Standing in the gate area of Delta Airlines at DFW Airport, I was watching the monitor to learn if my name appeared on the “upgrade to first class” list. Honestly, I was feeling totally entitled since I fly a gazillion miles a year on Delta. Had my name not appeared, I would have been disappointed, maybe even angry. But, this time my name appeared. Today, you do not go to the gate attendant for a new boarding pass, the computer issues you a new seat assignment as you board with the first class passengers.
The upgrade process is designed to be an affinity program—crafted to ramp up the affection of customers. No humans were involved in this historically value-added process. And, since there was no emotional connection, no expression of bigheartedness from Delta, my heart never raced; my affection meter for the brand never budged. It was as functional as a vending machine. I realized I had just participated in the mechanization of customer delight and it completely failed to enchant. So, I did not tweet about my upgrade nor did I tell my neighbor.
Organizations with no emotional connection become quickly commoditized and end up slugging it out over lowest costs. Their market shares are consumed by new entries that have better service and certainly greater buzz. In an era when customers are dazzled daily with sensory stimulation and entertainment, the ho-hum gauge has been re-calibrated much higher. Service formerly deemed pretty good is now viewed as pretty dull. But the consequences of mechanization are even graver for the employees who deliver service.
That gate attendant at DFW was filled to capacity with check-in, record management, and boarding chores. Robbed of the freedom to be generous or ingenious, she seemed to be merely going through the motions. She was not unfriendly. But, her infrequent smile appeared strained, as if there was a super vivacious person behind her professional mask struggling to be set free. My perception was that this once upbeat firefly was now shoehorned into worker bee status. But clearly it was not the monitor and computer that rendered her dazed; the American Airlines agent on the opposite side of the terminal had the exact same look.
Before you chastise me as a hopeless romantic stuck in the wrong time, let me quickly say that the mechanization of surprise is not a steel driving John Henry versus a steam driven hammer kind of contest. There are progress-making benefits to appropriate mechanization. It is more about leadership focused solely on the service outcome versus the service experience. Granted the service outcome (phone installed, car repaired, check cashed or take-out delivered) is much easier to measure
It is key to remember that a reliable service outcome might bring a customer in but it is a positive service experience that brings a customer back.
McDonald’s is an excellent hamburger factory, one of the best in the world. McDonald’s CEO can no doubt tell you the average speed of service per car at 12:32 P.M., the precise amount of time required to make a Big Mac, the pace of a credit-card transaction versus cash––essentially, all the arithmetic of the service encounter. These are all metrics almost completely controllable by McDonald’s. But customers are evaluating their trip to Mickey D’s based on the personality of the server, the hospitality of the setting, and the respect they are shown throughout the entire process. These are metrics co-created by McDonald’s and the customer. McDonald’s may control their presentation, but it is the customer who determines if the entire experience made the grade.
When organizations rely on professional shoppers to assess the experience of their customers rather than asking customers directly, they reveal their outcome-centric mentality. Shoppers are actors trained to watch for adherence to standards, much like the quality-control department does in a factory. Real customers have a broader view, a memory-making perspective that considers both the outcome and the experience.
Ask the frequent quick service restaurant customer who has experienced both McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A which they think is more important: the speed with which the order was filled, the expected level of food preparation, or the welcoming attitude of the server. The overwhelming majority will tell you that style is more important than speed in determining whether they return! Sure, the basic outcome expectation is for fast food fast. But the experience is what is remembered.
Call centers the world over, whether B2C or B2B, stay up late worrying about speed of answer, customers in queue and call handle time (outcome metrics), forgetting that customer research shows that first-contact resolution and the knowledge of the call center rep are more important to customers (experience measures).
So what is required to humanize customer delight leaving it truly delight-full? Part of the answer is to remember that customer service is most valued when it is anchored to a relationship. Granted, we like the speed, around-the-clock access, and simplicity of ordering online with Amazon or Zappos. The ideal online service is no service! But, if you ever have a problem or issue with Amazon or Zappos and have to contact a real person, you are overwhelmed by how much customer-centric humanism is hard-wired into their customer experience.
The lion’s share of the solution is the return of the role of ambassador to the front line. An ambassador is a “diplomatic official of the highest rank appointed and accredited as representative in residence by one government to another.”
What would service be like if the teller, call center operator, nurse, clerk or gate attendant was treated as having the “highest rank” and accredited (resourced, empowered and celebrated) as the representative of the organization’s brand.
We would see a grand return to real surprise much to the delight of customers who would be transformed into ardent advocates.