Explaining the power of customer expectation: stories of splashing sinks, free tea and broken curtains!

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Last week was as manic as they get for me. Prague, Oxford, London and Copenhagen were all on my itinerary in a mad, exciting and fruitful five days. Despite all the travelling I do these days, I am still someone who gets excited about travelling to places I have never been before. I often do not get much chance to see the sights and experience the culture, but I do get the opportunity to eat nice food, stay in good hotels and travel with well known operators. In my experience, the prospect of travel creates a nice equation – especially when put in the context of customer experience – the equation is as follows:


Even when travelling for the purposes of work, we all feel that sense of excitement and anticipation. Both of these emotions build a level of expectation that presents a challenge for the organisations we interact with – the challenge being that it is their role to try to meet it!

Last week I had very high expectations of three particular organisations – the W Hotel in Leicester Square; Scandinavian Airlines (SAS); and the Admiral Hotel Copenhagen. The question is, would they be able to meet my expectations or not? If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will be aware that I do have high expectations. I do not consider my expectations to be too high – rather I feel that my expectations represent the minimum that customers SHOULD expect as given.

Let me start with the W Hotel in Leicester Square. If you have not heard of W Hotels before, they are part of the Starwood Hotels empire. Starwood boast the Sheraton and Le Meridien brands among their portfolio and are well known for delivering very good customer experiences. W Hotels are intended to provide customers with ‘iconic design and contemporary luxury to set the stage for exclusive and extraordinary experiences’. Sounds good does it not?! Here is the full blurb (promise) from their website:

Escape to where iconic design and contemporary luxury set the stage for exclusive and extraordinary experiences at W Hotels® Worldwide. Retreat to surprising, sensory environments where amplified entertainment, vibrant lounges, modern guestrooms and innovative cocktails and cuisine create more than just a hotel experience, but a luxury lifestyle destination.

Having browsed their website, my expectation equation kicked in to gear. My levels of excitement and anticipation were pretty high. It is not surprising when you consider what I had read and seen on the website. As I approached the brilliantly located hotel on the corner of the genuinely iconic Leicester Square in London, I could not wait to see what lay in store.

There is no denying that the hotel is very different. It looks and feels more like a nightclub than a hotel. The word I would use to describe it is ‘cool’. Cool does not come cheap however – and as I checked in, my excitement and anticipation monitors remained high. I found my bedroom down a very dark (or seductively lit) corridor. Outside my bedroom I found a tray with a used glass on it. Not what I expected to greet me in the coolest of cool hotels. The fact it was still there four hours later was disappointing.

The seductively dark (and dingy) corridors at the W Hotel
The seductively dark (and dingy) corridors at the W Hotel
Whose glass is this?
Whose glass is this?

Inside the bedroom I was greeted by more cool…….and a sink in the middle of the room! Yes, at the W Hotel, the sink(basin) is on an island that doubles up as a desk in the middle of the room. The toilet and shower are both hidden behind mirrored doors. The design of the room was excellent and very very cool. A huge kingsize bed sat on a shag pile rug in front of a large plasma screen TV. Peeking out of the window I could just see Leicester Square itself – not bad. However, cool does not necessarily mean that this room met my expectation.

Turning on the tap (faucet) to wash my hands, my anticipation and excitement monitors started to decline. Whilst the sink and tap combo look great, it is doubtful whoever designed it, or anyone in management from W Hotels has ever tried to use it. I was immediately covered in water. However hard or soft I turned the tap, you could not use the sink without getting covered in splashing water. This meant that the floor of the bedroom was also soaking wet. Not good design.

The offending (but cool) W Hotel sink
The offending (but cool) W Hotel sink

There were other design issues. The shower was in an enclosed cubicle – I could not put the shower mat outside the door as I was then unable to open the door. I could not put it inside the cubicle or it would get soaking wet. This may seem like a pretty minor issue to you, but to me it is an outcome of poor design. Once again, the floor of my bedroom was wet.

