Where Does Your Customer Experience Begin and End?


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Where does your customer experience begin and end? What is the emotional state of your customers as they begin an experience with you? It is fundamentally important to know this if you are to market to and design an emotionally engaging customer experience.

A few years ago, we at Beyond Philosophy were engaged by an airline to improve its customer experience using Moment Mapping®, our tool for designing emotionally engaging experiences. “Where do you want us to start and finish this experience?” we asked, to ensure we scoped this correctly. The answer was, not surprisingly: “from the beginning to the end of passenger’s travel with us.” That meant from the moment a passenger checked in to the moment he or she left the arrivals lounge.

I started the engagement off by challenging the airline marketing team members’ thinking: “Is this the start of their travel with you?” You could see their brains working overtime as they realized that, maybe, this wasn’t the beginning of the experience. After some discussion, they realized they didn’t know where the beginning was—or, more importantly, where the customer thought the experience began.

We started considering the experience through the customer’s eyes. We discovered that customers viewed their travel experience as being from the moment they woke up on the day of traveling to the airport, all the way through to the moment they arrived at their destination.

Consider the last time you woke early to catch an early morning flight to an important business meeting. What did you feel like when you woke? Why is this important? Well, more 50 percent of a customer experience is about emotions. Everything we, as human beings, do is driven by emotions, whether you are in B2B or B2C. Yes we want what we would call the “physical” or “rational” things like price, product and quality, but the drivers of most of our actions are emotions.


We found that when they wake up for an early morning flight for an important business meeting, most people feel “anxious.” They are anxious, as they need to get to the airport on time. And they are worried something is going to delay them and they will miss the flight or the meeting. As a direct result of this emotion, people take physical actions to try and compensate or “prepare” for this feeling.

For example, they may lay their clothes out the night before to ensure they can get dressed quickly. We found that people go to bed early to ensure they wake up on time. They set two alarm clocks and even put one clock at the end of the bedroom to force them to get up! We discovered that, invariably, people had a very shallow sleep, as they were anxious they would not wake in time and were constantly thinking, “Is it time to get up yet?”

When people finally woke, they turned on the TV or radio to find out what the traffic was doing. We discovered their levels of anxiety dramatically increased as they made their way to the airport. In this particular airport, there was nearby roadwork, which caused delay, again increasing their anxiety. The car park signage was poor, and people were getting lost. When people got off the bus between the car park and the terminal, they weren’t told by the bus driver where airline check-in was and had to spend time finding it.

Finally, we found something fascinating when they arrived at the check-in line. Those people who were feeling anxious overestimated the number of people ahead of them in the line by 50 percent!

No thought was given to the trauma that these customers had gone through.

When they eventually reached the head of the line, they were greeted by the check-in person with, “Good morning. Did you pack your bags by yourself?” No thought was given to the trauma that these customers had gone through to get themselves there, and all the marketing ads were of smiling people having a great time! A far cry from the actual experience. We found this jarring to the customers. And, yet, this was the starting point the airline executives had originally asked us to view the experience from. If we had, we would have missed all of the lead-up that critically affects the customers’ view of their travel experience.

Emotional state

A key question for any effective design of a customer experience must be this: “What is the emotional state of the customer entering the customer experience?” This has a massive effect on how effective that is.

Now, I hear you saying that the airline doesn’t have control over the “pre- and post experience,” as we would call it, and it is not the airline’s responsibility. However, if you are trying to design a good experience, in our opinion, it is vital to understand the effect this has and how you can use marketing to enhance that experience.

We suggested to our clients that all their collateral carry a message that the airline understood passengers were feeling anxious. The marketing team partnered with a local hotel and offered a discount on overnight accommodation to the airline’s passengers under the banner of “taking away the worry of arriving late.”

And we crafted the marketing messages around this “anxious” state. And, now knowing where the customer experience began and ended for the customers, the marketing team could ensure it advertised in the correct media and time slots, such as sponsoring the weather broadcasts and giving updated information on the flight situation.

Segmentation became even more important. High-value frequent fliers were offered alarm calls and a text message service about travel conditions. Great play was made by the marketing team that the competition didn’t “care” the customer was feeling anxious, but this airline did. We also implemented line combers: people who walk up and down the line, calming people down and explaining how long it would take to get to the front.

The next time you think about your experience and how to enhance your marketing, ask yourself where the experience really begins and ends. What is the emotional state of your customers entering your experience? How can you extend your experience to provide your customer with a great experience? I guarantee you will look at the world from a different angle.


  1. Excellent Colin!

    Thank you for this insight – I wonder though if this is not just part of the picture. How about the experience of waiting to get to talk to one of their call center operators? Of figuring out how to request a diabetic meal via their website? Of needing to make last minute changes and being unable to get a quick answer? Of wondering whether one’s seat will be cancelled due to over- or underbooking?

    My guess would be that most of the anxiety builds up before the actual day of travel. An airline that understands and caters to that will be well on its way to building strong and lasting relationships with its customers.

