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Build Second Chances into Your First Impressions

Have Laptop, Will Travel – The Experience of the Morning

My preferred airline, Alaska Airlines, has made enough positive deposits into my emotional bank account to make me forgiving of slight transgressions. They recently formed an alliance with Virgin America. I was looking forward to experiencing the services of Virgin America, an organization with a reputation for delivering excellence for their customers.

Unfortunately, my first impression wasn’t all that great. But it did make me want to write an article!

Starting roughly 24 hours in advance, I began trying to check in online. Alaska Airlines’ system would not allow it. So I tried Virgin America’s . No can do. No biggie, I just planned to get to the airport early. Alaska’s electronic kiosk would not allow me to check in, and told me to go to Virgin’s. Virgin’s would not allow me to check in, telling me I had to go to the counter. The counter was not open, and would not be opening for nearly half an hour. It’s just not my day.

So I stood in line with the travelers who had enough luggage with them to survive for years on Gilligan’s Island, without even having the Professor’s help. Fortunately, I was able to do some texting with a funny and compassionate friend who helped keep my chronic morning grumpies from flaring up into an acute case of irritable brain syndrome.

Once I got to the counter, it took about ten minutes more to provide sufficient information to be able to check in (including birth date, driver’s license number, mother’s maiden name, blood type, saliva sample, and complete medical history…or so it seemed). And when I was finally handed my ticket, it didn’t have that all-important blessing…the TSA-pre-check logo. Going back and adding that little emblem of freedom was going to require the signatures of three Chicago aldermen, and since my “graft” accounts were running low, I settled for the standard security line. It was amazingly short for O’Hare security anyway. Had it been the more common two-hour-line-to-experience-invasive-procedure security that I’ve grown accustomed to in Chicago, this article would be far more of a rant than it already is. But this isn’t a rant…this is friendly advice on new product launches.

Enough Story-telling…Who Is this Kano Guy?

Professor Noriaki Kano came up with one of my favorite insights about products and how customers feel about them. Keep in mind that by “products,” I mean any goods and services that any organization offers. His insight was that there were a variety of different types of attributes products can have, and how well organizations deliver on those attributes has YUGE impact on their success. Or failure.

Some attributes are just the “ante” you need to even play the game in your industry. For example, a car needs to have some sort of engine that makes it go. No matter how much I tout the environmental friendliness of a car with no engine – no toxic emissions, no carbon footprint, no squished squirrels in the road – you aren’t going to buy such a car, because it lacks what it needs to even be considered a car. With such attributes, you’ll never make anyone happy by offering them, but you can sure disappoint, frustrate, and anger people if you don’t.

Other attributes will make people happy or sad, depending on how much of them you offer. Let’s put an engine in that car now, and talk about attributes like gas mileage and acceleration. Generally, the more gas mileage you offer, the more people are happy. And it goes the other way…the less gas mileage you offer, the less happy they are. Pretty straightforward. And this is where most companies tend to compete…if the competition offers a 250 horsepower engine, we’ll offer 251. If they have six cup holders, we’ll offer seven. By offering a little bit more, your customer is a little bit happier.

But then there are attributes that can surprise and delight, the kinds of things that make you say “wow, how cool is that?!?” Take the proverbial car we’ve been discussing, and make it driverless, with foot and neck massage robots in it, and you’ve got something that will drop some jaws in amazement. With these attributes, a little goes a long, long way. Even if those neck massage robots don’t leave you as relaxed and care-free as the Ph.D. masseuse from Sweden in that exclusive south pacific spa that you read about the Kardashians going to, you are still going to be greatly impressed.

These categories are insightful enough, but Kano’s insight did not stop there. He also had the insight to know that over time, the attributes that once astounded us become simple performance attributes, and then later become mere expectations. Continuing with the car example, things like radios, air conditioning, seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes, and yes, even cup holders, once generated delight. But nowadays, a car that lacks internet connectivity and USB ports in every seat are disappointingly out-of-date.

