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In overseeing the experience your customers have with your company, the top two factors are creating peak moments while avoiding valleys, and finishing the interaction strongly.

Those two elements are the foundation of 12 principles consultant Jon Picoult recommends to ensure your customers are fans. “A great customer experience is a well-choreographed performance that’s thoughtfully produced, carefully staged and flawlessly executed. Nothing is left to chance and everything is intentionally designed,” he writes in his book, From Impressed to Obsessed.

Not every moment of that interaction with the customer will be wonderful. But all moments don’t have be perfect. What really matters is not how those interactions actually are, but how customers remember them. So, some of a customer’s experience can be mediocre, or even unpleasant, as long as that is offset by positive peaks that are the ultimate memory makers.

Mr. Picoult points to Costco. Trying to find what you need in the chain’s huge warehouses can be frustrating. But its members are enthusiasts because it does some things very well – pricing, fast checkouts and quality house brand items. Costco counters the valleys by ensuring exceptional peaks.

He advises you to compress the pain. Combine unpleasant interactions in the experience so they are less memorable. It’s better to put a customer on hold once for six minutes, Mr. Picoult says, than twice for three minutes each. Look at what’s ugly in your customer experience and see if it all can be lumped together into a single action or smaller set of interaction points.

Just as raising the pole at the centre of a circus tent lifts up the rest of the tent, one positive part of the customer experience can elevate the whole process. “It’s important for you to excel in at least one aspect of your customer experience. It could be how you on-board new customers, or your responsiveness to inquiries, or the ease of product installation. Whatever it is, just make sure to create at least one high peak in the experience, because that tent pole will actually make your customers feel better about the rest of the experience you deliver – even if you don’t lift a finger to improve those other parts,” he says.

The need to finish strong shouldn’t surprise. We remember what happened toward the end of an experience. He celebrates Alaska Airlines, which in 2009 introduced a 25-minute baggage guarantee. If a customer’s luggage wasn’t rolling down the carousel in that time frame, they could get a US$25 coupon toward future travel on the airline or 2,500 bonus miles on their loyalty account.

For the next 12 years the airline earned the highest ranking among traditional, nondiscount airlines in an annual J.D. Power customer satisfaction study. And a key reason was finishing strong – getting off a plane and baggage retrieval.

That doesn’t mean you want to start on a sour note. First impressions still count. But it’s best to bury unpleasant parts of the customer experience toward the beginning of the encounter. Mr. Picoult acknowledges that sometimes it’s not easy to tell when a customer experience actually ends, and sometimes they even run into one another.

But some customer experiences are brief and well-defined, and finishing strong is critical. Doing something unexpected after a purchase – such as a handwritten thank you note – can be a helpful tactic.

Other principles, buttressing that approach, include:

  • Make it effortless: Amazon’s one-click purchase process fits that need. Identify points in your customer service process where you are saddling customers with unnecessary, avoidable effort.
  • Keep it simple: Look for situations in which customers are getting confused or struggling with a decision, and help them. Avoid jargon and provide context to make the process more comprehensible.
  • Stir emotion: Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt said, “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” Impressions of a customer experience flow from how we feel about it. So stir emotions and accentuate the positive when you can.
  • Give the perception of control: People given the choice of which arm will be used in blood donation are more satisfied with the experience. Hunt out areas of uncertainty for your clients and try to set their expectations better and keep them more informed.
  • Be an advocate: When you ask a Ritz-Carlton hotel employee where someplace in the building is, they have been trained to take you there, not just point. Customers want companies and employees to be with them on their journey – to have their back or advocate for issues they care about.
  • Deliver pleasant surprises: About 28 per cent of sandwich shop chain Pret a Manger’s clientele have been surprised when they come to pay to learn that day’s meal is free. Every store employee has been instructed to give away a certain number of freebies. Break the encounter’s script. Surprise the customer.

Customer service is a process. It’s easy to become distanced from your process or too accepting of its imperfections. “That’s the way it has always been,” you believe, or “that’s the way it has to be.” Re-evaluate your customer’s journey, keeping Mr. Picoult’s ideas in mind – in particular, creating peaks while avoiding valleys and finishing strongly


  • Columbia Business School Professor Rita McGrath first wrote about discovery-based planning in 1995, but she says it’s ideal for dealing with today’s uncertainty. It stresses deliberately taking actions that can teach you something, even framing the decision as a hypothesis: Will at least 10 per cent of visitors to your website click through if you make a certain change? Projects should be viewed as options, a small investment today to figure out if a larger investment will be worthwhile.
  • Because middle managers play a “make it or break it” role in change initiatives, consultants at NOBL Academy recommend in their weekly newsletter working with those managers to make the change their own, identifying what’s most meaningful for them so they can present it best.
  • Here’s a good interview question to ask job candidates, from Spanx CEO Sara Blakely: “Describe yourself in three words.” Two others content team leader Lotte van Rijswijk compiled for are: “When was the last time you changed your mind on something important?” from 121 Ventures CEO Sarah Fetter. And “What’s one critical piece of feedback you have received that was really difficult to hear?” from Pema Lin-Moore, vice-president of people operations at WRA Inc.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of EDS Canada and CanCom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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