Any actions that an organization takes to improve their customers’ experiences deserve recognition. However, I believe that many organizations’ efforts toward becoming more customer focused—well intentioned though they may be—work better in theory than in execution. Organizations and their employees may make short-sighted or even rash decisions in the spirit of becoming customer centric, and this can have devastating effects on the very experiences they are trying to improve.
In this column, I’ll describe some of my own experiences in interacting with organizations that made well-intentioned attempts to become customer centered, but ultimately made decisions that had negative consequences on their customer experience. I’ll also outline how good principles of effective service design can help organizations to be more appropriately customer focused.
Building Permits: Feeling Special Isn’t Always a Good Thing
My husband and I were hiring a contractor to do some minor exterior work on our house, and he said we would need to obtain a permit for him to do the work. However, he also told us that he had already started a permit process for similar work with the local building department, that the permit was ready to be picked up, and we would just need to change the address. So I went to the building department and noticed four employees behind a long counter—two were seated at desks, while two others were waiting on customers or contractors. I sat down in the waiting area, which was empty. After 5 to 10 minutes of waiting, one of the employees asked what I needed:
- I explained the situation. He nodded in understanding and asked for the address of the original permit.
- I provided it, and he said, “Okay, give me a few minutes.”
- He returned with what seemed to be the permit and asked for my address.
- I provided it, and he said, “Okay, your permit will be ready in 3 to 4 days. I need two cashier’s checks for the associated fees.”
I was confused because our contractor hadn’t mentioned any fees or the extra time it would take to obtain the permit. So I explained to the employee that we had a contractor ready to start working tomorrow and that I had thought the permit was ready to go. He sensed my aggravation and disappointment and said, “Well, Tuesday is the worst case, but it may be ready today. This is pretty simple, so it’ll likely be ready earlier.” Frustrated, I said, “Okay, well, I guess I need to get the cashier’s checks anyway. I’ll go to the bank to get them and be back in a few minutes.”
Then I went to a nearby bank, returning 15 minutes later with the cashier’s checks. Now, six customers were in the waiting room, and all of the employees were busy helping people, but I didn’t see the employee with whom I had been working. I waited a few minutes, intercepted one employee and explained, “Excuse me. I was here earlier and just needed to drop off the cashier’s checks for the permit. I was working with a blond man, whom I don’t see right now. Do you know if he’s still here?”
He didn’t seem frustrated by my interruption, but I could tell he was frazzled by how busy the office had become. He asked for my address and began looking for the paperwork, which I didn’t expect. I assumed that he would tell me where the other employee was. Fortunately, the original employee who had been helping me walked in, nodded in recognition of me, and said, “You’re back already? Well, the permit’s almost ready to go, I just need to get a manager’s signature.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, well, it was simple, just like I said.” He then proceeded to ask his coworkers whether one of the managers was available, so he could get the necessary signature. I gave him the cashier’s checks and happily left with the permit, thankful that I didn’t have to return to the building department or delay our contractor.
Process Issues Lead to Mistrust
While many would argue that I should be a very satisfied customer because the employees at the building department seemingly had expedited the process of getting my permit, I contend that their customer-focused approach actually hindered my trust in the service.
First, the employee was quick to tout a standard timeline of 3 to 4 days, but equally quick to backtrack and say, “Well, it might be ready today.” In fact, it was ready in 20 minutes. I left confused about whether the department even had a standard permitting process and, if so, how well they enforced it. When customers interact with a service, they want to trust it. But not only did I leave the building department thinking that they didn’t have a good, standardized process in place, I left with less trust because the person from whom I obtained the permit set one service expectation, then changed it. It also left me thinking that, if people complain, they’ll simply get what they want. Instead, the department should have consistent processes for handling standard service requests in place, and they should clearly communicate a process prior to starting it.
Second, upon my return to the department with my cashier’s checks, I interrupted an employee’s activities in the hope that he would be able to direct me to the employee who was originally assisting me. Instead, he began to help me himself. He literally stopped what he was doing, abandoning the person he was helping. Some would argue, “Well, wasn’t that a good thing—you received immediate support.” I argue, however, that I would have preferred to know that there was a method to the work than to have received immediate assistance. Knowing that there’s a process the building department follows would mean they would treat every customer the same, every time. I don’t want to leave thinking that, next time, I could be one of the people waiting, and they might take someone outside the queue ahead of me.
Takeaway—Although this may seem counterintuitive, the reality is that, ideally, customers should not feel as though an organization has done something special or unique solely for them. Rather, customers should feel as though their experience is predictable and consistent. Then, if the experience is a good one, they’ll think, This is how I can expect it to be every time.