Generosity is a Customer Experience Superpower

Monday, 1 May 2023     Reading time: 10 minutes

Moments of unexpected generosity lie at the core of exceptional customer experience

We cancelled your credit card

The email from my bank began nicely enough but went downhill quickly.
We've cancelled your credit card due to an unauthorised card not present transaction in Los Angeles.

Not unreasonable, given I live 10,800 kilometres away and haven't visited LA in a decade. It definitely wasn't me trying a quick $10 spend at the local 7-11 and my bank rightfully knew it. I couldn't fault their reasoning.

Unwelcome news though, given it meant both living within our cash reserves for a spell, and remembering to change the card details for all those things that end up charging us once every whenever. Netflix, life insurance, all the various subscriptions you managed to forget, well at least until the late payment notice comes.

Working in product, I should be grateful for the opportunity to review lots of different versions of the Update your Card Details feature, but... there are only so many times one needs reminding how woefully common poor form UX is. No, I don't live in Afghanistan.

It was a pain I could have done without. Still, nothing to be done but grit one's teeth and get on with it. So I did. Thought I had changed them all, but then...

We noticed an error... and we're fixing it

It won't surprise regular readers of this blog (ha! who am I kidding? this is the very first post. If you're reading this, welcome! Please subscribe!) to learn some of our regular credit card payments are winery subscriptions.

Every so often, a winery you like so much that you trust them to not just dump stock on you, sends you some bottles, they just arrive on your doorstep a day or two after your card is charged. When you find a winery whose style you really enjoy, it's a great way to stay connected without having to remember to shop, or make decisions about which wines to buy. Commerce that comes to you. It's a beautiful thing.

The subscriptions come infrequently though, every 3 or 4 months, sometimes annually, and sure enough I didn't manage to update all of ours. One such forgotten update was our subscription at AstrolabeOpens in new tab.

Some time had passed after the card cancellation, so much so I was beginning to think the annoyance was behind us for good, when another email arrived... Your subscription payment has failed....

Once more into the breach I went. This particular email direct linked me to their website (nice), but that link dropped me at a new subscription sign up page. That didn't feel right, but, I poked around and could find no way to update my existing subscription, so I went ahead and entered my details again.
No doubt you are smarter than me and can see where this is going, but, well, it gets better!

A few days later I got another Payment failed email, and, not thinking much, I went and tried to update my card details again... and did the exact same, guess I need a new subscription, hope it works this time all over again.

The Your payment failed emails stopped so I pushed that vague sense of unease it didn't feel quite right to one side and went about my day.

Not all that much to my surprise, a few days later I received yet another email regarding our Astrolabe subscription. But this time it was from an actual person. Thankfully Tash had noticed we were about to be sent two shipments and rather than letting it just happen, they intercepted the delivery, looked at my account, worked out I didn't want two of the same thing at the same time, cancelled the second credit card charge, and then emailed me to let me know they had both noticed the error and also fixed it!

If the interaction had finished there, I would have been impressed enough by this attentive service to tell other people about it, but, although I didn't know it yet, Astrolabe were, in fact, just getting started.

The Waghorns look forward to meeting you

I replied to explain I had indeed made an error and thanked them for saving me a lot of hassle and more than a little bit of money by not honouring the subscriptions I had inadvertently signed myself up for. All of that went well, Tash was gracious and understanding, and towards the end of our conversation, Tash added to proceedings that if we were ever passing by Marlborough we should stop by the winery and have a tasting.

As it happened, we did have plans to be nearby a couple of months later on our summer holiday camping trip, so I mentioned if we could fit it into our plans, we would, and that was that. All very pleasant in the end, and what could have been a poor experience ended up being quite positive. Good customer service for the win.

