“Ma’am, I don’t know who the owner is,” the pool construction company representative said.
My wife paused, looked at me briefly, and took a deep breath.
“Sir, who signs your pay check? It’s probably that person.”
When we moved to Arkansas from the Beach Cities of Southern California, we moved away from the ocean. We moved away from that vast water tub of joy that my two daughters loved. So we decided that when we moved to Arkansas we would buy a house with a modest pool. Not finding a house we liked with one, our real estate agent suggested we build one. She assured us it was ‘easy peezy.’ Wink wink. We contacted two companies and settled on one who assured us it would be completed in a three-month time span. By the end of month six, with no completion in sight, we decided to escalate things.
This firm eventually built a very good product, a custom pool for a reasonable price. They even honored their warranty when the pump failed and we had some touch-ups. On paper, they delivered their product to specification. What they lacked, and failed to recognize, was that the end product was only one part of the overall experience. The experience has a direct and sustained impact on brand perception and business outcomes.
The pool company’s experiential failings were numerous and consistent. They failed to communicate effectively and set realistic expectations. They failed to provide an update on progress or what next steps would be. They hired subcontractors who were unaware of their tasks and littered the property with fast-food wrappers. They accidentally severed my fiber optic cable in the middle of a client presentation.
Not only were the mishaps numerous, but the company seemed to lack any process for service recovery. Its method of complaint triage seemed to rely solely on the level of rage individual customers’ expressed. There was no systematic method of logging issues, assigning resources, or creating a plan for resolution.
I think the most alarming tell about this company is that the owner actually hid from his customers. Being a researcher, I am a pretty good detective too. I could not find the owner’s name anywhere despite a vigorous search. He even trained his entire staff not to reveal his identify. The representatives in their offices would not tell us who the owner was because apparently it was verboten.
This organization was clearly in the lowest stage of maturity: Apathetic. No process, or they employed ones that actually upset the customer, no information or feedback systems, no systematic customer response system, no attention to people, a siloed sales-ops structure, and zero commitment to making happy customers.
Customer excellence was not a priority for them. They wanted to build pools and make money. I believe they still do. They do okay because they build pretty good pools once you get through the 12-month angst…and there are only two companies that build them in Northwest Arkansas. Oligarchies, even Arkansan pool construction ones, are bad for the customer.
Yet not all organizations in the apathetic stage are bad at customer experience; in fact, a few are quite good, but have no formal system in place. For example, many local businesses are quite good at CX, but they rely on one or two charismatic and passionate employees who oftentimes are the founders. Based on our CXEvolution study, about 44 percent of companies in the Western world have no formal CX approach. We also know that those who do have one perform 1.5 times better on financial measures than those who don’t.
However, the seeds of customer experience disaster are sown in the nascent stages of an organization’s development. If CX is not part of a start up’s DNA from the get-go, specifically with the founders, it is much harder to capture in the later years of an organization.
It is possible for start-ups to be successful for a while without a CX focus, especially if they have a technical advantage. However, as that advantage erodes, and it will, product parity starts to occur and differentiation on the basis of the overall experience becomes more critical.
So if you are a start-up, make sure you prioritize customer experience in its totality, not just your cool product or service. It is going to make your life easier in the future. If you are a more established business, fear not; it is never too late to turn even the largest ship. However, without the enabling factor of strong senior management commitment and a culture to support it, the effort will fail.
We never did find out who the owner of the pool company was, although we had our suspicions. It is probably for the best, because I think our feedback would have fallen on deaf ears anyway. But if you are thinking about starting a company, I think you may have a good competitive angle here in Northwest Arkansas building modest-sized pools.