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Subway Clocks and Customer Experience

Published August 9, 2015

Mind the Gap


A customer experience “gap” occurs when the experience a customer has doesn’t align with the experience they expected to have. We call the space between expectations and reality an “experience gap.” Gaps can be bad – sadly, many are – and occur when the actual experience is worse than desired or doesn’t live up to expectations. Gaps can also be positive; that great experience that exceeds expectations, creating customers for life (or at least increasing the potential for positive comments to friends and family…).

For most companies, gap closing is primarily focused on eliminating negative gaps by at least meeting customer expectations. For a handful of CX leaders, creating positive gaps by exceeding expectations at strategically appropriate points is also part of the focus.

Yet for many companies, customer expectations are largely unknown. Because to do that, you have to understand customer expectations in the first place. This is hard if your organization doesn’t:

  • Listen to customers in ways that allow you to understand their expectations;
  • Consciously “set” customer expectations of the experience in the first place.

Subway clocks as a lesson for customer experience practitioners

To design the ideal customer journey, it’s critical to understand where gaps in the current journey occur. As discussed above, most of these gaps occur when expectations aren’t met – which is why it’s so important to appropriately set customer expectations upfront.

Which is why anyone charged with managing customer experience would do well to read a 2011 research report in the journal of Transportation Research.

Given that customer perceptions of experience ARE their reality, the fact that the actual wait for a train is 7 minutes is irrelevant to their perceived wait time of 10 minutes – a 30 percent gap between customer perceptions and reality. On the other hand, for those riders with real-time information, typical wait times were reported as 30 percent lower than for those without real-time information.

It comes down to this: When people stand on the platform waiting for their train to arrive, those that don’t know when it’s supposed to get there feel like they wait longer than they actually are; uncertainty leads to anxiety, and the experience is perceived as negative.

In other words, the problem was never the fact that people had to wait for the train. The problem was not knowing when the train was going to arrive. By using subway clocks to consciously “set” customer expectations of the experience in the first place, the experience was better than if riders didn’t know when it was going to happen.

Do your customers know when the next train will arrive?

Ever been the doctor or dentist and have them say things like “This is going to sting,” or “You might feel a sharp pain”? They get it - even if it’s not going to be great, knowing in advance what the experience will be like reduces anxiety and eliminates uncertainty. Both as customers and as CX practitioners, we know that not every experience can be a great one. But we do want and expect to know what the experience is going to be like. It’s human nature.

Every time I’ve had a doctor tell me to expect something painful (sadly, this has happened a lot – the occasional broken limb, stitches and the like appear to be an unfortunate byproduct of my recreational choices) it hasn’t been as bad or as painful as I expected. Why? Because I was told what to expect. In this example, even a literally painful experience wasn’t a bad one.

So the question I’d like you to ask is this: Do your customers know what to expect when they interact with your company? And if they do, have those expectations been realistically set?

How do you set expectations for your customer experience?

Broadly, customer expectations are set by the brand, and the promise that brand makes. For BMW, that promise is that every time you get behind the wheel you’ll experience “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” Walmart promises that you’ll “Save money. Live better.” For insurance company Geico, that “15 minutes or less can save you 15% or more on car insurance.”

More narrowly, setting expectations for individual interactions aligns with perceptions of the experience as well. For example, the call center IVR that gives you an estimate of how long you have to wait is rated as a better experience than those that don’t. Or the No Wait Emergency Department promise at Bon Secours hospitals.

The fact is, companies that make a point of delivering on the promises of their brand consistently deliver better-than-average customer experiences. While simply delivering at expectations isn’t always the ticket to “wowing” your customers, it is a great place to start.

And to do that, you need to be clear on what customer expectations are in the first place, and work to deliver at or above those expectations – or work to reset those expectations in ways that align with your reality. Because promises made – and expectations set – must be delivered.

Which is why customer experience leaders do a better-than-average job of understanding and minding their gaps – both positive and negative – across customer segments, journeys, channels and interactions.

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