Stating the (elusive) obvious about customer experience

By Andrew Bass | Newsletter

Originally appeared May 2008.

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Stating the (elusive) obvious about customer experience

It’s said that Lord Seiff, when Chairman of Marks & Spencer, would disguise himself as a tramp and visit his stores to see how he was treated. More executives should experience their business incognito.

Judging by audience responses to the question, some of the most frustrating customer experiences are available in electrical stores:


  • The assistants know less than the customers. The labels which describe alternative products only contain a few unsystematically arranged facts. But ask an assistant for the detail and all they do is read the same labels. Slower than you did, usually. Most mobile phone shops are run the same way (although I have found Carphone Warehouse to be a creditable exception).
  • Floor managers banter with staff while customers stand around looking lost. Stand in front of the group of staff looking like you need help and they don’t even ignore you (that would require that they had noticed you in the first place). Request assistance, and the manager assigns the most junior of his group to you. It quickly becomes apparent that you know more about the product that they do, because at least you’ve had a head start reading the labels.  
  • They practice “anti-merchandising”: the art of making it difficult to buy. For example: display items (on the upper shelf) don’t correspond to the goods directly underneath. You see the product you want to buy on display, but then can’t actually find one that’s for sale! Now you have to hunt for an assistant – that means breaking into their huddle – and they will look in the same place you just did (under the display item) and then say “I don’t think we’ve got one”. Winding up customers has never been good retail practice and I don’t think it’s about to catch on. 

Such behavioural information – unfiltered by surveys – is evident to anyone spending a few minutes to experience the business from the customer’s point of view. And it’s precisely the vital information that an organization will tend to keep from its senior people, not just in retail, but in all sectors, B2B as well as B2C.


If you’re the boss, here’s an experiment: call or visit one of your offices or departments where you will not be recognised. Don’t identify yourself. If you don’t like the idea of adopting a pseudonym, use your middle name. Are you treated the way you want your clients to be treated? Amazingly, in offices of higher-end service businesses, in capital city offices, and particularly with firms who consider themselves ‘creative’ or ‘prestigious’ (i.e. all cases where clients are worth lots of money), you may be astounded.

Hiring mystery shoppers is ok but there’s nothing like seeing for yourself. If you are a busy leader with position power, and are therefore vulnerable to the distorted reports of courtiers, shop your business yourself, and shop the competition, too. i.e. if you are a Starbucks exec, go and buy a latte at one of your outlets, then at Caffe Nero. If you work for an airline, fly out on your plane and come back on a competitor’s (and fly economy once in a while). If you are at a bank – phone your call centre….. Well OK, maybe that is too much to ask.

What’s it like to deal with your business? Wherever possible, the best way to understand it is to be the customer or client yourself.  


If you still have a minute..

Andrew speaks about career strategies

(This talk took place at Birmingham Future on on June 4th 2008.) Here’s the ad copy we agreed for the talk:

“Who sets your personal strategy – you or your inbox?”

Career strategy has got a lot trickier. At one time you could pick a good occupation, get a job at an established firm and expect to progress through your working life in the same business or sector. But consider that:

  •  The predicted Top 10 most in-demand jobs in 2010 didn’t even feature in the Top 10 in 2004.
  • It’s likely that today’s students will have had as many as 10 to 14 jobs by the time they’re 38.
  • So, as important as it is to do a good job today, it’s unlikely to be enough to prepare you for the desirable career opportunities of tomorrow.

With society and skills changes so rapidly, is your inbox the best guide to action for your continued future success?

Copyright 2008 Andrew Bass. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint as long as you include attribution.

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