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Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Customer Care

Are We Mechanizing Customer Delight?

Service without emotional connection is as functional as a vending machine

Published: Tuesday, August 21, 2018 - 11:02

Standing in the gate area of Delta Airlines at the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport, I was watching the monitor to learn if my name appeared on the “upgrade to first class” list. Honestly, I was feeling totally entitled since I fly a gazillion miles a year on Delta.

Had my name not appeared, I would have been disappointed, maybe even angry. But, this time my name appeared. Today, you do not go to the gate attendant for a new boarding pass, the computer issues you a new seat assignment as you board with the first-class passengers.

The upgrade process is designed to be an affinity program—crafted to ramp up the affection of customers. No humans were involved in this historically value-added process. And, since there was no emotional connection, no expression of bigheartedness from Delta, my heart never raced; my affection meter for the brand never budged. It was as functional as a vending machine. I realized I had just participated in the mechanization of customer delight, and it completely failed to enchant. So, I did not tweet about my upgrade, nor did I tell my neighbor.

Organizations with no emotional connection become quickly commoditized and end up slugging it out over lowest costs. Their market shares are consumed by new entries that have better service and certainly greater buzz. In an era when customers are dazzled daily with sensory stimulation and entertainment, the ho-hum gauge has been recalibrated much higher. Service formerly deemed pretty good is now viewed as pretty dull. But the consequences of mechanization are even graver for the employees who deliver service.

That gate attendant at DFW was taxed to maximum capacity with check-ins, record management, and boarding chores. Robbed of the freedom to be generous or ingenious, she seemed to be merely going through the motions. She was not unfriendly. But, her infrequent smile appeared strained, as if there was a super vivacious person behind her professional mask struggling to be set free. My perception was that this once upbeat firefly had been shoehorned into worker bee status. But clearly it was not the monitor and computer that rendered her dazed; the American Airlines agent on the opposite side of the terminal had the exact same look.

Before you chastise me as a hopeless romantic stuck in the wrong time, let me quickly say that the mechanization of surprise is not a steel-driving, John Henry vs. a steam-driven hammer kind of contest. There are progress-making benefits to appropriate mechanization. It is more about leadership focused solely on the service outcome vs. the service experience. Granted, the service outcome (e.g., phone installed, car repaired, check cashed, takeout delivered) is much easier to measure.

It is key to remember that a reliable service outcome might bring a customer in, but it is a positive service experience that brings a customer back.

McDonald’s is an excellent hamburger factory, one of the best in the world. McDonald’s CEO can tell you the average speed of service per car at 12:32 p.m., the precise time required to make a Big Mac, the pace of a credit-card transaction vs. cash—essentially service encounter metrics almost completely controllable by McDonald’s. But customers are evaluating their trip to Mickey D’s based on the personality of the server, the hospitality of the setting, and the respect they are shown throughout the entire process. These are metrics co-created by McDonald’s and the customer. McDonald’s may control their presentation, but it is the customer who determines if the entire experience made the grade.

When organizations rely on professional shoppers to assess the customer experience rather than asking customers directly, they reveal their outcome-centric mentality. Shoppers are actors trained to watch for adherence to standards, much like the duties of quality control staff in a factory. Real customers have a broader view, a memory-making perspective that considers both the outcome and the experience.

Ask frequent customers of both McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A what they think is more important: the speed with which orders are filled, the expected level of food preparation, or the server’s welcoming attitude. The overwhelming majority will tell you that style is more important than speed in determining whether they return! Sure, the basic expectation is for fast food fast, but the experience is what is remembered.

Managers of call centers the world over, whether B2C or B2B, stay up late worrying about the speed of answering calls, total customers in queue, and call-handle time (outcome metrics), forgetting that first-contact resolution and the knowledge of the call-center rep are more important to customers (experience measures).

What is required to humanize the customer experience, leaving it truly delight-full? Part of the answer is to remember that customer service is most valued when it is anchored to a relationship. Granted, we like the speed, around-the-clock access, and simplicity of ordering online with Amazon or Zappos. The ideal online service is no service! But, if you ever have a problem with Amazon or Zappos and have to contact a real person, you’ll be overwhelmed by how much customer-centric humanism is hardwired into their customer experience.

The lion’s share of the solution is returning the role of ambassador to the front line. An ambassador is a “diplomatic official of the highest rank appointed and accredited as representative in residence by one government to another.”


What would service be like if the teller, call-center operator, nurse, clerk, or gate attendant was treated as having the “highest rank” and accredited (resourced, empowered, and celebrated) as the representative of the organization’s brand?

We would see a comeback of real surprise much to the delight of customers who would be transformed into ardent advocates.


About The Author

Innovating Service With Chip Bell’s picture

Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Chip Bell has helped companies dramatically enhance their bottom lines and marketplace reputation through innovative customer-centric strategies. For the sixth year in a row, Global Gurus in 2020 ranked Bell as one of the top three keynote speakers in the world on customer service. Bell has authored 24 books; seven are international best sellers. His latest book, Inside Your Customer’s Imagination: 5 Secrets for Creating Breakthrough Products, Services, and Solutions (Berrett-Koehler, 2020), shows how co-creation partnerships enable you to tap into the treasure trove of ideas, ingenuity, and genius-in-the-raw within every customer.