Don’t Ignore the Most Important Gauge of a Good Customer Service Experience: You


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Recently I spent some time with a group of leading executives from various industries across Asia. I asked each of them to remember back to when they wore the clothes of a younger person and they were just starting out in life, probably only teenagers looking for some extra money when they devised some sort of plan to sell something to somebody.

While many of the executives joked about their first teenage move into the business world, without exception each one said that he had had some degree of success—no total failures. Interesting, isn’t it? They all made the right moves with no training or prior knowledge.

I then asked each of them to look back at how they answered that very first, all important question: “Will anyone buy this?” They all said that they just thought about it from their own perspective (themselves as potential customers) to see if the product or service was worthwhile and of value. Jackpot!

When he visited these stores, he found the 18-year-old employees very condescending and distant.

So … if we want to know more about what our customers think, we really need to start by looking at ourselves as customers and considering what we think.

As the forum went on, the executives talked about what made for a memorable customer experience. Story after story flowed across the room highlighting both good and bad experiences, and we examined many of them in a “root cause” style to look for triggers and enablers.

Many of these executives were originally convinced that a good customer experience meant that the experience was uniform across all channels. Predictable. Repeatable. Consistent. Etc. While this had some merit, as we looked deeper into the channels, we found that consistency was not of core importance. For example, many people reported that, while there was a definitive direct link in “brand” among the shop front, the above-the-line (or mass) marketing and the company’s web site, it did not have any real effect on the perceived experience.

Buying music

One executive, in particular, related the story of buying a music CD for his daughter’s birthday. He was not an experienced buyer of the latest music and, as such, thought he would go online to do some research. He found two stores that seemed professional and knowledgeable. However, when he visited these stores, he found the 18-year-old employees very condescending and distant. He then went to a super-discount music retailer (that he had previously left off his web-driven list of possibilities) and was pleasantly surprised by the helpfulness and suggestions of the staff.

The more we discussed, the more we discovered that almost everything we used to gauge whether the customer experience had been good or bad was based on the human interaction! When asked about customer experiences around, for example, a web-based purchase, the feedback was, “It was OK, I guess,” or, “It was good.” However, when we talked about the last human interaction people had with a company, the real experience values (and stronger opinions) started kicking in.

One of the group told us that he had recently renewed his car insurance policy via a fully automated IVR application. While the transaction had been processed flawlessly, he said that he felt as though there had not really been any “interaction” at all because it lacked the human touch. He reminisced about when he had originally taken out the insurance policy and just how helpful the human call center operator had been, leaving him feeling good about his purchase. Interestingly, he mentioned feeling good about the purchase, without mentioning how he felt about the company, itself.

As we continued to discuss customer experience, we started to evaluate what it was about the human interaction that most influenced our perceptions of the value of the customer experience. The group brain-stormed many ideas onto a board and then started to squeeze them down to their bare essentials. It boiled down to just three value factors that most affected the perception of a customer experience:

  • The expectation
  • The knowledge
  • The person

Amazing humans

The truly amazing part was that they wound up ranked in that order. Yes, the person was the least important of the three. What crazy characters humans are!

The group really focused upon expectations. Members of the group argued that, many times, the customer experience was established in their minds before the event because of branding or advertising. So if they experienced anything less than this expectation, it forged a profound negative influence on how they rated the customer experience.

The executives also felt quite strongly that the knowledge leveraged in the human interaction was of significance. Expectations aside, the value of the customer experience was driven by the level of knowledge and learning displayed in the interaction. In particular, did the company learn anything from our last interaction and utilize it this time?

This one point appears to be in relative contrast to the “cookie cutter” approach of making every interaction a carbon copy of the last. In fact, it argues that each interaction should be completely different, based upon the history of the previous interactions. If you overlay this value factor with a “balanced” view of repeatable, consistent interaction processes, then you have the pinnacle of “mass personalization.”

Regardless of whether the experience happens face to face or over the telephone (interestingly, these executives did not class web chat as a real human interaction), the attitude and personality of the service representative plays a major part in the combined experience value perception.

