people liked that. It was more of a barrier to getting a job than something positive, but Donna liked it. She took a risk, I thought, and brought me into Moody’s.

It was really a great experience, definitely a culture shock. I hadn’t worn a suit before, and I had to wear a suit every day. I had to work in a really different environment than I was used to, but all my naiveté about corporate America being one dimensional really melted away as I discovered that corporate America was made up of lots of people who go to work every day and have all kinds of different opinions and perspectives – different needs and lives and interests outside of work.

They weren’t all raving capitalist lunatics as I might have perhaps thought before getting the job.

You’re definitely going to edit this because I definitely can’t say what I just said in an official transcript.

TA:  Well, I don’t know.

PT:  I don’t want Phil Terry raving against raving capitalist lunatics. Some of my raving capitalist lunatic friends might get mad at me.

TA: One of the things that’s been a theme in my interviews is that somebody, somewhere took a chance on someone with a weird background. I think the openness of the people who hired you is a good thing.

PT:  Donna gets a lot of credit.

TA:  Was there an awakening on your part? You found yourself in what you originally thought wasn’t going to be a very pleasant environment. Was there a moment you can remember where you thought, “Hey, this is more interesting and more complex and more human than I thought?”

PT: Because I took the job as trainer, I had the pleasure of training and teaching classes, which is a wonderful position to be in to meet people.

I had been using the internet starting sometime in the early ’90s, clearly just as the text-based world wide web was first developed by Tim Berners-Leeand his team. So I was aware of that and, of course, FTP and Gopher.

I started teaching classes about the basics of the internet, how it was working, and what it meant for the business.

When the graphical web developed, I became involved in a project thinking about what Moody’s should be doing with the internet, and how external and internal uses of web technology should be designed.

That was a very impactful project. I ended up using all of my skills as an organizer to think about the environment we needed to create so that people could use this new technology.

I spent time trying to understand the world from the point of view of the analysts. I did a bit of a political analysis. Politics has a bad connotation in business, but it doesn’t have to be bad. You can think politically about the different actors and audiences, and how you create an environment where you can organize them to work together.

I also spent time at the analysts’ desks. It’s important to get out from behind your desk and actually spend time with the people you are serving. What I discovered, and it wasn’t too hard to figure out, was that the devils or the angels are always in the details; the slight quarter inch turns you’ll take if you spend time there.

I discovered that the analysts did need some tools, but they were busy and harassed, intimidated and frustrated by technology.

As a result of this I recommended that if we were going to launch the use of the web browser internally, we would have to really hook it around one or two things that made a difference to the analysts, and made their work more simple.

That was an important experience. It was very successful.

TA:  What year was this?

PT:  ’95 or ’96, something like that.

TA:  So user experience was still a pretty new set of ideas.

PT: Yes. I didn’t even know that language. I just knew you should think about the people you were serving and figure out the experience you should create for them.

Then a profound thing happened. I was working with Moody’s, thinking about how to use the web, and doing some writing about it in the company print newsletter and so forth. The Sarin gas attack happened in the Tokyo subway system, and one of the people hurt in that attack was an employee at Moody’s.

There were some complications – I don’t want to say too much because it goes into confidentiality issues – but the head of HR came to me and said that her doctors in Japan couldn’t figure out how to help the injured employee. He said, “Look, I know you’ve been talking about this internet thing. Do you think you could find something out about this online? I know it probably won’t work but I thought you could give it a try.”

I was a member of a LISTSERV called Help-net. I don’t even know if it’s still around, but Help-net was very cool because you could ask any question you wanted of the 100-200 people on the list. Most of the questions were about the internet and how to use it.

So I posted the question. I gave the details of the problem and said, “I know this is a total lark, but can anyone point me to a doctor or a pharmaceutical company or researcher – anybody – who might have an answer?”

Wouldn’t you know, within 24 hours that message had ping-ponged around the world to the desk of a pharmaceutical researcher in Tokyo who had studied just the thing the Moody’s employee was experiencing. I hooked them up and she got the help she needed.

That was a watershed moment for me, and for the whole company. We all realized that there’s something powerful here (using the internet), and that it is something that can really be useful at a human level. I couldn’t have planned for that story, and I couldn’t have planned for that experience, but Icould create an environment where people are thinking about the web as a tool for humans, to be used for the benefit of humans in business or related to whatever they are doing.

If I hadn’t framed it that way, I’m not sure the HR head would have called me, and I’m not sure that I would have ended up having that experience and bringing it into Moody’s.

At the same time all of this was happening, I also had repetitive stress injuries in both of my arms, which made it impossible for me to use the computer keyboard.

It started happening several months after I started working at Moody’s. They hired me as a technology trainer and almost immediately I couldn’t use the keyboard.

Again to the credit of my boss and the people who worked with me, we made it work. I used this new voice recognition technology stuff. I got ahold of a company called Kurzweil Applied Intelligence that was beta testing a new edition of their product. I convinced them to give me a beta copy to test at Moody’s.

I did, and it worked. It wasn’t continuous speech – it was discreet recognition, meaning you had to pronounce each word individually with a pause between words – but it worked better than nothing at all. Through that experience I started to become an engaged user. I flew up to Kurzweil’s offices a couple of times and started helping them think about how to make that product better and more useful for its users.

They were totally fixated with advancing the technology so it would recognize continuous speech. I agreed that they should commit engineering resources and research to reach this goal, but I also made the point that for the product you have today, you have to think more about the current experience with the existing technology. There were a lot of improvements that could make it more useful that had nothing to do with continuous speech algorithms.

