Bad customer experiences

10 Leading Indicators of Horrible CX… and How to Fix

I remember staying at a luxury resort in Florida where I was giving a presentation on CX… back in the day when those things happened. Something was definitely not quite right at this fancy hotel, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

While checking in, a woman appeared in the lobby and interrupted someone else talking to the receptionist to frantically explain that when she arrived at her room and open the door she was greeted by a shocked businessman sitting in his underwear answering emails. To say she was agitated is an understatement.

On my way to my room, I asked one of the staff in which part of the sprawling resort was my room. He couldn’t answer the question without grabbing a map himself and failed to figure it out. I kept moving.

I think the coupe de grâce was when I witnessed two hotel staffers acknowledging and then ignoring trash on the side of the sidewalk as they leisurely strolled to their assignments elsewhere at the resort.

That got me thinking, are there little things that could be indicators of much bigger problems. Sort of leading indicators of bad (or good) CX. I have made a living asking people what they think, but sometimes all you need to do is watch. Sometimes a piece of ignored trash and other signs could be indicative of a much larger problem. I have developed some tell-tale signs of distressed CX organizations and ones that have an engaged workforce and a focus on CX. Here are some highlights of those signs.

1. Trash

The first one is obvious. If you see trash on the ground and staffers doing nothing about it, there is definitely an issue. This means that people don’t care about where they work or what it looks like. It’s “a job” and nothing more. This trait is also relevant for communities. If you see townsfolk concerned enough about their community that they pitch in and help out for the general good then that’s a good sign you might want to live there. 

I remember once Steve Maritz (the owner of Maritz Inc) was answering town hall questions over a corporate chat board and an employee complained about trash in the parking lot and wanted to know when it was going to be cleaned up. Steve responded (and I am paraphrasing) “well, why don’t you clean it up?” I thought it was an adroit and appropriate response. Have a sense of ownership vs. entitlement.


What to do? Well hiring the right people and emphasizing the “founders’ mentality” can help. Of course, to get folks to have a “founders’ mentality” you have to treat them accordingly. Fair pay, inclusion, and transparency in decision making, and tearing down the “management vs. employee” walls are all best practices in getting people to care about their workplace.

2. Lack of Laughter

I have a friend who laughs. He laughs a lot. It is a warm booming laugh that you can hear from far away. His jovial habit obviously translates to the workplace. I always found the sound of laughter in a place inviting as I am also prone to laughing often…and probably loudly. One day my gregarious friend confided to me that some people found it annoying or inappropriate in the workplace which stunned me. Wouldn’t you want to work in a place where people are laughing? I have come to view laughter as a good indicator of a healthy work environment where people are happy and feel comfortable enough to express themselves. We need more laughter not less. Laughter, in my opinion, is a sign of an engaged and happy workforce who are probably doing right by customers every day (or trying to).


How do get folks to be more expressive at work? Well, as is so many times the case, it is embedded in culture and that culture is largely set by the founders and senior management. Lead by example. Show it is okay to be happy, sad, or even angry. People want to work in human-centric companies where expression is not deemed a weakness, but a strength. This mirth directly translates into the customer experience. For example, at our local fried chicken take-out restaurant the order taker offers up a “joke of the day” at the drive-thru window. You are not forced to hear his ‘dad jokes’, but we have made it a habit of listening to him every time we go. In fact, it is likely one of the reasons we go to that particular fried chicken fast food restaurant vs. others.

3. Scripts

I get the need for companies to have their employees read prepared responses and also the perceived need to control the experience, but when I hear someone reading to me or reciting by rote memory some parable; whether it is for telemarketing or a menu item, I automatically fade. The representative, waiter, or whoever has checked out and Mr. Roboto has checked in. Human interactions should be human. Avoid scripts, hire good people, treat them well, and train them well and you can dispense with scripts.


Having studied this problem for a long time I have concluded that hardcore “standards” programs don’t work. Answering the phone in X amount of time or greeting customers in Y amount of time attempts to turn humans into robots. It says to the employee “you are too stupid to be trusted with your own judgement”. While employees need guidelines, they also need latitude in making decisions on the front line. Countless studies have supported the premise that giving workers autonomy in front line positions almost always results in better CX outcomes.

4. Customers

Do you regularly hear raised voices or confrontations in your retail and experience setting? Is there a propensity for customers to be jerks? Does it seem like your organization attracts more angry people than others? Well, there is probably a reason for it, and it is not just the customers’ fault. There are two possibilities; you are differentially attracting pernicious clientele, or you have created a setting and conditions that encourage bad behavior. Design issues that can influence bad behavior usually center around scarce resources, inequity, anonymity, and other design elements that make good people do bad things. American and Southwest airlines have suspended serving alcohol on their airline for this very reason. Black Friday has long been a good example of a way to sell tons of stuff but offer up the worst retail experience possible…in the name of low cost. 


Take a step back. Look at your overall servicescape and total customer experience from the point of view of customers. Can you identify places where you are encouraging bad behavior? My favorite example is the deli counter. I was surprised to learn that some deli counters use a ticketing system while others do not. Both systems seem to work well until it gets busy. Then the whole affair gets very awkward for the non-ticket counters. Is it his turn or her turn? The deli counter worker is faced with trying to discern who to wait on next. It’s bad service design that makes everyone anxious. A bit of journey mapping or just plain old observation can uncover many of these issues.

