Customer experience as the ultimate equaliser


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“People dancing on graphic equaliser background:”. This cover has been designed by kjpargeter using resources from

When do brands have an impact on our lives? Is it when they provide us with their value proposition or perhaps when they innovate the next best thing? I have spent many an hour pondering this and at best one might argue that the modern consumer is not tricked into the commodity of products and services by guerrilla marketing tactics as easily as they used to be a decade or so ago.

We life in an era of product equality. From brand to brand, there is very little that differentiates product features or product offerings. Gone are the days when the choice of brand was based on how well one product satisfied our wants and needs compared to that of another. I am still young enough to remember the real choices our family had to make when we bought our first VHR. Beta versus VHS. In the world of VHRs, brands out-performed their competitors purely by function, by offering must-have features like auto-rewind, double-speed fast-forward, auto head cleaning, infrared remote controls, picture zoom and super still pause functionality.

That was then, but today mechanics and precision make way for third party suppliers, electronic components and coding that can easily be duplicated. Duplicated so well indeed that the only difference in products and services is sometimes the brand itself. Every smartphone can do what every other smartphone can do, banks offer the same value adds, all motor vehicles give excellent millage and the data I can buy from different providers is only that, data.

If brands no longer impact us by the uniqueness of their offerings, how do they affect us? It was Maya Angelou that said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. The new battle ground is experiences and feelings. I will have an experience with your brand, whether the brand designed it or not, and that experience will make me feel a certain why about myself. After I have engaged with your brand, will I feel valued, special and excited, or will I feel used, shamed or depressed? If you ever wondered what the definition of customer experience is then this is exactly it. Customer experience is not how I feel about your brand, but how I feel about myself during and after I have engaged with your brand. It is the sights, sounds, smells and the sum of all the bad and good experiences that roll up into a single defined feeling. A feeling about myself that becomes the great equaliser.

The rise and fall of brands now boils down to a single action – choice. Because, just as in the case of product features, gone are the days when it was difficult for customers to leave one brand for another. They vote with their feet and their wallet. They campaign with their online presence and influence. If they have good experiences, they will share them and when they have bad experiences, they will share them. When a brand made them feel valued and part of a tribe, they remain loyal, but when a brand let them feel ashamed, embarrassed, or disappointed, they will drop you like a rotten fish and move on.

During the past week I conducted business transactions with three different brands. These brands live across a wide spectrum of business types. One a large national airline carrier, another a small-to-medium-sized local business selling fire wood and a one-man artisan knife-maker.

All three of them offered me an unique product or service, but the equaliser in all the case studies was the way I engaged with them online and how they responded in kind. My goal as a consumer during my start-to-end journey with all of them was to purchase a service or product offering online using their respective websites. In short, my measurement for rating them on their delivery of a customer experience was in as far as they impacted my life and how they made me feel about myself during and after the interaction.

Case study 1: The national corporation – airline carrier

My colleagues and I regularly fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg and back for business. We have our favourite operator, but on this particular week our regular flights were fully booked and we had to use one of the more prominent airlines. Upon arriving on their homepage, I already started feeling confused and uneasy. They asked me to “select your loyalty” and only had two options, one being “none”. What does that even mean? When I didn’t choose one (thinking that “none” is not a loyalty), I got a big red pop-up with an even bigger and redder exclamation mark shouting at me to make a selection. Only two clicks in and I already felt stupid and ashamed. Getting the available flights back confused me even more, because I could also see flights from an international airline listed on the same page. WTF? Six windows later, and I am feeling tired. I’ve had to spend so much effort just to give them my money. Wow! Then I got to seat selection – some excitement at last! But did it last? No! I get a big red notification telling me that the Seat Map is not available, and I should continue with my booking. Now, on top of feeling uneasy, confused, stupid and ashamed I also begin to feel unvalued as well. By the end of my perilous journey getting a seat with this airline operator I just felt like CRAP! By now I don’t care how friendly the in-flight staff is, how timeous the flight is, how good the pilots or how safe the plane is. None of this matters anymore. The only thing that matters is the impact the experience had on me as a human being. The outcome? I will never ever willingly fly with them again.