As I recall, it was around New Year's Day, we were halfway into our camping trip, up to our ears in sunscreen and insect repellent, when I remembered this opportunity, had a good look in the calendar, and emailed Tash back, months later by that stage, asking if we could stop by the winery around 2pm on a particular day only a few days later. It felt pretty chance-y, we could only make that one slot work and it was very little notice. I steeled myself for the sorry we're booked out response. But that's not what happened next. No, not at all.

Instead the email I got back said the date and time were fine, and gave an address, and signed off The Waghorns are looking forward to meeting you. I wasn't sure who the Waghorns were, to be honest, guess they run the cellar door? But didn't give it a lot of thought, after all our luck was in, they could do the specific time that worked for us, happy days! So we locked it in the schedule and got back to lazing about in the sunshine.

A few days later came round way too fast. We tore down the campsite, wedged it all back in the car somehow, and drove a couple of hours, next stop the winery. We drove through the town I thought it would be in, then out the other side, then following the GPS like you do, we turned off the highway into a quiet country road, and went down there a bit, took a left, then a right, and eventually we arrived at a nondescript farm gate in the middle of seemingly nowhere. Pasture to the left, forest to the right, all very lovely but nothing that looked like a winery at all.

We had that discussion about whether it was the GPS or my driving that was at fault, concluded likely it was both, but we checked the address and we did seem to be in the right place, so we explored down this private driveway some distance. Went past a place, it looked like a private home, went on some more, and ended up driving up a driveway of a very nice farmhouse. Huge country manor type of place. Big enough that it had a robot mowing the lawn. I knocked on the extra-large back door. Twice. No one answered, and the lawn mower didn't have anything useful to add, so we turned the car around and headed back down the drive, writing this one off to experience as we went.

You're the Parkers, right?

As we approached the gate, a young-ish man appeared, jogging towards us, and he seemed friendly enough, gave us a friendly wave, so we paused. I prepared my best so sorry if this is your place, we're lost, honest line, wound down the window, but before I could get started the gentleman leaned his head into the gap, gave us a big smile , and asked... you're the Parkers, right?

We were! Much to our delight, the charming young man was named Finn, and he was indeed from Astrolabe, which he explained was the place we'd driven past after the gate. But it just looks like a house, I said, but he assured us it was the right place, so we returned, parked under the tree, let the kids and the dogs run free and followed Finn around the back of what turned out to be, exactly what it looked like - their house. We'd been invited to their place. Not the shop, not the commercial premises, not even the winery itself. Instead it was their home. Like we were friends, instead of random strangers!

Next we met Arabella, one of the winemakers, and their family dog met ours, and before we could pinch ourselves to make sure we weren't dreaming, we met Simon, the chief winemaker, and we were following him through the vines taking in a masterclass in viticulture. We spent a good half an hour soaking up decades of experience and wisdom, and Simon was very gracious in putting up with our simple questions without ever making us feel silly.

Wandering The Farm vineyard being taught about chardonnay by a master winemaker
Wandering The Farm vineyard being taught about chardonnay by a master winemaker

And then the chilly bin came out

This was already a most unexpected treat for a keen wine enthusiast like me, it's not often you get the chance to talk at length about grapes in the vineyard with one of New Zealand's leading winemakers, but then one of the Waghorns asked if we wanted to get on and taste a couple? Did we what! We ended up sitting around a lovely table under a sun umbrella, our children found their way onto the family trampoline like they'd been visiting every summer their whole lives, and then the chilly bin came out.

We spent what must have been the best part of two hours tasting multiple examples and vintages of many varieties of Astrolabe wine. Handsome pours, experiments, older vintages and if I recall even an unreleased one or two, and paired with a wide ranging, few holds barred conversation about all things wine. We were enraptured.

We had the chance to ask the questions we had always wanted to know, like how did they really see wine critics, and competitions, and scores, and what about the impacts of climate change? The differences between making for export and for home market, the economics and the realities of being a quality focussed producer versus being a big brand producer, their thoughts on succession in the company and much more besides. Through the course of the conversation Simon shared hilarious tales from his career that had us in stitches and Finn and I even shared notes on cooking pork slow on the barbecue.

