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Everything is Experience

Everything is experience. A customer strategy guarantees a consistent experience at all customer touch points. Everything should fit: the way the customer is greeted, the environment, the packaging, … In one word: it’s about a branded customer experience.
So what has humanity to do with it? Service is a human activity. Let’s forget about B2B or B2C. It is a matter of H2H, human to human. And as human relationships are based on human traits as empathy, fairness, reciprocity and kindness, these are also present in business and service.

The Girl on the Train

Let me give you an example. Some time ago I was on a train. I took first class. Just before we arrived, the carriage I was in was sealed off by two conductors. They acted like a squad team, looking for perpetrators who did not pay their tickets.  They took position on each side of the wagon and made their way to the middle of the carriage. They checked the tickets of all passengers.
A girl in the train gave her ticket. She was informed by one of the conductors that her ticket was 2nd class. The girl was visibly surprised and asked if she could change carriage. The conductor said this was too late and demanded 20,4 Euros fine. The girl was shocked. At that moment I intervened and asked to understand that it’s possible a passenger does not notice the difference between first and second class.
The response of the conductor was the following:

  • There is a clear sign to indicate it’s second or first class.
  • We have been asked to be strict.
  • Frustrated customers should go and complain in at customer service.
  • If I thought it was unfair, I could pay the 20,4 Euros in her place.

I was flabbergasted. I could not understand why a brand ambassador for the national railways would say such a thing. This was the best way to say to people: we don’t care about how you feel; the rules are the rules; your behavior is fraudulent.
I could see an alternative for this incident:

  • May I see your ticket, please?
  • Here you are sir.
  • Thank you. … Oh, this is a ticket for second class. You’re in first class.
  • Oh. I didn’t realize. Is it OK that I switch now?
  • Well, euh. Actually I should charge 20,4 Euros.
  • Oh gosh. I really didn’t know.
  • I understand. Listen. You should always look at the sign next to the entrance door. And do you see that door(pointing)? It’s again indicated on the doors leading to the compartments. Every carriage is different, but there are  lot of signs that tell you where you are. You just to pay attention when you enter.
  • I see.
  • Let’s make a deal. I let you off the hook this time. But please pay attention next time.
  • I will. Thank you so much (she was smiling).

Building Customer Experience through Humanity.

In this latter conversation, fictitious as it is, the conductor acted without violence. He made his point, but he has shown empathy and kindness. By doing so, he created a brand ambassador. A nasty emotion of loss and punishment was avoided and turned into a positive emotion of gaining, relief and gratitude. And all those who sat with her in the carriage would praise the conductor. Their experience would have been very positive too.
Guess what kind of story the girl in the first situation will tell to her friends and family. A story of loss and outrage. She will complain about how the railway has treated her.
In the second story she will tell a positive story.
So kindness does have its place in creating a positive customer experience. Cynics will say that the railway must make money and has to come down hard on those who do not respect the rules and do not pay what the railways are entitled to. Of course this argument is valid. But here’s the thing. There was enough evidence that the girl did not want to cheat. She had a ticket, she just sat in the wrong carriage. And everyone could tell by her reaction she wasn’t trying to steal from the railway company. She was embarrassed.
How can you solve this dilemma?

  1. First you need to select people on their interpersonal skills. People facing the customer must be able to sho empathy and display a wide range of communication skills.
  2. Second, people in the front must have the autonomy to decide. “They have asked us to be severe”, is not a good answer. It reveals that they cannot decide.
  3. Instructions must take the psychology of customers into account. Rule-based customer orientation is tricky as there are many circumstances that may require a different response. Instead of giving instructions, companies can consider giving training on psychology. And if instructions are needed, you can build in contingencies like: If a passenger is in first class with a ticket of second-class, you can just give a kind warning.
  4. People should be allowed to make mistakes. There is a big difference between error and violation. A violation is when one knowingly sets aside a law, a rule. Sometime there is a thin line: speeding because you’re in a hurry, or speeding because you didn’t notice the speed limit. But when a company puts its rules before the customer needs, it’s on a slippery slope towards bad customer experience. Service is not about applying rules. Service is about solving customer’s problems.
  5. Focus on customer experience puts also the people of the company in a central space. You need people who are willing and able to give good service. By empowering them, companies motivate.

Humanity in Service

A company that treats its customers as potential frauds and translates this into very visible processes like the one I have described, will destroy customer value. They punish their customers just because there is a small percentage that does not follow the rules. These people have no tickets and jump over the entrance gates without validating their ticket. Those are violations. Here a strict application of the rule is OK. But in many cases people make mistakes.

If you allow for humanity in Business, there is business in humanity.

My argument is to use the human traits of empathy, fairness, reciprocity and kindness also in the service equation. If you allow for humanity in business, there is business in humanity. And so building a sustainable customer experience, is very close to sustainable leadership.
The girl on the train will be careful next time she boards a train again. Everytime she looks at the carriage she will be reminded of the morning where the flying brigade fined her for a small mistake she made. Her behavior will have changed, but in a negative way. If the conductor would have treated her with empathy and kindness, the memory itself would have turned a smile on her face.
David is author of “Sustainable Leadership. How to lead in a VUCA-World”. The book is in press and will be published in Q1 of 2017.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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