Comcast Customer Receives Bill Addressed to ‘Super Bitch‘

In our book on service design and elsewhere, we often talk about how much people are at the heart of services.

Although branding folk like to speak of products having personalities, your car does not wake up with a hangover, and your iPhone does not hate its boss and act surly with its user all day.

Comcast’s employees insulting customers via address labels exactly illustrates the point. Whoever is in charge of customer experience at Comcast has a problem, but I bet it’s a problem created by management culture more broadly.

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.

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.

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.”

Lamy’s attention to detail in customer service

Several years ago my wife bought me a Lamy 2000 fountain pen as a birthday present. It is a design classic created by Gerd Alfred Müller, released in 1966. If you like writing, the Lamy 2000 is a lovely instrument1. It is not cheap either, retailing at around 190 Euros here in Germany. One of my favourite features about it is that the syphon mechanism is almost invisible in the Makrolon barrel. Only if you look carefully do you see the join and when you twist the end the end of the barrel unscrews to draw up ink. I also like the slightly hooded nib holder and the small spring that slips between the nib section and the body barrel, with two tiny protrusions that keep the cap on. All in all it is a great balance between aesthetics, minimalism and functionality.

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(Image by ludalmg90 on Flickr)

For the past year I have been using a Pelikan 200 as my everyday pen, because I had a problem with my Lamy 2000 not drawing up the ink correctly. Last night I decided to clean my Lamy and take it apart to find out what was wrong. One of the lovely things about the design is that this is all possible to do yourself with no tools. As it happened, the rubber end of the syphon had folded back on itself, which is why it was no longer drawing up ink.

Lamy2000 autopsy

(A Lamy 2000 “autopsy” by user Lamy 2000 on Flickr)

I left everything to soak in warm water in a bowl, tipped out the water and put the pen back together only to discover my terrible error. Every website that talks about taking apart the pen cautions owners not to lose the spring that holds the cap on. It is just sandwiched between the nib holder and the main barrel, so it easily falls out. I have always been careful with this in the past, because it is only small:

Buyreplace fountain2000 ring

(Image from

But I had tipped mine down the plughole like an idiot.

After much swearing and searching—even shining a torch down the plughole to see if it had got caught there—I decided I would have to order a new spring. I headed over to Lamy’s website and filled in their customer support form to see if I could order one directly from them. I was expecting to be directed to my local retailer who would make the order and expecting the usual tedium of having to find one (not hard in Germany though) and waiting for them to order it.

Instead, I had a call this morning from the very friendly Susann Kießling at Lamy customer service. I didn’t quite manage to pick up the call in time, but, when I called the number back, she answered with, “Hallo Herr Polaine,” because she must have recognised the number. An entertaining exchange ensued in which she jokingly asked me why it was always men who completely dismantled their Lamy 2000s to clean them instead of just rinsing the nib. I explained that I was trying to fix it, but felt a little sheepish nonetheless—I imagined her receiving mails every day from hapless men who had wrecked their pens.

She said she would pop a new spring clip along with the syphon head in the post today. I asked how I should pay and she said, “with a smile” to which I laughed and she responded, “so now it is paid for.” Not only that, but she also mailed me to thank me for the enjoyable conversation.

We wrote in our service design book that there is only one kind of personal and it’s to actually be personal. Reading from a script or, worse, hearing a recorded “your call is important to us, please hold” is often worse than being impersonal in the first place. Frau Kießling’s warm and humorous manner, attention to detail and desire to help an idiot customer who took apart his 190 Euro fountain pen and lost a part of it was an example of getting this very right.

This reminded me of the (possibly apocryphal) story of the customer whose Rolls Royce axel/spring broke when driving over the Alps. Rolls Royce supposedly sent out engineers to fix it and when the bill failed to materialise, the owner was informed that his must be mistaken because “Rolls Royces never break down.” I was annoyed with myself for having lost the spring and Frau Kießling not only fixed my problem for free, but also made me see the humour in it and give me a laugh in the process.

Frau Kießling could have told me it would cost 30 Euros to replace and I would have paid it, slightly begrudgingly knowing it probably cost Lamy much less than that. But I would have paid it anyway, because my pen would be useless without it. Rather than use this as a way to blackmail me out of more money Lamy did the opposite. For little cost to Lamy beyond hiring a pleasant and smart customer service representative, the cost of the spring and the price of a stamp, they’ve now got a customer who will sing their praises.

The moral of the story here is how much details matter. I feel more confident that Lamy pay attention to details in their products because I see their attention to detail in their customer service. I also see the attention to detail in the customer service as a reflection of their manufacturing quality. The values reinforce each other. Companies who believe they don’t have to bother to care for their customers once they have got their money miss out on the true profit of building lifelong relationships with them.