How the AA excels at delivering the perfect service experience – 11 lessons (Part I)

Value (through the customer’s eyes) = f (Outcome, Experience)

Another way of saying the same thing is to say that if you want to create superior value for the customer (as perceived through her eyes) you have to focus on both the “Outcome” and the “Experience”.  By “Outcome” I simply mean that when a customer interacts with you then she does so because she desires a specific outcome – an end result.  By “Experience” I mean the customers subjective experience of her interaction/s with you in the process of getting to her outcome.

The AA excels at creating value for its customers and this shows up in customer satisfaction ratings

Companies that excel at the customer delight game deliver both the outcome and the experience.  One company that excels at delivering this delight is the AA.  The AA is one of the larger better known breakdown service companies in the UK.  And it looks like my recent breakdown experience (will share that later with you) is the norm rather than an exception – at least according to the following article: “AA takes top two slots in Which? car breakdown assistance survey”

What is a structure of a perfect service experience?

Allow me to share my recent AA breakdown experience as it is a useful guide on what kinds of behaviour work for us as human beings.

Last weekend my car failed to start: I tried once, I tried twice, I tried three time and then I simply used the other car.  The next day I did the same and gave up – the car simply would not start and I could not figure out why as it had been working perfectly.  It is Sunday, I know I need the car for Monday and it just does not start.  So I have a problem.  My desired outcome: the engine starts and I can use that car to drive around.  The job to be done: an engineer to come out, take a look and fix it so that it works and I have my desired outcome.  The time had come to call the AA – as I have taken out the home breakdown cover.

One of the most infuriating experiences is the experience of needing to contact an organisation and not being able to find the right contact number.  A great example of a company that falls into that group is Sky: each month I get a statement and there have been a few times that I have wanted to call Sky to discuss something but there simply is no contact number on the statement!  To get that contact number I have to log on to their website and hunt around for that contact number.  And when I do get that number I have to figure out which IVR option it is – sometimes I get it wrong.

With the AA I had no such problem.  I simply took out my membership card turned it over and rang the emergency breakdown number.  How much effort did I need to make? In answering this question what matters is my experience (my perception) and in my experience it occurred as no effort at all.

We have all heard “we are experiencing unusually high call volumes” no matter when we call accompanied by “your call is important to us”.  Does that make you feel better?  Do you believe a word of it?  Well I am delighted to say that I did not receive any of that rubbish when I rang the emergency number.  My call was answered in less than a minute and I remember being surprised at how quickly a friendly human voice was on the other end of the phone.

Once I was talking with the customer services agent (the young lady on the line) I simply had to give my membership number (which is written on my membership card) and tell her of my situation.  She then simply asked me for the car registration number which I provided.  Using that information she identified the make, model and age of the car.  This was all done in a couple of minutes – at most.  Then she read out the time and told me that someone would be with me within an hour.  The way that she said that occurred as deliberate and confident and that inspired confidence / trust in me: this organisation knows what it is doing and someone will be with me within the hour.  I responded by saying that as my broken down car was sitting on my drive my need was not urgent and so if the AA had to choose between getting to me and someone broken down on the motorway then I’d be happy for them to take care of the person on the motorway.  To my surprise, the young lady on the other line acknowledged my generosity and thanked me for it.  That made me feel good!

After my call with the AA lady I settled down to do some work on the computer.  Before I knew it (because I was immersed in what I was doing) the AA mechanic turned up.  I remember being surprised because the response seemed quick: I looked at my watch and it had only been some 35 minutes – the AA patrol man had turned up in half the time that I had been quoted.

I handed over my keys to the patrolman (“Andy”) and he got busy trying to start the car.  Then he asked me the following question “Did you start the car and then stop the car without really driving it?” I told Andy that indeed I had done that simply to rearrange the car on the drive – to free up parking space for guests.  Andy told me that by doing that I had most likely flooded the engine with excess fuel and soaked the spark plugs.  After a few attempts Andy got the engine started and told me to let the car run for about 20 minutes.  And he advised me how to avoid flooding the engine and thus stop my current problem from happening again.

