Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Continuous Improvements of Olympic Proportions

Image courtesy of Captain Roger Fenton 1860
I've written previously about my kids' Taekwondo classes and have also shared the values instilled by their Master Instructor, including how they relate to the customer experience. Indulge me for one more story. (OK, there might be more in the future!)

In honor of the 2012 Summer Olympics, my post today is about a great story the Master Instructor told a few weeks back. (A little background on him. He's a 4-time U.S. National Champion and was a member of the US Olympic Training Center Resident Athlete Program, which means he had the opportunity to train with the best athletes and coaches in the world.) The story goes as follows, as told by our Master Instructor about his coach.

The morning after watching an Olympic track event, Coach was walking on the beach. He saw the athlete who had won the gold medal in his race the night before; it was 6:00 AM, and the athlete was out for a run. Coach asked him what he was doing out so early, and the athlete's response was simple: "Training for the next Olympics."

A couple of lessons here, for athletes and leaders alike:
  • Stay sharp
  • Stay focused, don't get distracted, keep your eye on the goal
  • Know your purpose
  • Be self-disciplined
  • No excuses
  • Never stop, never give up
  • Never rest on your laurels
  • Never be satisfied
  • Always strive to improve
  • Do the unexpected
  • Make sacrifices
  • Keep on training
Once you've reached one goal, set and prepare for the next one, strive for the next level. Your best performance today may not be your best performance tomorrow. Your best performance today may not win the race tomorrow. The world is changing and evolving, as is your competition. And so are your customers and their needs.

No one ever said this was easy. The journey continues...

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” ~Mark Twain

Update: Thank you @gostonemantel for the reminder: celebrate your success! Definitely take a moment to take in everything that you've achieved, thank those around you who have helped you reach your goals, and recognize those who have been instrumental in your success.

Friday, July 27, 2012

How to Keep the Customers You Already Have

Note: Today I am pleased to share a guest post written by the National Business Research Institute (NBRI). They have over 30 years of experience in conducting scientific, psychological research for businesses. NBRI clients include Walt Disney World, Marriott Hotels, Oracle, and Waste Management.

Companies spend millions of dollars to attract new customers, only to lose them by providing a poor customer experience. Have an effective process in place to evaluate why customers leave if you don’t want them to fall through the cracks. You must understand why customers leave to prevent others from doing the same.

Here’s an example of how a loyal customer (me) left a company because of a poor customer experience:

I had been taking my two dogs to the same veterinary practice for 5 years. All of the vets were nice and paid extra attention to my dogs by giving praise and plenty of treats. I really liked them until...

My boxer, Bella, had been playing in our neighbor’s backyard, and about an hour later, she was completely covered in bumps. She behaved normally, but she looked bizarre. So, I called our vet. It was about 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon.

The person who answered the phone said that none of the vets were in. I asked him what I should do, and he failed to give me an answer. He said he didn’t know and that I could “Google it.” Instead of doing an Internet search, I called another vet. She was able to see Bella right away. Luckily, Bella ended up being just fine (it was an allergy to some fertilizer that she got into). But if I hadn’t taken her to the other vet in time, it could have been a lot worse.

Given the lack of help at my old vet, I haven’t gone back. I now take my dogs to the vet that was able to help Bella right away. It has been awhile, and I have yet to receive a phone call from the old vet to ask why I have not returned, even though my dogs have been due for shots and exams since then. I would have gladly explained what happened if they would have bothered to ask me. The practice could fix the problem and prevent it from happening again, causing another customer – or more likely, customers – to leave as I did. They may have even convinced me to come back had they given me a good reason. The truth is, the vets I used to take my dogs to were great. However, one person ruined the customer experience.

You can gain valuable insight into why customers are leaving with customer loss review surveys. How can you improve if you don’t know what you did wrong? Once you find out why a customer is leaving, you can attempt to salvage the relationship. If it is unsalvageable, at least you can prevent the same poor customer experience from happening again.

It takes a lot more time, effort, and resources to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one. You can help your organization address problem areas and leave the days of customer defections behind by instituting a customer loss review program.

Many thanks to NBRI for sharing their expertise. NBRI offers comprehensive full-service research solutions when it’s time to deploy employee surveys or customer surveys. If you’d like to learn more about their services, please visit their website, view an online survey demo or download their free ebook on “How to Conduct a Survey."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Lewis and Clark and the Customer Experience Journey

Image courtesy of devlyn
"Lewis and Clark?"

