Do you modify your approach according to context?

I look in the rearview mirror.  Blue lights flashing. Maybe he’s been called out to respond to a call and will overtake me.  No, he’s flashing me.  Instinctly I’ve slowed down, I look at the speedo, it is in KM/H and I’ve not been paying attention to the roadsigns, but it is clear that I’ve been going too fast.  So I pull over.

The question in my mind is what to do next.  I’m in Australia, driving an awesome road, the Great Ocean Road that just asks for a car to be driven (OK, it’s hardly an Grand Tourer, it is a compact Hyundai Getz).  The brain is racing, pumped by adrenaline and fear.   In the UK I would get out of the car, go to the back of it and talk to the officer.  You’ll be asked to do this anyway “Would you kindly step out of the car sir”…  The last time I hired a car overseas was in the US in Atlanta.  Driving through the deep south I got pulled over and I jumped out of the car. Bad move.  “You’re makin’ me kinda nervous’ the cop drawled with his thick southern accent.  He spread me over the ‘hood’ to search me and ended up taking me down to the station, something that was straight out of the Dukes of Hazard, and handed me a huge fine to pay.

So I’m slowing down and thinking do I do the UK thing and jump out, or do the US thing and stay in the car?

I decide to stay in the car.  The right move.

So that’s an interesting story, but what does it have to do with the themes that I usually blog about?  Adapting your approach based upon context.

A while ago I met with the CIO of a company whose core business is in complex instrumentation hardware.  They were looking to diversify their offering, take some of their products out of the hands of specialist practitioners and into the broader marketplace.  Core to the success of these new offerings was usability; their devices required complex set-up and calibration.  Their question; how do you redesign an expert system for novices?

Seeking an answer they hired a customer experience consultancy to gather insights, understand the new segment needs and create wireframes for the new application interface.  But the consultancy couldn’t fit with the way the company worked.  They would run a workshop with the client for a couple of hours then go ‘back to base’ to do the thinking and designing and return to present their designs, well thought out and well polished.  Yet every time they would come back they had got something wrong.  That approach may have worked for a website, but for this complex product they were getting it wrong.

We were asked for our advice.  I started by saying that I thought they should stick with the incumbant,  whilst we would love the business, both parties had invested a lot and learned a lot in the past few months and it would be a folly for us to come in and have to start from scratch.  The answer was to get both sides into the same room, a war room, and thrash out the designs.  Forget about their formal methodology and way of doing things.  If you they were both in the same building they didn’t need that formal staccato present  – review – sign-off process.  They could continually innovate.  That is certainly the way we would do it, yet the CIO thought the incumbent would be resistant to changing their ways.
The theme that joins these two stories?  It’s about reading the situation, knowing the culture and context you are in and adapting your approach and behaviour accordingly.   And that applies as much to agile practitioners as Big Methodology people.  know your audience, understand the context then pick your battles; think big, start small scale fast, remember that change won’t occur overnight.

Does this train go to Bangor?

Over the loudspeaker comes a garbled message “…this train divides at Chester.  Customers for Bangor must travel in the front four coaches of the train”.
There was a group of women behind me talking loudly, one of them picked out part of the message and was worried.  The train guard (sorry, Customer Revenue Protection Officer) walked by.
One of the women got his attention, “Excuse me, we’re going to Bangor?” she said.
“Oh” said the guard.  “You need to get out at Milton Keynes and walk to the front of the train”.
“What? We need to change trains?” the woman replied.
“No, it is the same train, just the front part of it.”
“Is it on the same platform?” Asked the woman.
“Yes, just walk up a little” replied the guard.
“We don’t need to cross over to another platform then?”
“No, it is the same platform, the same train”
“So why can’t we stay on this train then”
“Because this part of the train divides at Chester?”
“But we’re not going to Chester, we’re going to Bangor”
The guard was getting frustrated, “when the train stops at the next station, you just need to get out and walk up the platform, in fact to the next carraige and get on the train there”
“So why can’t we walk through the train to the next carraige?”
“Because it is a different train”
“but this train is going to Bangor isn’t it?  We are on the right train aren’t we?”

