The importance of disparity in customer experience


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Gansbaai is a rural fisherman’s village located on the southern coastline of South Africa. Like so many other rural towns around the globe, the fish stock started to decline year after year and the economy could not sustain the local workforce. More and more Gansbaai natives left for the bright lights and the great unknown of the big cities.

In the early 1990’s, only a skeleton of the former Gansbaai remained. I remember a time when, if you visited during the week, you had to phone the number posted on a restaurant’s door to arrange for someone to open-up the establishment just for you. Then around 1995 the world focused its full attention on the area. Gansbaai become the premium spot in the world to view Great White sharks. It was also the first place these great predators were photographed as they breached the water surface during high speed attacks on their prey.

The rest is history, as they say. Poor people became rich, the rich invested their money locally, businesses prospered and more and more entrants joined the economic feeding frenzy. The small town of Gansbaai became a world tourist destination almost overnight and with tourism comes a demand for service excellence.

Every single customer in Gansbaai, and indeed the world, not only have the right to demand to be treated with respect, but the right to receive a good experience. For me, this forms the basis of humanity and defines what a successful financial transaction in any free economy should be.

This however also raises the question, what is a good experience?

Two recent interactions, happening mere minutes apart from one another and both within a 5km radius from Gansbaai’s city center, made me ponder this question even more.

Last weekend our family decided to take a quick retreat, and took a getaway from the city. Our normal “escape” takes us 200kms away from Cape Town to our holiday home in Gansbaai. This weekend our family comprised of my wife, our two youngest children, me, and the latest addition to our family, Sushi. Sushi, sometimes affectionately known as Tooter, is an 8 month old cross-breed Maltese Biewer Terrier, weighing in at just over one kilogram.

This weekend’s Sunday started lazily like most Sundays in Gansbaai, with me waking up to the sound of birds. I made my way down to the kitchen to brew some fresh espresso for myself and my wife, but, to my dismay, I discovered that we had no coffee beans. What to do? We decided to take a leisurely 10 minute stroll past the harbor to the local restaurant for some, by now, well needed coffee. Fun fact, Kleinbaai’s harbour is also incidentally the launch site of the shark-diving tour operators, that take hundreds of wide-eyed tourists to view and dive with the apex predators that are almost guaranteed to be found in the deep waters between the coastline and Deyer Island. This stretch of ocean has since become known as the world famous Shark Alley.

Arriving at the restaurant with Sushi in my arms, I was extra conscious to see if there were any house rules pertaining to pets posted. There were none. We entered and were greeted by a couple of ladies. We asked and they indicated that we could sit wherever we liked. As the inside of the restaurant was mostly empty we proceeded to a lounge area right at the back. Within mere seconds a waiter appeared, telling us that we were not allowed to bring a pet inside and asked if we would kindly move to the outside area. Feeling slightly surprised, a bit ashamed, and mostly annoyed, we decided to get some take-away coffees instead. I remember thinking to myself how absurdly ironic this was. The only reason this “upper market” restaurant came into being was as part of a supply chain that solely existed through the exploitation of animals. Clearly poor Sushi was not fishlike enough!

How would they react to a blind person with a guide dog, I wonder?

Returning home, refuelled by the magic of our take-away brews, we decided to go for breakfast at another local nursery and restaurant. Run by Mathilda and her husband, Groeneweide, (green pastures) has been a number one hangout spot for our family for the last 3 years or so. Good homestyle cooking, lovely farm atmosphere, and the hospitality of the owners are all good reasons to visit, but for me and my kids, it is the animals. Swiss goats, tortoise sanctuary, sheep, ostriches, dogs and cattle to name but a few. Did I mention the baby animals?

Arriving at the restaurant with Sushi on my arm I know I don’t have to look for any signs, and instead we are welcomed by Mathilda who immediately grabs Sushi and starts playing with her. Her husband, Lonnie, comes over, and asks my kids whether they want to bottle feed their sheep Heidi’s new baby lamb, and, might I mention, at this point, there were no funny looks from anybody in the fully packed dining area. A couple of minutes later, the owners’ dogs came to greet us, followed by Heidi and her baby. This all happened while inside the restaurant, naturally. We enjoyed a pleasant breakfast with Sushi on my lap.

What a disparity.

Now the biggie. Who is right and who is at fault? Who is delivering the best customer experience and who is not?

A simple answer actually.

Both of them and none of them. Allow me to explain. Customer experience is all about context, and I am of the opinion that it is a serious fallacy to think, promote and even sell the idea that it is possible to deliver exceptional experiences to every single customer out there as a means to maximise profits. One size does not fit all, no matter how well designed and detailed your journey maps are. It was John Lydgate who said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

What you should do instead is a twofold approach. Firstly, design your service models for your specific, core customers and make your cultural and aspirational essence well known. Do not confuse people by letting them believe that your value proposition is solving a problem for them when it is not. Secondly, empower your employees to do realtime design. By allowing your staff to ideate the best solution for them self when standard operating procedures fail, will not only increase engagement, but will inevitably lead to the employee giving the best experience possible to the customer in front of them.

Always allow your staff this liberty. Yes, even if it goes against your processes, protocols and terms and conditions. Be brave, surrender control and you might be surprised!

Disparity is a good thing! It should not be feared. It should be harnessed to elevate the customer experience of your unique patrons and when it is serving the wrong market, let your staff come up with a unique solution.

More often than not, their disparity will save your brand’s face!

Image: ©Johan Botha, 2019

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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