Designing Great Customer Services

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
June 22, 2015

In December of 2014, I wrote a column for UXmatters titled “Designing Great Organizational Services.” It focused on the services a company offers through departments such as Human Resources, Finance, and Information Technology. As service designers, we often forget that these types of services exist. While, as employees, we interact with such services every day, only recently have companies begun to care about employees’ experiences using these services. This has, in turn, made them top of mind for service designers.

In contrast, the external-facing services that an organization offers to its customers are what designers typically envision when thinking about service design. When an organization is a service organization—that is, their revenue and business model center on offering a service to their customers—the customer service experience has a direct correlation with the success of that organization. The purest form of service organization is one that has no product. Education, cleaning, financial, hospitality, medical, transportation, and legal services are all examples of pure services. When you introduce a product into a business model, an organization becomes less of a pure service organization. For example, restaurants are a great example of service organizations that also have a product—the food they serve—at the heart of the experience. Both the service and the food have to be good for the customer to have a good overall experience.

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As products take on more emphasis in a business model—for example, as in manufacturing and retail businesses—we categorize organizations as product companies, but they still may have service components. To add even more complexity, there are organizations that operate online, as etailers; that don’t actually produce any products themselves; whose service connects customers to retailers; that act as a distributor and manage the surrounding aspects of the end-to-end experience, including purchasing, shipping, and delivery. Before Kindle, Amazon was a perfect example of this type of organization.

Regardless of how pure a service- or product-oriented organization is, any organization that interacts with external customers has a service component to what they do. And as experience designers, we all know the importance of a good service experience to an organization’s bottom line. But what we often don’t consider is how negative an impact on revenue a bad service experience can have. Five years ago, Harris Interactive and RightNow completed their annual Customer Experience Impact Report, which presented some key insights that made organizations want to do something about their customer service:

  • 82% of consumers in the U.S. said they’ve stopped doing business with a company due to a poor customer service experience.
  • Of these, 73% cited rude staff as the primary painpoint, and 55% said a company’s failure to resolve their problems in a timely manner drove them away.
  • Almost everybody surveyed, a full 95%, said they would “take action” after a bad customer experience.
  • 79% of U.S. consumers said they blabbed about their negative customer experiences in public and among friends.
  • Of consumers who took to social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, to publicly air a complaint, 58% expected a response from the company, and 42% expected to receive that response within a day, but only 22% said they’d actually gotten a response as a result of their griping.

TechCrunch had access to exclusive insights from RightNow that they did not include in their report, indicating that, “The more digital communication options that consumers have, apparently, the more they crave human interaction in real time.”

In this column, I’ll share some insights from the various research initiatives I’ve led over the years to help organizations address the need to improve their customer service interactions.

Common Customer Complaints

While every organization may have nuanced differences in the customer painpoints that their service experience creates, this section describes the most consistent and recurring customer issues:

  • Process Issues
    • Customers don’t understand where to go or who to go to regarding what service request.
    • A company has a seemingly complex organizational process that’s visible to customers.
    • Customers are unclear on what will happen and when in the process.
    • Too many handoffs occur among a company’s people and systems.
    • A company seems to handle similar service requests differently each time.
    • Customers need to explain the same request and provide their personal information multiple times.
    • Conflicting or inconsistent information exists across sources or channels.
    • It’s difficult to get access to a live person.
  • Human-to-Human Interaction Issues
    • Service employees often follow a standard script and are not prepared to problem-solve for customers.
    • Employees care more about closing their own service tickets and pushing customers to another group than about helping customers.
    • Interactions with service employees vary based on each employee’s training, region, personality, and emphasis on customer service.
    • Service employees lack empathy or the urgency necessary to solve problems.
    • Employees are not empowered to make decisions that would enable them to help customers.
  • Communication Issues
    • A lack of communication on the status of a request leaves the customer in the dark.
    • Responses are often generic and unhelpful.
    • Cultural or language issues can lead to miscommunications.
    • Phone trees and interactive voice response systems (IVRs) are difficult to use.

