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What makes the best customer experience?

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Personality and professionalism are customer service traits all brands should aspire too, but it’s easier said than done. Here’s Chris Humphrey and Malcolm Ross of Smith+Co, a customer experience consultancy, on how businesses can up their game.

We’ve all been there. That moment when you walk into a store and come face to face with captain enthusiastic whose eyes light up as soon as you step into his environment. He really lines you up and it doesn’t matter how many times you say ‘I’m just browsing’, he doesn’t budge.

And then you have the polar opposite – captain corporate – the robot who’s pre-programmed only to use rhetoric and sound bites. (You half-wonder whether he switches himself off at night to be recharged).

The ideal scenario for customers is to interact with a member of staff who knows the product inside out, loves the brand, but also has the awareness to adapt to their preferences. Some customers will want to talk the hind legs off a donkey, while others, like us, want to keep the conversation short so we can make up our own minds.

So how do some brands create this culture excellently, and others fail miserably? At Smith+Co we’ve seen it from both ends of the spectrum. Some brands struggle to equip their workforce with the tools and training to create the right environment, while others successfully galvanise a team full of individual touches of brilliance.

Being natural doesn’t come naturally

What we’ve learnt is that staff are often reluctant to add their own personalities for fear of straying from the party line. Some over-reach and end up creating an experience that feels totally out of sync with the brand – an uncomfortable ‘pantomime’ for the customer.

To business leaders who think creating a personality-led shop floor should come naturally to their staff, we say that one person’s inherent common sense is another person’s complex algebra. We all differ in how we engage with others, and that’s what makes the tapestry of the workforce so rich.

For those brands that execute this culture well, the truth is that spontaneity and personalisation is not a free-for-all. We know that enabling and empowering employees to give exceptional service that looks spontaneous and personalised requires an incredibly structured and intentional approach behind the scenes.

Disney’s customer experience

During our time at Disney, we worked to give everyone across the entire organisation a clear sense of purpose, not rules, but then supporting them with a very clear decision-making framework.

Take, for example, the importance of health and safety for customers and employees at Disney World. The staff operate in a strict framework, where safety always comes first, but the happiness of the customer is the raison d’être of each and every employee, so they also know to embed positivity within the procedures themselves.

So when any child is half an inch too short for the Tower of Terror – a thirteen-storey drop ride – a highly intentional approach means that the disappointed youngster receives a certificate signed by Mickey Mouse allowing them to jump the queue once they are tall enough. And to become part of the experience there and then, they’re quickly invited to wear a themed bellboy uniform and meet their family at the end of the ride. So what looks like spontaneous generosity has been enabled as part of the culture way in advance.

Captain enthusiastic vs corporate robot

Let’s be honest, both customers and brands don’t want to be faced with the improvisation efforts of captain enthusiastic. Equally we don’t want people wrapped in rules and scripts. There needs to be a blend. But while brands like Disney, Lush and Apple seem to get the right balance, lots of other shop floor representatives fall into the ‘Spock scenario’; they definitely have human DNA, but they don’t really seem that human.

The nirvana is when employees are collectively brought to a place where they’re crystal clear about communication boundaries, helping them feel more self-assured, flexible and creative on the shop floor. And by taking the workforce back to the core reasons why their customers are choosing them in the first place, it becomes easier to sustain a Disney-like consistency and spontaneity within those millions of often fleeting and infinitely varied interactions with us.

Which brands do you think are the best and worst at giving a customer experience with personality? Have you ever walked out of a store due to poor customer service?

This is a guest contribution by Chris Humphrey and Malcolm Ross of Smith+Co, a customer experience consultancy that advises a number of big brands. All opinions are their own, not necessarily those of Which?


I don’t want “artificial” personalities and scripts. “Have a nice day”…….. I usually want someone who has the knowledge to give me the information I need, to find someone who can, or tell me where to go. I want people who behave normally, not to act some marketing part – sincerity is more important than a fake corporate persona.

We could try training people properly in the basics, including the Consumer Rights Act, and to give people helpful service. I see in a separate conversation that
AClark says:1 hour 3 minutes ago
I had to get an independent report done to prove the freezer is smaller than stated for my credit card co. Currys were just as dismissive to them as they were to me,

That’s the kind of people we should be tackling. 😀

The Disney experience is programmed from the outset, starting with the “Disney University”. And, in the main, they do get it right, although Paris does it a lot better than the US. But I suspect what most guests and customers want is a seamless experience of sheer delight and discovery, unhindered by unnatural attention. John Lewis does it rather effectively, too.

