Poor Service Isn’t Always An Accident. It’s Often By Design

In markets without much competition, organisations can deliver bad service not because of poor design and management, but simply because they can.

Benjamin P. Taylor shared a great thread on Twitter this week outlining the experience of attempting to get some housing support for an elderly relative.

I say ‘great thread’ when I really mean ‘depressingly accurate nightmare’. Unfortunately it represents a lot of people’s experience of accessing health/housing/social care.

Benjamin simply wanted to make an enquiry, to talk to someone, but is kept in a system designed to keep the user in a Moebius Loop of enquiry whilst they are assessed, processed and triaged. Anything to keep them away from the people they really need to talk to.

It does happen outside the public sector too. I’ve had a similar experience this week with an airline who emailed me to suggest I ‘try to speak to someone’ despite the fact I’d only emailed them out of desperation because I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to speak to me. I went on the ‘live chat’ to get help but was told the live chat was too busy and I should try phoning. The phone message said they were too busy and I should try the live chat, or send them an email.

This is what happens when cost-driven demand management decides how users must interact with the system. Humanity , and sheer common sense, have been designed out in the name of efficiency.

But what price efficiency?

Due to the nature of my work I’m routinely contacted by suppliers and vendors keen to get my view on their product. Many are great, but others talk of ‘putting you more in control of customer demand’, and of self-serve being the holy grail of customer service. Clearly people who’ve been to Nando’s and thought that was a desirable model for public service.

Back in the nineties call centres were designed to keep the customer away from who they actually wanted to speak to. It was never ever about customer service – just managing demand. Unfortunately – rather than seeing the call centre as an aberration, many organisations have decided to build out from it and enshrine it in digital form as part of a ‘transformation’.

Most ‘transformations’ are nothing of the sort, but simply a digital overlay on top of how business has always been done. The process that Benjamin describes is complex but can be made easy. People just don’t want to make it easy.

Many of our organisations — despite the rhetoric — have policies and procedures that are profoundly anti-customer. We have built checks, balances and verifications into our process because , deep down, we don’t actually trust the motivations of the public.

This is an uncomfortable truth — but goes some way to explain the difference in satisfaction levels between sectors. Customer service is often so bad precisely because it’s more efficient for the company.

In some rationed services – like health and housing – forcing customers to talk to a computer or chatbot, circulating them through phone menus or getting them to sit on hold “while serving other customers” serves a deterring role. People give up. This isn’t an accident, it’s by design. We are being purposefully shit – and excelling at it.

Earlier this week I spoke to a wonderfully helpful young woman trapped in the bureaucratic hell of the UK’s Best Loved Institution. When I asked if I could possibly change an appointment – even by two hours to help me out with a work commitment – she smiled and suggested I don’t try to change it. “First of all”, she said, “I don’t have authority to change anything. But if you try and change your appointment the system will just put you at the back of the queue and you’ll have to wait another month. I know, it’s stupid. We’ve all said that but they just won’t change it.”

Who are ‘they’? – and how can we make them accountable for shocking design that has real world consequences? As I discussed in the Outside Innovation podcast, it’s incredibly hard for individuals to change a system, but individuals can form a collective and challenge processes that are profoundly anti-customer and anti-employee.

Poor design will end when the public says it ends. When we name and shame and call things out publicly.

The pandemic has been an accelerant of most things. Any trend: social, business, or personal has locked on fast-forward. That includes customer dissatisfaction with poor service. As many companies have greatly expanded digital service options during the lockdowns the difference between those who did it well and those who have delivered a bodge job are there for all to see.

Customers won’t stay silent for long. They want contextualised interactions; seamless experience across channels; anytime, anywhere access to content and services and – guess what – the ability to speak to a human when they damn well want to.

Cartoon Image via Tom Fishburne

Why You Shouldn’t Ask Customers What They Want

The customer is always right. 

If you involve customers –  you’ll make better decisions. 

The only problem with statements like these is that they don’t seem to account for all those occasions when the customer wasn’t right. They don’t explain the fact that, despite high degrees of customer involvement and extensive market research, between 70-90% of all new product launches still fail.

Perhaps then, customers can’t actually tell us what they want, because they don’t know themselves.

{Note: for the following article I’m using customer as shorthand for any user of your organisation or service, including employees}

Last week, Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School, delivered a talk to our Board. It made me think that we tend to take rational ‘commonsense’ for granted, so much so that we design new products and services without taking into account irrational or illogical behaviours.

We have irrational customers but we design rational customer experiences.

