Thursday night in August, all the stars had aligned. I was sitting at dinner with four of my treasured girlfriends for the first time in months, drinking margaritas and catching up on life. Between all of us, we have 18 kids, so combine all our schedules (and my work travel schedule) and you soon realize what a real miracle this outing is!

We made the most of it, often talking over each other with multiple topics/streams of conversation, making our corner of the restaurant EASILY the loudest in the place. When our waitress approached us with her hands full, smiling she stated, “Ladies, wanting to make sure no one here needs anything?”

She either didn’t notice our empty drink glasses, nor the fact that our dinner had not yet arrived – or at least she hoped that we didn’t notice. Well, no luck. We had.

My friend replied, “Actually yes, we’d LOVE another round! But wait, didn’t someone say they wanted to try a different flavor this time?” And as we went around the table calling out our orders, our waitress’ eyes got bigger and bigger. She clearly hoped we’d give a polite “yes, we’re fine” so we could continue with the other things she was doing, without having to actually evaluate the food/beverage situation we had at that moment. She physically started backing away from our table.

“Okay, um,” she stammered, “I’ll be right back to get your order, uh, hang on please.” She ran away, leaving us stunned to silence for the first time that night. We couldn’t believe how unaware and unprepared she seemed about what we took to be the essence of her job.

As many of us in the CX industry do, in my head I immediately went into “work mode,” breaking down how something this simple – but with a disproportionate impact on our dinner experience – could happen?

It stuck me JUST HOW RARE it is to have a completely GOOD service provider experience, whether at a restaurant, upgrading one’s phone, or even going to the doctor for a routine check-up. The reason is that delivering a good customer experience is quite complex and multi-dimensional. It involves six key capabilities on which an organization must not fail to execute:

  • Customer-focused processes – both designed & delivered using an “outside-in” lens
  • A connection with customers enabling a true understanding of their expectations
  • An ability to gather, analyze and actually use customer feedback
  • Established customer experience goals and accountability to manage to them
  • Practices for hiring, training and rewarding employees in a manner aligned to established goals
  • Linkage of these capabilities to an organization’s financial outcomes – an increase in revenue, a decrease in costs

Designing a Better Experience, Outside-In

At the very heart of this seemingly-minor service infraction, I would like to believe, sat a process upon which a new waitress was once trained. This process likely stated something like, “You should make table rounds within your section, connecting with each table a minimum of once every 10 minutes.”

In theory, this makes great sense, and appears to be a customer-focused process that any service member could execute successfully. The problem is that this accounts only for what the service member is doing – not for the customer’s side of the exchange, and certainly not for what might have occurred thus far in a dinner experience like my own. It’s important to consider things that affect expectations and feelings, throughout the entire experience, not just at that moment in time.

So, while I’d like to think that this interaction was simply a customer service process gone wrong, the reality is that to avoid a similar situation the next night, the restaurant would to have to think more holistically about the experience they were delivering to their customers.

To design processes that can be flawlessly delivered to enhance a customer experience, organizations first need to have a solid understanding of what their customers expect. So let’s back up a bit and dissect our journey…

Expectations – and Emotions – Matter

We are a group of always-on-the-go moms who rarely had an opportunity to escape and think only of ourselves. The ability to do so brought great excitement, anticipation, and some momentary freedom. Our expectations were centered on enjoying the company of girlfriends and having uninterrupted time to do so. The core function of the restaurant – the food – was secondary. In fact, there were many high-quality restaurants in the area, but the reason we selected this one was due to the quality of their margaritas and chips.

Are you starting to see where the problem may have been exacerbated? Indeed, I had expectations about the quality of the food, the promptness of the service, and the cleanliness of the restaurant. But these were “make or breaks” in my book. Either it was delivered at a certain standard of performance or it wasn’t. This was why the disruption in quality of service had such a disproportionate impact on our dinner experience.

When it comes to the connection a business has with its customers, the greater the insight they have into expectations and emotions, the greater the impact delivery on those expectations can have for the business.

After our waitress had rapidly left while we trying to reorder drinks, I quickly tweeted an SOS to their Twitter handle. I told them that our Moms’ Night was “on the rocks” in the hopes of getting some well-warranted attention. Alas, that was not to be. Nor was this restaurant like many others I visit, from whom I receive a text soon after I left to see how my visit was.

