Customer First? Yeah, right.

I see, via the excellent Robert Brook mail-out (do please subscribe), that there’s another site out there trying to cut the biggest Gordian knot of all in the field of customer services. Of course customers want cheapness. Of course customers want quality. But the two are in tension against each other.

Unlike the cruder saynoto0870 about which I’ve written before, Get Human attempts a subtler combination of crowd-sourced wisdom not only on what channels prove to be the best for getting through to Customer Services, but also offering handy hints on how to navigate them more easily once you’re connected.

Sample: “dial 08xx… and keep pressing 0, ignoring all prompts, until you get to an operator.” Well, indeed. And it’s hardly a new discovery that banging away on the zero or the hash button can get you that elusive human voice.

But it’s still a hack. It’s still “defecting” in the vernacular of game theory – trying to find a way around the system rather than devising something that actually works, and doing it in a way that doesn’t involve subterfuge.

What’s missing – what’s always been missing – for me in all of this Customer First rhetoric is any real appreciation of why things are the way they are. It’s not all perverse behaviour on the part of organisations. Nor is it all blatant cost-cutting or profit-grabbing. It’s a trade-off.

“We put the customer first” is one of the most weaselly phrases imaginable, whether in public or private sector. It’s probably Shareholder (or Taxpayer) First, in reality. And is that so very wrong? What’s much worse is the masking of true intent behind these bizarre slogans.

The system may be optimised for a lower price. It may be optimised for speedy and free-flowing service. But it won’t be optimised for both.

When you have to indulge in odd behaviour in an attempt to change this optimisation (like that banging away at the 0 key) you know there’s some reality masking going on.

Here’s a little case study to make the point: Ever hired a car abroad? You go through a ton of online data entry to ensure your personal and driver details, and payment, are handed over as requested. In advance. All you have to do when you get to the airport desk is establish your identity and take your key – everything else has been done? Right?


Spend a few minutes listening to what’s going on in a queue like this. It’s fascinating. No transaction takes less than five minutes – many take at least ten. The queue always builds quickly. Always.

And what is going on? Well, transactions are being optimised for revenue, not speed.

Take the additional paper-filling that appears at this stage. It might be a “local police form”, or an additional statement of insurance liability. There’s absolutely nothing on these forms that hasn’t been already provided online (or could have been).

But the act of filling it in starts to work in other ways on the hapless victim. It’s a foreign country. See? Foreign form in front of you. Thoughts fly fast: they drive badly here – or do they? Shit. Best check. And what about the police? Mirrored shades, being pulled over on a dusty road, accused of goodness knows what. Gold teeth. Lip-smacking. Cash fines. Smelly cells. The images are set in train.

The swift passage from carousel to exit gate has been interrupted, and certainly not for your benefit.

And then the killer words come across the desk. A script that never fails to elicit a visceral response. “You agree you have taken the minimum insurance cover permissable. The excess will be a thousand euros. But you can wipe this out with a simple payment of just twenty a day…” And inevitably, beads of sweat now falling down, a judgement has to be made. Invariably on the side of cautiousness. The picture has been painted.

You had all this information back in your office a week ago. You made a rational judgement of the likelihood of you stacking the car, and made your choice. But now? Now it looks different. And the tapping and shuffling in the queue behind means you have to make a decision. Now. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Oh, and a good bit of time is often spent with customer saying “but I thought I’d already done all this…” Tick. Tick. Tick.

So. That’s what optimised for revenue looks like. Not customer comfort.

Let’s be honest, though. This is all fine. It is what it is: business.

The increase in revenue keeps the hire business afloat. Keeps it competitive in other ways. Allows for headline hire rates to be very low. Gets customers to the desk in the first place. And round it goes… Etc. etc. etc. Hardly the stuff of a management science PhD.

You just have to hack the bullshit process like this. For yourself. Every time.


My plea? Please just give me a signpost at the top of, well, any transaction really: “Give me convenience, or give me cheap.” At least let me decide what’s optimised.

Keep that separation right the way along the line: forms, queues, phone lines. Really. Because one day we’ll grow up about the psychology of customer service and wonder why we ever fell for games like this. Ever.

(I hope.)


Postscript: Stefan C has pointed me in the direction of this neat little service, allowing you to buy your own excess reduction insurance. Nicely disruptive. More of these, please.

Are you being served?

What good customer service looks like:

I have a small problem with my web hosting: permissions have been scrambled somewhere and a file can’t be created on the server. I know how to resolve it – an email to my hosting company. It’s acknowledged immediately, and within minutes I get a personal response. None of this “no reply to this account” nonsense. I exchange a few emails with more information. The problem gets fixed. Then a nice touch; we exchange tweets afterwards. There’s a social aspect to what was a very easy transaction. Other people will see this and think: they’re good guys, they obviously love what they do. And they do.