Indeed – we are fighting the idea that customers are often irrational. 

There is little evidence that we can even predict our own behaviour. We don’t necessarily know why we make decisions. When anyone proposes a change – even humdrum day to day changes (think self-serve check outs in supermarkets , or charging people for plastic bags) – we don’t react rationally.

That’s why , for example, so few people switch fuel suppliers despite the fact they’d be better off by doing so.

Our status quo bias, the tendency for us to lean towards doing nothing or maintaining our current or previous decision – is a strong reason for never asking customers what they want.  Every pound we put into asking customers what they want is basically wasted.

Have you really got the time to be distracted by what customers think they want?

Lessons from New Coke

In 1985 one of the biggest brands in the world nearly destroyed itself – by listening to what customers said.

Coca-Cola developed a product dubbed “New Coke” that was slightly sweeter than the original. Almost 200,000 blind taste tests were conducted and most participants said that they favoured New Coke over both the original formula and the companies bitter rival, Pepsi.

Hundreds of thousands of people can’t be wrong, right?

New Coke tanked – costing the company millions, with the CEO later commenting that they had “drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

There were two main lessons learned:

1: The research was flawed as it was based almost entirely on sip tests—a comparison of sips, not someone enjoying an entire drink. A blind test in a lab type environment was out of context compared to the experience of , say, drinking a Coke in the garden on a summer’s day

2: No-one realised the symbolic value and emotional involvement people had with the original Coke.  What customers said was “yes, this tastes a lot nicer” but when the product hit the market they behaved entirely differently. Influenced by their emotions and a status quo bias to keep things the same, they demanded the old Coke back.

Many of our organisations are still making these same mistakes – assembling focus groups and panels and involving users in ways that are wholly artificial compared to an actual customers lived experience.

The ‘customer knows best’ argument needs some challenge.

Whilst I agree that users are almost always closer to the problem than the average senior manager or executive, proximity to the problem doesn’t automatically make you the best person to solve it.

Solutions require subject matter experts who have a deep knowledge of the root cause of the problem and can look through multiple lenses to craft a response.

The idea that a customer can provide that based on fairly limited knowledge (or interest) is naive.

Designing the right solution means testing for irrational behaviours.

And that can only come by observing what people actually do rather than basing decisions on what you think , or what they say, they’d do.

The research of Clayton Christensen found that companies that fail often listen to their customers too much.

As users we struggle to envisage the future. Indeed, asking someone to consider the future is a bit like saying, “Tell me how you will behave in five years time when I’ve rolled out the service I’ve just asked you about.”

Arguably the best time to engage customers is the feed into the problem definition – and then at every stage through iterative testing, pilot and subsequent release.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses – (not said by) Henry Ford

It’s a great line but there’s no evidence that Ford ever said this. It never appeared anywhere until about 1970. A longer quote , and one he did say in his 1922 book, is this:

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”

Ford understood his customers aspirations long before they did.

We’ll only ever solve problems through having a deep understanding of our users and customers. That means accepting their flaws, their biases, and the fact they often make bad decisions.

Only by testing real products and real services with real customers in real-world situations can we hope to understand how people truly behave.

5 Lessons in Simple Customer Experience (Indonesian Style)


A new report puts Amazon, McDonald’s and First Direct as the leaders in the top ten of the UK’s ‘simplest’ brands. The companies that are the easiest to deal with.

Whatever you think of them most of us could learn from their “frictionless” customer service. It’s interesting to ponder how sectors might be transformed if we had Amazon Health , McDonald’s Housing and First Direct Care.

“Our survey reveals that both in the UK and on a global scale, consumers would pay more for simplicity” says the report.

There is a huge irony here in a week when three of the brands in the bottom ten , Npower , British Gas and SSE, have announced huge price increases. Simply put – we are being asked to pay more for the companies we value the least.

I’ve been out of the UK recently and it’s led me to ponder how – as customer experience seems to get more complex –  it gets easier in places like Indonesia. Now the worlds fourth most populous country and packed full of newly aspirant Generation Y , Indonesia is tech savvy and connected. The number one consumer purchase is the smartphone. It’s a country unencumbered by bureaucracy, rules and rigid infrastructure.

No-one tells you that’s not the way to do it.

Here are 5 examples I saw that remove the friction from customer service:

You know that moment when the plane hits the runway and everyone takes their phones out only to be told you can’t use them? Annoying right? Well Qatar Airways  say it’s OK – you are free to use your phones. Texting your parents to say you’ve arrived isn’t going to kill anyone.  Which is why it’s great to see that British Airways is the first European carrier to end this outdated “rule”. Don’t create rules for your customer that are meaningless. Or at least revisit your rules often to check they are still relevant.

