Designing the Customer Experience


I've been doing more travel recently. And I can in all honesty say that there is plenty of room left for improving customer experience in the travel industry — airlines, hotels, car services, even airports. Since there is no guaranteed security, we should stop pretending that if we treat people poorly, all will be well.

It would be an excellent idea to have service personnel at all of these companies, yes even government employees, go ahead and experience a normal day of travel as a regular person, someone without the special privileges of not having to be screened, or not having to wait in line, etc.

What does it look like? That experiment alone would help fix many issues. I bet they would not like their own treatment very much.

There is a disconnect between what companies think they deliver, and what they actually do. Just like in the travel safety department, the disconnect is in perception. Yet, customer experience is more important than ever. More and more people are voting with their wallets.

Looking at customer complaints is not enough

Complaints are symptoms, and they will lead organizations down the reactive path every single time. Plus, only 2% of the population — or even less — bothers to say something, anything. In my experience, most frequent travelers, to stay with the example in this post, learn to hack the system for themselves.

Which leaves the rest of the customer base with the habits of a very select few to live with, and the business with a false picture of what customers experience. I wish ticket agents actually did measure the size of some of those carry ons.

The other day, I was watching a group of what looked like seasoned business travelers literally hedging an older lady and a family with young ones to push their way into an early boarding for fear of not being able to fit their large carry on bags on the flight.

Yep, it was even more ironic they looked fit and well to do. More line backers than travelers. Had I taken a picture, it would have looked like any board of directors in composition. What was the experience for the rest of the travelers?

Many just won't go back after a bad experience, and they will tell their whole circle of friends and family.

Designing the customer experience

It needs to be a proactive activity and drive to wanting to make it a positive one. As Chris Elliott described in his post, there is a rare exception.

Virgin America is unashamedly retro, when if comes to service. Don’t look for solemn-faced ticket agents trying to make their weekly quota of luggage fees. They’ve been replaced by helpful employees with real-looking smiles. The flight attendants seem genuinely happy to be there, a sharp contrast to the tired counterparts at some of the more established carriers.

The image you see in this post [hat tip Beth Harte] highlights two important points for a make or break situation with customer experience:

  1. companies do have the control over those instances that can make or break customer loyalty
  2. and they do know what data they need to either collect or connect and when

So, as the chart suggests, the fundamental questions marketers and customer service groups need to work on are:

  • how can we make this a positive experience?
  • what can we do to make sure consumers come back time and time over?
  • where do we need data to help deliver the experience?

In some instances, the company may already have the answers, in others it may need to rethink the way it operates and communicates in order to collect them. However, I'd say that the main difficulty many organizations have is with knowing to ask the right questions — or, in some instances, wanting to do so.

Loyalty programs circa 1990 are quite broken. There is no amount of points you could give a customer who has had a horrible experience to go back to the same brand or organization. At best, you may get them to use the coupon or redeem the points if it's easy to get something for free.

However, think about how they are talking about you in the meantime — online, and worse, off line. What stories are they sharing? Situations do come up. How organizations work on designing the customer experience does matter more and more to the business long term prospects in an increasingly interconnected world.

"After all, the customer is not stupid. She is your mother, your sister or your wife,” to paraphrase Mr. David Ogilvy.

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0 responses to “Designing the Customer Experience”

  1. I totally agree… we do similar exercises that result in images like the one from Lego above for several types of companies (it even has more types of smileys). Often the conclusion is indeed hat there is plenty of room for improvement. Not all steps in a customer experience are what we call ‘Moments of Truth’ and lead directly to a positive or negative CxP. Doing these exercises and being able to pinpoint the steps for a company to focus on in a first phase is an important first step.
    One of my colleagues has put a presentation on this on slideshare ‘The truth about moments of Truth’

  2. Valeria,
    Airlines definitely seem to be the resident Customer Experience punching bag. And the they just keep taking the hits.
    In my opinion, they are certainly aware of the customer experience pitfalls, but I think that they are so entrenched in old ways and customs that they are paralyzed by “change”. It’s almost that they don’t know where to begin to make the customer experience better because their are so many challenges to get there. The emotional capital (gaining buy-in, creating the vision, support across departments, etc) required to elicit this change is too grand and the road to getting there is filled with obstacles (policies, procedures, laws, regulation). The obstacles need to be minimized and the emotions of wanting to change need to be altered if the customer experience is truly to turn for the positive.
    That’s why I like your thought about sending employees (including airline execs) through the same customer touch points that travelers go through. Mapping out the customer experience is good in itself, but if its just created by a few individuals sitting in an office rather than experiencing it first hand, it’s not likely to gain the traction to succeed.
    Thanks for the post!

  3. I am not a great traveler, but out of the times I did travel, via airplane mainly, I formed a specific opinion on air travel as a whole.
    Apart from particular bad and good cases, the air travel system is flawed as a whole, from its roots. The whole experience should be annihilated and rebuilt from scratch, from its very roots.
    I live for the moment when taking an airplane will be no different, in experience, than taking a bus or a train, but I don’t see any innovative push towards it, mainly because there are really too many organizations and companies involved when trying to give even a very slightly new element to it.

  4. This reminds me a lot of that show Undercover Boss. People don’t realize what they are doing or how they are treating people sometimes until it happens to them. If your company doesn’t respond to customer support calls in x hours, then what gives you the right to complain about another company that won’t return your call?
    I worked at a hotel in Newport RI in my college days and they made each of us book a reservation and stay for a night in our own hotel and a competitor hotel. It was such a neat experience and not only could I ‘sell’ the rooms better but I had more confidence in the service of our hotel vs. the one down the street. There was also some great feedback from our team, like the disorganization of the valet in the driveway and the limited room service menu.
    I like this post because I really believe that we should put ourselves in another’s shoes from time to time.

