Tag Archives: user experience

Customer Service Isn’t Rocket Science

Last year at dConstruct in Brighton, Kelly Goto (in a rather rushed, though charming, presentation) mentioned that we were reaching a point where user experiences were now, generally speaking, easy-enough to use. Not brilliant in most cases, but at a sufficient baseline that it was hard to find atrocious examples of  user experience.

Perhaps in North America. I recently went to Canada for the first time in many years and was instantly reminded on my first night there with Deb and Naomi, that the tipping-culture of the colonies is such that customer service is just consistently better. The simple motivating economics of working for tips begets a better experience. Here, not so much.[Be warned, what follows is a definite White Whine/First World Problem].

Stovax for example. I’ll try and keep this short. 2 Years ago we had a wood burning stove installed. I bought it online to save money, I had it installed by a local company. I think it now needs a service. I think this because I’m risk-averse and conscious that there are things like CO2 that can leak (possibly fatally) if not checked.

So, I start the process of trying to get it serviced. I start with the manufacturer, using their site to locate authorised resellers and service agents in my area. That was painless, their site allows me to see those offering service too, so I don’t need to bother retail-only outlets. But then it unravels. Each shop I emailed said they wouldn’t do it. Nobody would come out for a small fee to make a potential future customer happy. It begs the question why they would even say they were service agents. I got short shrift from all of them:

Galleon Fireplaces in Surbiton (Stovax’s preferred retailer) – Would not service a stove, despite it being less than 2 miles from their store, as it was not purchased from them. But they never responded to my email asking, I had to call in to be told, bluntly. In fact in all the dealings I’ve ever had with them to buy accessories they’ve been incredibly surly and rude on the phone and in-store.

EcoFires in Fleet – Despite selling us the stove, and despite several emails, Peter Hillier and Phillip Edwards never responded to my enquiry at all.

The Original Grate Expectations – Did respond by email but would not service a stove they didn’t install [despite me being told by Stovax they would].

The Fireplace Shop, Guildford – Neither Max nor anyone at the shop ever responded to my email

Croydon Mechanical & Electrical Service – Never responded to my email.

Cast Iron Fireplace Company – Listed on HETAS as a service agent for stoves yet Maureen was quick to respond to me to say “we do not carry out any servicing”, when I pointed out that they’re listed as such, she passed the buck and said it was not their site and they’d simple ‘suggest they change their wording’.

Kindle Stoves – Teddington, Did respond and Clare actually explained why they wouldn’t take on a small job like that during their peak installation season, providing some financial justification and pointing me at a possible solution.

By this point I was exasperated and chased it up with Stovax pointing out that its dealer network was failing customers. And yet again, it’s just a poor generic response.

It took [edit]17 days to respond to my email and when they did they simply said they don’t service (I wasn’t asking them to), then saying their dealers do (well, they say they do but they don’t). It took another 12 days after I replied that they said [paraphrased] ‘not our problem, blame the retailers’ and in doing so were entirely not bothered that I was unhappy and that their product was unusable. Instead they just blindly pointed me at more retailers that I’d have to ring/email. They passed the buck and instead acted as a reluctant and largely unhelpful directory service. In the end it was nearly a month after my original website enquiry that the chain of emails with Stovax Customer enquiries ended without a single apology for the delay in responding, the poor service from the dealer network they rely on or an acknowledgement that their emails had all the human tone of an automaton. Their website still suggests the same retailers. And this from a company that paid one of their directors nearly £500k in 2010.

Email customer service has allowed the agents to filter and respond in their own time, to not have to listen to a frustrated customer and to hide behind anonymity and stock responses.

What I just don’t get is that it’s not hard:

1. Respond quickly – email isn’t an excuse to sit on a problem until you can be bothered to get round to it, if you don’t have the time, employ more staff, change your working practises, don’t make the customer bear the burden.

2. Be personal – stock responses feel horribly generic. Named customer service representatives are much much better, it helps customers feel they they are being treated as a human being.

3. Always, always offer a solution – Several of the emails from the retailers and the manufacturer basically just stated the situation ‘we can’t help’ missing the irony that this itself is not helpful. Even if you can’t help, try to offer a solution where somebody else can so that the customer can at least associate you with some goodwill.

This stuff seems so obvious, common courtesy, manners even. Sadly, to suggest we’ve reached a baseline of good experience in the face of evidence like this is naive in my opinion. Small British business like those above you would think would be chasing every customer tail going in a time of financial prudence. Instead they’re sitting-on and mismanaging communications with potential new sources of revenue. They’re now in a situation where their reputation for at least one customer is permanently online, searchable and on-record as a bad one.

I’ve never had a strong urge to run a small business but I’d like to think that, if I did, I’d at least manage the customer experience from sale to service a damn site better than most of this lot.

