Man: Car, meet Vanilla Ice-cream.
Car: I don’t feel so good.
A lot of people have written about this famous story of a customer’s Pontiac that didn’t start when he bought vanilla ice cream. Here’s my take on the story from the CX lens.
By Joseph Jude
My Car is Allergic to Vanilla Ice-Cream
It was a real problem reported to the Pontiac Division of General Motors by a customer who had recently purchased a new car. Here’s what the complaint letter said:
“This is the second time I have written you, and I don’t blame you for not answering me, because I kind of sounded crazy, but it is a fact that we have a tradition in our family of ice cream for dessert after dinner each night. But the kind of ice cream varies so, every night, after we’ve eaten, the whole family votes on which kind of ice cream we should have and I drive down to the store to get it. It’s also a fact that I recently purchased a new Pontiac and since then my trips to the store have created a problem.
You see, every time I buy vanilla ice-cream when I start back from the store my car won’t start. If I get any other kind of ice cream, the car starts just fine. I want you to know I’m serious about this question, no matter how silly it sounds: ‘What is there about a Pontiac that makes it not start when I get vanilla ice cream, and easy to start whenever I get any other kind?”
What if it Were You?
Take a moment and think about how bizarre it sounds; your customer reporting a problem that basically says “your product doesn’t work when I buy vanilla ice cream.” It would certainly pique my curiosity.
The company sent an engineer to look into this unusual problem. As a quintessential engineer, he approached this with logic. He wanted to collect data to solve the problem. So he decided to personally go along with the customer. (See what I’m getting at?).
To the engineer’s surprise, the Pontiac owner turned out to be a well-educated, successful man – nothing of the sort that would mess around through a phony complaint.
Pontiac’s engineer met the man at night to accompany him on one of his ice-cream runs to the store. It was a vanilla night at the man’s house so they bought vanilla and as the customer had described, his Pontiac didn’t start. (The customer had a peculiar problem).
The engineer went back with the man for 3 consecutive nights, ordering different flavors (other than vanilla) and the car kept starting without any problems. So they bought vanilla again and this time the car didn’t start, again.
Baffled at the problem at hand, the engineer kept accompanying the man on his ice-cream visits. He started collecting data; time of day, time taken to and from the store, type of fuel used, etc. (Now do you see what I’m getting at?)
The Car wasn’t Allergic to Vanilla Ice-Cream
When the engineer analyzed his collected data, he found a pattern. The Pontiac owner took less time to return to his car whenever he bought vanilla ice cream. Vanilla (ugh, who likes vanilla anyway) being a popular flavor was sold at the front of the store for quick pickups, while all other flavors were sold at the back where it took a long time to buy and check out.
He’d found the car’s “vanilla allergy.”
He reframed the question at hand. Instead of asking, “Why the car wouldn’t start if I bought a vanilla ice-cream,” he asked, “Why the car wouldn’t start if I took less time to come back?” That’s where he found the answer – Vapor Lock.
When the customer bought vanilla ice-cream, he returned quickly, and hence the engine was still too hot for the vapor lock to dissipate. When he bought any other flavor, the engine had sufficient time to cool down.
He was able to solve the problem because he looked at the problem as a consumer. (Now you see what I was getting at!)
Here Comes the Analogy
What if you could understand your customer’s problem this well? You’d be delivering awesome CX and gaining real-world insights about your product’s UX. There’s a reason good UX developers work their butts off to do research before building a product.
No question is stupid.
“People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”― Teddy Roosevelt
Even the most ridiculous/peculiar problems reported by customers are worth looking into.
You can’t understand what your customer goes through without actually experiencing what they go through – it’s that simple. That’s why ethnographic research for a great UX is so important; a technique we actively recommend and implement. You get to walk in your customer’s shoes, collect precious data that you cannot find otherwise.
What better way to be customer-centric?