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

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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: ICE restaurant car

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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: SIM Card Vending Machine

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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

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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: Armed Ticket Collectors

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These people – five in total – were ticket inspectors on an early afternoon bus in Luzern, Switzerland, very much a tourist destination. So why are they dressed like armed police (no guns, but with pepper spray and earpieces)? And what is a security firm, Securitas, doing supplying ticket inspectors to a public transport company?

Luzern has its share of social problems, but is very safe compared to other cities and has nowhere near the kinds of issues cities like London or New York have. I have seen transport police on trains in London, but the blurring of the boundaries by the use of uniforms and attitude is a poorly thought through touchpoint, much like the TSA uniforms and badges that they are hopefully about to lose in the USA. If certain people in society have special powers over others, it is important to be able to recognise that straight away, not be left unsure as to your and their rights and responsibilities.