Real Relationships: Your Employee Is the New Customer

Naomi Simson, CEO of Red Balloon, presents at RelateLive about empathy, engagement, and who to really value first in your company.

Emma Sedlak
8 min readJul 22, 2016


(Part 4 of many. I represented Real World Technology Solutions last week at RelateLive, Zendesk’s conference in Sydney on customer experience. All of the views expressed below are my own, independent of my relationships with Real World and Zendesk.)

I like balloons, but I don’t have a TV.

These are my exact thoughts when I see Naomi Simson on the schedule for RelateLive. Actually, that’s not exactly a fair assessment. I only realised that my non-TV-viewing habits were detrimental to this relationship when I heard Naomi introduced as “The Red Shark” from Network TEN’s Shark Tank. I know of Shark Tank, of course: budding entrepreneurs get the chance to present their ideas to the sharks in the tank — “five titans of industry” who made their own dreams a reality and turned their ideas into lucrative empires. But beyond the elevator pitch summary, I’ve probably only seen a few minutes of the show, at most.

Regardless of my lack of network TV knowledge, Naomi walks on stage with a sense of purpose. I can intuit the charisma and dynamism before she even starts to talk. When she does start speaking, she opens with: “The first thing to understand is: what is the customer’s experience.” She told some anecdotes from her experience on Shark Tank, where the first thing she would try to identify was to ask: “What is their customer promise? As a company, is what they say what they actually do?”

“A brand is a promise. It creates expectations that the product has to deliver.” — Guillaume Van De Stighelen

Naomi engaged us with a summary of the origin story of Red Balloon: how she spent tens of thousands of dollars on a website that an audience member once told her had been used in his design school as an example of ‘worst website design ever.’

(photo credit: Monica Norton)

She walked around city squares with red balloons attached to a briefcase. She launched her company mere weeks after the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. And waited for months for her first customer, who booked one of her products as a mistake.

She talked about answering the phone to customers who clearly thought that her operation was far bigger than it was. She joking labelled herself the Chief Experience Officer, purely because the company consisted of herself and her dog. When a client called up and asked for the complaints department, she responded with humility and honesty: “We’ve never actually had a complaint!”

Her client replied, “Really?”

Naomi recounts:

“And I said, ‘Really! We have some customers who provide us with suggestions for growth and improvements, but not complaints.’ The client paused on the phone and said, ‘I’ll submit one of those, then.’ Which just goes to demonstrate: are people complaining, or are they contributing?”

I thought this was an genius example from her personal experience: if you shift your mindset, you are more likely to be able to offer your detractors an invitation to collaborate. Not everyone wants to contribute to our growth, but there are more instances of learning and contribution than what we’re initially presented with. Sometimes the most fruitful gifts are slightly hidden.

The focus of Naomi’s talk was: “Employees as the new customer.” All we have, she says, is the moment we can relate to the customer. But we’re not always the ones doing the relating. As a CEO, manager, or other primary role in a company, we have to trust and rely on our employees to interact well with customers. And not just interacting well, but being compassionate, helpful, informative, building legitimate relationships with the people we serve (Spoiler alert: more on this when Brendon Walker hits the stage).

So how do we ensure that our company is in alignment, that our employees are providing the best experience to our customers, and that everyone is engaged?

Naomi described the concept of the customer loyalty mirror: “Highly engaged teams are reflections of their highly engaged customers.”

It’s not unusual to reframe the way companies relate to their employees; there are many case studies and famous examples of the “let’s get aligned, or let’s part ways” philosophy. The problem is: this is mostly approached from a profit-margin-maximisation, or reduction-of-liability perspective.

We forget to take the path of empathy: to prioritise fully-functioning teams of fulfilled employees. Do that first. Then map how the effects impact our customer engagement.

(Image credit: Relate)

Employees who are not engaged merely do as they are told. Sometimes they do it willingly, other times begrudgingly. The undercurrent is: it’s not clear whether they want to be here or not, but they coast along anyway.

Engaged employees work in positions they love. They give of themselves. They share and contribute innovative ideas.

