THE BLOG
10/25/2016 07:47 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2017

In the experience economy, every customer contact counts

I recently read an account of one man's experience with Southwest Airlines. His daughter had recently flown home from college on the airline for a holiday visit. When she arrived at the terminal and went to collect her checked luggage from the luggage carousel, she discovered that the handle of her bag had been damaged. The father took the bag to customer service. Within a minute or two, a friendly agent was helping him. The agent offered a choice. Southwest would either reimburse the cost of repairing the luggage or replace the suitcase. After choosing the latter option, the man was led to a room filled with luggage and allowed to select a comparable suitcase. The man signed a receipt for the replacement and the transaction was done.

In contrast, similar experiences during the man's 30 years of travel had been a far cry from the hassle-free exchange with Southwest. He had encountered employees who were apathetic, simply going through the motions of having him fill out the paperwork to get reimbursement for the repairs. The man was so impressed by the customer experience with Southwest that he praised it in an article in a major national publication.

A quick search on Google will turn up many accounts of customers touting great experiences with Southwest, which exemplifies what has become known as the experience economy. The notion is that companies no longer win simply by providing great products or services. Competitive differentiation - and customer happiness - is all about giving customers a great experience with a company. Providing that superior experience takes people. People either make or break the experience.

Each action reflects on your company
As you would expect, I think about the role of people in customer experience a lot. In my job at SAS, I get to do some pretty cool things. One of the most important things I do is think of ways to make our customers happier or how to get better at supporting them.

I've come to the conclusion that customer experience is the sum total of all the individual actions of each and every employee. We're all connected to one another more today than we've ever been. Our actions influence, and even change, the experience of everyone we come in contact with. For example, the attitude of the Southwest customer service employee mattered a lot when it came to giving the man and his daughter an amazing experience. The way one employee treated the man influenced, and likely even changed, his perception of the entire company.

So, if I'm running a company, an important question I have to ask is, what is the frame of mind of my employees? When someone answers a phone call, sends an email or ships a product, what do their actions say about the company? It's on me to make sure the workplace supports employees and gives them the leeway to delight my customers. Otherwise, they will pass their frustration through to customers. In the experience economy, that's bad business.

As employees, we need to remember that we are a physical representation of the company. We might as well wear a T-shirt every day proclaiming, "I am Company X." The daily contact we have with a customer, no matter how small, could be pivotal. One action by one person could be the very thing that causes a customer to think that the company is either great to work with or one to avoid.

Take my experience with a company I'd frequented for years. I'm still smarting from one particular encounter - my last with that company. I'm a "diamond member" at a hotel chain that shall go unnamed. I was an extremely loyal customer that used to rack up 50 to 60 stays a year. In this instance, I'd had a stay booked, but my travel plans changed on the day of my arrival.

When I called to ask about canceling, the hotel reservationist read me the policy: "No cancellations within 24 hours." It didn't matter how I pleaded my case or that I had 50 stays on record. And that diamond status? Worthless. I gave the employee every chance, even asked if a supervisor or manager might be able to help. The unapologetic answer was: no cancellations, no exceptions. Period.

The issue was likely a combination of a management style that failed to empower the employee to make a judgment call about this particular situation, and an employee with an unhelpful mindset as a result. Regardless, the upshot was that I paid the hotel bill for that night. And the hotel probably turned around and sold it again. But that one encounter cost the hotel chain the 50 stays I would have booked each and every year in the future - not to mention my referrals.

Golden rule
The scary thing is, you might have that kind of impact and not even know it. Most companies have several streams of business going on at all times, and those streams touch customers. The unreasonable customer you are dealing with today in contracts might be the ideal customer that product development needs for a beta project tomorrow. It's the old golden rule, to treat a person the way you would like to be treated. Try to do right by the customer, and you'll never be wrong.

It's a mindset. Our customers are human beings, and we need to keep them at the center of what we do. After all, they're buying more than our products. They can buy similar products from other vendors in many cases. Today, they are buying the whole experience. The good news is that technology plus people is a winning combination for creating an experience to be proud of.