The Silver Lining: The Human to Human Interaction (A Consumer Experience)

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There have been an abundance of blogs and commentary regarding the Southwest Airline’s debacle over the holiday period. Southwest has become the poster child for digital transformation failure and highlights the importance of prioritizing technology investments and organizational structure and strategy. Their criticism is warranted and I’m confident they will rebound and get it right.

For many, blogging in such a manner can be therapeutic. I do believe in the concept of being balanced and fair with criticism, and praise. Having had the pleasure of having Sonya Lacore, Vice President of Inflight Operations of Southwest Airlines, serve on our advisory board for the last 6 years, I witnessed firsthand the many employee and customer care strategies that Southwest has performed exceptionally well. I sent a note to Sonya and her colleague Devan Webb during the recent mishap for encouragement.

I opened with the therapeutic comment regarding blogging and commentary because this blog for me will be exactly that; an opportunity to reflect on a recent consumer experience that was quite horrific.

I recently underwent home renovations. No this isn’t a blog to complain about the cost overrun or delivery overrun by the contractor. I actually watched the movie “The Money Pit,” a Tom Hanks classic, to make light of the situation and provide some levity. My contractor used the phrase “2 weeks,” similar to the contractor in the movie, and I spit out my coffee watching this scene every time: “Let’s try Brad. Brad-Brad, Bo-Bad…”

The Criticism…

Allow me to start with the criticism (I promise to practice what I preach and finish with the praise). And listen, I know that my issues here are very minimal and first world problems, but I’m also a research analyst covering customer experience. I love drawing connections between consumer and business settings because I fully believe in consumerization (is there an opposite term for “consumerization” to show how consumer industries can be impacted by business technologies? I’m calling it now: “enterprization”).

Pottery Barn, a Williams-Sonoma company, royally messed up what should’ve been a straightforward customer experience. At the beginning of September, I purchased bunk beds for my two little dudes. The delivery wasn’t completed until the end of December. I purposefully chose items that were in stock ready to ship, despite them not my first choice, because I wanted these before the holidays. I’ve spoken with enough colleagues and heard enough webinars with board members regarding supply chain disruption to know that I didn’t want to flirt with fire. Well, the inferno found me anyways, and after 11 scheduled and cancelled deliveries later, I finally received the last of the items required for in-home assembly. While Pottery Barn sent the twin beds within 4 weeks, followed by two additional large boxes 6 weeks later, they were absent of the critical item needed for assembly. I ended up having to store all of these items for 4+ months. We talk about strategic stocking locations and warehousing on-site at the customer, but this wasn’t what I had in mind when outlining this strategy. Eleven times I arranged my calendar for the delivery window. Eleven times I received a text ahead of time (it was quite cool to see the technology of our partner, Glympse, and in action) that said the items were in transit. Eleven times I was disappointed that my items never arrived and had to spend an hour on hold with customer support to resolve and reschedule.

To make a very long story short, what I observed was not only disjointed technologies, but operational processes. The warehouse barely spoke to Pottery Barn Corporate. Pottery Barn Corporate barely spoke to Williams-Sonoma Corporate. Neither spoke to the delivery teams regarding dispatch and status, or had visibility to my customer profile, and I could tell they had no clue at times who I was or how to help me.

It was a lonely feeling when no one could even attempt to resolve the issue. It got so bad that I actually reached out to executive leadership on the customer experience side via LinkedIn to beg for help (I couldn’t help myself in raising awareness about the Service Council at the same time 😉 Craig did jump in and a Corporate team member named Anne was introduced. This is the moment I turn to praise.

The Praise…

Anne was capable, communicative, proactive, caring, empathetic and everything I would’ve wanted from the jump. She managed every logistic, navigating the internal broken processes and communication pathways on my behalf to land at the in-home delivery and assembly, which happened on December 30th, (115 days after my purchase and at long last). When I distill what Anne possessed vs. others in the 4+ month saga was that she listened, never talked over me, was personable (I know she resides in NY and is tired of winters too), never made me wait for updates (if she didn’t have an update, she’d call to say she didn’t have an update), always focused on not inconveniencing me (she would inform me she was going to research and resolve and call me back with a status rather than have me wait on a lengthy hold), and so much more.

For the last several years, we’ve heard much about digital transformation, data and intelligence. What Anne restored for me was the critical role people and culture play. I’m not advocating people and culture OR digital transformation and data – it is always a scenario of AND, not OR. Organizations that remember, and prioritize, that technology is meant to augment (not replace) human experience, and that this human experience can be at the very core of what enables organizations to avoid commoditization, are typically the most successful. I was compelled to send the email to thank Anne following successful delivery and installation.

The Impact…

The result of the furniture delivery saga was impactful. I wanted the boys to sleep in their new bunk beds for the holidays, and swore I would never be a customer of Williams-Sonoma and any of their brands for the rest of eternity. This highlights how a company’s people can be the silver lining in an otherwise unsatisfactory customer experience, while systems and tools can sometimes be a limiting factor in the human experience.

Negative experiences impact customer engagement and loyalty, which in turn damage a company’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) and revenue growth. Remember the general rule of thumb that it costs 5x more to acquire a new customer than it does to retain an existing one. On the other hand, according to Forbes, a personalized experience can increase overall consumer spending up to 500%.

Key Recommendations…

What can organizations learn from my experience? We’ve all heard the old adage, “The customer is king,” but this statement is true now more than ever. Now is the time to start identifying and eliminating siloes that exist across functional departments and teams. Remember: if they contribute to the customer journey, they should be able to see the customer journey. Foster a work culture that empowers its employees, similar to my experience with Anne. Employees that are armed with resources, technology and shared knowledge will be more likely to deliver great experiences and salvage the less than satisfactory ones.

And finally, START NOW. Don’t wait. Incremental change is better than no change at all.

Tags: Consumerization, Customer Experience, Customer Journey, CX
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