Critical Incident Technique: A Tool to Identify and Prepare for Your Moments of Truth

As we explored in an earlier post, 3 Types of Customer Interactions Every Customer Experience Manager Must Understand, there are three types of customer interactions: Stabilizing, Critical, and Planned.

The second of these, “critical” interactions are service encounters which are out of the ordinary (a complaint, question, special request, an employee going the extra mile).  The outcomes of these critical incidents can be either positive or negative, depending on how they are responded to; however, they rarely are neutral.  Because they are memorable and unusual, critical interactions tend to have a powerful effect on the relationship with the customer, they are “moments of truth” where the brand has an opportunity to solidify the relationship or risk defection.

Customer experience strategies need to include systems for identifying common or potential moments of truth, analyzing trends and patterns, and feeding that information back to the organization. Employees can then be trained to recognize critical opportunities, and empowered to respond to them in such a way that they will lead to positive outcomes and desired customer behaviors.  One way to identify potential moments of truth and gauge the efficacy of service recovery strategies is a research technique called Critical Incident Technique (CIT).

Critical Incident Technique

CIT is a qualitative research methodology designed to uncover details surrounding a service encounter that a customer found particularly satisfying or dissatisfying. There is plenty of room for freedom in study design, but basically what we are trying to find out is what happened, what the customer did in response to the incident (positive or negative), what recovery strategy was used for negative incidents, and how effective was this recovery strategy.

Again, there is a lot of freedom here, but roughly study design looks like this:

First, ask the research participant to recall a recent experience in your industry that was particularly satisfying or dissatisfying.  Now, ask open-ended probing questions to gather the who, what, when, why and how surrounding that experience, questions like:

  • When did the incident happen?
  • What caused the incident? What are the specific circumstances that led to the incident or situation?
  • Why did you feel the incident was particularly satisfying or dissatisfying?
  • How did the provider respond to the incident? How did they correct it?
  • What action(s) did you take as a result of the incident?

The analysis of CIT interviews consists of classifying these incidents into well defined, mutually exclusive categories and sub-categories of increasing specificity.  For example, the researcher may classify incidents into the following categories:

  • Service Delivery System Failures
    1. Unavailable Service
    2. Unreasonably Slow Service
    3. Other Core Service Failures
  • Customer Needs and Requests
    1. Special Customer Needs
    2. Customer Preferences
  • Unprompted and Unsolicited Actions
    1. Attention Paid to Customer
    2. Truly Out of the Ordinary Employee Behavior/Performance
    3. Holistic Evaluation
    4. Performance Under Adverse Circumstances

A similar classification technique should be used to group both recovery strategies and their effectiveness.  As well as classifying the attitudinal and behavioral result on the customer, identifying in what ways the customer changed their behavior toward or relationship with the brand based on the incident, such as, did they purchase more or less, tell others about the experience directly or via social media, call for support more or less often, use different channels, change providers, etc.

The end result of this analysis will produce a list of common moments of truth within your industry, how customers change their behavior in either profitable ways or unprofitable ways as a result of this moment of truth and an evaluation of the effectiveness of recovery strategies, giving managers an informed perspective upon which to prepare employees to recognize moments of truth, and respond in ways that will lead to positive outcomes.


For additional perspectives on moments of truth, see the post: 4 Ways to Understand & Manage Moments of Truth.

Click Here For More Information About Kinesis' Research Services

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About Eric Larse

Eric Larse is co-founder of Seattle-based Kinesis CEM, LLC, which helps clients plan and execute their customer experience strategies through the intelligent use of customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shopping, linked with training and incentive programs. Visit Kinesis at:

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