Erin Cantwell: 5 Things a Business Should Do to Create a Wow! Customer Experience

An Interview With Orlando Zayas

Orlando Zayas, CEO of Katapult
Authority Magazine
Published in
17 min readApr 16, 2021


Pay attention to the details.

Details matter. It’s the little things that can make the biggest difference. Those details are what make an experience personal and memorable. So use people’s names when possible, make things easy for them, and never make them feel like just a number that’s helping boost the bottom line. Their experience with you is personal to them, so pay attention to the details to make it feel that way.

Set expectations…then over-deliver.

The most impactful way to deliver an amazing experience is to over-deliver on your customer’s expectations. People take notice when their expectations are exceeded! But to over-deliver on their expectations, you must first set them. So, be proactive and set reasonable expectations with your customers early and often. Then, exceed those expectations and watch your client be wowed!

As part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Cantwell.

Erin Cantwell is a consultant, outsourced COO, and business coach for creative entrepreneurs. As a RISD trained designer who formerly served as Director of Client Services and Director of Operations for a Manhattan-based design firm, Erin bridges the gap between the creative and business side of the creative industry. She works with creative entrepreneurs, helping them to build sustainable and profitable businesses while doing the work they love.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Absolutely! My career path has been less than traditional. Believe it or not, I actually went to art school!

I went to Rhode Island School of Design and graduated with a degree in Graphic Design. After graduation, I landed my dream job as a designer at a Manhattan branding firm, but I quickly realized that what I really loved was the business side of the creative industry. So I started getting more involved with it and ended up switching roles at the firm and working my way up to dually serve as the Director of Client Services and the Director of Operations there.

While serving as the Director of Client Services, I recognized the direct impact that our customers’ experience with us was having on the bottom line. I started seeing how powerful it could be as a way to grow a business. So, I started working on ways to both streamline and optimize it. Through that focus, our business grew organically year-after-year. By delivering a consistent and exceptional customer experience on top of a solid product, we retained our current clients and brought in new business through referrals.

After a while, I began noticing that so many amazing and talented creatives I knew were starting businesses of their own but struggling to make it work, and that’s when Erin Cantwell Co. was born. I had learned these skills hands-on, and I knew I could help other creatives grow their businesses through the same principles.

So I began coaching and consulting for creative entrepreneurs. After enough of them asked me, “can’t you just do that for me?” I expanded and began offering outsourced COO services to help creatives run their businesses efficiently, effectively, and with an emphasis on their customer experience.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I learned really quickly not to make assumptions!

As I said, my first job out of college was as a graphic designer at a design firm in Manhattan. On my first day, I got assigned to the creative team working on the signage for an airport booth. Part of the booth design was a giant map showing the major hubs for one of the airlines. The creative director asked me to make the handwritten place name signs. So I spent about three hours sourcing different handwriting fonts and came to him with four different options.

It turns out he had asked me to create them because he liked my handwriting, and he wanted me to actually handwrite them! So I spent three hours searching for resources I didn’t need and could have completed the job in less than five minutes.

It taught me never to make assumptions and always be clear on direction, next steps, and expectations, especially before investing a ton of time or resources into anything.

This lesson served me well as I began focusing on the customer experience. We often assume that we know what a customer needs or wants, but those assumptions don’t pan out to be true. Now I go right to the source, do my research, and ask questions right at the start.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

So many people have helped me grow and achieve success, it’s hard to pick just one!

But I’m especially thankful to the owner of the design firm I worked at right out of college. He saw my love of working directly with our clients and my knack for the business side of things. He empowered me to follow these passions, and he encouraged me to explore them, getting first-hand experience running, growing, and systematizing the business.

I’ll never forget when I officially made the leap from the design team to the business team. We were interviewing people for a management position, overseeing projects within the agency. After sitting in on a few interviews, I went back to my desk and wrote the owner an email telling him that I could do this job as good, if not better, than everyone we interviewed, and I wanted a shot at it. (My 20-something self was bold!)

