Services need to manage reverse ID better

Having finally relocated to a permanent address in Sydney and re-docking with government and utilities, I’ve been experiencing the whole gamut of customer services. There are a whole host of things to register for and the way companies go about it is different every time.

The good news is that most of this is much better. I first got to Australia in 1999 and left in 2006 and I have many memories of having to go to government offices in person or being on hold to utility companies for ages. But there is still a lot of work to do.

Several companies have adopted the post-registration follow-up strategy. I can just see it as a sticky note touchpoint moment on some service or CX designer’s customer journey. The problem is many companies still have a view of the power relationship firmly placed in their camp – it’s still inside out. Here is what happened when my energy company, AGL, called me month into my contract with them. At least I assume it really was AGL:

Random caller on my mobile: “Hi, this is X from AGL, am I speaking to Mr Andrew Polaine?”

Me: “Er, yes.”

AGL: “Great. So I just wanted to welcome you to AGL and check that everything was set up on your account the way you want it.”

At this point I’m thinking, it’s a bit late, but one billing cycle in, so I understand why. And it’s a nice touchpoint so far. Then we hit an impasse:

AGL: “Before I go any further, I need to confirm some security details. Can you tell me your street number and name or give me your date of birth?”

Me: “Sure. But you just called me so I need to make sure you are actually from AGL. Can you tell me the last three digits of my account number?”

AGL: “I’m afraid I can’t do that until you confirm your account details.”

Me: “But I don’t know who you are. Do you not have any way to prove you are from AGL?”

AGL: “I’m sorry, I can’t give you any details until I confirm you for security purposes. But I understand if you are uncomfortable with this, so you can just give us a call anytime.”

The call centre contact was perfectly pleasant, but put in an impossible situation by policy and hamstrung by her script. It also turned something meant to be a pleasant, proactive touchpoint into work for me to do having to call them back. It also goes against the mental model of these kinds of interactions that other services, such as banks, have built in our heads – don’t give out your details to random callers.

This approach evidenced inside-out thinking, not customer centricity. The policy is probably “on all calls customers must identify themselves,” but the real world equivalent of my call was someone ringing my doorbell and asking me to prove I lived there when I answered the door.

Thinking through and acting out those kinds of interactions as if they were in-person and personal relationships is a simple way to get them right. In this case, AGL could have come up with a way to do a reverse ID check and even communicated this when I first signed up so I knew what to expect. It’s not a huge transgression, but multiple moments like that add up to a choppy experience. Thankfully AGL have been pretty good so far.

Touchpoint Observatory: Touch Elevator Buttons

touch elevator buttons

I think I could write a whole series on lift buttons – I regularly see people struggle with this most rudimentary of interfaces. These buttons are from a smart new building at the Hochschule Luzern. They’re touch sensitive buttons displayed by an LED lighting up behind stencilled glass.

It looks trendy, but in practice, they’re awful. There is no satisfying affordance of pressing a physical button (and people love hammering lift buttons even though they know it doesn’t make the lift arrive faster). If the LEDs blow, you don’t know where the buttons are or even if they still work.

If the power completely goes, you won’t even see any of the emergency call buttons printed on top of the glass.

If you are blind, you are totally out of luck anyway. But despite this building having a toilet for the disabled on the ground floor, this lift appears to be only accessible after a flight of five steps, so obviously disability was pretty much and afterthought anyway. Shameful.

Touchpoint Observatory: One company’s junk service is another company’s gold

aboalarm-kuendigungsmaschine.jpg In Germany and Switzlerand1 there is an accepted culture that contracts for most services can be renewed for a year – sometimes even two – automatically if you do not quit your contract, in writing, before the end of the Kündigungsfrist. This is the deadline by which you must quit the contract and its usually three months before the end of the contract. In some cases this makes sense, such as renting an apartment, where both sides needs adequate notice, but most of the time this is used to simply lock customers into a contract all over again, because most people forget to do it until it is too late. Here’s how that usually plays out:

  1. Sign up for a new mobile/cable/insurance, etc. package – often you create a contract on the phone
  2. Receive a 10-page contract in the mail, put all the papers in a folder somewhere and forget the dates
  3. Have some problem with your service, decide you don’t like your service provider and decide you want to change
  4. Find out that your contract has automatically been extended and hate them even more, swearing you’ll never miss the date again
  5. Immediately write a letter quitting your contract for the next year

The thinking behind this is that companies can simply rely on most people to keep forgetting and lock them in. Sometimes this means they’re locked into old plans or tariffs too, which can be more expensive. Companies try to claim that they’re providing a helpful service by automatically extended the customers contract so that they’re always covered or connected, but of course they could still do this and let people quit with just, say, a month’s notice once they are past the official end of their contract.