At Circle K and the convenience stores that are on every corner – WiFi is freely available. Benches are put up to encourage locals to park their mopeds , buy a coke and sit chatting and browsing online. These community hubs – dotted all over the place , bring the internet to everyone. If all the supermarkets in the UK did the same – we’d have a better connected society. And people would spend more in stores. Simple.

The Pop-Up Bar
The Pop-Up Bar

One of best things about South East Asia is that everyone seems to be an entrepreneur. It’s hardly ever “not my job”. A lovely example of this are the Pop-Up Bars on many of the beaches. Take one cool box, an umbrella and a couple of chairs , and hey , you’re a bar owner. On hearing that he didn’t stock what we wanted,  the “owner” left us for 10 minutes while he popped out to stock up – specifically for us. As a counterpoint – two nights after I got back to the UK I was in a bar where I heard the waitress tell a customer that they had “run out of chips”. The customer asked whether she could go to a local supermarket (literally next door) and buy some potatoes. The waitress replied that company policy said they couldn’t buy potatoes from another supplier.

On arriving at Komeneka – everyone seems to know your name. Even the gardeners greeted us as “Mr Paul and Miss Karen” as if they’d known us forever. We only stayed a short time but in 72 hours Komeneka had built a deep and meaningful customer relationship that most businesses couldn’t build , or rather couldn’t be bothered to build, over a lifetime. The Manager also told me about his unique service vision “We compete on experience. We try to be unique. Our food and wine doesn’t come with the usual hotel surcharge – we want you to stay here so you have a better experience”.

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 07.42.41

Arriving at another hotel I apologised for being so early and said we’d wait around whilst the room was prepared. “It’s OK” they said “The boat company you used told us what time you were getting here – so we got ready early”. Despite the fact I’d used a fairly budget boat transfer they had noted where I was staying and had forwarded on my arrival time. To make it easier for me. How many times does your organisation make your customers day a little bit easier – not because there’s anything in it for you – but just because you can?

The lessons here?

  • Don’t create false rules – check them for relevance
  • Give your customers something free – or something that “feels like free”
  • Go out of your way to personalise – people remember you for it
  • Build deep and lasting relationships – even if the experience is brief
  • Make your customers day a bit easier – just because you can

It’s not complicated. Let’s get simple.

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 07.41.34

HEY , Where are you? – Why your company needs to Google itself

I recently explained to a group of managers why they should google themselves. After the initial “what, me? I’m not famous!” responses,  they see their search results , look intrigued, and then get it – the dangers of a badly curated digital footprint. But although many of us have gotten into the habit of doing this as a check on ourselves, I’m not sure that many businesses practice this.

In this guest post , Tim Smith – someone I rate as a “go to” source for advice about Generation Y and Z – explains why companies need to start with the basics if they want to provide a great customer experience:

A few weeks ago, I drove to a local business because they stocked a few items that no other business did.  Like many members of Generation Y (and Generation Z), I used Google Maps to locate the address that was listed on the website and drove accordingly.  I encountered one major obstacle: they didn’t exist according to the physical location.  As I learned a few days following, Google Maps pointed to the wrong physical location.  After speaking with friends, I learned that this is a common problem – they try to visit a business, using a mapping tool, yet the business doesn’t exist at the location where the mapping tool points.  What is the result?  Almost all responded that they find another company which exists where the mapping tool points.

Walking in their shoes

Before we swear that this is not a big deal, let’s be the customers for a moment.  Imagine driving twenty minutes to a business by following its website address and arriving at a wrong location.  Then imagine calling the company, after losing twenty minutes, and asking them where they are actually located.  At this point, we’re feeling, at least, a little frustrated.  Depending on the attitude of the company’s representatives, we might feel better or worse – but we’ll still be annoyed that their website address was wrong.

When we think about it, customers give us time and money.  If we have a physical address, the least we can do it give them right address.  If we give them the wrong address, the least we can do at that point is apologize profusely and offer them a discount – after all, it was our failure, not theirs.  How can we ensure that our customers can find us?  And what can we do when they can’t because of our error?

Google It.

Easiest thing to do - Google your business
Easiest thing to do – Google your business

Seriously.  If we are going to run a business, we need to Google our business.  If we’re a brick-and-mortar shop, can we find it?  If we can answer yes, “good” – if not, we need to consider that customers will experience similar (or the exact same) problems.  Let’s contact Google immediately and get that corrected.

