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The unstructured conversation

The old service dilemma: do a good job or do a cheap job. We often try to pretend that both are achievable. But they’re not.

Ask a group of consumers what service they’d like, and–without giving a hoot about cost–the inevitable answers come: “make it more about me”–“talk to me like a human being”. And, crucially, “take on my problems as if they were your own, and come back to me when they’re sorted”.

The closer one gets as a service provider to offering this latter state of bliss, the less structured the interaction becomes. If I make you fill in some really complex forms, and offer very limited ways of capturing your information, it’s a pretty good sign that I’ve thought a bit more about me (and my costs), and less about you.

Here’s a couple of little giveaways:

  • postcodes. Put in SW1A0AA, or sw1 A0aa, and watch things fall over. Why? Coz you have to put in a space (computer says ‘no’)… Well, of course you don’t really, it’s just the system we put in was a bit cheaper and didn’t allow for all the possible combinations of upper/lower case, with/without spaces, so you just structure it the way we ask you to. It’s not about you, after all…
  • credit card numbers. Four blocks of numbers, separated by spaces? Oh. No you don’t. Coz you realise after tapping most of your number in that you’ve hit some kind of wall. We didn’t build it to allow spaces, coz, erm, we just didn’t. Start again. We like things structured here. Our way.

If your service providers and suppliers haven’t thought the little things through, what makes you think they’re going to be great on the big stuff? And you can tell all this just from the application forms…

The unstructured conversation is the one we’re all asking for: freeform depositing of issues, returning later (as to the laundrette) to pick up the cleaned and ironed outputs. The “service wash” of consumer service, if you like. You really can’t be that surprised that it’s going to cost more, can you? And because of that, you’re not going to see so much of it. But treasure it when you do, and let the people know…

Category: Other

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7 Responses

  1. Paul Evans says:

    Good post Paul.

    One thing though – the way your domain is configured makes it a bit of detective work before one can link directly to your posts. You can fix this by moving your domain to Google Apps and then pointing it at your site from there.

  2. I realise those are just examples, but really? gsub(” “,””) fixes both of those issues. There you go, have that for free, on me.

    Also, yes, Paul Evans is right. Frame based domain forwarding FTL.

    Must not be only negative in my comments. I like your hair.

  3. I started reading this and thought of medical consultations. We try to teach students to take histories with lots of open questions, getting the story in the patient’s own words and then making sense of it. But it is much more tempting (esp when you don’t know enough to make sense) just to ask a check list of questions. It’s cheaper in terns of time but it may be a false economy as there is a good chance you won’t actually have found out what the real issues were.
    Thanks for making me think:)

  4. prclarke says:

    Paul – all sorted now, and domain moved. Thank you so much for your prompting, and support in fixing things.

    James – the technical fix is simple. That’s what makes it all the more serious an issue when it’s not been implemented.

  5. Gary Gale says:

    This is an unholy combination of 50% laziness and 50% ignorance. The irony here is that one often has to jump through more coding hoops (thus increasing development time and cost) in order to determine whether the input is in the correct format than if you accepted a freeform input and validated it in the first place.

    A simple web search for “credit card number validation” yields a number of freely available solutions in a number of programming languages, which I hope, backs up my laziness assertion.

    My pet peeve? Telephone number input boxes on sites which ship internationally but which barf when you put in a phone number that commences with a + and forces you to put in a number that is local to that company’s location.

  6. Gary Gale says:

    Oh … and while I’m on the topic, I passed this onto a friend who has more than a passing interest in this sort of thing; their comment is worth repeating here:

    “Fantastic post. I’ve done some work with “service design” (customer service as product design and the like over the years)
    and really like the way he framed that.”

  7. Anonymous says:

    I let the people know at DVLA that I had problems with their site. They said it wasn’t their job to fix the site. Instead of updating a paper driving licence with a photo card one taking me 10 minutes it took 10 days, 3 phone calls, 2 lots of snail mail and a very disillusioned customer.

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