I often write my blog posts and articles whilst travelling on either a train or an aeroplane. Although I can also be found hunched over my laptop keyboard in hotel rooms at twilight hours, the confined space of a metal tube travelling at high speeds is the perfect environment for me to commit my thoughts into words.

The irony (life is full of so many of them) in me choosing to make use of travelling time to write about my favourite subject, is that the experience of travelling on either a train or an aeroplane is rarely one that I will remember.

I am currently sitting on a Virgin train service on my way to London. Just over two hours of travelling time. This will be the tenth time I have used the service in 2018. In 2017, I travelled on the train to London approximately 25 times. 35 trips – 70 trains – in one and a half years.

I do not remember a single one.

In 2017, I flew on 85 aircraft. In 2018, to date, I have flown on 51 – 136 aeroplanes in one and a half years.

I remember three.

‘So what?’, you might ask. I can not blame you for doing so. I am not sharing my travelling record to receive adulation or sympathy. I am sharing these hard, cold facts to make a point. Having travelled on 206 trains and aeroplanes during an 18-month period, I can only recall my experience of doing so on three occasions – three! Of the three I remember, two were dreadful, one was lovely.

The point behind the fact is this – my travel experiences – much like anyone else – are almost entirely ones that fulfil only one thing – basic functional requirements. In every case (albeit not always as promised), the trains and aeroplanes I travelled on succeeded in getting me to my chosen location. A rather important customer need. As the core purpose of any passenger transport company should be underpinned by achieving the most fundamental need of their customers, this fact is not surprising.

If I delve deeper into the individual experiences on 206 trains and aeroplanes, the ‘facts’ become more interesting. These are some of the memories I recall from my 206 journeys, although I cannot exactly remember when most of them occurred:

  • I liked it when Virgin trains enabled me to book my trip and retrieve my ticket entirely on my smartphone – it makes things so much easier
  • The guard on a Virgin train I travelled on last year was incredibly rude
  • The member of cabin crew who greeted me and my family on an Emirates flight from Dubai to Mauritius was really lovely – welcoming and caring
  • An aeroplane I travelled on was really old
  • An aeroplane I travelled on was brand new
  • I still have not received an apology for the 17-hour delay I endured with Emirates
  • I was impressed with the sincere apology for the 30-minute delay I experienced with Emirates
  • The Air France pilot who introduced himself to his passengers by standing at the front of the aeroplane was fantastic
  • It is so irritating that I always seem to be given excuses for things going wrong?
  • The crew on many of my trips look so bored and disinterested
  • The crew on some of my trips are really engaged with their passengers

I could go on. Some of these memories relate to more than one journey. They are a good summary of the kinds of things I can recall – although as I have already stated, not necessarily attribute to a specific journey.

It becomes clear that whilst not always on time, the providers of the services I am paying for are eventually meeting my basic expectation – my fundamental need. However, the occasions where my basic needs are exceeded, are remarkably few and far between. At the same time, this exposes the companies I choose to interact with to having a significant detrimental effect on my perception of them when they fail to meet the basic need – even slightly.

As a result, my recollection of the good and the bad is minimal – in other words, my ability to recall a specific experience is almost impossible. Now you may still be thinking, ‘so what?’ – again, you would be right to do so. The ‘so what?’ is as follows:
What is the actual experience the airlines and train companies I choose to interact with want me to have? In other words, what is their ‘desired customer experience?’. How do they want me, a paying customer, to feel because of interacting with them?

Do they want me to feel…

a) Good about the experience?
b) Bad about the experience?
c) Nothing at all about the experience?

If the answer is c), then they are consistently meeting their objective. I am assuming (although we should typically avoid doing so), that no company would want the answer to land on b). If it is a), then the example of my 18-month travel history proves that they are very rarely achieving the aspiration.
Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting a senior leader from a passenger transport company in the UK. After two days of conversation and knowledge transfer about customer experience, he pulled me to one side and said:

“You have made me realise that we have been doing customer experience by accident”

I could not have said it better myself. What this incredibly honest and articulate leader was acknowledging was that whilst customers may be exposed to an experience that leaves them feeling a) good about the experience, this will happen by accident, rather than intent.

It is unfair of me to give the impression that the airline and rail industries are the only ones that are consistently delivering an ‘accidental customer experience’. I would argue that most industries are. To determine if your business is doing the same, ask yourself these three simple questions:

  1. Has my organisation defined and communicated what they WANT the desired customer experience to be?
  2. Do I know how my company WANTS our customers to FEEL because of their interaction with us?
  3. Do I know how well we are doing at delivering the desired customer experience?

If you cannot answer all three questions, then it is very likely your organisation is delivering an accidental customer experience. You may be lucky – lucky that by default, rather than design, customers may be happy with the experience fulfilling the basic need. You may be lucky – your customers may largely not care about anything other the basic, functional experience. However, in all walks of life, relying on luck is a very risky business. At some point, luck will inevitably run out – usually when someone else provides the same product or service as one element of an intentionally designed experience that leaves customers feeling good – most of the time.

So what kind of organisation would you rather work for? One that delivers the intentional customer experience, or one that does so accidentally?

This post was originally written exclusively for my column on CustomerThink – a global online community of business leaders striving to create profitable customer-centric enterprises. The site serves 80,000+ visitors per month from 200 countries.

You can read my column here!

My book, ‘Customer What? – the honest and practical guide to customer experience’ – is now available to purchase! You can do so on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. If Amazon does not ship to your part of the world, please complete the form found here and I will arrange an alternative method to ship a book to you. Enjoy the read!!