Common Sense – the not so magic ‘customer experience’ ingredient

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Last night I stayed in a rather lovely hotel in Wimbledon. At £275 a night, you would expect the experience to be worthy of such a hefty price tag. The building, décor, facilities, public areas and bedrooms were all extremely well appointed – as you would imagine. So why am I telling you this? Having checked in, I was escorted to the lift – something that does not usually happen in most hotels. On arriving at the lift, the receptionist had to ensure that I was clear in understanding that my bedroom was on the first floor. Confused? I was…..until I realised that my room number was 217. The rooms on the ground floor all began with a 1. The rooms on the 1st floor with a 2, and the rooms on the 2nd floor with a 3. Utter madness!! Three members of my party ended up on the wrong floor, either ignoring their instruction, or pretending to listen – they will not have been alone. If you owned this hotel, what would you do? Personally, I would change the room numbers!

This serves as the perfect example to help introduce a blog about common sense – or the absence of common sense in so many experiences we encounter on a daily basis. The example is one of a lack of common sense in experience design, but what we unfortunately experience far more often is a lack of common sense in customer experience execution.

Recently I have been contacted by two very good friends expressing their exasperation at experiences delivered by two rail operators. I have nothing against rail operators, but the recent trend suggests that the British consumer is not having much fun on our rail network at the moment. Both of my friends stories demonstrate how common sense is lacking in our daily lives – the question is why – but before you come to a conclusion, please allow me to share their stories with you:

Lack of common sense exhibit 1: the not so ‘electronic’ ticket

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This is an image of a new Greater Anglia mobile ticket. It is a good sign that a rail operator has finally managed to catch up with the airlines in being able to offer a paperless experience. As we are now well into 2014, some would say it is about time. You would imagine that a company that has started to adopt paperless travel would be encouraging passengers to use this method more frequently – in fact you would assume that they would positively support the elimination of paper. You would be wrong in making that assumption.

At the end of March, my friend booked a ticket with Greater Anglia. Booking his ticket at the last minute, he opted to have his ticket emailed to him (as the mobile ticket option was not offered on this route).  My friend wrongly assumed that having a ticket emailed to him meant that it acted as an electronic ticket. Not reading the small print (as many of us would not), he did not realise that he needed to print out his emailed ticket on an A4 sheet of paper. His failure to read the small print would end up having significant consequences.

To cut a long story short, customers of Greater Anglia who are travelling on an email ticket but who do not print the ticket out, will not be permitted to travel. Even though the customer is able to show the email on their electronic device, unless the ticket is printed, you are going nowhere – unless you buy a new ticket that is. Greater Anglia are not prepared to help you by allowing you to print the ticket in the station – you will be instructed to ‘find a printer yourself’. Ultimately, the only way you are going to be able to travel in this scenario (if you cannot locate a printing service) is if you buy another ticket.

Interestingly, at no time did Greater Anglia staff dispute that my friend had purchased a valid ticket. In fact the duty manager on his return confirmed that ‘this happens all the time’! So why did they insist that he purchase another ticket? Greater Anglia stated in their response to his subsequent complaint that their staff correctly conformed to their processes. They may well have done, but are their processes appropriate?! It was quite clear that a ticket had been purchased, so surely it would have made sense to advise the customer of what they needed to do in future and let them travel. The stress, time and effort that has since been exerted by the customer and company could have been avoided. This is a classic case of the application of a complete lack of common sense.

Greater Anglia have since acknowledged that the ‘product needs to be reviewed’ and that they ‘want to make travelling with Greater Anglia easier’ – whilst they are setting the bureaucratic wheels in motion, maybe they should empower their customer facing staff to apply a little common sense in future.

Lack of common sense exhibit 2: the friends and family ‘not so friendly’ railcard

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My other friend (I do have more than two by the way) had an equally frustrating experience on Virgin Trains recently. She frequently travels from the North West to London with at least one of her two children – often doing a return trip on the same day. When travelling with the kids, she uses her friends and family railcard, On this particular occasion, she was travelling down to London with a child, but returning by herself. Unsure whether or not she should use her railcard, she contacted Virgin to find out what she should do. She was told that as long as she purchased a return ticket for both her and the child, she could use her railcard. In this case, it was more expensive for her to do this than buy a single adult return ticket, but for ease, she went ahead and purchased a return ticket for one adult and one child.