At this point I felt foolish and bad about calling out the AA.  My issue was a non-issue: I could have done what Andy had done to get the car started.  And I felt foolish that I did not know how easy it is flood the engine in a car like mine.  If I had simply carried out a few sensible behaviours I would not have the issue in the first place.  So I apologised to Andy for having to call him out for such a simple non-issue.  To my surprise he replied that I should not feel bad as it is a common problem.  And he finished by saying “We are here to help you!” and the way that he said it (and the way he had interacted with me in fixing the car) occurred as authentic.  He was not following a script or mouthing some corporate slogan – he believed what he was saying.  I thanked him and he left.

In the second part of this post (Part II) I will cover the 11 lessons for crafting the perfect service experience.

Can you fake a customer-centric orientation?

Computer simulations suggest that over the long term it pays to co-operate and play ‘nice’

Research on competition and co-operation based on computer simulations  (read Axelrod’s The Evolution of Co-operation) suggests that ‘tit for tat’ is the most profitable strategy over the long run.  What does that mean?  In the long run and across different environments, it pays to co-operate whilst remaining vigilant to the possibility/danger of being cheated.  Put more simply, you start by being trusting and giving the other party the benefit of the doubt and thereafter you reciprocate: if the other party ‘co-operates’ then you ‘co-operate’ in turn; if the other party ‘defects’ (does not play nice) then you reciprocate by ‘defecting’ (thus punishing the other party).

The real world is more complex: the art of impression management

Real life is more complex.  I do not react to what you did; I react to what I think you did.  You know that and so that opens up a whole area of possibility called ‘impression management’.  If being a virtuous and trustworthy co-operator does not appeal to you or is simply too much work then you can simply focus on the art of persuading others to believe that you are a virtuous and trustworthy individual and/or organisation: you fake it.

In the personal arena this is called the art of personality: personality is like putting on a ‘suit of clothes’ that give off the right impression; it is about learning the right techniques – in fact it is technique driven.  Character on the other hand is who you really are: it is what you are really about; it is what you stand for;  it is how you behave behind closed doors; it is how you behave when you ‘down’ or on the ‘ropes’.  In the organisational arena there is a whole profession and industry dedicated to impression management: the marketing function, the marketing agencies, the PR agencies…

Why am I bring up this point?  Because I am wondering if you can fake a customer-centric orientation.  Actually that is not true – I do not believe that you can fake it over the long-term.  Yet, I continue to be surprised at how some organisation think they can give the impression of being customer centric without actually being ‘customer-centric’ orientation.  Allow me to share two examples with you.

The AA ring me to get my feedback but they did not really want my feedback

Yesterday afternoon a friendly chap from the AA rang me and told me that he ‘wanted to get my feedback on the AA as I had recently called the AA for help’.  Because I believe it is a great practice – for companies to elicit feedback and customers to give feedback – I agreed even though I was busy.  So he spelled out the game 1 for excellent and 5 for poor.  Then he proceeded to ask me three questions.  First, how do you rate the performance of the person who handled your call for help?  Second, how happy are you with how long it took for the mechanic to get to you?  Third, how happy are you with the service delivered by the mechanic?

Then this friendly chap asked if my problem had been fixed. “No” was my reply, “Because he was not able to get the faulty part”.  Then he asked me “Did the mechanic give you a price for the part?” I responded “Yes, he did. It was in the region of £250.”  The AA chap then started selling to me: he told me how the AA had a policy to cover parts.  What he did not do was to tell me about the conditions or the price.  When I told him that I did not need the service as I was driving a Honda and in the last seven years it had only broken down once (this time) and the only major repair was for some £300.  This did not stop this chap.  He carried on started selling me something else.  Some way through this selling I simply hung up on him.  How did the conversation occur to me?

