Miserable interactions can yield happy customer experiences

Brands struggling to offer "exceptional experiences" fail to understand what makes an experience. Focus on interactions to build better experiences.
Written by Esteban Kolsky, Contributor on

Finally here!

I have been hinting I was about to start writing this column for a while, and finally, finally, finally - I got the time to do it.

Welcome to the inaugural edition of this --- blog? column?  Whatever it is, I am thrilled and super-thankful for the editors at ZDNet for the opportunity.  I am going to use this to explore the deeper topics around customer experience, stemming from the wonderful weekly column I "pen" at Future of Commerce.  

Ready? Let's start tackling the bigger topics...

And now, for my first trick - I want to talk about miserable experiences.  We've all had them. We've all assumed -- wrongly, as you will see -- that this is what kills a brand.  They say 86 percent of customers will pay more for good experiences (btw, this is from 2012... 2012!!!!) Interaction? Experience? I will talk more about those later, but for now - they mean interaction, and it is totally not true.  They say 72 percent will switch brands after one bad experience (2019, better - but did anyone follow-up to know if they did? nay, say me).

What "they" don't say is why.  Let's explore if this myth has legs.

I promise, this is not just a semantic differentiation post, nor is it a definition post. I won't tackle those again, lesson learned. (Bad experience? joke, joke.)

This is to deal with the misconception going around on what is customer experience. Or customer experiences. Or customers' experiences. Or whatever new term the gurus of CX have decided to endow upon us this week.

Here is my biggest problem, and then I will tell you why (example paraphrased from actual tweet(s), FB posts, and comments everywhere online).

"I cannot believe <despised service provider>! I waited for an hour on hold with bad music on the phone! Horrible customer experience!!!"

(Exclamation points are mine, but not always, and I've seen worse.)

Do you see what the problem is with the above statement? No? Let me break down the four problems it has

  1. Assumes <despised service provider> is purposefully offering the "experience" of making customers wait for one hour or chooses bad music for that. (Well, that is potentially true - at least has been part of several conversations I've had about the implementation of music on hold - but I digress.)
  2. Transfers the responsibility of the experience to <despised service provider>.
  3. Ignores the context of the occurrence (this is a big one, especially when talking experiences).
  4. Most critically, it conflates interaction and experience.

Let me address why this is a problem, again - in order:

  1. <despised service provider> never crafted / designed / created an experience that has a customer trying for one hour to find someone to speak to. Not even by inaction or negligence (meaning, not even if they actually hired fewer people that it would take to have conversations with everyone that calls did they ever said "let's make them wait for an hour before answering the phone"). This is the main issue - <despised service providers> and <beloved service providers> both fall in the same category here: brands / service provides / companies / organizations don't design experiences. It is not their job. adjudicating the responsibility of your experience to <despised service provider> is like asking someone else to raise your kids and then complain about the outcome.  A better question is whether they did create a hold time that long, but I am quite certain they did not, and that's a different column.
  2. Who is responsible for the experience? The customer is, and will always be, responsible for their experiences. Period. There is no way the responsibility of an experience can befall <despised service provider>. All they can do is focus on the interaction and support the best possible interaction possible and hope, only hope, that the customer will create a good experience using those great interactions. Issues like channels supported, proper knowledge management, automation, community inclusion, and many others are part of good interaction design and proper framework deployment -- but they are no more than supporting actors to a "great experience" that a customer will build for themselves, in real time, every time they interact with the company.
  3. Context is important. Before committing to burning <despised service provider> in effigy for their failure to "provide an amazing experience" - did you stop to think if the problem is that you decided to build an experience that is not properly supported (and we can have that discussion another time, but that is not relevant to context)? Are you calling them in the middle of a crisis (Sunday, 3:30 AM) expecting the same level of service as you would on a Wednesday at 1:00 PM? Are they promoting a different channel or method to conduct the interaction you are undertaking because they know they cannot support properly the channel / expectations that you have? Are we doing this during a pandemic when <despised service provider> has about 40 percent fewer staff on board (again, we can have the discussion on whether this is well or not well done later, but the context applies)? By trying to impute your preferences on top of what <despised service provider> can do (and has acknowledged it cannot do) -- are you trying to design a poor experience for yourself just to prove that a) you know better, b) the customer is always right? (they are not), or c) <despised service provider> delivers awful experiences? Honesty in interactions yields better results (e.g. if you call and are told there is a wait of 60-75 minutes, insist in staying on, and then complain about having to wait -- whose fault is it?)
  4. Without going all corny or obnoxious on behavioral studies, an interaction does not an experience make. This is something that is often missing on these debates: the acknowledgement that we cannot co-opt terms from behavioral sciences and then twist and morph them to fit our needs. Interactions have a purpose: an exchange between two parties. Experiences are built of many interactions, cannot be a single interaction. Experiences also carry with them emotions and feelings (oh, are we going to talk about this -- just you wait!), as well as the idea that they are complex and intertwine different components. You want to book an experience at DisneyWorld? You will have interactions with Uber (or the parking lot attendant or the public transportation representative), then many interactions at the airport (or at the gas stations, potentially hotels along the way to Orlando), the hotel people, the park people (tickets? inbound parcel check? renting scooters? food? rides?), and many others along the way. None of these experiences -- oops, interactions... see? I am doing it also --  none of these interactions define the experiences by themselves.  If the flight attendant was awesome to your kids and gave them airline wings, but the hotel room was not ready when you arrived -- is your experience ruined? Even if the hotel room was not ready, but the night manager comped you a beer? Not going to gush over the many combinations, but you get the idea. You can have bad interactions, even miserable ones, and they won't compromise your experience.

Experiences are 

  1. Managed / controlled / determined by the customer 
  2. Supported (via infrastructure / framework) by the organization.
  3. Composed of many interactions controlled by many entities, and not a one-time failure type of thing.

Do yourself a favor, define what you can tackle and impact as an organization. 

Focus on your interactions, let the customer build their own experiences.

What do you think? Leave your comments below, let's talk.

(In future episodes we will discuss how many experiences can interact with each other, how you should measure this mess, and what you should do to improve these conversations internally - and emotions, and feelings, and all that stuff. Stay tuned!)


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