Reading Mark Suster’s excellent post on product design left me with this thought – what if more products were literally designed by the customer? As a thought experiment, leave aside any skepticism you have about the customer making bad choices (e.g. Faster horses vs. a Model T Ford) and imagine what these products might look like when released.
Products designed for the customer start very simply, and focus on a minimum number of clicks to get something done. Great examples of this include Google’s search button and Uber’s button to summon a car. Each of these hide immense complexity yet don’t ask the customer to understand how all of those levers and dials work.
Next, these products work everywhere and feel the same everywhere. When you pick up different Apple products or use the Apple web site, these pieces of the “product” – really, the overall customer experience – feel like a coherent brand. Perhaps the best examples of brand coherence are Coca-cola, Starbucks, and McDonalds. You may not like all of the brand attributes of these brands, but you know what you’re going to get when you find them anywhere in the world.
Finally, the product designed for the customer needs to be personalized only for that customer. It is easy to make it unique. On an industrial scale, think about what Toyota does in just in time manufacturing, building a car that matches an individual customer’s orders. Or Makerbot, which literally prints the product you need from raw materials. Or Amazon.com, which helps you assemble your own instant view media catalog. Uniqueness – or the feeling of “that’s mine – keeps the customer coming back over and over again.
Yet that feeling of uniqueness must always be convenient and easy. The consumer benefit for a product is something the customer needs – even if they didn’t know they needed it before they learned about it. Great products focus and amplify customer need while addressing that need with the simplest interface possible. So the next time you deliver a prototype to the customer, take something out and see if they notice. When the customer asks you, “where is that thing I found really useful?” you’ll know what to put back in.
Be more like Amazon Fresh, and Less Like The Phone Company
Becoming a verb for consumers is a sign that your company has made it. Google it. Just Uber It. When your company’s name becomes the shorthand for a great customer experience, customers know that they will get a consistent, reliable product or service that meets or exceeds their expectations. Great service delivery feels different to the customer, either because it’s a brand new service that builds new habits and behaviors, or because the service delivery reorients the customer to expect better, more personalized service. Can you use great service to unseat a market leader, even one that has a near-monopoly?
“Green field” opportunity – A Brand New Game
Changing a relatively new market (think: Internet search in 1996) can happen relatively quickly. Google’s market dominance happened because their search product was so much better than the substitute and there wasn’t a de-facto monopoly in place that consumers had used for years (or decades).
Changing a more entrenched market like the market for taxicabs, phone service, or grocery shopping is much more difficult because the average person has been using these services as they exist for a long time. What are the characteristics of a service or product that can disrupt such a monopoly, and what does the actual service delivery feel like for the customer?
Getting a Taxi Shouldn’t be Hard
If you’ve ever really needed a taxicab and had trouble finding one, you’ll like Uber. Uber took a long entrenched, but previously reviled experience – calling a taxi – and transformed it into a premium experience for the everyday. Uber has gone beyond what you’d typically expect of a car-dispatch service and makes your smartphone a remote control to magically summon a ride.
Uber is great because when you use it, you don’t have to know how they made car service delivery easier. You just know that when you launch the Uber app, there are cars shown on a map near your location, and when you summon them they appear in just a few minutes at your location. Paying for your service is already handled, and you can spend more time thinking about what you’re going to do at your location than figuring out how you will get there.
Winning the Customer’s “Mindshare”
Businesses that want to disrupt highly consolidated (but not strictly monopoly) industries should start by looking at existing businesses to see they are addressing the customer experience. One way to compare the traditional approach and a newer version that’s more like Google or Uber is to review the customer experience for two everyday services. Wireline phone/internet service and grocery shopping are two services that meet this criteria.
I recently ordered phone and internet service from CenturyLink – an established company that started as one of the regional Baby Bells – and did so because it was the only service available. The initial ordering experience was ok, and the company agreed to install the service on a particular day. I signed up to do part of the installation as a self-install process (connecting the DSL to the existing computer system), and away we went.
On the day of installation, CenturyLink arrived within the allotted window (3 hrs) and no DSL modem had arrived. The technician did not have a DSL router available, and was able to complete the rest of the installation. There was only one service level available and no way to upgrade the service. The technician was pleasant, but seemed overbooked and wasn’t able to get me the part that I needed, preferring instead to order it via an overnight service (the local office was only open until 3pm).
