I recently had an experience with an airline. You may already see where this is about to go. After all, my anecdote is similar to countless others. It involves a protagonist (hi!), an airline (meh), a mechanical issue (boo), a canceled flight (sad!). What struck me about my experience, which was more painful than anticipated, but not as horrible as it could have been, was that—though this scenario has happened countless times for this and every airline—it always feels like it’s the first time for the airline. In other words, the staff always seem surprised and unprepared for the inevitable issues—the often charged emotional reactions from customers, the need for empathic, non-defensive responses, the need to make logistical arrangements quickly for the 100+ people who are now stranded in an unfamiliar place, and the need to communicate next steps clearly and to a large audience, among others.
Going through this experience, and seeing the struggle the airline went through to adapt quickly to the somewhat unanticipated cancellation, helped me to realize a few critical truths about customer experience. For CEOs and business leaders who are increasingly focused on customer experience but who don’t know where to begin, this experience taught me a few lessons, which can be applied to any business.
Where does your product or service most often break down? Where do most customer complaints come from? What gets returned the most often? What drives customers to your competitors? This is about identifying which failures have the highest frequency. These are the kinds of failures that, over time, erode customer loyalty.
From here, there’s another critical question to ask: Which failure provokes the most emotional response from customers? What causes them anxiety or distress the most? These are the failures that end customer relationships, even if they are not the most frequent.
Designing a customer experience for points of failure means designing more than just the protocol for a “fail” situation. It means thinking about employee training, re-examining existing processes for optimizations in speed and simplicity, communications design (how clearly do we communicate what is necessary in the moment?), technology infrastructure (what technology do we need in place for quick response and problem resolution?), exploring what compensatory actions resolve the problem not just practically but emotionally, and what follow-up is appropriate to not only reduce damage done, but actually enhance loyalty.
The trick here is that if you design an exceptional experience for when you fail, you will simultaneously be identifying the actions and values your business can implement across the broader customer experience when it’s at its best. By re-examining what is necessary to make points of failure as painless and productive as possible, business leaders can identify new ways the entire business may be able to innovate—by becoming more efficient, more responsive, more connected, more empathic, better trained, more communicative—in short, more customer-centric.
When CMOs honestly, confidently examine the business at its “worst,” they’ll begin to create a customer experience that brings out its best. Happy flying!