Thursday, June 20, 2013

How Do You Respond When Things Go Sideways?

Today I'm pleased to bring you another guest post by Sarah Simon.

This post marks another installment in my series on lessons from the high country.

Beautiful morning, what could go wrong?
It’s a beautiful June day in the rugged Indian Peaks of Colorado.  The snow pack lingering from the previous winter sits several feet deep in many spots as we hike toward the day’s objective.  At 12,814 feet / 3,906 meters, Mount Neva is not a particularly tall mountain by Colorado standards, but her northeast cirque is graced by numerous couloirs, ribbons of snow that tantalize the climber from her base to her summit.  Not long after passing Lake Dorothy (12,061 feet / 3,676 meters), the snow becomes constant, and we stop to don crampons.  Soon we stand at the apron to Juliet Couloir, ready to climb.  Surely mine wasn’t the only heart beating a little faster!

Exiting the couloir
Our team begins the steady climb up the couloir, breathing harder as the slope angle increases, taking turns on lead.  We fall into a steady, comforting kick-step rhythm – plunge the alpine ax into the snow, then kick right, kick left.  Repeat.  We continue this way, sweating in the spring sunshine, until at last a sudden steepening of the snow and bright sunlight indicate we’ve hit the top of the route.  One by one we pop out onto the summit plateau to wobble in blocky boots and crampons across the boulders to the summit of Mount Neva.  Though I’ve stood on the summits of hundreds of mountains, the elation for me of reaching the top is never diminished.  This is my high, what I live for, the reason I wake on weekend mornings before dawn to run myself to exhaustion by Monday.

Before long, we begin our descent down the face of the mountain.  Tiring of down-climbing blocky and potentially unstable large boulders, we opt as a team to traverse to a snow field.  Three team members successfully face-in downclimb the snow when suddenly the man to my immediate right just disappears from the slope! He tumbles and summersaults down the steep slope before skidding to a rest at the bottom where the snow levels out.  My heart is pounding.  Beside me, where once Stephen stood calmly waiting his turn to descend, I see only bare, smooth, wet rock.  Great.  This changes things for sure!

The three of us remaining on the mountainside ponder our options, and then decide to climb thin, steep snow above where Stephen was just whisked away.  As I face into the mountain for my short traverse and downclimb, the snow it seems is getting softer and less-supportive by the minute, and I remember thinking: This has got “stupid” written all over it.  Becoming convinced that the soft, rotten snow will give way, I briefly weigh my options: Downclimb on foot and wait to be surprised (like Stephen!) when the rotten snow goes out from under me, or voluntarily become one with the slope, sit down, and glissade.   I opt for what I intend to be a controlled slide on my back-side down the mountain.  Unfortunately, things get out of control quickly.  The ride gets bumpy and I pick up speed rapidly – in fact, my GPS later reveals my top speed during this incident in excess of 17 mph / 28 kph.  Training kicks in instinctually, and I promptly try rolling over and arresting my slide, but my ax is not going to stick; it slices through the early afternoon snow like a hot knife through warm butter.  One more time I try to self-arrest to no avail – the soft slush provides no purchase.  And so I resign myself to riding this out, zipping downhill so quickly that my sunglasses fly off my face.

Thrill of victory, agony of defeat
At the bottom of the slope, I come to a stop.  I am breathing heavily, but surmise that I’m fine.  I amble back up hill a few yards to retrieve my sunglasses, then return, laughing, to my team when I notice blood in the snow.  Blood?  Immediately, I think of Stephen and check on him – but he’s fine.  My climbing partners become agitated, pointing at me: Your arm!  Your arm!  I then see blood running from a deep cut to my left forearm.  A retired doctor and a nurse both rush to investigate.  “Don’t worry, honey, that’s just your fat cells sticking out of the cut,” the nurse remarks in a matter of fact tone.  Huh?  As my team tends to my wound, I slowly realize that things could have been much, much worse.  Hurtling out of control down a steep slope of softened snow with a sharp alpine tool in-hand is not a very good scenario, and I have, in fact, been quite lucky to have escaped worse injury.  I walk away with my team to return to the trailhead, sense of humor intact, grateful to have escaped getting badly hurt and resolved to apply the lessons learned today to future outings.

Crime scene diagram
 Applying this to Customer Experience
Despite our best intentions, things will “go sideways” in our customer experience initiatives. Sometimes we take every precaution, and things go wrong.  Other times we are rushed, poorly informed, or imprudent – and suffer the consequences.  Either way, no one – not even the most cautious and meticulous among us – can expect an incident-free customer experience effort.  Response rates to voice of customer surveys stubbornly stick in the single digits.  Colleagues question the validity of our insights.  A customer service hiccup devolves into a painfully-public social media conflagration.  A business unit owner refuses to buy-in to making the change necessary to improve his team’s performance.  A once-trusted colleague attempts to sabotage our efforts out of spite.  Our budget is cut.  We lose a valued team-member.  A key executive sponsor retires.

We cannot always control events that unfold and prevent bad things from happening, not even in our neatly-designed voice of customer and customer experience programs.  What matters most is how we react when things do go wrong.  Do we panic, lash out, blame others, and let our efforts get derailed?  Or do we keep our focus, isolate and address the issue at hand, and promise to learn from the situation to apply hard-won lessons in the future, becoming a stronger professional in the process?

Customer experience initiatives are full of surprises, and many of us operate our programs with limited experience and no best practices to draw from.  By staying calm, keeping perspective, and even retaining our sense of humor, we can weather these inevitable problems we encounter when things seem to get out of hand.  Looking back, we’ll sense that what seemed like a CX / VoC disaster was really just a speed bump on our road to improving the customer experience.  Expect – and accept – the challenges that arise in this industry.  Things will go sideways.  It’s how you respond to these events that matters most.

Sarah Simon is a career insights professional with 16 years of experience in the feedback industry. Specialties include VoC architecture, journey mapping, developing linkages to business performance, reduction of customer defection, results analysis and communication, with expert survey design skills.  She is the survivor of a botched early-generation "big data mining" operation and is happy to live to tell about it. 


  1. I think the other insight to gather from this is the value of your team. They could see the problem and address it right away. You could feel confident knowing they had your back when you weren't even sure what was going on at first. While you were struggling to find the source of the mishap, they could identify it right away and apply the necessary bandages. If you could see a problem in a survey response rate, perhaps you have highly experienced team members who could rush right in with answers...

    1. Silas,

      Great insight! And, you've read my mind - I'm readying another post for this summer on team dynamics and valuing differing skills within a CX / VoC team. Balanced teams full of strong contributors are critical to any effort - be it mountaineering or customer experience!

      All the best,

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for sharing your story. As you said, 'things will go sideways' potentially at some point. But, it is how we react, respond and manage the situation that, for me, counts the most. Doing nothing, letting fear take over or suffering from decision paralysis does not help anyone or the situation. You took a decision faced with a situation and dealt with the consequences. Was it the right one? Only you or the people that were around you at the time can be the real judge of that. But, at least, you took a decision to try and deal with the situation and, for me, that is the most important thing.

    Stay safe in the mountains.


    1. Adrian,

      Certainly, how often have we heard a story and thought: I really don't KNOW how I would react in that situation? Certainly the mountains are a fine - if unforgiving - place to test one's decision making skills. I think the great tyrolean adventurer said it best:

      "Mountains are not fair or unfair - they are just dangerous." Reinhold Messner

      While our VoC / CX decisions may not have life or death consequences, we nonetheless will be called on as Customer Experience professionals to make weighty decisions under stress. I hope my post helps fellow practitioners to take a deep breath and make solid decisions when things go wrong.