Overall score: Meh. Granted, I would have preferred to just avoid CenturyLink and use a cloud based internet service, but none yet exist because of the physical requirement to bring a wire into a building. In addition, my preferred provider (Fiber + Cable) was not immediately available in the building. The thing that could have made my experience great – the ability and willingness of the service provider to go above and beyond what was expected – also didn’t happen.
Lessons Learned: The Traditional Approach
Here are the service lessons I learned from this traditional service delivery by “the phone company”:
when you don’t offer options, the customer is frustrated – I wanted more service and was not able to get it from this provider. There were no customization options available for immediate upsell.
guaranteeing a service “window” is not enough for today’s customers – I’m now spoiled by the “Uber experience” where an SMS or push notification lets me know the provider is on the way.
asking the customer to do some work is hard when the service delivery is broken – I couldn’t do the work the service wanted me to do because the hardware wasn’t available at the time of the install and the technician did not arrive with extra examples of this commodity hardware.
if you don’t tell a story of what will happen, the customer will make up their own story – CenturyLink gave little detail on the itemized list of items and the process for finishing the job, so it was really hard to know when it was done or if it was being done well.
make sure the first line of defense has some way of responding to exceptions – I expected “good to great” service and got “fair to middling” service – the mismatch was jarring.
What customer takeaways can we make from CenturyLink’s experience delivery?
You can’t (always) get what you want – there are physical and regulatory constraints that may keep a business the way it is and are difficult to change.
There is always a service component that can be better – the technician may not have known what was possible and therefore didn’t want to get in trouble by making an incorrect decision – if the service process and exceptions are well known up front.
“Honey, I’m going shopping for groceries – where’s the list?”
Grocery shopping is another service where the service delivery has remained largely unchanged for decades for most consumers. The basics are simple: drive or walk to the store, pick out your items, pay for them, and drive or walk home. There have been some contenders to change this idea (Webvan, Peapod, and others), and they have largely been niche services in tech centers.
Amazon Fresh is a new take on the idea of grocery shopping, giving you almost instant grocery delivery and letting you order from your home or office from an online grocery catalog. The ordering experience was instantly familiar – it felt just like Amazon’s other services – and I immediately thought, “why haven’t I grocery shopped like this before?”
Adding items to my cart was really easy with Amazon Fresh, and the selection seemed really large. The search bar in particular made me think that the selection was nearly unlimited (even though a few searches revealed that it was not as large a catalog as it felt) and I was able to complete all of my shopping in a few minutes. One interesting facet of shopping online is that I was able to see the result of the cart and adjust the items to get above or below a dollar amount, and I started to think harder about the cost of the individual items.
Amazon gave me an incentive to increase my order by posting a shipping upgrade in the upper left-hand corner of the page, letting me know that I could become a “Big Radish” by spending over $300 in this order (I didn’t make it there) and “win” free shipping. During checkout, I also had the option of adding suggested items to the order, but not in a hard-sell kind of way. One of the most innovative features they offered was the opportunity to change my order after it was placed. Instead of pitching the service as “modify your order” Amazon messaged this as “forget something in your basket?” reminding me of the experience of leaving the store having forgotten to buy something on the list.
The actual service delivery for Amazon Fresh was really painless. The driver arrived at the appointment time, brought all of our items in branded Amazon insulated bags, verified the items against the pick list, and left. Having the entire grocery shopping service done in just a few minutes felt like a huge win. Overall score? FTW.
Tech-driven Service Delivery FTW
Here are the service lessons I learned from Amazon’s take on grocery shopping:
provide several service options with seemingly unlimited customization – this was a clever hack that allowed me to pick many options from the available service times and many items from the catalog in a way that felt almost unlimited but actually was the normal schedule and catalog.
show up exactly when you say you’re going to show up – I set an appointment time, and they showed up. Done.
if you ask the customer to do something for you, make it a high-value activity – Amazon asked me to identify which items should be on the list that they picked from the warehouse and because I picked exactly what I wanted, I felt satisfied that the same items showed up on my doorstep.
help the customer feel more comfortable by being transparent about your quality checking – because we used the same list to verify the order, it was easy for both the driver and for me to know the job was done.
give your service providers a strong procedure and help them know what to expect – even though Amazon Fresh hadn’t delivered to the location before, there was a very tight procedure that the driver followed to deliver a great experience. I knew what to expect and so did the driver, so it was a lot easier to meet or exceed my expectations.
