The Sometimes-Deadly ‘Customer Experience’ Strategy

Customer experience reared its head in my life this month. My phone service went out, which was not a catastrophe for me because in addition to the landline (which went out), I have a cell and a nifty VoIP line that lets me talk through my computer. Parenthetically, I love my VoIP line because, though I live in the Boston area, the VoIP line has a 415 area code, which you may know is San Francisco’s. I don’t know if it’s my heart that’s out there, but certainly a piece of me lives in San Francisco, and for some reason that makes me happy.

At any rate, the landline went down, first with an annoying background hum, and then I lost dial tone. I’ve become an old hand at diagnosing the problem because it happens every winter when a certain manhole gets some water in it. When the weather dries up, the problem recedes into memory, but it comes back every winter.

I am also something of an expert at summoning the phone company by filling out the obligatory form on the Web site and, because I am a repeat customer, I have a special phone number that I can call directly. Actually, after this latest round I have multiple numbers down to supervisors’ and technicians’ cellphones.

No matter. The problem I had was fixed a couple of times, and each time I got calls from customer service, some of which were automated, telling me that the phone company had wrestled the problem into submission. In one incredibly ironic moment, when the phone company’s survey team called to check on my satisfaction with the service, the hum came back on the line and the person on the other end had to admit that she couldn’t hear me well because of it. So the problem is solved as I write this, but the weather is threatening, so it remains to be seen whether the fix is permanent.

Empathy’s Good, Fixes Are Better

I thought I could use this experience as sort of a thought experiment in customer experience. I am happy to admit that the way the phone company handled my problem was top-notch. Everyone seems to have been trained in customer empathy — a term that I prefer over “customer experience.” But empathy only goes so far.

Over the years, I have seen a parade of empathetic phone company representatives, usually the technicians who stand outside on rainy days or climb down into the wet manholes to make the repairs. These people do everything that they can to provide service, but what’s management doing?

The technicians fix the problem, and they do a great job, but it’s management’s job to zero in on the root causes and spend the money necessary to eliminate the possibility of repeat. So the question I have is this: Does management hide behind customer experience optimization in order to deflect more serious problems? And if so, what does this say about the proper use of CRM? In helping deflect customer issues, has CRM become part of the problem instead of the solution?

I have always been skeptical of the customer experience movement for this reason, because if you can focus on the generic “experience” instead of putting processes in place that actually solve problems, this is what you get.

Deadly Consequences

My landline woes are a tempest in a teapot; being without phone service these days is not a hardship since most of us have multiple lines that get to us one way or another. So it’s easy to watch the resolution play out with a sense of detachment, but consider the mess that has become the Toyota recall fiasco.

As the congressional hearings investigating the problem of sudden acceleration played out, I heard about and read story after story of customers who experienced unintended acceleration, and the common denominator was never found to be a mechanical or electrical problem. Toyota refused to believe an electrical problem could exist. Instead, the common thread was dismissal by the company or by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Often the finding was operator error.

What I saw was stonewalling rather than ever really trying to locate the problem, wrapped in polite letters and diligent dealers trying to figure it out. Customer experience.

All this has a tragic dimension because people have died due to the problems with these cars. Even more tragic, though, was this heartbreaking revelation: I was watching Ed Shultz on MSNBC on the day of the hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Shultz was interviewing Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), one of the committee members, and mentioned the case of Koua Fong Lee of St. Paul, Minn. Lee was sentenced to eight years for criminal vehicular homicide because his 1996 Toyota Camry accelerated on an off-ramp and plowed into another car, killing a father and son and leaving another child a quadriplegic, who later died. Lee’s defense at trial was sudden uncontrollable acceleration, but the jury didn’t believe him because, heck, he was driving a Toyota, and we all know how reliable Toyotas are. Sadly, Lee’s story is not unique.

As far as I am concerned, customer experience had a part in killing those people. It gave a company a way to deflect a serious problem while pretending that it was doing the right thing. Customer Experience is an important part of dealing with customers, but it should not be seen as a panacea. Companies have to take responsibility for top-notch business practices that address root causes. Customer experience is table stakes at best, and when it comes to building sustainable customer relationships, it is not good enough.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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