Fred Astaire- “Some people seem to think that good dancers are born, but all the good dancers I have known are taught or trained..”

A big thanks to all the folks who have followed our 3 part blog series to the very end. We started by discussing the Customer Lifecycle and why it’s important to know where the customer is on your ‘game-board’ so that you speak to them in a relevant and context-sensitive way. We then reviewed how Customer Touch-Points act as doorways to value for your customers. Value gates can result in your customer doing one of three things: moving forward, falling out, or socially escalating by telling their peers about their experience. Finally, my last blog was an impromptu message about companies caring through interactions, brought to light by the passing of my dog, Lady Cooper. The following is the original third blog on Customer Interactions, revamped to include the example of what American Airlines got right when servicing my recent request. 

Interactions are a form of communication. They have rules and nuances for conveying the message that you intend. There is the need to give information, but there is also an emotional aspect when interacting with a customer. This emotional element is central to CX interactions because the exchange of value happens in two parts: a tangible deliverable, like giving money to have my plane ticket exchanged, and an intangible deliverable. The intangible is delivered during the course of the interaction, like having Lorraine from American Airlines work diligently and professionally when I was in my moment of panic trying to change my flight at the last minute, or later the next day when she sought me out to see if Cooper was okay.

One way I like to think about interactions is through the notion of dance.  Dance has certain rules of engagement, and one dance can be better or worse than another. When dance partners step onto the floor, there is an understanding of the type of dance it might be performed (Rumba, Waltz, Quickstep) and an understanding of who is taking the lead to see it through. If they get it wrong, they might step on one another’s toes, or be snickered at by the audience.

As we mentioned in our conversation on touch-points and value gates, we are never interacting with our customers alone. They must be thought of as both our dance partner and an audience member. As we know, word of mouth is a powerful tool, and if a company seriously and continually missteps while dancing with one customer, soon the rest of the audience will know. They will watch and scrutinize how we recover from the misstep, and if it goes uncorrected for the duration of the dance, it will become the most memorable aspect of the interaction.  On the other hand– to error is to be human, and with a quick recovery, and a professional finish, even the most flat-footed of us can be forgiven.  The key is teaching your employees the Rhythm of your Brand, and how to listen to it while engaging with your customers.

So let’s break down the perfect customer interaction. In working with the Consortium for Service Innovation over the past decade, we’ve discussed five steps a customer moves through to complete the interaction dance. At each step, they meet a value gate that they can choose to pass through or turn back. The first step is Value Recognition. Often this is the initial touch point. In this phase, the customer is assessing if they perceive value on the other side of the gate. After my phone call with Jen, I knew I had to change my flight and get home. Based on experience I knew I needed to take care of this before my flight departed, since trying to modify after a ‘missed flight’ is always problematic.  I saw the value of acting quickly and entered into the second step.

During Value Perception the customer is deciding on the best method for my interaction. I could have called a hotline to change my ticket or used an app, but I knew with only eleven minutes, talking to a person at the customer service desk was my best bet. This step is about making a customer comfortable with whatever choice they make. I felt good in my choice talking to a person because I knew I could convey everything I needed and be understood, unlike with an app or hotline.

For me, both of these steps happened quickly and were fairly straightforward. However, customers often find themselves in new situations and don’t have the experience to inform them. That is when services like Yelp, Social Media, and Google become priceless allies in decisions that might take weeks, months, or longer. When deciding to buy a house, selecting an MBA program, or picking your engagement ring, these first two steps require careful research for the big or unknown event.

Once committed to an interaction course of action (aka. Channel), the customer begins the third step, Value Exchange. The mistake that many companies make is to falsely believe that Step Three is the entirety of an interaction. More often than not, what they value is the Sales Transaction vs. the Customer Interaction. The actual exchange of money for a tangible good is important. However, there is more that matters than just the sales receipt. This phase also takes into account how long a customer waited in line, or whether or not they felt safe using a credit card. What does the box or bag that the product is shipped in look like? I knew I was hasty with Lorraine as she tried to help me change my ticket, but I was in a heightened emotional state, and the way she handled that situation with poise made the interaction all the more memorable. Once the exchange of tangible goods is over, many companies believe they are finished with an interaction/transaction, and they can simply book the sales in the accounts ledger and call it a day. However, The next two steps are perhaps the most important to focus on– which is why my American Airlines story is worth retelling.

The fourth step is Value Receipt. If a company has followed the first three steps and made a safe, intuitive, and friendly experience, chances are the customer is formulating a positive memory. The simple truth is that we all rely on our collective memories to take the first step to interacting with a random touch-point initially.  More often than not, it is our shared collective memory that informs us if the next touch point is a good idea to pursue. So as customers move through the fourth step, and they catalog this memory with others: will it be a good one, a poor one, or perhaps worse yet, a forgettable one? I was satisfied with my interaction when I got my ticket change, however having Lorraine come to the gate the next morning to check on my family, that took the experience above and beyond. It pushed the interaction from being satisfactory in my mind to being something magical. The follow through can often push help a customer through step 4 to solidify a positive memory.

Now the time gap between the fourth step and the fifth step can vary, just like the length of the interaction. Value Realization happens when the customer is asked by someone how the liked their interaction with a company. If my job wasn’t specifically working with customer experience, and I didn’t have this platform to share my story about American Airlines, it might have been some time before anyone asked how my experience was. It isn’t until this moment of sharing that value realization takes place. For me, it began the instant I called my client in Washington DC to tell him about Lorraine at the gate. Through sharing and reliving my experience, it was solidified that I wanted to be a life long customer.  Later when I saw the follow up of American Airlines CEO Doug Parker to recognize Lorraine’s effort, I became a Super Fan for life.

Learning the dance steps might sound like tedious work, but when playing the long game of customer experience, it is important to remember to think about more than just step three. Value exchange gets the company money once, but without the rest of the dance, you won’t be able to find a dance partner for more than a minute. The ultimate goal is to have people who only ever want to dance with you because even if you do slip up and step on their toes, they know you will correct the mistake and not make it a second time. Dancing is about finding a partner you can trust, and learning the steps will make you float with the rhythm of your brand.

Thank you again for joining me on this multi-part journey.  The next time I post will be with a fresh idea about the Customer Service Innovation, no doubt generated by my attendance next week of the Consortium for Service Innovation Annual Summit in Monterrey CA, April 3rd. I hope you have found this series on the foundations of customer experience helpful and will keep dancing with me on my CX practitioner journey.