How to stay relevant to your customers

The majority of companies that measure customer feedback do exactly that – they measure . Data for data’s sake doesn’t help anyone. It’s incredibly rare that organisations really get into the real nitty gritty of listening to their customers. Why? Businesses don’t like receiving bad news any more than individuals do.

How to stay relevant to your customers


Smarter and Smarter – nlighten talks to GetSmarter

nlighten chats to Sam Paddock, CEO of GetSmarter

Sam Paddock - GetSmarterGetSmarter’s success did not happen overnight. It took many failed experiments and bad names (GetBrains) before its launch in 2008. In the last seven years, the online education company has shown 100% year-on-year growth and this year, is on track for a staggering R260 million turnover – thanks, in part, to their recent international expansion. But its real success is in the way it approaches its customers.


In his early twenties, SAM PADDOCK and his brother, Rob, were self-proclaimed serial entrepreneurs. But in 2007, a friend gave Sam some advice that changed the way he approached entrepreneurship – “The best opportunities are the ones that are closest to you.”


At that point, Sam had already started GetWine, a successful online wine retail business. He and his brother had also spearheaded an online property law course through Paddocks – his father, Graham Paddock’s law firm. “I took the challenge very literally. The two things that were closest to me were wine and online courses.”

“I was studying Information Systems at The University of Cape Town and my final-year project was to produce a virtual campus. I decided to put on an online wine course, and so launched the university’s first certificate in wine evaluation. We had 281 students at the first course and that’s how GetSmarter was born.”



“Because we come from a family business, relationships have always been very important to us. While organisations will often have primary bottom lines of profits and impact, family businesses have bottom lines of the quality of the relationships between family members. For this reason, we’ve got a very strong approach to people. We also reinvest a lot of money back into our products.“


On average, online courses manage a 5 – 60% completion rate. GetSmarter’s completion rate is 94%, which is almost unheard of in online education. So how do they get their students to stay the course?


GetSmarter takes an outside-in approach, managing their business from the student’s point of view by arming every educator – their students’ primary point of contact – with a support team. “We take a proactive interest in our students’ development – following up if they’re falling behind. We really believe that relationships drive motivation.” But how do they know whether they are hitting the mark?

GetSmarter runs a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey at the end of every course that asks each student the simple question, How likely are you to recommend GetSmarter to your family and friends? NPS is a basic customer satisfaction measurement tool, rated on a scale of 0 – 10, that simply gauges whether a customer is a promoter or detractor after an experience with your business. Promoters typically score a 9 or 10, detractors score between 0 and 6 and score of 7 or 8 renders the respondent’s score neutral.

“We have an incredible NPS at the moment. It’s 86.4% (meaning this percentage of their students are promoters) – so we know we’re doing something right,” Sam says modestly, adding, “But I also feel it’s unfair, because we develop such good relationships with our students – when you ask them how you did, it’s like the relationship trumps any negativity that may have been experienced.”


When it comes to navigating the waters of the South African economy, Sam admits to certain limitations – like the lack of government support for new businesses and the fact that we simply don’t have a culture like that of San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. “But in my opinion, South African entrepreneurs shouldn’t feel entitled to capital – we have to work for it.”


Sam’s advice for fledgling entrepreneurs is to experiment widely and work hard in the early stages. “Do as much as you can, but the minute someone will pay you for something and you’ve reached into the market – destroy any other distractions. Even after succeeding with GetSmarter, I continued to go out and experiment on other projects for three or four years. It was the wrong thing to do. I should have focussed all my attention on GetSmarter.”

No company is perfect, but given the level of competition out there – especially in online business – it has become so easy for customers to switch to a rival. At its heart, despite employing 200 people full time and having 60 contract teachers on its books, GetSmarter functions like a modest family business. In selling knowledge – providing a service as personal as education – a company enters a customer service minefield. But clearly, by focussing on the quality of their relationships with their clients, GetSmarter has triumphed.

Jargon and legalese abound in the business world

View a nlighten article by Nathalie Schooling: How Customer Experience Impacts Bottom Line Growth

nlighten. enhancing customer experience:

10 Ways to Improve Your Business Writing

How to enhance your business communications with plain English.