The web hosting company is called A Small Orange. Big thanks to Dave Briggs for recommending them. They’re somewhere in the USA. I don’t know exactly where; I don’t need to. But I do know the names of their support guys. I pay the company a pittance each year for their hosting and their helpdesk, which is always prompt and courteous, day or night.

They’re my idea of what a good service organisation is (before the accountants move in and it all gets bigger, greedier, chopped-down and off-shored in an attempt to squeeze out a few more drops of profit).

What bad customer service looks like:

I went into my bank the other day. I only go into my bank for one reason these days – to pay in cheques. I’ve always taken a paying-in slip, filled out the details scrupulously and handed it over with my cheque. I used to get a paper receipt; a while ago that became instant electronic confirmation. Fine by me.

Time before last, I took my filled-in paying-in slip to the counter. Oh, just put your card in the machine there, I’m told. So I do. And I politely ask if I need to use the slips now. £-> No, we can do it all through the machine. So, I suggest, why don’t you tell people that? Before they’ve picked up a pen? Perhaps with a small sign above the paying-in slips? Or indeed instead of the paying-in slips (with perhaps a small, discreet supply for those who don’t have their card with them. Except they all will have).

Time freezes. Cold, reptilian stare from cashier. £-> We can’t do that. P-> Why not? £-> [now making it up, facial tics breaking out like England flags on builders’ vans] Because some people like to use the slips. P-> So offer them the choice? £-> We don’t do it like that. P-> Do you have a way of passing ideas like that up within the branch, y’know, to maybe get things to change? I’ve just spent a couple of minutes filling in a form I had absolutely no need to. £-> I’ll make a note and raise it with my manager [lie]. Then card in machine, 20 seconds later, all done.

Last visit, I marched straight to the cashier, slipless. More rolling of lizard eyes at me: £-> You can’t use the machine today. This one isn’t working. P-> What about that one? £-> I’m working here. Fill this slip in please. P-> Do they go down often? £-> Yes. And sometimes we turn them off, especially when we’re busy. They slow things down. (I gaze around empty branch. It’s 10.30am. And 20 seconds is SLOW? What are you measuring here, exactly? Your time or mine?). Here, I’ll fill the slip in for you if you give me your card. (Aha, a glimmer of customer service, at last?)

And then the final straw: the slip is hastily scrawled with account number, sort code and total amount (compare that with the fields on the picture below) and through the rollers it whizzes. It doesn’t get spat back out because there’s no signature or branch name. And if those scrawls were Optically Character Recognised I’ll be hugely impressed – the details were all rekeyed in any case as far as I could see.

So for how many years, LloydsTSB (yes, you, though I suspect all banks are similar) have you been making fools out of millions of your customers by making them fill in information you don’t even bloody well need? Want to add all that up and tell me you’re designing things around them?

It goes without saying that I pay Lloyds Bank rather more than A Small Orange each year for their services. Can I contact them at anything approaching a human level? No. Do they have the remotest culture of improvement and customer service? No.

Serious offer: I’d love to meet someone responsible for LloydsTSB service design and give them (a limited amount of free) advice on small, simple changes to design, process and culture, that might just make them look a bit more like small giants of customer service, rather than the antediluvian dullards they are today.

But I suspect they don’t read blogs.

Now, if only I can persuade A Small Orange to offer UK retail banking services…

If you HAVE to have a form – try this: (and perhaps say sorry at some point)

Dead as #Adodo

This is the full, unedited, untweaked, unadjusted email I just received from Dell in what seems like the last act of the #Adamo saga. It’s so good I thought you’d enjoy it too. This is a blog, not a whinge site, but I’ve always featured customer service issues that strike me as noteworthy. I just happen to have had a couple of my own in recent days.

For a short time at least I was getting personalised, helpful, and well-crafted communications from Dell. Then, four days after the (unmarked) expiry of the expected date of delivery I’d been given, came this:


Dear Customer,

Your Dell order [24443227] has been cancelled

Because of a problem with the combination of components we cannot complete the order.

Please contact your sales person to place a new order or to arrange a refund.




Short and sweet. Awesome, no? “The combination of components” – an interesting translation of “a completely standard laptop”.

Driven to distraction

I’ve done a lot of work for the Directgov team. I love its core proposition: comprehensive, authoritative, readable information, all there in one place – without bouncing through portals and between different sites, and avoiding confusing journeys through lots of separate brands. But there’s a difference between understanding how it works in theory, and experiencing it…

So when I realised I’d lost a V5 (log book to you) registration certificate for a motorbike I’d just sold which was being picked up the next day… I became a real customer of a real government service.

