Thursday, August 8, 2013

Customer mistakes are your problem

If you are in business then you know that customers make mistakes. They get things wrong. They don’t read the information that you have provided them. If they have read the information they mis-understand your message. They don’t turn up when they are supposed to. They miss bookings. This list could go on forever!

As service providers we can either see these mistakes as a pain in the neck and wish for the day when our customers will no longer make them. Or we can see these mistakes as opportunities to innovate so that the mistakes are either eliminated, reduced or mitigated.
Recently I flew to the USA with my wife and five children. International travel with five children can be a stressful experience. Anything that the airlines can do to cut the stress is a blessing. Anything they do that increases stress makes the travelling experience more challenging.

Despite being an experienced traveller I forgot to arrange our visas for entry to the USA. This error, my error, was surfaced while we were checking in. “I’m sorry sir, but you can’t check in until your visas have been approved. Here is a card with a website address for you to quickly complete your application. Please move your bags to the side so that I can check in the next customer. There is an internet cafe just down the foyer past gate 60.”

I made the mistake. The airline, in this case United Airlines was not to blame for my mistake. It was my fault. That said, at that moment, how do you think I felt about United Airlines? The error wasn’t theirs, but in that moment I felt that somehow they were responsible, even though they weren’t. 

I ran through the airport to find the internet cafe. I then spent over fifty minutes completing my online applications. Each application took about eight minutes to complete. You can imagine my stress levels rising. As each minute passed we were getting closer and closer to being excluded from being able to board our flight. Twice through the application process the computer I was using crashed, meaning that I had to reboot it and I had to restart the application process again. Everything around me became a blur. All I was focussed on was completing the applications so that we could complete our check-in process.

Finally all seven applications were complete. I ran back to the check-in counter. We were the last people to be checked in. The staff were wonderful as they helped us through this process as more forms needed to be completed and we still needed to clear customs. As we were checking in the staff told us that it had been one of those days where multiple people had not completed their visa applications. My mistake as a customer had also made life for the staff more difficult as they too were frustrated by their inability to check us in in a timely manner.
 
When we were finally on the plane and I had some time to catch my breath and reflect on my mistake, it dawned on me that the staff had indicated that there had been a pattern of customers making the same mistake that I had made.

From business perspective I find patterns interesting. They can often lead to opportunities. We had waited in line for over an hour before being checked in. A United Airlines staff member had been ‘walking’ the line asking us if we required tags for our luggage. Many people found this service useful. However, what if this staff member had also been asking customers if they had completed their visa applications?
If I had been made aware of my mistake earlier I could have completed the online application process while my wife and children were waiting in the check-in line. 

United Airlines also had access to a system that informed them about our visa status. I know this because the staff member who checked us in accessed this system to check our status. I wonder whether this information could have been used to contact me three days before our flight. Imagine if I had either received an email, a text message or even a phone call three days before our flight informing me that I was yet to complete my visa application. I could have been made aware of my error so that it didn’t become an error. People missing flights isn’t good for anyone so anything the airlines can do to reduce the chances that flights are missed has to be good for both the airlines and the customers.

Flight Centre was our travel agent and once again, in this self-help world that we live in a travel agent is an expert in international travel, not me. Imagine if Flight Centre had also had a system in place to help me to help myself? After all, as experts in travel the very thing that they would know that could negatively impact my travel plans is not having appropriate visas. In fact my wife had spoken with our travel agent a few days before our departure and this issue had not been raised with her. An opportunity missed!

Once again I want to make it clear that I am not blaming United Airlines nor Flight Centre for my mistake. Rather, I am using this personal experience to highlight that organisations need to be aware of the common mistakes that their customers make and to do whatever they can to help their customers reduce those errors. Whether we like it or not, most customers will blame the organisation for mistakes that they (the customer) has made. Customer driven mistakes are the service provider’s problem. Looking at the patterns of mistakes and then seeing these patterns as opportunities can definitely enhance an overall customer experience.

What common customer errors happen in your world and what are you doing to cut them?


Gary Ryan enables organisations, leaders and talented professionals to move Beyond Being Good.

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