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Chip R. Bell and John R.

Chip R. Bell and John R.’s default image

Quality Insider

The Hidden Side of Customer Anxiety

Pay attention to the subtleties of customer perception.

Published: Monday, August 3, 2009 - 12:24

It was her first flight. Her parents had finally settled a bitter divorce resulting in her dad moving three states away. The 10-year-old was nervous about pretty much everything. As soon as she was settled in her seat, after being handed off to a flight attendant, the pilot announced there would be a brief delay due to “a mechanical problem.” She heard a dog whimpering from the storage bay in the belly of the plane below her. There was an empty water bottle under the seat in front of her, obviously missed by the maintenance clean-up following the previous flight.

After a 30-minute delay, the plane was finally in the air. Her view of the ground disappeared as the plane moved into the thick clouds. The plane began to bounce and fall as it encountered predictable air turbulence. She began to cry… and pray.

“God is in the details,” wrote renowned architect Mies van der Rohe. The essence of his adage has always been a fundamental of great customer service. Customers use detail management as an indicator of a service provider’s commitment to delivering a positive service experience. But, there is a more profound element of detail management that service providers often miss.

Service is an implied covenant between a service provider and a customer. Customers judge whether that promise has been kept through concrete, irrefutable outcomes. Passengers and pilots alike know if the flight they share landed two hours late. Customers also judge whether the promise has been kept through their perception of the experience. While server and customer might agree that a certain outcome occurred, assessment of the experience is in the eye of the beholder.

There is more to the perceptual side of the covenant than might be initially apparent. The customer’s perceptions about a bus driver with obvious alcohol breath are not just about the driver’s personal habits. A dirty serving tray on an airline could cause a passenger to be concerned about engine maintenance and the potential for a crash. As customers, our perceptions can take us way past what we observe to what we conclude. And, when those conclusions leave us anxious about the outcome, then the message to a service provider is irrefutable: be a constant guardian of the details that feed a customer’s perceptions.

Look back at the opening story. There was nothing unique or abnormal about the flight taken by the 10-year old. Delays due to “mechanical problems” are quiet common. Clean-up crews sometimes miss trash as they hurriedly clean the plane between flights. Pets in the storage area often register their displeasure loud enough for passengers to hear. Air turbulence is typical at the point the plane enters the clouds. But, all these details, examined through the eyes of an already anxious passenger, stand out like a beacon and have a completely different meaning than “routine and normal.”

Why do we put bent cans of vegetables back on the grocery store shelf? Why do inexperienced flyers take out flight insurance before boarding the plane? Why do we FedEx or UPS a large check when speed of arrival is not a requirement? An important part of understanding and taking care of the basics (we call them service air) is that it involves perceptual features that, if missing, mangled, or in jeopardy, trigger alarm, not anger. The opposite of confidence is fear, not fury. Research shows that experiences characterized as frightful are remembered long after irritating moments are forgotten.

How do service providers interpret customer complaints about minutia? When is customer's fault-finding just plain nitpicking, and when is it born of anxiety about whether service air (basics) is threatened? If taking care of service air comes largely from factors that customers sense and infer, how can organizations get their customers to teach them about the link between assessment and anxiety? The search begins with an eye and ear for detail.

Create a customer sounding board

When John Longstreet was the general manager of the Harvey Hotel in Plano, Texas, he realized the taxi drivers who transported guests to  Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport after their stay were an informational goldmine. John reasoned that Harvey guests would more likely volunteer their impressions and be candid with the taxi driver than to answer the smiling desk clerk’s “How was your stay?” question. He set up periodic focus group meetings with the drivers. Their conversations not only revealed ways to improve service but pointed up subtle aspects of the guest experience rarely found on a comment card.

Conduct complaint forensics    

Conventional service wisdom is to examine complaints to spot patterns and trends. Many organizations do complaint-frequency counts to ascertain the most prevalent issues that leave customers disappointed. Some use customer focus groups to help gain a deeper understanding of high-priority customer complaints. Complaint forensics involves looking at complaints with the assumption that they are simply a symptom camouflaging the real customer concern. Like the TV character Colombo, key complaints are examined with the healthy skepticism that what is being reported isn't the real story and that a more methodical investigation will yield a more complete understanding.

Anxiety monitor

We were doing a focus group interview with nurses of a large Midwestern hospital. There were comments about the fact that patients aren't always candid with their caregiver.

“We were swamped one day,” said one nurse, “and it took me longer than normal to respond to a maternity ward patient’s call button. Since she had been only two centimeters dilated 10 minutes earlier, I was confident her call was not an emergency. By the time I got to her room, she was hysterical. She finally calmed down enough to tell me she could not locate her lunch menu. I thought it odd that something so small would make her so upset. But, as I was leaving her room, she asked me, 'How soon will you come if my new baby is in serious trouble?’ I got a new appreciation for the symbolism behind the call button.”

Service wisdom lies in appreciating its complexity, understanding its effect, and shepherding the details that trigger angst in customers.

Smart organizations major in the majors when it comes to ensuring that customers reliably get exactly what they expect from the organization. But, they also major in the minors—taking the initiative to care for and protect subtle but vital service hygiene.

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About The Author

Chip R. Bell and John R.’s default image

Chip R. Bell and John R.

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are the authors of Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). They can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.