You can probably guess what happened. On trying to board the train at Euston, a ticket inspector advised her that her ticket was not valid as she was not travelling with a child. Despite her explanation and protestation, the inspector would not listen. She even tried to explain that the cost of these tickets was greater than the cost of a single, but her explanation fell on deaf ears. She was given no option but to run to the ticket office to buy a new single adult ticket. She ended up catching the train by the skin of her teeth.

The behaviour of this member of staff is in my opinion completely unacceptable. With no interest in listening to reason, the insistence on the black of white application of process meant that no common sense was applied. The result was a very distressed and upset customer.

So what exactly is going on? Why are we experiencing so many scenarios like these? Why does it appear as though employees of companies have no ability to use their heads?! Customer experiences cannot be delivered without people. People ensure that your proposition (if you have one) is delivered to meet and hopefully exceed the expectation of customers. The most customer centric organisations delivering the greatest experiences are those that TRUST and EMPOWER their people to do what is RIGHT for the CUSTOMER. They are not constrained by process – they are guided by process and appropriate behaviours and values to ensure that where the process is not suitable or acceptable, an appropriate solution is found to the benefit of the customer. In both of these cases, it is clear that the employees involved are not trusted or empowered to do what is right. They are managed and measured to strictly apply process – even if it makes no sense at all – BONKERS!

People are the glue that gels customer experiences together. If companies do not invest in their people and make them an integral part of the experience, they will find it very difficult to deliver consistently good and continuously improving customer experiences. It is fair to say that not everyone has the ability to use common sense – but most of us do possess the natural ability. I hope for a world where the companies we work for encourage their people to just do what is right – and if you are not sure, check with someone before you do something to your customers that you would not dream of doing to yourself. Rose tinted spectacles? Maybe, but I can dream!




Why would you recommend Virgin Trains? Why NPS should not be the default question to measure all customer experiences

Virgin Trains - why would you recommend them to anyone when there is no other option?
Virgin Trains – why would you recommend them to anyone when there is no other option?

I am very fortunate to work with and alongside some exceptional Customer Experience Professionals. As a specialist in the profession myself, the ability to continually learn from my peers enables my own development. Whilst I love writing about all things to do with Customer Experience (as I hope you know), some of my colleagues are not as keen as I am to rant on a regular basis. That being said, I often try to ‘twist the arm’ of the experts I know others will be keen to learn from.

I am absolutely delighted that my friend and fellow Customer Experience Professional, Maria McCann has finally caved in and written about an experience of her own. If you do not know Maria, you should. Maria is one of the most accomplished leaders I know in the Customer Experience field, having held senior roles at Red Letter Days, ASOS, Spotify and Aurora Fashions. Her story (which I am hoping you have guessed involves Virgin Trains) is one that I am sure we can all relate to – I know you will enjoy reading it:

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We’ve all been on the receiving end of a train delay. It’s often a no-win situation for the train company focused on getting everyone to their destination safely, while passengers are left feeling impotent and frustrated.  I feel protective of the customer facing teams dealing with confused, sometimes angry customers and the social teams whose twitter handles get put under immense pressure to respond with lightening speed.

However a first time trip using Virgin Trains left me with more steam coming out of my ears than one of their Super Voyagers! Let me set the scene. My train was cancelled. The next one was delayed. Updates from the concourse and on twitter citing reasons outside of the train Operators control. A blameless situation and a communicative company.  All ok so far. Expect in the middle of my chaos, I received a survey asking me how my recent travel experience was and how likely I was to recommend Virgin Trains to a family or friend. The good old NPS question.

When I told them there was zero chance of me recommending them, I was asked why.  This is what I told them.

  1. Why would I need to recommend the only operator that runs this route?
  2. My train is delayed. I wouldn’t recommend anyone right now

I’m going to pivot here for a moment and talk about Net Promoter Score; the methodology that Virgin Trains, and countless other businesses use to measure their customer experience.