What sort of experience can you get when you focus on customers – as in Amazon’s grocery delivery business?
You can (always) get what you want – you don’t have to go to the store, and you don’t have an unlimited selection or supply, but it’s pretty great.
Much of the service component is built into the business – leaving less pressure on the providers to make a heroic effort to respond to unexpected exceptions.
You can wow the customer – add unexpected benefits like specials, product samples, or “thank you” gifts as part of your retention and loyalty business.
Service is the Secret Weapon
If you want to build a sustainable service business at scale and want to disrupt the monopoly-like leaders who are already in place, what can you do? You can follow the lead of Amazon, Uber, and Google to change service delivery so that it’s focused on personalization, timeliness, and excellence. You can build a system that asks the customer to help, and delivers value for the help. You can drive down costs – especially in an area that’s hard for the incumbent to match. And you can build a brand based on the promise that “it just works”. You’ll know you’re there when customers use the name of your company as a verb to describe the process they love.
When you serve your first customer, you get to spend as much time as possible to make that relationship right. When that first customer becomes one of many, you need a way to take that same energy and focus that you delivered to the first customer and make it available to the next one (however many next ones there are).
There is a repeatable set of steps that can help you from your first fan through to your 1Mth “True Fan” to reach mass market adoption. Those steps use People, Process and Tools to magnify and repeat the ideas you had at customer #1 and make them applicable at scale.
Scaling Customer Success Starts With People
You need to start by hiring for the attitude and aptitude. You can teach someone how to use new technology tools. It’s difficult to teach them to be resilient, to learn how to learn and to treat people well if they don’t already know those skills. And you need those skills for customer #1 and for customer #1,000,000.
What does a successful person look like who can help you scale?
They are probably a lifelong learner. They are probably interested and empathetic when hearing and speaking to new people. And they can probably make small talk with anyone. They also do a great job. And they are interested in taking on new roles and in teaching other people what they can do.
Building a Systematic Process to Delight Your Fans
When you find the right people to build the team that can scale, you also need to give them a framework – guidelines, really – that will help them make daily choices to provide great service for customers even when new situations occur that aren’t explicitly described.
The Incident Command System is a great example of such a system. This system, developed by the US Forest Service, has the following tenets at its core:
1. The system must be organizationally flexible to meet the needs of incidents of any kind and size.
2. Agencies must be able to use the system on a day-to-day basis for routine situations as well as for major emergencies.
3. The system must be sufficiently standard to allow personnel from a variety of agencies and diverse geographic locations to rapidly meld into a common management structure.
4. The system must be cost effective.
Delighting the customer results when the experience exceeds expectations, so how can you better understand the expectations? You can start by asking yourself how you would feel if you were in the customer’s shoes. And if you can exceed those expectations and remove the root cause of the issue at the same time, that would be awesome.
So that leads to another set of questions. How can you exceed customer expectations while removing root causes at the same time? Using a process like the Incident Command System can be an answer – and you should know that there’s no silver bullet in systems, technology, or process. But you can put steps in place that make what you do repeatable and better.
What Tools Do You Need To Scale Customer Support?
At the beginning, you really don’t need much. A simple VOIP tool might suffice for phone, and a shared Gmail inbox for inbound questions. And you will quickly need a bit more. As you grow you need to build systems that solve the present need of the business and can scale as well.
An example is case management – at the beginning you might need a relatively simple tool like UserVoice or Desk.com or Zendesk or Helpscout to manage cases. As you need more people to handle cases, as you take on additional channels (apps, social media, etc), you may find that you have a more complex workflow.
Scaling is a constant exercise in balancing the tools you know against the switching cost of changing the configuration and adding risk to bring the benefit of new capability. My advice here – make the system as simple as possible, and be open to the possibility that you might have to consider new ideas from time to time.