Yup. Sometimes I come across old notes or things that I've saved, and I get inspired by them all over again, especially as I think of new and fresh topics to blog about relative to employee and customer experiences.

First, a brief history lesson. In the early 1800s, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark set out on a journey across the United States (from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest and back again) to map the lands; to learn about the flora, fauna, and people; and to identify how the Northwest could be exploited economically. A lot has been gleaned from their expedition, including some great leadership lessons. As a matter of fact, endless leadership books and guides have been written and camps have been created to teach or to role play these lessons.

The notes I dug up were from an essay and a book, and each came with a list of 10 leadership lessons. I'll share them here, but before I go any further, let me call out the obvious:

Lewis and Clark went on a journey, led an expedition. Hey, my blog isn't called CX Journey for nothing. The customer experience is a journey, as is your company's effort to deliver the best possible experiences for your customers. Having a strong leader who sets the tone and champions the brand is key to your company's success.

Lewis and Clark guided their troops into unknown territory. Given the stats discussed in Monday's CXO Chat (i.e., 80% of the executives believe their companies provide superior customer experiences, yet only 8% of customers agreed), I think we've got a lot of companies stuck in unknown territory!

Lewis and Clark had a loyal following. They had excellent people skills and a way of inspiring people. Of all of the people who joined them on this expedition, they only lost one, and that was to disease. How loyal are your people? What's your employee retention rate? Customer retention?

No duty the Executive had to perform was so trying as to put the right man in the right place. -homas Jefferson

The first set of lessons is from an essay written by Dayton Duncan, The Lewis and Clark Guide to Leadership. Based on reading their journals, Dayton suggests that there were 10 rules Lewis and Clark adhered to. You can see for yourself how they apply not only to leadership but also to creating a successful customer-focused culture, which obviously requires strong, people-centric leadership.
  1. Have a clearly stated and understood goal
  2. Plan and prepare
  3. Pick good people and give them the opportunity to prove themselves, trust them
  4. Understand that team building takes various techniques and time
  5. Real men stop and ask directions (some believe Sacagawea was their guide; at the very least, she was  instrumental in getting them to their destination alive, as her presence assured Indians along the way that she was accompanied by a friendly bunch)
  6. Be open to what presents itself
  7. Keep going, never give up
  8. Lead by example
  9. Take calculated risks
  10. Trust to luck
The second set of lessons comes from "Into the Unknown: Leadership Lessons from Lewis & Clark's Daring Westward Expedition" by Jack Uldrich. Uldrich states that Lewis and Clark inspired such loyalty that they are thought of as the most successful leadership team in American history. Along with their people skills, they were extremely forward thinking, optimistic, and able to see the forest for the tress.

Lessons outlined in this book are slightly different from those in Dayton's essay, but again, you will quickly see how these relate to your customer experience journey.
  1. Think strategically
  2. Make tough and timely decisions
  3. Surround yourself with good people
  4. Manage resources
  5. Motivate the team
  6. Deal with different cultures
  7. Assimilate information from many sources (even then, they were thinking of big data!)
  8. Balance long-term goals against short-term realities
  9. Learn from your mistakes
  10. Try new approaches
Enough said... you can't argue with any of these; they are great words to live and lead by!

Do you want to know who you are? Don't ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you. -Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Exit Interviews? Why Not Do Stay Interviews?

Image courtesy of Hermine Lipke
Here's an interesting thought: Why do companies conduct exit interviews when employees leave, but they don't conduct stay interviews to understand why employees stay?

Think about this. Companies often focus on churn or attrition of customers - or turnover for employees - but who has retention as a key metric? I've worked with a lot of clients who track customer or member attrition on their scorecards but not retention. Why not? I just met with a client last week who conducted nothing else but Lost Customer research. It accounted for 4% of their business! Why aren't they focusing on the 96% that remain and what it takes to keep them?!

OK. This post is about employees. I'll devote a full blog in the future to customer retention and attrition. But, just as we know that employee engagement drives customer engagement, we can also surmise that employee retention drives customer retention. Why? Well, for one, because people buy from people! Those human relationships are so vital!

I don't even think I need to pose this, but why focus on employee retention instead of turnover? Without a doubt, employee turnover is costly - not just in terms of the costs of recruiting, hiring, and training a new person but also in terms of the knowledge and productivity that just walked out the door.