    Greetings from Brussels,


  2. As someone who also spends a great part of my life intransit, this thought process is a good beginning. Travel is a necessary part of what I do, but I don’t enjoy it. Logically, I realize there are a number of factors including weather that are outside airline control. However, one thing they are in control of is their efforts in providing a satisfactory experience. I understand labour is an issue… but waiting in line is not a fun thing… at least in the departure lounge we can sit and relax. Hint… book a few more staff to check us in.

    Here is an idea… why not allow those who are frequent flyers to check in at the first or business class check ins? Another hint, when a flight is delayed for more than an hour, why not have an arrangement with a catering company to bring coffee, tea and water to the departure lounge? I was at an eatery in Edmonton on busy Friday nite. Quite a few of us waiting in the entrance foyer were treated to small snacks and wine tasting by smiling waitors. Got my attention and added to my pleasant experience and memory of that evening.

  3. Colin, This was a great article. I have one more suggestion. How about offering blankets and pillows to customers that are forced to spend the night at the airport due to a flight cancellation? That would certainly get my attention.

  4. Great start, but I don’t think you went far enough. The customer experience starts long before they even get close to the flight. The airline has a definite opportunity to begin shaping the customer experience from before they even purchase the ticket. By the same token, it does not end when they walk out the airport door.

  5. While it is true to say that we are emotional beings, this is truer for some people than it is for others. Some people react to the airline experience in a deeply emotional way (high anxiety from beginning to end), whereas others just breeze through it. How we react to the experience depends on our persona. The good news is that our persona is observable, as it manifests itself through our behaviours. And there are proven tools, (such as DiSC), that when applied in a simple fashion by frontline staff, can help them instantly ‘read’ the customer. With this information, the customer service agent can craft a unique customer experience, in an instant.

    The lesson we can take form this is that for each customer, the experience needs to match their persona. As Disney says ‘Design for the masses, customize for the one’.

    Brian Ward

  6. I agree that the customer experience starts earlier.

    If you remember back a bit, there was a time when you had to phone up to book a flight. What the economy airlines realised was that the flight starts with the booking. They made flights, availability and prices transparent, so that the potential customer could shop around. Now all airlines are doing this.

    However, if you have frequent flyer air miles, do you know when you can spend them? I bet not. You still have to phone up and beg for a flight which will probably be inconvenient. I have tousands of British Midland airmiles, but I have never bothered trying to redeem them because I am sure that they will not apply to the flights I want to take, and I cannot be bothered to phone up to find out.

  7. I agree with John and Tim when they suggest that the airline travel experience starts much earlier and finishes much later than the actual travel part.

    I was involved in setting-up airline Customer Satisfaction and Customer Experience Management methodologies whilst leading CRM for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) Aviation Practice. We developed and flight-tested the tools on thousands of PwC’s own ‘road warriors’ on tens of thousands of flights. We also used the tools on numerous consulting assignments with airlines around the world.

    The experience of using these tools with customers, airlines and airports taught me first hand that the experience starts long before the flight, when thinking about the forthcoming journey and its purpose. And continues long-after the baggage has been collected and the customer has left the airport too.

    The key is to understand the typical outcomes different customers are looking to get out of their journeys and to build the experience up from there. This will include search (primarily on the Internet today), booking and ticketing long before the journey starts. And car-hire, hotel and local amenities long after the journey finishes.

    As John points out, not all of these factors are directly under the airline’s control, but that is why airlines have extensive partnerships with other organisations, particularly through their frequent-flyer programmes. American Airlines’ customers can earn and burn AAdvantage miles from over 10,000 different partners around the world! That’s some extended enterprise!

    Graham Hill

  8. I am sure that many of us travel with our families at times. While those with small children or an aged person in their family group often get some special treatment while boarding or checking in, this treatment is not nearly enough to cover the additional emotional stress that comes about while travelling as a family party as compared to a person travelling individually. Small children, loads of luggage and trolleys, tickets, passports and the inevitable filling of entry and exit forms (at least where this is still a requirement like where I come from) adds to the emotional stress levels yet in many instances one is expected to complete all requisite formalities as quickly as any other traveller with a back pack as the sole piece of luggage! I therefore agree with Brian on the need to customize for the one. It should therefore be possible to further customize the service level depending not only on individual circumstances but also on the make up and structure of a travelling group.

    Joe Wainaina

  9. Gregor,

    Thanks for the kind comment. Yes you are right, the main principle is to recognise that your CE starts and finsihes well before, or after, what is typcially considered to be “the experience” and the emotion entering the ce is ignored.

    Colin Shaw

  10. There is much discussion here about the start of the process (and airline service is generally so average it is easy to pick on them) but I would give a special star to the company which solves the ‘end-of-process’ step of delivering luggage after the flight. Apart from the tension of wondering whether your bags will actually turn up or not, they arrive unceremoniously, spewed out of a conveyor, there is no information or feedback apart from the universal raucous buzzer/flashing light, and zero help from the airline staff. How many times have you seen an elderly/young/woman struggling through the ruck of people to drag an overweight bag off the moving turntable? Why do we put up with this?