And so on until a fellow passenger jumped in “when we get to Milton Keynes, I’ll show you where to go” and at Milton Keynes he led them all off the train to walk past the train divide on the platform and I’ll assume they made it to Bangor in one peice.

The point of this narative is that not everybody “gets it”.  Just because you think something is straight forward or obvious doesn’t mean that your customers will.  You are not your customer, be wary of making assumptions on how people will use your Great New Product.

Behaviour, intentions, interactions and corner cases

According to an article on eMarketer the method customers book travel depends upon their needs. Nothing revolutionary there; what is interesting is that fewer travelers are booking their trips online overall.

“This is not due to personal financial concerns—online travel bookers are an affluent demographic,” Mr. Grau [senior analyst at eMarketer] said. “Rather, it is caused by frustrations related to the planning and booking capabilities of OTAs (on-line travel agents). This, in turn, is spurring a renewed appreciation for the expertise and personalized services offered by traditional travel agents.”

Online travel bookers are an affluent demographic” and yet we continue to let them down with poor customer experiences and an inability to let them do what they want to do. As an e-marketeer, your sales numbers may be satisfactory, but how much more traction could you get if your customer interactions were more realistically modeled around their behaviours and their intentions. You may point to your personalization engine, but that is probably doing little more than offering up pages and offers based upon information the customer has told you, or prior pages they have visited. It is not going to be a challenge to “the expertise and personalized services offered by traditional [insert domain here] agents“.

Customer frustrations with the web are more often than not due to usability and restrictive Web 1.0 interaction paradigms. It need not be like this. Interactivity can be more human. Some sites such as are introducing web 2.0 interactivity to introduce more fuzzy searching to find what you want. Forms can be more like their real-world brethren. Rather than the “command and control” approach of imperative programming that drives a sequential, rule driven flow, the declarative approach to programming enables greater flexibility and puts the user in control.

So we can do something about the technology to provide a better customer experience, but that won’t be enough. The perfect customer experience will not fit in business rules your IT analysts have determined. In the real world, corner cases and ‘exceptions to the rule’ are abound. In the real world sales people, customer service reps (or their supervisors) have ‘management discretion’. They can listen to the customer, understand their story, recognise them as a loyal customer who made a mistake, and override the business rules to satisfy/ delight the customer in a way the cold logic of the business rules never considered. True personalization will focus upon the corner-case long-tail.

The next generation of eCommerce will be declarative, forgiving and understanding. Rather than being based upon a paradigm that is the result of the technical constraints of the channels early days, it will be something that more closely mirrors the real world. Getting there however will be difficult. As a first step Marketing departments need to address the shortcomings of their existing digital channel before their IT organisation embarks on new channels such as mobile and TV.

Day trip to Shenzhen

Day trip to Shenzhen from Hong Kong. Most nationalities can now get visas at the border (why do us Brits get screwed with such expensive visas?), but be warned, you have to pay for them in RMB. Once you’ve cleared immigration Hong Kong side there is no ATM, so if you’ve got no Chinese money, you are at the mercy of the folk in no-mans land. There’s a counter by the visa office that will change money, but the rate is truly lousy.

Let common sense prevail

Me: “Hello, I’d like to book a flight back to London on Thursday please”.

BA: “Certainly. BA 28. Midnight Thirty Five.”

And that was it. No friendly warning, so close to doing this again.

If I ask for a flight on Thursday, common sense suggests that the fact that the plane is scheduled to depart 35 minutes into Thursday, and I need to be at the airport at 10pm on Wednesday, then it really isn’t a Thursday flight. Not being explicit and clear with this is rude business.

I am not a target in a campaign

Marketing may be a touchy-feely occupation, but the language that marketeers use is far from it. Campaigns, strategy, tactics, targets… all out of the military handbook. That might be OK within the organisation, but it shouldn’t be exposed to your customers. An email sent by BA inviting customers to register to a special deal results in a page informing the customer; “Thank You, [name] Your pre-registration for this campaign has been successful”. Now what is that all about? They’ve spent so much time creating the campaign, how it fits into their overall strategy that they’ve overlooked the details around what really matters – fullfillment, wording and how the customer feels about BA at the end of the process. I feel a little cooler than when I clicked on the promotion.

