I was going to write a blog about all the missteps involved in the United Airlines customer experience disaster. Then I started seeing an “abundance of critics” rushing out of the woodworks – some of whom clearly have never tried to help a company strike a balance between customer needs and profitability.
With all this angst about the state of United’s customer experience and the doomsday reporting about the “fatally flawed” nature of air travel in general, I was reminded of that classic line likely written by Charles Dudley Warner (but often attributed to Mark Twain), which essentially goes, “Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” When it comes to the airline industry the weather, so to speak, is frighteningly challenging.
About 7 years ago, while working on my book The Zappos Experience, I remember talking to the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, about his company’s culture of customer experience excellence.
Tony said if you build a culture committed to, “wowing customers it doesn’t matter what you sell. In fact, I’ve often thought about opening an airline and transforming service in that industry.”
Later I posed the question of whether Zappos would start an airline to Tony’s longtime friend and then CFO of Zappos Alfred Lin. Alfred noted, “Tony thinks about starting an airline but I do my best to dissuade him because there are a lot less capital intensive and less regulated industries where we can make a difference and still make money.”
So how can both airline industry leaders and the rest of us (passengers) work together to create a more viable travel experience in a challenging industry? Let’s start with the part that is least comfortable to me, namely helping customers understand what they can take control over. Such things as…
- Wanting it All: It has often been said that customers get the experience they deserve or pay for. This may be less true with airline travel since our choices are limited to a small number of carriers in an industry where the barriers to entry are great and flight paths are regulated by the FAA. That said, we as consumer’s, have to realize we can’t have it all unless we are willing to pay a “have it all” price. When I book on Southwest, I know I can’t get in the A boarding group unless I pay for it or unless I am a frequent flyer with them. That said, how much more would you pay for a ticket that guarantees you couldn’t be forced to yield your seat in an oversold situation? Until we are willing to pay for more…it is often difficult for brands to decide which of many customer “wants” they should actually invest in.
- Not Understanding the Terms of Our Agreement: (I’m as guilty as the next person on this one, so forgive me if I am preaching to myself.) When we make an online purchase and skip over the terms and conditions to click the buy button, we run the risk that we are making agreements that we will later complain about during the service delivery process. For example, most of us are reserving a seat on a plane subject to a number of conditions (arrival time at the gate, weather conditions, and even oversold situations). Later we have to consider the viability of our complaint when agreed upon circumstances surface. I liken that to people complaining about a president when they didn’t take the time to vote.
- Thinking that Our Needs Are More Important than Everyone Else: In reality, I suspect that four people on that United Flight could have volunteered to change their travel arrangements with minimal impact, however, a number of people complained that four flight attendants were accommodated. In reality, that accomodation likely would have affected 200 plus passengers in the city where that flight crew was needed – thus creating cascading impact throughout the system. (I know, I know this was a last minute accomodation of the flight attendants and there were many factors at play but still, sometimes we have to think about the good of others.)
Now I can go back to where I spend most of my life which is trying to get business leaders not to blame the customer. Instead look for the levers that can drive customer value while still allowing the company to stay in business serving customers well into the future.
Onto the things that the airline industry can do and specifically what United needs to do going forward:
- Apologize and don’t equivocate. Say you’re sorry for the way things were handled. Make no excuses, assure passengers that this situation will not be tolerated. Define the way by which you will address this breakdown through process, people, and technology in the days, weeks, and years ahead. Treat your customers as you would want your family treated!
- Never let more people on the plane than you have seats for. If you are in an oversold situation in the boarding area, resolve the situation in the boarding area. Once you let passengers assume a seat, “oversold” is not a condition that allows you to violate your contract to transport them. As Delta did, beef up the compensation to induce passengers to disrupt their travel voluntarily when circumstances necessitate.
- Appreciate the impact of customer care. As limited as choices may be for preferred carriers, preferred travel times and preferred routes, realize that airline passengers can churn (I suspect United will experience a meaningful backlash in passenger volume – at least over the short-term) but more importantly brand equity, enterprise value, customer perception, and future business partnerships are all be affected by a significant customer failure followed by a cascade of PR blunders.
Finally, where can we look for substantial changes in airline travel? I am convinced that customer-centric brands with strong service cultures like Southwest, Virgin, and Jet Blue will make incremental progress as industry insiders. At the same time, I am hoping that customer centric brands (not in airline travel per se) will enter the fray. I doubt Zappos will make the move, but I am watching Airbnb to see if they will literally take to the “air” as they continue to champion and innovate end-to-end travel experiences.
For now the United experience should be a wake-up call – not only in our lives as savvy travel passengers but also as providers of customer experiences in the businesses’ where we work and in the brand’s we steward.