To his credit, he took me seriously and was willing to entertain the option. After making sure I understood that I’d no longer be designing and was clear on the full scope of the responsibilities, he gave me a shot, and it forever changed my career path.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Great customer service and a great customer experience are essential for success in business because, most simply put, you don’t have a business without customers!

There is so much competition in the marketplace these days, the reality is, your customers most likely have the opportunity and choice to go elsewhere to get comparable products and services. Even if your product or service is best-in-class and priced competitively, your customers are going to choose to go elsewhere, pay more, or settle for lesser quality if they have a bad experience with your company or if you have a reputation for lackluster customer service and experience.

There’s a quote I love from Maya Angelou that sums it up perfectly: “People won’t remember what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel.”

At its core, this is exactly what client experience is all about.

It’s the x-factor that can make or break your business. I have seen companies grow and thrive by simply focusing on their customer experience. It’s that impactful!

When you focus on your customer experience, and you can make your customers feel like they are heard, valued, cared for, and a part of your business, they’ll reward you. They’ll become lifelong customers, they’ll be your best salespeople, and they will bring in more business for you by singing your praises and sending referrals your way.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

I think it’s because, to really deliver an amazing customer experience, you have to be intentional about it, and it has to be at the heart of your brand.

Your customer experience is not something you can address as a quick fix, a one-off, or something you can “set-and-forget.” It’s not just another line item on a report somewhere. You can quantify it, but it’s often not as clear-cut as other business metrics we manage. It requires constant attention and care.

Great customer experiences don’t just happen. They are planned. They are carefully crafted and prioritized. It is foundational, and it requires focus and follow-through.

Additionally, it can’t just happen at one level. You need buy-in from your entire team. It can’t just be a management level focus if the people on the ground, interacting with your customers, aren’t on board. Similarly, it can’t just be the customer-facing teams that focus on it. They need support, encouragement, and resources from management, all the way up to the top, to truly deliver an exceptional and consistent customer experience every single time.

So, I think the biggest disconnect is the inconsistent attention most companies give it. When it’s not at the core of their brand, it’s not a top priority. They may pay attention to it here and there, but they don’t do so with enough consistency and emphasis that it takes to create a truly exceptional customer experience.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Absolutely! In a crowded marketplace, where customers have options, you need to use every tool in your toolbox to gain a competitive advantage. And one of the best ways to do that is through your customer experience.

Hand-in-hand with this, I think social media, review sites, and general word-of-mouth also exert pressure on companies to improve their client experience because your client experience directly impacts your reputation.

If you have a reputation for being a company that puts their customers first, supports them, empowers them, and is easy to work with, people are going to choose you over a company with a bad reputation or even one with no reputation at all.

Additionally, with an amazing reputation, people are likely to pay a premium to work with you or buy from you rather than the more competitively priced alternatives in the market.

People will pay for a good experience.

I guarantee you’ve even done it, whether you thought about it or not! It’s as simple as choosing to go to your favorite grocery store even if their milk is a little more expensive. Or your favorite big box store that’s a little further away rather than the closer one.

It can be more obvious, too, like choosing a luxury hotel over a moderately priced one, an expensive steak-house over a diner, or upgrading to the VIP option when you purchase tickets to an event. Every time you valet, use a concierge, or choose a cab over the subway, you’re choosing experience over price (and sometimes even over practicality).

But, wherever the external pressure comes from, it’s essential that if you are looking to create a great customer experience, you focus on the customer and their needs, not just what your competition is doing. Because if you are just trying to one-up your competition, you’re probably missing out on the best ways to actually impact your customers and to take their experience with you over the top.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

Of course! When I was working at a design and branding firm, one of our clients was an up-and-coming hair care company. They were poised to revolutionize the industry, and they had a small but mighty marketing team in place.

The marketing team was juggling advertising, packaging, events, and in-store promotional materials. Many of the things they were working with were highly regulated, so accuracy and version management were just as important as speed.

