Archive for the ‘customer experience’ Category

Learning the Art of War at British Airways

Saturday, December 12th, 2009


I flew from London back to Boston last night in the business class section of British Airways (BA). We battled all night, but in the dawn’s early light, I realized the brilliance of the company’s war strategy. For those of you at military colleges, here’s what I learned about myself in the process.

My first battle involved a brief and unsuccessful raid in enemy territory, in the business-class checking area of Terminal 5 at Heathrow, to be specific. I promptly assessed that the enemy’s business-class troops are well concealed at the end of the giant terminal –no maps or signs will lead you there – but some friendly Pashtun natives pointed me in the right direction. As I started scouting for enemy positions, I noticed a wall of automated machine guns – er, automated machines – with prominent flags floating over them, erected as the first line of defense for the BA foot ground troops neatly organized behind a second line of tellers. With my special operations training, I managed to infiltrate this first line of automated positions and tried to engage the real warriors behind their desk directly. I naively thought having a business-class ticket would grant me safe passage to those people. I was immediately reminded that in the BA code of war, one has to defeat the automation army before being allowed to engage with real people, business-class ticket notwithstanding. To straighten me out, a female guard laconically pointed to the sign above her – which stipulated “bag drop only” – followed with a second pointing toward the automatic checking machines, and punctuated with a sardonic “see you in a while.”

Having been soundly defeated, I engaged in battle #2 with the Check-In Machine. Beating the machine requires deciphering a secret code involving a number, a card, or a passport. I scratched my head wondering what number I could provide. I tried the locator number, the e-ticket number, and the travel agent’s number. When the machine started producing a hissing noise, I began to fear it was booby-trapped. With panic rising, I tried to scan my electronic passport, but the machine declared it unreadable and started shaking. I then reached for my BA frequent flier card, but I unfortunately have about 15 of those airline cards, plus another 10 for hotels and 3 or 4 for car rental, and the machine is so smartly designed that it offers no usable flat surface to lay out documents, forcing you to juggle them in the air while it keeps electronically firing at you.

Sensing I was about to die shamefully in the throes of this second battle, I decided to change strategy. I started swearing in a variety of languages, including some I do not even speak – albondigas is not really a Spanish profanity, is it? I seemed to initiate a chorus of similar global profanities from fellow travelers at neighboring check-in machines. Sensing an insurgency was in the works, a very nice BA customer service employee broke ranks and tried to pacify the pesky hordes. His first priority was my neighbor, a bearded man who’d expressed his displeasure in Urdu. French profanities got me the runner-up position. The old BA gentleman knew the secret code for each of us, and got us past the machines. As I triumphantly started heading back toward the human shadows behind the tellers, he even whispered that “If you’re persistent, the people at the counter will generally end up helping you.” I hope they do not behead him when they find out he’s collaborating with the enemy.

BA seats

Battle #3 is the Flying Backward one. This may be a little personal, but I simply cannot fly seated backwards. I have an inner ear disorder that makes me sick when I do, and BA is the only airline I know that makes half of its business customers travel facing back. When the French retired their last Caravelle in the early ’70s, I thought I was finally safe, but the smart cabin designers at BA revived this quaint tradition some 10 or 15 years ago. I avoid flying BA for this specific reason, but every now and then, scheduling convenience or cost forces me back to BA. Of course, the seat allocation system senses my weakness and only allocates backward-flying seats to me.

When I was offered such a seat last night, I explained to the BA front-line gunner that I turn into Linda Blair of The Exorcist when forced to fly backwards. I rotated my head back as far as I could to prove the point and asked her to imagine the unsuitability of green slime for the business-class cabin at 30,000 feet. She first pointed out that most warriors tolerate the backward flight in their chopper quite comfortably, but then proceeded to treat me with the deference my new suicide bomber status warranted. I was instructed to go to the airline lounge and throw myself at the mercy of the commanding officer there. Should my request not be granted, I could also attempt to exchange seats with another warrior in the plane itself. If that failed, it was suggested I could walk to a passenger in economy and offer to swap seats with him/her. “Of course, this is an expensive way to do it,” the exquisitely polite lady told me, “but this way, you won’t get sick.” Already soothed by such compassionate behavior, I was reassured when some general back at headquarters apparently switched my seat, allowing me to fly feet forward all the way to Boston.

Once in the plane, it was time to wage battle #4, the one involving the Drawer. Most airlines have a pouch or a pocket where you can put your travel documents, your mobile phone and perhaps a couple of magazines. BA business has a very big drawer … on the floor. If you’re young and athletic, you can squat or bend from a standing position. If you’re Michael Jordan and have a long torso and arms, you can probably stretch and reach the drawer from your seat. When all else fails, you get on your arms and knees and crawl on the floor like the Marines. As I got down to the ground, I got an encouraging look from a flight attendant who looked like an older version of the Ice Queen in the film Chronicles of Narnia.  I also caught her disappointed look when I made it back up. I had won battle #4.