How can we prevent a “United-type” incident from occurring, let alone going viral under our watch?
According to Bruce Temkin’s 2016 study, after a positive emotional experience, customers are 15 times more likely to recommend a company. 15 times more likely! That’s a huge difference. Not surprisingly, emotion analysis is receiving a lot of buzz. But do the current solutions deliver on the key question that companies should be asking themselves: How can we provide a positive emotional experience to our customers?
We were on our way to a wedding in Norway, with a layover in Hamburg, when the airline lost my husband’s luggage. Tired and frustrated, we headed to a local department store to buy a whole new wardrobe. Two years passed and I still remember feeling surprised. The shopping assistant was fantastic. He was genuinely helping us choose the right items without being pushy.
Think about your typical shopping experience. Mine is quite different. I often hear a mindless “that looks great on you” and feel annoyed at the lack of care.
Emotions that matter for Customer Experience
Analysts report on various aspects of emotions that matter to Customer Experience (CX).
Forrester: Emotions that lead to a positive CX
Anjali Lai writes in her Forrester report that several high-intensity emotions are tightly linked to consumer spend, brand preference, and brand love. Among such emotions are the feeling of being valued and being surprised. My shopping story is a good example. Or, think of the first time you have ordered an Uber. I was definitely surprised at how easy the process was, compared to a regular taxi.
Beyond Philosophy: Long-term value vs. Short-term spend emotions
Another notable study of emotions in CX is the work by Colin Shaw, the Emotional Signature framework. He talks about three clusters of positive emotions:
- Attention: exciting, stimulating, indulging, exploratory.
- Recommendation: trusting, valued, focused, safe, cared for.
- Advocacy: happy and pleased.
Nunwood: Six Pillars of CX and their link to Emotions
The Six Pillars are not exactly emotions but relate to how customers feel. Instead, these are six essential characteristics of a Customer Experience:
Let’s link each pillar to the emotions it may evoke:
- Personalization leads to the feeling of being valued and cared for
- Integrity leads to trust
- Time and Effort can leave customers feeling pleased
- Expectation can lead to a positive surprise
- Resolution can evoke the feeling of being appreciated
- Empathy leads to gratefulness and happiness
How algorithms detect emotions in text
There are two types of approaches to emotion detection. The basic idea is that customers use emotive words and phrases. Therefore, algorithms can use them to guess related emotions.
Dictionary: Heatbeat AI uses a dictionary of 8000 words and phrases that map to 99 emotions and 10 categories. Here is one of their visualizations that shows people’s emotions towards US election candidates this year:
Machine Learning: Kanjoya detects several dozens specific emotions using Machine Learning. It uses algorithms trained on thousands of hand-tagged posts on a social site, the Experience Project. Here, each time people posted a story there, they tagged it with the relevant emotions.
What is the missing link of emotional analysis?
The analysts tell brands: These are the emotions that matter. These emotions lead to loyalty, advocacy, and love. The technologists tell brands: We can detect if your customers are experiencing Joy, Sadness, and Fear. As you can see, there is a disconnect!
Unfortunately, neither group provides the answer to the fundamental question: Which actions lead to a positive emotional experience?
The missing link of emotional analysis are the actions that trigger certain feelings in customers.
If actions trigger emotions, then the analysis should not be focused on detecting emotional words, but on measuring the activities of the company and their employees.
For example, I may not have mentioned the particular emotive words and phrases in my NPS comment for that exceptional department store. But, I described what happened when I went there:
The shopping assistant was fantastic and offered us her undivided attention to help us choose the right clothes.
The fact that I feel Joy is evident from my NPS score. But, it doesn’t tell the store what they did well. What happened is that the shopping assistant has shown care and integrity. Instead of selling the most expensive piece of clothing, he delivered on his role. As a result, I felt valued, I felt trust, and I was positively surprised at this experience.
Emotion analysis for actionable insights
The ideal analysis of customer feedback should focus on themes, linking them on emotions. Furthermore, this should be unique to each brand, survey, and even touchpoint. For example, during shopping showing empathy is not as important as when making a claim with an insurance provider or filing a technical issue with your broadband provider.
Brands need to know which emotions matter to their business. They also need to understand which employee behaviors trigger those emotions. Finally, by using thematic analysis of customer feedback, companies can measure each month whether customers notice employee’s efforts and appreciate them. Will these measurements hold up against the brand promise in its marketing messages? How did they make the customers feel?
About the author:
This article first appeared on Thematic. Alyona Medelyan received her Ph.D. from Waikato University, where her research resulted in a popular open-source keyword extraction tool Maui. She left academia to work with startups and to lead R&D projects with multinationals like Google, Cisco and Microsoft. She later founded Thematic, a SaaS solution for customer feedback analysis helping brands around the world improve their customer satisfaction.