One of my greatest dislikes is to be subjected to marketing when I call a company. Sometimes it happens when the assistant puts you on hold, but the worst companies start off with the marketing before there is the opportunity to press the relevant button depending on the nature of your enquiry. For me it is an annoying waste of time but it is worse for those whose tariffs do not include the cost of calls.

Today I called my estate agent to update them and had to endure marketing messages and music while the assistant checked her computer system. After that, I called the local council and was dealt with promptly and efficiently, with none of the nonsense.

If I want to purchase goods, it is helpful to be able to speak to someone who is well informed, and does not guess and tell me what they think I would like to hear. I would rather deal with someone who is prepared to admit their lack of knowledge.

If I have a problem with a product, I want to deal with someone who is polite and well informed. Malcolm has already mentioned this.

I feel sorry for the employees who have to behave in stereotyped fashion to customers.

The link to ‘100 big brands rated for customer service’ is not working.

Thanks Patrick. It did not work until I restarted the browser. Strange.

What we can learn from Disney is that the service we receive is actually the result of the whole organisation being intentional about its purpose and creating a culture where everyone is responsible for delivering it. Where service goes wrong is when it becomes fragmented. When marketing, operations, HR, the contact centre, retail etc all define their roles in terms of WHAT they do (tasks to be performed), rather than WHY they do it (deliver the brand promise and satisfy the customer) we experience some of the disconnects expressed in this thread. The brands that are singled out in customer surveys like Lush, First Direct and John Lewis demonstrate a joined-up culture.

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I’ve been a Disney regular for over 10 years spending at least a couple of weeks a year in a Disney hotel. I can count the number of times I’ve had bad service on one hand – it’s that rare. For them it’s more than giving people a script to read, they have a culture that staff at every level become a part of.

My best customer service example was when we turned up for an event at the Magic Kingdom and realised we had forgotten our tickets. We went to Guest Services and they couldn’t find any record of our booking. The Disney staff member was amazing – ‘Clearly we’ve (Disney) made a mistake. Don’t worry you’re going to be my guests at tonight’s event and here’s two complementary tickets (worth about £80).’

I can’t imagine this happening almost anywhere else. The footnote to this story is that I proposed to my now wife at the event and when we got home we realised that we never did book tickets for the event (each thought the other had done so). We don’t feel too guilty as we ended up getting married at Disney too – so the Mouse wasn’t out of pocket!

Nicely timed for the holiday booking season.

Interesting article – thanks Chris. What we know from a whole decade of Psychological research about data and persuasion is that – the more you believe in something – the more you will project that from a non conscious non verbal perspective and the more the person you are interacting with will believe in your sincerity (though they might not agree with your argument). This is the danger of organisations – train your staff in some top down ‘this is our values’ straightjacket and you produce psychologically awkward, anxious and ‘insincere’ employee’s. None of which promotes a positive brand experience for your consumers. The best way to ensure your staff engage in sincere, intuitive and ‘feel good’ behaviour is to see what values both they and the people they are serving ‘value’. Sometimes (often) employee’s and customer’s dont even know what they non consciously ‘value’ – so this is where you need to invest some time and resources. Invest some effort in revealing what really matters in terms of your brand experience (from both a conscious, emotional and non conscious level) and you will have a better understanding of the true psychological building blocks of your customers experiences – and whats more you can intervene more reliably to dial this up!

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Perhaps rarely for readers here I actually “sell” every Saturday. The product is second-hand books and to be honest I am good at it. Well that is what the customers say.

I have sold intangibles like insurance and general insurance also, gone to the seminars and trained-on. There are some golden rules AFAIA concerned

Essentially you do have to know your product wel,l and its application, and user value.
[books difficult with say new 250,000 a year]
United States 2013 304,912 New titles and re-editions
United Kingdom 2011 184,000 New and revised

Knowing where to pitch the discussion so that you are speaking neither up nor down to the customer. It is a life-skill thing and not something you can ever be 100% correct on. Sometimes you are simply not old enough or experienced to be credible in what you sell.

A good reputation is important and that might be your company or the brand you are selling, or both. I think a lot of Boards are actually careless of image.