UPDATE 17:57 25/Jan: Credit where it’s due, I have heard already this afternoon from Alun Williams at HETAS (industry regulator) and Stovax both of whom have be conciliatory and, in the case of the latter, are investigating.

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Experience Planning

I decided to have a bit of a break from Twitter (and Facebook) and to revert to the long-copy pleasures of full-fat blogs. To this end I have downloaded Reeder for my iPhone, fired-up my Instapaper archives and am eschewing the free papers on the commute home with the intention to read more about the things I used to read about.

A corollary to this will hopefully be a refreshed attention to my own blog and to the joy of writing again. Though I’ve read too many blogs in the past that have a post that reads: “Am blogging again, hope to blog more, watch this space!” … and that’s the last or penultimate dusty entry. So, no promises, none at all.

Before I dismiss the microblog for the aforementioned hiatus I did just want to highlight a link I found via Anne Czerniak’s stream: David Friedman’s Twitter Thesaurus. The function of David’s thesaurus is to provide alternative, succinct variants of the words you would write if you didn’t have a 140 character limit. It seems like just the sort of thing that verbose writers like myself would like to see added as a contextual add-in to desktop and mobile twitter clients, a bit like bit.ly does for url shortening.

Experience Planning (aka. Experience Design)
My ‘new’ job title is Experience Lead. This is in part due to Dare‘s merger with MCBD and the fact that not only do I now have sight of digital work, I have an occasional role to play in designing and consulting in offline experiences and service design. Whilst we have an adorable presentation deck that covers-off what Experience Planning is (in the context of Dare), much like my This is IA tumblr, I find it helpful to describe what we do with examples of what it is to design experiences (and not just websites).

Virgin Atlantic
Ever noticed that the lighting spectrum on airplanes leaves you looking rather palid, almost green and nauseous? The chaps at Virgin America have and consequentially installed a scheme with a varying light spectrum that reflects the prevailing destination timezone and external light conditions – even the mood of the passengers at key ‘touchpoints’ in the journey, viz :  “[the lighting is] in a ‘theatrical mood’ prior to departure. When you walk down the jet bridge, you see the purple glow of the mood lighting, and it hopefully excites you…” “…people have an emotional and physiological response to lighting. So we decided to shift the colour of our cabin lights during the course of flight. They’re associated with time of day outside or ambient light outside. If you’re flying by day and heading in to dusk, it will reflect the light level outside. It’s less jarring” – Adam Wells, Virgin America [Source: Budget TravelTravel Innovators“]

As experiences go, Disney have mastered many at their attractions around the world but queueing provides a constant target for designers with a remit to increase enjoyment at any cost. Innovations here are increasingly rare but often involve psychology (see David Maister’s article from many years ago). In this article from the New York Times late last year, Brooks Barnes details some of the cute operational armoury the experts at Disney can deploy:

  • A nerve centre with wait-time monitoring in real-time.
  • The ability to ramp up ride throughput by, for example, deploying more boats on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
  • The authority to re-deploy their character talent to the queues so that Goofy can take kids’ minds off the interminable wait.
  • Induce significant crowd shifts by initiating a pop-up parade: “Move it! Shake It! Shift It!” which nudges people to the less populated area.
  • Attention to operational detail to open more kiosks or cash registers, hand out menus and so-on.

Such interventions pervade in a culture of exceptional customer experience. Leaving room for staff to innovate and react in this way ensures that, collectively, the impression and memories users are left with are both positive and lasting. And memories are what all decent experience designers are after.

I got asked recently to write a piece on what might be considered a good opportunity for marketeers tired of the existing promotion calendar. I took an opportunity to assert that I think the marketing communications industry has for too long focussed on the acquisition part of the courtship of consumers. I think we have a great opportunity to work harder to continue to persuade throughout the life cycle – to promote retention with some ‘wow experiences. Working with tools like memory, serendipity, ephemera, transience and humanised language and interaction. All of which are just fancy words which are my attempts to intellectualise the stuff that Disney (v. supra) do so intuitively.

Perhaps I haven’t wrapped this post up quite the way I would normally like to, but these, dear reader, are my thoughts in flux about how I currently think about Experience Planning and the directions which interest me.

Footnote: This post was composed a few weeks ago during a spell when I wasn’t on Facebook or posting regularly on Twitter. I have returned to both sites since then but am significantly less active. I hope.



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Apple Stores: Experience Design = Great. Reality = Aaagh!

Rory Cellan-Jones writes over at the BBC dot.Rory blog today about the emergence of the Microsoft facsimile of the Apple retail store experience. I contend that we shouldn’t fawn too much over the Cupertino firm’s success here.

