Poor Customer Experience is a Design Problem

TelkomYesterday, I had the conversation below with a Telkom customer service agent. I learned many things from this conversation, including that if you ever want to look deranged, all you have to do is laugh hysterically at the same time that your eyeball is twitching uncontrollably.

Me: Hello, you just installed my internet yesterday but the guy said I had to call this number to get it activated. I’m not sure if I got to the right place in your phone menu, I was kind of lost in there …
Agent: Do you have your username and password?
Me: I have tons of them. No one ever mentioned needing one from Telkom.
Agent: What is your phone number?
Me: You mean the number I’m calling you from?
Agent: No, your Telkom phone number.
Me: I don’t have a Telkom number.
Agent: Someone should have written it on the box for you.
Me: Creepy. Ok, here it is: [phone number] Agent: I can’t find your account.
Me: Are you waiting for me to say something?
Agent: Let me transfer you.

:line goes dead:Facepalm_700x526

The agent could have been a lot better, but she actually wasn’t the main problem. Consider another interaction, this time with our huge bank ABSA.

Me: Doo-doo-doo-doo, going to make a payment online, skippity…
Bank website: You have already made a payment to this account. You must register the account as a beneficiary before you make further payments.
Me: Hm. All right, here we are, Beneficiary set-up, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo.
Bank website: You have not yet enabled notifications. You must visit your Profile [not linked] and enable notifications before proceeding with Beneficiary Registration.
Me: I wonder which type of notifications, SMS, email? I already get a text every time I make a purchase. Ok, I’ll go to my Profile…
Bank website: You have successfully logged out of your account.
Me: OK, are you kidding me? You wanna go, snotwad? Let’s go. Logging back in…
Bank website: You have successfully logged out of your account.
Me: LIAR!!! I logged back in! Watch me update my Profile!
Bank website: You have successfully logged out of your account.
Me: I think I’m logged IN, because you didn’t even give me a ‘password incorrect’ error, and I’ve used this password since the 7th grade! Logging in one last time…
Bank website: You have exceeded the number of allowable attempts to log in to your account. Please visit the nearest branch to unlock your account.
Me: Ok.
Me: Ok.
Me: Ok.
Me: Deep breaths. I’ll leave some nasty feedback and I’ll just try it again later. Do-do-do-do, yeah, that sounds good, do-do-do-do, that’s right, stick it to them, do-do-do-do-do, done! That’s a great complaint letter! Submit!
Bank website: Please enter a valid email address.
Me: I have now removed the trailing space after my email address, you nit-picker. You are not going to get out of this feedback. SUBMIT.

And then the bank website, with all of the snide malice in the world, puts a dainty finger over its mouth and says: “Oops! System failed to save survey response.”

My computer made impact with the wall. Mothers down the street covered their children’s ears.

absaThe problem with both of these recent interactions wasn’t with an individual employee, nor with timeouts or errors thrown. Especially in South Africa, you hear all the time about the problem of “infrastructure” as an excuse for bad service. Infrastructure problems, meaning that massive unwieldy databases frequently spark and sputter out, here where the tech industry is only burgeoning and not yet booming. Internal software is sluggish because everyone’s internet connection is unreliable, as fiber optic cables continue to feel their way to our frontiers. Server farms are in their first and second plantings, they can’t yet provide for us all.

This argument does apply in some cases, like when I have to watch my bank teller wait ten minutes for his screen to update. Infrastructure, however, is an obfuscation of the real disease, which is that the company does not know how to think about design and process in terms of service.

In the case of Telkom, engineering the process of distributing a username and password seemed like small potatoes to them. After all, it’s not nearly as important as creating new promotional packages or buying adtime, right? Certainly not as important as maintaining their fleet of lines? So they threw together some jenky process that puts far too much faith in human consistency and not enough in automation. Maybe they know it’s jenky, but they’re too lazy to do better.

