I first started writing my blog six years ago. Since that time, I have crafted hundreds of articles – producing them, almost religiously, on a weekly basis. Regularly, I am asked how I generate the ideas behind the articles – ‘do I have a plan and schedule for the year?’. No – is the simple answer. When customer experience is your passion; your vocation; and you have a desire to share thought, knowledge and opinion; then identifying suitable topics to write about is not particularly challenging. Every day, every week, every month, every year, we are all subjected to experiences that others can learn from – some good…. some not so good.

In the last few weeks, my military precision article creation has stumbled somewhat. Although many of my posts are created during rather unsociable hours (typically at 4am in the morning or 11pm at night!!), my work schedule has been so crazy, I have not been able to find a minute to put ‘finger to keyboard’ (so to speak). I do not expect a sympathetic reaction to this statement – I just want to make it clear that my unusual silence has not meant that my brain has failed to be stimulated throughout this period of blogging abstinence!!

Travelling as far and wide as I do, I consider myself extremely fortunate to witness first hand, customer experience in different cultural environments. Two weeks ago, I visited the wonderful country of Kenya for the third time. I have always found Kenya to be so welcoming and vibrant – even if the traffic is not quite so kind to the human soul! Whilst consumers are subjected to experiences that fail to meet their needs and expectations as often as many other parts of the world, my observation in Kenya is that often, when the functional and accessible components of the experience are lacking, the ability of Kenyans to leave you remembering the experience as a result of the way they made you FEEL, is particularly strong.

The EMOTIONAL component of all experiences is, in my opinion, the most important component of them all. The way an experience makes a customer FEEL is what they are most likely to remember about their interaction with an organisation. As I am often heard saying – customers will remember the very good; the very bad; or nothing at all. What customers remember about their experiences – they way they are made to feel – is all down to the way employees interact with them. It is not products and services that have the greatest effect on the way a customer feels – it is your own people – the way your employees make them feel.

As a result, if any organisation has a desire to deliver consistently customer centric experiences that met, and sometimes exceed, expectation, it is critical they enable their people to ‘THINK and ACT’ in the interests of the customer – far easier to say than do. It does not matter where we live on this small planet, most corporate cultures have been built on the principle of ‘command and control’ – sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Far too often, employees do not think and act in the interests of the customer – not because they do not want to – but because they are not able to (or perceive themselves not to be able to). Empowerment is a word that either excites or scares business leaders. The definition of the word empowerment – ‘authority or power given to someone to do something’ – does not align to the legacy of command and control cultures. If you do not empower employees, then they will simply exist to do exactly what they are told to do – whether it is in the interests of the customer or not.

Failure to enable your people to think, will have consequences – which brings me back to my recent trip to Kenya. I stayed with a colleague of mine in a five star hotel in Nairobi. Although a little tired, the hotel was clean, the service was friendly and the facilities up to scratch. The end to end experience was not one that I would describe as ‘memorable’ – it met my functional needs without doing anything to trigger an emotional memory for either positive or negative reasons. That is until the very last day….

With our flight departing at 23:25 at night, we had a day to kill before travelling to the airport. We asked reception if we could checkout later than the standard 11:00 time. ‘I’ll have to find out from my manager’, was the response. This is an immediate indication of a lack of empowerment. Why could a decision like that, to what must be a relatively common request, not be made by the employee manning the reception desk? On her return, we were advised that we could check out late….. but at a cost. Having stayed in the hotel for three nights, this surprised me – most hotels will extend checkout at no additional cost. Whilst this disappointed me, it was not significant enough to etch itself into my memory banks. What the experience did consciously bring to my attention though, was the indication of a lack of ‘thinking and acting’ in the interests if customers.

We decided to have a meal in one of the hotel restaurants before departing for the airport. We were not to know that this simple meal would turn into a classic example of the failure to empower employees. We were served by a very friendly man – smiley and welcoming. I ordered chicken, my colleague ordered a T-Bone steak – we were extremely hungry and very much looking forward to the meal. The food arrived – beautifully presented and smelling amazing! I really enjoyed my chicken – my colleague on the other hand, was not having as good a time devouring his T-bone steak.

Mid way through the meal, our waiter arrived, asking how we were getting on. My colleague expressed his dislike of the steak for the first time – but also told the waiter not to worry – he would continue eating it. A few minutes later he changed his mind – he decided that the steak was not good enough to eat and resigned himself to eating his accompanying salad and fries. As he was doing so, a different member of staff arrived at our table. ‘I understand you do not like your steak’, she said. ‘Would you like another one?’. My colleague thanked her for her concern, but repeated he did not want another steak – he would make do with his salad and fries. She asked my colleague if there was anything she could do – he intimated that she might like to deduct the meal from our bill. This seem to fluster her. ‘I’ll have to go and speak to my manager’, was the response.

A few minutes later, the chef arrived at the table – I kid you not! ‘Can I make you another steak?’, was his question. Although we were admiring their tenacity in wanting to address the situation, they were now starting to get a little annoying. My colleague repeated the same line – no – he would make do with his salad and fries. Again, seeming rather confused and a little flustered, the chef departed. A few minutes later, our second waiter returned to the table. ‘My manager has given me permission to deduct 10% from your bill’, she said. It was not particularly clear if she meant 10% off the whole bill or 10% off food (although it transpired to be the latter), yet by now we were almost beyond the point of caring. We just wanted them to leave us alone!!

Amazingly, a few minutes later, our second waiter turned up at the table with another colleague – they wanted to apologise again for the quality of the steak. As a token of how sincere their apology was, they wanted to give each of us a gift – a hand made wooden business card holder. Very random – but very sweet….

Genuine hand made Kenyan business card holder anyone?

… and totally unnecessary. The whole t-bonegate scenario played itself out over a 45 minute period. During that time, multiple employees were involved in multiple interactions with each other and the customer to try and address a problem. The result was flustered employees and two bemused/ irritated customers. Whilst the employees were doing their very best – and were polite at all times, all they succeeded in doing was making a small problem a whole lot worse. The thing is, throughout t-bonegate, none of the employees was THINKING and ACTING in our interests. If they were, all they needed to have done when the problem was mentioned for the first time is as follows:

‘I am so sorry to hear that sir. Please accept my sincere apologies. If you are sure you do not want anything else, I will deduct the steak from your bill. Please allow me to get a you a drink on the house’.

Done. No stress, no hassle – and a satisfied customer who will probably talk about how well the situation was dealt with. But that did not happen – because these employees, whilst lovely people, are NOT able to think and act in the interests of the customer. Sadly, my overriding memory of the stay at this hotel in Nairobi will be a completely unnecessary incident. I will not remember it because of the attitude or capability of employees – I will remember it because of the inability of those employees to do what they think is right.

So ask yourself the question – has your organisation enabled its employees to think and act in the interests of the customer? If there is a real risk that your customers will remember you for the wrong reasons, now is the time to start your cultural transformation.

My new book, ‘Customer What? The honest and practical guide to customer experience has finally been published. Buy it now on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. If Amazon do not deliver to your part of the world, please email me at ian@ijgolding.com