Customer Experience: don’t get trapped in the drama triangle


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Photo Credit: Mareli Smit

Think about the last drama or action movie you watched. The characters in films that frequent our screens usually include a victim, a hero and a villain or two. Think about your last customer experience with a company, brand, or organisation. Was it a good experience? Did the organisation step up and the employee save the day as a hero would? Or was it an unpleasant experience where you started off feeling like a victim, lost your sh#t halfway through the conversation and became a full-blown villain?

We all know the sayings – the customer is KING (or Queen), the customer is always right, and Customer experience is the new frontier and differentiator in the marketplace. I think the customer may think they are always right, but frankly, it is just not that simple. Not when you deal with human emotion – both employee and customer emotions. Especially when their stories collide! A company can have the best intentions, Customer Experience (CX) programs and systems in place, but employees dealing with customers ARE ultimately the experience. And no amount of planning can take away the basic human needs we all have or determine the behaviours driven by emotion. The first step is acknowledging that people are human beings, not human doings.

Experience is not straightforward but messy.

Most of us have experienced customer experiences through the lens of either hero, villain, or victim at different times. Ultimately, the customer, the employee and the organization all have a part to play in the customer experience and unfortunately, we sometimes get stuck in the drama triangle!

I want to share with you two customer journeys I had during the holiday showing the effect of who owns experiences and the impact of attitude and choice on experiences by both employees and customers.

Like many others, I recently joined the back-to-school last-minute shopping spree and the last item on the list was a scientific calculator for my son. I am no expert in math, let alone scientific calculators, but I went from store to store to do my homework and price-checking.

I walked into a well-known technology store and found what I thought was the perfect brand and price. The item was locked on the shelf, so I needed assistance. The first employee I saw was busy chatting away on a personal face time call, so I did not want to interrupt what seemed to be an intimate conversation. The second employee stood at a terminal waiting for their phone to finish charging. Not interested in me as a customer at all. After asking for assistance, the employee grudgingly unplugged her phone and unlocked the calculator for me. I proceeded to the till to pay, where I was met by one employee behind the counter, busy with a client that seemed to me would take a very long time. I stood and waited patiently without eye contact or acknowledgment from the person behind the counter. At least three employees walked past me without a word. After about 10 minutes, I realized that this store had no interest in me or my money, so I took my money off the counter, left the calculator and found a different store where I paid less for the same item.

I was prepared to wait and pay more, but the attitude of ‘we are doing you a favour’ and ‘this is not my job’ is concerning. So, this begs the question – why do employees no longer have pride in their craft? Where do they lose their passion and purpose along the way? And is there an opportunity to build more heroes into the drama triangle?
I believe there is!

In contrast, I also had another surprisingly positive experience at an unexpected organisation. In South Africa, anyone who needs to do business at a public service office will attest that the experience is usually frustrating, time-consuming and, to be blunt – downright useless. The outdated systems do not work most of the time. The employees are uninspired. The stress levels of people waiting impatiently in lines are sky-high. With the latest in our power utility load-shedding schedule without power backup, calming down customers who stood in line for hours on end is no easy task. (For those in the dark about load shedding – in South Africa, we have schedules of between 2-4 hours of total blackouts where there is no electricity – this can happen 1-3 times daily)

In the past month, I needed to apply for a passport and recently applied to renew my driver’s license. The passport situation took 3 trips and 6 hours, so my expectations were checked when I arrived at the traffic department. I chose to make the best of my time there – because it was definite that I would spend time there! And the cherry on the cake was that load-shedding was scheduled for 12:00 – I had a maximum of 2 hours to complete my mission! But I was determined, armed with a sense of humour, curiosity and grace.

I sat in the first queue and met a lovely older gentleman. We chatted and tried to encourage each other and celebrated together when we could move closer to the counter. Then a pleasant employee came to speak to the gentleman, asked him how old he was and Sheppard him to the front of the queue so that he did not have to stand so long – super cool and attentive, I thought.

Once I reached the first counter, I chatted with the incredible person behind the glass window, who was happy and cheerful and seemed to enjoy her job and meet people even though the work she did looked tedious and repetitive.
I was then directed to an eye test and fingerprint station. Here I met another inspirational lady. We laughed at the fact that everything goes after 40 (including my eyesight). When we could not get the computer to recognise my fingerprints or take a good picture, we laughed even louder – we teased each other and connected on a human level. I permitted her to be herself while working on outdated machinery! And I passed my eye test…barely, but still!

I then went to sit in the final queue – the one for payments. The lady at the last counter was helpful and gracious and even though the computer system froze and she had to reboot and try again, she took it in her stride. We talked about the impact of load shedding and how it affects them, how customers are rude and sometimes scream at them and how they try and focus on the positive—making an environment far from ideal into a workplace of respect for each other, fun and choosing their attitude daily.

So why was my experience so different between the two examples? Were my expectations higher for the retail store? Did I anticipate failure and was surprised by the traffic department? And how much of the experience did I own as a customer based on my attitude and the preconceived expectations I had? Did I wear the lens of hero, victim or villain during these experiences? These are all relevant questions.

Since then, I’ve seen both customers and employees misbehaving. And I am no angel – I’ve also lost my sh#t on a call centre call or when I felt frustrated and undervalued in a store many times. But now, I pause before I react. The human being will respond to how I treat them at that moment. If I attack them verbally, their reptile brain of the fight, flight or freeze will kick in because they are as human as I am. The thing is – I don’t think people get out of bed in the morning wanting to be an asshole. I believe we all are doing our best with what we have. But we have choices to make daily when we interact with each other. Both as customers and employees.

So, a plea to all stakeholders and ambassadors of the customer journey to all who own a part of the experience.

Organisations, companies and brands – your people are the customer’s experiences. The question is – are you creating a space for them to create unforgettable customer experiences? You spend millions upgrading your technology and systems, but how much do you invest in and support your people, enabling them to deal with irate customers, handle conflict, communicate clearly and connect with humans on a human level? And how much do you empower your people to solve problems creatively? Let’s create opportunities for people to become Brand Warriors™.

Employees – you are the customer experiences representing your company, organisation, or brand. What is your attitude when you go to work? Are you on auto-pilot, or do you understand the fantastic opportunity you have to make a difference – big or small to others. And I am not only talking about front-facing staff. Everyone is a customer of someone. Whether it is the finance department supporting other departments in creating experiences. Mister or Misses CEO – your priority is not the customer. Your priority should ultimately be to support the employees who support the customer.

And customers – let’s choose our attitudes when we enter stores or deal with organisations, brands and companies. The front-facing staff creates the experiences for you based on their environment; to be fair, not all environments are conducive to positive experiences! So, next time, even if you feel you are mistreated or get frustrated or irritated, ask yourself if your actions toward the employee is respectful, kind and necessary.

Let’s reassess the role we all play in experiences we create daily – at home and work. Let’s all carry the responsibility of being kind in a disruptive and cruel world. Rather than getting stuck in the drama of experiences, let’s move to a space where we are present, open and kind. And lets ALL design and create experiences that matter.

Mareli Smit
Hi, I'm Mareli Smit! I’m the Program Director for the Brand Warrior initiative at Brandlove, where we create transformative experiences for employees and customers. I also run our Customer Experience Mastery program, giving CX leaders the tools for success. I’m also the author of "It's About Time" a guide to designing your life. Outside work, I enjoy cooking, mountain trails, and relaxing by the beach. I'm passionate about guiding individuals and teams to success. Let's connect and start a conversation!


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