Have you ever wondered what “the third rail” of customer experience is? 

I have.

But first, for those of you who have never heard this phrase, what is it? Here are a couple of definitions to get you started.

Urban Dictionary defines it as: A dangerous area of discussion, a point at which the mere mention of a subject result is disaster. Commonly used in politics.

Wikipedia defines it as: The third rail of a nation’s politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is “charged” and “untouchable;” any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically. The term is most commonly used in North America. The “third rail of American politics” is often said to be cutting Social Security; the “third rail” of Canadian politics is said to be health care.

So, let’s return to my question: What is the third rail of customer experience? Or is there one? I posed this question to several customer experience experts. Here are their responses.

Shep Hyken: The third rail in customer service is the loyalty killing phrases employees use to defend their position to the customer.  A couple of obvious ones are, “We can’t do that. It’s against company policy,” or, “I’m sorry, that’s not my job.”

Chuck Wall: There is a powerful third rail and it’s staring at both you, and me, in the mirror. It’s called the business ego.  It tends to afflict most of us.  Business schools, mentors, co-workers, and bosses have inadvertently conspired to deceive us into believing a kind of divine right of business that says, “We’re right, and they’re wrong.”  But there’s now ample evidence that proves that this is a short-term attitude killing long-term opportunities.  We need to take a fresh look at this myopic view and get the big picture from our customer’s point of view.  A bit less certainty…dare I say, humility…needs to be present as we navigate our way forward in 2014.

Jeff Toister: The customer is a third rail. I don’t think there’s enough discussion about how customers sometimes sabotage their own experience. They occasionally make mistakes, get confused, and have unreasonable expectations. When this does happen, many customers direct the anger, frustration, and embarrassment caused by their own mistakes at the people and companies serving them. It’s our job to help customers succeed, but it’s not always easy.

Case in point: I once witnessed two women on a hotel shuttle berate and belittle the driver and another hotel associate who tried to assist them. The problem was the hotel couldn’t find their reservation, so the women’s arrival experience was off to a rocky start. It turned out the two women had made a reservation at a completely different hotel! The hotel associates were gracious and professional the entire time, were resourceful enough to call other hotels to find the women’s reservation, and even offered them a complimentary ride to their hotel. Despite these efforts, the women were unsatisfied and ungrateful.

Kate Nasser: Whether or not there is a third rail of customer experience for business leaders depends on the courage and grit of the top leader.  A courageous visionary leader does not have a third rail.  They tackle customer experience from every angle. For leaders who want to play it safe, the third rail of customer experience is the concept of “leading from the heart.”  They mistakenly believe that heart-based customer experience and profits are mutually exclusive.

Stan Phelps: The third rail in CX is declaring any one metric as the top measurement device. Or even just talking about one standard without mentioning others.  Can’t we all agree that putting our eggs in one basket isn’t prudent? Highlighting or favoring one doesn’t mean you are excluding the others.

James Lawther: The third rail for the customer experience is that most executives only care about themselves:

  • They care about looking good.
  • They care about prestige.
  • They care about hitting their targets.

And most of all they care about getting their bonus and the fancy BMW it will buy.They don’t really care about their customers at all. But not one of them cares to admit it.

Adrian Swinscoe: It would seem to me that the ‘Third Rail’ might be: Customer Service or Customer Experience doesn’t matter. However, I am not sure that anyone has been brave enough to make that stand or that case. Even Ryannair in the UK now seems to be coming round.

Other ‘rails’ might be: most companies are rubbish at customer experience and customer service as they don’t care enough OR we care more about new customers than we do existing customers as they are more profitable with respect to our current business model OR we care more about short term value and the stock market and our bonuses than we do about long-term value and our customers.

Adam Toporek: The third rail of customer experience is the conventional wisdom that social customer service is crucial to every business. It’s simply not true. For most businesses, investing in social media is an important way to connect with customers. However, in certain verticals, particularly in B2B, engaging in social media for customer interaction is simply a waste of time. The point of social customer service is to be where your customers are; if they are not there, you do not need to be there either.

What do you think? I love that these responses are so varied. To me, it means that we still have our work cut out for us!

And me? I’ve written before that I’ve been talking and touting for the last 20+ years about how critical the employee experience is to the customer experience. There are still too many execs who don’t want to discuss the importance of the customer experience to business success; the customer experience itself is the third rail, it seems. But assuming it’s not, then I would say, the numbers don’t lie: There is a chain of cause and effect running from employee behavior to customer behavior to profits.” When we stop avoiding the conversation around how important employees and the employee experience are to the business, then we can hop off that third rail and proceed on a smooth journey.

Let me pose the question to you: What do you think the third rail of customer experience is? What topic is so charged that it is untouchable – or should remain untouched?

UPDATE (1/17/14): I did an interview today with Quality Digest Live, as they published this post< /a> in Quality Digest last month. We spoke today to add a little color commentary.

The purpose of a business is to create a customer who creates customers. -Shiv Singh