Authenticity and Fluency: A case against Exquisite Customer Experience

Nowadays, customer (user) experience designers’ mantra is a quest for achieving excellence. This takes various verbal forms such as “customer obsession”. But, customer experience doesn’t need to be great, fabulous or exquisite. Customer experience needs to be authentic, fluent and, for the most part, invisible. I’ll talk about invisibility in a future post.

Customer experience needs to be authentic – in the sense that it is what people expect it to be, not what they would ideally wish for it to be “in a perfect world”.

Literally next bloc from where I live, there is a garage – Tony’s Auto Service.

To the untrained eye, Tonys (misspell intended – see picture) might seem an uninteresting neighborhood garage. But, Tonys customer experience definitely is worth understanding.

Without any doubt, the customer experience is not exquisite. And that is exactly what it makes it great.

Tonys auto service looks like a timeless garage that’s been there for decades, without much change. That’s actually true. What makes it stand out is the fact that Tonys is located in a neighborhood that saw tremendous development in the past 20 years. Property values skyrocketed and, soon, a new 15-stories apartment building with $2000+ per month one-bedroom units will open literally 2 minutes on foot away.

Tonys owner could have sold the land to real-estate developers and retire in luxury. Yet, the son of Tony (who passed away a few years ago) is holding on to the family business and keeps on running it.

The owner’s choice might seem irrational, but it sends two very strong messages to customers. “We are very dedicated to fixing cars and the business is going good enough to not sell out to real-estate corporations”. The fact that business is good for Tonys is a social-proof clue – “(other) people give us their business; thus, we are doing a good job of repairing cars”.

Tonys Auto Service looks old – that is: It’s showing tradition and expertise.

The outside of Tonys looks old and a bit run-down. The inside (reception area) looks like it’s taken out of a history museum, the exception being the flat-screen TVs. Notice the double cassette player on top of the shelf. That’s 1990s tech.

Obviously, the design of the reception room at Tonys is not striving for excellence. Nonetheless, it clearly shows what the business is about. They will fix your car without any superfluous gimmicks.

The furniture looks a lot better in the pictures than it does in reality. The sofas are old, a bit dirty and rather uncomfortable. And that’s great!

Things don’t only look old – they are old. To the untrained eye, this might seem like a “bummer”, but it is a great feature that sends the customer two messages.

First, “we’ve been here for a very long time”. Other businesses make great efforts to showcase their longevity and tradition – “Since 1xyz”. Tonys Auto Service doesn’t need to scream out-loud “doing business since 19xy”. It simply looks like it has been around for a long time, thus appealing to the “representativeness heuristic” – it looks old; therefore, it has been around for a while.

Second, it sends a message regarding what the business cares about: repairing cars at a fair price. Tonys is one of those garages that aren’t cheap (labor rate $104/h), but it isn’t ripping people off. The reception room shows what Tonys cares about: getting the repair work done right.

Tonys doubles-down on its expertise in its core business – repairing cars by displaying certifications and other “diplomas” on two walls in its waiting room.

The smell! Oh… the smell!

At Tonys, the reception area smells quite bad – a mix of motor oil, exhaust fumes, musk (sweat) and simply old. Sure, that sounds bad, but it isn’t all bad. It is authentic: it smells like men working on cars. And that is what makes it great. That is what you want from a garage: men (people) working on cars without much fuss.

The staff at Tonys

The client doesn’t interact with the mechanics – the people doing the work on the car. Nonetheless, the people with whom clients interact are both authentic and fit the representativeness heuristic. They are blue-collar middle-age somehow grumpy, yet diligent men. They give the impression that they are mechanics who know what they are talking about even if they don’t necessarily deliver “personal service with a smile”.

Beyond the grumpiness and occasionally mildly inappropriate jokes (e.g. “happy wife, happy life”), the staff at Tonys inspires confidence. You probably wouldn’t want to go out for dinner with them, but they seem like the people you’d trust with your car.

Indeed, it is not perfect, it is not striving for excellence, but that is exactly what the customer is looking for – someone who can give them confidence that their car is well taken care of.

The picture above illustrates how the blue-collar waggish nature of the customer experience at Tonys. The grenade complaint number might seem like an old bad joke that shows insufficient customer orientation, but it shows exactly the opposite - confidence that the business is doing such a good job that people will not have to complain.

Once, I came back with the car after it had been serviced at Tonys and complained. They checked the car, ran tests and found that everything was in order. They didn’t charge a penny for several hours of labor. Tonys shows its care for customer satisfaction by what it does, not by “hot air slogans”.

Customer experience designers should not forget that customer experience is first about building trust with the customer. Humans have several built-in (pre-installed) trust-worthiness-detection-mechanisms and Tonys complies with them. It shows that the business is playing the “long game” – long-term and repeated interactions. It showcases competence and reliability on the core service it provides – repairing cars.

At Tonys there is no disfluency in the customers’ experience. Everything and every interaction fit with each-other. This fluency contributes to building trust because it prevents suspicion. There is nothing that raises eyebrows.

Tonys case is a good illustration for my thesis that, in customer experience design satisficing is heavily under-rated.

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