So, let's think about this for a second. In an exit interview, we typically ask what went right and what went wrong. (I'm over-simplifying, but you get the point.) At this juncture in the employee-employer relationship, where the employee has checked out, the employee has no vested interest (usually), and either doesn't provide any information worth acting on (sometimes for fear of recourse) or does such a huge dump of things gone wrong that you find it hard to believe, i.e., is it vendetta or truth? It's too late to save the employee, which can be a costly mistake. Honestly, I'm not so sure that an exit interview is a good use of time and resources. I do, however, like the concept of the stay interview.

Why don't we ask, on a regular basis, where employees stand; how they feel about the organization, management, culture, and vision/direction; and if they have everything they need to be successful in their roles? You might say, well, I do an employee satisfaction survey. Isn't that good enough? I say "Bravo to you!" if you do conduct employee satisfaction surveys! You're ahead of the curve already! Stay interviews are a bit different, though, and supplement your annual or semi-annual employee survey. They are more conversational in nature and are conducted between manager and employee, perhaps during weekly 1:1s.

While exit interviews are more like autopsies in nature, stay interviews are more like your wellness visits, focusing on what current employees enjoy about working for the company, as well as on aches and pains and what needs to be fixed. As an employee is walking out the door, there is really nothing that a manager can correct immediately to keep him, while employees who are staying can be reassured that they are appreciated and can witness their feedback being used to transform the organization and its culture.

Key to this process is that managers are trained on how to conduct the interviews and how to address concerns and feedback. Also important is the need to close the loop and keep employees abreast of improvements and changes as a result of the discussions. Changes, if needed, must be made in order for this to be a successful initiative. In addition, these discussions must happen on an ongoing basis. Paramount to everything else is a culture that accepts the feedback gleaned from these interviews without recourse and embraces employees who are open and honest, in the spirit of success of the company.

Let me know if your company conducts stay interviews. I'm curious to find out how they are received and how they are used. Are they ongoing discussions? Are they successful?

“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” ~Alan Lakein

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What's Your Company's POV?

Image courtesy of The Food Network
I confess. I'm a Food Network junkie. It's my go-to channel. My comfort food, so to speak. Quite literally.

One of the shows that I've been watching religiously this season is The Next Food Network Star. The candidates have been awesome, and this week, in a twist, viewers get to vote for one of the last four chefs standing in order to select the winner, the next Food Network star. That chef will be announced during this Sunday's episode.

How does this relate to the usual content for this blog? OK, really?! You know by now that I can find the link to customer and employee experience in almost anything.  (Uh oh. I'm going to have to start to get really creative now!)

So here's the connection. Each chef must identify his or her point of view, referred to as "POV" on the show, from the outset and develop not only dishes and conversation but also a persona around this POV. The POV is your focus, your promise, your purpose, your "Why."

Let me tell you the story of one chef, Malcolm Mitchell, and what his journey can teach us as it relates to a brand and the experience with that brand. Malcolm was a great chef with a lot of soul, literally. That was his POV, or so it seemed. But every week, his soulful POV changed, which means he was reinventing the wheel weekly and confusing his viewers. He didn't want to shoehorn himself into one particular POV; he wanted to be viewed as a diverse chef, with many talents. That's great. But not for the purpose of this show. Or for the moral of my story.

Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman, the Food Network executives who judged the chefs, kept pushing  Malcolm to focus on one area, one topic, one POV. After eight weeks, it still wasn't real clear what his POV was, and so they let him go.

Why is this POV so important? I'll summarize it with these four statements:
  1. You can't be all things to all customers.
  2. Your purpose must be defined and consistent.
  3. The POV reflects your passion for doing what you're doing.
  4. And it sets you apart.
It's really hard to be everything to everyone. That was Malcolm's problem. For the Food Network, whose shows are very topically defined, it would be hard to create a following for someone who is doing something different every week. I know when I watch Chopped, Diners Drive-Ins and Dives, Iron Chef America, etc., what I am going to get. Those shows each have one purpose, one objective, and week in and week out, the shows revolve around their respective POVs. Malcolm was sent home because his POV waffled. And in business, if you lose your focus and try to be everything to everyone, you'll flounder; you'll lose your footing and your following. The business falters and fails.

