Customer service experienced in bits

Dr Drang tells two stories of failed customer service. The first one involves him trying to assist his mother getting to the gate at the airport. I use flying a lot as an example of services involving silos that barely communicate with each other and generate terrible customer experiences as a result. Dr Drang’s experience is typical:

You will not be surprised to hear that the people at the ticket desk—both our initial agent and his superior—had no idea how to issue me a gate pass. Curiously, the agent did ask for my photo ID, even though he had no idea what to do with it. Force of habit, I guess. Eventually, the supervisor hit upon the idea of sending us to the Special Services desk, where we would become someone else’s problem.

The agent at the Special Services desk knew everything about gate passes and told me right away that I wouldn’t be able to get one. “They’re being very tight with those.”

When I explained to the agent that I’d been told by the airline that I could get a gate pass, she told me with great confidence that the people manning the airline’s 800 number didn’t know anything. But she took my driver’s license, typed my information into her computer, and my gate pass printed out immediately.

“Do you know which gate you’re going to?” she asked sharply as she handed it over.

“No, I haven’t checked yet. I wasn’t sure until just now that I was going to get in.”

“Well, it’s F6A. It’s right on the pass.” There was a note of triumph in her voice, as it was clear she had bested me.

None of these poor experiential moments is tragic on its own, but the aggregate experience is an awful one—something I often refer to as an experience crevasse that customers fall into. When you are at the bottom of one of those, nobody can hear you screaming for help.

When I work with teams to bring service design methods into their workflow, one of the common responses is, “but to do this properly we really need to change or organisation’s structure.” Culture and cultural change within an organisation is key to changing the end experiences of a service. If staff feel frustrated, bored or under pressure to act in a way detrimental to the customer experience, it should be no surprise that this experience is awful. Yet this is regularly demanded of staff under the guise of efficiency. Companies need to switch their focus from the industrial mode of efficiency to a service mindset of being effective. They’re not mutually exclusive, but the emphasis and process are very different.

Without that, customers end up treating the interaction as a battle. As Dr Drang writes at the end of his post:

Now I see my interactions with customer service as a sort of strategy game: can I plan my way around the obstacles the game will put in my way? Today I came out on top. Tomorrow is another round.

Apple, Beats and wearable tech

All the speculation about Apple designing and iWatch and the noise about their acquisition of Beats got me wondering why we do not pay more attention to the tech we are already wearing and why some of it is socially acceptable and some not.

There is a kind of inverse correlation between assistive technologies and wearable tech. It is socially acceptable, cool even, to wear glasses—a medical aid that sits front and centre on your face—but hearing aids are seen to be uncool, even though they are less visible. This is quite unfair, but despite the efforts of artists and designers like David Hockney and Susan Cohn to make hearing aids a feature and not hide them, they remain socially stigmatised.

Conversely, wearing Google Glass turns you into a glasshole, whilst wearing a pair of Beats headphones makes you cool. Well, the coolness factor is debatable with Beats headphones. One Amazon reviewer describes a pair of Sennheiser Momentum headphones as “much more of a premium look and feel than the plastic ridden beats. These are something that an adult can be seen in public in without looking like a complete tool.” Nevertheless, plenty of people do find Beats cool, despite them being the worst noise polluters I ever have to sit next to on the train. Besides, it is hard to argue with $3 billion. In short, headphones and glasses are hipster, hearing aids and Google Glass are not. Bluetooth earpieces appear to have taken on the stigma of hearing aids, plus the toolness of Glass. Wearers shouting into thin air and mostly being annoying salesmen probably does not help their case.

Obviously, wearable technology has a future, but it is easy to forget that how much of the future is already here. I carry my iPhone around in my jeans or jacket pocket. Am I wearing it? Kind of. It depends on your definition of “wearing”. If I stick it in my front shirt pocket like Joaquin Phoenix in Her, is that wearing my phone or just carrying it around more publicly? What about sticking it on my arm while jogging? That probably counts as wearing it.