Firstly, I was very unlucky. No, not just because I’d lost the V5, but because my crisis day happened to be 1 September. New registration day for ’59’ plates. Anniversary of millions of registrations. First working day after a Bank Holiday. First day of the month. It was going to be very busy. Probably as bad as it could be. And I needed that certificate very, very quickly. Great.

So, what happened? First stop: online. And I didn’t go to Directgov. Horror! Me, a convert, as well. Why not? Because I was being normal (sort of). I searched Google for “replacement V5”. Now, a few results down is the Directgov stuff (and DVLA Personalised Registrations – interesting! – well done on optimisation, but not a natural, or indeed useful, place to find out about V5 replacement). But what’s at the top?



This! And it emphasises the word ‘fast’! I click through and see a good question, and a seemingly good ‘Best Answer’. Remember, I’m being a real person now, and I am looking for an answer I want to find…

And below the “Best Answer” – even better:


Fantastic! Over the counter. “There and then”. But ‘0 votes’. Hmm. Need to check this. So, now to Directgov to confirm…


Oh. Where’s that over the counter service then? I can see a link to the nearest office; perhaps that’ll tell me. Nope. (And out of interest, when did V5 become V5C – am I in the right place at all here? Perhaps there’s a completely parallel description of the V5 process, including over the counter. Erm. Not that I can find.)

Alright, deadlock and uncertainty online. Time to shift channels. I’m not going all the way to the nearest office in Wimbledon without checking first.

Phone. 90 seconds of messages (I’m paying on an 0870 here – I haven’t used saynoto0870; look here for more on this…) about how I can find what I need online – grrrrr how I hate that – and then: Thank you for calling. Goodbye. Click.

They terminated the call? Not even the chance to hold (at my cost) to be answered? Dear. Oh. Dear. Oh. Dear.

Well – busiest day of the year, I guess…

So it looks like I am now going all the way to Wimbledon without checking first. Thanks to Mr? Silva and his handy “personal experience”. I want to believe it’ll happen. I really do.

Vroom vroom. I get to Wimbledon. Doesn’t look good. Three rows of seating, mostly full. Eight windows, five in operation. A door-greeter though – excellent.

-Hello: quick question – I need a replacement V5. Can I get one issued over the counter here?

-No [Damn!]

-Will it be quicker to get one by queuing here to put in an application, or by using the phone service?

-There isn’t a phone service. You have to apply here or by post. [Oh bloody hell. #fail etc.]

-I think there is a phone service – I saw it on the internet.

-There’s no internet service [sic] – you have to queue here. Take a ticket. [Big smile though. He did care. Noted.]

I took a ticket. Half an hour passed. I listened hard to the greeter. Amazing how many people were coming in just to renew tax discs. TAX DISCS. You don’t even need a DVLA office for that – I wasn’t expecting them to all go online, but I did wonder if they’d ever noticed that Post Offices… I could see quite a few were paying in cash. I almost got out the laptop and dongle to set up my own unofficial direct.gov.uk/taxdisc booth there and then. For cash, naturally. Might I even charge a tiny little mark-up for a faster service? Yes, Brent Council, I did notice…

But that was definitely going to lead towards Making A Public Scene. To an extent that even I was a bit twitchy about ;-)

At the counter (thick security screens):

-Hi – here’s my application form for a replacement V5. Would it have been quicker if I’d done this using the phone service?

-No, it’s exactly the same. If I press my button here it triggers the printing in Swansea just the same as if the call centre do it. [Brilliant – a full, accurate answer! At last!]

-Your chap on the door doesn’t know there IS a call centre.

-Really? Ok, thanks, I’ll tell him [score a point for process improvement]. It’ll print tonight. Takes a week to arrive in the post though. They go Second Class. And there’s strikes and that.

A week. Strikes. Game over. I clutch a till receipt for my £25. That might keep my buyer warm if I show it to him. And grovel.

So what? Why have I written all this (and tweeted most of it at the time)?

Well… You can’t eliminate random, possibly misguided, advice. But you can recognise it, and adapt accordingly. And you can always think of ways to put the customer’s interests first, particularly if you do have a shonky phone service that sometimes can’t take calls…

What if there’d been a few tweaks to the Directgov content? Could these have helped?

1. Near the phone number – “at very busy times we can’t take calls. If this happens, you’ll hear a message straight away when you call us, telling you that your phone call won’t get through. But if you want to stay on the line you will hear some recorded information which may help you”. Needs a tweak to the automated voice system, sure, but you get my point.

