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Anticipating Customer State of Mind: the Problem With “Brand Relationships”

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

By way of an anecdote, here’s a reminder to anticipate the state of mind of a customer when you design a service.

It’s Thursday, and I’m in the airport in Mexico. I buy and eat lunch, and my credit card is declined. First thought: lovely, the bank turned off my card because of purchase made in a different country. There’s a subtle irony to this (When would you need your credit card the most? When you travel in a foreign country. When it would be most likely to be turned off? Right.) and it happens to me frequently in other countries. Not a big deal; I have a few pesos left, and I pay with cash. As I’m waiting for my plane, I skype with my wife and ask her to call the credit card company and sort it out, as I’m without cell service. She reports back that the credit card was, indeed, turned off because of suspicious activity, and now it’s back on. She also said that the customer service representative hopes I have a great time in Mexico, and it must be lovely for me to be able to travel that much. I thank her and him for the editorializing and get on an airplane.

As I’m attempting to leave the Austin airport and pay for parking, my card is declined, again. Frustration, this time mostly aimed at the anonymous customer service rep who gave the wrong information. It’s my last few US dollars in my wallet, enough to get out of the airport. (As an aside, I wonder what happens if you can’t pay to get out; do you just leave your car there, racking up more charges, and try to find an ATM?)

Friday morning, I call Chase. The automated system has me confirm several charges, and then says that the block on my card has been removed. I don’t believe it, so I confirm with a human. Good to go.

And then, when I make a purchase before lunch, my card is declined.

This is the part of the story where design breaks down: where our ability to create service scripts without accounting for the emotional needs of humans falls apart. I call the company, and get an operator. I immediately ask to be transferred to a supervisor. She refuses, explaining that she needs to know what the problem is, first. She’s following her rules, the procedure that she’s probably been trained on. If I was in a logical, rational, thoughtful state of mind, I would simply explain the problem, and in seconds, she would transfer me to her boss to sort it out.

But I wasn’t in a logical, rational, thoughtful state of mind. I was furious and over-reacting, mostly because I felt my money was being held hostage. There’s a tunneling of thought that happens during an emotionally charged situation, and the reaction of this tunneling was me, irrationally demanding over and over to speak to her supervisor. Her response was, not surprisingly, to demand over and over that I tell her what the problem was, and so this went on for close to three minutes. Then, she pretended to hang up. This was followed by a minute of silence. I out-waited her, and she finally transferred me. Completely juvenile behavior on my part; completely unprofessional on hers.

In a relationship, both parties have a shared responsibility to diffuse an argument. If I was arguing with my wife, the right thing to do is stop, even if I’m logically “right”. But I don’t have a relationship with my credit card company, and no matter the amount of consulting that has led Chase to believe that I want one, I don’t. I want my money to be safe, and I want to be able to spend it whenever I want. That’s it, start to finish. Brand-driven, message-driven artifacts like this continue to support nonsensical “relationship” ideas, and serve to distract from the actual interactions that are occurring, one to one, between people in response to system complexity:

And the joke is, five years ago, I could have written a document just like this, and probably did. This is considered “good consulting” – driving consistent branding, through messaging about relationship. It’s industry “best practice.” And it’s wrong.

The reality is, if you work in fraud prevention at a credit card company, there’s a high probability that the customer who is calling is upset. I can’t imagine a reason to call the fraud prevention line in a happy mood – I can’t think of even one use case where my perspective would be outgoing, upbeat, and open-minded. Designing a service means anticipating this, and designing to support it. This means empowering the customer service representative freedom to deviate from a script, and training her to sense the anxiety in the voice of the customer on the other end of the phone. And it means anticipating that security “safeguards” intended to support the customer will have negative consequences, and being prepared to handle those.

Turns out, my card was compromised nearly two weeks ago (card numbers stolen from an online merchant? Disgruntled employee? Who knows; Chase couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me), and a permanent hold was placed on the account. Removing the temporary hold didn’t do anything, because the card was, basically, turned off entirely. I don’t know why it took two weeks for that hold to take effect. I don’t know why the various reps could see one hold but not the other. I don’t know why the rep I got thought arguing with me would be more productive than transferring me (although I can guess, and it’s probably because she’s dis-incented to escalate calls, and trying her best to follow protocol). I suppose the final kick in the teeth was that I was after I was finally done speaking with the supervisor, I was randomly selected to take a survey, asking me about my customer service experience. The system didn’t recognize my responses, and as I was pressing “1 – extremely dissatisfied” as hard as I could, the system hung up on me.

This situation is far too common, and I’m sure any of you reading can relate to it. The algorithms intended to track purchasing behavior don’t work, as they misread my foreign purchases as rogue. And the humans involved were constrained by an overly rote script, unable or unwilling to deviate. This is the problem of service design; it’s the problem of “experience design” (and why, as I’ve explained before, you can’t actually design an experience and should stop trying); and it’s the problem of complexity. The solution is fairly simple. Empower your employees to do the right thing, anticipate the emotional response of your customers based on their situation, and realize that every interaction with a customer will be unique. You can’t systematize customer service. Companies like Zappos realize that, and while I’ll take issue with their use of the word “relationship” too , the key to their success are words like “honest”, “integrity”, and “trust”:

A key ingredient in strong relationships is to develop emotional connections. It’s important to always act with integrity in your relationships, to be compassionate, friendly, loyal, and to make sure that you do the right thing and treat your relationships well. The hardest thing to do is to build trust, but if the trust exists, you can accomplish so much more.

In any relationship, it’s important to be a good listener as well as a good communicator. Open, honest communication is the best foundation for any relationship, but remember that at the end of the day it’s not what you say or what you do, but how you make people feel that matters the most. In order for someone to feel good about a relationship, he/she must know that the other person truly cares about them, both personally and professionally.

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