  11. Glad you liked the article. You make some good points. There are many things that can cause these emotions the issue is does the organisation know what the customer is feeling entering the experience. In our experience, the answer is no!

    Best regards

    Colin Shaw

  12. Yep good idea….I am sure there are some really great ideas out thgere if only people put their mind to it!

    Best regards

    Colin Shaw

  13. Unfortunately, all airlines servicing the dometic market in South Africa have aboslutely no concept of either customer experience or customer service. This may sound like a major overstatement or hyperbole, but I have had the unfortunate experience of having travelled extensively by air within the borders of South Africa by air over the past 30 years on all of the major and a number of the minor carriers. And none of them have a clue. They all believe, for a start, that as long as they get you to a destination then they have fullfilled their side of the contract (the contract being the airline ticket you purchased to travel from A, the point of departure, to B, the point of arrival, at a pre-specified departure and arrival time) whether or not Point B was where you arrived or whether either the departure or arrival times were met. Or whether the luggage you checked in was presented to you on arrival.

    A case in point is that it has been common knowledge for some years among local and international travellers that there is a high rate of theft from checked in baggage at all South African airports, and the earlier you check in, the more likelihood there is of pilferage from your checked in baggage. Every airline has pointed to the fact that baggage handling and security of checked in baggage once past the check in counter up to the cargo hold of the plane and from the plane up to the the arrivals hall carousel is the responsibility of the company managing the airport.

    Not one of the airlines has attempted to monitor the baggage handling process or change the loading/offloading process to prevent, or at least minimise, pilferage. To do this would not take rocket science. Instead of sending individual luggae items on conveyors to the baggage handlers for scanning/loading onto planes, install a baggage scanner and container loading facilities at the check in counters. Alternatively, have the process monitored by your own staff/equipment to identify problem areas. Knowing they are being monitored will at least minimise pilferage.

    The problem is, as we all know, airlines are loathe to implement any system or process that will incur extra cost as the name of the game is cost saving. But the payback on either of these two suggestions would be enormous. Passengers would flock to your air line in droves, just for the increased peace of mind due to knowing their possessions will still be in their luggage on arrival.

    Another example occured this past Friday evening. I travelled on the national carrier with a group of colleagues from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Within 15 minutes of arrival at Johannesburg at about 20H30, the first of the checked in luggage appeared on the carousal for collection. However, less than 20% of the luggage appeared. Only after a near riot by now highly disgruntled passengers ONE HOUR LATER did the national carrier investigate the non-arrival on the carousal of the remaining luggage. The Baggage handlers had FORGOTTEN to offload the reamining (80%) of the luggage! Did we even hear an apology?

    Also, is South Africa, the most popular and congested check in times are from 06H00 to 08H00 and 16H00 to 18H00 for both local and international departures and as local flight times do not normally exceed 2 hours, associated arrival times are from 08H00 to 10H00 and 18H00 to 20H00 (given that check in to departure is approxiamately 40 minutes to 1 hour). However, not one airline at any major airport in South Africa has more than a couple of check in clerks on duty during these times at best. At worst, don’t ask. Passengers departing Johannesburg on flights scheduled for departure at 07Hoo start queueing at 05H00! I know. I am one of them.

    This past Sunday, a colleague flying from Johannesburg to Cape Town to attend a taining course on a flight on the national carrier was scheduled to depart at 07H00. Knowing of the check in congestation, even on a Sunday (Monday was the opening session of our parliament in Cape Town with all centres of National Government the neighbour city to Johannesburg which uses the airport in Johannesburg), my colleague arrived at the check in counter at 05H30. The first check in clerk appeared at 06H20! Needless to say, every flight out of Johannesburg airport was delayed.

    On Sunday afternoon, a further group comprising myself and 5 colleagues were due to depart on the national carrier from Johannesburg for Cape Town to attend the same training course as my colleague mentioned in the above paragraph. Our departure time was scheduled for 16H00 with arrival in Cape Town at 18H00. Because of the way the national carrier has structureed the check in counters, there was a constant queue of passengers waiting to check in for the Cape Town flight from 15H00 while a dozen other check in clerks sat idle because they were not assigned to check in Cape Town passengers.

    To make matters worse, the requisite transport required to ferry passengers to the plane which was parked at the other end of the apron did not arrive until 15 minutes AFTER the scheduled departure time. The pilot then had the audacity to blame the baggage handlers for the delay.

    Oh, and then, to top it all of, while waiting in the queue for take off at the end of the runway, the pilot happens to mention a plane visible out of the right side windows as “being the same model plane which demolished the towers on 9/11!” Talk about calming and placating already stressed passnegrs…

    These might be considered as isolated events and only applicable to the national carrier, but I have similar experiences, some even worse, of the opposition. Those mentioned here are symptomatic of the attitude and general malaise in the airline industry in South Africa as a whole.

  14. As long as there is touchpoint, there is experience; for experience happens at every touchpoint.

    Daryl Choy, the founder of Touchpoint eXperience Management, helps firms make a difference at every touchpoint. Choy can be reached at wisdomboom.blogspot.com.


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