Time for an injection: Inoculate customers!

Author - Nicholas Vinther Skov. Head of CX Advisory

At time of writing this, I have never lost my baggage on a flight. 7-9-13. I have however come close to it on a Ryanair flight to Fiumicino airport just west of Rome. My traveling companion and I exchanged an increasingly unreasonable and prejudiced commentary on Italian working conditions and the Omerta as we waited an hour and a half in baggage claims in the brown, 1970s interior of the arrivals hall. We thought that our baggage was lost. While many of the passengers had already got their bags, we were part of a small handful of passengers still waiting. It was a false alarm, however – the baggage handlers had simply taken a nice long lunch break. In the middle of unloading a flight. Bon appetit. That's an impressive show of disinterest in the customers!

Admittedly, my little Italian baggage story does not have great anecdotal effect. But I still remember it clearly, although it was several years ago now. I could see out of the window that it didn't say Ryanair on the backs of the baggage handlers – and yet I still felt a little let down by Ryanair.

Because it's about managing the entire customer process. For example, the three McKinsey consultants Rawson, Duncan & Jones have discussed in a popular Harvard Business Review article the importance of understanding that it is no use simply optimizing a single point of contact. Rather, it is the entire customer journey that counts. And this journey does not stop until the customer decides it has stopped.

Ryanair had presumably forgotten this as I stood down there, cursing about my missing baggage at Fiumicino airport. Their perception was no doubt that my customer journey was over the moment my pale Danish legs stepped off the plane into the Italian summer sun with the "another on-time arrival" jingle as a farewell salute. My perception, however, was that the journey ended when I reached Rome itself with the airport bus, which I had (also) ordered through Ryanair. And it started the moment I began planning my trip months in advance.

So yes, the consultancy trio from McKinsey were right – and most 'Customer Experience evangelists' will sing the same tune. Including myself. However: Hand on my heart – Despite having worked with many companies, which are extremely good at being customer focused and taking responsibility for the customer journey, it is has however never lived completely up to perfection.

Because there will always be an unavoidable bump during the customer journey, which can be ascribed to things which we do not have adequate control over, that is external factors. Fighting this bump is enough to make many customer service staff feel like they share an unwanted fate with Sisyphus.

Don't give up, a treatment is available

Should customer service staff simply give up? Pragmatically accept that they can only work with those factors they can control?
No, they should not. Because that unavoidable bump is a little like the flu. You go through the entire winter knowing that sooner or later, it will be your turn. Unavoidable. You could however simply have got a vaccine.

Ryanair could have inoculated me along the way. No, I don't mean a steward coming flying down the aisle in a white gown with a needle large enough to inject 200 terrified passengers. They could simply have warned us about the potential problem with the baggage delivery over the flight's speaker system.

Would this really have been enough? Yes, if we are to believe the results of a German study. The three researchers Mikolon, Quasier and Wieseke have carried out a fascinating experiment with an airline's unwitting holidaymakers. They 'vaccinated' selected customers against a poor experience at baggage delivery with an inflight message warning them that they might experience problems. The experiment was divided up into three groups:

  • Group A's trip was completely 'normal'. There were no messages regarding baggage delivery.
  • Group B were 'inoculated'. They received – in brief – the message: "Our service level is normally very high. As regards baggage delivery, however, there can sometimes be unforeseen delays.  We are working continuously with the airport to provide as good a service as possible and to solve any problems that may arise."
  • Group C received a stronger dose than B with the addition of "in no way is this our fault! It is the airport's responsibility."
In the event of delays or mistakes, Group A were quite naturally dissatisfied. But the vaccine for Group B worked – those passengers who experienced mistakes or delays were almost as satisfied as those who had suffered no problems. And the vaccine itself – the short message – had no negative side effect on customer satisfaction if nothing went wrong. Group C fared even better, where the effect on customer satisfaction was so positive that they actually put the blame on someone else when it went wrong!

All medication has side effects

There is a simple, easy way to avoid low customer satisfaction caused by external factors. As with all medication however, a small pamphlet should also be included on the possible side effects.

  • Firstly, I believe that this method should only be used on those specific contact points that are hard to control directly. We must not think that we can communicate our way out of all poor feedback from the customer journey. One vaccination or two during the customer journey is probably fine. But this must not turn into an endless serenade of excuses - vaccines.
  • Secondly, I am deeply concerned about the ethics of this. In the experiment, Group B's message is honest. The company appears as sympathetic and trustworthy. Group C however, as I see it, comes close to crossing an ethical line. I would be annoyed myself as a customer if it became too clear that the blame was simply being passed onto another party.

From customer inoculation to the larger diagnosis: Archetypes version 2.0

Or would I still be annoyed? The experiment suggests that the vaccine's effect was even stronger for Group C. Can I rationally predict how I would react were the situation to arise?

Customer vaccination draws parallels with behavioral psychology and neuroscience. Much of the research is not new, but it remains important information for those working in customer journeys and experiences. Previously perhaps it was too expensive or theoretical to convert seriously into actual practice. But new technology has provided the potential to make it for more operationalizable. Many world famous brands have already been working with this for a long time; read for example Danish Martin Lindstrøm’s colorful books.

It could also breathe new life into this area: Segmentation of customers into archetypes. Not based on the advertising agency or the marketing director's own segmentation models. But based instead on understandable, practically usable behavioral psychology and neuroscience. I will share those thoughts with you in my next blog post.

Nicholas Vinther Skov. Head of CX Advisory

Nicholas Vinther Skov. Head of CX Advisory

Nicholas provides fact-based consulting to his customers on improving the customer experience. With his never-ending drive, Nicholas seeks out, discovers and picks up on the latest trends within his field – and shares this knowledge with the world in this blog.