Last weekend I used my AAdvantage miles on a plane ticket for my husband. I went to, it was easy to trade off options based on number of miles used and flight schedule. When I went to book, my name and AAdvantage number were pre-populated into the form. I changed the name and number to his but got an error: “The AAdvantage number for Passenger 1 does not match the name entered. Please verify and re-enter.”*

Problem #1: A design problem stopped me from booking the ticket myself on the site.

Problem #2: An unhelpful error message didn’t help me fix the first problem.

Without any other choice, I called for help. Before I could reach a person – or even a menu, I got this message:

“With the refreshed and redesigned it’s easy to book, explore, and plan all of your travel needs in one place because we’ve organized things better, made it more intuitive, smarter, simpler, cleaner, all to help bring your next trip closer to reality. This is the first step of more exciting changes we have planned for Whether you are looking or booking, a better travel experience awaits with the new, easy to navigate Book a trip now and see for yourself. To expedite your call, please have your Advantage number ready.”

Problem #3: I had to spend a full minute hearing about how American’s new site could help me — the same site that had already failed to help me.

When I finally reached an agent and explained my problem, she said: “Well, you just had to think on it harder. You needed to leave the Advantage number blank.”

Problem #4: The agent told me I’m stupid.  Who likes that?

Armed with new instructions, I tried to book the ticket. But instead I got an error message saying the site had timed out.

Problem #5: I had to start the entire search and reservation process again.

Bottom line: Every touchpoint failed at least once. Each interaction offered an opportunity for American Airlines to behave in a way that might have recovered the situation. Instead, American just presented new problems — not one of which is new or unusual.

So what’s the problem? We all have experiences like this on a regular basis, right? The problem is that many organizations deliver poor customer experiences but aspire to win market share based on superior customer experiences. Disconnect much?

I’m not familiar with American Airlines’ customer experience initiatives, but clearly someone thought it was important to improve the experience on – enough that they redesigned it and placed a message about it on their IVR. So what causes companies to make these kinds of customer experience mis-steps? As Harley Manning pointed out in a recent post, there is a fatal gap between intentions and actions. The majority of customer experience professionals on our peer research panel say that customer experience is a top strategic priority at their firms. But at the same time, many say their firms lack requirements to deliver a good customer experience like: dedicated budget, incentives, primary research on customer behaviors,  customer experience strategy, and metrics. As a result, companies overpromise and underdeliver when it comes to customer experience. This is especially damaging in an environment where consumers are increasingly empowered to tell other people about their experiences.

So the question is: Why would any company set itself up for that kind of failure?

My hypothesis: Customer experience is an immature discipline. There’s a lack of appreciation among business leaders for what it takes to deliver a good customer experience. Most C-suite executives would consider a marketing strategy and the budget and organization to deliver on it a "must-have" for any new product launch. But when it comes to designing a new customer experience, plenty of executives move forward without clarifying their customer experience strategy much less putting enough budget  in place to deliver on it. They do that despite proof that poor customer experiences have a negative impact on bottom lines and despite the best arguments by customer experience professionals at their own firms.

If I'm right, then the advantage that companies with mature customer experience practices have over those that do not will continue to widen even faster as the number of digital touchpoints and the difficulty of delivering a good experience within and across them goes up.

What do you think?


*Apparently, it’s not just me — in his report, “The Booking-Baffled Traveler,” Henry Harteveldt reports that 27% of leisure travel Bookers get stumped trying to make a reservation.