I was an early UK adopter of NPS, first implementing it at Red Letter Days in 2007. The reason I used it was a purists’ one. I wanted something we could use to measure organic growth. As a company coming out of Administration, it was crucial we had a sustainable customer growth underpinning our strategy and NPS was a great way to measure this.

Since then I have seen the use of NPS evolve into a benchmark measure for customer satisfaction or experience reaching out beyond commercial markets into sectors with consumer monopolies such as train travel, and even NHS Direct in health.I’m all for having a measure that provides insight which organisations can act upon. However, I would challenge NPS as the default question to measure customer experience in all cases. It was certainly the wrong question to ask about my train experience.

Anyway, back to my frustrated self, standing on the platform. NPS question asked and answered. Check. Algorithm picked up key word, prompting more detail from me. Check. Detail given in form of mini-rant. Check.

‘We’re sorry you experienced a delay’ was the answer to my response ‘If you have been delayed by more than 30 minutes, please click here to download a form to claim for compensation.

WOW! I thought; this business is so sorry that I have to do all the work to pick up the pieces.

My train finally arrived and it was elbows at dusk as two trains worth of passengers attempted what looked like a line of rugby scrums as they boarded. Deciding that standard class was going to be more like cattle class, I decided to seek out a member of staff to see if I could upgrade to 1st, (which took up a third of the train and was practically empty). ‘Upgrades are only available at weekends’ was the flat response.  I had no idea what this meant and was losing my calm. And so I turned to Twitter to see if I could get what I wanted. #Epicfail

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I got no response from Virgin Trains after my final tweet and I spent the rest of my journey calming myself over a gin and reflecting on what I could learn from my experience.

Data gives us opportunities to see further ahead than the customer. So why do we often act out of kilter with our customers’ reality?

When I headed up Customer Service at ASOS, I obsessed over being one step ahead of our customers. Especially on delayed deliveries. Then we developed the capability to predict delays, communicate the failure and refund the delivery charge. All in one smooth service experience. This presented a culture problem. If we refunded 100% of failures, we might refund some customers who didn’t deserve it and we would definitely spend more in refunds.

However we decided to put the right experience over our fears and became one of the first retailers to tell customers of a problem before they felt the pain of experiencing it.  Customers who had previously complained fell, rapidly.  Refunds ballooned but we were able to reinvest the resources we had saved from reduced customer contact, into finding the root of these delays and fixing them for good.

Virgin Trains could have mashed up mine and the train’s data. They could have emailed me to tell me of the delay. They could have reassured me I didn’t have to do anything because they were sorting the compensation. And they could have avoided sending me a survey at the worst possible moment in my experience.

 We love training our teams to be empowered. So why don’t we support them to be autonomous?

I know some of you will be thinking empowerment and autonomy are the same and I’ve lost the plot.  Admittedly my mind can sometimes make quantum leaps of logic so let me try to explain what’s going on in my head…

Empowerment is a set of pre-defined powers handed from manager to employee, usually to manage a set of processes. Autonomy starts from the other end. It is an individual using their purpose, self-reliance and judgment to handle any situation, with their leaders supporting their needs. Talk to me about autonomy and I get inspired.

My experience could have gone differently in a completely autonomous environment. 1st class seats could have been sold without referring to process limitations to those interested in paying. If a totally customer obsessed train manager had been in charge, free WiFi and coffee might have been given to the flagging passengers! Although it was clear the team were empowered to manage the overall situation of the delay, I felt like I’d been shoved through a linear process.

To be fair to Virgin Trains, my overall experience is no better or worse than most consumer face everyday. Most brands are just not brave enough to push the boundaries in how we can use data and support our teams to act autonomously.

So I’ll leave you with this thought …  if we did use data to manage and measure the hygiene parts of our customers experience and leave the awesome parts to our autonomous colleagues, I believe most brands would have a better relationship with their customers as a result.


I am sure you will join me in thanking Maria for taking the time to write this excellent post. You can connect with her on Twitter @mariamccann or LinkedIn

‘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!!