Empathy and broken customer experiences

It’s two in the morning and a Mother is nursing a five-month old with a sleeping two-year old AND three-year old beside her on a long haul flight. The bright lights shock them from their slumber, right above their head. The flight is preparing to land and Master Two goes into a full body writhing, screaming melt down as his Mother tries to put his seat belt on and not wake the baby in her arms.

Staff arrive to see what the fuss is about and explain that this child ‘really must’ put his seat belt on. This scene unbelievably continues for twenty minutes as the Mother tries to coax, beg, demand, reason her child into the seat. However let’s be honest, she has her hands full and has just endured an eleven-hour flight with three children under three. Yikes.

Finally more staff are summoned, including the Cabin Manager and three stewards who start physically forcing this small child into the seat whilst everyone sits staring – mute.


‘This is broken!’ Echoing the now famous catch cry of Seth Godin’s.

Really, but aren’t they just doing their job?

‘It’s broken, because I say it’s broken’.

Godin claims if you think it’s broken, it’s broken. As we know, you’re perception and interactions with products or services can have a long lasting impact with the way you engage with a brand. 80% of companies believe they deliver ‘superior’ customer service but only 8% of customers think the same companies deliver ‘superior’ customer service.

This scene is all too much for me, also a mother of a toddler. I launch out of my seat with purpose, fending off the perturbed air hostesses with their beautiful, yet homogenous outfits and facial features. I make my way over to the other side of the plane to push through the now rather awkward and desperate group of airline staff.

“Are you ok, what do you need?”

The mother who is now in tears is beyond words. After suggestions to Master Two we sing songs together, watch some cartoons on my phone or simply sit next to me, the airline staff start to see my intention. They take Master Two for a small walk up the aisle for a light distraction; after which he happily sits back in his seat. It took two minutes to stop and consider the situation, listen to those involved and consider their needs, which could have saved twenty-five minutes of what can only be described as a distressing experience.

Creating great customers experiences, whether it’s for big people or small people (or both) is about empathy. Listening to people and trying to truly understand from their point of view can transform not only the customer’s experience but also how you view your job role, approach your tasks or how you manage your organisation.

We need to move away from the mentality ‘it’s not my job’ or a disconnected execution of your individual task (in this case; ensure everyone is sitting down with their seatbelt fastened when light comes on, immediately) and shift to understand how, why and if you are achieving the desired outcomes (create a comfortable, safe and enjoyable flying experience for all).

By not considering the above two points the stewards and indeed the airline overlooked the opportunity to deepen the emotional relationship with their customers. According to Gartner 80% of your future revenue will come from just 20% of your existing customers whilst 70% of customers cite poor customer service as a reason for not buying from a brand. So why are we still creating broken experiences?

Many companies make the mistake of over zealous rule making or not creating an environment that supports staff to think and feel for themselves when solving problems. By not assessing the situation and understanding the consumers deep needs, organisations fail to differentiate in the delivering real human experiences.

When embedding a human-centred approach (putting the person’s needs at the centre of what you do) across an organisation it must permeate all aspects of the business; the organisational strategy, the learning and development of staff, the design of your products & services and the policies and governance. Tim Brown of IDEO fame describes design empathy as a mental habit. It takes time and a conscious effort to deeply embed this into your culture so that you’re not missing one jumbo-sized opportunity!

Personally, I look forward to the day all airline hostesses have to look after the ever changing, sometimes irrational needs of a toddler on a long haul flight. But alas that’s not going to happen; nor is it necessary. Don’t pretend to understand your customers, ask, listen, learn from their life experiences and see the world from their shoes.

When in doubt, be human. It might just surprise you¹.

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  1. Gabbard, Glen O. cited Karl Menninger in “Gibraltar shattered.” American Journal of Psychiatry (2002): 1480-1481.

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