All in all it leaves a sour taste in the mouth and, as a customer, you pretty much hate any service provider who tricks you with this and you swear never to do business with them again. The problem is, they all do it, so there’s not much chance to avoid it.

Signing the divorce papers on your honeymoon

What some people do is to quit their contract in writing immediately after signing their contract, so they don’t forget. You can always retract it later if you are happy with the service.

Let’s just recap on that and frame it in terms of a relationship commitment, like a marriage, which it is. This is akin either to a pre-nuptual or, worse, signing divorce papers and filing them away somewhere on the first day of your honeymoon, just in case it goes pear-shaped later. It’s not a recipe for a mutually beneficial and trusting relationship.

There is an enormous service opportunity for companies who decide not to do this, providing they can get it past blinkered management. Nobody wants to be locked in to a service, because everyone knows they have no power as a customer because they can’t go anywhere else and the company has no incentive to improve their service. In the mobile phone industry, the focus is still on customer acquisition instead of retention, though there are some signs that this is changing.

One company’s junk service is another company’s gold

Interestingly, a side-service industry has sprung up helping people to quit their contracts (Carphone Warehouse were the first company to do this back in the early days of mobile contracts in the 90s). In Germany there is a service called Aboalarm – Abo is short for Abonnement or subscription. They have both a website and an iOS app that has the customer service details of almost every service provider. You can go online and use one of the templates or simply use the app.


You put in your details, sign it with your finger and they fax it off for you. This is either free when hooked into some kind of social media recommendation or 79c. The app also allows you to set alarms when you first create a contract that goes into your calendar with a reminder a few days before the Kündigungsfrist, so you never forget.


The service design lesson here? Apart from the obvious one of not shackling your customers, it is possible make plenty of money providing ways around other companies’ lack of service.

  1. I only know this from the Dark Ages of mobile phone contracts in the UK and from the current state of almost all contracts in Germany and Switzerland. I was amazed this was even legal when I first started living in Germany and found out about it. Germans and Swiss seem to just accept it as life, but I would be interested to know if any other countries do something similar or have outlawed it. Drop me a tweet.  

Touchpoint Observatory: ICE restaurant car


Breakfast on the German ICE train

While there are a few things not to like about German trains – officious staff, annoyingly slow ticket machines – it’s small beer (especially when compared to Germany’s beers).

This is the view of my breakfast on the Inter-City Express train to Switzerland that I have to take to work on many mornings. I normally grab something in Basel on the way and today was a luxury, although at 8.20 euros, including table service, it’s not much different to what I pay on-the-hoof in Switzerland. It made dragging myself out of bed at 5.40 AM more bearable.

Comfortable seats, proper tables setting, linen tablecloth, waitress. All remnants of a bygone age for trains in many other countries. This isn’t First Class either – there they bring you the food to your seat so you don’t have to even move your executive arse. It is the restaurant car for normal mortals.

The ICE trains in Germany are clean, quiet, punctual, well-equipped (each seat has a power outlet) and, well, relatively expensive too. My half-price ticket from Offenburg to Luzern and back is around 59 Euros (to give you an idea, that’s about 230km one way). But most commuters have a BahnCard, which gives 25, 50 or 100% off ticket prices and pays for itself pretty quickly. If you’ve paid for a BahnCard 100, it also has the effect of time-shifting the pain of payment. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet – you paid up front, so you take the train as much as you can instead of the car. On the other had, if I drive I pay about the same in fuel.

It should be obvious why all this matters. It makes train travel a pleasure rather than a hectic, sweaty, cramped horror, which is my memory of train travel in the UK. This matters not just for my personal comfort, but because it shifts behaviour. Taking the train is a far better and more pleasant alternative than driving. The car becomes second or third choice, not the default, which is just how it needs to be.

Touchpoint Observatory: Badly Hand-Drawn Signs = Ruined Branding


You have spent thousands on your corporate branding, you keep a tight reign over the usage of your logo, you ship out expensively produced marketing materials to your franchise affiliates and… they ruin it all by creating crappily hand-drawn signs and sticking them in the doorway of the shop.

This is a trend that I have seen all over the place in Germany. I’m not sure how it started, but it is an awful touchpoint. It doesn’t even have a bit of “human personality charm” to it. It’s simply bad branding and confusing (what does that bar graph mean?). Worst of all, it kills off any other brand coherency that all the proper materials might offer.


This one is for my local post office. Deutsche Post have a similar official and franchise model to mobile telco stores and despite the branding guidelines that I am sure exist, this post office’s opening times look like they were drawn by a 10 year-old. Even an awful Word doc typeset in Ariel would be an improvement on this – home printers are ubiquitous these days. Oh yes, don’t forget this is a bank (Postbank) too. Would you trust your money with them?