Words don't really do the experience justice. The Waghorns were perfect hosts, completely accessible and beyond generous both with their products and their time. We couldn't believe how lucky we were to experience such hospitality. As conversation started to come to a natural conclusion, I was mentally working out how much wine we could possibly afford to buy as our way of thanking them and paying tribute for their time and efforts. There was no shop, we were literally in their back yard, but I guessed they would perhaps introduce a price list and we'd do what we could, within our limited means, to empty their shelves. But that moment never came.

No quid pro quo expected

Instead, Simon asked us which our favourites had been, a harder question to answer than it sounds given how good the range is cross the board, but we managed it, and they rustled about a bit in the chilly bin and handed us two of the only slightly open bottles, and said - you'd better take those with you for dinner. They just gave them to us. Full stop.

Beyond gobsmacked by this point, we did our best to maintain our composure, thanked them profusely, found our children and pets, got it all in the car and departed.

As we drove to our next accommodation (fear not dear reader, I was the designated driver and had played tasting very much on the safe side) it occurred to me that of course, a cellar door sale was never on the cards or part of the plan. After all, their family home wouldn't even be licensed for sale. The plan must always have been, from day one, let's be the most generous and welcoming hosts to this random family who buy a little wine from us sometimes and manage to screw up their credit card details more often than not. With no commercial benefit to be had, and without any real limit or restraint.

Putting it plainly, Astrolabe had simply been incredibly generous to us with no expectation of return.
Ultimately, that generosity was what transformed this customer experience into something so special.

Moments of generosity resonate

Reflecting on the whole thing many months afterwards, some things still stand out.

Astrolabe were generous with their service by spotting my mistake, and that alone resonated with me. Humans feel emotional connection when unexpected moments of caring, respect, generosity materialise. And those moments engender two things that are key to brand experience - customer loyalty, and positive word of mouth.

But to offer, with no expectation, their time and their hospitality, to both Jo and I, while letting our kids roam their property unwatched, sharing their knowledge and experiences, unfettered, uncensored - THAT kind of generosity leaves such a lasting impression.

Not only smart, funny and convivial, but also by showing us such generosity, they converted us into lifelong fans. Done a few times (we can't be the only such recipients, although I'm sure it cannot be common if only for sake of time) across a customer base, for a reasonable outlay of time, a core of fanatic fans are developed and the initial investment of generosity is repaid many times over. Paying it forward. Beautifully.

Building generosity into the brand experience

Since this experience, I have learned of other such moments of generosity within customer experience.

The restaurant that takes the interested child into the kitchen to talk to the chef... and then sends out samples for the kid to try for the rest of the sitting.

The agency that refunds the customer a month after they realised they booked the wrong date and they've wasted a large amount of money.

The counsellor who compiles the notes from all the sessions into a book for the client to take when they travel.

The eBay seller who responds to damage in delivery with a full refund and no return required.

The key part of making the customer experience exceptional with generosity is that the benefit is freely given, with no expectation of revenue in return, nor implication of quid pro quo. It is unexpected, and uncommon, but in some part far beyond the customer's expectation. It resonates, it endures in the memory.

It probably doesn't even cost that much, compared to marketing spend and customer acquisition costs. But the payout is huge. You impact powerfully on a customer, and if you are lucky, you engender goodwill and positive word of mouth that lasts a lifetime.

The conclusion

It has been a long-winded story, and thank you reader for making your way this far through it. As you can tell, this unexpected generosity we received in our customer experience at Astrolabe left an enduring impression on me. I'm writing about it many months later!

If I may conclude with one thought, it is this.

Many of us, myself included, are occupied with the provision of customer experience to others. In some part, large or small, the work you do become the experience of your customer.

How might you deliver, on occasion, unexpected generosity with it?

Give it some thought. Executed well, generosity can be your customer experience superpower.