When I add in the fact that free Wi-Fi was limited to two hours and that I was asked for ID (my passport or driving licence) on arrival (something that I have not been asked for in a UK hotel for the last three years), the W Hotel had eroded a significant chunk of my anticipation and excitement monitors. The reality is that all I will remember from this cool hotel is that it was a very expensive way to get a wet suit. Its coolness was not enough to meet my basic expectations. It fell a long way short of exceeding them. The ultimate result is that I will not stay in a W Hotel again.

W Hotels were not the only brand to fail to meet my expectation last week. I was excited to fly to Copenhagen with Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). Having heard and read a lot about them over the years, I was anticipating and excited to see what they had on offer. I expected it to feel a somewhat better experience than other airlines. To cut a long story short, I should have known better. A couple of weeks ago, I asked a room full of European air travellers if any of them had felt ‘good’ about their flight in the last 24 hours. Not a single person put their hand up! The reason for this is that few (if any) airlines are able to offer an experience that is better than anyone else.

My flights with SAS felt just the same as any other short haul airline – no better and no worse. However, the fact that my flights were in excess of £500 meant that the experience actually felt far worse. Even free coffee and tea (excitedly promoted by the cabin crew) was not enough to leave me feeling disappointed. The result – why travel with SAS when I could have flown with Easyjet at a fraction of the price.

A free cup of tea is not enough to save SAS from failing to meet my expectations
A free cup of tea is not enough to save SAS from failing to meet my expectations

Although my flight to Copenhagen was not as good as I expected, I was anticipating a recovery on arrival at my hotel – the Admiral Hotel Copenhage. Having reviewed the website, I was excited about staying in the stunning and beautifully restored 18th century warehouse on the waterfront in the heart of the city. Again, the price led me to set my expectation in the very high category.

Once again I was disappointed. Although the design of the hotel was good, the design of the rooms was less so. My room was split level – the bedroom nestled on a mezzanine floor above a lounge area. It looked nice, but was not very functional. The stairs were precarious – fortunately I did not need the loo in the middle of the night – I would be amazed if previous guests have not injured themselves. The desk was situated so close to the stairs that I could not pull the chair out properly to sit behind it. I ended up sitting at an angle. Additionally, the plug sockets by my bed did not work and one set of curtain blinds were broken. When you add in the fact that breakfast was not included in the already high price of my room, my excitement and anticipation had ended in disappointment. Once again, the result is that I will be finding alternative accommodation the next time I visit Copenhagen.

The Admiral Hotel Copenhagen - looks nice, but beware the stairs!
The Admiral Hotel Copenhagen – looks nice, but beware the stairs!

The moral of all of these stories is simple. If you fail to meet the expectation(s) of your customers you risk never seeing them again. If you set an expectation that is high – you need to be able to live up to your promises. Luxury hotels like Claridges have the authority to use the word luxury because they excel at delivering experiences to their customers that address every minute attention to detail. Their customers would expect no less. This principle is exactly the same for any brand – luxury or not.

So if you want to assess what the expectation of your customer experience is, consider your own personal levels of anticipation and excitement when interacting with a company. How do you feel when you order a new pair of shoes online?; or a new smartphone?; or presents for the kids?; how do you feel if what you receive is not quite what you expected – either the product or the service? Failure to meet customer expectation can be fatal.

‘Without customers you would not exist’ – an open letter to all CEOs on behalf of customers everywhere

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Dear Chief Executive Officers (of all companies in all industries everywhere)

I am writing this letter on behalf of your customers – consumers; businesses; young; old; male; female. For centuries, people have purchased goods and services from those able to provide things that are needed. From food to clothes to technology to construction to medicines. Companies have and still are being created to fulfil the needs of customers all over the world.

The reason that your business exists is because it is providing products or services that we – your customers need/want. If we did not need or want your goods or services, you would not exist. No business can exist without customers – a statement of the blindingly obvious, but one that too many companies fail to acknowledge. I say that companies fail to acknowledge it, as this is the only explanation for the appalling experiences that customers have on a daily basis.

Over the last few years, you (CEOs of organisations giving us what we want) have recognised the opportunities afforded by new technology. The phenomenon that is the internet has revolutionised the way your businesses are able to interact with customers. During this time, our (the customer) expectations have changed. We, the customer, now know much more than we ever did before. We know as much about your products and services as your own employees do, yet you still continue to serve up experiences that fall way short of what we expect.