Few touchpoints ruin the customer experience quite like overcomplicated language. Jargon and legalese abound in the business world – something that prompted nlighten to compile an online Dictionary of Customer Experience jargon, and to investigate the use of plain language in a recent blog. A little while ago,, one of South Africa’s leading insurance comparison websites, also approached us to help them clarify confusing business jargon that we’ve encountered in Customer Experience – which is well worth a read.

The demand for plain English is universal, which means that if you know how to use the odd 1,025,109 English words at your disposal – you exercise a great deal of control. In this two-part article, we will look at ten ways to improve your business writing – starting with the first five – and getting to the point.

1. Activate Your Voice

10 Ways to Improve Your Business Writing

When running a grammar check on a document, have you ever been accused of writing in passive voice? Ever been told to correct it – to switch to active voice? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? Passive voice is our go-to when we don’t want to offend – when we want to remain neutral. In a role that requires you to be Switzerland, passive voice is essential. But the less direct we are, the less engaging a sentence can become.

A great rule of thumb with any sentence? Something must happen. The more you succeed in telling a story, i.e. who is doing what, the more alive your writing will be.

Here an example of a sentence written in the passive voice:

Lauren was dismissed by Jabulani for not meeting the exacting standards of

Now, take a look at it again after it’s had an active-voice makeover:

Jabulani dismissed Lauren, who did not meet with’s exacting standards.

Apart from being a few words shorter, active voice sentences usually leave no doubt as to who did what. In this case, the first sentence only succeeds in being longer – not cleverer, fancier or more efficient.

In the end, however, choosing between active and passive voice is a style choice – not a rule. There are times when active voice might come across as accusatory, especially in management, law and HR – where diplomacy is called for.

Here’s another example of a clear, direct, active-voice sentence:

You have not met with’s standards

Put in context; the tone is accusatory – even hostile. In some cases, this might be exactly what you want to achieve. If not, using the passive voice is more effective.’s standards have not been met.

2. Get Personal

10 Ways to Improve Your Business Writing

Traditional business language has left us with a lot of baggage. We tend to think that for our writing to have gravity; we need to load it with jargon, posh language and over-punctuated phrases. But to further empower the elite club that engages with this kind of talk takes power away from your company’s lifeblood – its customers – who live in the real world.

When we are called anything other than what we are, it robs us of a personal experience. In this typical example of what nlighten jokingly refers to as the Dear-Valued-Customer approach to communication, notice how profoundly impersonal the reading experience becomes:

For any customer complaints, customers should please contact MintyFresh’s customer service department.

Not a hint of personalisation. When speaking to your customer, talk to her directly by referring to her as you and refer to yourself as we or us. Although the following example might smell a bit like advertising copy, it does speak directly to the customer by being light and accessible:

Not MintyFresh enough? Tell us more.

By using personal pronouns like I, you, we and us, you turn a general communication into something intimate – involving your customer in the experience of doing business with you instead of telling him about it.

3. Give Instructions

10 Ways to Improve Your Business Writing

It might feel arrogant telling people what to do, but most of the time, people are only too glad to know what it is you’re asking them to do. With all the distractions out there, the sooner you tell them what you want, the sooner they can decide whether to comply. You know you’re under no obligation to do as a company says.

In the spirit of Customer Experience – on a rating scale of 1 to 5 (1 being not at all obvious and 5 being blatantly obvious), how obvious is the following instruction?

I would very much appreciate it if you could provide me with your number in order for me to call you in the event that I need to let you know that I have narrowly survived a python attack and, therefore, might be late in attending our meeting.

Is it a 3? Maybe a 4. Now, rate this one

Please send me your number for future reference.

A resounding 5? The tone, although direct (and, sadly, less droll), is no less polite – yet the request is clear and to the point.

Similarly, in marketing, the call to action has been a revelation. Being able to tell a prospective customer to “find out more” or “book now” has eliminated the need for endless courtship and streams of words that, let’s be honest, did not enrich the lives of even the most under-stimulated of souls. Tell people what you want and they are more likely to oblige.

4. Make Lists

10 Ways to Improve Your Business Writing

Our eyes are very busy. Considering that the average urbanite spends 12 hours a day staring at a screen, we have a “natural” propensity for digesting information visually – and in large amounts.

