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.

Dear customer this is what we mean by “relationship”

If you take the time to read the articles that gave rise to the “Relationship Marketing”, “CRM” and “Customer Experience” movements there are a number of principles that lie at the core:

  • Work relentlessly to create superior value for your customers;
  • Treat different customers differently because different customers have different needs;
  • Treat different customers differently because you cannot afford to spend the same amount of money on ‘Economy’ customers as you can on ‘First Class’ customers – to use an airline metaphor;
  • Treating different customers differently includes adjusting your actions towards the customers on an ongoing basis as you learn more and more about them – some called this customisation, websites call it personalisation, others understanding it as tailoring your actions to suit the person in front of you; and
  • If you do this consistently and better than your competitors, your customers will continue to do business with you even when they are offered ‘incentives’ (usually in the form of price discounts) to switch to your competitors.

The interesting thing about human beings is that we cherry pick – we take what we like and completely discard the rest.  It is as if you are given a recipe for a great dish and you select some of the ingredients and just throw the others away because they disturb you in some way.  As a result of this, too many companies – but not all, have come to understand “relationship” in a totally self-serving way.  If they were being truthful they would write a letter along the following lines:

“Dear Customer

Welcome to Big Corporate, we are delighted to have you on board.  We are not like Apple.  We don’t disrupt industries; we do not even come out with must have products; our service levels are also pretty ordinary as we do the minimum we can get by with to keep a lid on costs. The reality is that we are pretty much like everyone else who competes for customers in our category.

Over the last ten years or so our world has turned upside down.  And it is all down to the Internet – it has given you shoppers the upper hand.  Not only can you compare prices easily, you can also share your voice with millions around the world and listen to your fellow shoppers instead of our corporate speech: our advertising and PR.

So we listened to the Relationship Marketing and CRM folks.  We have bought into this in a big way and invested many millions in the software that will enable us to build a relationship with you.  Why is that important you ask?  Well if we build a relationship with you then we get to make more money, more profit!

Let me explain what we mean by “relationship”.  We are thinking along the following lines:

  • We will get as much data on you as possible – anything we can get away with legally;
  • We will use that data to figure out what we can sell you and then we are going to send you letters and emails  to encourage you to buy what we think you are up for buying;
  • If you do not respond the first time then we will give it another go and then another go;
  • We will offer you these products at a higher price than the price that we are offering people who currently do not do business with us;
  • If your existing product, policy or subscription comes to an end then we will send you a renewal reminder that is some 30% higher than you could get if you were to sign up as a new customer through our website;
  • We want you to fit in with the way that we work, the way we do business;
  • We are expecting you to do more of the work yourself so it would be great if you were to go to our website and help yourself and if you do manage to call our Customer Service line then we expect that you will use our IVR to help yourself;
  • If you do manage to get through to one of our agents then we cannot guarantee that we will be able to sort out your issues there and then.  If we cannot sort out your issue then we expect you to ring back on another day as our agents are not allowed to ring you back at a time that suits you;
  • We really do not like complaints as we believe that we are doing the best that we can so we are going to make it as hard as we can for you to complain including insisting that you put your complaint in writing and send it via the post;
  • Even though we are in the digital age we are not going to allow you a click to chat facility for when you are having problems on our website and need our help;

  • Nor are we going to allow you to use an instant messaging system to get through to our agents;

  • Whilst we do allow you to send email don’t expect the kind of response that you get at work. No, please allow at least two-day – usually more.

Now that I have explained what we mean by relationship we are really hopeful that you will be so satisfied that you will tell all your friends and family to become our customers!”

 
Here is the ridiculous part:  no company would ever consider sending this kind of communication to a new customer yet that is what the customer will experience because that is how many companies operate!