In last week’s blog, I made a distinction between “likely to recommend” and “actually recommend.” I also suggested that from my vantage point the Net Promoter Score® (which is calculated using a single question about likelihood to recommend) has greater predictive value for customer loyalty (return business and future spend) than it does about advocacy (referrals).
Also in last week’s blog, I indicated that customers have a variety of reasons why they don’t recommend brands even though they are otherwise loyal (e.g. wanting not to have their favorite places overrun with new customers). Finally, I promised this week I would offer tips on how to convert loyal customers into referral sources.
So without further ado, here are some broad approaches to activating promoter behavior in your loyal customer base:
1.) Remind them you operate from referrals. This may seem obvious but few businesses formalize this utterance. Any time you determine a customer is highly satisfied or strongly emotionally engaged with your brand (e.g. direct feedback from them, a 9 or 10 on the NPS®, or you receive stellar results on a satisfaction inventory), you have an opportunity to let your customer know that your ability to serve them is fueled by their referrals.
2.) Thank those that make referrals. By asking customers how they heard about your business you can track how much of your new customer acquisition comes from “word of mouth.” This calculation is not only an important KPI of customer experience excellence (happy customers sending their friends) but also it is foundational to an important follow-up question, “Who may I thank for referring you?” A personal thank you note or small unexpected thank you gift goes a long way to sustaining referral behavior.
3.) Make it easy to make referrals. One of the great things about social media is the ease with which customers can make what I refer to as “passive” referrals through the power of “social shares” or “likes.” Making it easy to socially share their positive moments with your brand allows customers to gently let their community of friends know that they are brand advocates.
In addition to social sharing strategies, consider providing other collateral materials to loyal customers. For example, a marketing collateral that thanks loyal customers for their business can give them a discount for a future purchase based on their loyalty and it can also be constructed to allow them to “gift” a discount to a friend that they want to introduce to your brand.
4.) Assure existing customers that you have a long-term commitment to their personal care. Every time a customer refers someone to your business they run the risk that the person they referred will get their needs met instead of the customer making the referral. Subtly, great brands signal an enduring commitment to personal care for loyal customers which implies that as your business grows, you will respond in ways that don’t exploit loyalty. If that message isn’t communicated or if actions don’t support that communication, loyal customers will not only stop referring; worse yet, they will abandon you.
5.) Don’t forget the WIIFM. Customer’s need to know “what’s in it for me” when they make a referral. That has to be more than the, “Don’t worry no matter how much we grow, we will take care of you.” message recommended above.
You have to answer the question, “What does a person get for putting their reputation out on behalf of your brand’s reputation?” Often companies take a very instrumental or mercenary approach to this question and reflexively create a “referral incentive.” While monetary referral rewards can be appropriate in certain situations, they can also backfire. Many customers want to refer you because they have strong intrinsic connections to their friends and to your brand. They want to connect the people they care about with the brands that care about them. Being a resource and networker of people and experiences is an intrinsic “what’s in it for me.”
Often by creating incentive programs for referrals, you get people seeking extrinsic incentives (e.g. money) by sending people who may not be closely similar to the very people who are likely to be loyal to you. Inadvertently, you can acquire commodity buyers by attempting to purchase referrals.
Ultimately, your loyal customers want you to be around to serve them. They appreciate the way your business meets their needs, engages them emotionally, and fits their lifestyle. Most of those customers want to share your name with friends but often they need just a little reassurance, a gentle reminder, and an invitation to make referrals a reality.
I am a huge proponent of the concept behind the Net Promoter Score® (NPS)®. As you likely know the NPS® is calculated by asking customers:
How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague?
Respondents are given choices on a zero to 10 point scale. Those who indicate 9 or 10 are classified as promoters, 7 and 8 are referred to as passives, and respondents who answer 6 or below are viewed as detractors. Detractors are subtracted from Promoters leaving a Net Promoter Score®. While statisticians might obsess about the reduced predictive validity of an 11 point scale, I pragmatically see the core of this question as a key measure of customer experience.
Unlike Fred Reichheld (a man I respect greatly) and the genius behind the NPS®, I am not a proponent of relying on a single measure to encapsulate customer loyalty. (In essence, in his book The Ultimate Question, Fred has posited NPS® as the only customer relationship measure you would ever need.) Instead, I view NPS® as a well-validated predictor of repeat business and future spend. NPS®, when supplemented with questions about customer effort or the degree to which a brand fits the lifestyle of its customers, gets to the strength of emotional relationships (engagement) customers have with the brands they frequent.