Touchpoint Observatory: Service Sold in a Box


When companies struggle to get their heads around service, they often end up marketing services as if they were products. The above image is for television delivery from a big German consumer electronics chain store called Media Markt. Not just service, you will note, but “power service.” I’m not quite sure what that means – we don’t just deliver, but we plug it in too?


Applecare is one of the most high-profile examples of this. You can buy a box of Applecare, which has a CD (pointless these days) and registration papers in it. The above photo from the amusingly named robotpolisher on Flickr has a caption underneath that says it all:

“Possibly the largest cost/weight ratio of anything I’ve ever bought . This practically weightless tiny cardboard box which contains presumably just a couple of scraps of paper set me back an astonishing $315 for three years of service.”

Surely there are better ways to communicate what a service is and the value of it to the end customer?

Touchpoint Observatory: UK Lift Engineer Bodge Job


This lovely piece of work is in a multistory car park in Ipswich in the UK. There are two lifts next to each other and something must have broken or been changed in one of them meaning the usual function of one button calling whichever lift is next free no longer works. The engineers have obviously had to remove the old panel and install a new one. They should have fixed the source problem, of course, but they have made the whole thing even more hilariously worse by installing a second “button” that is this huge module. It doesn’t fit and they can’t re-cable it, so the bodge solution is to install as picture above.

To top it off, they’ve had to put on stickers to explain which button does what. Extra labels always being the sign of badly thought through interfaces (that link is NSFW, by the way).

Why does this matter? Well, as an Englishman who has lived in Germany for many years, this level of workmanship is just shocking and something you would never see in Germany. More important is what it signals about the care the owners of the car park are going to take of your car and personal safety in the place. The whole thing screams, “we don’t care.”

Touchpoint Observatory: SIM Card Vending Machine


In Germany, mobile phone contracts are 24 months by default, not just for an iPhone. Additionally, there is a culture here whereby contracts are automatically renewed for a year (in some industries, two years) if you don’t quit the contract in writing, three months before the end of it. Of course, most people forget and hate their telco forever more. The telcos haven’t got their head around this yet.

Pre-pay accounts are, of course, a lot easier, but you usually have to provide some kind of ID. I saw this vending machine in Heathrow airport – the first time I’ve seen the possibility to just buy a SIM card without any human interaction and just start using it. The vending machine appeared to be provider neutral, with all the big networks represented. Interestingly, some of the SIMs were just data-only, which is a sign of the times for mobile telcos (VOIP killed roaming, so let’s sell them data instead).

It is also a reminder that SIM cards are really the only product that the mobile telcos sell. The handsets are sold by the manufacturers, subsidized by the telcos (who also get a cut, of course). Telephony is pure service.

Touchpoint Observatory: Velobox


My home town of Offenburg has a whole load of Veloboxes at the station (at both entrances on both sides of the tracks). On one side they even have a Velobox and Lufstation (air station, where you can pump up your tires). The boxes are pretty large – the biggest of bikes would fit and I would imagine even two at a squeeze. They are in great demand and, amazingly, only cost around 15 Euros per year to rent, according to one user that I asked.

(As an aside, it’s a shame these companies have such awful websites – but then check out the site of the guy who is credited with designing it. Notice anything similar?)

I suspect they are subsidized as part of Offenburg’s effort to be one of the most cycle friendly cities in Germany. The city, which is small at about 65,000 people, has a bike hire service rolled out across it as well as free bikes that can be borrowed by visitors, free cycle-lane maps, and a hotline to phone in broken glass on the road to be cleared. The city also have a program to become an electric vehicle friendly city, with e-cars in their car-sharing fleet, public charging stations in prime places in carparks.

We also have grab handles for cyclists on traffic lights here, so you don’t need to put your feet down and you can get a good start when the lights change to green. I’ll try and photograph one soon.

All these small touch points add up to a sense of the city really being cycle friendly and gradually iron out some of the “glitches” that make cycling in cities irritating, such as cycle lanes suddenly ended at railings or a main road, or no cycle lanes at all. Why do the details matter? Because people’s barriers to use are so low, especially when using a car is so convenient. The more the glitches are ironed out, the less excuses people have for not cycling (although it’s -12ºC here today, which is challenging).

Touchpoint Observatory: Send your post from the restaurant


This restaurant in Freiburg, Germany, called Omas Küche (Grandma’s Kitchen) was super family-friendly, but what caught my eye was the first page of the menu. It has all the usual stuff about opening times and lactose and gluten-free diets, free wi-fi, etc., but then goes on to offer single cigarettes for sale for “Gelengheitsraucher” (casual smokers), a case with reading glasses of different strengths and they will even post your mail for you and have stamps available to buy at the bar. A nice set of service extras that have probably grown out of people asking for them over the years. Shame the website lets it down.