The Customer Service Formula
It starts with the best people who are lifelong learners and who can adapt to the changing form of the business. To find the best process and tools, you need to identify the business drivers that matter to the business. Build the system that you need to meet the goals you know about – identifying the people that you need, the process they will learn and adapt to make change, and the tools that will get you there.
Worry about the current customers in the present. If you can please them, and you can do that for most of your customers (and over time, almost all of them), you’ll get to scale.
Why you should bring your interactions to the place where people already spend their time.
Email is the #1 Destination
Ryan Hoover published a great article the other day on the trend of using email as an interface to do other things. You probably already use it in this way by sending commands to other systems: “forward this email to my expense site”, “watch my email for interesting stuff,” and “make a to-do list out of my emails.” In my experience, managing tasks through email (though hopefully not using your inbox) increases productivity and makes you generally better at getting stuff done. And there’s a bit more that we ought to be doing.
The “stuff we ought to be doing” varies, and usually relates to long-running recurrent tasks (remember someone’s birthday, maintain a daily or weekly status), project-based tasks with a deadline (I need to get some stuff done before next Wednesday), and one-time actions (“Can you find this for me, right now?”) Email is really lousy at these things, which is why we use other applications for help.
We need a better way to surface applications and services in email without breaking the way people handle email today.
Remember. All. the. Logins.
Awesome! You remembered all of your passwords (or have a great SaaS app to handle that.)
There are so many great applications that are out there (many are even free) that can get stuff done. Now, which ones should we hire to do the job? And what job are we actually doing? Just managing the logins can be a chore, and getting beyond that to switch contexts every time you want to start something new can waste a lot more of your time.
Getting started isn’t easy.
One of the great challenges of Software as a Service products is that there is a login to remember, a site to visit, and tasks to do in that other system that will help you to better manage the minute details of the things you do. You might use Sprintly for Agile Dev, Desk.com for Customer Service Interactions, Expensify for Expenses, and so on. Yet all of these products depend upon you start an action in email and then resume it in another system.
So which app was I using to do that?
When you make constant decisions that force you to have another login, another app to pay attention to when you’re on the go, and yet another slew of notifications, you dilute your ability to make quick decisions. It’s a mental burden to understand which things really need attention and which notifications arrive as a result of long-forgotten decisions that are no longer important.
Ok, Now What?
When you build an application – and need customers to participate – it’s your job to find the place and interface where they will get the most value out of your idea. I believe you should not only make your service responsive but also your service design responsive.
Towards a Responsive Service Design
Making a basic responsive design is pretty straightforward – making an insanely great one is really hard. I think the same is true when you invent a responsive service design. Making your service design responsive anticipates that customers will use different modalities and interfaces to access your idea, and that some customers will never cross into another way to use your idea. App customers may not behave the same as email customers, and vice-verse. But there are a ton of people using email, so how can you add value to their experience without being overwhelming?
Service Design as a concept implies that there are activities that customers take to get tasks done. Completing the tasks may require external actions and may depend on other tasks or actors. Finally, the activity you are designing may happen in multiple places.
Email to the Rescue: The Lowest Common Denominator
Because people spend lots of time in email and there are already many ways to access it, email is a great candidate to act as an operating system where customers might do these service tasks as part of an overall service design.
There are three basic ways you can push email towards being an operating system of sorts:
Create a browser extension – force your way into the experience, either passively (Klout in adding scores to your Twitter pages) or actively (Rapportive, adding persistent information to the existing real estate)
Invisibly solve a problem – have a background service that listens to email and makes decisions or surfaces information based on your preferences (Sanebox, for example, which automatically files your messages)
Take explicit email commands – “add note”, “send tweet”, etc and make them easier to use for “normal” people and abstract them to other media
Time to fight the blank page
All of these methods have advantages and challenges – let’s take a look.
Make a Plug-In
You could make a browser extension that will either take over the real estate or silently monitor or insert information in the places you’ll most likely interact with other services. Plug-ins are awesome for absolute control and transfer very poorly to other interfaces.
