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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.

Shaun Smith says:
15 March 2016

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.


IF I wanted to I could put on the most hypocritical approach to customers coming out with sales talk that could charm the birds out of the trees BUT I could not live with myself ,I could not be artificial if I tried . One of my aunts said –you have to go through life putting on an act -I point -blank refused . What it does do is hold you back in life ,not being a “crawler ” . I once went into a city business run by an arrogant female who dominated her staff , she had complained her telephone system wasnt working , as I stood to attention in front of her I looked behind her at the main CPU box on the wall —it was switched off –I pointed at it and said — your system isnt working because you switched it off—– outrage !!!! because I also said you will be charged for the call-out –told to wait outside –boss said dont charge her, she didnt like my “tone ” ON the other hand another female boss in charge of a Stock-Market company was so outrageous I started laughing ,she had condemned just about everybody living but like our cat , was so arrogant and bossy that I actually liked her because she was so OTT , so I just agreed with her and told her well I am somebody new wait and see if I can fix it . It worked she turned her attention to somebody else . Although in one upmarket area I called at a big house and the woman wouldnt let me in because she had white 3 inch pile carpet and told me to take off my shoes –I refused and phoned base as it was a safety problem . I was told to call again ,she opened the door–oh its YOU ! –I looked down and there was the Times newspaper pages running all the way up the stairs to the bedroom phone –she followed closely behind my back. I have 100 more stories that could fill a book but I feel sorry for the staff that you can see putting on an act for customers ,for some its a real strain , no wonder the US is the worlds biggest prescription drug users of tranquilizers .


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!