Jan Carlzon, a former CEO of Scandinavian airline SAS, was famously quoted as saying “We have 50,000 moments of truth every day.” He was referring to those brief interactions every passenger will have with staff and crew at SAS. Upon joining SAS, it was his focus on reorienting the business around these “Moments of truth” that turned the airline from a loss-making, loathed, perennially late dinosaur of an airline in 1981 into Air Transport World’s global airline of the year in 1983.

“Moments of truth” happen across all service business (and increasingly, product businesses). They are the moments when a user first opens an app or walks into a store or trials new software. In many service businesses, like retail, airlines, hotels, banks and theme parks, the product is largely homogenous, which means these moments of truth represent the only customised elements in the experience. They may only make up a tiny fraction of the entire experience – for example, the act of being greeted, fed and farewelled might only be 2% of a long-haul flight – but these moments “make” the entire experience.

There is a lot to be said about the truism that first impressions last, and that is why these impressions need to be magical and memorable.

Superhuman, an email software provider that touts itself as “The Fastest Email Experience Ever Made” has made an art form of its “moments of truth”. They focus on two key moments in the business: access and onboarding.

Superhuman questionnaire

They have restricted their physical availability by throttling access; currently Superhuman is invite-only, and even if you register and answer the questions in their questionnaire, you have to still wait months to get access.

At a nascent stage of a business, (such as a startup or new product pre-launch) restricting access can provide for orderly testing and validation of the product, processes, systems and service.

During beta launch or early release of a product, throttling or restricting access can be an alluring way to gain appeal. Nightclubs make an art of it, often having lines out the front even when they have barely anyone inside. An accountant might look at this with disdain as people are not yet handing over money, and marketing science shows this will hurt growth in the long term, but in the early phases, behavioural scientists know better. The queue acts as social proof, a heuristic that shows that the nightclub is popular, exclusive, selective/premium, and by making a queue of good-looking people visible it gives passersby the sense that “people like me” are attending that venue.

Superhuman does all this, but for email – it shows potential customers which of their friends/colleagues are in the queue, makes them wait to use it, and allows people to advance in the queue if they invite others to use the platform, thereby incentivising word-of-mouth.

In their early validation phase, Superhuman wants to maximise the value they add to customers, maximise the software features used by customers, and they want to make sure customers become future advocates of the product in a positive way.

Superhuman invitation

Onboarding is the key focus for Superhuman. Given they charge approximately USD$30 per month for email software when it’s normally free, they had to make the onboarding experience something quite special.

Once you’ve gone through the simple signup/credit card payment page, Superhuman invites you to a videoconference onboarding session at a time of your convenience. This video conference isn’t just a group experience, or someone over audio, but a proper one-on-one session where you can talk “face-to-face”.

These Superhuman onboarders are friendly, energetic and attentive, and cover six key parts with you in the one-on-one experience:

  1. Information gathering / asking questions about your email habits and approach.
  2. Giving you hands-on guidance on the software – a physical walk-through where you play with the software while they guide you and watch for opportunities to improve your productivity, errors or problems.
  3. Giving you thoughts and advice on how to make your specific email experience better through more customisation.
  4. Sending you off with the explicit assurance that they will be there for any future enquiries or problems.
  5. Informing you that the CEO will be sending you emails every day with clear guidance on using the software (and you can directly respond to the CEO with feedback).
  6. Informing you that you may get emails from time to time from them to see whether you are enjoying the experience and whether you have any suggestions, problems or whether you would like to invite friends onto the software.

Given an annual revenue stream of approximately $360 per user, this is a remarkable investment in onboarding, welcoming, and an effort to encourage use and habit building (therefore retention). It is in stark contrast with the huge variability of onboarding experiences in other service businesses:

  • Hotels – Why is the act of checking into a hotel generally the most unpleasant experience one could ever hope for?
  • Banking – The act of signing for a bank account, credit card or home loan is one of the most joyless, drab and mismatched experiences in all of commerce. After all, people refer to “joining” a bank, not “buying from” a bank. People expect some sort of relationship experience, yet onboarding experiences are truly dreadful.
  • Automotive – Going beyond the often unpleasant experience of negotiating with a car salesman, the maximum car dealers will go to is the recent Instagram-friendly act of tying a bow around the car bonnet.
  • Private Health Insurance – An onboarding experience entirely driven by compliance.

The lessons to be taken from Superhuman, and other fantastic customer experiences such as that which Jan Carlson implemented at SAS, is that customer onboarding and other “moments of truth” are key drivers of profitability and customer satisfaction. The most empathetic user-centred approach to customer experience is about optimising every step of the purchase journey for ease of awareness, purchase, delight, usage and referral.

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