The damn exception: immunization for service systems

I regularly travel between Amsterdam and Cologne on the train. I book my tickets in advance, using credit card payment and a printed e-ticket. For my last ride reality bit me in the form of a broken printer and a lack of alternatives. A valid scenario, this can happen, but in the train company’s service system this scenario does not exist. And it does not learn from it either.

How mandatory the printed e-ticket is to the system, I learned recently. My cunning fall-back plan was the PDF file on my laptop, which I assumed as sufficient evidence to make my trip a legal one. I also concluded from past airport check-in experiences that the barcode on the ticket can actually be scanned off the screen. When finally being checked, the ticket inspector rejected my alternative plan. While I was pledging for an exception, he referred to their terms & conditions (which I agreed with online), and insisted on a printed ticket. He refused to even try scanning the ticket.

Learn to love the exception

The situation was awkward. You hardly have any privacy on a train. Additionally, the inspector handled the situation badly. Remember, I was not bunking the ride! There was proof for the ticket purchase. Money has been transferred; the service has been paid for. This was only about the minor task of ticket validation. Instead he suggested I’d buy a new ticket.

In the heated discussion between me trying to talk him into making an exception, and him pushing back and insisting on my legal obligation to follow the instructions, it turned out that: yes, his scanner can read the ticket barcode off the screen, but the ticket cannot be physically validated for a second inspector to see. Interestingly, scanning the ticket would send feedback to the system about me actually using the service.

The solution: remove the necessity to physically void the ticket e.g. by sharing the information on scanned tickets with all devices. Make the system forgiving and receptive to exceptions. Give the inspectors room to maneuver in not yet encountered scenarios. Because exceptions do happen.

From bad to great

Beneath this incident lies an intriguing insight: the well planned and thought through service system of the train operating company failed. And of course it did, it had to. It is impossible to anticipate and design-in the myriads of scenarios a system gets exposure to. This can only be done by perpetual improvement. Think operational excellence, but not as a state but as continuous thriving for perfection. Such service challenges are opportunities, but only if they are recognized and trigger an iteration of the involved service elements. Any system needs tweaking. It needs immunization against incidents. Then it becomes better. And better in this example translates into better customer experience, which fosters preference, and most likely loyalty.

Key learnings

  • Any system is exposed to unpredicted (not planned for) scenarios, and this makes learning imperative – in fact, this is the most important reason for learning anything
  • The system must be able to learn i.e. weave changes into its structure (do not underestimate that change is scary to most!)
  • Equip the service actors (staff) with alternative options to take action to sustain a pleasant service experience despite an unexpected service challenge
  • Create a feedback loop to immunize the system, to prevent the incident from happening again
  • All these are basic principles of any adaptive system

Because of the heated discussion, the incident stuck with me. Remember, a discussion on a train is inevitably witnessed by others. The incident becomes a shared experience, therefore shaping the perception of many, not to mention the ripples that could be caused by a single blog entry! A 1% service improvement can cascade into a 30% increase in delight – or into 50% reputation damage (and damage weighs heavier on the experience than delight).

Let’s not forget – despite all my reflections – I was majorly disappointed with the service experience. I didn’t feel treated well, particularly because a better scenario was easy to envision. The key for improvement is A) a sensible re-action to sustain the immediate service experience, and B) an informed pro-action to make the service immune for future encounters.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Gary Nudds,

    In future why dont you carry a polaroid camera with you? Take a picture of you screen and hey presto, no heated discussion 😉

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