Why Bad Customer Experiences Escalate So Quickly

Posted by Ruben Moffett on June 6, 2017

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Mostly, customers are content to be compliant. But, when it goes bad, it can be disastrous for your brand.
The Frequency Illusion

Perhaps you’ve never heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but odds are you have experienced it.  Also known as the “frequency illusion,” it happens when we repeatedly notice something after first learning about it.  Maybe it’s a new word, and suddenly, you notice it in conversations, hear it on the morning news, and read it in a book. The car you’ve just recently become interested in buying now seems to pull up next to you at every red light and is parked beside you in every parking lot. It’s a psychological phenomenon that is believed to be related to the human brain’s bias toward operating in repetition and patterns. The word or car was always there, but your brain has adopted a means of retaining that information through heightened awareness. While it may be merely an intriguing phenomenon in the world of psychology, this very thing plays a role in customer service by increasing public awareness of a company’s or industry’s poor customer service.

The frequency illusion presents a real challenge for companies, and even industries, that fail to prevent or contain viral and vicious social media eruptions causing a catastrophic impact on the brand.

No company ever set out to be a disappointment to its customers, but there was a time when perhaps one little snafu might go unnoticed by the vast population. These days, all it takes is for one social media post to go viral, and suddenly an entire corporation, or industry, is scrambling to clean up that once small mess. When we combine the rapid pace at which a customer is able to disseminate the news of his/her experience with the “frequency illusion,” it becomes clear that preventing customer service failures altogether is more important now than ever.

The Confirmation Bias

The frequency illusion helps explain why some of the most notorious customer service debacles in recent memory have come in clusters. For example, recently several major domestic airlines were swept up in viral examples of extraordinarily bad customer service. Millions of us empathetically watched a series of videos of airline and/or security personnel mistreating passengers, and the public was left feeling “that could have been ME.” As a result, the impacted passengers are being highly compensated by their respective violators, and all the airlines are redesigning their internal policies and procedures, working double-time to regain the public’s confidence and rebuild their individual reputations faster than the competition. The scope and pace of this example have been extraordinary.

Today’s customer is King and they have too many options to tolerate poor service.  By 2020, the experience a customer has with your brand will be a more important purchasing differentiator than price or the product itself.  Have you adjusted your approach to customer experiences that recognize this change?

Each incident, having started as one person sharing his/her individual experience (or the experience of a fellow traveler), moved beyond the “frequency illusion” into something known as the “confirmation bias,” which occurs when people actively seek out additional evidence to support their perceptions and beliefs.  A solitary episode brought into the light sparks others to share similar experiences, resulting in public support and a massive outcry for policy changes, boycotts, and restitution, just to mention a few of the costly and embarrassing possibilities.

The Shift

The airline industry had been headed toward an eruption for years, going back to the massive changes in airline policies after 9/11. All of us understood and were even happy to have, the new airport and airplane security guidelines and restrictions. While the lines were long, and throwing out a perfectly good bottle of sunscreen because it exceeded the ounce allowance was annoying, we all had tangible and horrific memories of the reasons for those rules. Mostly, customers were content to be compliant.

But it was not merely airline safety that was compromised on 9/11; it was also airline profits, which caused airlines to reduce the number of flights and destinations served, as well as eliminate most food service and add charges for checked luggage.

Poor customer service already costs companies more than $62 billion each year.  86% of customers will pay more for a better customer experience and 89% of customers have switched brands due to a poor customer experience. 

In 2010 alone, domestic airlines made an estimated $3.4 billion from checked bag fees – a “small” concession for customers, but a giant windfall for the airlines. So, airlines’ profits have been rebounding. BUT, hungry passengers are sitting on smaller planes with smaller seats, enduring longer layovers due to fewer flights, and carrying lighter wallets from paying for luggage and snacks. Additionally, and more subtly, “customers” became “passengers,” subject to the commands of the all-powerful airline and security personnel. After all, we are all still concerned about flight safety.

The levy broke when a passenger was physically removed from a flight, suffering a broken nose, a concussion, damaged sinuses and broken teeth as the result of overbooking practices by the airlines and their associated procedures.  With that, the pendulum began to swing back toward the customers, resetting their expectations of a tolerable experience.  This moment highlighted the unacceptable gap between customer expectations and customer experiences.

The Opportunity

So—what can YOU do to avoid falling prey to a clustered, viral customer experience and IF YOU DO, are you prepared to manage the aftermath?

A recent Forrester survey found that 72% of companies view CX as their #1 priority, showing their clear understanding of the value and their interest in effective customer experiences. In reality, however, many companies struggle to execute their CX improvement strategies. First and foremost, companies must prioritize the customer experience and build formal, executive-endorsed programs that are consistently reviewed and promoted. The single most important thing the program should include is customer journey mapping and measurement.

Company leaders must know where their customers begin contact with their organizations, how their customers engage, and where, how and why those customers exit.  This journey analysis will include an examination of channels and engagement hub technologies and will dive deeply into underlying and available data sources to build predictive and prescriptive analytics. But it also must include storyboarding to understand fully the experiences from the customer perspective. These reviews must adequately explore the worst that can happen in each given customer interaction to not only help you improve your customer experience, but also prepare you to deal with experiences that turn ugly and viral.

Understanding the customer’s journey with your company is the first step in changing the market’s perceptions of your company – perceptions that become reality based on confirmation bias and amplified by social media.

If you are going to make real customer-centric progress, you must examine your organization and make changes across people, processes, technology, departments and functional areas, and even perhaps within your overall culture itself. After all, your customer likely does not know or care if it was a technology, a person, a process, or a departmental failure that caused their pain, and neither should you.

The Right Reasons to Go Viral

It’s not all doom and gloom. The frequency illusion also applies in the positive context. Examples of exceptional, positive customer experiences have also made headlines and enjoyed broad social media visibility. When these positive viral events occur, use them as an opportunity to market and promote your policies which, in turn, set the bar for everyone else in the industry.  Build a culture and the supporting people, processes, and technologies to exceed customers’ expectations, and quite possibly, when the cameras are recording, it will be your organization going viral for all the right reasons.

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