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” -Bill Cosby

It's about consistency, a word I've been using a lot lately. Consistency breeds predictability and trust, and trust breeds loyalty. You know what to expect. Your POV guides you and sets expectations with your audience. Your TV viewers know what to expect when they watch your show, just like customers know what to expect when you set brand expectations and deliver on them consistently.

The POV also tells us what you are passionate about. Yes, Malcolm was passionate about soul food, but he couldn't succinctly tell a story around that passion. He wanted to reinvent himself weekly for the sake of being creative. Not worth it. When you're truly and madly passionate about something, it's easy to have a POV and stick with it. Look at some of the cult brands I mentioned a few weeks ago. Clearly, they are passionate about their respective purposes, and as a result, they've got raving fans, both customers and employees.

And finally, your POV sets you apart and tells us what makes you different. Why should I buy from you? What's so special about your products or service versus your competitor's? As Hugh MacLeod noted in one of his cartoons, "Don't try to stand out from the crowd. Avoid crowds altogether." If your POV is unique, it will capture the right audience. It creates a lot of buzz because it is unique. It may not be everyone's cup of tea - but remember my first point, you can't be everything to everyone.

When others know Why we do what we do, we become objects of desire. When they don't, we're simply lumped in with all the others who do what we do. -Simon Sinek

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Truly Human Leadership - Everyone Matters

Image courtesy of Barry-Wehmiller
I recently stumbled upon a TedxScottAFB talk titled Truly Human Leadership, which was given by Bob Chapman, chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Companies, Inc.

If you don't have 22 minutes to watch the video of the talk, I've recapped the highlights here; you'll see why it made an impact on me. If you follow this blog and have read my recent writings about the employee experience, you'll recognize immediately that this ties in well with my content. As if I need to reiterate: We know the value of employees. We know that the employee experience drives the customer experience. But let's not talk about them as "employees" for a moment - let's think of them as the "people" that they are. Humanize the employee.

In a nutshell, Bob talks about the impact of people-focused leadership on the lives of employees - not just on the individuals but also, ultimately, on their relationships and their families. He draws the path from people-centric leadership to the success of your family life in a very straight and direct line.

He starts off the talk by saying that we have a crisis of leadership in this country and supports it by quoting the statistic that 130 million people (or 7 out of 8 employees) in our workforce go home everyday feeling like they work for a company that doesn't care about them. The reason: leadership and leadership's misguided focus.

In the "good old days," business schools taught that a company is in business to create shareholder value/profits. Bob grew up learning that capitalism, profits, shareholder value, and your success (as a leader) are the end game - all with no regard for the people you lead every single day.

Through a series of stories Bob tells, he shows that leadership has this awesome responsibility over the lives they lead. People leave their offices every day feeling like they're not valued or cared about. The evidence lies in broken marriages, broken families, and broken lives. You know that if you have a bad day at work, hate your job, or don't feel fulfilled in the place you spend more than a third of your life, then you take it home with you. And it affects those around you.

How can leaders make an impact? They must validate the work of every individual. Everyone matters. Bob's goal is to create an environment, a world, where everybody matters rather than where people are viewed as objects for a leader's success. He feels responsible for his people and wants to send them home every night with a sense of fulfillment. He believes capitalism means to create value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

In 1988, Bob began an initiative to develop a truly human organization: a vibrant business model and a vibrant culture that validate the worth of every individual and allow people to be who they were meant to be  and a common purpose that creates value. He wanted to create an environment where people can discover, develop, and share their gifts - and be recognized and appreciated for doing so. As a result, they go home to their families every night and have a more meaningful life.

Very simply, we all have the need to feel that we matter. When you go home feeling fulfilled, feeling appreciated, feeling proud of what you did at work, you will treat your spouse and your family better. A strong relationship and a solid marriage will yield good, loving kids because they were part of a loving family. And so the cycle begins - and continues. He decided that the biggest metric for him to track in his organization was the reduction in the divorce rate among his employees. Leaders, is that a metric that shows up on your scorecard today?!

This initiative or concept is called Truly Human Leadership. It's summarized with these three attributes and in this order because it is, after all, about putting people first.

People: everything starts with people.
Purpose: meaning around a common vision.
Performance: you have to perform to create value for all stakeholders.

Listening to this talk reminded me of the blog I wrote about Kudos, whose mission it is to change the world, one thank you at a time. There were a lot of similarities. Bob has this strong sense that we can change the world. It's up to us. It's not hard to do. It doesn't require any money. It's about the way we treat each other everyday. Like the folks at Kudos, he believes that recognition and celebration are key, both of which help to create the sense of fulfillment.

