Sometimes the best customer experience is no customer experience

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A few days ago, I came across a most delightful quote attributed to John Logue. He said “it’s almost impossible to overestimate the unimportance of most things.” It seems to me that this quote might form the basis for a discussion on how a firm should approach its customer experience strategy.

I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about customer experience with clients and at speaking engagements. I believe that organizations should be paying a great deal more attention to the customer experience they are providing. But, let’s think about exactly what delivering a customer experience might consist of and when it’s appropriate to try to create an impressive experience.

Some firms have made a considerable effort to deliver an effective customer experience strategy. Others do not seem to have paid as much attention or even to have given much thought to the notion. The result is that many deliver inconsistent and often negative experiences on a regular basis. They clearly do not understand what the customer experience entails or its potential to influence satisfaction and loyalty.

I believe also that the customer experience deserves a great deal of thought if firms are going to offer a meaningful experience to customers. But some would have you believe that every customer experience has the potential to be meaningful, to be a “Wow!” experience. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In this context, I am also reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s observation that his hit TV show was a program about nothing. Jerry was successful in building a show and possibly a career on nothing. He, George, Elaine and Kramer played themselves and the show was about the things that happened in their daily lives. That’s precisely what most customer experiences are about; the things that happen to us as we go about the routine that characterizes our lives. Included in those experiences is the stop on the way home to fill up the tank, the Saturday afternoon movie matinee with the kids, the weekly trip to the supermarket, the monthly visit to the hair dresser, the commuter flight home after a week on the road. Not exactly the things that stimulate or excite us. Just stuff we have to get done.

How many of these experiences are memorable or even have the potential to be memorable?

Most customer experiences are considered by customers to be successful if nothing happens; or, more precisely, if nothing negative happens. Most interactions are mundane and need not be turned into something over the top or entertaining or special or memorable. Customers just want to get in and out and get what they need with no mistakes, no delays and no bad surprises.

In commenting on the recently-announced commitment of a local healthcare authority to “provide the best care possible to those we serve and ensure their stay in one of our facilities is a positive experience”, a newspaper columnist questioned the likelihood of turning a hospital visit into a positive experience. He observed “if you’re lying on a stretcher or visiting a sick relative, the most you can hope for is an experience free of nasty surprises.”

Consider the stop at the supermarket on the way home to pick up a few grocery essentials. You want to find a place to park, get in and out quickly, not find yourself behind a guy with 37 items in the “10 items or less” line, and get home in time to get dinner ready.

It’s Friday, you’ve been on the road all week and you’ve booked a 7 PM commuter flight home to Philadelphia. What do you want to happen? Nothing! Or nothing bad at least.

The best strategy when delivering most “customer experiences” may be to make sure things don’t go wrong. Most companies would be advised to address this point before setting out to surprise and delight with the unexpected. In most customer interactions, nothing important happens. No opportunity exists to offer anything meaningful or remotely exciting.

Particularly in the case of businesses offering routine services, regularly delivered to customers, the best customer strategy is to make sure nothing goes wrong. Think about the nature of the experience your customers expect and the one that they would like to encounter when dealing with you. Some customer interactions lend themselves to over-the-top service, surprising enhancements, and even entertainment, but most do not. Most interactions with customers are routine and your best approach to delivering a satisfying experience is simply to make sure they can accomplish what they want to get done with nothing going terribly wrong.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Jim, thanks for a thought-provoking post (and nice to see you active again on CT).

    I had a discussion with a tech vendor focused on getting rid of bad experiences. My question was whether the lack of a negative experience was a positive/memorable one. They said yes, but I’m not convinced this is true.

    My feeling is that while it’s good to get rid of the mistakes, you don’t get “credit” unless your competitors are failing at these basics. When I go to the ATM, I expect it to work. Wells Fargo doesn’t earn my loyalty for its utility, but if it started to become unreliable I’d look elsewhere.

    But airlines? My expectations are quite low these days. I expect problems and when they don’t happen, the airline gets a check in the plus column in my mind. (But what a sad commentary on the state of air travel.)

    I do agree that companies should get the basics right. I wonder, though, if a little creative thinking could add something pleasant to everyday experiences and help them stand just out a bit. My wife likes to shop at Trader Joe’s. The main thing she comments on is the friendly people who seem to genuinely enjoy their job and will engage like a real person. Maybe not a huge “wow” but it’s enough to make a difference.

  2. Thanks, Bob.

    I agree with you that the absence of a negative is not necessarily going to lead to customer delight; at least, not usually. As you suggest, it depends on the circumstances. My point was that most “experiences” are fairly routine and the customer simply wants things to go right and that, in those situations, the business should make sure that nothing bad happens because the only potential is a downside one. It’s tough to turn these kinds of experiences into something special, but it is relatively easy to turn them into something negative If the customer can’t get served, or there are only two checkouts open, or the store is clogged with shopping carts; suddenly, the customer’s angry and what should have been routine and easy has become a bad experience.

    I agree also that even fairly routine customer interactions have the potential to add an unexpected positive element. This is where the little surprises come in, the adding of a gesture or a comment that the customer interprets as a “nice touch.” This requires frontline people who understand that the customer’s experience is made up of many different components and that they have the potential to add positive ones.

  3. customer memorable experiences can best be obtained by ring-fencing what I could call `customer contact staff and customer contact areas.’ A little pleasant surprises on these key areas can bring overwhelming customer delight.Couching of customer contact staff on those nice surprises and sprucing up of customer-contact-areas can do the trick.A memorable customer occasion can help in customer retention and customer loyalty which I believe is key in any business.A delighted customer is an asset to any meaningful business.

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