When we use lists to split up information, we create a visual break in the text that shows a process. Lists can help to:

Lists are a great tool for making information more accessible, but there are other utensils in our kitchen too. Many universal applications like Microsoft Office and Apple’s iWork suite have basic layout and design capabilities that will not turn you into a graphic designer, but could be used to illustrate a process more visually.

A simple diagram can:

10 Ways to Improve Your Business Writing


5. Groom Your Sentences

10 Ways To Improve your Business Writing

Most writing guides tell us that we should keep our sentences between 15 and 20 words long. While keeping your sentences concise is a good idea – stringing a host of 15-to-20-word sentences together can have a staccato effect that will most likely irritate your reader.

Give yourself some leeway. Instead of focussing on the number, focus on the idea. A sentence is meant to convey either a single idea or two related ideas.

Single idea:

To be eligible for the position of Feline Transport Executive, you must have an Animal Science Certificate. If you cannot present Kitty’s Cat Hotel with a valid certificate, you will not be eligible for the position.

Here we have two sentences of more or less equal length. Although there is nothing wrong with them, writing in sentences of equal length as a rule makes for tedious reading.

To become a Feline Transport Executive at Kitty’s Cat Hotel, you must have an Animal Science Certificate. Without it, we will not be able to consider you for the position.

Here is an example of overloaded sentence:

It is imperative that you present all aforementioned documentation when you arrive at the interview for the position of Feline Transport Executive at Kitty’s Cat Hotel, whether we ask you for it or not, in order for us to ensure that all the information you provided in the application is true and accurate and in keeping with national regulations.

It contains multiple ideas. You would need to reread it just to make sure you caught everything. Break the ideas up – then rearrange them into more manageable sentences. For instance:

You must present all necessary documents when you arrive at the interview. We need them to authenticate your application. If you do not submit all your documents, your application may be rejected.

In this example, the consequences are obvious. No need to say more. Also, steer clear of using two similar adjectives where one will do. In this case, authenticate effectively replaces true and accurate.

Clear and succinct writing exudes confidence – and when your customers read something from you that leaves no doubt as to what you mean, they trust you.

In Part 2, we will look more closely at jargon and traditional conventions – and more importantly, how to avoid them. If you have anything to add to this blog – or would like to share your thoughts – we’d love to hear them.


Office of Investor Education and Assistance, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, August 1998, (PDF) (PDF)

Thompson Writing Program, Duke University, 2012, (PDF)

Wayne Williams, (no date available),

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View a previous nlighten article by Nathalie Schooling: How Customer Experience Impacts Bottom Line Growth

nlighten. enhancing customer experience:

A View from the Outside In – The Alan Pennington Interview

South African companies are becoming more and more customer centric. In October, nlighten hosted our most popular Experience by Design workshop to date – which was, as always, facilitated by our global guru in experience redesign, Alan Pennington.

We caught up with Alan after the workshop – somewhere between Dubai and London – to tell us more about a life in customer experience.
Alan Pennington
n. Taking a cue from your workshop, what is the one thing most people don’t know about you?

AP I’m becoming typecast on stage as the villain in Christmas pantomimes. Can’t imagine why!

n. What first drew you to a career in customer experience?

AP I have always been passionate about customers. My first ever job was as a bank teller. I took a little longer serving customers compared to the other tellers, but engaged with them, making their transactions more fun. Of course, if they were in a hurry, we just got on with the transaction. The result was a queue at my till – even if the other tellers were free. That’s when I realised, customers vote with their feet. It’s more about how you do things than what you do that makes the difference.

n. How did your partnership with nlighten come about?

AP Nathalie (Schooling, nlighten’s CEO) and I had tracked each other’s progress from afar. The world of true customer experience professionals is still pretty small – even globally. We then met in London at the ECEW (European Customer Experience World) event in 2010. We realised that what we did individually could be stronger for our customers if we worked together – and Experience by Design was born. Things have moved on since then and, after we sold Mulberry Consulting, I was delighted to team up with Nathalie, Brendon and their team to build on our success in South Africa.

n. What role do you believe the customer will play in business 15 years from now?

