Digital Rotten Scoundrels vs. NPS

Digital Rotten Scoundrels vs. NPS

How automation without CX planning creates disaster.

In the catalog of “lessons we will forever learn from the pandemic”, one sage lesson just about everyone can agree on is that companies that are “less digital” should become “more digital” to enjoy future success, better NPS, and market dominance. And great news, operators are standing by to sell you “more digital”!

My point is that digital designs around the customer may still fail, due to scale and stress, but digital designs that are overly skewed to the interests of the business are bad CX policy and will bite the company.

But going digital without careful thought and planning is a CX disaster in the making, just waiting to do lasting damage to NPS and ruin customer relationships forever. Let’s take a look at some worthwhile lessons for customer experience in the subtle and not-so-subtle errors made in digital implementation. As so often, the challenges come from the risky combinations of customer experience intent, and humans.

The vast majority of “digital” customer solutions are actually hybrid solutions, meaning that the customer experiences some combination of technology and people. In the best designs, that’s because some tasks with high levels of ambiguity are well suited to people, and hence allocated to them, whereas other tasks support “friction reduction” and are well suited to software. In other cases, it’s the result of a “Wizard of Oz” strategy, where a digital veneer hides a lack of back office automation. It looks pretty, but people are still shuffling papers behind the scenes.

There is a third case however, which the current crisis has often exposed: Digital strategies that conflict with optimal CX choices. This can happen by design, or by incompetence. Anyone who has read more than one of my postings (thanks, family!) will know I’m a big fan of Hanlon razor, which suggests we should assume incompetence over malice. But now I’m not so sure.

For illustration, I’m going to the well. If Marc Anthony was paraphrased today, he might have said “I come here to bury airlines, not to praise them”. When it comes to CX, you can count on the airlines, the great CX laboratories, to explore all possible options, before arriving at the right one. They haven’t disappointed.

Faced with a herculean challenge and a (largely) sympathetic customer base, the airlines started off well enough. However, policies implemented based on years of questionable customer thinking have started to bubble through, with lessons for any business thinking that digital transformation is the simple path to great results.

Customers, at a scale never before anticipated, need to get refunds. Cue digital disaster.

Our soon-to-become robot overlords wouldn’t understand the problem. It’s a simple friction reduction exercise. The airlines don’t want us calling them, and in fact go to great lengths to warn us not to. So far, their interest, and that of their customers are well aligned; the customer wants a frictionless and technology supported solution to a simple transactional task (refund) and the airline wants people to self-serve online, thereby avoiding both cost and CX heartache. Win-win.

The binary fly in the digital ointment is that airline systems are not designed to automate all high friction tasks. In cases like this, they have either elected not to automate (hard to understand the cost/benefit there), botched the automation (thanks Hanlon) or chosen to make the task more difficult for the customer. It’s not hard to imagine the latter is part of the equation.

Back in the 1990s, AOL trained contact center staff on techniques to avoid customers cancelling the service. The tricks ranged from incentive (here’s a special offer) to confusion (it doesn’t look like you submitted the form) to occasionally subterfuge (drop the call). Think AOL wanted an online, automated path to easily cancelling?

Why do I need to phone my airline to redeposit my frequent flier miles for a cancelled trip, when their policy entitles me to do so at no charge? Is it because I may be considering donating my miles back to them? That’s absurd. Or because they simply failed to automate a solution like that? That raises questions about competence. Or perhaps they are hoping I’ll forget? That suggests skullduggery, and it’s the conclusion customers may well draw.

Don’t get me wrong, circumstances out of the control of business have pressure tested their operations like never before. It’s what inspired us to offer guidance on leading CX in extreme circumstances. And, of course, cracks will appear. My point is that digital designs around the customer may still fail, due to scale and stress, but digital designs that are overly skewed to the interests of the business are bad CX policy and will bite the company.

Can OCX Cognition help you think this through? Reach out.


As CEO, Richard’s singular professional focus: Delivering financial value through CX. He co-founded OCX Cognition to combine technology and programmatic consulting in pursuit of that goal, and now leads the company’s coordinated efforts to deliver the right solutions for its clients.

Richard’s 30-year career has centered on transforming business operations with technology, and he is one of the best-known CX thought leaders. While CEO at Satmetrix, his team led the development of the Net Promoter Score® methodology with Fred Reichheld, creating the world’s most widely used CX measurement approach. With Laura Brooks, he co-authored Answering the Ultimate Question, the best-selling “how to” guide for NPS practitioners.

Richard transformed the supply chain and built what was then the world’s largest e-commerce business at Dell, and has led two software companies, AvantGo and Satmetrix, to successful exits. With an MBA from MIT Sloan Management School, he has served on several boards and committees at public and private companies and is an active venture investor and international business thinker. Richard has lived on three continents; he and his family now divide their time between Arizona and London.


OCX Cognition delivers the future of NPS. We ensure customer experience success by combining technology and data science with programmatic consulting. In our Insights section, we present a comprehensive and evolving collection of resources based on our research and expertise, collected for CX leaders committed to delivering business outcomes.

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