"We have been paying people for their hands for years, and they would have given us their heads and hearts for free - if we had just asked." -Ken Blanchard

I did a bit more research on the culture at Barry-Wehmiller, and their Guiding Principles of Leadership are best summarized as: "We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people." The principles are outlined in the image to the left. The bottom line is:

"We are committed to our employees' personal growth."

What are your thoughts? A concept to aspire to? How can we all start (or continue) this movement to change the world? What does your company do to truly show appreciation and recognition for employee contributions?

Here's a link to other videos about people-centric leadership at Barry-Wehmiller. Definitely thought-provoking.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Baseball Stats and CX Metrics (No, It's Not a Moneyball Story!)

Image courtesy of Keith Allison
The other night, I was reading my local version of the Auto Club's Westways magazine. One of the articles was an interview with the Angels' new player, Albert Pujols. What could Albert Pujols possibly say that would drive me to write this post? Oh, you know me by now. I can find a good CX story in pretty much anything! Well, his comments really struck a chord and are a great reminder of what all too many who measure employee and customer satisfaction end up doing: focusing on the score.

The second question of the interview - and Albert's response - follow:

In 2011, you just missed getting 100 RBIs and a .300 average. What is your philosophy about personal statistics in relation to goals?

I don’t get caught up in numbers. I think when you start doing that, you start disrespecting the game. You start forgetting what your main focus is, and that’s winning and helping your ball club to win. Last year was the best year because we were the world champions. At the end of the season, you’re going to have plenty of time to look at your numbers. I think the main thing that I pray about every day is to stay healthy and then go from there.

Wow! I couldn't have summed it up any better had I planted the question with Albert myself! Let's break it down and draw out the lessons from his comments:

1. Don't get caught up in the numbers. If you're tracking NPS, loyalty, or satisfaction metrics, great. Capture feedback and focus on  improving the experience, not the score. Analyze and operationalize the voice of the customer and improve processes, products, service, etc. The score can rally the troops around the right thing, but the score shouldn't be the primary focus.

2. When you focus on the score, you disrespect the game. Absolutely! When you focus on your chosen metric and how to move the needle, your focus is misplaced. (And what if you're tracking the wrong metric? What if it's one that doesn't matter to or correlate with the customer experience.) You are likely doing tactical things to move the needle, but you're not looking at the big picture or thinking strategically to improve the overall experience... and ultimately, to the grow your business. Do you know who your customers are? Have you mapped your touchpoints? Do you know what interactions happen at each touchpoint? Did you know that customer service is just one part of the customer experience?

3. You forget your main focus. You forget that it's not about the score; it's about giving it your best to win the game. It's about using that voice of the customer to deliver a superior customer experience - one that has been designed from the customer's viewpoint. It's about building a culture that facilitates and enhances the experience, for both employees and customers. Remember that when you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers, and the business will win. The players are your employees, and when they are all working together for a common goal, the team wins.

Two sidebar baseball lessons that I'll throw in here...

4. If you build it, they will come. Yea, I couldn't resist throwing in this reference. (Field of Dreams, right?) If you build an employee-focused/customer-centric culture - a culture of respect, communication, appreciation, and trust - and a brand with a purpose, then other like-minded individuals (employees and customers) will want to become a part of that culture. And that leads us to...

5. Raving fans. What's a baseball team without its raving fans? What's a business without its raving fans - both employees and customers?

OK, back to Albert and his response...

6. Plenty of time to look at the numbers. Albert is right. You can look at the numbers at some point because they'll be an indicator for you as to how well the business is doing, but if you look at the numbers every day, it will just drive you nuts. If you track the metrics daily, you're not thinking strategically about the game and what it takes to win. You're only thinking about how you can move the number tomorrow. Don't be short-sighted!

7. Stay healthy and go from there. The difference between expectations and performance leads to satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). Identify customer needs and expectations and work to not only meet them but to exceed them, regularly. Transform your culture into one that is healthy, one that puts the customer's viewpoint at the center of every decision.

Albert had a rough start to the season, joining the Angels this year with an impressive home run history and an out-of-this-world contract. Expectations ran high. He fumbled (yea, I know, mixing my sports) out of the gate. Was he focusing on the numbers? Everyone else around him (media, fans) certainly was. He finally got his footing, and once he hit that first home run, he started doing so regularly. Perhaps he settled in, forgot about focusing on the score, and started to play the game. Lesson learned.