AP Increasingly, savvy customers will demand more – and they have even greater access to the experiences of others as they make decisions. My teenagers have a very different expectation to me – and trust me, they are even more demanding than I am when it comes to their customer experience expectations. They were born into a digital age, so they have a completely different mindset to that of current global corporation Executives. It presents leaders with an interesting challenge – not to hold their companies back because they don’t understand the younger generation’s needs. That said, with the world’s ageing population profile, there will still be enough of us oldies around to keep them busy, too!

n. How did Customer Journey Mapping (CJM) come about?

AP We at Mulberry were amongst the frontrunners in CJM fifteen years ago. At the time, CJM was seen as nice but not essential. Over the years, the corporate world has caught on to the importance of understanding the customer view from the “outside in”. So CJM is rapidly becoming an essential part of the good Strategy Director’s armoury. Of course, CX software has been catching up, too.

n. What is the future of Customer Journey Mapping?

AP The future is about experience by design rather than mapping. CJM will help shape experience redesigns. Mapping and experience design software will continue to develop – and will no doubt become embedded in all the mainstream IT solutions or platforms. Using tools like CJM to evaluate, prioritise and capture what we all really want to do, which is to improve experiences through customer-driven design.

n. What has been your experience of South Africa as a brand?

AP In customer experience terms, South Africa is a few years behind the leading nations – it’s still coming to terms with the need to fully engage with the customer component of strategy. I look forward to the more adventurous companies truly embracing the customer component of their business strategy.

n. If you could give South African businesses one piece of advice, what would it be?

AP Learn the lessons. Coming to the party a little later means you can avoid the mistakes of the early adopters – we at nlighten can act as advisors and educators – helping you to reach success quickly!

nlighten’s Experience by Design workshop for 2016 will be held in Cape Town on 10 November.

In the Dark

“Don’t keep your customers in the dark!”

 Load shedding is back and very much a part of general conversations around the water cooler, braai or the dinner table, as people come to terms with living and working with regular power cuts, which apparently are here to stay.The way that Eskom has dealt with, or rather hasn’t actually dealt with this situation, got me thinking about planning ahead for problems and making sure you have a strategy in place for dealing with your customers when things go horribly wrong.Rather than sit back and wait until the silo collapses and have to pick up the pieces, make sure you have plans in place to communicate the facts to your customers and deal with any fall out. In an extreme crisis, realise that you will never please everyone, but being up front and honest goes a long way towards keeping the peace and gaining your customers’ respect.There are a few tips to help with a complaining customer and remember to be thankful that they took the time to complain, as many don’t. They just go to your competitor. Don’t we all wish we could go elsewhere for electricity!
  1. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes: Rather than think your customer is being unreasonable by complaining, put yourself in their shoes and realise that your client is upset for a reason and it’s up to you to find out what’s wrong and to fix it.
  2. Listen…really listen: The most important step in this process is to really listen to what your customer is saying. He wants to be heard, and to air his grievances. Also, don’t allow anything to interrupt this conversation and give them your undivided attention.
  3. Show empathy and say sorry: It’s important that you show you understand why your customer is upset and that your body language and voice back up your empathy. It’s all very well to say you understand when actually your body language or responses are showing otherwise. Be sure to apologise, and mean it!
  4. Present the solution: There are two ways to do this. You can either tell your customer how you would like to correct the situation for them, or you can ask what you can do to resolve the problem to their satisfaction.
  5. Action the solution and follow up: Once you’ve agreed on the solution, you will need to action it immediately. Once you are happy the situation has been resolved, make sure you follow up with your customer to ensure they are happy. Whenever you can, exceed their expectations.No one likes to get a complaint or negative publicity, but this does offer you a chance to identify and rectify specific problems with your current systems or product. In most cases it can also help you to develop your relationship with your customer by allowing you to demonstrate that you value their business by taking their concerns seriously and dealing with their complaint.

If you find yourself in the spotlight, albeit for the wrong reasons, take the opportunity to show your business in the best possible light under the circumstances. Remember that complaints or negative publicity can offer a chance for your business to show how decent it is. If you apologise, make amends and explain how you’re going to do better in future, you will find that in many cases the public will actually be very forgiving.

By: Nathalie Schooling

Size Does Matter

They say that we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. In life that’s right on the money, but when it comes to customer service, it’s the small things that make a huge difference and that can make or break the customer experience. So yes, it’s true – size does matter but not in the way you might have thought.