Only yesterday, I was advised by the employee of a company to visit a website to ‘place my order’. This employee refused to help me ‘over the phone’. The website he referred me to did not even exist. Unbelievable. Recently I interacted with a large financial services business. They claim they are helping consumers – their actions could not have been more contradictory.

Well the customer has had enough. Stop treating us like fools. Stop taking advantage of us. Stop telling us how important the customer is but doing nothing to demonstrate that you actually mean it. If you carry on giving us bad experiences, we will go and find our products and services somewhere else. Is your company guilty of any of the following?

  1. Poor value for money
  2. Delivering unacceptable customer service
  3. Failing to keep promises (unreliable)
  4. Poor quality
  5. Difficult to do business with

If you can honestly say you are 100% perfect with all of these – we will not believe you. What are you doing to get better at these things? Get your head out of the sand and wake up and smell the coffee. Our expectations will only get higher and higher as time goes on. You need to demonstrate to us that your company is serious about caring about us – caring about the things we need. We want the whole experience to be good. Consistently good. If you fail to give us good experiences, we will stop using your company. No customers = no company.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that your attention as CEO is focussed almost entirely on your shareholders. Good luck to you in continuing to obsess about share prices whilst your company fails to deliver the experiences that your customers want. All the creative accounting in the world will ultimately fall down when you realise that in focussing on shareholders you have ignored what is happening to customers.

When did you last experience what your customer experiences? When did you last sit at a checkout or deal with a  complaint over the phone or go to a meeting with a customer? It is not good enough to simply agree to go on ‘Undercover Boss’ – you need to be understanding what it is to be an employee and a customer continuously. You need to ensure that your leadership team do the same. Feel what we feel and you should understand what works and what doesn’t work.

You need to keep reminding yourself and your teams that they too are consumers. Do you like it when you have a bad experience with a company? So why is it acceptable for you to do to your customers what you do not want to happen to you?

We are sick and tired of having terrible experiences. I hope (on behalf of customers) that you take notice of the essence of this letter. I hope (on behalf of customers) that you really listen to what it, and your customers are saying. The big question is this – if you carry on doing what you are doing today, do you think you will still exist in 1 year, 5 years or ten years?

Yours Sincerely


Ian Golding


‘Could you care less?’ Why ‘caring’ is essential if you want to deliver great customer experiences

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This is a tale that readers of my blog are likely to empathise with. It is a tale of large organisations who purport to talk of delivering ‘world class’ customer service, and continuously improving customer experiences. It is a tale which shows that however hard they convince themselves that they are ‘customer focussed’, they still have an almighty long way to go. As I can often be heard muttering in various forums around the world, ‘talk is cheap’ when it comes to the world of customer experience. It is ‘doing’ that allows a company to go from being ‘average’ or ‘good’ to ‘great’.

To be a customer experience ‘leader’, your organisation from top to bottom needs to demonstrate that it genuinely cares about its customers. You need your customers to instinctively get the sense that you care so much about them, that they trust you to do what is right – whatever happens. Caring builds a bond with not just your customers, but your employees as well. If you care about your people, they will care about your customers – it is that simple.

So where does this tale begin. Let us look at the story of Virgin Trains. I use Virgin Trains a lot – in fact, over the last twelve months, I have almost used them at least once a week. I have spent a lot of money with them! I have had many great experiences travelling between Chester and London. I have met some fabulously friendly staff, and travelled on clean, modern trains. Most of the time the trains have been on time, and I have reached my destination as expected. On occasion they have ‘wowed me’ – including the train manager last week who was keen to dress up in the spirit of Christmas!!

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This chap (I forgot to ask him is name), gave me the sense that he cared. He built a great rapport with his customers early on a Friday morning, and made a standard train journey to London enjoyable and memorable. However, there are times when the experience is memorable for the wrong reasons – it is when things go wrong that you can get an insight into whether the business you interact with cares or not.