When I started to evaluate this experience against my expertise in CX, I thought about how businesses that provide really great customer experiences start by gathering their customers’ feedback in multiple ways, increasingly in unsolicited and unstructured ways such as mining their social media sites. They also have capabilities to not only respond to individual customers such as myself, but they use their CX technology to mine trends and patterns in data, using it to predict and mitigate risks like potential customer defection. And that’s why I tweeted them… I assumed they’d be responsive to my cry for help. In my case, I had to give them credit; at least they weren’t wasting my time by going through the motions of collecting my feedback that they likely would not have used.

Leadership by Example

At that point in our dinner, we’d been seated easily two hours, had finally received our second round of drinks, and were nearly finished with our meals. In many other restaurant establishments, it’s expected that at some point during your meal, but undoubtedly immediately after you’ve taken a big bite of your food, the restaurant manager will swing by the table to ask how everything has been.

(Want to take a guess – yes or no – as to whether we asked anything during this visit? I’ll give you two guesses, and the first one doesn’t count!)

There was no manager visit, and while that didn’t ruin our evening alone, it did help me understand why we’d had some of our other letdowns during dinner.

When standards, high or low, aren’t established, communicated, or modeled by organization leadership, there’s no vision for what a great customer experience should be. There’s no way to rally commitment for this goal, nor to develop accountability in employees for achievement of a nebulous goal with no solid metric they can point to.

And let’s take the impact of that lack of vision and standards one step further, to employee hiring, training, and reward/recognition. Here, we find ourselves back at day 1 of our waitress’ employment, reading through a book of procedures, one which could say “You should make table rounds within your section, connecting with each table, a minimum of once every 10 minutes.”

What if instead, the procedure read, “Upon greeting your table, welcome them and invite them to share what they are celebrating that evening…or what brought them out tonight. Listen closely for clues that can help you tailor the service you provide to meet – or even to exceed – their expectations,” then went on to list examples of reasons they KNOW their customers visit the restaurant and how to help them make it the best experience possible?

And what if, as part of the initial hiring process, candidates were asked to describe a time they recognized a customer need and took initiative to go above and beyond to fulfill that need? And finally, what if there was a system by which customer – gasp, and maybe even employees! – could recognize this excellent service and in turn, the employee would receive some sort of award or compensation for delivering on the brand promise of the organization? While this certainly wasn’t the experience we had that evening, I’m fortunate to say I’ve seen examples of this system – and it works.

Great CX is Tied to Business Value

Ultimately, we all know what a “great” experience looks and feels like…and we know that we want a repeat of that experience each and every time we visit the service provider. When this happens, we visit those service providers more frequently than those establishments where we’ve had “okay” experiences. Herein lies the win-win of making CX the core of your business strategy. Businesses measure their success in many ways, but one which is the only true gauge of its sustainability – financially. In the case of the restaurant we visited, this means return visits and more share of our entertainment budgets.

The story I just relayed might seem like I’m complaining, but that’s not the case. Dinner was fine, the company was fantastic, and we may or may not visit the same restaurant on a future Moms’ Night Out. But this experience really made me think about the customer side of the CX equation, a side I think about all the time as a CX expert but (thankfully) rarely feel compelled to consider explicitly in my regular life! As a civilian with CX-sniffing superpowers, I naturally thought about what, specifically, broke down on the restaurant’s side to create the less-than-stellar experience my girlfriends and I had that night. And that made me think deeply about the very complex, multidimensional nature of “great CX”, defined as CX that not only meets customer needs and expectations, but which also leads improved financial outcomes for businesses. The components I referenced — processes, people, customer expectations, a CX measurement system, CX governance, and a link between CX and business strategy – weren’t simply something I made up. These have been proven as the key components of ROCXI (return on CX investment) by 10,000 survey respondents who participated in the largest global CX practitioner study.

Given my day-to-day work, it’s natural that I evaluate every business I interact with against this described framework. The framework is integrated; these capabilities are distinct, but also complement and build upon one another.

At the end of our Moms’ Night, as the restaurant emptied, we figured it was well enough past kids’ bedtimes that we would be able to return home to quiet houses. As we said our good-byes, one of my friends turned to me and said, “You know, I meant to ask you…I know you travel a ton, but I really don’t understand what you DO when you go to all these places!”

I chuckled, gave her a hug and replied, “I’m going to write a blog post – it might sound familiar – and it’ll give you a better understanding of what I do.”