There are so many examples to illustrate my point so let’s start with the one that is most annoying. Any company who sends their customers a mailer and heads it “Dear Valued Client” is just not doing it right. In this age of technology, it’s so simple to personalise your communications and such a small thing, for very little cost to company, goes a long way to making people feel special.How many of us get given a bad cup of instant coffee while we wait for an appointment. Nice gesture but no one’s got time for bad coffee. When they offer you a coffee or if luck will have it, a cappuccino, then they better make sure it’s the real deal.Then there are the car dealers who drop off your new car with a tank that’s half full. That’s just not on! Or the call centre from a leading financial services company that calls to offer additional services in a voice that sounds like they’re so not happy to be calling, and then when you decline the offer, just hangs up.Nothing annoys customers more than a bad call centre and let’s not get started on getting through to the DSTV call centre. No matter how good their TV programmes and offerings are, it’s a nightmare to get through all the options to get hold of anyone. Talk about ruining the magic for their customers in one easy step!If you really want to “wow” your customers then don’t save costs when trying to go the extra mile. It cancels out any good will you might be hoping to create. If you are going to embark on giving your customers a great experience then do it properly or don’t do it at all.Delivering a great experience is all about making your customers feel special – not about ticking a box. It’s essential to connect with your customers on an emotional level in order to establish a lasting relationship with your brand. Rather than just delivering your product or service, aim to develop strong bonds with your customers.To do this you need to provide them with a unique customer experience by proactively anticipating your customers’ needs and expectations and exceeding them, every time. Look at your service offering through the customer’s point of view. Often companies use their business or financial point of view to investigate the service offering and this is where they fall short.Doing things differently for your customers could cost you (but often it doesn’t), but it makes the world of difference to your customer experience and in turn will reap huge rewards for you.I was delighted this past week by Mr Price Homestore. I purchased some feather pillows from them and naturally threw away the plastic wrapping and the slip, as who needs to return feather pillows? Well, these smelt like the goose had somehow ended up in the pillow, along with its feathers.

I went into the Cavendish branch and while waiting to speak to the manager, I stood across from a strategically placed sign that stated their returns policy. Words like “sales slip” and “original packaging” were in bold letters. I was thinking “What are my chances” but was so pleasantly surprised. Rene, the store manager on duty, was very accommodating and my pillows were exchanged with no questions asked.

Just an example of the emotional connection and empowering your staff to create “wow” moments. Word of mouth is so powerful and of course I will tell all my friends about this…I just did!

Private Investigations

Modern businesses know that information is more than just data; it’s a very valuable asset. Unfortunately, there are some less-than-scrupulous businesses that choose to trade in this asset – usually without the knowledge of the people whose personal information is at the heart of it. At nlighten we have always been 100% committed to dealing responsibly and ethically with the information of our clients, and their clients, and we believe that responsibility extends to advising others on how best to keep their private information just that… private.

 Apart from investing in the latest privacy and anti-spyware software for our business, there are a number of lessons we have learnt during our years in the client-centric business of experience:

Lesson 1: If you’re not paying money for it, your privacy could be the price. Beware of things like free wi-fi hotspots. It’s pretty easy for anyone to set up a fake one using just a cellphone and then hack into your device when you access it. Always verify that the wi-fi network name is from a legitimate service provider and, if you’re at a place that offers free wi-fi, first check it’s name with the owner or manager. Most importantly, if it’s an unsecured wi-fi network (i.e. you don’t need a password to login) don’t use it.

Lesson 2: Work is work. Personal is personal. If you work in an organization, everything you do on your computer is available for public consumption. That’s because business servers are deliberately, and understandably, designed to keep an eye on everything going on in the company network. It’s not to spy on you, it’s to keep the business safe. So, if you want to send private emails, get your own, private email address. There are plenty of good free ones around.If you don’t like to give your email address to each service or message board you sign in to, there are some nifty temporary email services you can use like or These give you a temporary and disposable email address, so you can sign up without receiving junk mail forever after.

Lesson 3: Beware the spam While a personal email is open to the dreaded curse of spam, don’t fall into the trap of responding to this junk mail and asking to be removed from the list. Often, this just confirms that your email address is valid – and this fact will be embraced with great glee by many other spammers. Rather just delete the spam you receive and, if you can, block the address that you’re receiving it from. It takes a bit of time, but it’s a safer approach.