I am often surprised by marketing people who actively promote a product, service or way of interacting with customers that they would not personally like. I know there often are demographic, psychographic and economic differences between a marketer and his or her target audience; however, the basics of the true value proposition in the actual customer experience are still very rudimentary human needs.

We all like to feel a little in control (our expectations were correct). We all like to feel important (you have bothered to learn about me). And, we all like to feel connected (the human interaction).

So the next time you are unsure how the customer experience will be enhanced or degraded by doing something new, try asking the nearest customer first. Just look in the mirror!

Simon Kriss
Simon Kriss is the president and CEO of the Hong Kong-based specialist consulting firm, Sagatori. He is widely regarded as one of the world's senior thought leaders on contact centers and is an "Official Overseas Consultant" to the Committee for Call Centers of the Chinese Government.


  1. I agree that our first person view can be enlightening but often we are too close to the issue to be objective. This is the same reason we can give others great advice and have a hard time following it ourselves.

    I think there are 5 perspectives or viewpoints of a companies actions:
    1)Top-Down: How management thinks they are seen (Often incorrect)
    2)Front-Back: How the front line people think things are (Often jaded)
    3)Outside-Outside: What the target customer is looking for (rarely found)
    4)Inside-out: How the company wants to be seen (Usually an asymptote)
    5)Outside-in: How the company is actually seen (most honest, least accepted)

    If more companies would try to find the answers to all 5, knowing there will be five, then they will improve. If they deny the five and reject the truth there is little hope. I once knew a man who demanded that everyone accept that his company was a customer service leader despite the evidence to the contrary – 50% order cancellation and 3 week backorder status on most orders placed. You can dress up a pig and you can even make it dance but it is still a pig!

    Thanks for your in-depth and well researched post.

  2. Hi Roger,
    Firstly, thanks for your kind words.
    And yes, working in China I come across a new client almost every day who insists that their 50% turnover in call centre staff, their dedicated complaints line and their 30% customer defection … are all “industry best practice” and that they are getting fantastic customer service feedback from the 6 clients they surveyed last month!
    The upside is that it gives guys like you and me a challenge in life!

  3. This is a great article but it only tells us what we already ought to know. I have worked inn the call center industry for 9 years both as a CSR and a project manager.

    What strikes me with most call centers is not the lack of CSR’s that are willing to treat each customer as unique customer and thereby meet the customers expectations, but the lack off managers to understand that all people are unique. Most companies give customers differentiated customer support based on a score ( A, B, C, D and so forth) and then prescribes a support level according to this. What managers need to remember is that they want to be treated as a unique person whenever they interact with a company. The article makes it clear that managers understand this when they start thinking about their experiences, but how do they translate this into policies when they get back into the office.

    The call center world is littered with good intentions, that when it all came down to implementation, where not followed up by senior management since it did not fit into the quarterly report tyranny.

  4. Gents

    I remember talking to the boss of a telecoms B2B call centre years ago about the problem of treating customers like, well, people! They had been experimenting with Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as a tool for front-line staff selection with great success. High EQ front-line staff not only left people feeling more satisfied after a call, but they also produced more incremental sales from inbound service calls too.

    High EQ people relate to other people naturally, they don’t need training to do it.

    It is obviously important that management understands the inherent variability in customers and organises the call centre accordingly, but it is just as important that the agents themselves are able to manage the variability themselves without having to follow scripts blindly. Selecting a training for high EQ is one way to do this.

    Graham Hill

  5. Simon: Some nice food for thought. Thanks!

    I consider myself to be a very demanding consumer and frequently give our proposed implementations the “chuck test”, which was largely focused on execution in years past. However I have learned that to many folks a critical element of satisfaction with customer care is how friendly the support person was and that they actually seemed to care about resolving the issue. Now, in addition to ensuring that the process enables an expeditious resolution with avenues for escalation as needed, I understand the importance of getting feedback that enables the consumer to assess if they felt the support provided was friendly and engaging. With all the technology today enabling interactions to be consistent, accurate and prompt, often the most lasting and consequential impression is the result of a smile, a friendly and engaging person and the perception that the support staff actually cares.

    Thanks again for sharing your experiences.


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