3 Key Lessons From a Nightmarish Customer Experience


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You may have seen the video of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly dragged off overbooked flight #3411 by security officers for refusing to give up his seat. The violent incident sparked outrage around the world and set off a social media storm.

So what can we learn from this customer service debacle? Here are three insights from behavioral science research into what a memorable customer experience should -and shouldn’t- be.

1. Make every interaction count

Did you know that customers who feel “adoring” after an experience are more than 11 times likely to buy from a company than customers who feel “angry”? Research by Dutton suggests that organizations that enable positive emotional climates perform better because customers are likely to reward them for a memorable experience with their loyalty. Most personalized interactions with customers are brief exchanges between relative strangers. Making even the shortest connection –a look, a smile, a phone call- meaningful, positive, and energizing for those involved is a trademark of customer centricity.

Some companies understand that, as the customer experience is mostly about human interaction, the interpersonal experience is often a great differentiator between brands. For example, a tagline from Southwest Airlines’ website reads as follows: “We like to think of ourselves as a Customer Service company that happens to fly airplanes.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the company is America’s favorite carrier according to the latest Airfarewatchdog‘s annual travel survey.

2. Disagree without being disagreeable

Clearly, some interactions between customers and service providers are more emotionally intense than others. Emotions can run high when the customer perceives a problem in the service because their expectations are not being met -a canceled flight, bad advice, or the wrong product. A special level of emotional management and rapport building on the part of the service provider is required. Studies by Fredrickson show that positive emotions signal safety, broaden our mindset and allow us to discover and build new skills, social ties, knowledge, and behaviors. Thus, in order to defuse the tension and achieve the interaction goals, the client-facing employee needs to deliver a positive emotional experience to their customers by treating them respectfully.

On the other hand, uncivil behavior is not only wrong but also costly. Studies by psychologist Porath and colleagues demonstrate that, as a result of experiencing incivility, employees decrease work effort, time at work, work quality, and productivity. What’s more, witnessing incivility by employees, even vicariously, tends to turn customers away. For the organization, the negative spiral caused by rudeness can be particularly destructive, especially in the age of social media. The best way to handle critical moments is to put the customers’ needs ahead of the company’s and the employee’s agenda. In the United situation, the airline CEO initially defended the company and appeared to blame the innocent passenger before taking full responsibility and settling with the passenger a few days after the incident.

3. Respect the customer’s autonomy

It is common practice for airline companies to offer compensation to passengers willing to give up their seats on overbooked flights. This is consistent with a host of studies on human motivation by Ryan and Deci suggesting that what self-motivates people is engaging in activities that satisfy the innate psychological need for autonomy. Thus, giving customers a choice shows respect for the basic human need of autonomous behavior.

If the behavior is not autonomous it is controlled. In the case of controlled behavior, authority expects compliance but what can also happen is rebellion. When not given a fair choice, people –at work and elsewhere- may respond emotionally, as when a passenger is pressured to give up their seat. Winning an argument with a customer is usually a pyrrhic victory. While the customer is not always right, his perception and memory of the quality of their experience with the organization is what ultimately matters. As poet Maya Angelou put it, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


Organizations depend on customers who will do business with them. Often, excellent customer service is what keeps them coming back. Enhancing the customer experience builds brand loyalty, thereby improving results. It’s easier said than done, and people will sometimes behave in surprisingly emotional ways. Getting adversarial, however, and ignoring basic human needs for connection, emotional safety, and autonomy is not the answer. Is your company thoroughly prepared to consistently provide an exceptional customer experience?

Share your thoughts and continue the discussion below.


Dutton, J. E. (2003). Energize your workplace: How to create and sustain high-quality connections at work . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York: Random House.

Pearson, C. M., & Porath, C. L. (2005). On the nature, consequences and remedies of workplace incivility: No time for “nice”? Think again. Academy of Management Executive, 19(1), 7-18.

Porath, C., MacInnis, D., & Folkes, V. (2010). Witnessing incivility among employees: Effects on consumer anger and negative inferences about companies. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(2), 292-303.

Porath, C. L., & Pearson, C. M. (2010). The cost of bad behavior. Organizational Dynamics, 39(1), 64-71.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.

Temkin (2016). https://experiencematters.blog/2016/12/12/want-loyal-customers-start-talking-about-their-emotions/

Robert Rosales
Robert Rosales is the founder of LEAD Academy, a consultancy that supports employee engagement, productivity, and corporate success by applying science-based leadership practices. For 25 years, he was a senior manager with leading private wealth managers in Geneva, New York, and Zurich. His core expertise is in leadership and management skills, personal effectiveness skills, and relationship management and customer-facing skills.


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