The irony of all the bullshit calls for Apple to produce an iWatch is that people are wearing watches less often because they have a smartphone in their pocket that they use instead of a watch. To make an iWatch would be for Apple to make a device that replaces a device the iPhone already made redundant.

The other trend for wrist-worn tech either look like a bloated Livestrong wristband or a flexible ruler from the 80s. All of these require lots of persuading people they are cool enough to wear, which usually requires lots of marketing money. Pre-iPhone it was hard to imagine a phone that had no buttons and was just a panel of glass. Although Apple did spend plenty of money on marketing, the key factor was that it was the phone everyone had been waiting for because manufacturers had made such a hash of phone design up until then. Nobody thought they were going to be ridiculed for using one in public. It was designing for an unarticulated need more than marketing that achieved that. The iPhone went with the flow of public desire for such a simple, yet powerful, device.

If you are designing a piece of wearable tech today, perhaps one that is not so miniature—the size of a matchbox, say, so that it has some decent processing power—then you have two choices. You either come up with something that is new and confronting, like Google Glass and try and persuade people that, no, honestly, they really are cool. Or you look at the big chunks of tech people are already wearing, like those half-buns perched on your ears. That’s where I would consider building some new, amazing, wearable technology. You can jam a lot in that space an people still think you are wearing a cool pair of headphones instead of looking like a tool. That is far easier to sell and eventually the technology will get smaller and fit into earbuds, which is what every iPhone comes with anyway and everyone is used to wearing. The production designers of Her got that part very right.

Tim, Jony, Mr Dre (because I’m fairly certain you are not really a doctor), you know what to do.

Chris Risdon on Orchestrating Touchpoints

Whilst I’m at it, here’s a great talk by Chris Risdon from the same conference talking about orchestrating touchpoints. His anecdote at the beginning is priceless. I’m particularly interested in the way he takes the journey as the hub from which everything extends from. It’s service design, but he comes at it from a UX point of view, which tends to focus on the journey at the start. He does a great job of really defining what a touchpoint is as distinct from a channel or a medium:

Dave Malouf on Storytelling and Interaction Design

I talk a lot about the importance of thinking about the story of your product or service. I have always assumed this has to do with my background of studying photography, film, video and interactive media-I originally wanted to be a film director—and my work as a writer. But the need and interest in story seems to be a growing trend across a range of disciplines, from design to business to life. Here’s a good talk on Storytelling and Interaction Design from Dave Malouf that he gave at the From Business to Buttons conference. It ends with a great example and a challenge:

Smart companies trust people

I just backed David Hieatt’s upcoming book, Do Purpose on the crowd-funded publishing site, Unbound. David is a smart guy and a kind of serial entrepreneur. The book explores companies that focus on their purpose. Here’s an excerpt:

Most companies don’t have a purpose. This may sound odd but most people have forgotten why they are in business. The founders are dead. The purpose is no longer there. They think it is just to make money. But making money is a result. It is not the purpose. For me, a business that has a purpose is much more energised. It is the wind for the sailboat. It pushes you and the team on. It is the fuel for the journey ahead.

A lot of businesses fail because they give up. They give up because they never had a purpose so when things get tough, they quit. I would say 90% of businesses haven’t worked out why they are in business. I think it’s vital to do so. It’s important to do so because it gives you great motivation. Understand the why. It’s pivotal to your success. Your team needs to understand it. And sooner or later your customer will get what you are about too.

In a recent blog post David writes about smart companies who understand that most people are good:

For me, I don’t understand bad service. Why wouldn’t you be on the customer’s side? Why would you go to all that trouble to get a customer just to let them walk away? Why would you want a customer just once and not for a lifetime? 99% of customers are good people. Yet, all the rules in place are to protect companies from the 1% who aren’t so good.

The best companies have figured that one at. They have realised most people are good. They give them the benefit of the doubt. Smart companies trust.