In fact, I often see NPS® as a proxy for KPI’s like frequency of future visits and likely future spend. What I think is often misunderstood, at least in my experience, is “likelihood to recommend” is not a proxy for “will recommend”. This is a result of confusion between loyalty and advocacy. If I am a promoter (who gives your brand a 9 or 10 on likely to recommend) it means there is a high probability I will return and buy more from you. It doesn’t necessarily mean I will actually recommend you. Granted a loyal customer is more like to make referrals than a detractor.
Let me give you a couple of examples. There is a restaurant in my town to which I am 100% loyal. I would give them a 10 on a promoter question and can’t wait to spend money with them soon. That said, the restaurant is thriving. In fact, recently it seems to be so popular that I am having a hard time getting a reservation. Now let’s pretend you are a work associate and we are having a casual conversation about great restaurants in the area. I would be forthcoming about other restaurants but I’d hold back on “this gem”.
Here’s another example of how loyalty doesn’t result in referrals. Let’s assume you’ve incurred a death in your family and that the compassion, business ethics, and experience provided by the funeral director warranted a 9 on a promoter question. You would use the business again if a similar circumstance occurred but would you be likely to recommend the business to a friend if they lost a loved one? Unlike restaurant referrals, some business sectors are less prone to advocacy. Put differently, we are socialized to make referrals toward some types of businesses and not others.
So how do you turn loyalty into advocacy, irrespective of the business? The short answer is it takes conscious activation and gentle effort to drive advocacy. A longer answer will come in next week’s blog.
For now, hopefully, the “big ideas” of this week are that:
1.) a “likely to recommend question” predicts loyalty and future spend.
2.) loyalty and spend are foundational components to advocacy but,
3.) additional effort is needed to help your loyal customers become your advocates and your referral sources.
I’ve often made a distinction between service and servitude.
Sadly, and all too often, customers treat service providers like they are lesser beings. At the same time, I am disheartened when service providers take little pride in developing the skills necessary to be true service professionals.
It is my belief that automation will replace many service providers who are not passionately engaged in the art of assisting others. A 2016 Washington Post article highlighted the potential impact of automation on an American workforce currently rich with service employees by noting:
“The ‘automation bomb’ could destroy 45 percent of the work activities currently performed in the United States, representing about $2 trillion in annual wages…Currently, only 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated, but 60 percent of occupations could soon see machines doing 30 percent or more of the work.”
It is my view that we will always need some level of human service delivery and that the future of service jobs will be relegated to a much smaller number of service professionals. By my definition, service professionalism involves an appreciation that all business is personal and that every customer wishes to be respectfully treated as an individual. Service professionals develop skills in attentive listening, empathy, and resourcefulness.
From a distance, Starbucks barista Andrew Richardson appears to be one such service professional. Andrew recently interacted with a drive-thru customer named Debbie. During that interaction, Debbie became angry about two issues 1) that Andrew’s Starbucks had run out of drink carriers, and 2) that Andrew could not take trash from her car back in through the service window. Andrew listened attentively to Debbie and treated her with respect during what Andrew perceived as Debbie’s “mild irritation.”
The impact of Andrew’s service professionalism was evidenced in a truly rare outcome one day later. Debbie presented again in the drive-thru lane, this time to hand Andrew the following apology card:
Yes, the depicted $50 bill was enclosed in the apology card.
So let’s look at a couple of the key messages from Debbie concerning Andrew’s professionalism, “Keep up your attitude of cheer & hope. Stay hopeful no matter what kind of people cross your path (or drive thru)…You taught this ole lady something yesterday about kindness, compassion & staying humble.”
Andrew noted that relative to the scope of challenges he faces in customer service each day Debbie was at best a 2 on a 10 point scale. Despite that rather ordinary interaction from Andrew’s perspective, clearly, Debbie saw the experience as positively transformational.
So, what’s the lesson from this atypical apology? The art of service professionalism requires, as Debbie so aptly indicated, an attitude of cheer, hope, kindness, compassion, and humility. Additionally, while most irritated customers won’t apologize or express their gratitude for your professionalism you never know the back story that affects a customer’s behavior and typically you don’t know the impact your service professionalism has on them.
I suspect that if a customer ever offers you a $50 tip of gratitude for how you managed their upset, you probably demonstrated the type of service professionalism that will provide some insurance against displacement from automation. What do you think?
Short of having a customer return with an apology card, how else can you know if you’re acting with service professionalism? How can you recognize colleagues when they are serving you or your customers at the height of their professionalism?
Way to go Andrew and Debbie…you’ve reminded us all that professional service matters!