When we started with them, we were helping with their in-store signage. They had another agency handing their package design and a third agency handling their advertising.

But our team took a proactive approach, and as we worked more with them, we were able to anticipate their needs, make strategic recommendations, and bring our own industry insights to them. We were able to serve them better, quicker, and more accurately than the other agencies they were working with, so we became their go-to for any quick projects, special requests, and one-offs. We consistently re-evaluated how we were serving them and how we could do so in a better way. We rethought how we communicated with them, we put systems in place to track changes and files, and we created management systems that kept both teams aware of their changing needs and priorities.

Slowly they transferred all of their design projects to us because we stepped up and consistently delivered not only an excellent service but an experience that the other agencies couldn’t touch. We became their strategic partners and their go-to for all things.

In fact, when an industry event took their entire team out of the office for a week, but they needed to keep production going on a brand new product, I got the call, and they asked me to travel out to their vendor and be their eyes and ears during the first production run. It was a first for me, but I happily stepped in because I knew that this was important to them, and it was a job I was capable of helping them with.

Our partnership grew to the point that we built a team within our agency to support them, their product, and their growth. I can’t think of any better experience than having your own dedicated team! It really allowed us to serve them well and deliver in a way that exceeded their expectations every time.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

Absolutely! It was a game-changer in our business. Not only did they end being a long-term client, but they also sent referrals our way. And those referrals sent referrals. It was better than any marketing we could have paid for, which helped our business grow quickly.

When two of the women we had worked with on their team started their own company a few years later, we were their first call! We began working with them on their new venture, which has since grown into a national brand.

Additionally, we landed another handful of large accounts over the years from referrals we got from various team members.

Working with them and helping them grow their business grew ours in turn. It was that magical equation — retaining current clients and bringing in referrals increased our revenue better than marketing or sales alone!

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Think about it holistically — from sales and marketing, through to purchase and beyond!

Your customer experience is not a set moment in time. It’s an accumulation of every single touchpoint they have with you, your employees, and your company. This starts with your brand awareness and sales and extends to your follow-up and how you nurture and serve them long after they are your customers. So think about it holistically! This is a marathon, not a sprint. But a stumble along the way can have a significant impact and ruin the entire experience. So think big picture, then address each and every touchpoint.

2. Be intentional.

Great client experiences don’t just happen. They take an intentional approach, time, and energy. Think about what your customers really want and need. What are their pain points? What are their key drivers? How can you support them? How can you take their experience with you to the next level? How can you surprise and delight them? When you can design an experience that addresses these key points, you’ll deliver an experience that really impacts your customers.

3. Pay attention to the details.

Details matter. It’s the little things that can make the biggest difference. Those details are what make an experience personal and memorable. So use people’s names when possible, make things easy for them, and never make them feel like just a number that’s helping boost the bottom line. Their experience with you is personal to them, so pay attention to the details to make it feel that way.

4. Set expectations…then over-deliver.

The most impactful way to deliver an amazing experience is to over-deliver on your customer’s expectations. People take notice when their expectations are exceeded! But to over-deliver on their expectations, you must first set them. So, be proactive and set reasonable expectations with your customers early and often. Then, exceed those expectations and watch your client be wowed!

5. Find ways to add surprise and delight.

Want to get your customers talking? Find ways to add some surprise and delight into their experience with you. There are so many ways you can do this. It can be through surprise bonuses, upgraded shipping, special offers, advanced access, perk programs, or even things like social media shout-outs, features, or gifts to celebrate a special occasion or milestone. The options are endless, and what is most appropriate can depend on your industry, so have fun with it!

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

Yes! There are two big ways you can encourage your happy customers to inspire others to reach out to you.

The simplest approach is to ask! Ask them to share their experience and send a referral your way. You can do this by asking them to provide a testimonial you can share, or you can even ask them to share a post on their social platforms. If you really wowed them, they’ll likely oblige!