2. Catering for the effects of the Mr Silvas of this world. Covering the bases. Add a description of the third way of applying: Apply in person at a DVLA Office. You won’t get your replacement certificate any faster than if you apply by phone. It will still be posted to you, but you will get a receipt for your payment over the counter. This may be useful if you want to show someone that you’ve applied for a new certificate. The receipt isn’t an official motoring document, and you can’t use it when insuring a vehicle, for instance, but it might still be useful to you.

Or going even further: We’ve seen that some advice websites mention that you can get a replacement V5 over the counter at DVLA offices. This isn’t a service that we offer, but we are looking at ways that we might be able to offer it in future. We’ll let you know here if this changes.

And yes, I would have paid the extra 9p for First Class post. Really, I would. C’mon…

Vodafone fan mail…

Dear Arun

Would you mind confirming the first line of your address, your postcode and your date of birth?

Thought so. It’s not much of a way to begin a conversation, is it? So imagine how things went last Thursday when Vodafone called up and asked me precisely that. Or go and dig out the recording – around 5pm on 9 April 2009, to 07*** *84100. You may find it enlightening.

“Is it important that I answer these questions?” I said. “Surely as you’ve called me, shouldn’t I be trying to prove you who are who you say you are rather than the other way around?” “What exactly is the purpose of this call anyway?”

And so on. But to each request, the same stonewall: “I can’t say anything more to you until you confirm your personal details to me”. “Not even to let me know if this is a sales call: yes, or no?”. “I can’t tell you that until…”

“Sounds like phishing,” I said, “cold calling and asking me for information. This really must be important…”

Deadlocked, I gave in, concerned that not doing so might result in continuation of a fraud, or loss of future service on that number. Because those are the real and only reasons I want to hear from you like that. If I’m the villain with the stolen phone then I need to be rumbled, so you can shut the line down. That protects my interests. That’s your job as my service provider.

Instead your happy call-centre employee says: “I am pleased to tell you that you’ve been pre-selected for…”

When you play the call back, Arun, you’ll hear that things go a little downhill at this point. Mainly because I’m bellowing along the lines of: “How dare you…”

I cannot quite believe any company could be so stupid as to treat its customers like this. Before the cold calls are made do you pay the faintest attention to the actual relationship you have with the person you’re calling? If you had, you’d realise that my Vodafone number is a £20/month deal, with a one month’s notice termination option. It’s a commodity, for heaven’s sake. I can (and will) go to any other service provider to replace it.

And stupid enough to think that someone needs to be securely authenticated in order to sell them things. Let’s imagine I had been Mr Burglar, heading away from my house with that phone. Would you have cut the line off if the right answers hadn’t been forthcoming? Actually, I’m slightly scared that the answer might even be yes to that one…

What a total waste of my time. And a great way to embed in customers’ heads that it’s perfectly normal to get calls out of the blue requiring ‘essential’ personal information.

Big round of applause to Vodafone for this particular stroke of brilliance. You’re doing the phishers a nice big favour with that one!

I’d love to hear your side of this one, by the way. Doesn’t it seem just ever so slightly crass to you?

Yours sincerely,

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…

Floppy logic


See this?

It’s the old favourite. Those stupid, stupid people who just don’t get it.

Well, sorry dear journalist. I know you get a big giggle every year out of this story: the crazy things people call 999 for (stuck toaster, broken hairbrush, and this year, rabbit-not-sold-like-I-was-expecting).

But, really, you patronising tosser.

Don’t you see that perhaps this is a real emergency? The person that called 999 over this – did they think “oh, I fancy a bit of a laugh today, and diverting responders from real emergencies, here goes…”?

No, they did not. They thought: “I am down to my last twenty quid, but I love my rabbits. I bought this one in good faith, and it turns out to have ears I wasn’t expecting. I have been robbed. I have been fiddled. I want the PPOOLLIICCEE!!!!”.

If you get the same sort of error message time and time again (in this case, the recurrence of silly news stories about daft 999 calls) this either tells you that there’s an unlikely coincidence of recurring random events. Or it tells you that there is something systemically wrong.

The fact that we read every year about 999 misuse could mean that people are just recurrently thick. And they never learn. But hey, let’s keep printing variations on the story until they do…

Or it could perhaps mean that the public don’t have channels available to them that actually meet their needs. Places to turn when things go very badly wrong. Whatever the scale of that wrongness.

Have a think about that next time you titter at “neighbour knocks down my birdbath, so I called 999”, coming to your newspaper about this time next year.