As someone involved in service design, this is a question I ask about ten times a day. Germany (where I live) and Switzerland (where I work) tend to have excellent infrastructure, which means things like trains (especially trains) and public services work very well. But they also have terrible customer service when things go wrong, which is the time when you need excellent customer service most of all. I’ve lost count of the times companies have acted unreasonably, even illegally, in order to stick to the point of a contract or terms and conditions. It seems so obvious that you shouldn’t treat people this way, especially paying customers, so why does it happen?

The answer is culture and culture comes from a sense of purpose.

There is a phrase often used by managers in Germany and Switzerland, which is Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser!. It roughly translates as “trust is good, control is better.” It is why organisations still insist on using clunky and useless time tracking tools such as SAP, despite ample evidence that it reduces motivation and job satisfaction and thus productivity. If you can read German, my college, Jan-Erik Baars recently wrote a good post about this (or read the rather average Google translation of it).

This culture of trying to constantly monitor what employees do harks back to the mindset of the industrial age. It might make sense when employees give their physical labour, but their mind is theirs to own, but it makes little sense in any kind of service or knowledge working industries in which the mind-body connection is paramount. That is to say, around 80% of developed nations’ economies. We want to interact with humans, not robots. The irony of this phrase used by corporate managers is that it was originally coined by Lenin.

The worst effect of this culture is the destruction of trust and the cultivation of resentment. If I pay for a product or a service and something goes wrong, I want to be presumed innocent, not treated as a potential criminal out to rip off the company in question. Of course, a tiny percentage of people may try to rip off that company, but the cost of being nice is that some people will take advantage of you.

Germany and Switzerland are cultures that love rules. There is a rule for everything possible, which means there are forever exceptions to those rules. That creates a culture of rule adherence at the cost of empathy and common sense. Companies that turn this on its head do not even have to stretch that far. Simply being reasonable instead of pernickety can feel like a breath of fresh air. Imagine what a customer feels like when they are actually treated pleasantly. It feels so great you want to remain a loyal customer forever and tell everyone else about it. The same goes for employers. Assume your staff are reasonable adults and treat them as such and they’ll be loyal. Treat them as potential thieves who need to be constantly monitored and they will act like thieves and try and get away with as much as possible.

Companies that get this right have a sense of purpose beyond just making money and they usually make money precisely because of this sense of purpose. I’m looking forward to David Hieatt’s book and his take on how to achieve that.

Mentalism for service delivery?

I hope I have left enough time between the broadcast of Series 3 of Sherlock, but just in case you are waiting to binge view, the following contains mild spoilers. (You do know he isn’t dead though, right? Otherwise Series 3 would be called Watson).

Sherlock Series 3 involves Sherlock returning from his overseas sojourn and finding Watson about to marry Mary. Sherlock is chosen to be Best Man. During the preparations, Sherlock uses his skills to vet the guests, confronting an ex-boyfriend who still holds a flame for Mary and using his powers of perception and deduction to discern which guests don’t actually like her based on their RSVP:

[scrippet] MARY (handing him an RSVP card) John’s cousin. Top table?

SHERLOCK (looking at the card) Hmm. Hates you. Can’t even bear to think about you.

MARY (looking up at him) Seriously?

SHERLOCK Second class post, cheap card … (he sniffs it and grimaces) …bought at a petrol station. Look at the stamp: three attempts at licking. She’s obviously unconsciously retaining saliva. [/scrippet]

Later, Mary’s bridesmaid Janine uses Sherlock to check out potential men at the reception:

[scrippet] SHERLOCK If that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for the man over there in blue is your best bet. Recently divorced doctor with a ginger cat, a barn conversion and a history of erectile dysfunction. [/scrippet] After watching Sherlock, I went on a bit of a mind wander through YouTube clips of the illusionist/mentalist Derren Brown (who has a cameo in Episode 1 of Season 3) playing tricks with people’s minds. Here he is reading car salesmen’s minds:

We talk a lot in human-centred and service design research about walking in the shoes of users/customers and looking for the differences between what people say and what they do; looking for needs rather than wants. But what would happen if we received service from someone who quite literally knew what we wanted or were thinking better than we knew ourselves? Could this kind of predictive ability provide the perfect service experience, much like the wine waiter who knows just the moment to fill the glass and when to retreat?

