The curse of targets

Throughout my consulting career I've seen some themes over and over, usually as a result of different viewpoints, which underlines the importance of seeing the big picture from every stakeholders view before deciding on anything.

Here's a common one: The Customer Service department is banging on the IT door, because their metrics have plateaued. The IT department, in response, believe they can improve efficiency and customer service metrics by allowing front-line employees to share their work using a fancy phone system to forward and route calls between available staff.

What they haven't factored in, is that the sales organisation targets employees on these very calls and they generate the best commission for the individual. Consequently there is conflict:  there is no incentive to share this work, no matter how poor the customer service metrics.

If the fancy phone system is deployed, it will simply go under-used. 

Can't get no satisfaction? Here's why

I was prompted to pen these thoughts by a question on a linked in discussion board. It asked what did organisations have in place to achieve good customer satisfaction. And was it the "little things", the "extra mile" that made all the difference.?How do you handle ever rising expectations? Here are my thoughts:

There's often talk of consumer "expectations" growing, but what is really meant by that? If you respond to a customer within 15 seconds in a call centre, are we saying next week they will want a response in 14?

I think the core principles of customers' expectations actually remain pretty constant: responsiveness/timeliness; courtesy/respect; a perception of value (both in the product/service delivered and also of the customer themselves); the ability to help creatively when something has gone wrong. And you can make their day by making the experience very personal and engaging.

I do not believe that people keep simply turning up the "pass" level of these things; what I do believe is that they are constantly let down on them in their multitude of daily experiences and so for those organisation that are failing customers, it always seems those customers are wanting more. Not really; customers just want organisations to achieve the right standard. And of course, the right standard is totally dependent on every individual circumstance (e.g. the business you are operating AND the individual customer).

However, what does constantly change is that perception of value - because as organisaitons try to differentiate and then competitors follow suit, the bar keeps being reset. This is self-inflicted by organisations constantly chasing each other, rather than chasing the customer. A lesson in focus there.

What I have found from direct personal experience with customers buying products (for example) is the biggest thing that has an impact on satisfaction is the response to problems. There is absolutely no question that this is a moment of truth - with the potential to completely turn a customer round into a loyal supporter who, despite encountering an initial 'probelm', is actually *grateful* for having chosen to do business with *you*.

You really should probe me more...

I recently had cause to contact my corporate credit card provider due to a late charge I incurred. No names mentioned, but they're pretty big in the corporate card business.

I won't even begin to go into how the late charge occurred as that was to do with a whole load of crazy processes for claiming back expenses - I'll save that piece of analysis for another day.

What surprised me about this particular interaction was that there were no questions asked (by the agent). Within 10 seconds the representative had cancelled the objectionable charge. Brilliant!

If there was any complaint to be levelled, it was that he didn't really explain the implications (if any) of doing so - for example, I had been told earlier that you had an allowance of once for this goodwill gesture. I.e. don't make a habit of incurring late charges. (I don't intend to. Whether the expenses claim process will live up to this is another matter.)

What pleased me even more was the customer survey form that came through afterwards.

It contained the usual stuff about how I rated the transaction. That of course is the bit that is least useful for driving out any failure in the organisation. If you just ask how the transaction with the agent went, then what you find out is they are very good at handling failure, but you never find out why the failure is occuring.

So, I was even more pleased to see that the survey also asked me how many attempts it had taken to get my enquiry resolved. This is a good start, because the organisation at least has the chance of learning a few new things:

1) That this agent actually finally SOLVED the problem for me, it having been unsolved previously. He deserves special credit for that. Solve-rate is a really key concept for organisations, especially contact centres, for understanding customer experience, failure modes and performance. Few measure it.

2) By understanding that this call was part of a sequence of interactions, the organisation can see that failure occurred somewhere else in the process previously. They can begin to look at the root causes of that failure and start to address it.

However, where this survey fell down and really missed a trick, was in asking me about that sequence of events. My last call occurred, not because the previous call was unsatisfactory or didn't resolve my problem - indeed, to all intents and purposes, the original call did solve my problem. So, on the surface it looks like I have two completely satisfactory calls with the organisation. How, then, can there be any sense of failure? Surely if we look at this chain of interaction, it will come out as first class?