5. Management that hides

Years ago, we decided to build a pool for our kids. While the finished product was good, the experience of getting there was horrible. It got to the point where we had escalated to the highest level in the company and fully exasperated by delays and cost over-runs, we wanted to talk with the owner. The owner, however, was a mystery, even to the employees. This person was absent from the website, absent from company documents, and even could not be found in publicly available legal documents. He was a ghost. My wife once asked, “so who signs your paycheck?”. The associate either could not or would not spill the beans. If you are dealing with a company that actively strives to hide upper management, you may have a problem. 


The advice here is simple. If you are in the C-Suite, leave your desk at least once a month (more often is better) and go and talk to your customers. Visit your job sites, your stores, and outlets. There is no replacement for that. Sam Walton regularly visited store associates and customers even very late in his career. He made it a priority. We could all learn a thing or two from Sam.

6. It’s not my job

This one is simple. If you hear someone say, “that not my job” or “you will need to speak to such and such department” and they do nothing to shepherd you to the right person or department, you are dealing with a company that has not selected, trained, or rewarded their employees to work as a team to resolve a customer problem or concern. Some companies, such as American Express, are truly excellent at problem resolution. Others…not so much.


The solution for this one is similar to the trash situation. You hire the right people, train them well, treat them well, and make sure you give them the latitude and tools to help the customer. Make it clear that their job is not just confined to some written job description. Incentives can also help. If you get in trouble for overstepping your bounds you aren’t going to. If you get rewarded for helping customers, then you are less likely to view something as “not your job”….because your job is helping the customer.

7. Technology as the miracle panacea

I get it, you can save a boatload of money by using phone trees, chatbots, and other forms of technology to deal with common problems and questions. When done well, they are great. Many people, especially Gen Z and Ys even prefer to deal with automated systems and robots vs. people. Technology is great…until it isn’t and becomes a solve for everything. Some companies have taken this too far. As a variant on founders who hide, this is hiding for cost savings. When I call a call center I have a problem that cannot be easily solved, and I need to talk to someone to get it sorted out. FAQs, Community help bulletin boards, and chatbots only get you so far. Tech companies are the guiltiest of this sin.


Show some restraint in applying technology. Do not start with a technology-first approach, but instead use a customer-first approach. There are times when customers want a “frictionless” technology experience. There are other times where they need help with the hassle of wading through countless FAQs. Know the difference and staff to it.

8. Disjointed experience

Recently I bought a Sonos Move portable audio speaker. Sonos provides good sound quality at a reasonable price without the need to deal with an expensive aftermarket installer. Setting up the Move was initially easier than most Sonos systems (which are easy), I breezed through the setup wizard, the UX was really well done…that is until I got to the screen requiring a PIN which was physically stenciled on the back of the speaker. At first, I thought I had the wrong model but finally saw the tiny print on the back. As a bonus, some designer helpfully decided to make the font black on a black background. So, they definitely did their homework on the UX but failed to take the overall customer experience into account. This is a sign of a siloed company that is not looking at the total experience holistically.

Try to find the PIN!

The straightforward solution here is journey mapping. I have seen it countless times where the UX gals design something fantastic only to be dashed by a physical experience gone awry. The inverse can happen as well, where some policy or tech glitch creates more problems than it solves. Getting folks in a room to discuss the journey and then talking with customers about it usually brings these issues to light and some (like the Sonos one) are easy to fix.

9. Signs of Employee Mistrust

I remember rolling up to a fast food place drive-thru and there was a digital sign underneath where you paid and picked up your food. It said, something to the effect that if you were asked for a different amount of money than what was displayed on the digital display to not pay it and ask for a manager. They might as well hang a sign that says, “don’t trust our employees because we sure don’t”. While more controversial are those “how’s my driving” signs on the back of class 8 trucks and delivery vans. 


While I understand the motivation here, I can’t help but think about how the driver must feel having an undeserved CX scarlet letter on the back of their workplace. Not worth it in my opinion. Hire good, trustworthy, people…and trust them. Sure, you will be disappointed from time to time, but don’t let one bad experience create a culture of surveillance and distrust. Get rid of things that advertise how much you don’t trust your employees. If you don’t trust them, why would customers?

10. Empathy

As the chief cook at our house, I hold an irrational disdain for advance meal planning, so I frequent the grocery store often. As such, I am on a first-name basis with most of the employees. We don’t go out bowling or to poetry slams together, but we do exchange short stories about the day or observations about life in general. It’s small stuff. But I know I am talking to humans with fears, hopes, families, problems, and opportunities. They too know enough about me to make a connection but not so much as to creep me out. If you encounter places that have friendly, authentic, and empathetic folks, that is a very good sign that that organization has a healthy CX culture. 


As with so many of these issues, this again is about hiring great people and encouraging and supporting them…to be themselves. American stereotypes by foreigners tend to include the notion that we, as a nation, don’t always mean what we say. That perception by some is that we have a predilection to be ‘fake’. We are not always authentic. I think along the way we were somehow taught to be phony in the spirit of getting along in the workplace. To put on your “game face”. Nah, wear your “real face”. Authenticity and empathy cannot be easily taught, you must hire for those traits, but creating a culture that welcomes and encourages those traits can help you hire the right people.

Over to You

So, what do you think? Did I miss any on my list? Do you have things that are bellwether signs of good or a horrible CX culture? Let me know in the comments and thanks for reading!

Source: 10 Leading Indicators of Horrible CX… and How to Fix | CustomerThink

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