In some senses it would be wonderful—every need perfectly anticipated and satisfied before we even asked for it. But at what point would we reach the uncanny valley and the whole thing would become creepy? Getting it completely wrong, like Microsoft’s Clippy would be downright annoying, but what would be the sweet spot between just slightly wrong and too right?

I don’t know if training people delivering services in mentalism skills is going to be the way of the future, but technologies like Google Glass may well provide that kind of background information and feed it to service providers. The effects might be just as uncanny, but at least the advantage of mentalism is that you don’t look like a glasshole.

Update: After hearing about the death of writer, actor and director, Harold Ramis, I watched the film Groundhog Day again. It has similar themes and now I know the answer to some of my questions. Being able to predict people’s needs can be either creepy or wonderful—it all depends on your intentions.

Thanks to Ariane Devere’s transcriptions for the above Sherlock dialogue.

Swiss Design Network coordinator job

The Swiss Design Network (I am the HSLU Board Member) is looking for a coordinator to support the head office located at Bern University of the Arts BUA. You can read all this on the PDF description but here are the key details:

Relevant skills/experience:

  • experience in cultural, project and event management
  • research background in cultural and/or social studies
  • ability to work independently
  • networking experience
  • excellent communication skills in English and German
  • excellent skills in the managing of web platform, CMS and social media
  • interest in design as cultural phenomenon
  • located in Switzerland with a valid work permit

It’s a part-time position, so it would suit someone doing a PhD or not in a full-time post. It’s a good opportunity to connect with the design research world in Switzerland and beyond. Please pass it on to any friends, colleagues and ex-students you might think interested.

(The SDN site appears to be down at the moment. All the more reason we need a coordinator with skills in managing a web platform)

Services that fix services and the inverse experience umbrella

I often use air travel as the archetypal example of a multi-channel service that unfolds over time. Modern air travel consists of lots of minor annoyances that aggregate to a massive pain in the arse. When analysed individually, each of these annoyances can be dismissed as something not so bad that customers should be willing to put up, but it is the totally of the experience than counts.

Airport security is an area that is particularly awful and that people are resigned to. Much as the economy trumps social or environmental concerns, security trumps any kind of care for paying passengers’ experiences. That is unless you go through Sweden’s Göteborg Landvetter Airport, in which case security feels like an IKEA showroom.

I was intrigued to hear about Global Entry on John August’s Scriptnotes podcast as Craig Mazin’s One Cool Thing. By now it is common knowledge that the TSA is a disaster and swamp of scandals. Entering the U.S. feels like Kafka’s The Trial—a miserable, disorienting experience of being barked at by half-witted officials. Global Entry is a program that pre-approves people and offers them this service:

At airports, program participants proceed to Global Entry kiosks, present their machine-readable passport or U.S. permanent resident card, place their fingertips on the scanner for fingerprint verification, and make a customs declaration. The kiosk issues the traveler a transaction receipt and directs the traveler to baggage claim and the exit.

In other words, exactly the smooth, hassle (and being hassled) free experience it should already be. It’s a paid-for service to fix another one that doesn’t work and an admission that the normal system is simply broken. At the moment it’s only or U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, Dutch citizens (oddly—why only the Dutch from Europe?), South Korean citizens and Mexican nationals.

Aboalarm, a German app and service that I’ve written about before does something similar, allowing people to easily remember to quit their phone and utility contracts and even helping them send a signed fax to the customer service centres. It works seamlessly, but should be what customers are offering their customers to do instead of deliberately making it hard for them to leave. There is always a market opportunity for services that fix other poor services.

