Fast Company

The Customer Experience - a much larger context

In my last post I talked about how the customer experience usually starts far before they choose to contact customer support.  In many cases the customer experience has already been tarnished before they begin looking for a resolution on company web-sites, IVR's, Call Centers and other methods of resolution.  The customer experience starts with the first interaction.

This morning I had plenty of time to think about the customer experience as it applied to my commute.  Then I started thinking that my commute is only a part of a much larger context.  My frustration wasn't the result of being stuck in traffic in horrible weather,  It was the result that my commute was just a single element in a much larger picture.  When I schedule my day I plan my commute in the much larger context of my day:

  • Wake Up (6:15 AM)
  • Make Coffee (6:16 AM)
  • Answer E-Mails (6:20 AM)
  • Get ready for work (6:45 AM)
  • Travel to work (7:30 AM)
  • Work (8:00 AM)
  • Eat Lunch (11:30 AM)
  • Work some more (12:30 PM)
  • Travel home (6:00 PM)
  • Make Dinner (6:30 PM)
  • Family Time (7:00 PM)
  • Bed (10:00 PM)
  • ...and start all over again

If something goes wrong with my commute and it takes longer than I planned, it has an impact on the next step - my Work.  If there is a wreck, or a road is closed for repair (and what road in Dallas isn't closed for repair these days?), or bad weather slowed traffic to a crawl, it has a lasting effect on my mood and my ability to work because I'm usually playing catch-up to make up for the lost time.  This also happens to your customers before they contact you - it could be directly related to your product or service, or it may be a result of something entirely unrelated which they carry through to their customer experience with you.

Stay with me here -  and let's apply what I just illustrated above to the airline industry.  I have had excellent experiences with the airlines and I have also had the reverse.  When considering the customer experience from the airline's perspective it would be hard for me to see that most people think about the airlines in the same way I think about my commute.  The travel on an airplane is not an event in itself for me - it's usually a step in a much larger context.  If I'm traveling for work you can look at the list I provided above and replace 'Travel to work' with 'Catch a flight'.  My biggest concern is to execute my schedule as planned.  When I decide to book my flight there are three things I'm considering:  My time, the cost and availability.

What I have been seeing with the airlines is that they seem to only be thinking about the customer's experience in segments and not as a whole (pointing back to the Gartner study that the entire customer experience is rarely planned... it just happens).  There are two major interaction points with an unfortunate optional third (which I don't wish on anyone).

  • Interaction Point 1:  Searching and buying my ticket
  • Interaction Point 2:  Execution of the Travel (commute)
  • Interaction Point 3 (optional): Dealing with the airline when my baggage is lost

What is missing from the interaction here is the larger context of the customer.  Understanding why the customer is buying the ticket is important to know how the customer should be treated and what importance the customer puts on the commute being on-time.  I have seen some good advances in the customer experience around ticket research, purchase and delivery as well as support on the day of travel (such as American Airlines 'Remember Me' technology that knows you are traveling and offers activities around gate information, delays, etc. for the travel happening that day - in my opinion - brilliant).

Then we get to interaction point 2 - Execution of the Travel.  Everyone thinks of their travel in different terms.  If I'm traveling for work I think of my flight as my commute and my only concern is leaving on time and getting to my destination on time so that I can get on with why I traveled in the first place - my work.  If I'm traveling for pleasure I'm usually trying to maximize my time doing whatever I'm traveling for and again I think of my travel as my commute and want to get past it and begin enjoying my time off - but will be more forgiving in the likely event of delays because I'm not usually pressed for time. 

In very crude terms I think of an airplane like a bus.  You have a collection of people traveling together from point A to point B for whatever reasons (work or play).  When you think of it that way the airlines become a utility or service - just like power, water, telephone service (wireless or broadband), etc.  You just expect it to work, and if it's not going to work, you want as much proactive communication as possible so that you can exercise an alternative if required.  All because it's part of a larger context.

I live in Dallas because of the availability of flights out of DFW which afford me more travel options when I need them.  A few weeks ago I was with a colleague of mine at a client and he was counting down the time until his flight the next morning so that he could join buddies for their annual 3 day golf outing (ok, more drinking than golf, but you get the picture).  This was during the time when American Airlines was canceling all of those flights for inspection.  When we were sitting in the parking lot he said he hoped he didn't have to wait until tomorrow morning to find out his flight was going to be canceled.  If he knew now, he would decide to drive to meet his buddies because it was only a 9 hour drive and he could make it overnight.  The important thing was the time with friends, not the flight to get there.  If he found out in the morning, he would have to cancel because he wouldn't have time to execute plan B. 

Here is a perfect example of customer experience in a much larger context.  Ironically, he received an e-mail notification before we left the parking lot that his flight was canceled and he drove the night to meet his buddies.  Good for American Airlines, while unfortunate, they had a customer who was able to still execute his plans (the bigger context) because he had information soon enough to make other arrangements for his commute.

When thinking about your customer experience, try to put it in a larger context.  Hopefully you know enough about your customers to know the greater context that needs to be considered for your products and services.  This will give you more insight as to how you can improve your entire customer experience.  If you don't know... then ask!  Your customers will thank you. 

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