doha airport
Customer experience

Why do brands create such disastrous experiences?

Recently I returned from a family holiday in Thailand. Some time to turn down the volume of work and reflect on projects from the past year. It was quite therapeutic to stop and think about how each piece of work had gone, the people, and what I had learned. It produced a good guide for what to look for in future projects and things to improve and avoid.

I certainly felt happy about the experiences I had created, everything from simple wireframes to connected retail strategy. Grand.

As always, good things must come to an end, it was time to return home and we had the added pressure of returning to see an ill family member. At the scheduled take-off time, everyone was still waiting, no information from people or displays. We all accept this is pretty normal with flying and hoped there would soon be some explanation. After a few hours, we were asked to board a bus. “Where to?” I asked. “A hotel,” was the reply. And that’s when the problems really started. The sheer lack of any information continued for the next 24 hours.

Qatar Airways: you are guilty as charged.

I had felt quite happy to be travelling with the world’s supposed number one airline. Now super tired and fed up I wondered how it could just go all so wrong. I started to think back about my year of project work. Boom! It was more like a pan in the face than a penny dropping. The issue was that the service was designed to run on the ‘happy path’. I mean – these journeys were designed for when things go well.

This got me thinking why. There was never the time to invest in creating error states, the what-ifs and other negative scenarios. Ultimately with all these use cases no digital or marketing manager wants to walk around showing the experience for when it’s all gone Pete Tong (sorry Pete, great mixes btw). And the problem was really my fault. I never insisted on designing for failure as a mandatory piece of the project. Now my smugness about the last year of work seemed to fade.

We’ve all read plenty of studies about how having a negative experience can take something like 10 good ones just to get back to the same place. In a world only differentiated by experience, I started to classify how this should be seen as a positive rather than negative:

Partners, not simply un-named resources

It’s likely most brands rely on a network to deliver the full customer experience. Their business objectives are likely to be different. In the case of Qatar, they had used Thai Airways for their ground staff, who couldn’t care less. But they were representing Qatar. At the most simple level, what three behaviours do partners need to exhibit to behave like your own brand? People need a method of being reminded, not bashed on the head with a corporate rule book. And the ways of briefing people on an ongoing basis need considering to be interesting, unlike the airline safety video that feels like it’s just getting in the way of watching a film. How are these people recognised and rewarded for their behaviour? This training and ongoing management certainly is a core part of managing the true customer experience by making people who feel empowered and to understand why it’s important.


  1. List out every single partner that can have an interaction with the customer or can impact them.
  2. Work out how the brand reacts in a number of situations in simple and easy to remember formats. No PPT allowed!
  3. Ensure a training and briefing plan is in place.
  4. Measure the effectiveness and seek to reward behaviour.


When the customer is in their hour of need

My experience was 19.30 on a Monday. I’m not sure what would be considered business hours for an airline. To attempt to get some information (after the partner employees knew absolutely nothing) was to take to digital. First of all Twitter – the customer services utopia. It took 8 hours to get a response to my tweet and then I was just asked for the flight departure time. I mean, can’t they figure that out from the actual flight number? I didn’t bother to reply…I mean eight hours between responses seemed a bit much. Possibly a carrier pigeon to Doha would have been better. Next up, Facebook Messenger. Yes. They were there. No. They weren’t. Or certainly never responded. I did get a response four days later. I looked for live chat on their site but nothing. These customer service methods are pretty much hygiene now, they don’t rely on the need to have large 24/7 contact centres but home workers who can work flexibly.


  1. Create a single managed socialCRM platform to ingest all communications.
  2. Ensure the staffing plan meets the demand and can scale when an incident occurs.
  3. Follow up with customers to ensure the issue was resolved and they are feeling happy.


Service design for core processes

Instead of thinking of disaster recovery, failure and edge cases design teams should plan for a number of scenarios when data could be limited. How many actors are involved, what is their responsibilities and most important, what is the correct timeframe to be working to? Responding to a Facebook message would be more appropriate to be four minutes rather than four days as demonstrated by Qatar Airways. I’m a big fan of what gets measured gets done. To operationalise these processes, clear SLAs need to be put in place, as ultimately the emotional state of the customer is likely to be ranging from anxiety to anger. Making them wait is only going to further deepen the frustration. 


  1. Map the customer journey using a number of edge case scenarios.
  2. Look for the Service Anticipation Gaps – where the customer need does not match the business process and capabilities.
  3. Review processes and in order of value, plan the solution.
  4. Ensure the business is briefed and understands what to do and where to go when these situation arise.


Problems as a differentiator

Whilst painful at the time, I’m glad to have experienced the stack of problems with my Qatar flight. It forced me to reconsider how I am approaching journey design. I hold my hand up and say I’ve been overly focusing on the happy path. I’ve come to realise that designing for these disaster flows can be a brand differentiation and that it’s a largely undeveloped strategic area. I look forward to designing for disaster. 

One thought on “Why do brands create such disastrous experiences?

  1. The experience you suffered seems to be so common with companies and brands that should really know better.

    It’s also interesting that you made the comment that the airline mentioned is considered the ‘world’s number one airline’. I often wonder about surveys of that type, on what basis was that judgement made? It would seem it was not based on the quality of customer service during a crisis.

    Another example of where a judgement is not based on the quality of customer service is in the hotel industry where stars are dished out to hotels based on facilities e.g. whether the hotel has a swimming pool and not the customer experience.

    As you imply though all service suppliers should map the ‘unhappy path’ as well as the ‘happy one’ but that is rare.

    Great post.

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