You can even build this request right into your overall client experience as you plan it out. Doing this allows you to get strategic about it so that you are asking them right after you wowed them, increasing your likelihood of getting a great testimonial and shout-out.

The second way is to set up a formal referral program. Rewarding those that send you referrals is a great way to drum up new business.

It gets even better if you offer them a discount to share. Offering something like a “give and get” deal (you’ve seen these as “give $25, get $50,” or “give 10%, get 10%”) is a great option. These offers can drive so much business, and they are flexible enough that you can play with the numbers and rewards levels to right-size the offer for your business.

People love a good deal, and being able to share it with friends increases your chances of bringing in new leads through referrals!

My particular expertise is in retail, so I’d like to ask a question about that. Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

When you can’t compete on price or scale, focus on your customer experience as the differentiator. People will pay up for a good experience. They also love sharing a great experience, which can boost your marketing and take pressure off your sales team. So, find ways to deliver an elevated or personalized service that stands out, above the competition.

There’s a story I like to tell as an example:

Imagine for a minute you did some online shopping (I’m guessing you don’t have to imagine too hard!) But in this scenario, let’s pretend you ordered two things — an item from Amazon and an item from an artisan who runs a small business.

Two days later, your Amazon box arrives, and you grab it off your doorstep. You’re happy to see it, but it’s nothing too out of the ordinary. You bring it in, but you don’t grab your phone. You unpack the box, throw it in the recycling bin, and move on with your day without a second thought.

The next day, another box arrives on your doorstep. This time it’s a white shipping box with your information handwritten across the top. It’s the box you ordered from the artisan.

You pick it up and head inside, where you grab your phone before you begin to open it.

As you open the box, you see the object has been lovingly wrapped in beautiful paper and tied off with a bow.

You snap a picture.

From under the bow, you pull out a handwritten thank you card addressed to you personally and signed by the maker. You read the beautifully designed insert they’ve included with instructions for both care and usage, and you see that they’ve included contact info so you can follow up with them directly if you have any questions.

You snap another picture.

You remove the item from the box and unwrap it, noticing how carefully wrapped it was. You admire it.

And snap the third picture.

Now you pop onto social media to post those pictures or even do a little unboxing video in your story. You share your excitement with your followers, and you probably tag the artisan and rave about how beautiful and special their work is.

And that is the power of a fantastic customer experience.

There is nothing wrong with the experience you had when you received your item from Amazon. It was serviceable but not overly noteworthy.

But the experience you had as you received your item from the artisan was special. It made you pause and take notice. It was well-curated. It made you feel special. It made the item feel elevated. And it conveyed the care that the artisan put into it.

You’ll remember it next time you’re back in the market for that item, and you’ll probably tell your friends about it and give them the artisan’s name, just like you did for all the people who view your stories.

Think of all the additional sales that artisan has the potential to make now, all the extra exposure they got, simply because they took the time and care to WOW you with their customer experience.

That is why customer experience matters.

That is why it can be such a powerful tool to grow your business.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

My heart is in helping people follow their passions. I love helping people find a way to build a sustainable living while sharing their passion with the world.

I genuinely believe that the world is a better place when it is filled with people who are passionate about what they’re doing. Passionate people show up differently and go the extra mile. It’s why I’ve chosen to work specifically with creative entrepreneurs!

So if I were to start a movement, it would support creatives, empowering them to get their passions out into the world!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I hang out most on Instagram! They can find me @erincantwellco.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

About The Interviewer: Orlando Zayas is the CEO of Katapult, an award-winning omnichannel payment platform. Zayas is known for his revenue growth strategies and visionary leadership in the eCommerce and retail space. His future-forward expertise has led companies such as GE Capital, Safe-Guard Products International, and DRB Capital. Zayas is also highly committed to providing educational opportunities to underprivileged communities through his philanthropic endeavors. Zayas’ business insights are regularly featured in publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Retail Insights, and more.