Case study 2: The e-commerce start-up – wood delivery

Being a South African with summer just around the corner can mean only one thing…
“Nou gaan ons braai!”
Loosely translated, a braai is a barbeque, and in the summer months you can smell the ambers of wooden fires and the sizzling meat a couple of times per week. But a braai is so much more than just that – it is a social gathering, a time of relaxation and connection to friends and family. For all of this to happen, however, you first need fire wood, and how perfect it is when you don’t even have to lift a finger to get it (other than to click the order button)? Arriving on the homepage I feel warm and welcome, images of family fires, burning coals and amazing special offers greet me. The site menu is simple and intuitive. One is spoiled for choice too, with a selection of wood types for all one’s braai needs. Clicking on my wood of choice quickly added it to the cart, where I could adjust my desired quantity, and from there it was a quick and painless check-out and payment. I was feeling excited and confident. To my surprise, my positive feelings were elevated to an even higher state of euphoria when I received a phone call within minutes of concluding my transaction. The owner of the business told me that he wanted to thank me for my order and whether they could come and deliver my mixed order of 2000 pieces of black wattle and “rooikrans” wood around 10 AM the next morning. Oh man, how can you not feel valued and important when you receive a call like that?

Behold, at precisely 09:58 AM the very next day, my doorbell rang and with it, my delivery of wood arrived. The crew asked my where I would like them to stack the load and after about half an hour they finished offloading, and had stacked the logs as neatly as one would stack wine bottles. Although this transaction started with me coming to the brand, it resulted in the brand leaving me feeling respected, valued and accomplished. The outcome? From that day I will never ever buy wood from anybody else again. I tell my story to all my braai buddies and recommend that they try the wood gurus experience for themselves.

Case study 3: The artisan – knife maker

I am somewhat of a foodie and I have a lifelong love for well-made knives. A powerful combination that not only gives me hours of enjoyment and a sense of purpose, but at the heart of it all, defines who I am. After using high-end German kitchen knives for the last 20 years or so, I recently acquired a Santoku knife made by Fujiwara Teruyasu at a Japanese concept store in Cape Town. Teruyasu’s knives are globally recognized as amongst the best knives one can buy at any price point.

For me, handling his masterfully crafted knife changed my life in a monumental way. These days, it is a rare thing to behold a product that is both unique and perfect, while still
artisanally “flawed” (ever so slightly). It is a one-of-a-kind crafted piece that stands out in a world of factory-perfect reproductions, and that always leaves its owner feeling humbled and grateful.

So began my quest. I visited Teruyasu’s humble and basic website to order more knives – this time directly from the master himself, living near Tokyo in Japan. With a feeling of adventure and anticipation, I started browsing the website. I quickly found a gift set, offering the two knives I so desired at a reduced price. After adding it to the cart I was given the option to have the knives hand engraved at no additional fee. I was feeling quite special by now. After an effortless check-out process and paying using PayPal I started feeling anxious and worried. The reality struck me right between the eyes. I have just transferred 55,000 Yen to an unverified recipient, using a under-designed website, ordering a commodity from a distant foreign land, transacting with people speaking an unknown language. Knowing that there was very little that I could do, I convinced myself to have some faith for a change. To my surprise, I almost instantly received automated e-mails confirming my order and shipping details. My worry started dissipating, making way for a feeling of relief.

The very next morning I received a personal e-mail from Teruyasu’s partner. Written in broken English, the letter thanked me in person for my order and payment. They confirmed a 2 week wait for the shipping and asked me politely if I didn’t mind waiting because they still had to smith my knives. They even asked me about South Africa’s customs office and how they could facilitate this process and make it less painful. Would I wait for the best knife-maker in the world to make my knifes in the same century old tradition of that of the iconic Samurai swords? HELL YES! Contrary to what brands might think my feelings here would be, I did not feel cheated, neglected, sad, angry or mad. No, I was in a state of euphoria, and felt special, privileged and super excited! To be totally truthful, I still feel like that waiting for my “gift” to arrive. They have my loyalty and gratitude for life!

When do brands have an impact on our lives?

Well, for me, and millions of other human beings around the world, it is during each interaction, each transaction, each service call and every time we tell our friends, family and our online audiences our stories about how we felt when we engaged with your brand. We don’t care or even have knowledge off your SLAs, NPSs, KPIs and all your other backend stories and processes. As a businessman, I know that ordering firewood from a local entrepreneur is not necessarily the same as booking an airline ticket or flying in some custom-made Japanese knives. But as a consumer, that doesn’t matter to me. If one of my experiences is seamless and easy, I expect all of them to be. For us, your customer experience comes down to one thing…

Did you make me feel like crap or did you make me feel like I am the king of your world for giving you my hard-earned money?

Johan Botha
Johan wants to live in a world where customer and employee mindfulness is the driving force behind business. As a digital anthropologist, he has been applauded for being the heartbeat of the team that enables cultural change management across various client initiatives. When he is not managing projects, you can find him illuminating life through his photography. His next intervention is to contribute whole heartedly to Brandlove's social responsibility initiative during the next year.


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