Lesson 4: Be password savvy Use a different password for each accounts you have. Yes, it’s difficult to remember them all, but it’s the only way to stay truly protected online – and you can always store them in a handy password manager such as LastPass, KeePass, etc.

Lesson 5: Answer wisely Most sites ask you to provide an answer to a security question so that, if you forget your login details, it’s easy to have them sent to you again. Unfortunately, most sites aren’t particularly creative, so they tend to have the same security questions. That means, if a criminal manages to find the answer to one question, he can then access your login info for any other sites where you’ve provided the same answer. What’s more, it’s not too difficult for anyone to go onto a social network site and find out what school you went to, what your first car was, or what your mother’s maiden name is. Rather avoid these questions, or make up a unique answer that only you know and, of course, that you’ll remember.

Lesson 6: Think before you type Never type important login information on a public computer. It may have a kernel-mode keylogger installed (a device that records every letter you press). If you can’t avoid using a public PC to do your banking, remember to logout and, as soon as you get home, change your password.

Lesson 7: Be a cookie cutter Cookies are little bytes of code used to track your actions online and send the info to businesses to use in their online strategies. Depending what Internet browser you’re using, you can, and should, turn off these third-party privacy invaders under the Settings, Privacy, or Preferences tab. Possibly the most important privacy tip we can offer is to always remember that nothing you do online is 100% guaranteed to be private. You wouldn’t use an ATM with a stranger looking over your shoulder, but we often forget that our actions in the virtual world can be accessed by many such strangers. Stay aware and vigilant, and don’t do anything online that puts your privacy or personal data in peril.

Unlocking the SA effect

It’s pretty easy to lament all that is wrong with customer service in South Africa. A few minutes spent around the typical South African braai will quickly reveal that everybody seems to have his or her own service ‘horror story’ – each one more cringe-worthy than the next.

The thing we often lose sight of, however, is the fact that while there is undoubtedly much work to be done – in both the private and public sectors – to raise customer service in our country to the level it should (and can) be, there are plenty of positive things that can also be said about the overall SA customer experience.

For starters, nobody could argue against the fact that that ‘Brand South Africa’ is unique, appealing and compelling. There’s a level of authenticity, warmth and genuine friendliness in this country that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world. South Africans are, for the most part, hospitable, welcoming and helpful people. These character traits can’t simply be taken off when these same South Africans get dressed in the morning. They are part of what makes us who we are and, as such, we take them with us wherever we go – even to work.

I was reminded of this over the recent festive season thanks to some excellent customer experiences at a range of establishments. It’s not so much that I was on the receiving end of brilliant service, but more a case of warm attitudes, friendly smiles and engaging, down-to-earth employees reminding me that minor service inadequacies or oversights can often be more than compensated for by authentic South African experiences.

This got me thinking. Imagine how good the customer experience in our country could be if, as businesses, we made the effort to fully harness and nurture the inherent warmth of the people we employ and find ways to effectively direct that towards our customers. The resulting experiences of those who do business with us would instantly transform them from customers into lifelong fans and valuable brand advocates. And the positive business and financial consequences of that would be truly unbelievable.

However, realising that potential demands a conscious effort and a commitment by employers to create a culture of service empowerment and a build a work environment that frees employees to fully express their innate warmth, hospitality, and South African-ness. For some businesses, achieving this may require a bit of a paradigm shift; but when you consider that doing so will allow your company to tap into Brand SA and unlock the massive value it can add, making such a mindset shift really is a no brainer.

The bottom line is that, as South African businesses, we have something going for us that few other businesses on the planet do. Some call it our ‘Mzansi magic’. Others know it as the spirit of ubuntu. But no matter what name we give it, it translates into the real human potential to create simply brilliant experiences for our customers. And that’s what will ultimately give us a real edge in the global marketplace.

Blog article by: Nathalie Schooling

Promises, promises

To fly. To serve. These apparently simple four words were at the heart of the British Airways recent re-launch. They’re not new. In fact, according to the ads used to promote the new, improved and supposedly customer service oriented airline, they have been in use in the organisation since the early nineteen hundreds. They’re even emblazoned onto tail wings and sewn into the insides of pilot blazers and cabin crew uniforms.

