Why I don't write about customer service

It was Shrove Tuesday 2010 and my Christian friend was mentally preparing for her Lent fast. Well, I say “mentally”, but I suppose having a nice lunch counts as physically preparing too. As we ordered dessert, we ended up having a silly debate about how much weight she would lose by going vegan and giving up sweet things. We decided to solve the argument the scientific way by weighing her before and after Lent, so we went to use the scales at Boots.

You’ve probably seen these scales; they’re in most Boots branches. You put in 50p to find out your weight, plus an extra 20p to find out your body fat percentage, and it gives you a little print-out. We decided that we would both get weighed and splurge the full 70p. My friend put in £1 and hopped on the scales, but the machine flashed up a warning that the body fat percentage gadget wasn’t working. We then noticed that the machine didn’t give change, so she’d paid £1 for a 50p service.

There was no sign on the machine saying the body fat gadget was out of order, and we didn’t want other customers to waste their money. We tried to find a member of staff, but the only people we could see were behind a counter dealing with a long queue of customers. Then we spotted someone who was clearly just going on her break; the weighing machine in the central Oxford branch of Boots is right by the door leading to the staff-only area. We told her about the problem and she said we’d have to find someone else to tell. Then she disappeared through the door.

Neither of us liked the idea of other customers losing money because of poor information, but we also didn’t fancy the idea of queuing up for twenty minutes just to tell another member of staff who might be equally uninterested. So we left.

I complained to Boots about the incident, though they do their level best to discourage communication by providing a webform instead of a real email address. I didn’t keep a copy of the complaint because I typed it directly into the webform, but the gist of it was this:

The weighing machine in your Oxford Cornmarket branch is broken, and customers are getting ripped off because they only find out what’s wrong after they’ve paid and the machine won’t give change. A simple notice taped to the machine would have warned people, but nobody was available to act on this because your staff are all rushed off their feet. Try employing more staff, and how about modifying those machines so they give change?

I got a fairly prompt response from Steve Knight, the manager at Boots Cornmarket, asking if we could discuss this over the phone. So we did, and I was staggered to realise that his main concern was identifying the individual who refused to handle the problem.

But, I said, her behaviour is not the issue. It was ten past the hour when I spoke to her, which makes me think she was probably ten minutes overdue for an all-too-short lunchbreak. She was probably hungry and desperate for a break. I don’t blame her for being rude; I blame Boots for their understaffing and their crappy machine design.

Mr Knight persisted in asking for some identifying features so he could speak to her about her behaviour. Well, I said, she was a young white woman with longish hair, slim and quite pretty. I know that’s a description of lots of workers in that store, and I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, but my problem isn’t with her. It’s with Boots and with the machines.

Mr Knight was quick to tell me that the machines are provided to Boots by a third party. Yes, I said, but it’s still your company’s responsibility. You don’t have the machines in the stores out of the goodness of your heart; you have them there to make money for Boots. So take responsibility for them. If you can’t put pressure on the supplier to modify them so they give change or work better, you can take responsibility for signage that makes any problems clear before someone uses them.

The phone call ended amicably and I was impressed with the level of concern Mr Knight showed over the incident, although I felt his concern was misplaced. He sent me a £20 gift voucher to say sorry. It came with a letter:

Further to your email and subsequent telephone conversation regarding the poor customer service that you experienced in our store, please let me assure you that this is not what we expect from our staff and I apologize most sincerely...

His response would have been perfect if I’d been complaining about a bad apple, an egregiously rude individual member of staff. But I wasn’t. I was complaining about the way the whole branch is run. And the concept of “customer service” doesn’t – yet – allow that.

Customer service focuses on individual staff members and specific incidents. It asks “How would you rate the person who served you today?” as a stand-in for more difficult questions like “How could we improve our service?”

I’ve already written about webforms, but I haven’t really covered one of their more subtle functions: forcing the customer to talk about specifics. Many webforms require you to supply details before you can submit the form – Name? Address? Date of your last stay? Model purchased? Which branch was it?

I’ve blogged about the Nokia webform which asked me for seven pieces of information, but there are countless other examples out there. And this demand for specifics serves two purposes.

Firstly (and stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before), it ensures that the only people who get to communicate with the organisation are people who are compliant enough to serve up lots of information with no guarantee of getting anything in return.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it serves as a nudge that this communication should be about specifics, about the thing that happened last week with that one employee in the Swindon branch, not about an organisation’s general brokenness. That’s great for the organisation in one sense: you don’t have to employ anyone to listen to criticism or ideas that strike at the heart of the way you do things. You just employ people to respond to specific complaints, one-offs, all repeating variations on the theme of “This person’s behaviour was not in line with our usual high standards and we apologise.

Businesses define “customer service” as the interaction between their employees and the customer, even while they do their best to reduce those interactions for cost reasons. Customers are invited to comment on individual employees, but never on the context in which they do their work.

This concept of “customer service” fails to encompass many of the things which really bother customers: automated phone answering systems, long hold times, outsourcing, self-service checkouts, confusing signage, long queues, a lack of store toilets, etc.

So that’s why I don’t write about customer service. I think the concept, as it’s currently understood, forces the employee to take more than their share of blame for organisational failures. It puts all the emphasis on human-to-human interaction but doesn’t leave room for asking why there are fewer opportunities for these interactions: why you have to press buttons at the instruction of a robot before you can speak to a human, why the call-centre workforce has been offshored, why the supermarket has installed those self-service checkouts.

I’ve heard some great anecdotes about employees who provide dreadful or heartwarmingly good customer service. But I want to tell a different kind of story. I’m interested in systems, in usability, in organisational culture, in high-level decisions. Yes, I usually start off by talking about my own specific experiences, but my focus is really on organisations and behaviours. So I’ll carry on blogging about these things, and I hope some people will keep reading.