It’s difficult enough to provide a consistently positive customer experience across all business units and departments within the four walls of your company. A quick search on the Web and you will find countless stories of bad customer experiences.  Here is one from Michael Moaz, a Gartner analyst who blogged recently about his frustration experience resolving a glitch with his cable service.

But it’s all the more challenging when you try to do this across a network of business partners, brokers and middlemen. A prime example is the travel and hospitality industries, in which many parties are involved in the process of selling and delivering service.  For example, an airline ticket from an airline that is doing a codeshare with another may be sold by an online vendor such as Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity and Priceline.   Another is a branded (such as Marriott, etc.) hotel room being sold through a 3rd party clearinghouse while the actual hotel is an affiliated property operates independently. In these cases, no one company is interacting with the customer 100% of the time and has complete control of the experience being provided.

Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way that the customer experience quickly breaks down when it comes to these extended business networks. Once several companies are involved with a customer transaction, it’s very difficult to coordinate a resolution when an issue arises, and customer service can quickly become an afterthought.

Here’s my story: Earlier this year, my wife bought an airline ticket from a third-party Web site for a summer trip. The ticket was issued by one airline, but she would be on a flight operated by another, via a codeshare arrangement.

Three weeks before her trip, my wife went to check about the baggage policy and noticed that her ticket was marked as “unconfirmed.”  Concerned, she called airline #1 (the one operating the actual flight), which explained that her ticket is not confirmed because the issuing airline has failed to do “something” (it was never fully explained what this “something” was).  So, she has been placed on the wait list and that she should call the airline (airline #2) issuing the ticket to resolve the issue. When she did so, the service rep assured her that the ticket was confirmed and that she had a seat.  She asked for a seat assignment but was pointed back to airline #1 because the rep from airline #2 couldn’t access the system of airline #1 to fulfill that request.  She had hit a dead-end.   At my suggestion, my wife also called the Web site on which she had purchased the ticket.  After 2 hours of explaining the situation, the rep from the Web site vendor reassured her that the “unconfirmed” ticket status was a mistake and that she was set to go.

You can only guess what happened when my wife got to the airport: The check-in team would not check her onto the flight, as the operating airline (airline #1) again insisted that my wife’s ticket was unconfirmed.  She remained on the waitlist!

Finally, after much back-and-forth and phone calls to higher-ups and to airline #2, the check-in team reluctantly issued the boarding tickets to my wife — but not without admonishing her that this was a one-time exception and that she ought to have settled the problem with her ticket before the trip.   Big favor: Letting a paying customer – due diligence and all – on the plane!

With three parties involved, an essential question went unanswered: Who was accountable to the customer? No matter how much any one company is invested in “customer experience,” once two or three companies are involved, issues quickly fall through the cracks, and no one has accountability or ownership of the customer experience.

I’m not the only one who has encountered this problem this summer; in May, Michael Moaz also blogged about his experience trying to change his travel plans when several companies were involved.

Businesses are likely to continue teaming up in order to succeed in today’s global economy. As that happens, here are a few suggestions for successfully expanding the customer experience beyond the four walls of the enterprise:

  • Determine who ultimately has ownership for customer issues — for instance, the company making the sale or or the one delivering the service.
  • Define and create processes, systems infrastructure and connections to ensure all partners can share relevant customer information.
  • Provide tools that enable all partners to take necessary actions to service customers.
  • Define service level agreements for each partner and a clear escalation procedures for customers when they have issues.

I hope your vacation plan went smoother than my wife’s.  Please share the ups and down of your customer experiences – and what you might suggest to businesses that partner with other businesses.

SAP can help your organization deliver exceptional customer experience.  Visit us for more details.