Absorbing varietySeptember 21, 2009 | 7:06 pm
A frustrated customer
Some weeks ago I bought an economics book that also had an useful web resource. Enclosed was a key to access the resource. It tried to use it and login, but did not succeed. I contacted the support and it took several emails back and forth to understand that the key could not be used. Since their web shop had no button to add this web resource item to my basket, I asked them how I could buy such a key. They redirected me to sales. Yet another email, this time to sales. Sales department could not find the ISBN number in their Canadian system and therefore could not give me a price. Period. That was all. How hard can it be? Here I was, a customer fighting to buy an item! I gave up.
This led me to think about services and their design. The above has happened many times in different situations. In the name of effectiveness and optimization I am forced to fill in standardized forms or talk to people that can handle only one type of questions. Sometimes I have to talk to an dumb automated teller without pardon. Why can’t I be guided to the right answer by a real person?
Services are designed with the assumption that 1) problems can be a categorized and 2) the customer can understand this categorization. In real life there is variety and the problem told, might be hiding the real one. What is the real result of this categorized service? People call again and ask questions. Are the customers slow to understand? Is the problem on the customer side? Should we optimize the categorization? No!
Service design seems to be guided by factory thinking. Usually the intelligence is put in an information system. This way, standardization can be applied by specialized service people. But this factory thinking, this system (encompassing much more than the IT system), hinders variety and create unhappy customers. It creates a demand of help or more information because of failures.
We should accept that variety is part of life and design the services accordingly. You may react: we cannot afford that! But what if the unnecessary questions, the “failure demand”, actually generate a lot of unnecessary work? This waste of time could have been avoided if the customer got all the help he wanted at first contact. Real people are the best absorbers of variety. When designing services, the workers that meet the customer should handle as much as possible and be a guide to the solution. This generates happy and returning customers.