As an example, I love Rapportive because it does a great job of using the mostly empty screen real estate I used to see in Gmail and fills it with valuable information about the person who is contacting me. It even shows me the latest view that other people using the same service have of me. Rapportive is a great experience because it exposes some methods to other application services I use (send invitation, start tweet, read Facebook post) without cluttering my view. Some drawbacks of this method are that I don’t have any more mental space for more plug-ins. I’m sure that was one of the reasons LinkedIn purchased this scrappy team.
Create an Invisible Service That Does Your Work
Another way of approaching this problem is to work behind the scenes and make the changes necessary to increase productivity or other goals. This method is cool because it’s client-independent. And it still requires developers to create different interfaces in different client. (There’s less to customize, though.)
Sanebox just works – it filters the email I receive into Gmail labels and then gives me a single digest a day to take actions. From my daily email digest I can delete unwanted messages, set reminders, and see how I’m doing relative to prior days or weeks. When I want to ignore Sanebox, it’s still doing work for me and allows me to close email for long periods of time and then solve for a burst of emails all at once. I don’t have to worry about filing any more – I just search.
Another version of this implementation is the inverse of a service that is implemented everywhere – Mailbox lives only in an iPhone app and allows you to connect to many email clients and apply the same simple management effort to each one. Mailbox takes the best metaphors from the mobile interface and applies them to email: swipe to promote an email to a task or to archive or delete it.
Make external tasks possible in Email
The traditional, geeky way to make external tasks possible in email is to require the customer to send an explicit email command in a subject line or in an interaction body so that the server on the other end of the “conversation” knows exactly what task to execute. In practice, this works well for “send my stuff to you and have you process it” and is harder to execute for “do only the thing I want you to do and not that other thing based on the thing I type.” Normal people – that is, people who don’t talk to computers all day – have a hard time doing this.
Yet the potential exists – many of us use Siri, Google Voice Commands, or interfaces like Google Glass to create a graph search-like call and response with our services. So let’s do that with email – and that’s where Google is going.
Google’s version of this is borrowed from another company, however. Their previous versions of “do stuff in your email” were possible only for geeks to do. You needed to install a “Labs Feature,” or use keyboard shortcuts, or do other things late adopters don’t tend to do. And what’s the solution? Apps that magically show you what to do and offer fewer choices and fewer configuration steps.
We should thank Facebook and Apple for priming customers to act this way – the app economy makes customers expect one-click actions to solve their problems. So now it will be possible for publishers like Google to create structured, in-context actions for customers to complete and interact with other systems. Some will call this backsliding and the new “Death of Email.” I call this the birth of “Email, the Operating System for Life.”
Poor Customer Service is No Excuse. You Can Do Better.
Think of the last time you contacted a “Big Brand.” Did you feel appreciated, acknowledged or loved by their response? If so, that’s great! If not, then you probably had an average service experience. They can do better. And here’s a few tips that might help.
10 Great Tips – try them today.
Poor Customer Service Kills Repeat Business
Use Social Selling to Grow Your Business
Give the Customer a Head Start
Say Thank You, and Solve the Problem
Customers Want Really Fast Service
Customers Will Go to Another Company with Great Service if You Don’t Oﬀer Great Service
Protecting your Ego Might Cause Churn
Deliver a Shareable WOW Experience
Share the Solution to the Problem Broadly
Partner with Front-Line Employees to Solve Problems
What’s missing from this list? Feel free to chime in and add your favorite customer service tip that helps turn customer strategy into actions that you can do today to make the customer experience better for your customers.
Quick: how many clicks does it take to do something important in your product? Count them. If it seems like too many, it probably is too many clicks if you want the customer to keep coming back. The “too many clicks” problem is a symptom of a bigger problem that you probably have if your product is anything but a version 1.0. The problem? It just takes too many decisions to do anything. And you have a limited amount of good decisions in your day.
When you don’t make good decisions, the results are disastrous – both in terms of tactics (do I want to do something in this web site and how do it do it) and strategy (I can make short-term decisions that fall counter to a longer term strategy when I’m frustrated.) Assuming that your site, product, or app only gets some of your customer’s time, you should make the customer’s decision count as much as possible. Otherwise, your customer suffers “decision fatigue.”
What is decision fatigue?