  5. I travel a fair amount too, Valeria, so I can sympathize with your experiences with the airlines. So much, in fact, that I wrote a post outlining the 10 things I’d do to improve the experience if I were responsible for a major airline. One simple idea: stop over-promising and start over-delivering on fewer promises.
    I’d also collaborate with employees on designing customer experiences to eliminate staff venting at the ticket counter among employees. I’d actually raise prices a bit to stop nickel-and-diming people with all these add-on charges — and then promote the heck out of it, trusting that customers are smart enough to know that an airline needs to be profitable.
    Like you, I think it’s time airline leaders proactively define a target customer experience and then drive daily decisions across the organization to make the ideal closer to reality. In the absence of rules, people make up their own. And in the absence of a clearly defined target customer experience, an airline chases fees or cost cutting or happiness or efficiency…and fails at all of them.
    Just a few thoughts. Loved the post, Valeria. Thanks for stirring up some good conversation. LCI

  6. “There is a disconnect between what companies think they deliver, and what they actually do.” Sorry Valeria, most know precisely what they deliver.
    “There is no amount of points you could give a customer who has had a horrible experience to go back to the same brand or organization.” Sorry again, but most people will tolerate poor service and quality for points, deals, etc. and return again and again. That’s why organizations report on, and tolerate, “churn.” It’s part of their flawed business model.
    “I’d say that the main difficulty many organizations have is with knowing to ask the right questions — or, in some instances, wanting to do so.” I’d say in almost all instances, it’s wanting to know and wanting to do something once they do.
    Thanks for a stimulating post!

  7. @Jeroen – thank you for sharing the SlideShare link and for stopping by. Small steps at critical junctures can lead to more discoveries as well.
    @Brian – it is such a vicious cycle. As Tom says in the comments here, they don’t want to know exactly what needs to be done, and they don’t want to do it. Sounds like I’m too much the optimist. Executives of any company should experience the results of their own decisions. There ought to be a Board-driven compensation metric tied to customer experience.
    @Gabriele – you put your finger on it, too many moving parts. For now, I choose airlines that seem to like customers more every chance I get.
    @Christina – instant karma on trying your own service 😉 There was a TSA agent at the Philadelphia airport a little while back who literally treated people with contempt; we were a nuisance. Meanwhile, you have a couple hundred people going through one open security check, trying to figure out where the line was (not clearly demarcated), and nobody was moving (people do get there way early, yet they’d like to get on their flight).
    @Linda – don’t get me started on hotel internet access and gym fees. I agree, we pay for the stay/trip, barely get one cup of water on the plane, you cannot touch anything in the hotel room without incurring an astronomical extra charge… ironically, I see people buying $5-worth of bottled water at Starbucks; psychologically, you have already paid the hotel (in many cases handsomely) for the one night stay. Any business should know where they make money and be disciplined about pursuing only that. Back to Porter and the 5 levers, etc.
    @Tom – glad I provided the entertainment value. I do have a little experience in business, have worked in five industries and several companies, and do know that often the customers sat score questions are slightly rigged to provide a rosier picture. If I didn’t know better, I’d infer from your second push back that most people are gluttons for punishment 😉

  8. I love the 2% rule! Intuitively it makes sense, but I think we need to do some hard industry benchmarking to demonstrate that the only complaints reflect a greater real world sentiment.
    Funny thing about major industries like the travel industry is that they are faced with unusually complex challenges without simple or often actionable near term solutions.
    Social service is a marketing vehicle and a band aid. While ‘listening’ will inform the customer journey evolution and drive more real business results in the long term, it’s harder to quantify and therefor harder to get people excited about and acting around.
    Great post

  9. Please don’t misread my comment Valeria, I really DID enjoy your well thought out post. I simply think you’re cutting people way too much slack. We all really need to start taking full responsibility for our actions and outcomes. And that includes consumers.

  10. I think Tom has a point.
    If I look at my own behaviour in terms of where the money goes ( rough estimates):
    30% of my purchasing is habitual ( which label do I recognise/where do I buy my takeaway from)
    10% of my purchasing is contextual (which supermarket is the closest/ which petrol station do I see when the light comes on))
    10% I have no choice(rates/fines)
    30% is set and forget ( school fees/mortgage/loan/insurance/gym membership)
    For most of the time I’m on consumption auto pilot – awoken only when the washing machine breaks or I get the bill from my car service – But within days I’m back on auto.
    Sure I switch sometimes but in the scheme of things its rare and the return on switching is seldom as great as playing with my kids or going for a surf.
    This means that marketers ( of whatever persuasion) are fighting over 20% of my wallet and 1% of my attention.
    My point is that marketers may be the only ones that take marketing seriously or believe that magic spells and incantations (marketing collateral) have any meaningful influence on the way I live my life.
    In other words, what a marketer thinks as punishment, me ( though arguably not a representative consumer) thinks as an occasional and minor distraction on my journey ( when compared with raising children, burying parents and friends, growing older).
    That’s not to say that this all doesn’t have a place. Just that there is a tendency to grossly overstate the relevance of marketing in all its forms to why consumers consume.
    Having said that, I agree with Tom. The real gluttons for punishment are corporations. As I’ve said before, at least corporations are trying to get better. I wish I could say the same for consumers ( myself included).

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