The Inverse Experience Umbrella

A price umbrella is where an expensive product, such as the iPhone, leaves room in a market for a competitor to offer something cheaper. That competitor can eventually grown and start taking the market share of the company that originally created the umbrella.

Something similar can happen with customer experiences. Services that have awful touchpoints that become the norm leave a kind of inverse experience umbrella in which a competitor just needs to take a touchpoint experience that is universally accepted as being poor, but that is also the standard expectation, and turn it around to be a positive experience. It is precisely because the expectations are so low in the first place and that customers are resigned to it that the positive experience carries such weight.

Staying with the airline theme, one of the most recent examples of turning a universally ignored touchpoint was Virgin America’s Safety Video. The assumption of competitors appears to be that nobody ever pays attention to them, so why bother spending much money on them? The twist of deciding not to film it inside an aircraft cabin freed them up to create something that not only does not get ignored, but even got a glowing review in The New Yorker.

The challenge is to meet the expectations that have been set by the video across all the other touchpoints. One commenter on the New Yorker article wrote, “After watching the video I spent the rest of my flight searching in vain for something on Virgin’s in-flight entertainment programming that was half as much fun.”

Lists and numbers versus stories

Eugene Wei posted a piece about why our brains love lists over on his Remains of the Day blog. It explains why all those “20 ways to…” blog post headlines are such popular click bait. But it’s not the list thing that I found so interesting, rather this snippet of Wei’s experience of working at

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos hated when folks would bring giant Powerpoint decks to present to him. While you’d be speaking to your first slide he’d already flipped to the end of the deck, having absorbed it all, and would start firing questions at you about slide 27. After a while he was so sick of the whole charade he banned Powerpoints and forced everyone to start bringing ideas to him in prose form.

Although I do often present with a slide deck, it is usually just one of images plus single straplines. (I also use Keynote rather than the design disaster that is PowerPoint, which means less time dicking around with formatting). The art of telling your story is crucial and I find a sequence of images works like a storyboard for me. I try to work out what the narrative is of I want to say.

I’m fascinated by Bezos insisting on prose form because I think it forces people to think through their idea as an experience much more than PowerPoint slide decks do. PowerPoint decks encourage a particular paradox—they allow people to present far too much information in a format that leaves out too much information. Single bullet points and list items can be wormholes into whole discussions and cover up all sorts of assumptions. Tufte has already covered the problems with PowerPoint, of course.

Writing in prose or constructing a narrative forces you to think of your audience and that leap of empathy is a crucial difference. PowerPoint is broadcast, a machine gun full of bullet points sprayed at an unwilling audience. Storytelling is seduction, pull rather than push.

That Bezos insists on this approach is interesting because a lot of managers want slide decks, believing, I assume, that having all the information in note form means they are more productive and efficient or some other bullshit executive myth. In reality, they’ll make their own assumptions, reading their ideas into the spaces between the list items and then switch off.

A good story, well told, hooks the listener—no need to try and force them to pay attention. I would imagine that if Bezos feels drawn in by the story of the idea, he assumes customers will be too. This feels evident in the recent Amazon Air stunt. It’s not about a cold-hearted, rational business proposition, but about selling an idea in the form of a story.

Developing a story of an idea might sound rather fluffy and emotional to some managers, particularly those who place great store in that other poor vehicle for human experience, the spreadsheet. Numbers feel solid, rational, impossible to argue with. But a business proposition presented in a spreadsheet also contains forecasts of growth/profit/customers. What people tend to forget is that these are also made up numbers. It is why so many tech stock analysts regularly reveal themselves to be idiots. Tell someone a story and they will poke holes in it in no time. Storytelling is an art and it’s actually much harder than most people believe. Honing an idea to be told in 300 words of prose is way harder than plonking a few bullet points on a slide.