Experience Engineering: How Do You Engineer Authentic Humanity Into The Customer Experience?

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I have been working in Cheltenham for a few weeks now. I like, really like, the folks (at the client) that I find myself working with. It has something to do with their kind of accueil- a word that my French family often use.

Let’s just consider accueil. How is it translated?  It is translated as: welcome, reception, acceptance, hospitality. It is also used to refer to the home page of a website.

Many years ago I chose not to specialise – going against the dominant trend and advice. I chose to do what comes naturally to me: be a generalist. Today, that means I get involved primarily in some combination of digital transformation, customer experience, CRM, marketing automation, change leadership, programme management. And I get involved in one of many levels – from helping devise strategy through to drawing out the systems architecture.

Why did I share that with you? To set the context. Why?  Because the more I see of what organisations are doing under the CX umbrella and the way they are going about it, the more I find myself falling out with the whole CX thing. I also find myself disagreeing with many CX gurus – many of whom are self-appointed. It is not a domain where one can criticise and remain in the CX club – as I have learnt. That is ok by me.  I can criticise CX because I do not depend on it to make my living, build a reputation, or safeguard one.

Call it Customer Experience design, call it Service Design, call it Experience Engineering. Whatever you call it, here is my question: How do you engineer accueil – authentic, spontaneous, warm accueil?  How do the BPR/six-sigma folks (I always find plenty of them working under CX umbrella) engineer/standardise processes for generating authentic warm accueil?  Or let’s turn to the business change or HR folks, how do they train the frontline staff (who are often on minimum wage, or some of the lowest wages in the organisation, in the economy) to generate authentic warm accueil?  Let’s not leave out metrics – according to conventional dogma only what gets measured gets done. What metrics does one use to assess if authentic warm accueil is experienced by the experiencer: the customer, the guest, the employee, the partner, the supplier?

In my first week in Cheltenham, I found myself staying in the Holiday Inn Express.  I checked in late on a Sunday. Lady on check-in was polite, helpful (gave me ‘map’ of Cheltenham centre), and quick. The lifts were plentiful, clean, quick. Room was easy to find through the signposting. The room was clean and spacious. And as promised it was on the quiet side. The breakfast was in line with expectations for that kind of hotel.  The right folks ‘faked’ the right kind of smiles. And behaved in the appropriate scripted manner. In short, all was in line with a well run hotel in that class of hotel.

If I had to put it into words, I’d say that the experience engineers (through design or accident) had engineered a professional competent experience.  Did this experience evoke any kind of emotional bond to this hotel, or anyone in the hotel? No. Why?  The whole experience felt corporate – efficient yet inhuman.

One evening I returned to the hotel after a busy (full) day of consulting work.  I found myself keen to get changed and go walkabout around Cheltenham: walk, look around, check out potential dining choices, pick a restaurant. Problem: it was raining heavily and I had no umbrella. Further, the situation did not afford the purchase of an umbrella as it was about 7:30 in the evening.

Remembering that some hotels (of the expensive kind) stock umbrellas for use by guests, I approached the lady staffing the reception desk. “You don’t happen to have an umbrella I can borrow do you?”  Her polite answer? “Sorry, we don’t have any umbrellas.” Hope dashed. Mild disappointed – mild because I did not expect this kind of hotel to offer customers umbrellas.  Then the most amazing-delightful thing happened.

One of the employees working at the bar (which happened to be adjacent to the Reception desk) said “I have an umbrella, you are welcome to borrow it. Mind you, it’s girly. Are you ok with that?”  Then she went into a back room and handed me her own (private) girly umbrella. Surprise. Delight. Gratitude. I accepted her gift, thanked her, and promised to return her umbrella to her by the end of the evening.

Here’s the thing, I was so deeply touched (and continue to be touched) by this young lady’s humanity (kindness, generosity) and her placing her trust in me (without me having earned it first) that some deeply human dimension of me wanted to both to hug her. And to cry. Why cry? Cry of joy. Joy of what?  Joy that fellow feeling – genuine human compassion – is still alive in some people.  She did not know me. She did not owe me anything. She had no script to follow. In fact, if there was a script to follow I suspect it would advise employees not to lend their or the hotels private property to guests (customers).

It is the accueil – the acceptance, the welcome, the warmth, the hospitality of this young lady’s humanity in action that I remember and carry with me. I am moved by how she showed up. Her way of being makes me feel good about being a member of the human race. Gives me hope for the human race despite the savage/violent aspects of human existence.

Which brings me back to experience engineering and the question I posed: How do you build authentic humanity into the customer experience?  What I can tell you is this: you cannot do it by the means that most folks are using to design/engineer customer experiences: putting lots of channels in play, collecting lots of data (small and big) and using this to do ‘personalise content’ to do targeted marketing/selling, engaging a bunch of BPR/Six Sigma to redesign processes, handing out vision/value cards to employees, sending employees on training courses, using VoC measures (NPS) to reward/punish employees…..

If the quality of the accueil matters (and I say it matters a lot in service environments) then you have to deliberately attract and welcome folks who embody warm accueil in their way of being. And then you have to continually cultivate an environment/climate where 1) those in management roles generate that kind of acceuil for the folks working in the organisation; and 2) folks working in the organisation can agree or disagree with one another – passionately against a background of warm accueil for their fellow colleagues despite challenging their ideas, proposals, and behaviours.

Do this and you dispose your organisation to spontaneously and appropriately generate the kind of humanity/accueil that build genuine affinity with your organisation / brand.  And yes, the right tools, and behind the scenes processes can make it easier for your folks to deliver outstanding accueil.

Notice, the technology (tools) and process – are there in the background to serve your people.  Your people become real-time, flexible, experience engineers – treating different customers differently and even the same customer differently depending on the context.

Enough for today, I thank you for your listening.  Until the next time, I wish you the very best – may you receive and grant the kind of accueil that makes you proud to be a member of the human race.

3 COMMENTS

  1. This is a very compelling post. The only thing I can add is that the employees have to feel that their spontaneous actions are not only accepted but encouraged and if something goes wrong then people should be told “this is what was done, this is how it was perceived, lets keep doing things but make sure we explain to the receiver”. End of story.

    Thanks Maz

  2. In addition to customer-centric experience process design, a substantial chunk of this has to do with hiring for values, self-enablement, and ability to communicate, i.e. an employee lid that fits the enterprise pot. Companies like Ritz Carlton, Wegmans Food Markets, Virgin Mobile,and Southwest Airlines consider finding the right employees as important as designing customer processes that create perceived benefit. At hotels, this amounts to more than a clean room and chocolates on your pillow. It’s about what you experienced, the emotions involved, and what you remember.

    There’s a great, true story that makes your post quite real. Some years ago, Southwest Airlines was looking to hire a very experienced pilot, who was also senior manager for another carrier, for an executive position. As anyone who’s ever been a passenger on a Southwest flight can attest, the flight staff usually communicate during flights in offbeat, and often fun, ways. Anyway, Southwest had this captain fly a few routes; but, because he never got on the intercom with passengers during the flights, he wasn’t hired. Long story short, he wasn’t a fit with the Southwest culture because he didn’t make the passenger trip experience a priority.

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