Also, do we have an image of where we are located on our website?  If we respond “no” we should correct that immediately.  The steps are quite easy:

1.  Using a mapping tool (like Google Maps), locate the actual address.  If the mapping tools point to the wrong location, find the right one.  Make sure that common mapping tools all point to the right location – for instance, Google Maps might, but another tool might not.

2.  Take a screenshot of the correct location and using image-editing software (something as basic as MS Paint), mark your location with a colored geometric shape, like a red circle.

3.  If the mapping tool identifies the incorrect location, it might be a good idea to also put – in a different color and shape – that location so that customers can see where the mapping tool points, yet where the business is actually located.  Remember, we want to make it convenient and easy for our customers to find us.

4.  When adding the map to the site, below the map, write a synopsis of the address.  For instance, “Turn right at Street One, and left at Street Two.  You’ll see a sign that shows ‘Turner Business’ and that’s us!”  This helps customers find us visually and verbally, as it paints a fuller picture.

In this example, the red arrow points to the right location, the blue diamond indicates the wrong location
In this example, the red arrow points to the right location, the blue diamond indicates the wrong location

Done!  This may take as much as fifteen minutes, but it’ll help ensure that we don’t lose customers for the simple reason of our location.

Respond quickly

Respond to questions like this ASAP
Respond to questions like this ASAP

So, what about these Generation Yers that couldn’t find the business on the map?  They gave up and found someone else.  Why?  For several reasons:

1.  Where we are is basic.  If we can’t even tell our customers where we are, have we encouraged our customers to trust us?  Think about it: we’ve wasted their time.

2.  These Generation Yers tried connecting with no success.

If a customer can’t find us, they won’t be happy.  They might reach out (which, when we think about it is a gracious act) and they may not be happy when they do, as we’ve already wasted some of their time.  We should always make it easy for customers to reach us and reply quickly.  If a customer sends us a message (in some form), “HEY WHERE ARE YOU GUYS LOCATED?” this is not a time to sit around for a few hours and wait to reply.  Let’s respond immediately and by accepting responsibility for our failure (because it is): “Very sorry for the inconvenience, we’re left on Second street.”  Also, when we do greet our customer, let’s find out what they were using that pointed them in the wrong direction and correct that error as soon as possible.


By following these simple steps (it won’t require more than an hour), we can show our customers that we respect their time and money by helping them arrive to the correct location.  We can also sidestep worrying about an angry customer, who lost time trying to find our business.

Bio: Tim is the lead researcher consultant at Y Research Partners.  He advises companies on Generation Y and Z, as well as helping companies build strong technical marketing teams.  He can be found on Twitter @echoboombomb. His must read blog is located here

Break Your Own Rules

I had a couple of great little customer service experiences recently that I’d like to share.

On both occasions the employee admitted breaking the rules.  They had done something that I , the customer , thought was great service. But it was against the practices or policies as applied by their own managers.

See what you think.

“I Like To Give My Best Customers Free Drinks”

I’m on holiday in a bar I’ve been to a couple of times. On both occasions we’ve had maybe two drinks and left a very modest tip. On the third occasion the waitress comes over without taking our order.

She remembered it. A large beer, a white wine. Ice on the side.

She says – “This is a free round on the house. My manager doesn’t like me doing it – but I think regular customers deserve it. Please don’t mention it if you see him.”

Two previous visits. To her – we were now regulars. I think we went back to the bar every night for the rest of our holiday. The manager never knew why.

“How could anyone remember something so stupid?”

So I’m staying in a hotel that has free Wi-Fi. Except you have to renew it every few days at reception. And you are given a very complicated password and username that you can’t change, and you have no chance of remembering.

So one day I see someone new on reception and I ask her for a couple of passwords.  She asks – “Can you tell me your room number Sir?”

And she hands over two user names and two passwords – personalised based on our names.

She says – “My manager says its not policy. But people keep saying they forget their passwords and they keep coming to the desk.  I mean , how could anyone remember something so stupid? So I thought we could use their names. Please don’t tell them I do this though.”


Customer Service isn’t about policies , systems and protocol. It’s about common sense.

Knowing the customers , personalising service, surprising people with the unexpected. Making them remember you.

Management should be about encouraging these unexpected behaviours that don’t follow the script. And building these unexpected acts into everyday service.

My mission for the week?

Tell my teams to break a few rules every day. As long as they encourage customers to tell me about it.

%d bloggers like this: