Are you sure you want to go by bus?

June 16, 2015

In December of last year, my family decided that we should go skiing in the alps during the Winter holiday’s. There, among the greatest peaks of France, is a place called Val Thorens. A place for skiers, not aprés skiers. Built by skiers, high above the tree line, covered in copious amounts of fluffy powder with the sun alway shining from a clear, blue sky.

At least in the brochures, anyway. And that’s what we bought.

It being the end of December and Christmas having decimated the savings account, with happy memories of previous ski trips to alps pleasurably mixed with glögg, it suddenly seemed that taking the bus was a brilliant idea. My kids had never been on a bus trip like this and so we decided that it would be a lot fun. Just sitting there, watching movies, reading books and seeing the beautiful landscape of Europe pass by outside the window while the driver did all the hard work.

I didn’t think about the upcoming trip at all after that until the beginning of February when, while sitting in a conference in London, I received a phone call from the travel agency. A lady on the other end said, “I just wanted to inform you that you are the only family on this bus. The rest are teenagers.”

At that moment my head started spinning and flashes of long suppressed memories erupted. Visions of shouting, beer drinking, backed up toilets, people “sleeping” in the aisles, loud music and opposite sexes questionably merging.

“Are you sure you want to go by bus?” asked the lady on the phone. “Not really” I meekly replied, “what are my options?” After explaining that all the flights from Stockholm were fully booked she organised a flight from Copenhagen instead. So in the end, there was no bus, but a pleasant flight with similar families which ended up in one of the nicest ski vacations ever.

Know your customer

As a service provider, in this case a travel agency, it is important to know your customer. Not just to understanding how the transport and hotel system works, but caring for the mix of travellers who were about to spend thirty hours crammed into a big tin can on wheels. Thankfully she went through the passenger manifest one more time. She figured out what the people looked like and spotted the outlier: the family that was about to have a truly awful customer experience. Instead of crossing her fingers and silently wishing us good luck she grabbed the phone and fixed it before it became a problem.

Know your business idea

Why are you in this business? For whom are you important? What makes you special? If your company has decided to become the best provider of winter holiday experiences, you have to make sure that everyone in the organisation understands what that means. Because if everyone knows the company’s strategy by heart, then decision making becomes easy.

First line decisions

Give your staff the freedom to make decisions on their own. They are the one’s closest to the customer. They understand what is important at every moment, but stiff rules, unadaptable to new conditions, can kill any customer relationship in seconds. Relationships take a long time to build. What staff needs are the tools and opportunities to nurture these relationships.

Good, simple routines

Checklists, routines and early warning systems are important. Just like the one’s pilots go through before take off, every service provider should spend a few minutes before delivering a service. In the case of the travel agency, a simple routine check made it obvious that a family on a bus full of teenagers would make for an unpleasant customer experience. For everyone on board.

Keep a long term view

What is important in the long run? What will people, like my family members say? IRL or on social media? Today and tomorrow? Short term profits can easily undermine long term prosperity. In my case it was better for the travel agent to put in a little extra effort to avoid a catastrophe than just taking the money for a run. Because my good experience has ended up in a blog.

So, why is it so important to focus on the customer experience right now?

Over 90 percent of purchases are made based on recommendations from friends. But the recommendations don’t describe the basic functionality of the product or service, but rather how good or bad the experience was. Designing this experience to be as positive as possible is the marketing of the 21st century, because today all of us have millions of friends. The only way to influence all of these friends is to design and deliver outstanding customer experiences that they will talk about.


I later had the opportunity to thank the lady that stopped us from getting on the bus. She blushed when I told her how thankful I was. But being a service designer at heart, I think she knew very well how important her contribution was.

The name of the travel agency?