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Shaun Illingworth

Shaun Illingworth

Akendi Alumnus

Why Poor Customer Experiences Are Still So Common

When companies fail to invest in connecting to users, the fallout is significant.

In 1998 Joseph Pine and James Gilmore published “Welcome to the Experience Economy” in the Harvard Business Review (July 1, 1998.)

The authors suggest the forces of competition, commoditization and technology advances have evolved our expectations beyond basic needs to heightened experiences.

While the concept of experience mapping to uncover how your customers and users find, procure, use and even recycle/upgrade products and services has been around since at least then (albeit perhaps under other names), experience mapping has never been more in vogue.

With so much focus on the experience, why are many of our poor experiences still making it to YouTube?

Four Illuminating Poor Experience Case Studies:

Big and small companies alike suffer from the myopia of thinking they know the customer rather than spending the time and money to actually connect with their customers in a meaningful way.

This connecting goes way beyond the digital services (customer experiences are as much physical as digital) all leaving a good or bad taste in the mouth of the consumer.

While much of the terminology of design thinking is tattooed into the jargon of every executive, especially those in marketing, I challenge whether you really understand the meaning of empathy for the customer.

I’ve always learned best by example, and in some cases, a bad example really communicates the impact.

A quick Google search will yield pages of videos highlighting the “low lights” of customer experiences.

While nothing compares to the Seinfeld car rental experience, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites:

Ryan Air

I often share this example in our training classes because it so clearly demonstrates the great lengths people will go to when motivated to make a point.

Ryan Air is a discount airline in Europe, similar to Easy Jet, and they market their deep discount tickets to budget-conscious travellers.

Unfortunately for Ryan Air, budget-conscious travellers are, well, budget conscious.  They recognized the disparities in the Ryan Air messaging, made noise, and voila – a YouTube video with more than 7 million views!

Did this cause concern at Ryan Air?  I hope so…  You need to deliver on your promised experience or face the consequences.

United Airlines

My favourite video dates back to 2009 when a good friend and work colleague told me of the experiences of her musician brother with United Airlines. Long story short, the airline damaged his expensive guitar in transit.

His experiences with customer service on the ground and customer support on the phone were captured in song and YouTube video.

The United Breaks Guitars YouTube video went viral immediately.  15 million views later, Dave Carroll has released two more videos, a book, and is a sought after speaker on the topic of customer experience.

Here’s the original video.

Experiences matter and companies need to take note!

But you say that was long ago, back in the 2000’s!  Certainly, we’ve come a long way from there?? No, not as far as you might think! Air Canada and Hertz are quite recent.

Air Canada

Like many airlines, Air Canada has a loyalty program. Not to be outdone by others, Air Canada has decided to have two!  Why two?  Go ask them, ‘cause I don’t get it.

That’s issue #1, but not why I mention them.  Have you ever lined up to board a plan only to be told you are in the wrong “cattle lane?”  Even with nobody around?  I have.

The prestige associated with stepping on the faux red carpet is, for Air Canada, something that only the select few should ever experience.  Last time I checked, we all board through one door – infrequent travellers also pay good money to travel and are made to feel like cattle.  Mooove along people!

But there is more!  Have you ever arrived at your designated seat only to find the overhead compartment is filled with someone else’s baggage?  Boarding by “seating zone” typically has people at the back of the plane board first (except those special people who can board at any time through the red carpet cattle path).

The airlines say this speeds up boarding, but does it?  Perhaps, in a vacuum, without priority customers boarding at their leisure, and families with children and people needing extra time to board, I think it might speed up time!  But it only takes a couple VIPs in rows 3 and 4 to back up everything for us bums in rows 23 and 24.  Add the extra time needed to find a place to stash your oversized carry-on because someone in row 33 has stowed their bag over your seat and we are back to the start – no time saved and likely time lost and frustrated customers.

Come on Air Canada, think about the experience…. No don’t think about it, invest in understanding it.

While ranting on the travel industry, let’s talk about car rentals again.  Let’s just say Seinfeld made me do it…


I rent cars a fair bit and have attained this special red carpet status with Hertz! Unfortunately, no actual red carpets, but they do promise a free vehicle upgrade (subject to availability.)

On several recent occasions I have been informed by the rental agent that “because we are a franchise location, we do not have to offer upgrades for your class of car!”

What, are you not Hertz?  I really don’t care if you are a franchise or corporate owned, and this exemption is not in your marketing. If the sign says Hertz, you are Hertz.

Since when has “because we don’t want to” become a valid explanation for an enterprise?  I think I was 8, maybe 10 when that line failed consistently with my parents.

It’s like going to McDonald’s and asking for a Big Mac, but because they are a franchise, they choose only to carry cheeseburgers!  Tough luck Big Mac lover, we are a franchise and WE DON’T WANT TO!!!

It amazes me in a world where there is competition for almost everything, that these simple common sense inconveniences continue to exist.

Light At The End Of The UX Tunnel

But don’t lose hope, there are smart, user-friendly experiences out there too.  I think (hope) we are getting better.

On a recent trip to London, I was impressed with how Transport for London has evolved all their transport pay systems for bus and underground to accept “tap and go” pay service.

No more need to stand in a queue (despite the UK affinity for this) to purchase tokens or top up your Oyster Card – just tap and go.

Brilliant.  Simple.  Elegant.  Understood.

A great example of leveraging technology to improve the user experience.

Shaun Illingworth

Shaun Illingworth

Akendi Alumnus


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About Akendi

Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.