Posted by: communicationcloud | November 7, 2009

The customer experience obstacle course

One of the goals of the project I’m busy with at work at the moment is to offer online or automated options for the main customer care interactions that people have with us. The emphasis here is firmly on offering options, not forcing people down a route they don’t want to take. We happen to have an assumption that in many cases, if we offer these options, people will take them … but that’s not the goal of the project.

Automated customer care, out in the real world

I had an encounter at my local bank the other day that really brought home to me just why it’s so important to think really carefully about the way we offer these options.

My local branch has obviously put a lot of thought into its layout, as you can see from this sophisticated diagram drawn over dinner while I expounded on my experience earlier that day (sorry it’s not the most web-friendly picture)!

A&L napkin photo

There’s an ATM at the door, so no need to go into the building to take money out. Then, before you get to the customer service desk, there’s another ATM along with one of those machines that you can make a deposit at.

Then, there’s a customer service desk. I’m not quite sure what’s supposed to go on there – there’s never been anyone there when I’ve been into this bank – and some tables and chairs for opening accounts or mortgages, and so on.

Then, at the opposite end of the building from the door, there’s a big booth with space for a couple of cashiers  behind reinforced glass. I noticed on this visit to the bank that there’s no sign at that booth to say that these are the cashiers … but since I’ve been there before when there’s been a small queue there (plus the clue given by the reinforced glass) I knew that this was what this booth was for.

Automation isn’t always welcome

On this particular day, I was the only customer in the bank, there was one man sitting behind the reinforced glass (labelled “bank teller” on my picture) and one bank employee sitting at a table near the “customer service” desk, facing slightly towards the door. So, as I entered the bank, I felt more than a little exposed…

My sole purpose was to pay a cheque in. I knew about the automated machine, but find these machines irritating, and they take as long or longer as paying in to the cashier. Since there was no queue at the cashier’s booth, I headed straight over there, purposefully (for those who’ve never met me, I’m someone who “does” purposefully very well – so it’s unlikely there was any doubt that I knew where I was going).

As I passed the manager’s office, the manager popped out and intercepted me. He asked me if he could help me (which I felt I didn’t need), and when I told him I wanted to pay a cheque in he told me about the existence of the deposit machine (which I’d already passed by this point). I told him that I kind of had my mind set on dealing with a real person, and he let me go on my way. By this time, though, quite perturbed.

I can only guess that this was some attempt to reduce the amount of time that cashiers have to spend dealing with customers face to face. But the end result was not a fantastic customer experience.

Back on the website

Okay, so this is a real-life experience, but I think it transfers really cleanly to the web:

  • make the automated choice highly visible and accessible … but don’t make it difficult to take other options; instead support whichever the customer wants to use
  • once someone’s made the decision to deal with a real person, rather than take the automated option, that’s probably what they’re going to do; at that point it’s too late to offer new choices
  • just like the manager who popped out of his office to check that I knew what I was doing, pop-ups and confirmation dialogs that ask people to confirm that they really want to do the thing they’ve just selected the option to do are irritating, and create bad feeling!
  • making it difficult to deal with a real person won’t make people not want to do it; it’ll just put them off wanting to do business with you at all

The happy ending

For those who need completion in their stories, by the way, the cashier was lovely – very helpful and pleasant. The cheque got paid in successfully, and everyone lived happily ever after.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Travis and rachel potts, Kristina. Kristina said: RT @userfocus: Which elements of #ux should you automate? Which need customer contact? (via @citipotts) […]

  2. I agree that the banking experience you described makes a great analogy for an on-line customer experience. Some customers like using the most automated route, and some prefer to deal with a helpful person. Once the customer clearly indicates their intention or choice, what follows should speed them where they want to go as simply as possible. A bewildering selection of poorly labeled options does not serve customers in a branch bank or online.

    My daughter has recently discovered that you can short circuit a lot of online and automated voice mail labyrinths, now that they accept voice input, by repeating firmly that you wish to speak to a customer service agent! At last, an escape hatch! Make sure to give your customers a short-cut to a person when they get stuck in any automated process.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Margaret. I like the voice mail example: I can see (financially) why they do it, but what a shame to make the customer service option that people want available, and then hide it from everyone!

  4. I just came upon this article. It’s excellent, and I think that your conclusions are spot on.

    I wonder how the cashiers feel, being stuck behind heavy glass in the faraway back corner.

  5. […] Harnessing desire paths in the design process This is a brief follow-up to my previous post, about a customer service experience that felt like an obstacle course. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: