Written by Steve Bosak
Have you ever had a really bad customer experience with a large company? What about a series of bad experiences? We have some thoughts and suggestions.
I’ve had a series of frustrating exchanges with my cell phone company, one of the dominant wireless carriers in the United States. When I shared my story with friends and family, I found that many of them have also had bad experiences with this same company.
This got me to thinking: Why is it that bad customer experience seems to plague many larger companies?
It’s not like it can’t be done.
As human-centered designers, we know that companies have access to the tools for creating good customer service. There are many examples of companies with great services and customer experience—a few that stand out to me include Apple (and the Apple Store experience), Patagonia, USAA, and GEICO. We know that companies that offer great service reap benefits through customer loyalty and retention, referrals, positive reviews, and reliable profits.
So, why would a company allow bad customer experience to continue?
Then there’s the commodity conundrum.
If you are a giant mobile service provider, perhaps the primary service you offer—a mobile phone network—is so much of a necessity that you don’t need to worry about your customers’ experience. You could be, in fact, too big to care about customer service. A web search for “worst customer service” will produce results that include well-known wireless carriers, cable companies, banks, and airlines.
The mobile phone service market is competitive—we constantly see advertising on TV and the internet featuring deals to entice you to move to a new carrier. While some big cell carriers offer better connectivity in certain geographic areas than others, basically they all offer the same phones and the same service, so deals and incentives are key marketing tactics.
Are internal departments even talking to each other?
I was attracted back to this company with more than $1,500 of incentives. The big problem emerged when I tried to take advantage of those incentives after I switched a few cell phones over to the cell phone provider.
The cell phone provider offers coupons and discounts to bring new phone numbers onto their network or to trade in older phones. They give you coupon codes that you must redeem online via a third-party website. In my view, these coupons are designed so that many, if not most, customers will simply forget or give up trying to cash them in. I had multiple phone conversations with friendly customer service representatives who promised to honor my coupons… only to have those promises broken a day later.
From a customer perspective, it appears that the different parts of the company—sales department, customer service, coupon redemption—do not communicate well with one another. The financial incentives they offer customers are not synchronized across the company. My guess is that many customers give up on pursuing the incentives they were promised, but I kept trying, making more than six calls to get the company to honor the coupons they offered me.
Eventually, I got a veteran customer service rep on the phone who had been there 15 years. She could see my call history and asked me a number of questions about what the original sales rep told me regarding the coupons. After talking with her manager and another department, she got back on the line and told me she was crediting my account for all the coupons that I was offered.
I almost fell off my chair. Finally!
I imagine that this company’s customer service representatives spend millions of hours a year dealing with frustrated customers. It’s hard to imagine, however, how this benefits the company. Surely it leads to significant burnout among their customer service staff.
Perhaps customer acquisition has a higher priority than retention.
Is customer turnover so great in the cell carrier market that they don’t see a reason to improve their customer service? My cynical theory is that the company’s marketing department creates oodles of incentives to offer customers and makes no effort to coordinate the successful delivery of those incentives because they do not think it will benefit their bottom line. Their investors care about their total market position and not about customer satisfaction.
This “Anti-Human-Centered Design” approach harms customers and staff, but no one senior enough in the company seems to care.
So… what can be done?
How do we as consumers cope with this frustration? The simple answer is to give our business to companies with better service. My approach was to keep badgering the company until I received what they originally promised, but that took much time and effort.
If we look through a different lens—i.e., leaders within the company—we can begin to see a better future.
When I did some research on LinkedIn of the top managers in CX roles at this cellular provider company, I was struck that few, if any, mention “human-centered design” (HCD) in their profiles. None list any training in design thinking or HCD. The common background for customer experience seems to be marketing or sales. While you don’t need a design thinking background to understand good customer service, I think this cell phone company’s customer service leaders do need to spend time talking with their customers and their customer service representatives, especially the frustrated ones.
They would be well served to map the journey of the person who wants to switch cell carriers and take advantage of the deals offered to consumers. Only after the company discovers their customers’ pain points might they understand how their sales incentives and service not only frustrates the customer but also wastes their staff’s time and cuts into profits through lost sales and defecting customers.
I know from my research for this article that I’m in good company when it comes to bad customer experiences with a mobile service provider. Do you have a similar story about “Anti-Human-Centered Design”? Please comment below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Steve Bosak comes to innovation and design thinking from the environmental policy and advocacy field, having learned how to create pro-environmental coalitions to promote conservation causes in Congress during the 2000s. He has used his innovation and facilitation skills to craft policy, build coalitions, and create media and internet outreach strategies during his more than 20-year career.