The Forrester Asia Pacific team is currently meeting in Bangkok to discuss how we support our clients in the age of the customer. Meeting friends and colleagues overseas is always a great experience. We get away from our desks and exchange ideas, bringing focus to our efforts for the following year. But, of course, you have to get everyone to the destination venue for this to happen.

One of the first things we always end up discussing on first meeting one of our colleagues is the quality of the journey. “How was your flight?” is the first question we end up asking each other. As I talked with two of my colleagues from Sydney, I learned that all three of us had been on the same Qantas flight to Bangkok that same afternoon. As we compared our journeys, it was amazing to discover that we had had three markedly different experiences, despite all being on the very same aircraft.

I was in economy, having paid a little extra for emergency exit seats. The flight wasn’t full, so I had a row of three seats to myself. Lots of room to spread out, and the flight was very quiet, easy, and uneventful. My experience, though, was of an older plane with technology that was, frankly, no longer meeting my minimum standard. The entertainment units were old and tiny, and the user interface was absurdly complex. But because I was comfortable, I was willing to overlook it.

One of my colleagues, the regional sales director from Australia, was one section ahead of me on the plane, also in economy. She reported a nightmare flight with no air conditioning, poor food, and crowded seats. Her experience was quite negative. We both ate the same food, but her experience of it was undoubtedly influenced by the hot temperatures and crowded seating.

My other colleague, my research director, had used his own air miles to upgrade into premium economy and his experience was enthusiastically positive. On approaching his seat, his reaction was that he was in the wrong section — the premium economy seats were “lay flat” beds, the food was good, and he even slept for 6 hours of the 9-hour flight.

So how can three people have three such different experiences within the space of a hundred yards of each other?

It occurred to me that the answer is all about context. I approached the flight knowing what I was likely in for, and my experience was improved by something out of the control of the airline — namely, the number of people onboard that day. My sales director’s experience was diminished by a technical malfunction. Her experience was ruined because the plane failed to meet her minimum expectation (e.g., the air conditioning working). And my research director’s experience was one of delight at having his expectations exceeded (e.g., a nicer, more modern seat).

I think the lesson here is this: A good customer experience is not an isolated incident delivered to a single customer. A great customer experience is consistent, understands the context of each customer as much as possible, and delivers that great customer experience to everyone, every time.