Customer Experience Potholes


My colleagues and I have interviewed and surveyed tons of customers. Current and past customers. Happy and upset customers. High use and low use customers. We learn a lot from customers. One of the things we’ve learned is how customers talk about their experiences in ways that make us think about potholes. In a road, a pothole is an uneven spot; a failure in the road that looks like a pit and can involve a slight bump or a damaging jaw-jarring experience.

Let’s see what we can learn by looking at customer experiences and drawing analogies to potholes!

Do we really have any potholes, and if so, why do they exist? In a road, a pothole grows over time. Something happens to the road; for example water might seep in. The problem may exist under the surface for a while, gets worse over time, typically is NOT fixed when drivers start to complain about it, and eventually gets fixed when enough people complain, and complain loudly. By the time it’s fixed, a lot of drivers are already mad. So what happens in marketing? We often have a process of working with customers that is pretty good, for example how they order our services, or how they return goods, or how they complete a change-order request. But over time, either their needs change just a bit, or our internal processes change, and a problem starts to build. We know the customer experience is similar to the under-the-surface pothole because customers tell us things such as, “Yeah I told the company they really ought to fix this and it was clear they knew this was becoming a problem, but wasn’t causing a lot of complaints yet.” Potholes happen for non-devious reasons, and yes they will occur unless your customers and internal practices never change.

Who falls into these potholes, and what’s the consequence? On a road, some people are more prone to hitting potholes. Why? Here are three reasons, and you can probably think of others. 1) Poor visibility exists; for example when it rains, at night, and during rush-hour when you see lots of other cars and less road. 2) Driver-distraction; this is similar to poor-visibility but is caused by the driver or by others in the car, rather than by external circumstances. 3) Not caring; people care more when they drive a car they just purchased, versus a rental car or a car they are planning to get rid of. And frankly some people are simply more cautious than others as a basic personality trait. The consequence is negative, and we know very few people that say, “This was really my fault.” And guess what else? If the potholes get numerous, really bad, or ignored over time, people find different roads to travel on.

Ok, your Customer Experience potholes are similar! Customers have bad experiences when external conditions are poor, such as when your customers try to use your distributor-web-portal and their internet service slows down. Customers have bad experiences when they are distracted, for example when an installation goes south because the installation was being completed in a busy environment. And yes, some customers are a bit less careful than others. What about the consequence of having a bad experience as your customer? When customers tell us about these experiences, we hear frustration and a feeling of suffering an injustice. We rarely hear people say, “The company was doing just fine and it was my fault.” And people often switch companies; they find a different road to travel on if potholes are ignored.

How can we identify these potholes, and how can we tell whether they are properly ‘fixed’? Being a non-expert with respect to real potholes, I initially assumed people just eyeballed potholes. Then I learned that a lot of science goes into measuring potholes, because the ‘eyeball’ system isn’t very reliable. Accelerometers and lasers are used that involve structured light sensors and cameras. Hyperspectral imagery is used; images are processed so small depth differences appear in distinct colors. And even more advanced systems exist; an obstacle avoidance system was been tailored for this use and involves autonomous navigational robotic vehicle (ANROV) technology, using intelligence sensor networks and fuzzy logic controls. Across all these measures, the core theme is that data is used. In fact data is collected and analyzed rather robustly, data is often collected from different sources, aggregated and analyzed at a central location, with assessment results displayed interactively to facilitate road maintenance operations1.

How about identifying Customer Experiences potholes? Yes, you can eyeball them, and results will be somewhat unreliable. Customer Experience data can tell you a lot! Remember, the pothole is an uneven element in the surface. We are looking for Customer Experiences that are inconsistent, particularly experiences where expectations were not met. This is why it’s so useful to ask customers questions about how well their experiences stack up to what we expect (consistency), and what they expect (expectations). After we identify problems and make fixes, we use data to see whether inconsistencies and unmet expectations have diminished in size. This technique of leveraging data is used in business processes outside marketing; for example Control Charts are used in some operations environments for the same basic purpose. Essentially, marketing research enables us to use the same data process to see if our Customer Experiences are getting out-of-control, so we can identify and correct things before they become bigger (more expensive) problems, and before customers leave our ‘road’ to find a more pleasant experience.

What else should you do, after you fix your potholes? Here’s where our analogy to actual roads breaks down. In our experience driving, after city crews fix potholes, we’ve never seen a city launch a ‘pothole-free’ awareness campaign. But in our experience with customers, some publicizing of efforts goes a long way toward making people feel positive toward their supplier. Customers like to know that companies care about their experience, and customers are more confident of a company that takes care of potholes.

Professors Bryan & Mike

Bryan Lilly, Ph.D. and Mike Tippins, Ph.D. are Marketing Professors in the College of Business at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and are partners at Dynamic Insights (, a growth consulting firm located in the Neenah, Wisconsin. Dynamic Insights works with companies that want to achieve sustainable growth and vitality, and who want an external customer-oriented perspective to help guide their growth efforts. Dynamic Insights provides expert, seamless support, from Business-focused Marketing Research Insights and Integrated Growth Solutions to Implementation.

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