I am left feeling that I was set-up.  I am left feeling that the purpose of the call was to sell to me and this was disguised as a request for feedback. And that is what I object to: one thing masquerading as another.  If the AA wanted to sell to me then that is what they should have made clear right at the start:  “Mr Iqbal you had a breakdown recently and we have one or two offers/products that we believe will be value to you.  Are you interested in learning more?”  I may have been interested in having that conversation or not. Yet, I would have walked away with a positive attitude towards the AA: they had identified a need, they had then taken the proactive step of alerting me to products that could be of value to me; and they had asked me if I was interested in the conversation.

A customer charter with no heart in it

I was asked for my help in evaluating-improving-constructing a customer charter.   When I asked the people why they were constructing a customer charter one person told me that it was for internal purposes – to inspire/guide the employees.  The other person on the room disagreed: she thought that it was something that the top management team wanted to publish because they believed that it would help to win more business.  Digging into the charter more I noticed that many of the words and sentences sounded great but did not actually commit the company to any specific behaviour that could be measured (by the company or by their customers).  It turned out this was intentional.

There had been no soul-searching.  There had been no collaborative process to involve the whole company in thinking through what promises that company would be glad to make to customers and the market place.  There had been no consideration of what kind of promises are bold – the kind that inspire us, the kind that inspire our customers, the kind that we are willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for. There had been no consideration of other companies that are inspirational in the way that they treat their customers.

The charter lacked heart because ultimately it was empty.  It’s real purpose was to simply act as a ‘marketing’ document that would convey the right impression on prospects and partners.  And the hope was that this would then lead to more revenues.  The funny thing is that the customer charter was not written for existing customers at all.  These customers were pretty much going to continue to get what they had been getting.  And no real changes were being made to inspire / effect changes in behaviour at the leadership level, the management level or the employee level – at least none that were communicated to me.

My take on this

You can’t fake it.  A wonderful concept that I learned from Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis)  is that of the ‘Elephant and the Rider’: the subconscious mind, the limbic brain, our innate take for granted always on (24/7) biological and emotional drives can be though of as the ‘Elephant’; and the The ‘rider’ is our rational brain – the neocortex.  What this analogy is communicating is that whilst you can talk to the ‘rider’ and get him to act what you find is that sooner the rider gets tired of controlling the elephant.  And when that happens the elephant goes exactly where it wants to go.  That is why dieting does not work.  It is also why New Years resolutions fizzle out. It is also why find sounding missions, values and charters do not work.  It is also why a lot of organisations are struggling with creating customer-centric cultures.

You can only create a ‘customer centric’ culture if your elephant buys into it whole-heartedly.  How do you know if that is the case?  Well when you think about / picture being customer-centric you are inspired, you are moved, you are touched.  That is to say that there is an emotional response: it is the kind of response when you find out you are going to be a father or mother or when you find out that one of your children is in danger.  If you do not get that emotional response then I guarantee that your rider is thinking ‘customer-centricity’ is a great technique to help me get what I want.  And as soon as a better technique comes along then you will jump on it.  Or, as soon as it becames hard to practice and apply this technique you will cut corners and ultimately dilute it so that the technique will not deliver its promise.  Or you will simply get bored of it and the elephant will do what it wants to do.

If you are crafting a ‘customer charter’ or a ‘customer experience’ or a ‘customer centric orientation’ then it might be useful to ask yourself the question: “Am I willing to stake everything on this?”  If not then you might want to think about playing a different game.

What do you think?

A tale of two car breakdown companies and the six lessons you can learn

I have been a loyal customer of the RAC for over 16 years

In the UK the two main car breakdown companies are the RAC and the AA – they are both reputable.  I have been buying breakdown cover from the RAC for over 16 years.  Each year the RAC send me a renewal quote and I simply let them renew the cover.  I don’t go and check the websites to get quotes from other providers.  Why?  Each time I have needed the RAC they have delivered.  In particular, the RAC won my heart when my wife and 3 young children were coming back from France and their car broke down near Paris.  The RAC made sure that my family was taken care of and got them safely back to the UK even though the car could not be repaired at the roadside.