Experiencing these issues frustrates customers, making them feel as though they are on their own and must take responsibility themselves to ensure that their need for service gets handled. Many customers have indicated that they have had to follow up to see how things were progressing. Over time, unsurprisingly, such issues lead to dissatisfaction and a lack of trust—and they likely contribute to that previously mentioned statistic of 82% of people who have stopped doing business with a company because of a poor service experience.

Future-State Service Principles and Requirements

Once you’ve communicated the current state of their service experience to an organization, you need to show them what the future could look like. As I mentioned in my December 2014 column, a valuable way of communicating a future state is to create a set of high-level, service-design guiding principles, then define service requirements that address the aforementioned customer painpoints and issues. Organizations can anchor themselves in these principles and leverage them to make strategic decisions about their future priorities, organizational structure, and investments.

The following recommendations represent those that service designers most commonly provide to clients to improve their organization’s customer-service experience:

  • Service-Delivery and Process Recommendations
    • Provide centralized and clear access points to information and service-delivery channels.
    • Set clear expectations for how service employees should fulfill particular service requests.
    • Proactively coordinate and streamline backend systems and the work of service employees.
    • Always provide any relevant status updates to customers.
    • Deliver responses to inquiries quickly, reflecting a request’s level of urgency.
    • Ensure a central view of the customer that’s available across all channels to avoid service employees’ asking customers for redundant details or requiring too many handoffs during customer contacts.
    • When exceptions occur that require customer action, provide clear directions regarding what a customer needs to do and how to do it.
    • Allow customers to track the status of their request through their preferred channel. All channels should reflect consistent status information—for example, consistent naming of status information and presenting the same information online that a customer would receive when talking to a service representative.
  • Language Recommendations
    • Speak the same language as the customer—that is, task-oriented and behavior-driven language rather than backend language—and map that shared language to all aspects of service delivery in a consistent manner.
    • Implement and maintain information architecture, visual design, and communication standards across all service-delivery channels to ensure that all of these systems are consistent.
    • Consider cultural nuances in written and verbal communications with customers and attempt to mimic their local language.
  • Communication Recommendations
    • Send email messages at every major step in a process and whenever exceptions occur.
    • Allow customers to opt in to other channels to receive push communications—for example, SMS.
    • Ensure that the most meaningful content gets the highest priority.
    • Make sure all service employees have the most up-to-date information, a central view of the customer, and a way to refer to previous communications with the customer—for example, notes.
    • If a service employee must escalate or transition a call, ensure a meaningful and seamless transition among service employees, so the customer has confidence in achieving a solution quickly.
    • Ensure that a phone tree provides easy access to the main menu and an option to speak directly to a service representative.

What Good Looks Like

While all of these principles are integral to guiding companies in their investments and decision making, clients often ask us, “So, what do other companies that are models for customer service do?” The following sections provide examples of companies who are doing specific facets of customer service particularly well. 

Exemplary Seamlessness and Backend Coordination: Smith & Noble

Smith & Noble provides custom window furnishings and related services such as design consulting, measurement, and installation. The overall, end-to-end experience of purchasing window treatments involves obtaining order samples, making an appointment for someone to measure the windows, placing an order for the window treatments once the measurements have been taken, then delivering and installing the window treatments. The process itself is not complex.

However, Smith & Noble rely on local, independent contractors for much of the work. Since these outside contractors are not employees of Smith & Noble, they aren’t users of Smith & Noble’s internal business processes or infrastructure. While such a distributed service model usually means headaches for customers, Smith & Noble does a great job of keeping any backend coordination between their local contractors and themselves invisible to customers. In fact, the complete, end-to-end experience is well communicated and completely seamless.

In Figures 1-3, you can see example email messages that come from both Smith & Noble and a local contractor. These messages are about arranging a measurement appointment.

Figure 1—My request for measurement service
My request for measurement service

The message shown in Figure 1, which comes directly from Smith & Noble, is about my online request for their measurement service.

Figure 2—Setting up the appointment
Setting up the appointment

Figure 2, which comes from a third party who organizes the local contractors, explains that a local contractor will be handling measurement. It clearly explains all of the next steps in the process, including the connection between Smith & Noble and the local contractor who will subsequently send the measurements to Smith & Noble for order processing.

