Building a better customer experience


050914 thumb coxTo give customers better experiences, business owners need to understand the stories customers tell themselves about interacting with a given company.

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050914 coxThe other day, a service business attempted to give me free money.

Halfway through the process, I decided I didn’t trust them. They lost me as a customer, probably forever.

Here is an analysis of what went wrong, and how we can all learn to construct better customer experiences.

Customer Experience As a Story

Whenever we try to create a customer experience, we are engaged in a partner dance with the customer. We know what we want the customer to experience, but we cannot control how the customer interprets their experience.

In other words, we don’t know what story the customer is telling himself about the experience he is having.

Most of us are extremely bad at identifying the difference between behavior and our conclusions about behavior. It’s much easier to say that a driver was “aggressive” than to say “he was following very closely, flashing his high beams and honking his horn.”

But “aggressive” is a conclusion about behavior. It’s not a description of behavior.

When a customer dislikes your customer service, they probably can’t tell you what you did wrong, only what conclusions they drew and how they felt about it.  In other words, they can only share the stories they’re creating out of their experiences.

Here is my story of attempting to accept free money from

Free Stamps

Yesterday I received yet another direct-mail piece from, and this time I actually read it. They included a sheet of paper onto which I could print free postage stamps – almost five dollars’ worth. There was even a test sheet, so I could make sure my printer worked correctly.

At this point, the story I told myself was, “Hey, pretty smart, they’re getting me to try out their customer experience. Instead of spending all their marketing money on the direct-mail vendor, they’re going to give some to me. What a great way to build my confidence in them.”

The First Betrayal

At this point, I was all set to give them some information, and print out some postage. That seemed like a fair trade.

But they didn’t want just some information from me. They wanted my credit card number. In order to get the free postage, I had to sign up for a four week free trial.

Now the story starts to change in my head. “Hold on, why couldn’t they tell me that up front?”

I went ahead and put in my credit card number. This is a pretty big step for me, and not something I would do on the website of a brand I wasn’t at least familiar with. At this point, I’m starting to feel a little exposed, a little vulnerable.

The Second Betrayal

After navigating the credit card screen, I was ready to get my payoff. I wanted to print some damn postage.

But no.

After putting in my tracking code, I fully expected them to take me to a simple screen where I could click a button and say yes, I want those nine stamps from that mailing you sent me.

Instead, I got taken to some weird shipping screen asking for the weight of my package. “What package? Hello? Don’t you remember me? You’re the one who invited me in here. I even typed in the unique code you gave me. I’m new here, I expect to be treated like a welcome visitor, not like some power user who already knows how to order postage on this complex screen.”

Intrepid geek that I am, I managed (eventually) to ask for nine regular first class stamps, and was rewarded with what looked like the right print preview image to match the sheet they mailed me.

The Third Betrayal

I clicked on “Print Test Sheet.”

I expected that this would print a test sheet.

Oh, no.

I was prompted to download and install a piece of software.

Ah, hah hah hah. No.

“No, I’m not installing strange unknown software — that I should not NEED to install for printing — on the first date.”

So I decide to cancel everything.


They have my credit card number.

The Fourth Betrayal

There is no link to “cancel my account.”  Now my story is “This is like a Roach Motel and I’m the roach. I can check in but I can’t check out.”

I have to Google “ cancel account” to find the FAQ entry, which says I have to call an 800 number that’s only open certain hours.

My clock says I have 12 minutes left.

11 minutes later I’ve canceled my trial account, and I’ve absorbed a pointed lesson in setting and keeping customer expectations.

Better Customer Experiences

If I want to give my customers better experiences, I need to know what stories they are making up as they go through the experience I’m currently giving them.

And most customers will not complain to your face. They will quietly go away, and then tell all of their friends how awful you are, much as I’m doing right here.

if you want to consider experiences, you need to be aware of the stories in your customers heads. You can get that a couple of ways.

One, put test users through simulations and find other ways to watch new users interacting with your service.

Two, hold focus groups and ask current and former customers about their experiences.

Three, hire a reputation management company to alert you every time someone complains about your service.

In every one of these three cases, there is one additional step you have to take: you have to fix your service.

Set an expectation.

Fulfill that expectation.

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