A Humbling Lesson in Customer Experience

One of my first jobs was working for a company that provided business communications systems—telephone and computer systems. My usual task was to run cable. So, I spent a lot of time underneath the floors of corporations and hospitals and other buildings. Much of my days were spent with a headlamp, crawling through dark spaces, squeezing past utility pipes and through spider webs. It was dusty, hard work.

As I was learning, my supervisor emphasized quality. If you install or connect a cable the wrong way, it could fail months or years later. That wouldn’t be a great customer experience.

There were times I worked directly with customers, helping them use the new equipment. On those days, I wore a collared shirt and was coached to smile. One day, I got scolded—I mean, really scolded—by my supervisor for leaving fingerprints on a computer monitor. “They are excited about this new system, and the first thing they are going to see is your fingerprints!”

He was right. That organization had made a big investment. They had spent months planning and preparing. And before that, teams around the world had contributed to the design of this cutting-edge system. And yet, something as small as smudges could impact the customer’s perception and experience.

It was a message I needed to hear. In fact, it inspired me. I became fascinated with customer experience and studied what successful companies were doing. I remember reading Moments of Truth, by Jan Carlzon (Harper Business, 1989). This classic book was a forerunner to many of today’s works on customer experience. Carlzon would use examples with his employees. If a customer boards a plane, and they find a coffee stain from the last flight on their fold down tray, they might wonder, “Is that how they maintain the engines?”

Here’s the reality with customer experience. It’s both far bigger—and much smaller—than many realize. Customer experience is more than the products you have. It’s more than customer service. It’s more than your technology platform. It’s all-encompassing. It’s big. But it also comes down to any one interaction or issue that can make an indelible impression on the customer.

Even the least experienced, newest employee—me at the time—plays an important role in customer experience.