Transforming the Customer Experience: Are You Just Afraid of Publicity – or Do You Really Care?

Much is written about the fact that this is the age of the customer. The transparency and visibility of companies’ actions and customers’ experiences with those companies, made possible by social media, have raised the stakes on the need to keep customers happy and engaged. Many companies now live in fear of bad reviews and negative comments, which can admittedly have a huge impact. These companies, in turn, have taken steps to respond by more proactively managing a positive customer experience.

This is certainly good for the customer in many ways—it gives them power and a voice. But a recent experience got me thinking about how sustainable this is as a driver of change, and what role fear versus authenticity plays in customer experience transformation.

Not long ago, during dinner at a very nice, high-end restaurant I unknowingly cut my lip on a water glass with an almost invisible crack. It was not a large cut and the bleeding stopped fairly quickly, but the restaurant owner was satisfyingly horrified, the manager suitably attentive. Ultimately between that and the items that were removed from the bill, along with a very generous gift card, I was more than satisfied that they took great care of me and there is no doubt I will go back.

But when I started sharing the story with different friends, everyone said to me: “Well of course they did those things—they were terrified you would go onto Yelp and tell people what happened.” I thought about it, and I still felt that while they certainly would not want a bad review out on there, they were not taking these steps simply out of fear. The people at the restaurant made me feel they genuinely cared about what happened to me, and wanted to make it right because that was the right thing to do. And they not only wanted to make up for it, but also to find a way to keep me as an engaged customer for the long term. I felt that this was about me, not about them—and that to me is what it means to be valued as a customer.

So what does this have to do with transforming customer experience in this transparent age? It struck me that the extreme focus on chasing after comments and complaints, and having employees shut these things down as they come up to avoid or mitigate public reprisal is not necessarily a sustainable way to improve the overall customer experience. It addresses the symptoms, but not the cause. And it shortchanges customers’ ability to know when the care and feeding they receive is authentic and motivated by their best interests as opposed to the company’s self-preservation. In the short term it may be hard to tell the difference and many companies can coast for quite a while. But transforming the customer experience requires alignment and a new way of thinking embedded across the enterprise—and the company has to mean it for it to translate into happy, loyal customers. Those companies are the ones that will win in the long run, while others are abandoned for the next new thing.

Consider this. United Airlines certainly needed to give that musician a new guitar (for those of you who may not have heard the story of how “United Broke my Guitar”, here is a synopsis), and they paid dearly for not jumping on the situation much sooner, in the right way and with more enthusiasm. The incident generated much negative publicity for United, and even more publicity for the need for companies to follow customer complaints on social media. United may have even learned a lesson about getting on to social channels, but the real problem was deep in their culture of not caring about their customers. It will take more than tweeting to overcome the skepticism and mistrust they have accumulated over time.

So as you think about your approach to improving, evolving and reshaping your customers’ experience, remember if it is not real, it won’t stick.

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