Building Great Customer Experiences – Or beware consultants with no clothes!

It must be one my personal business nightmares, if you can imagine having just flown to New York to meet a new client and the airline has lost all your clothes! So what can one learn from such events about delivering great customer service experiences?

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry
To give you the background, I’d just been to California and had arranged to meet the COO of a potential great new client in New York on my way back home to England. I’d visited them a few weeks before and I’d felt as though I’d wandered onto the set of “The Devil Wears Prada” (or should that be “Ugly Betty”?). So not wanting to be left too far behind the “New York Chic look” of my hosts, I’d gone out and purchased the very best of shirts & ties that London has to offer (OK anyone from Milan is allowed a note of scepticism at this point) combined with my new Italian suit & cuff links, I knew I’d look the part ;-)

My plane was several hours late into New York due to “unexpected delays” – I was little nervous as I’d arranged to go out to dinner that evening. Still with my Platinum Frequent Flyer card my suitcase had qualified for a special “Priority Handling” label so I was looking forward to getting my suitcase quickly and rushing off ahead of the pack to the taxi rank. Sadly, after all of the luggage had disappeared off the carousel there was no sign of my case, so I made my way to the airline’s baggage handling office. I was joined by another passenger who had experienced a similar fate. The Airline staff assured me that my suitcase had landed and recommended I went back to check the carousel again. This experience was repeated another 3 times. From my interactions with the airline staff, I managed to get the impression that losing one’s baggage was not a completely unusual experience. My heart sank as I looked at the back wall of the hall which was filled floor to ceiling with damaged suitcases in glass cases awaiting collection from their owners

After an hour and a half of going back & forth from the luggage carousel to the airline desk, the airline staff finally conceded that perhaps my bag was lost after all and I was given a claim form to fill in. I was given an 0800 number to contact and a tracking reference number and that was it. I had a sense of disappointment and unfinished business but I had to move on and let other passengers register their lost baggage too.

There’s no such thing as a “free breakfast”
I headed off to my hotel (minus any luggage) and checked in. The receptionist noted down my comment that my luggage had been lost and hopefully it might arrive in the next 24 hours. The receptionist realised I was a Gold member of their hotel loyalty system, so she kindly gave me vouchers for free breakfasts for my stay in Manhattan. Sadly, by this time it was too late for the dinner out I’d planned, so I went off to bed to dream the night away with visions of lost clothes, deodorants and shavers! I guess I wasn’t too worried that I could replace my lost items in the morning, after all America is the land of retail plenty. And as I was staying just off 5th Avenue, which is lined with clothes stores, it wasn’t going to be too difficult to get replacements in the morning.

In the morning, fortified by my free breakfast, though looking a little rough, unshaven (or should I say with designer stubble) and with crumpled clothes, I headed off to the shops and quickly purchased everything I needed. I guess as they were happy to process my credit card without phone verification I can’t have looked too bad. So at this point, it was an opportunity for me to think through the series of events as an interesting example of managing “the customer experience”. My airline goes to the trouble of writing hand written thank you notes each time I fly with them, and yet when it looses all my belongings – all they give me is a piece of paper and that’s it

It’s great that it’s free – but is it useful?
The hotel gave me a nice free breakfast but I would have preferred a shaver & some deodorant! If I think about a number of the budget hotel chains in the UK where they are happy to give you free shaver, foam, combs, deodorant etc. if you’ve forgotten them, there’s much their my American hotel & airline could learn from them.
A great technique for managing these unfortunate experiences was pioneered by Jan Carlson (former CEO of SAS Scandinavian Airlines) who coined the expression “moments of truth”. A “moment of truth” occurred whenever an employee interacted with a customer; Carlson said that these moments left an impression – good bad or exceptional.

Carlson applied 4 guiding principles for managing these “moments of truth” positively:
· Everyone needs to know and feel they are needed
· Everyone wants to be treated as an individual
· Giving someone the freedom to take responsibility releases resources that would otherwise remain concealed
· An individual without information can not take responsibility whereas an individual given responsibility can not help but take responsibility

The technique is fairly straightforward to implement. I guess a start is to get your service operations team together and ask them to map out the service experience from the customer perspective. Whenever you come across a “moment of truth”, you can then work out with your team just how best you can handle that sticky situation. I like to use the high-tech toolset of 2 sets of Post-It notes in different colours for such work – available from all good stationers ;-) Use one pack of Post-Its to map out the service experience from a customer perspective, and then use the other pack to define the main alternative events that can occur at each “moment of truth” and the best options for your own staff in how to deal with these. [For a more extensive and sophisticated approach try the “moment mapping” technique described in “Building Great Customer Experiences” by Colin Shaw & John Ivens]. I guess an even simpler approach is the Nordstrom approach; their employees are given the freedom to decide for themselves and have the single rule “do whatever you think is right for the customer”.

Don’t let disappointing service lose you your most valuable customers
And the end to this tale. Well my suitcase was located during the morning and arrived over at my hotel. I was able to locate my special shirt, tie & cuff links. [On a fashion point here – I’m convinced English mens’ shirts are more stylish than American shirts]. It made my day when the client’s PA complimented me on my cufflinks (OK – it’s a small pleasure but still a delight). On the business front though, one of the key lessons is that a poor service experience is one of the key drivers for customers switching suppliers. The disappointing experience causes customers to shop around other suppliers and they may well find a better value option losing you a very valuable customer. Best to make sure that your “moments of truth” are well managed.

As for me, I’m now minded to try out Silverjet Airways (see the new low-cost all business class airline – they offer fantastic service (flat beds, 30 minute check-in and even fly Carbon neutral) with much lower prices.

I’ll update you on the experience hopefully after my next trip to New York :-)

Best wishes John

Helping high-value service businesses increase revenues and margins

John Corr (Managing Partner)
Tel: +44 20 7748 2225