The journey of a great customer interaction during the wake of losing my beloved dog, Lady Cooper.

Dear readers, originally I had a whole blog laid out about the third foundation of customer experience: customer interactions. It compared a great customer interaction to performing the perfect dance routine. However, just before finishing the final draft, something very unexpected and tragic happened in our life– it’s called Hemangiosarcoma, and it claimed the life of our beloved 8yr old golden retriever, Lady Cooper. Now I know you’re probably thinking, “Brad, that’s sad, but what does it have to do with customer experience?”

Let me begin by telling you that I started the week in the American Airlines Admiral’s Club at John Wayne airport waiting to board my flight. While packing up my gear to walk to the gate, I received the following text from my wife who had taken Cooper to the veterinarian that morning: “Coops is bad… Fluid in stomach, Probably a tumor.”

I called Jen immediately. She was in tears dealing with the reality that Cooper might have a potentially fatal condition, and I was about to fly away for a week– my favorite dog, named after my favorite Mercury 7 astronaut Gordon Cooper, was in trouble and my wife needed me now.

I told Jen I would move my flight and be there as soon as I could. With only eleven minutes until departure, I approached the American Airlines reception desk knowing I was about to make the woman working’s day a little more stressful, but I needed to be home with my wife, our three daughters, and Lady Cooper one last time.

The woman behind the counter was named Lorraine Gonzales-Gallagher; she is a premium customer service representative for the American Airlines. As she called various people, finally finding someone who could help, it became apparent that I wasn’t going to get a quick get away.  After spending what was probably ten minutes, but felt like forty, I wrote down all of my details on my business card and offered to have her take a picture of my AMEX to cover the change fees. When she declined my request, I pleaded to my situation, “My wife is at the vet, our dog is very sick, and I can’t be here. I need to leave immediately and be with Jen and Lady Cooper.”  Three minutes later the transaction was done, and I was on my way.

That afternoon we spent helping my two 6-year-olds and my 8-year-old daughters say goodbye to their ‘big sister’ who they’ve known their entire lives. We helped Lady Cooper go to sleep one last time.

The next morning I was back in the Admiral’s Club, waiting for my American Airlines flight. I looked for the helpful customer service agent to say I was sorry for being abrupt and thank her for her help. I didn’t find her. Moments later, while waiting for group 1 to board, Lorraine found me. She had come to the airport just for me, just to ask if my dog was okay. “I’ve been thinking about you and your family all night. I have to know if your dog is okay.” I told her the sad news and then she did the most remarkable thing. She gave me a hug.

It is not often that you get a hug from a stranger, and it is even less often that a random hug is welcomed. She hugged me with a sincere apology for my family’s loss, and I felt comforted. We chatted for a little longer before it was time to board. She hugged me again before we departed. She was human, and offered me genuine empathy, engaging me at an emotional level, in a way I didn’t realize I needed.

Now this customer interaction goes beyond a touch point and a value gate. This type of commitment to creating a positive, memorable experience is how brands move from something good to something magical.

That might seem like the end of the story; however, Lady Cooper’s story goes one step beyond. Upon landing in Washington DC, I called my client and told him the amazing customer experience I had just been through with Loraine, and how even in her passing, Lady Cooper was still teaching me and helping me see kindness and love all around us. As I told this story, the passenger behind me overheard and decided to wait at the bottom of the arrivals escalator on the random chance we might connect.

That passenger was John Gustafson, the VP of Digital Channels at American Airlines. Across the aisle from him was Doug Parker the CEO of American Airlines. John heard my story and wanted to know the employee’s name so he and Doug could thank her. Not only had this random woman had the courage to go out of her way to check on a stranger –who was less than polite with her– but also now this man was compelled to approach me and ask to learn her name. Doug later wrote me an email thanking me for my story, promising to thank Loraine for her work and offered his sincere condolences for the passing of Lady Cooper.

So what did all of this teach me? A “good” interaction leaves the customer satisfied with the value they received for the effort they expended. Great customer interactions move rhythmically through five different steps that create branded customer memories:

•    Step 1 - Value Recognition: If I go through this value gate will I get the thing I want?

•    Step 2 - Value Perception: Based on experience, do I see the best interaction channel for ‘me'?

•    Step 3 - Value Exchange: I trade what I value to get your tangible and intangible items of value.

•    Step 4 - Value Receipt: At the end of the exchange, my emotional state amplifies the value perception of the tangible vs. intangible received.

•    Step 5 - Value Realization (or Erosion): If asked, was this a good or bad experience, what would I say?

American Airlines could have satisfied me by efficiently moving my flight to the time I needed. However, because of compassionate employees who went above and beyond, I am compelled to share my experience with my peers. American Airlines has gained a life long customer because they took the opportunity provided by interaction dance steps and used them to their fullest potential in making positive lifetime memories.

I will be posting the more detailed blog of the five steps of customer interactions later, but for now, I wanted to share this story of how Lady Cooper helped a massive global brand, and I connect on a human level through her passing, R.I.P.