The reason is, that the first call made a promise about something that would happen and then it didn't happen. The first call apparently resolved the problem, but then something broke and it never followed through.

Sadly, said organisation are going to struggle to decode this because they haven't asked whether the failure was in the ability of the representative to solve my problem, or with a behind-the-scenes process issue. That one single question could tell them whether their efforts need to go into improving the performance of their individual agents, or whether they need to look at system and process failings.

This again is another classic case of "you get what you measure". (I.e. The world takes on the shape of the window you view it through.) Because they are measuring my interaction in terms of the experience with the representative, my survey response is going to imply that the first representative did not perform satisfactorily. This is in fact untrue, the first agent was superb too. It was something unseen in the background that went wrong.

So, sadly, by questioning me in the way they have done, they've set themselves off in the wrong direction, looking at agent performance, rather than systemic and process failure. Shame, it could have been so easy.

Let that be a lesson to all who design customer surveys.

Design for the customers you don't have

I think the sentiment below applies in most channels and domains, not just the web. Indeed, when I look at a contact centre, I'm always keen to ask whether non-telephony channels are on the plan later down the line (e.g. social media). You always need to be looking ahead. Nik.

When doing any sort of redesign work on the web, you want to keep your existing customers in mind. You have no doubt done countless hours of research and user testing to get your business and website to where it is today. It is probably even safe to say that you have a very good understand of your customers and who they are.

Thats all fine and dandy. Great even.

But, to me it seems flawed to only take into account your current customers when doing any sort of research, planning, or designing. If you only ever take your current customers into account, how can you ever plan on growing your business?

Yes, if you understand your current customer and build for them, your company will most likely grow at a steady rate. Again, this is fine if its the way you want to do things. But, most business owners I know are constantly looking to the future and how they can grow their business.

By growing a business, one would assumes you are looking to acquire customers that are different from the ones you currently have. These new customers may be fairly similar to the ones your currently have or the may be extremely different. So do yourself a favor, when doing your research and user testing, get feedback from people outside of your customer profile.

Getting feedback from people outside of your typical customer profile will help give you valuable insights on how to grow your business to appeal to a wider variety of people.

[full article source at Outlaw Design]

By calling 34 minutes per day Unlimited, is BT mis-selling?

I explore below a recent encounter with BT, my domestic telecoms provider, as an example of poor communication, product mis-selling and a strained attempt at using social media to mask customer service issues embedded in an organisation.

What's painful for me is that I actually quite like BT - cards on table: I used to work for them, I'm a shareholder and I think on the whole they have pretty good products. So I'm writing this with utmost transparency and a slight pang in my heart.

I may work in telecoms, but in real life I'm also just an ordinary consumer; I need consumer products and consumer levels of service. I should not have to rely on specialist knowledge to use and enjoy mass market products. I also value my time and like my dealings with companies to be efficient and organised.And I also have an interest in interaction design and business processes, especially in the field of customer service, because basically fixing and improving them is what I do for a job.

So, recently I became enagaged in a conversation with BT on Twitter, because I wanted to understand properly what the usage allowance was for BT Broadband talk (a domestic Voice over IP package) - a product for which use is quoted as "unlimited" with the customary asterisk by the side to mean "not REALLY unlimited" (see image).

Here's that twitter conversation word for word.


  • me: So, BT offers "*unlimited broadband talk calls if you redial" but quotes "abuse policy applies" - WHERE IS THIS POLICY? BT website sucks #fb
  • BTCare: Hi, have a look at this .. .. The info you are looking for is at bottom of the page..hope it helps
  • me: That's the page I'm complaining about! It says "Abuse policy applies" - WHERE is the policy!??? (i.e. original question) :-(
  • BTCare: It's at under "Using the service", point 22 to 30. General abuse policy applies to all telephony.
  • me: thank you! I'd like to suggest that references to this policy on product pages are hyperlinked to it. That's how the web works ;-)
  • me: so to be clear: on BT Broadband Talk you can redial every 60 mins for free calls indefinitely and no monthly (abuse) cap applies...
  • BTCare: A Fair Usage Policy of 1000 minutes or 150 calls a month applies. for more info
  • me: thanks. So my next question is, how do you know how many broadband talk minutes you've used? is there a page to find out?
  • BTCare: There is no facility to monitor calls to be honest. As you can see though, you have alot of minutes to use on a monthly basis
  • me: "a lot" = subjective. So BBTalk allowance = 34 mins per day. Calling this "unlimited*" is tantamount to mis-selling. OFCOM's view?


at this point the conversation stopped - it seems BTCare had nothing more to say!