Historically they were able to get away with it as consumer memory can be quite short. However with more organised consumers this get-out-of-jail because the punters forget may be no longer reliable. For example:

Kwikfit have score AFAIR three own goals and I have recorded them at the Community Forum.

“So lets have a running history of one company that consumers may wish to boycott – all other things being equal. Performance bonuses are dangerous things.
Leading national tyre retailer Kwik Fit again caught in an investigation by the BBC’s Watchdog consumer programme on 5 November. Based on complaints and the testimony of a whistle-blower that still works in Kwik Fit branches, Watchdog suggested the national fast fit chain is charging some customers £1.50 per tyre for nitrogen inflation without asking. And 5 million tyres a year at £1.50 a tyre mounts up.
Watchdog sent undercover customers mystery shopping and found that nine out of ten were charged without asking. Of the nine that had been charged for nitrogen inflation only three had actually had any nitrogen added to their tyres. The result was that in two-thirds of occasion nitrogen inflation equipment was not used. Information from the anonymous whistle-blower suggested he was adding nitrogen inflation to bills in order to meet monthly commission-based sales targets.
In response Kwik Fit apologised unreservedly and said it would review procedures, offer dissatisfied customers a refund and a £5 voucher as well as supply nitrogen inflation free of charge during the review period. Tyres & Accessories contacted executives for comment, but was told they had nothing further to add to the above statement.
Again Kwik-Fit found itself at the centre of attention after a BBC consumer programme accused it of recommending work that didn’t need to be done and of failing to properly carry out free tyre safety checks. On 10 July, the “Your Money, Their Tricks” programme mystery shopped 10 Kwik-Fit branches with 10 different cars. The cars had been pre-inspected by a forensic engineer and had been prepared in order to demonstrate whether checks had been carried out.
The firm Kwik-Fit promises to direct an additional million pounds into staff training and double its mystery shopper programme after the BBC show ‘Watchdog’ aired both its own experience with the fast fit chain and that of several unsatisfied customers. The September 16 2010 edition of Watchdog outlined cases in which Kwik-Fit quoted for repair work that wasn’t required and performed vehicle inspections that did not deliver all that was promised.

Here, here Duncan
The very reasons I never could sell cars or anything else that involved sales tactics
I could sell parts because I knew what I was selling and had all the knowledge to say what was needed so I never felt like I was “selling something” more like providing a service

We were buying a washing machine and heat pump dryer Sunday between hospital visits and wifey just loves the sales pitch worse luck. . . I just see it as BS
A Structural Engineer we met was also looking at dryers but hadn’t a clue what “heat pump technology” as the salesman put it really was
The man discovered I was there to look at one of these and ask me if I knew much about it and why it might be worth the extra money
Within a few words he ask me what my background was and I told him to which he replied he knew I knew more then the salesman. . (bad English) That would not have been difficult
He had the ability to understand the concept and quickly commented it was bit like a dehumidifier drying clothes which is pretty much the idea
He liked the fact that it was not simply making hot air and blowing it out through a hole
Anyhow they bought one but not before his little wife said they were about to “walk” if it hadn’t been me appearing. .
The salesman had not a clue about how the heat pump dryer worked
It’s this technology, , It’s that technology it’s the other technology seems to be the buzz word but if anything more technical than an electric kettle came their way they would not know the difference

One thing I did come away with though was that Indesit group fridges etc are really poor quality. . .I can believe why the dryers ae in trouble

We need all the white goods for out new abode and we want a big fridge freezer as in tall, ,preferably 50/50 to save space which Indesit do near enough but it is in my eyes rubbish
Samsung is better but although we have had Samsung in the past I’m not struck on the price V quality I see even with the 5 year warranty
If the truth be told even the up market brands and prices fall well short of our teenager Hotoint

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I hate it when you have to ask for good customer service. Recently I had a terrible experience shopping online with Debenhams. After an hour I began asking for some customer service. I had to push quite hard to be heard as their advisers are obviously trained to carry on without any awareness of frustrated customers. It’s put me off Debenhams for sure.

Farah says:
28 March 2016

“Being natural doesn’t come naturally” sums up the notion of customer experience management quite nicely. Orienting an entire company externally towards the customer and that customer’s experience seems to require a very internal emphasis on getting that culture right. I think there are a lot of brands out there now striving to get this right. The clearest sign to me is a humble customer service advisor who doesn’t use the brand as a shield against customer problems (hiding behind policy, for example), but instead, like Disney, falls back on the brand for support to find a solution for that customer.