In September, I was on a train from London to Chester. To cut a long story short, I heard and saw what I thought was inappropriate behaviour from a Virgin train manager. I felt that the manager was very direct, aggressive and quite frankly rude to another passenger. This individual’s behaviour was not what I expect from the Virgin Trains brand. Doing what I do for a living, if I see something that I consider to be inappropriate, I offer ‘feedback’ as constructively as possible to the company concerned. That is what I did on this occasion. As I normally do, I tweeted Virgin:

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As is pretty normal with Virgin Trains, I received a very swift response. They acknowledged my comment, and asked for my email address. They were keen for me to send them the full detail. I duly did. At this stage, I was of the belief that this company cared. They cared enough to listen to my feedback, and they genuinely wanted to know more. If Virgin Trains had responded in as genuine a way, I would be writing a very different blog post. Sadly, what they did in response, completely destroyed the trust I had with their brand.

On the 23rd September – 6 days later – I received an email from Virgin Trains Customer Relations. As soon as I opened the email, and before I had even read a word of it, I noticed that there were little symbols breaking up the sentences. These symbols were not removed before the email was sent to me. The symbols signify that it is highly likely that this email was ‘cobbled together’ by an email management system. I say cobbled together – what I mean is that it is very likely that the sentences have been ‘selected’ from a list of standard sentences to construct an email response. To me, it is not a genuine response. To me it feels as though I am being ‘fobbed off’. To me, it was a demonstration that Virgin Trains just do not care. Have a read for yourself and draw your own conclusion:

“I was very concerned to learn about the manner of the Train Manager whilst you were on-board the London Euston to Chester service on 17th September. � I understand that you feel that this incident could have been dealt with in a more appropriate manner, and I hope you will accept my apologies.�  We are very proud that, on the whole, we get very positive comments about our staff, so we do take comments such as this very seriously.�  We have invested heavily in recruiting the right staff and in the right training.

As a representative of Virgin Trains, our staff have a responsibility to care for our customers and they do regularly generate the most praise for our services.�  When that care falls below our expected standards, then it’s only right that we should be made aware of it.�  As such, I am very grateful to you for taking the time to let us know about this.

Please be assured that all comments are taken very seriously, and are recorded in detail on our systems.�  This information is then passed to the relevant departments and form regular internal reports.�  These reports are forwarded to any applicable managers for appropriate action to be taken.

I would like to thank you for taking the time to contact us, as feedback of this nature is vital to us.�  We look forward to welcoming you back on board soon.”

This is not the only incident of ‘not caring’ that I have seen in recent months. In November, I received an email from my bank, Nat West. The email was to inform me of changes to my e-ISA account. I have never seen a better example of a customer communication written without any thought or regard to the fact that customers are human beings. The email is one of the worst I have ever read from a company I interact with. It re-enforces why banks are so badly thought of today – again – have a read for yourself:

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The last paragraph is my personal favourite! Amidst all this uncaring behaviour, it is possible to see a very different attitude. Last weekend I was honoured to attend a Christmas Fair at my children’s primary school. Mill View Primary School is a wonderful place. It is wonderful because it is brilliantly led. Its brilliant leadership cares for and nurtures its staff – both teaching and non teaching. The intensity it puts into caring for its staff translates into a deep caring for the children. The children love their school. Most of the parents do too. Everyone cares so much about the school, no-one minds putting in the extra effort to ensure that each and every experience is an amazing a memorable one.

The Christmas fair had an ice rink, amazing ‘Polar Palace’, bell ringers, brass band, gift and craft stalls, fabulous food and drink – it was a brilliant event. It was brilliant because the staff, parents and children cared enough to make the effort. They could have done something far easier – but then that would not have made for a memorable experience – it would have made an ‘ok’ one.

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I think that commercial organisations can learn a lot from a school like Mill View. If you care, you make an effort. If you make an effort, your customers are likely to remember you for the right reasons. This is what makes for a great customer experience.

As always, please do let me know your point of view – even if you disagree!!

Facebook is not even 10 years old! How technology and innovation is influencing the customer experience

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My eldest daughter Ciara is 10. When she came into the world, Facebook did not exist. It was still just an innovative idea being developed in the mind of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. A little over three years ago, the iPad did not exist. First launched in April 2010, it is hard to remember what life was like without tablet devices. If we look further back in advancements in technology, it was only in 1993 that Mosaic became the web browser credited with popularising the World Wide Web.