So, let me cover some of the basic errors in this mini-saga.

The First error is that which caused my problem in the first place - lack of clarity on the product pages at such as:


  • mentioning something but not referencing it properly so I can find it
  • writing a single paragraph covering two topics - leaving the reader wondering if the items are related or separate.


The issue here is that the paragaph in question (see first para in image above) starts by covering 0845 & 0870 numbers and then apparently changes in scope without being clear that it does so.

The second error, once the twitter conversation started, was the company didn't LISTEN to my question. I asked for the abuse policy - the response was to tell me where it is mentioned (the very page i was viewing), not where it is published.

The third error is the confusion caused by using the terms "abuse" and "fair use" to describe various forms of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour - this is like introducing some kind of "low-watermark" and "high-watermark" points as to acceptable behaviour. It's like telling a child some of their behaviour is "bad" and some of it is "unacceptable". That's confusing. I don't want that - just tell me what I can and can't do - just draw ONE line in the sand. I asked for the abuse policy because it seemed to that's what going over an allowance would be; turns out I need the fair use policy.

The fourth issue is that the company has "fair use" limits it expects you to abide by, and yet has no way of allowing you to monitor whether you are within those limits. This is patently ridiculous. Who ever heard of a car without a speedo, odometer and fuel guage? This is a 21st Century technology product, billed by usage, a usage you cannot track. It's not just ridiculous, it's verging on sharp practice.

Finally - the crux of my whole enquiry - the fair use (or as I thought, abuse) policy. What BT seems to have confirmed is that your "unlimited" allowance of minutes is actually limited to 1000 per month. It may seem a lot, as BTCare tried to point out, but that's actually under 34 minutes per day. (And please don't insult me by telling me how valuable call minutes are to me; in my world it's nowhere near "a lot").

Can they really be justified in calling this unlimited?

Ways forward

Setting my whole concern about the positioning of "unlimited minutes" itself, I fear this conversation is symptomatic of any large organisation that "talks the talk" as far as customer service is concerned, but fails to grapple with it effectively.

I spend much of my time working with organisations that are struggling in this way. The modern consumer is often a well-informed multi-channel being - often more informed than some of customer service represenatives of the organisation itself. This presents a challenge - and businesses need to rise to that challenge.

There's a bit of back-patting going on at BT over its use of twitter (, but responding on twitter is not really fixing anything. Rather it's implicitly acknowledging that there are cracks in service and attempting to paper over them. And it's not scalable either. Full marks for trying, but you haven't prevented the problem from occuring over and over again.

So, what are the kinds of things organisations like BT need to do to be effective at customer service:

  • they need to listen, listen and listen again - properly
  • continually improve the use of the right tools for content management and publishing, especially across multiple channels; including the training for how to publish customer facing content (I've written for in the past and know what's involved).
  • you need a feedback loop; stop treating web pages of information as the answer to all questions just because it's cheap (this strategy reminds me very much of an anecdote from a bank that revoked its policy on being able to call branches.
    Caller: can I speak to my branch?
    Call Centre: sorry Madam, no. Anything they can answer, I can now answer for you.
    Caller: OK, I think i left my glasses there this morning - have you got them?)
  • view customer service across channels (web, phone, twitter, IM, email) holistically, not as silos - viewing transfer across channels not so much as "escalation" but "unified communication" and embracing it and enabling it rather than denying it
  • test self-service and assisted-service with real "use cases" of real customers - i.e. user centric design with workflows designed around the tasks customers want to complete not pathways designed around internal business processes.

No-one says this is easy - but nor is it impossible.