Organisations have been perfecting functional experience at the expense of the emotional, human experience. The Foundation’s John Sills explains how brands are getting customer experience wrong.

A few years ago, on a family holiday, we took a trip on a beautiful old steam train.

The journey started with a friendly guard welcoming us on board, pointing to the right carriage and making a show of punching a hole in the paper ticket that my over-excited son was holding.

We settled into our seats – and what seats they were. Deep leather cushions you could fall asleep in, each with its own spacious, wood-panelled table to spread our picnic out on, next to a huge window made for daydreaming out of. A fully stocked trolley service passed through the train with freshly made food and piping hot drinks.

As the train pulled out of the station and the smoke cleared to reveal the rolling hills, my son turned to me and asked: “Daddy, is this what it’s like when you get the train to work every day?”

No. No it isn’t. It emphatically is not.

A crowded train, annoyed staff, Brompton bikes. Staring dreamily out of the window has been replaced by staring disgustedly into someone’s armpit. A damp cheese panini feels like a moment to celebrate.

A sign of progress is surely that things become more efficient whilst the quality remains the same, yet as I sat on that beautiful train contemplating my son’s question, I couldn’t help thinking that, when it comes to the experience customers have with organisations, this hasn’t been the case.

In fact, I think that over the past twenty years, organisations have been perfecting the functional experience at the expense of the emotional, human experience.

While many things have become far easier to do, somehow being a customer seems harder work than ever. Getting in touch with a company for anything out of the ordinary is often met with an automated “You know you can do that on our website?” retort. Long call-waiting times have become normalized and acceptable. And a ‘Thank you for your custom’ has been replaced with the requisite feedback request, asking for a few minutes of your time – for free – to answer a series of questions on whether you’d recommend a company (regardless of whether you have, in fact, recommended them).

As a result, organisations are now full of humans who aren’t allowed to act in a human way. Naturally empathic people are no longer allowed to demonstrate common sense, to step outside of the rules, to do what’s right for customers, leading to the dreaded “I would if I could, but I can’t”, response.

To check it wasn’t just me, the team at The Foundation conducted a survey (with a nationally representative sample) to see what other people thought:

  • 85% said companies often feel impersonal and have lost their ‘human’ touch;
  • 83% said that organisations take customers for granted;
  • 81% said organisations are more interested in cutting costs than giving a good service.

These are terrible statistics. (Unless you happen to have a book out on the subject, in which case they’re quite useful).

This situation is made worse by the cost-of-living crisis we’re currently in. People don’t have the time, or the energy, to deal with bad service; to spend hours on hold; to chase up organisations who haven’t replied to their queries; to suffer mistakes that cost them money. As Octopus Energy says in its recent ad campaign, ‘In a crisis, Service Matters.’

Interestingly, there were also some significant differences in the responses of customers from ethnic minority backgrounds, who are (statistically) significantly less dissatisfied with their customer experience than White customers. For instance:

  • 86% of White customers agree that companies ‘often feel impersonal and lost their human touch’, compared to 74% of ethnic minority customers;
  • 84% of White customers think that companies ‘take customers for granted’, compared to 79% of ethnic minority customers;
  • When asked whether they think their experiences as customers ‘have gotten better or worse in the past five years’, 12% of White customers things got better and 47% believe they got worse. Among ethnic minority customers, 29% believe things got better and 31% believe they got worse.

So, to find out what to do about this, I studied several companies around the world who I believe are making things better for customers, whilst also creating a successful organisation.

To share these findings this is the first in a series of three articles on the human experience. In my next article, I’ll discuss the three myths that I believe are getting in the way of organisations delivering a truly human experience, and which these organisations avoid: the myths of feedback, loyalty, and Return on Investment.

Then, I’ll share the way these companies behave with customers – such as being accessible, responsible, and straightforward – and the cultural ways of working they all demonstrate, such as a deep connection to customers, having empowered colleagues and focussing on the few moments that really matter.

The main lesson from all, though, was a simple one:

If in doubt, be human.

John Sills is Partner and Managing Director at The Foundation. His book The Human Experience, was published by Bloomsbury in February 2023.