Now, BA has decided it’s time to dust off this ancient service statement and give it pride of place as their payoff line once more. It’s a bold step. But one that is also fraught with risk.

The thing is, a pay-off line is more than a few catchy words strung together by an overpaid advertising agency. It’s a promise. One made by a company to the consumers that it needs to keep it in business. So, whether that promise is an explicit one like BA’s new “To fly. To serve.”, or implied, as in its old pay-off line of “The world’s favourite airline” the bottom line is that it should never be a promise that is made lightly – because breaking it can be tantamount to organisational suicide.

So the big question is, can BA live up to its new brand promise? One would hope that it can – particularly the “To fly” part of it – otherwise it won’t have much of a business left to run. But that’s the easy part. Keep the planes in the air and you’re good. The “To serve” promise is a lot more difficult to accomplish. And if my recent experience on a BA flight is anything to go by, there are still some BA staff that need to be told about the role they have in delivering on it.

I realise that it’s just one experience, and probably not enough to imply that BA is breaking its service promise on all its flights, but if you make a promise like this, you really need to keep it at every service touchpoint in your operation. Unfortunately recently, this was the case. The staff I encountered were still unfriendly and acted as if they were doing me a favour by coming to work. As for “in flight service” – never has there been a more glaring contradiction in terms. Once you’re flying, there is no service – unless you beg for it from one of the bored-looking flight attendants who would clearly rather be sipping coffee at the back of the plane than giving passengers the type of experience that makes them actually want to fly BA again.

Of course, this requirement to match your service promise with service delivery is by no means limited to British Airways. It’s a vital need for any, and every, business. The problem, it seems, is that for many businesses there still seems to be no link between the lofty customer experience aspirations contained in their business strategies and the actions of the staff who ultimately make that strategy a reality for their customers.

It’s one thing to talk about being committed “to serve”, but customers don’t want talk, they want action. So if your customer experience approach doesn’t start with educating your staff on how and why they need to deliver on your brand promise, there is really no point throwing big money at developing that promise in the first place.

There is no ‘you’ in service

There’s a very old saying that instructs us to ‘treat others the way you would like to be treated.’ It’s certainly good advice and is undoubtedly very true for anyone who wants to be liked and respected. But if you’re involved in a business that requires you to deliver good customer service, you need to immediately forget it.

That’s because delivering consistently good customer service and experiences has nothing to do with how you would like to be treated and everything to do with what your customers actually want.

The quickest way to fail at service is to assume that you know what your customers want. Yes you need to try and anticipate their needs. Yes, you need to put yourself in their shoes. And yes, you need to always be proactive in your customer experience efforts. But thinking that you can build a great business based on giving customers what you’d want if you were them, is a one-way ticket to an empty cash register.

The reason for this is simple enough, but still many business owners and managers seem to get it wrong. No two people are alike. So while you may have been in your business for decades, you’ve always viewed it from opposite side of the service counter to your customer. Even when you’re out shopping, the way you want to be treated, is not necessarily the way customers of your business wish their experience could be.

Unfortunately, far too many businesses still make this assumption. And it’s at the heart of their often-dismal service failures. For instance, most customers don’t want to be accosted by a salesperson (usually poorly disguised as a service champion) the moment they walk through the shop door. Just like most restaurant patrons don’t want every employee in the establishment – from manager to busboy – to come by and ask how their food is, usually just as they take a mouthful of it.

And it’s not just overbearing service that’s a problem. Anything you do because you think it is what your customer wants – no matter how well intentioned – can backfire on you if it actually isn’t. To create truly unforgettable customer experiences, you shouldn’t be thinking what your customers want; you should be asking them.

And since the desires and needs of consumers change faster than the weather in Cape Town, you need to be asking these types of questions pretty regularly. By that I don’t necessarily mean fully-fledged customer needs surveys (although these will most certainly deliver invaluable insights), I simply mean engaging with your customers in a meaningful way and giving them every possible opportunity to tell you what kind of experience they want.

Of course, once you ask what your customers expect from you there’s really no excuse for failing to deliver it. But that’s an issue for another blog all on its own.


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