close-up shot of an ant carrying a small corner of a leaf
PHOTO: Vlad Tchompalov

Customer experience management — or "CXM" per the acronym gods — is on every C-level checklist. This has been especially true in the COVID era, as customer relationships have simultaneously gotten more valuable, more fragile and more automated. This CXM trifecta of value, fragility and automation is a tricky one to get right, particularly when you look at the "first mile" and the "last mile" of customer experiences.

First Mile and Last Mile Come Full Circle

It used to be that the last mile of customer experiences in the service realm was the most problematic. Think of the conversations of yesteryear, when we were promised the cable technician would arrive "sometime" on Thursday in two weeks — maybe — and "Could you please make sure you are there all day in case the technician actually shows up?" Automation and responsiveness seemed to be a foreign concept to this last mile problem. The technician showed up when they showed up, and the customer was basically held hostage until they did.

Conversely, the first mile of the cable service experience wasn't too bad. You called a phone number, a person would answer the phone — yes, often after an indeterminate wait time and after you were asked your account number a gazillion times — but at least there was the comfort of connection with a person.

My recent experience? The automation and customer experience tables have turned. My suspicion is that under the guise of "improving responsiveness," many companies are actually using automated customer service — e.g., chatbots, call centers, "call you later" functionality — to make the first mile as frustrating as possible. This is ironic, because as the first mile has grown more and more frustrating with automation schemes run amuck, the last mile has improved dramatically as a result of automation.

Related Article: The Customer Experience Hierarchy

A Pesky Customer Experience Problem

We recently had termite traps installed. These foot-long spikes get pounded into the ground around the perimeter of the house. They're then loaded with stuff that initially is attractive to termites, but when brought back to the nest, proves disastrous. (A good first mile, very bad last mile for the termites.)

When the technician was pounding away near our cable box — with nary a check with the mysterious Miss Utility I hear so much about and have been longing to meet — suddenly all communications were broken — phone, cable, internet.

Me: "I think you cut through our cable."

Termite Man: "Oh no, these spikes aren't long enough. You need to call the cable company. It wasn't me."

Sigh. And thus began my first mile automation saga.

Step 1: My TV instructed me to 1) check the connections, 2) reboot the set-top box and 3) check a mysterious battery pack in a hidden location. All of which seemed unnecessary, because after all, the problem was Termite Man. But I complied because that is my nature. Of course it didn't work.

Step 2: I tried calling the cable company. I was advised to go to the web and check for an outage. Yes, I understand the irony, since a web outage was in fact a key part of the problem. But since I had a hot spot on my mobile, I was able to connect and determined that there was no systemic outage in our area. I was then auto-directed to a page and, you guessed it, instructed to try the steps listed in Step 1. There was nowhere for me to interject the fascinating fable of the Termite Man into the narrative.

Step 3: At the end of Step 2, I was directed to try a chat, which of course was a bot, who kindly directed me to return to Step 1.

Step 4: I returned to the phone. "Your time is very important to us. If you would like a call back, please push 3 and leave your number." Hot zig. Here we go.

Step 5: My phone rang five minutes later. So far so good. And then my hopes were dashed as an automated voice told me to: 1) check the connections; 2) reboot the set-top box; and 3) check a mysterious battery pack in a hidden location.

Step 6: I thought I had struck gold when I went to my "customer portal" and clicked the "Contact Us" link. But all that got me was detailed instructions describing the options I had already pursued in Steps 1 through 5. But nowhere or nobody to whom I could actually tell the story of "The Termite Man and the Cut Cable."

And then I saw it. A link making this offer ... "Contact us by Facebook Messenger."

I remained skeptical, but tried it. And that broke the automated customer service first mile obstacle course that seemed insanely focused on keeping me from getting ... customer service. Voila. A real person! From there, everything went quickly to actually booking a technician to repair the cut cable.

Related Article: Money and a Mandate Aren't Enough for Great Customer Experience

CX Automation Done Right

Fast forward to the last mile, the part of the story that was always so problematic and frustrating in the past.

It was, simply, a perfect example of how CX automation should work.

The booking software worked flawlessly to select a date and time, as did the follow-up workflow to connect with the technician once he was booked. I selected a two-hour window for the visit, with the promise that he would text me when he was 15 minutes from my home. He sent me a set of the COVID protocols he would follow. Location monitoring kept me informed of his progress.

Sure enough, he arrived like clockwork, fixed the cable, and gave me his personal cell phone for followup if I had any problems, along with the name and contact information for the company that would come back to bury the cable.

And this time the mysterious Miss Utility was automatically notified, although she personally did not come to our home.

So my challenge to close out this tale for all of those companies undertaking CXM initiatives, a challenge that never would have occurred to me 10 years ago: How can you make the first mile of customer experiences as painless as the last mile?