Battle #5 involved withstanding the Floor Sweep. BA wants nothing on the floor around you as the plane takes off. People have clearly been smashed to death by flying pillows, suffocated by twirling blankets, or knocked unconscious by errant sneakers, so regulations require that these dangerous weapons be placed in sealed compartments before take-off. To my knowledge, BA is the only airline with this requirement, which surely dates back to medieval battles involving Scottish or Welsh fighters who used blankets, pillows and sneakers as torture instruments. A very elegant flight attendant ripped my shoes from my feet before departure because I had imprudently taken them half-off after two days of teaching on my feet with a group of executives at a large European bank. I was told that shoes had to be either on or off, and if they were off, they had to be up in the compartment above my head. I let myself be separated from my shoes. I also tried to cling on to my blanket, but was told my grip was too loose to be safe. I surrendered my second weapon and decided to wait for more auspicious conditions for a counter-offensive.

The sixth and final battle involved the Return of the Coat. Shortly before landing, the flight attendants returned all coats to the passengers, except mine. I tried not to grow anxious, until it became clear that my coat and jacket had become a hostage. I pushed the flight attendant button to alert them to this fact, but only drew an annoyed circular look from the Ice Queen to check who’d had the audacity. After landing, as I was seated toward the back of the business cabin, I could not signal to the flight attendants that I was still looking for my outerwear because of all the other warriors standing ahead of me in the line. Because the jetway was malfunctioning, I spent close to 30 minutes standing in the aisle, trying to attract the attention of flight attendants who were too busy talking to each other to pay attention to me.

When I finally made it to the door after the line started moving, I was told the search process would now be initiated, provided I could provide a detailed visual description of the coat and jacket. The topic was prosecuted with the zeal of members of the Moscow Politburo being told an enemy of the regime is missing in Siberia. I was invited to shiver quietly in short sleeves in the door and wait for further information. My mind alternated between designing a proper epitaph and analytical puzzlement over how many ways there can be of losing a coat and jacket in a plane. When the last economy passenger walked by me, I was given the coat back in what appeared to be a large BA ceremony where apologies were plentiful and exquisitely articulated in Elizabethan English, but explanations sparse.

This morning, as I was doing my after-action-review, I had an epiphany. I realized that what I had perceived as bad service is actually an in-depth training program to teach me how to become a better customer. I still have occasional bouts of indiscipline where I crave some form of comfort or service, even some appetite for some form of service co-creation with my airline. But I am close to seeing the light. A new discipline has set in. I look forward to engaging with the next enemy BA throws at me, and getting further field training. Send me back to London. I’m close to battle-ready.

Animating the Disney experience

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Disney is a bit like root beer or green jello. You have to be born on American soil to like it.

The most annoying thing about Disney people is how revered they are for the “experience” they provide in their theme parks.  But the Disney experience is entirely staged by them. Not an ounce of customer co-creation there. If I’m a customer puppet whose strings are drawn by Disney designers, am I much more than Pinocchio longing to become human?

If you ever attend a class from the Disney Institute – yes, they have an Institute – they’ll teach you all about their view of experience. I’ve now been there three times, invited by companies who think the Disney Institute will teach the basics of experience in the morning and I’ll show them the future of experience as co-creation in the afternoon.  And then my agony starts. A Hollywood executive once described the role of the producer on a movie project as watching a director make love to the girl of your dreams and having to pretend you like it. This is the way I feel listening to Disney teach about experience.

The class itself is offered by a teacher who only asks questions with ‘right” or wrong” answers. When you answer “right”, he gives you a small Disney character to take home. The last time in Orlando, my neighbor collected four of them. He reminded me of the dolphin being fed after every trick I had seen the day before at Seaworld. You’ll learn everything at Disney has been studied for you. The sidewalks of the theme park are red because they look good on pictures. The alley veering to the right is one or two feet larger than the one veering to the left because more people naturally go right than go left. Responding to a question during a tour of the underground premises, our guide volunteered that the characters don’t talk because “Disney would lose the ability to control the quality of the customer experience in an improvised dialogue”. Imagine the risk of it all, if Mickey could respond to the little girl in pink with her balloon (by the way, Mickey is a teamster, and his union contract may not include talking).

The intensity with which Disney focuses on experience – the manufactured kind – creates the very obstacle that prevents the company from moving to co-creation of that experience. Having been anointed as experience experts by pundits, why would Disney exhibit the humility to let customers design their own experience? By and large, this phenomenon extends to the entire fast-moving consumer goods industry, where companies such as Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal have blazed the experience trail, but have become laggards on the co-creation of the consumer experience.