Never let the fear of striking out get in your way! -Babe Ruth

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Employee Engagement Strategy - Inconceivable!

Image courtesy of Rakka
I recently read an article about the worst employee engagement strategies ever. Curious about the content, I read the article and immediately knew that people still aren't clear about what employee engagement is.

Listen, let's call it what it is. Employee engagement is not a strategy - at all. How could it possibly be? More on that in a second.

Remember the last time that I mentioned Princess Bride and Inigo Montoya, the character played by Mandy Patinkin? Inigo Montoya is my favorite character of the movie, and the quote below is probably my favorite line in the movie; he used it to describe his "friend's" constant use of the word "Inconceivable!" It's been several years since I watched the movie, but I can close my eyes and hear it like it was yesterday:

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

When people write or talk about employee engagement, I often recite that in my head: "I do not think it means what you think it means." For now, instead of defining employee engagement, which I've done before,  I'm going to tell you what it is not.

Employee Engagement is not...
  • a strategy
  • a mandate
  • employee motivation
  • employee recognition
  • something that is "done." (I read an article with a comment about "if employee engagement is done properly." It isn't "done" at all.)
  • an organizational competence
  • a morale booster
  • a performance booster
  • performance goals
  • a reward program
  • an investment
  • an incentive
  • a survey
  • trainable
  • coached
  • a training program
  • a management style
  • a party every Friday afternoon
  • unlimited free food and similar perks
  • a plaque on the wall
  • a shirt with your logo on it
  • education reimbursement
  • employee satisfaction
  • employee happiness
Trust me. The list goes on. I'm not making this stuff up! These examples all come from well-meaning bloggers who want to create a quick-fix to engage employees. There is no quick fix! On top of that, a lot of what is written about what employee engagement is really defines the "employee experience."

I've also seen some well-meaning folks talk about who owns employee engagement. No one has a good answer because, well, NO ONE owns employee engagement. Except the employee.

You see, employee engagement cannot be a strategy because engagement comes from within the employee. It's the emotional connection or commitment that an employee has to the organization that then causes the employee to want to put forth the additional effort to ensure the organization and the brand succeed. What the company can do is build a culture that facilitates employee engagement; and that is where the strategy part comes in. But keep in mind that t-shirts, free food, and surveys do not a strategy make.

Is it semantics? No. We need to be clear that no one can make an employee engaged. When  there's some confluence of: (1) emotions, commitment, passion, sense of ownership, etc. on the part of the employee about the brand and (2) what the organization does (purpose, brand promise, who the company is and why, etc.) to facilitate and enhance those emotions or that commitment - then we have employee engagement.

To some degree, the factors listed above help drive, support, or facilitate employee engagement. They help to build a culture of engagement. But each one alone is not engagement, and each one alone is not a strategy. In a future post, I'll take a closer look at building an employee-centric culture that supports an employee's passion for the brand.

Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.” -Georg Hegel

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Air Travel Is No Fun Anymore (as if it ever was!)

Image courtesy of Pixabay
When you're mapping out your customer touchpoints, don't forget that if your customers interact through your partners to purchase your products or services, those partners are a customer touchpoint... your customer touchpoint. Not only are partners a touchpoint, but you are, to some degree, responsible for the experience that your customer has with that partner/at that touchpoint. So be sure to choose your partners wisely. Be sure to understand what the customer experience will be via that partner. Why? Because that experience can be just as detrimental to your brand and to your customer relationship as if the customer had dealt with you directly.

Let me give you an example: American Airlines. Ah yes. The airlines. Always great fodder for anyone blogging about customer service or the customer experience. For me, this is the fourth or fifth time I've used the airline experience for a blog post. Unfortunately, I have a feeling it won't be the last time.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the airlines and the partner experience. (Ironically, that post was also about American Airlines!) My travels last week provided me with more content, which I am happy to share!

I had a business trip last week that I booked through American Express Business Travel. I booked a flight on American, but it ended up being a codeshare flight with Alaska Airlines. (This whole codeshare thing could really be explained much more clearly. Sometimes you check in with the partner, sometimes you don't. Let's get some consistency here. Read on to see why.) The American flight information was in 14pt black bold font, while the "operated by Alaska Airlines" information was below it in gray 8pt italicized font. Which one is going to draw the attention of your eye?