BA pre-registration page

Chinese immigration – how did I do today?

Today is one of those days. A meeting in Zhuhai at 11am. Take the 08:40 ferry from Hong Kong, no problem. I’d researched the ferry times, got to the ferry port with loads of time to spare and went up to the ticket counter. “Ticket to Zhuhai please”. Suddenly there was an earlier 8am ferry leaving in five minutes, if I run I could catch it. “You’re sure this goes to Zhu…” I started to ask, but the man behind the counter cut me off. “Yes it goes to zhunzen, now hurry!” but I didn’t hear him correctly, I was focussed on a boat leaving earlier than expected, and that would definitely get me to my meeting on time. Communication Breakdown. It was only as the ferry left Hong Kong and turned right rather than left I realised my mistake. I was on the boat to Shenzen.

But that is not the purpose of this post. Arriving in China, when going through passport control, under the glass window there is a little box with three buttons on it, inviting you to rate your experience – green for perfect, yellow for satisfactory and red for unsatisfactory. Capturing customer feedback at the time of the experience. Howe much more valuable is that than asking customers to complete a lengthy questionnaire some time later, after the event. I think that websites could learn from this. Rather than a pop-up inviting customers to complete a questionnaire of a number of pages (often this appears just as you start your experience at the site), why not get customers to “rate this page” or “rate your experience” as a simple thumbs up or down (as you might Digg comments). This will provide instant feedback, maybe not qualitative, but quick and simple quantative data.

And if I had the ability to rate today? Right now, as I sit in a dingy cafe waiting the two hours for the next ferry back to Hong Kong, with a rapidly flattening laptop battery, I’d have to press the thumbs down, unsatisfactory red light on my current experience.

Missing planes

Reminder to get to the airport on the the right date.  flight is post-midnight

After a month living out of a suitcase, circumnavigating the globe I’m homeward bound. I’m flying with Oasis… going to be interesting how the words “budget” and “longhaul” reconcile with each other. So far the experience is promising, a nice touch with their e-ticket (the date which I have subsequently changed). The plane flies at 00:50. BA fly back from Hong Kong a little earlier; on their e-ticket they don’t make it clear that the flight is a post-midnight one. Last time I did this trip I arrived at the airport on the Sunday night beleiving my flight was late on Sunday. Only it was a few minutes after midnight… on the Monday morning. I’d missed my flight by 24 hours. An easy, and expensive mistake to make. Oasis have gone out of their way to help me not make this mistake.

Humanising the corporate voice

Friday evening, the train is pulling into East Croydon railway station. There’s an announcement.

We are now approaching East Croydon, please mind the gap between the train and the platform. Don’t leave any of your belongings behind…

The usual scripted stuff. Then…

Hey! I’ve just realised its Friday! The Weekend is here.

People on the carriage look up. Did he really say something, that’s something that breaks the mundane monotony of the commute.

Remember folks, drink sensibly!

I looked around and people on the carriage were smiling. An unscripted, personal touch. It wasn’t a canned message from an anodyne voice. For a brief moment South Eastern Railways became really human. It made commuters smile. And commuters travelling into East Croydon rarely have anything to smile at.

There is more to Customer Experience than homogeneity and consistency in interactions. It is more than scripting customer contacts. It is more than sheepishly adhering to the corporate line. It is about empowering employees to have the confidence to be human. It is giving employees some degrees of freedom to do things differently if it is in the interest of the customer. To be spontaneous.

There’s the story of the Ritz-Carlton bell boys being given a budget to help customers. To be spontaneous without having to jump through hoops of approval. No “I’m not really sure, wait a minute and I’ll ask my supervisor (because even though I’m grown-up enough to want to help you the Rules by which I’m employed don’t let me)”.

Maybe I’m getting a bit carried away. But customers remember these human touches. And if they have the seed of a positive emotion planted in their memory, an emotion associated with your brand, you have the seed to grow lifetime value.