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

“But Brad,” I hear you saying, “you haven’t mentioned a new product yet…it’s pretty much just you whining again about a minor blip in customer experience with a non-sequitor into some innovation theorist. Get on with it!”

Okay’s the advice. When launching a new product…in this case, I’m counting the alliance offering between Alaska and Virgin America as a new product offering…make sure you do some scenario planning around customer experience before you go live. Ensure first that those minimum expectations are covered (i.e., don’t go to market with an engineless car).

Then be prepared for things to go wrong. Trust me, they will. Being smart about your launch means you anticipate everything you can anticipate and prepare accordingly. Being wise about your launch means you know that not everything can be anticipated, and you prepare accordingly. You need to identify ways to turn those inevitable disappointments into delights.

Deliver Basic Functionality

The cause of my check-in problem was that my flight was booked through Alaska, even though it was operated by Virgin America. Call me a Monday-morning quarterback, but that is an anticipatable issue. Heck, it’s kinda the whole point around such an alliance, isn’t it? So that ought to be a priority to address in putting together the IT systems, right? That’s the kind of thing that – before officially offering the shared flights – the product development team should test and retest and make darn certain is fully functional.

Deliver Extraordinary Anti-Dysfunctionality

Of course, even if the airlines nailed the anticipatable stuff, someone somewhere is going to have some pretty whacky travel plans that will put a strain on even the most well-thought out system. So what do you do with those customers? Plan for failure! Don’t let arrogance (“We did this so well, nothing can go wrong”) or foolishness (“It’ll only be a few people disappointed, so let’s not worry about it”) get in the way of planning for failure.

By “planning for failure,” I mean planning to turn disappointments into delights. Organizations need to fill the quivers of their front-line people – the people who have to look the disappointed customer in the eye -- with turnaround arrows. These need not be something out of a super-hero movie, and they need not be expensive. Just something that will make the irate customer turn into a delighted customer.

“Is that really possible without super-hero powers?” you ask. Consider my check-in case. As I waited to board the flight, it occurred to me that something that would have made me say “wow” would have been completely costless – offer me a chance to board in one of the earlier groups. That would have made me say “these people really care about my experience with their company.”

Or the agent could have said, “Hey, I see you are in a middle seat and traveling alone…we’ve got some empty window and aisle seats, would you like for me to make that change for you?” Had they noticed, pointed out the possibility, and made the offer, I would have felt like they were on my team. Instead, I had to ask about the possibility and request that change myself. I felt more like I had outwitted them as an opponent.

I’m sure if they sat in a room and thought about it for a bit, they could come up with a whole bunch of such costless or low-cost tools for their people to have available.

(Yes, Mr. Branson, I’m available to facilitate that ideation session… Just give me a call)

More Than Training Niceness

It’s important to note that preparing for failure is more than just training your customer service staff (or should we call them “complaint receivers”) in niceness, empathy, and anger de-escalatation. Such customer service training is falling down the Kano scale. No longer does friendly service surprise and delight us. It’s come to be something we expect. It’s a requirement, not a differentiator. Anything less gives us soul-shredding conniptions.

The customer service folks at Virgin America were excellent at empathy and kindness. They apologized genuinely for the inconvenience, and seemed sincere when they promised to relay the problem to whomever could take some action to fix it. That was fine, and I certainly didn’t walk away angry. But I also didn’t walk away thinking, “Wow, Virgin America really is a different customer-care experience.”

The Dramatic Conclusion

So before launching your new product, always do these two things: 1) invest some time in thinking about how customers will interact with it, and make sure it works for the kinds of scenarios you can imagine; and 2) recognize that you can’t imagine all of the possible scenarios, and have some tools available to turn lemons into lemonade…No, make that into gooey lemon bar cookies. Even lemonade is too passé.

By the way, the rest of my experience with Virgin America was pretty good. I’ll give ‘em another chance someday. Maybe then I’ll write the article about the extraordinary experience I had…which could have been the article I wrote today, but for a little lost forethought.

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