Technology is advancing so quickly, it is almost as though it has created a time dimension of its own. I am constantly in awe of the genius minds that are able to create things that continually make our lives easier. Every time new technology is introduced into our lives, the majority of the time it is simplifying or speeding up our ability to do things that we need to do on a daily basis. That is why technology has become such a fundamental and vital ingredient in an organisations ability to deliver better customer experiences.

A few months ago, I came across an amazing ‘infographic’ created by Intel (see below). It is astonishing how the evolution of technology is transforming our lives – at work and at home. 204 million emails are sent every minute of every day. 20 million photos are viewed online – every single minute. By 2015, the number of connected devices will be twice the number of the global population!!! Hands up if you have more than three devices that can connect to the internet?!

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Technology, both physical (i.e. products), and online is changing our culture. It is changing the way we behave, and what we expect when we interact with organisations. According to Forrester, it is estimated that by 2015, 48% of consumers will access the internet every day on their phone, 74% by 2020. Forrester, like many research experts point to the advance in mobile technology as the most significant of all innovation in the next few years:

  • 37% of mobile users browse product information and check prices and offers, while 17% have buy products/services on their phones
  • 8% of Tesco.com grocery orders involve the iPhone app at some stage
  • 4% of Ocado.com sales come through their iPhone app
  • eBay saw mobile users to generate approx $2 billion in transactions in 2010

Yesterday, I spotted an article whilst travelling down to London in Metro newspaper. According to them, 1 minute in every 12 is spent online. The numbers are staggering. Apparently, on average, we touch our phones at least 150 times a day! I am sure Mrs Golding would argue that I am on my phone far more often than that!

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This calendar year, consumers are expected to spend $2.1 trillion (I am not sure how many zeros that constitutes!) on mobile phones, computing and entertainment, media and other smart devices, the services that are required to make these devices connected to the appropriate network, and software and media content that are consumed via these devices. It is not hard to see why this is happening.

I think that all of this makes it clear that it is therefore vital for all organisations to consider whether or not the technology that powers their customer journeys is in line with the quickly changing expectations of customers. I recently conducted some independent research on the ‘things that are important to customers’ when interacting with organisations. Although I have not yet concluded my analysis of the results, the following are looking like being the top three most important requirements:

  • Competitiveness – you must be!
  • Reliability – you must do what you say you will and keep your promises
  • Ease – you must be easy to do business with

These three expectations are driven by a number of factors. Societal and economic issues are obviously at play. Yet it is technology that is best placed to positively effect all three of these needs. Technology is making it more economical for companies to provide services to customers. Technology is having a huge affect on our ability to transact with businesses. We can do almost everything and anything we want with a smart phone – from shopping, to watching a movie, to paying for goods or services to name but three. Reliability is a greater challenge, that although aided by more sophisticated technology, is reliant on business processes being designed and managed appropriately to deliver the required expectation. There is also the problem that in many cases, customer technology is more advanced than the business they are transacting with.

This is one of the greatest challenges that businesses must address – and now. If your employees do not have access to the same technology your customer does, it is likely that they will be unable to deliver the customer journey your customer expects. If your customer is researching information online, but your contact centre is unable to access the internet, your customer is one step ahead of you. Sustaining and growing a business in today’s economy is tougher than ever before. We live in a world of the ‘connected customer’ who has changed the rules of business engagement. Competition is therefore bigger than ever before.

Last week I had the pleasure of delivering a presentation on this subject to a technology company and their clients. I was asked if ‘technology can change culture?’ My reply was as follows:

For us, the consumer, it already has……..

For our businesses………’no change’ is no longer an option

As a closing thought, when talking about change in culture and consumer behaviour, I am always reminded of something the brilliant Dr Nicola Millard, BT’s Customer Experience Futurologist, said at a conference last year. It used to be that when your children were naughty, you could send them to their bedroom as a punishment. Today, they WANT to be sent to their room – that is where their technology lives. What we must do today to discipline our children is ‘disconnect them’!

As always, your thoughts on this or any of my blog posts are encouraged and very welcome.