They listened to that. That was another point of development in my career, thinking about the experience users have and trying to help companies see it from the perspective of their customers.

TA: I think the experiences you’ve been taking about relate very much to what you did later.

Creative Good is very powerful in offering services and helping companies understand, from a consultant’s perspective, what’s going on with the customers actually experiencing the company’s products. But you also have these customer experience councils that allow the real people behind C-level titles to talk to each other. And then there’s the GEL conference (Good Experience Live)… In a way I hate to fast forward, but let’s fast forward to those.

What prompted you to help create Creative Good, and this partnership with Mark Hurst?

PT: Mark Hurst is one of my best friends. He is one of the people in the world I respect the most and is the best partner I could have asked for. We have a good relationship. We are different people who have a similar philosophy.

Mark and I both have this passionate commitment to experience and to helping shift the perspective of the business world from looking at itself to looking at tself from the perspective of its customers. Mark and I have very different backgrounds, but we really share that. We also share a commitment to building communities.

We want to create experiences where people from different backgrounds, different industries, different businesses – and even people outside of business – can come together to support each other and grow and develop and build better products, services, and experiences for themselves and for their customers.

I am really lucky I found Mark, a business soul mate, if you will, with whom I could dedicate a long-term vision.

As you can tell from my background, I am not primarily driven by money. I don’t mind making it, but that’s not the end goal. Neither is it Mark’s. The Customer Experience Councils came out of my background as an organizer, and all the experiences I’ve had, including that experience with the Healthnet LISTSERV. The central purpose of the Councils and the thing I am most excited about is teaching executives how to sk each other for help. In particular, my goal is having them learn how to ask for assistance that will help them build better, more customer-centered companies.

There are two values there, and they are complementary. Part of it is really just simply teaching human beings how to better connect and ask each other for help. I think there’s terrific value in creating environments for that. It addresses some of the isolation and bad decisions that get made in our world both at a political level and at a business and cultural level.

I love the Councils for that. It’s a joy to see them and to work with members like you have been. I’ve built some of my best friendships and really seen people help each other grow and become better leaders. So it’s terrific.

GEL is Mark’s project; Councils is mine. They are nice counterparts. As you know, the GEL Conference is about creating the experience of experience in this unusual two-day event. It is not a business conference.

TA: It’s much more fun than a business conference.

PT: I hope and I believe, actually – and we hear this from people about six months after they’ve been – that they learned more at GEL than at a business conference; it engaged them at a deeper level. You’re not going to get much by way of tactical tips.

GEL is really an experience we try to create where you learn at the deepest level about experience by having an experience; by having what we hope is a good experience. We try to bring together an eclectic crowd and an eclectic group of speakers, and try to provoke and please the attendees in different ways.

TA: One of the reasons I like the Council idea and experiences so much, is that it really is quietly revolutionary to say, “We don’t all have to keep so many secrets from each other to be successful in business.” That secretiveness has always confused me. I mean, what’s going to happen if I tell you some big business secret? Are you going to go change your business model? I don’t think so.

I think it’s also a reminder to people reading or listening, especially if you’ve been in business for a while, that your business should be a good experience for you too.

PT:  Right.

TA: You’ve taken an intellectual and emotional journey throughout your life and your career. I love that it’s stayed emotional as well, because a lot of people leave that part out of eight hours a day of their lives.

But what’s next? What fascinates you now? What really floats your boat when you think about customer experience, user experience, and people experience?

PT: That’s a great question. The idea I have at the top of mind is how you create environments where people really can grow beyond themselves. Business people and the Council in particular: How do they grow beyond themselves, do things they don’t know how to do, and really re-start learning?

I think if you start with the question – “Why aren’t more companies customer-centric?” I think that takes you finally to this question of learning and developing in new ways.

What I see is that that when you ask why companies aren’t more customer-centric is that they are stuck in old models of doing things, typically from the 20th century and before, that make them see in particular ways and make them act in particular ways.

Or, they learned a certain model as young executives, and the resulting mental models and frameworks narrow the possibilities that they can see.

It’s sort of funny, but you grow up learning one thing. We’re in this transition moment, broadly speaking, at a cultural, political, and economic level. Over the next 50 years – not just now, and not just with Web 2.0 – I think we will see a shift from the way the world was organized in the 19th and 20th centuries, when it was based on industry and command control and all the attendant structures, to something else. Something that is a little more fluid, perhaps a little less certain, a little more flexible.

In this new world, I think the key is constantly learning and challenging your assumptions. From what I’ve seen, the executives who are good at that also are good at being customer-centric, because being customer-centric means you are challenging you believe is important. It means you are letting yourself learn from your customers all the time – and from your employees, and your partners, and whoever else.

That’s what I’m engaged with. I’m having a lot of fun. I run reading groups where we tackle the great books of the Western tradition. I find they are a great way to provoke new perspectives and to ignite learning. I’m building the Councils because I think that peer learning is another great way to provoke and create new possibilities for learning.

I am still hammering away at that very basic idea of getting the executives out from behind the desk and into the field to actually observe customers. I don’t want them reading their reports or fitting it into their mental models. They need to go out and have an experience with their employees, their customers.

That’s what I’m thinking about. That’s what will be next – continuing to learn, and challenge my own assumptions about what it means to learn, in this transitional period.

TA: I think if you were a product in a box, you would be the product that helped people get out of their own heads and get some perspective. Sometimes we need help with that.

Phil Terry in a box.

Thank you so much for your time and sharing those stories.