Why do so few firms get customer experience right?

From tarnished banks trying to get their shine back to Silicon Valley start-ups taking the world by storm, everyone wants better customer experience. But not many deliver, says John Sills.

by John Sills
Last Updated: 25 Apr 2016

Few would deny that grest customer experience is important in business, and yet as we all know the number of firms who get it right is pretty small.

To understand why we need to examine what 'customer experience' really means. For a start the 'customer' part is fairly irrelevant as we tend to assess our experiences in much the same way regardless of whether we end up buying something, or not. For the 'experience' there are a number of factors in play - Matt Wilkinson identified ten in his book on the priciples behind great customer experiences - and of these I think companies looking to improve need to focus on three things: emotion, expectations and effort.


Think back to the last holiday you had.

The chances are that you’ll remember the bits that went wrong (‘my bag is in Tanzania’), the bits that went very right (‘she said yes!’), and the people that really made a difference (‘Lisa looked after the kids, and Santi looked after the cocktails’). This is because, as Daniel Kahneman discovered, when people recall an experience they remember the moments with the greatest emotional impact – the start, the end, and the high & low points in the middle.

This is why Doubletree hotels give free Cookies at check-in, Trailfinders phone me just before my holiday to make sure everything is ok, and it was so important that HSBC got me a replacement bike for my stolen one just days before a cycling trip.

It’s also why hospital car parking fees make us angry, creating a complicated experience when we’re already feeling stressed, and why customers were less than happy when a bank sent them this Christmas card:


Companies often fail to take into account how important expectations are to our experiences (think about the last time you went to the cinema to see ‘the film of the year’, and were slightly disappointed).

They focus on delivering to internal timescales, not recognising that our perception of what’s good and bad is formed by what our friends, family, and now followers tell us. They’re also created from what we’ve seen elsewhere (I can search every email I’ve ever sent, so why not my bank statements?), as well as what the overly-excitable marketing messages lead us to believe (Virgin Airways, anyone?)

Look no further than a train station platform. Compare the reactions when the digital board is working (calm, relaxed, certain) to when the board is blank (mild panic ensues, frantic smartphone usage, near riot-like gathering at the ticket window). Or NatWest’s 2012 ‘Customer Charter’ promise, stating that they would ‘aim to serve the majority of customers within five minutes’. Which instantly gave everyone (majority or not) a five-minute expectation…


We live in an age of impatience, where everything was wanted and needed yesterday, and the sheer thought of having a ‘unproductive’ two minutes without phone reception sends a cold shiver down our spines. This is coupled with an explosion in choice giving us endless possibilities of getting exactly what we want – and an increased psychological burden to get decisions right.

So for companies, the phrase ‘it was so simple’ has become a coveted prize in customer experience, demonstrating success in helping people make the right choice, in a timely way, and feeling as though they’re in control.

Amazon achieves this with ‘one-click’. So does my local Taxi company, Neales, who know my routine so well that they tell me my destination, before I’ve had the chance to tell them (as does Google Now).

Air travel has become easier too, buying tickets in your living room and checking-in whilst in the pub. But despite the clear improvements, what’s the bit that frustrates everyone the most? The effort of having to put your miniature bottles of shampoo in a clear plastic bag, which EasyJet have managed to make even more complicated.


So to provide a better customer experience, companies need to start focusing on the salient moments that really make a difference, managing customer expectations, and doing all that they can to reduce the effort required.

We’re moving into a world where the customer experience is the product, with customers only staying loyal as long as the company stays useful. And as Ryanair has recently discovered, giving a good customer experience is no longer an optional extra. It’s the difference between lasting success, and rapid failure.  

John Sills is senior consultant at The Foundation www.the-foundation.com

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