So when the renewal reminder came in this month I simply accepted that I would renew with the RAC.  Then I got a car breakdown renewal reminder from the AA; I had taken out car insurance with the AA last year and took out car breakdown cover even though I did not need it because by taking it out I got a significant discount on the car insurance premium that more than paid for the car breakdown cover.

How two young ladies brought the AA brand to life and won me as a customer

When I rang the AA call centre I was greeted by a friendly voice and I told her that I did not wish to renew the breakdown cover.  She put me through to the retention team.  My call was picked up straight away by another friendly, bubbly, voice who asked me why I was not choosing not to renew.  I told her that I had only taken out the AA breakdown cover because of the car insurance discount and was a long standing happy RAC customer.  She asked me if I would give her the opportunity to offer me a competitive quote.  Because she was so great on the phone with me I agreed.

She came back with a quote that saved me some 40% on the renewal quote put forward by the RAC.  Because of the value that she had created for me and how she was being on the phone (friendly, enthusiastic, helpful, validating) I agreed to take up that quote.  This young lady then proceeded to ask me questions to provide the comprehensive cover I needed.  At one stage she asked me my wife’s birthday.  When she picked up the uncertainty in my reply she empathised and made playful fun of me / with me.  This little interaction here – a fundamentally human interaction – made the whole experience stand out memorably!

Lesson 1:  if you want to win your competitors loyal customer then you need to create value for that customer.  You can do that in many ways.  The AA created emotional value for me – the young lady that I spoke with made we feel great about talking with her and signing on with the AA.  She was also given the freedom from the AA to create economic value for me by saving me 40% of the RAC price.

Lesson 2: your employees shape the customer’s perception of your brand so choose them wisely. I do not know what the components of the AA brand are.  I do not know how the marketing dept want the AA brand to be portrayed.  I do know that as a result of my conversations with the two AA call centre agents I am left thinking/feeling that the AA is a fresh, friendly, enthusiastic and helpful organisation.  That appeals to me and that is why I am happy to be an AA customer.

How the RAC failed to keep me as a customer

After I signed up with the AA I rang the RAC to cancel the automated renewal.  The RAC call centre agent asked why I was not renewing and I told her.  She asked if I would give her a chance to offer a competitive quote and I reluctantly agreed.  Why reluctantly?  On the one hand I had established an affinity with the AA and was happy on the choice I had made.  On the other hand the RAC had looked after me well for 16 years.  The call centre agent came back and told me that the figure I had quoted could not be right – her system was telling her that it was £10 higher.  I did not take this well because I was thinking I am doing you a favour by letting you quote  and you are implying that I am a liar! So I asked this call centre agent to make sure that my breakdown cover was not renewed and ended the call.

Lesson 3: never imply that your customer is lying – we do not take this well especially when we are telling the truth!

Lesson 4: there is absolutely no point in spending money on CRM systems if you employees are not going to use them when it matters.  If the RAC call centre agent had looked into her CRM system she could have reminded me about the times that I had needed their help and they had delivered.  She could have not played the price game and played the relationship and reciprocity

Lesson 5: if you have not given your customer facing staff access to a full view of the customer’s relationship with your organisation (through a CRM system) then you are asking them to compete in a race (for the customer) with their legs tied together.

Lesson 6:  if you don’t give your customer facing staff the freedom to be flexible and use their judgement then they will not be able to do what it takes to win over customers.  I suspect that the competitive intelligence unit with the RAC had fed the AA prices into the computer system and the RAC agent had to stick with those competitive prices.  And that is how she ended up implying that I was lying on the price I had been given by the AA.