I recently blogged about customer experiences I noticed on a business trip to New York, and how we are more attuned to both good and bad experiences when traveling than when we are in our normal day-to-day routines. Not long after my trip to New York, I went to London and Paris for a week and had some more interesting experiences!
Arrival in London
I have the privilege of traveling to London a number of times a year, so this point I feel pretty familiar layout and procedures on arrival at Heathrow. Upon arrival, I’m always struck what the experience must be like for a first-time, non-English speaking visitor deplaning bleary-eyed after a long haul flight. There are a number of long hallways, escalators, and signs pointing you this way and that with no obvious rhyme or reason.
Every public space, like airports, train stations, hotels, or hospitals, should have a five-year-old test: Bring in a tired and hungry five-year-old see if they can figure out where they need to go and what they need to do to accomplish the key tasks of a passenger, guest, or patient. If a cranky, illiterate five-year-old can figure it out, surely any traveler can, too.
This sort of test will also make it really clear about the clear what parts of the experience are most confusing and need to be redesigned or clarified.
(When I was departing London, I had an experience that reinforced this idea. I was in a news agent shop (or newsstand) buying some gum when a Korean tourist speaking only a few words of English walked in and asked the guy behind the register, “Beer”? “Beer”? Clearly these travel hubs are full of people who don’t know what to expect and get confused!)
When too much money is a problem
By the time I arrived from Heathrow to Paddington, I really had to use the bathroom! Unlike in the U.S., you actually have to pay to use the bathroom in many places in Europe, in this case 30 pence in coins. Of course I only had a £20 bill, so the change machine gave me about 4,000 coins. Kind of like winning the jackpot on a slot machine without any of the excitement. #experiencefail!
Getting unknowingly fleeced
When I arrived at the very nice Bloomsbury Hotel, the front desk informed me that breakfast was not included, but if I purchased it in advance at the front desk I would get a discount over buying it at the restaurant in the morning, so I agreed.
Only later did I discover that I paid extra for the cooked-to-order option – the terrific and more than adequate breakfast buffet was included. Shame on you Bloomsbury Hotel for making me feel tricked by my first experience with your staff (who were otherwise terrific!).
Arriving in Paris and another #uberfail
In my last travel customer experience post, I wrote about Uber and Lyft’s botched mapping that made it hard to find a driver. At least in those cases I eventually connected. When I got off the EuroStar train at Paris’ Gare du Nord, I spent at least 15 minutes trying to find the driver in the traffic jam in front, to no avail. Uber lost my business that time.
The infamous Parisian cold shoulder?
Notwithstanding the Uber experience, the rest of my customer experiences in Paris didn’t match the city’s infamous reputation at all. Waiters and shopkeepers were unfailingly helpful and polite.
I asked for French menus so I could struggle a bit (it’s more fun that way!). Right after I arrived, a colleague and I got dinner at L’Absinthe, where the waiter apologized for his poor English, despite the fact he spoke it very well. The food and setting was wonderful.
The next evening, I joined a group of colleagues at L'Orriù di Beauvau after they’d finished dinner. The kitchen was closed, but the waitress was kind enough to offer me a cold plate. I was reminded of this hilarious scene from one of my favorite movies, La vita è bella, where Roberto Benigni persuades a late arriving customer to order the only thing he can offer.
Another, better experience with cash
The last day in Paris, I met a local friend and wandered around. We stopped by her favorite croissant spot, La Boulangerie d'Assas (she’s right – it’s amazing!). But I don’t have to tell you that the French know baked goods. The neat customer experience here was a machine next to the register that lets customers put cash in and get cash back – kind of like at the supermarket self-checkout – which means the folks behind the counter can keep their hands totally clean without having to put plastic gloves on and off all day. Don’t know why I’ve never seen that in the US!
A final disappointment
On the way back to California, I had a stopover in JFK. On the perfectly pleasant flight over the Atlantic, I watched the first 20 minutes of The Good Dinosaur before landing, and planned to continue it on the domestic connection. But once I got on that flight, I realized that I’d forgotten American charges for movies on domestic flights. How annoying.
To be honest, this is what I’m used to when I am only flying domestically, but somehow the idea that my experience wasn’t consistent throughout the journey was jarring and disappointing. It’s another reminder that a flight is really a collection of people all on their own journeys, with their own expectations. Airlines have gotten so good at personalizing the pricing side through yield management, but that hasn’t bled over much into customer experience, except by seating class.
What do you think? Have you had any memorable customer experiences on international travel? Do you think airlines should customize the passenger experience, and how? And is Parisian service always good, or was I lucky? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!