I travel a lot, so I already plan to check in for my flights 24 hours in advance. Always. I even put a reminder on my calendar. I've set up my American account to send me all of the standard notifications. But for whatever reason, I never got a check-in email from American. Or American Express BT. Or Alaska. Why not? Whose responsibility was that? When everybody owns it, nobody owns it!

Fine. I had my reminder set. I logged into American's site to check-in. Once I logged in and entered my confirmation number, I received a message saying that I had to check in "via the codeshare partner's site." They didn't even acknowledge who the codeshare was with on that flight. (I went back to the American Express Business Travel site later and saw that my itinerary read to check in with the codeshare partner. OK, my fault. But still.)

So I went to Alaska's website, where I was asked with which mode I wanted to check in. Well, that was a good question. I had four options: Confirmation Code, E-Ticket Number, Mileage Plan Number, or Credit Card Number.

E-Ticket Number: Hmmm... which one is that?
Mileage Plan Number: Well, I used my American number when I made the reservation, but I don't have an Alaska number. The American number didn't work; hmmm, I thought this was a codeshare.
Credit Card Number: This isn't an option. The trip was booked on the corporate card saved on the American Express site by my employer, and I don't have access to that number.
Confirmation Number: This is my favorite. This is usually the obvious choice that I use, but in this case, it was not so obvious. The Confirmation Number on my reservation was an American Confirmation Number, not an Alaska confirmation number. I, as the customer, did not know there was a difference at this point. Only later did I learn what my Alaska Confirmation Number was!

Eventually I figured out that my "TripID" on my itinerary was my E-Ticket Number. Can we name these all the same thing? Can there be consistency in language/verbiage used across the airline/travel industry? Once I used that to login, I discovered what my Alaska Confirmation Number was. That information would have been helpful to have on my itinerary.

The next morning, I received a notification with the flight status and gate information. Who do you think this email came from? Yea. American Airlines! (Note that I didn't get anything from American Express Business Travel, even though I've got notifications set up there, too. I've used Egencia in the past, and I received notifications and reminders from both Egenicia and the airline.)

Lest you think this codeshare thing is only difficult for the traveler, let's look at it from the perspective of my colleague, who was going to meet me at my gate after her flight landed. It was an experience for her, too! Ironically, airport personnel sent her first to the American terminal, and when she got there, the gate agents sent her to the gate where my Alaska flight was coming in. See, this codeshare stuff even confuses the airport and airline employees!

Our meetings ended a little early, and traffic to the airport was lighter than expected, so I arrived in time to catch a flight that left for home two hours earlier. I rarely have this luxury, so it was quite the treat. I willed my way quickly through security and rushed to the gate, with a few minutes to spare. The gate agent informed me that there were seats available and that it would cost $25. Of course it would! Arrgh! But I was willing to pay it to get home earlier that evening. As I was reaching for my wallet, the agent stopped me and apologized. No can do. She couldn't switch my reservation. Why? Because it was a codeshare ticket!!! Are you kidding me?

OK, so what's the point of this partnership, if it's very fragmented and silo'd? Is this a codeshare for the benefit of the customer or the companies? I think I know the answer.

If you're looking for a great metric for the partner experience, I think Customer Effort Score is a good one. The effort far exceeds the expectations all too often. It doesn't have to be that way, though.

The morals of today's story are:

(1) Your partners are touchpoints, too. Pay attention! 
(2) Customers need those partner experiences to be seamless.
(3) Choose your partners wisely.
(4) You are responsible for the quality of your customers' interactions with those partners; you chose them to be your partner, to represent your brand.
(5) Don't confuse your customers with inconsistent language, messaging, etc., especially across partners and channels.
(6) Don't confuse your customers by making them figure out your discombobulated partnership arrangements.
(7) Take some time to educate the public (and your employees) on the process. Communication is key to the success of partnership arrangements.
(8) Remove policies that make the experience painful. Who cares if I check in with American or Alaska? What difference does it make if I have a codeshare ticket? I should have been able to hop on the earlier flight.
(9) Educate employees of the partnership (your company and the partner's) about the brand experience and what that means to you.
(10) The bottom line: The brand experience needs to be seamless, regardless of where or how your customers interact with you.

If we are together, nothing is impossible. If we are divided, all will fail. -Winston Churchill