Lessons to learn from customer experience escape rooms

Working in customer experience means that even your worst experiences are still worthwhile, because you can mine them for valuable lessons…

In June this year, I offered to help my mother to subscribe to a cheaper, phone and Internet Service Provider (ISP) at her holiday house in France. It wasn’t hard to find attractive deals: Leaving the legacy provider (Orange) for a low-cost ISP (RED by SFR), promised to cut her bill from roughly €60 to just €15 per month. But the process of switching turned out to be a month-long, trouble-shooting exercise, hampered by poor communication and convoluted processes.

A telecoms service failure is like a misplaced pair of spectacles – the problem itself deprives you of the capabilities that you need to solve it.  When my phone line went dead and the internet stopped working on 12/June, I fumbled around for a way to let my ISP know. The backup channels that SFR provided (a smartphone app, online chat with a service agent, and a dedicated phone number for new customers) let me down on day one. Although Orange told me that my line had been transferred, the SFR app indicated that the transfer was still pending. When I opened a web chat session, the customer service agent could provide no information about the status of the line and repeatedly stated that the switching process takes up to 21 days from the order date – a fact as unreassuring as it was irrelevant to my situation. I was unable to call SFR’s new customer help line from my UK mobile phone, so I had to buy and activate a French SIM card  (itself an onerous process).

A day later, SFR’s app indicated that my line ought to be active and I was finally able to convince  a customer service agent to investigate the fault. I then went through diagnostic tests with a call centre agent, a visit from an SFR technician who sniffed the phone socket and confirmed that the problem was at the France Telecom exchange, an appointment with a France Telecom technician who didn’t show up, a trip to the nearest SFR store to borrow a mobile WiFi hotspot, and several weeks of chasing SFR for status updates.  I felt as though I spent a whole month trying to break out of the world’s least enjoyable Escape Room. When the landline came back to life on 12/July, I felt relieved and worn out.

My takeaways from the escape room are as follows:

  • Understand service failure as an emotional incident, not just a technical one.
    When systems fail, as they do in any business, companies rightly focus on fixing the problems quickly. But they often overlook how their response to the situation impacts on the customer’s feelings.
    SFR’s handling of my problem was a mix of high and low notes – Lending me a mobile WiFi hotspot was an effective way to mitigate the inconvenience of the service failure. It made me feel that SFR cared about my situation. On the other hand, my first interaction via web chat was handled without empathy, leaving me feeling stupid, out of control, and upset at the agent’s apparent petulance.
    At moments of stress, emotions are magnified. The way that a company interacts with customers in those moments can have a “make or break,” impact. This is true whether you are dealing with consumers or other companies. At a B2B industrial products supplier that I worked with, the “risk avoidance culture,” made the firm reluctant to discuss quality issues with clients until its technical teams had thoroughly investigated the causes and corrective actions. As a result, customers sometimes felt that they were in an adversarial relationship with a supplier that kept them in the dark, rather than collaboratively and transparently working toward a solution. Such an erosion of trust can have a greater impact on future business than a temporary problem with product quality or supply delays.
  • Take employees on a CX safari to immerse them in the customer’s world. 
    Understanding customers is the foundation of customer-centricity. That’s why customer experience professionals strive to bring customer insights into the organisation with Voice of Customer programs, CX metrics, ethnographic research, journey mapping, and collaborative design. But even when decision makers and other employees engage with these programs, customer insights can seem a little abstract.  First hand experiences are needed to bridge the gap between reading customer feedback and empathising with customers.
    To give employees the empathy that they need to interpret and act on customer insights, some companies take them out of the office and have them walk in their customers’ shoes. That’s the principle behind a CX Safari.
    At a healthcare company that I advised, the CX team devised a mini-safari around a list of errands that a patient might need to complete in an afternoon; grocery shopping, picking up a prescription from a clinic and taking it to a pharmacy. As the participants progressed through the activity, they discovered that they were relying on an out-of-date bus timetable; a true-to-life complication that disrupted the apparently straightforward mission. The company also offered employees an opportunity to wear age simulation suits, enabling them to experience the world from the perspective of an elderly patient with impaired mobility and vision.
    The further removed your employees are from the lives of your customers, the greater the need for this kind of immersion. For example, executives at a railway company realised that privileges like free travel and a dedicated reservations desk, isolated them from the experience of ordinary travellers. They corrected this with an executive immersion program that involved shadowing staff at ticket counters and call centres.
  • Don’t mistake trapped customers for loyal customers.
    My mother’s neighbours in France are resigned to paying a high price for internet access; not because they love Orange’s service, but because switching is daunting (all the more so since they saw what I went through). To a company that obsesses about “churn,” such customers might seem loyal. But customers who daren’t try a competitor aren’t loyal. They’re trapped.
    Telcos aren’t the only companies in this situation. It’s especially common among companies that have subscription-based offerings or ongoing relationships without much direct interaction. Banks have many customers who ignore incentives to switch their main account because they don’t want to risk disrupting their arrangements for receiving income and paying bills. Home insurers have customers who let policies renew without going to the trouble to verify that they’re appropriately insured at the best price. They’re intimidated by the process, as Aviva highlighted in its recent “Get a quote, not a quiz,” advert.
    Fear and uncertainty are fragile drivers of loyalty. Customers can leave abruptly and in large numbers, if the barriers to moving are lowered by a disruptive offer, or if they feel let down by an unexpected fee or a failure in service.
  • Design service recovery processes to conclude on a positive note.
    On the day that my landline and internet service were restored, I noticed that the LED indicators on the modem had turned green and I received a robocall. A day later, SFR’s app indicated that the case was closed, and I drove to the SFR store to return the wireless hotspot. I still need to chase SFR to issue a refund for the month that I was without service. This casual approach to concluding the service recovery process is a significant missed opportunity on SFR’s part. It leaves customers saying “Meh,” to themselves and their friends.
    Research shows that people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end. This phenomenon, known as the Peak End Rule, has an important implication for the way companies treat customers after a trying experience.  Companies can enhance customers’ perception of the experience by ensuring that it ends on a positive note.
    The Swedish blood donation service used this insight to improve the way donors felt about giving blood. Historically, the experience of giving blood ended when the donor left the clinic, having gone through a mildly unpleasant procedure and feeling a little lightheaded. In an effort to encourage repeat donors and get people talking about giving blood, the blood donation service launched a program to thank donors with two text messages – one immediately after the donation, and another one when the donor’s blood was used. This effectively shifts the end of the experience to a later point in time and delights the donor.

I’m interested to hear other people’s experiences with service recovery. Which companies do it well, and how? How have you enabled your organisation to respond with greater empathy to customers?

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