Don’t give your customers a product or service, give them an experience they will never forget

In recounting a recent – and somewhat memorable – taxi journey, Matthew Harrison is reminded of how a product or service can really differentiate itself from the rest of the pack by becoming an ‘experience’.

I must confess to being one of B2B International’s less tolerant air travelers.  The 6 hours I spent imprisoned in a 747 on a Shanghai runway…the 7 course ‘meal’ served up by the good staff of Aeroflot (6 of the courses were salmon)…my interrogation by a wild-eyed immigration goon at Newark Airport…the dimwit who confiscated my cases at Rochester because I allowed said cases to complete two laps of the carousel without collecting….these and other events have been crow-barred into company folklore by my incessant moaning.  As a result, it is a relief both to me and to anyone unfortunate enough to be my travel companion when my flight touches down, and all that remains is to catch a cab to my final destination.

A couple of weeks back, my colleague and I returned from Pittsburgh to New York in good spirits.  The journey had gone ahead without a hitch, our meeting had concluded successfully, and both of us looked forward to the weekend.  We drank a couple of beers and took the opportunity to examine the front page of the Wall Street Journal, which was reporting on Bill Clinton’s liberation of two journalists from the clutches of Kim Jong Il.  Oddly, the official photograph to mark the event (see below) featured a rather kitsch 1980s wall frieze, which had been dropped onto a Tellytubbies set and gate-crashed by the cast of Madame Tussauds.

North Korea

To return to the matter in hand, my colleague and I had forgotten that the efforts of the airline industry to make the general public’s life a misery extend far beyond aircraft cabins and indeed airport walls.  Whatever medicine the world’s aviators take to ensure unrivalled levels of inhospitality and indolence, it would appear that the New York taxi industry has been raiding the cabinet.

The warning signs that B2B International was to experience a nadir in land travel were there from the beginning.  The passenger window of the cab was jammed open and the back seat about as comfortable on the posterior as a broken Rubik’s Cube.  My colleague and I had naively taken the driver’s rather blank grin upon being asked to drive to White Plains as proof of his willingness to take us there, rather than his inability to find his own backside in the bath with both hands and a personal assistant.  Within 2 minutes of leaving the taxi rank, and well inside the airport perimeter, we drew despondently to a stop underneath a graffiti-speckled flyover.

– “Where you go?”
– “We were rather hoping to go to White Plains, New York.”
– “Norway?”
– “We’ll give Western Scandinavia a miss for tonight, thanks.  The wife’s got the dinner in the oven.  White Plains please.”
– “No Norway.  You know way?”
– “Oh I see.  No we don’t know the way.  Isn’t that your job?  If you don’t know, put the address in your GPS.”
– “No GPS.”
– “What do you mean no GPS?  This is an American taxi in 2009.  How can you not have a GPS?  Do you have a map?”
– “No problem, I find White Plains.”

Our driver lurched into gear, trying but failing to convince us that he had the slightest idea of where he was going.

Three laps of the airport’s inner perimeter and 25 minutes later, we finally find our way onto the open road and were heading north.  Disconcertingly, the driver had been steering with one finger, most of his other 9 digits clasping a telephone, through which he received nonsensical directions from someone who also had no idea where we were or where White Plains was. Over the ensuing 2 hours we stopped and asked, we shouted at passers-by, we waved, weaved and guessed our way through the streets and back yards of Southern New York, before finally, mercifully, we arrived in White Plains city center.

I dragged my weary body out of the cab and headed for home.  And as I trooped through the streets I was hit, not by a Friday night drinker but by a kind of Eureka moment.  I was happy!  In fact I was exhilarated.  I HAD ENJOYED THAT TAXI RIDE.  The speed.  The bumps.  The danger.  The nausea.  The sense of the unknown.  The laughs.  The memories.  I had experienced an adventure that evening – an adventure I am recounting to you now.  An adventure I will recount to my children, and my children’s children.  That useless man, that anti-navigator with whom I had shared two hours of my life had (unwittingly) met a need that few suppliers can meet.  Rather than sell me a tangible product or service, this disorientated scatterbrain had given me a holistic experience that will live with me until my dying day.

The savvy marketer recognizes that providing a simple product or service puts the organization on a route towards low prices and commoditization.  In order to add value, and therefore raise prices and profit, it is critical to look beyond the tangible.  In other words, sell a concept and provide an experience.  Our taxi driver, of course, made two mistakes:  firstly the basics of product and service were so intolerable that most customers would be uninterested in any ‘experience’ related to these.  Secondly, he sold us a basic service (to drive us home) meaning that the thrill-packed tourism experience we endured was unexpected and therefore not paid for.

So, I will not pretend that our driver’s marketing strategy was flawless.  However, I thank you, Mr Clueless of LaGuardia Airport Taxis, for the memories.  Your product is substandard, your service despicable, and your attentiveness to my needs non-existent.  But, for a mere $90 (plus tip and tolls), you gave me an experience that was both thrilling and addictive.  You, Sir, in one (and only one) respect, are an inspiration to all marketers.

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