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.

Are we, the Customer community, living in the land of make believe?

I believe that you and I are in communication because at some level we have a deep interest in improving the customer experience: doing right by the customer and expecting that reciprocity will kick in and the customer will do right by us and as such we all win and in the process create a better world.  Am I right?  Perhaps, that is just where I am at and what I am about.

1999 was the year that I got deeply involved in the whole Customer movement when I joined Siebel to build its consulting practice.  And in mid-2000 I was working with The Peppers & Rogers Group evangelising and consulting on 1to1 marketing.  Even in those days we were selling the following: the need to put the customer first in corporate decision making; engaging in genuine dialogue with customers; cultivating a learning relationship with customers;  putting relevance and personalisation into marketing communications;  gluing up the touchpoints to provide an integrated customer experience;  rising the importance of the call centre – focusing on effectiveness first and efficiency second; creating a single view of the customer by gluing data together from disparate touchpoints and systems; and a smart use of technology where technology enables the execution of the customer strategy and improves the customer experience.

In 2011 I am reading an array of article from customer gurus, customer evangelists, marketing academics, service centred academics and software vendors.  And they are talking about selling the same messages that me and my colleagues were selling over 10 years ago.  Yet, how much of the business world has really grasped and acted on this advice?  Yes, I know that there are a few exceptional companies that live the ‘customer-centric’ ethos and are prospering.  What about the rest?  Why is it that the rest are pretty much doing business pretty much they way they were doing it some 10+ years ago.   I got a glimpse of an answer this week and I’d like to share it with you.

As my wife is French she regularly travels to France with the three children and so I have taken out European Breakdown Cover with the RAC.  Well the annual policy was due to lapse on the 7th August and I had got a renewal reminder letter in the post.  My wife was due to leave on Tuesday 2nd August – earlier this week.  So I rang up the RAC call centre to renew the policy and here is what happened:

I rang the RAC and chose the wrong option: travel sales.  Why?  Because the renewal reminder had “Travel Sales” right at the top in a huge font.  When I got through to customer services agent (CSA) he was not able to help me because I needed to select the ‘Breakdown” IVR option.

Hitting the IVR for the second time I got through to the CSA in the Breakdown team.  I told him that wanted to renew the policy for another year and provided him with the policy number.  He quoted me a price and I accepted it.  Then I handed over my credit card details and the transaction was completed.  So far so good. Then I came across a problem.

The CSA asked me if I had a pen and paper handy.  I asked why I needed it.  He told me that he had a new policy number for me.  I replied that I did not want a new policy or a new policy number – I simply wanted to renew the existing policy and keep the existing policy no.  The tone of the CSA changed abruptly as if I had hurled a personal insult at him or was being a ‘difficult’ customer.  He  asked me what the problem was with a new policy number.  I replied that instead of my wife having one policy number she would have to remember two policy numbers and remember when each policy started and finished.  Life would just be simpler keeping the old policy number.  The CSA told me that was not possible – the ‘system’ did not allow it.

What I took away from this

I can get the difficult involved in putting together a single view of the customer.  There are lots of interaction channels and the proliferation continues.  The organisation is fragmented into silo with each doing its own thing and that is not easy to change easily.  Then there is a whole spaghetti of IT systems some under the control of IT and some not.  So putting together a single customer view continues to be a major undertaking and not every company wants to make that investment, that effort.

But how difficult is it to redesign the IVR so that the options speak in the language of the customer?  Why send a renewal reminder which says ‘Travel Sales” when I should be renewing with the Breakdown team?  Why did the renewal reminder spell out which number I had to contact and which IVR option that I needed to select?

Yet what really got me is the fact that the RAC (a brand name organisation with millions of customers) has not thought through the renewal process from the customer.  It really does not take a genius to figure out that the creating a new policy and a new policy number creates complications and extra effort for the customer.  And it may lead to extra work for the RAC – when customer comes on the line and quotes the wrong policy number.  The thing that has really taken me by surprise is the inability of the system to simple extend the existing policy to another year – thus making it unnecessary to issue a new policy.  Why has this issue not been fixed?  Surely I am not the first customer who wants to keep his existing policy and is it really that hard to make that change?

To conclude it does appear to me that there is huge gap between the reality on the ground and all the evangelising by us, the Customer community.  Are we living in a land of make believe?  Are we like the traditional economists who live in a world of superhuman rational actors and perfect information when the reality is that humans are driven/influenced/shaped by subconscious stimuli and in built biases and who find it extremely difficult to make purely rational decisions and who do not have access to perfect information.  What do you think?

PS:  I am going to join my family in France and am taking a break from blogging for the next 2 – 3 weeks.  If you are going on holiday then I wish you the very best.  furthermore, I thank each and everyone of you for reading what I write, sharing it with your network and by commenting.  I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you upon my return.  And if you are a customer evangelist it may be worth remembering that if the Customer stuff was easy then it probably would not be that much fun and there would not be any competitive advantage in it!