Maybe they can’t just SMS me my username and password when I put in the order at the store, because their system is too slow to assign it real time. Maybe they can’t give it to me at the installation because the technician doesn’t have remote access to the system. And over time the company gets jenkier and jenkier, either because it simply doesn’t understand how important it is to deliberately design every single customer interaction, or because it’s too lazy to address the hairy underlying issues that prevent them from providing good service, and moreover, prevent them from running efficiently.

So then they get confused call after confused call, and when the sum of their terrible customer experiences add up, they’re hemorrhaging money out of the call center. As their phone queues start flooding, customers wait for longer and longer hold times, until they reach a prehistoric, molasses slow service level of 12 minutes for someone to answer the phone.

Good service isn’t a high satisfaction score for an agent’s post-call survey, or at least, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Good service has to be part of a company’s genetic make-up. You have to design it, from the bottom up.

You can’t just assume that because your website looks clean and because you’ve organized it in the way it makes sense to you that you’ve done a good job. You have to think hard about a customer’s experience as she interacts with you in every.single.interface and every.single.interaction, and her experience should drive your design, of processes, of your website, of the culture around service that you instill in employees.

If you don’t do this, you might as well hire cats with online degrees to build your website. I can tell that this is probably what ABSA did, because I know that cats aren’t very good at debugging software and that they have no interest in online banking. And there was that random ‘Dogs suck’ string appended to my error messages. JK. cat computer

Why would you EVER make a large customer use case (transferring money) dependent upon the customer’s completion of a second use case the customer doesn’t care about (beneficiary set-up), which is seeded in ANOTHER use case that is invasive (notification set-up), none of which you tell the customer about until they think they’re so close to success they can taste it? “Oh ho no!” the website cackles. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”

If you’re really designing for the customer, you won’t try to force him or her to complete actions he or she really doesn’t feel like taking, you schoolmarm. If you’re so set on this “Beneficiary Setup” whatever the heck it is, why don’t you automatically save every person I pay to as a beneficiary? If you want me to set up notifications, (which personally annoys me so please don’t), why don’t you set them up for me and leave me to opt out if I want? I know you’ve already got my phone number and email address.

If poor “infrastructure” results in dropped calls for your customer service agents, why don’t you have a uniform policy that they call the customer back, so the person doesn’t have to wade through a byzantine phone menu AGAIN?

Companies like ABSA and Telkom focus on the other parts of their business, because they’re not used to using the lens of Service in design, and because they think they can get away with it. Monopoly is such a mind-blowing high, after all. If there aren’t major competitors, (for Telkom anyway, ABSA has plenty) and if it’s just so easy to offer low-priced services, they’ll always put off going to Service rehab.

They don’t realize that Good Service isn’t just about touchy feely “loyalty,” although loyalty does translate into a lot more money over the years.cost savings

The money gained by paying attention to good design and therefore good service is in the long term, and it’s harder to measure than sales, but not that hard. Workflow analysis to have the right number of people working at all times leads to quick service levels, which leads to more calls handled in the same amount of time, which leads to money saved.

An agent who handles a customer call correctly on the first time is a relief to the customer, but saves another butt load in follow-up contacts reduced. Investment in your own little corner of the country’s “infrastructure” leads to even larger and more diffuse savings that shaves time off of every use case in the company.

Actions you want your customers to take that help your business? You’ll be more successful if you design the interaction in a way that makes it easy for them, or better yet, do it for them completely.

And loyal customers? Are you measuring your customer attrition, guys? Because some of us do get tired of asking for punishment? Because people  will fall over themselves to be treated like humans, to find themselves pleasantly surprised by good service when they were dreading the interaction? They will cry tears of joy, when, as a company, you work hard enough not to give your them an uncontrollably twitching eyeball whenever they think of you.


Until companies like ABSA and Telkom begin to think of Service at the core of everything they build, I will continue to prepare for a phone call or web session by getting children and sharp objects out of the way, and planning to pencil in my eyebrows for a few weeks until there are signs of regrowth.


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