I am an Apple fan, albeit one without the disposable cash to have actually bought one of their computers. I have bought several iPods and my iPhone at the Apple retail store. My local store is Kingston [photo: a typical Saturday] and I suspect this store is representative of their mall units in the UK. It’s wonderfully designed inside with clear experience design – the analysis of which is covered well here. The reality is that the store is incredibly popular and consequentially the experience takes a pounding. I’d love to spend time browsing the Apple TV interface and discovering if the paucity of content has improved to the point that I might buy one. But I can’t because on a Saturday I’m lucky if after 5 minutes of trying I have actually managed to get near it. There are lots of teenagers who have absolutely no intention of purchasing nor the money to do so but they’re in the store in their hundreds. They stand two-three deep around £1500 machines taking photos of their faces and warping them, updating their Facebook status’ “in the Apl str, LOL” and generally cooling my enthusiasm for the brand.

Of course I can see that these teenage browsers are prospects themselves in a few years’ time or – through their parents’ wallets – in the near future. I’m not really attempting to make an assessment of the financial success of the Apple store (for which a selection of financials need to be considered). What I am really trying to draw attention to is that we are often a little too quick to wax on about such experiences without actually thinking them through by actually experiencing it. This means ethnographic reporting following a field trip out to the store with a given sequence of tasks to perform/observe. A report under these conditions would surely reveal more about the service experience than the  blind hyperbole of jumping on that jolly popular bandwagon.

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The Obsolescence Treadmill (feat. Nike Mayfly)

Nike Mayfly

Nike Mayfly by moleitau, on Flickr

Followers of my public streams will be aware that I am engaged on a 16-week training programme* to run the Virgin London Marathon on April 17th. This does rather mean that much of my waking moments are preoccupied with all things running. Occasionally my vocational and extra curricular interests collide, as is the case here with the Nike Bowerman Mayfly running shoe.

Alerted to its existence via Matt Jones’ concise post on the Berg blog, I started to think a little more about what this does to strengthen my opinion of Nike‘s marketing function as one that just gets the psychology of the runner.

It may be stating the obvious to some, but Nike aren’t just a manufacturer of sportswear. Their heritage shows a healthy track record (ahem) of producing products based on solid insight within the running community. In the case of the Mayfly this is insight that runners are want to wear their shoes for too long. The ramifications of this are not inconsiderable: worn-down shoes lead to poor form and consequentially impact-related injuries. In addition, enthusiastic amateur runners may well own multiple pairs of shoes aligned to particular conditions: trail, track and asphalt surfaces for example. Keeping track (again…) of the kilometres out through each pair of shoes is a challenge.

In the case of the Mayfly we have a £20 shoe with a tight limit on their effective usage; you get just 100km wear out of them. A planned obsolescence. The shoes have been designed with a tight engineering tolerance such that their performance is notably degraded once the user (runner) exceeds 100km. This fact isn’t hidden, it’s considered a selling point and the shoes themselves feature a manual odometer for you to clock up the km run on the side as an aide memoir and perhaps badge of intent to fellow runners.

So, what’s happening here, isn’t this just a trick to get us to buy more shoes more often? The cynic might suggest so, but let me suggest:

Scarcity: We are a little biased toward placing greater value on items that have a obvious limitation … the scarcity of the distance you can run in these shoes ensure you use them for only the right conditions (e.g. track running) and not perhaps as your daily runner – they’re your best pair.

Anxiety: Nike have form here – Nike+ on your headphones counts you up to the mid-point and then down to the end point of your run, increasing the performance anxiety. The same ticking clock is at work in these shoes, from the moment you put them on you’re running them into the ground. Of course this is nothing new – all shoes wear out – but these shoes makes it notably more explicit.

Reactance: When faced with a limit we’re rather prone to reacting against it (see anxiety above and consider the effect this has on performance). Does this limit actually challenge the runner to exceed it faster, sooner by covering the mileage at a greater pace or running more often? Mayfly runners might find themselves running harder and faster as consequence. There is little in life that is a simple and free as going running, by placing a limit on such a libertarian behaviour the reaction – if largely subconscious – could be profound.

I’ll concede that this might all be a case of me over-thinking a rather crude marketing strategy – planned obsolescence is nothing new after all – and that instead of positive reactance, consumers might actually react by seeing the limit as a weakness in Nike‘s durability and applicability to their sport. An analogous example might be the restrictions printer manufactures placed on their low usage and non-refillable ink cartridges. Indeed, one of the most significant issues that Nike will face is possibility that consumer watchdogs may deem the practise simply unethical. Perhaps in defence of this – and the inevitable environmental criticism – the shoes have been designed to be recycled by the responsible owner.

For the moment I am happy to continue with the upgrade treadmill of my (Asics) shoes on a 500km cycle which (at a current weekly effort of 30km+) should just see me through the 16 weeks.


* – Training programme via the wonderful Sam Murphy from her seminal work Marathon & Half Marathon: From Start to Finish

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