Travel Debrief: San Francisco

Julia Ahlfeldt, a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP, debriefs u|Chief on her recent trip to San Francisco.


Tell us about your recent travels?

I recently spent three weeks in the US. I’ve lived in South Africa for several years, but I’m originally from the US. I try to visit at least once or twice per year to see family, speak with colleagues and clients, and keep a pulse on what’s happening in the American market. At first, I’d refer to these annual trips as “going home”, but now I truly feel like I have two “homes”. It’s rejuvenating to return and reconnect with my Americanness, but after a few weeks, I find myself longing to return to South Africa.


Julia Ahlfeldt
Where did you go, and what was memorable in terms of the travel and business experience?

I spent time in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland. It was a tour de West Coast! The motivation for the trip was both personal and professional. In addition to catching up with friends and family, I also conducted some interviews for my recently launched podcast, Decoding the Customer. One of my interviews was with Desirree Madison-Biggs, who is the head of customer experience at Airbnb. I had the opportunity to spend part of a day at Airbnb’s HQ in San Francisco Desirree and I had a great conversation, she gave me a tour of their offices, and we had lunch in the staff canteen (which was definitely the best staff canteen food I’ve ever eaten). Airbnb is one of my favorite examples of a brand that has carefully curated a great customer experience, so it was fascinating to look under the bonnet and learn first-hand about some of the strategies that have aided their success. I don’t want to release any spoilers before the podcast episode is published, but I walked away from my day at Airbnb with a clear understanding that their team culture is a key differentiator. The organization lives and breathes its values, and looks after its people. These strategies have paid off.


What opportunities did you identify during the trip for yourself and your organization, as well as for other industries?

The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is growing by leaps and bounds. It’s clear that this will be an important part of customer experiences in the future. One of the evenings that I was in San Francisco, I went over to some friends’ house for dinner. The husband now works for a company that has developed a fairly sophisticated AI robot toy for children. The robot knew everyone in the house by name, could recognize facial expressions and had learned how to beat the humans at particular games. It was fascinating to watch my friend’s son play with the robot. We are on the precipice of a whole new world of human/AI interactions, and companies need to understand how they will leverage this.


What surprised you about the country – positively and negatively?

American customer service is excellent. Being service-minded is something that is ingrained in our culture, and while negative customer service experiences do also happen in the US, on average the bar is set much higher. When I’ve been away for a while and jump back into the American consumer world, great customer service sometimes takes me by surprise.

The tech sector has flourished in recent years. This comes with benefits and drawbacks. In San Francisco, an influx of highly paid tech workers has driven up the host of housing, forcing many long-term residents to move elsewhere. These underlying tensions were palpable at times.

Was there something about how they do business or live their lives that you feel that people living in other countries could benefit from knowing or experiencing?

Americans are optimists. They are more likely to view a mistake as an opportunity to learn rather than a source of shame or embarrassment. This enables people to think outside of the box, take calculated risks and champion change.

The world around us is changing very quickly, so organizations will need to figure out ways to encourage internal innovation, but this will only happen in environments that are supportive.


Any fun memories?

Yes! On my last day in San Francisco, my husband and I decided to be tourists in our former home town. We walked through our old neighborhood, recounted memories, and visited the place where we first met. San Francisco is an incredibly picturesque city, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.


Where would you go to next time if you visited for business or pleasure?

The East Coast is definitely on next year’s itinerary.


Tell us a few useful phrases or words.

South Africans are probably aware of this through US-produced media, but Americans use slightly different vocabulary and may not be familiar with the words that are commonplace in South Africa. For example, if you are asking for directions and reference the “zebra” or the “robot”, you will get a few quizzical looks!


  • Julia Ahlfeldt is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP) who consults to blue-chip and multi-national CEOs.