Figure 3—Measurements-received notification
Measurements received notification

Figure 3 shows that Smith & Noble has received the measurements and are ready to process my order. This is consistent with the process explained in the previous email message, shown in Figure 2.

You’ll notice that the communications all look different. While a unified look and feel should typically be the goal of any brand, because the individual companies did such a good job of setting expectations, communicating effectively across channels, and integrating their processes, I easily overlooked the fact that the messages’ branding, layout, and aesthetics were completely different.

Handling of Service Exceptions: Zulily

Optimally, if a service were designed strategically, the customer experience would always be a positive one. However, no matter how well planned a service may be, exceptions always occur. Regardless of whether an issue is caused by the customer or the company itself, companies need to think through how they should handle unexpected issues.

One company that handles exceptions really well is Zulily, an online retailer that serves moms and families, providing discounted prices on what are often high-end products. Because of the low prices they negotiate with their suppliers, the delivery time for a typical purchase is usually two to three weeks, and they do not accept returns unless a customer receives a product that is either defective or not as described or is the incorrect product. Despite these limitations on the customer experience, Zulily offers exemplary service for exception-based scenarios. The following example email messages illustrate how they handle these situations in a personal way.

Figure 4—Pushing me to Amazon
Pushing me to Amazon

I had ordered a winter coat for my daughter, and the shipping date kept getting delayed. Zulily was not able to find a similar product in their inventory, so I canceled the order and received a refund. However, when I was on the phone with customer service, the representative went above and beyond to find the coat that I had ordered on She then asked whether I was still interested in it and offered to email me a link to the coat. Figure 4 shows that email.

If any of you have seen the movie Miracle on 34th Street, my experience with Zulily should remind you of the Macy’s versus Gimbels storyline, in which the Macy’s Santa pushed customers to Gimbels if Macy’s didn’t have the toys children wanted. The outcome was that customers became even more loyal to Macy’s. The outcome was exactly the same for Zulily. I was so impressed that they had gone above and beyond for me—because the delays had been their fault—that I decided not to buy the coat from Amazon and instead bought another coat from Zulily.

Figure 5—Lost-item email message
Lost-item email message

On another occasion, I had been tracking an item that I had ordered, and the shipping information never appeared to be updated via UPS. So I emailed Zulily customer service, asking about the status of my order and, within 24 hours, received the email message shown in Figure 5. It had been delivered to the wrong customer. When that customer called Zulily, they found the same item in stock and went ahead and shipped it to me right away. What I find most impressive about their communications is the personal tone they have. While I was frustrated because I needed to wait longer for my item, I quickly absolved Zulily of any guilt. Between their creating excitement about my getting my item—“This is one of the cutest pieces of maternity clothing I’ve seen.”—and the human ending to the message—“I hope you had as beautiful of a day in New Jersey as we did in Washington.”—any aggravation that I had felt quickly dissipated.

Conclusion: Everything Always Comes Back to the Internal Organization

As service-design consultants, we can provide our clients with these insights and recommendations, leaving them with a roadmap and plan to implement them within their organization. But as we all know, the real work comes after the consultants have left the room and an organization has to begin making changes internally. The areas that a company has to change to improve customer service are not just line items in a presentation or spreadsheet. They may impact technology, communications, processes, and people—and frequently, all of these at the same time.

For example, adding new email messages for a company to send to its customers throughout the service experience may necessitate updating the following: administrative systems that handle outgoing messages, marketing content and templates, and business processes. More complex improvements to customer service may require significantly more effort to implement them correctly, especially when they involve the people component of service design—for example, rigorous training of service representatives and updating their management policies to reflect different performance expectations for them.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous UXmatters columns regarding the evolving role of consultants, the more tangible and detailed our recommendations are and the more deeply we take change management and implementation into account in the services that we provide to our clients, the more valuable our role and our work will be to them—and the greater the value of the services that we ultimately impact will be. 

Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data

Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA

Laura KellerLaura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey.  Read More

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