Naomi posed three questions every company should be clear on, specifically in order to make sure every employee can answer them.

  1. What do we do?
  2. What do we value?
  3. Why do we do this?

“We want to connect to people bigger than ourselves,” she explains. “People are drawn to passion. No amount of money will keep people aligned. And what we tend to forget is: every voice counts. Each employee can be your biggest advocate, or your biggest detractor.”

I would add: the degree to which your employees support the vision of your company is directly correlated with their own sense of professional development and fulfilment while working with you.

It’s worth noting: beyond her insights on empathy, Naomi is also a highly-engaging speaker.

How does she do it?

She is clear on her message. She has a vast pool of synthesised experience and insights to pull upon when she speaks.

But Naomi also has the delivery down pat. She starts boisterous and excited when talking about Shark Tank. She is honest about the origin story of Red Balloon while remaining confident, avoiding the trap of self-deprecation. By the time we have an idea of Red Balloon’s trajectory, we’re already rooting for her. We are on her team. We’ve bought into her story.

(Image credit: Relate)

She manoeuvres through different types of delivery with immense skill. Where she can be loud and humorous, she can also dial back immediately into an intimate quietness.

When Naomi Simson talks quietly about passion, we follow every word. She is convincing. We listen harder. When Naomi talks quietly, we lean in.

And we extrapolate the importance of what she’s saying through the sharp focus of her words and the comparative gentleness of her delivery.

If you want to be likable when you’re speaking to a group, you take the lead. The audience wants you to be strong and in control — otherwise it’s like everyone is at an intersection without stop lights. You need to focus not just on taking them through the moves (the message, data, charts) — but also through the music (the feelings that add the color and texture to your narrative).

— Anett Grant, Three Secrets of the Best-Liked Speakers

One of my favourite statements was Naomi’s argument for why she prioritises keeping her company aligned on a wider view of goals and values:

“In moments of chaos, we want to have something to come back to.”

Leadership is a navigational issue. As leaders, we are responsible for aligning our team, ensuring their wellbeing, and helping to translate engagement into direct qualities of fulfilment.

A great way to drive thoughts home is to use personal stories.

Naomi’s son is a rower. A picture of him flicks across the screen, as she describes how hard he’s worked for his place on the team. It was a beautiful brief narrative of family, focus, and an illustrative example of values.

“I gave him this book called The Boys in the Boat about the American rowing team who went to the olympics. It’s a fantastic summary of history, and philosophy, and teamwork.”

Full disclosure: I loved this book. My brother-in-law lent it to me in January, and I read it in less than a week. I’ve always wanted to be a rower, and the descriptions of how leadership and teams work in the sport made me long for it even more.

“Using rowers as an analogy of how to align teams really works,” Naomi said. “The leader isn’t the largest, or at the head of things. The leader is the smallest person in the boat, and she’s the only one who can see the strategy and the river. Everyone else has to bring their greatest skills and strengths, and be in alignment.”

“My son loved it. He was committing to something bigger, something that demonstrates his desire. I used to ask him: when you’re in perfect flow, what does it feel like?”

“Experiencing flow in a team feels like oneness. It feels like having a shared cause.”

Naomi finished her speech with a short summary of the Economics forum’s standards of well-being:

  • Do they feeling connected? This is a question of shared and explicit values.
  • What is their ability to learn and grow? How are you fostering their unique greatness?
  • How are you supporting their physical fitness? Get people moving.
  • Are they proud of where they work? Employees need to ask themselves: do I know what I’m there to do? And did anyone notice?
  • Are you maximising their ability to contribute to others? What opportunities do they have to give of themselves to others? Mentoring? Volunteering?

“Try to say 5 authentic thank you’s each day. What a difference you could make. I say to my bus driver: Thank you for getting me here safely, and on time. And it freaks him out, every time!”

More soon.

Emma Sedlak
Communications Manager
Real World Technology Solutions



Emma Sedlak

a nomadic poet with her hands in too many books. Lives at, works as a communications designer, moonlights as an opera singer/actress.