How do External Variables and Customer Service Affect Brand Experience?

The airline and travel industries have been vocal about a renewed focus on the Customer, as more and more come to realize that creating an experience "means listening to [our] customers and genuinely seeking to make their experience great."

The truth is that customers find meaning in an observed brand value, which is affected by the perception of their interactions with each different part of the brand. [Tweet this]

While there has been much investment and several advances in the passenger experience, it's how it all comes together that counts. For example, the fact that I enjoyed the luxury of extra legroom (albeit at my own expense) becomes slightly irrelevant if my journey happens to be tainted by two mechanical issues and then my baggage is lost, especially if my travel provider of choice is not even willing to acknowledge their part in my bad experience.

While it is very easy to promise that your company is focusing on and listening to their customers, the customer experience ecosystem is complex and needs to be well understood to ensure purposeful tradeoffs and priorities are set, and, a meaningful experience is delivered.

Recently, I was unfortunate enough to receive a less than acceptable Passenger Experience and it really got me thinking about the importance of the connected experience.

Firstly, our round trip from San Francisco to New York was particularly bad. Here are some highlights (as to go into all the details would be a whole other post, if not a book!). We went through a series of multiple delays and cancellations (due to weather as well as mechanical issues) and incidences of lost luggage. While the representatives were incredibly nice and friendly, each time we experienced:

  • Inconsistent information between representatives, the airline App and airport data.
  • Lack of responsiveness from Customer Service and Support.
  • Lack of transparency as to issues being faced.
  • Lack of knowledge about customer situations and connections.

Being in the business of Experience, I wanted to test the airlines Customer Experience further, so I contacted them to see what they had to say about our bad experience. After multiple frustrating back and forths, we were offered a travel certificate for $100 dollars for the first mishap and $32.48 for the second. Both emails came with a "by accepting this you release [airline] from any liability", and also informed us that this $100 was "a gesture of good will" for the baggage loss. They never once took ownership for their role in the problems we experienced.

Unfortunately for us, great people were not enough to salvage the damage to the airline's brand. Their ineffective customer service and ability to show up when things go wrong (on multiple occasions) have since led to us choosing other airlines for both personal and business travel.


While the ordeal was not so great for me, there are some absolutely great takeaways to think about when designing a customer experience.

Use of Data

The airline had access to a lot of our customer data that could have been used to improve the overall customer experience. Using context to personalize the service given would have meant a lot. For example, if, on scanning our tickets, the agent could have seen that we had literally been delayed for 2 days, had lost luggage etc., they could have made some gesture to show compassion there and then. Unfortunately, the data was not connected; the agents couldn't see open cases and could not even access the correct data about their own flights. It is definitely going to be a bad experience when your customer service representative's applications show incorrect data and the customer has to inform your own staff of where your planes actually are and their estimated arrival times.

The Small Things Count
We were obviously in the middle of a bad experience and when the mind is experiencing negative effect, it becomes intensely focused, making other little things more noticeable. Here, even offering some drink coupons or a meal at the airport would have done wonders to show that they had done what they could to improve things. The whole experience felt very cold. This wasn't helped by the fact that during one of our delays we did see another airline handing out blankets and coffee to people affected in the airport. This kind gesture really makes you remember them and connects their brand to being caring and compassionate.

Consistency Across Channels
Digital and physical must interact well. The level of inconsistency was very high between what the various staff knew, as well as between what the different apps, websites, email alerts and screens were telling us. This leads to customer mistrust. It is definitely worth being as transparent as possible and looking at how to improve the consistency of information across all your channels.

Understand External Influences to your Customer Experience
We all understand that the weather is outside of an airline's control and you really cannot blame an airline, or expect them to be accountable for something like the weather. However, just like in tech, where things can break or go wrong and it is not always the actual product owner or supplier's direct fault, it is a company's response that provides a customer experience that people will remember and go on to recommend to others. The response issued and service provided in these moments can recover a negative experience and even repair the brand damage. Therefore, it is worth designing the experience to allow for the influence of external variables, such as giving staff capability and authority to respond as needed within means.

People are Key, but, they Need to be Enabled
Linked to the above is the fact that while your people (and their knowledge or their friendly personalities etc.) are important to the experience, they must also be empowered and enabled through tools and policies as well. A smile while telling me that even though there are 2 seats on an earlier flight, you cannot actually give them to me as my ticket is of a certain type and there is no option to purchase does not make things any better. For example, during our debacle, the customer service desk agent could not see our customer journey to date. Wouldn't it feel more authentic and caring if they had been enabled to pull it up, and had then started with an "I'm sorry you guys have been having so much trouble lately, let's see what we can do"? Enabling them to see our experience, would have enabled them to have empathy. This is a clear demonstration of how the employee experience can affect the customer experience.

Content can Damage your Brand
Looking at how your responses make your customer feel is a worthy exercise. We all know when something is canned, but even if you are canning a response, avoid terms that will make an already frustrated customer even more frustrated. Here, for example, the term "gesture of good will for the baggage loss" could easily make someone more annoyed. To passengers, it may not really feel like good will when a company is compensating for something they were in the wrong for. Not to mention the lack of acknowledgement of any of the rest of the experience.

Contextual Responses
These can be considered as tiered responses. For example, offering someone who endured our two-day travel nightmare $100, that has to be used to fly with you again, is not really likely to make anyone want to do that. In fact, when considering the sheer amount of our time that was wasted due to just the problems with the airline, not to mention the extra costs associated with re-booking flights and finding accommodation, this is actually almost insulting. The response should be relative to the experience, otherwise, it won't repair the perception of the brand.


Start with understanding. Spend a little time mapping out your experience ecosystem - this will allow you to understand how all the various tools, processes, devices, people and data all come together to provide a customer experience, and how each piece impacts the total experience overall. You will then have a starting point from which to focus on areas requiring optimization, improvements and innovation, and knowledge of exactly how these will impact the total experience.

While acknowledging that your Customer Experience might need redesigning or improvement is a good first step, the proof will only be seen in how your customers perceive their experience. Using deep customer insights will help you to create an understanding of the full experience ecosystem, which can then be used to continuously improve each interaction throughout the full customer journey, including enabling your employees to deliver the desired experience.


At EffectUX we help our customers understand the exact factors that measurably drive the successful achievement of their vision, from the perception of the people interacting with, and delivering, the experience ecosystem needed. Most organizations know their indicators of success, whether that is increased Customer Satisfaction or increased brand awareness, but we use the understanding of the client's vision, and ecosystem to tell them how to quantifiably get there.

To find out your Experience Index contact us! We look forward to helping you achieve your vision.