Well, before I write Disney’s co-creative abilities off completely, let me point to two developments that show Disney may be coming off the experience ice age after all. Last Wednesday, the Epcot Center at Walt Disney’s Disney World opened a new attraction called Sum of All Thrills which lets kids design on a computer their own roller-coaster, bobsled track or plane ride, then actually experience that ride through virtual reality. Two other attractions in other theme parks – Toy Story Mania and Cyberspace Mountain – also exhibit personalization features of the same type.

Even more importantly, Disney is revamping its stores, coached by Steve Jobs who now sits on the Disney board through the Pixar relationship. The main idea behind the renovation is not particularly co-creative in that it involves making the stores into mini-theme parks providing kids with “an experience”, as opposed to the dolls warehouse that they are today. The co-creation comes in the process of developing the new store concept. As Apple did it in the development of its own store format, Jobs has talked the management of Disney Stores into opening a pilot store in a warehouse to figure out the right interactivity between customers, store personnel and the physical merchandise and store. He’s also coached them to consider community activities in the store, rather than focus on one-on-one sale.

The European cynic in me will probably never convince himself that going on a ride of It’s a Small World After All provides an authentic global experience, but Disney’s willingness to let customers participate in its value chain is encouraging. Slowly, Sleeping Beauty may be awakening after all.

Adding insult to injury: the tyranny of satisfaction surveys

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

I am in Paris, staying at a Novotel hotel, meeting with clients and teaching. The hotel is great. They all know me here and greet me by name. They even let me transform my room into an improvised meeting room with four of my colleagues, bringing me extra chairs and tailoring their cleaning schedule to my needs. It’s all peachy. Except for the fact that the Internet does not work properly. For €20 a night (gulp), it kicks me out every two minutes and forces me to reenter my access code every time. This is by now the only thing I care about. Forget about the friendly staff and the special service. This is a BAAAAD hotel. On the last day of my stay in the morning, I find a Novotel survey in my e-mail box asking me about my experience. The adrenaline starts flowing. I will get to vent. The cathartic effect is starting already. I will sleep in peace in the cab on the way to the airport.

But wait! It does not ask me about the Internet connection, except as a minor feature in a long list of “services”. It wants to know whether I think of this hotel more as “pleasant with some originality”, or “classic with a twist”. It wants to know whether I have enjoyed the two bathrobes and the slipper they have made available for me. Or whether the Nespresso coffee machine does anything for me. I don’t give a hoot. I want to talk about the Internet, in fact let them have it about their Internet. The survey is nearly over. I want to kill the market researcher who designed this questionnaire. At the end, there is a box where I can write whatever I want. I know the market researcher is already half-checked out. I still spill my guts. Just in case. The box is too small to contain my ire. The tyranny of quantitative market research has won once again. They will never know why I have woven this complex pattern of a final evaluation where I hate the hotel, yet love the people in it and most of its amenities. They will probably run regression models between my overall low grade and my favorable answers to most questions, and shake their head.

Maybe they should have just given me a blank piece of paper and let me tell my story.

Does Apple do co-creation?

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Perhaps the most frequently asked question when it comes to co-creation is whether Apple is the best or the worst example of co-creation. The answer, of course, is yes.

If we think of co-creation as the process of involving customers and employees in the design of the next generation product, the co-definition of any customer-facing process, or God forbid, the opening of the firm’s governance to outside stakeholders, Apple is the worst student in the class. “More secretive than Apple, you die”, a French trade journalist once wrote, frustrated by the KGB-like approach of the firm. Give them an “F” in the “Co-Creation as a Process class”! (Dear Steve Jobs, you may be devastated reading this evaluation, but don’t despair; I have encouraging words for you later on).

If we define co-creation as the extent through which the customer experience that is delivered day in, day out by Apple allows a two-way contextualization of that experience, Apple fares better. The play list on my iPod or iPhone is uniquely mine. I may not have designed iTunes (Steve Jobs and his team did that), but iTunes sure allows me to create a personalized play list, so much so that my two sisters emphatically acknowledge this play list is “uniquely me” (this opinion came with a recommendation not to publish it on iTunes, but rather to keep it “exclusive to the family”; my sisters can be over-possessive sometimes). My ability to browse through products at the Apple Store on my own terms, or to dialogue with the repair folks at the Genius Bar, are also quite co-creative. Of course, many elements remain ferociously controlled by Apple, including price and distribution access. In the Allowing Customers to Co-Create their Experience class, Apple might get something like a “B-“ or a “B.” (Told you, Steve, it would get better).

With the advent of the App store, Apple has decidedly crossed the co-creation Rubicon. Being old enough to remember the early insistence of Apple on keeping software proprietary, it is nothing short of remarkable that Apple would allow independent software writers to sell their products on the iPhone platform today. They now even advertise the App store as the key feature for the iPhone, for goodness’ sake! In the “Getting Partners to Co-Create with the Firm class”, Apple may well come close to an “A.”

O.K., Steve, you’ve been improving steadily. Now, work on that Co-Creation as a Process thing. You have all the makings of a good businessman. I believe in you.