Decision fatigue is literally the physical and mental fatigue that results from expending the energy to make decisions. The more decisions you need to make to solve a problem, the more fatigue. Some people have better decision muscles – they spend their days training themselves to make decisions – and others do not. You should build your product with the most critical decisions in mind that you want the customer to make. And please don’t ask the customer to choose more often than necessary – when you ask for their attention, it should be a meaningful decision that also produces meaningful feedback.
There are good ways to cut the number of clicks required for a customer to do something meaningful. You can count the clicks required to do the 20% of actions that happen 80% of the time. (You might call these actions when done well “the Happy Path.”) Now remove one or more of the clicks in these frequently used scenarios, and you just helped many of your customers to complete an important task in your application with fewer decisions.
Swiss Army Knife, or Razor-sharp cutting implement?
As part of your effort to limit decisions, you should have fewer ways for customers to do things. While a multi-tool approach can cover more edge cases, sometimes a tool that does only one thing extremely well is the best choice. Too many products can do “everything,” and typically don’t do one thing well.
How do you do improve the ability for customers to do things? Start by asking more closed questions, e.g. “do you want me to remind you every day or week and at what time?” is a better question than “what’s the best way to remind you?” Then, remove the jargon from whatever’s written there.
Add Learning “Scaffolding”
How do you explain these options? Add “scaffolding” by making learning content that helps the average customer get from “sorta ok” to mostly good. Smart customers who get it will get even more out of this content. You can find these learning themes by identifying the top 10 highest rated and lowest rated knowledge base articles that your customers use and rewriting them.
You can find 47 other ways to improve the customer experience here.
You should fix all the broken things in your product. You avoided some decisions in the past or made some decisions you might now choose to change, and now these broken things are still there. Your customers see this accumulated flotsam and jetsam and don’t think “you made the best decision you could have made at the time,” they just think “why is that thing so broken?” Don’t they care enough to fix it?
When your customers ask you to fix things, you can’t always fix them. There might be a very good reason you can’t fix that thing now, or to explain to your customer why it’s complicated. And I’d like to remind you that the longer those things are out there the more chances your customers have to get fed up and stop trying themselves. So here’s a simple set of ideas that can help regain customer goodwill (or make it bigger.)
Fix. All. The. Things.
Here’s one thing you can do today: make a list of the top 10 “cringe items” to fix. You know what they are – your customers tell you about them often. You might have a rubric internally for when they become truly important, and there is another way to measure whether something is truly a “cringe item.” Ask a new customer if they think it’s weird. If they think that part of your product is weird or confusing, it probably is weird or confusing and you should make it better.
True “cringe items” emerge from this list of merely weird or confusing items. These are items that cause significant customer pain. If these items are difficult (technically) to fix, then build different ways to hold the customer’s hand and get them through the problem. You can write a blog post; you can have a call with the customer where you share your screen; and you can configure the product for them. Any solution that gets a customer through a cringe item might save a customer. You know what your cringe items are – and if you don’t know, you should ask all the people in your business who talk to customers – they can tell you.
After you know what the pain points are, make them go away.
Pain points are exactly that: things that customers find difficult. Sometimes, pain points of a product feel so bad for a customer that the customer goes away, especially when another company determines a way to make that pain point 10x easier to deal with and helps you get there. So make the pain go away.
This is an expanded version of “make it easy for the customer” because really what you are doing is making it so no customer ever again will have this problem. Ok, it’s not always easy. But fixing a cringe item offers the most return on your customer investment possible. Fixing a cringe item makes your customers believe again if they have temporarily lost faith. And fixing a cringe item brings hope to customers who’ve been waiting for you to resolve your decision debt and to do better.
Remember Pareto and the 80/20 rule.
Fixing the cringe items to improve the customer experience is a natural outcome of following the Pareto Principle. When you find the small number of cases that cause customer discontent, you should fix them if you want to maximize the investment benefit of fixing that things. Why not start with the things customers hate most? One reason is that customers famously don’t know what they want. But if enough of them are complaining about the same things, that should signal that it’s a great thing to spend more time on, even if you can’t fix it right away. So fix all the broken things. If you can’t fix them, invent a better way to help customers cope with them without getting really upset at you every time they try to do the thing they’d like to do.
You can find 47 other ways to improve the customer experience here.