Why does being a customer suck?

Does it at your business?

Are you being honest?

How would you know if it did?

What happens when you walk into a restaurant you’ve never been to before? Do you stand there for a moment wondering whether you need to seat yourself or wait to be seated? Do you go up to the counter and order? How open are they going to be to changing one of their dishes to meet your needs?

O.K., enough question marks.

As a restaurant owner, or any business owner for that matter, it is obvious how your business works to you, but your clients almost certainly don’t walk through those doors every day -mores the pity.

Education of the client is often held up as a key component in a lot of service industries to solve these issues (yes veterinarians, I’m looking at you). Our job, as delivers of services however, should be to hold our clients hands through this process and make it as painless as possible. Clients should not need to become experts in how to deal with us, or the industries in which we work.

As I discussed at some length in this post about marketing and branding, what you sell is not necessarily what your clients are buying. The customer experience should reflect this. I had a recent customer service experience that brought this all into sharper light. Because the owner of the business is a friend, I’m not going to go into that particular experience directly, but it did cause me to re-evaluate what I do, how I respond to clients who do have issues, and do some thinking at length about what “customer service” actually is. Instead, let me tell you about my bathroom…

A while back I had a bathroom tiled. I spent a significant amount of time picking out exactly the right shade of tile that I wanted and the size. At the end of day one of the installation however, I come to find out that the tiles are actually two slightly different shades. I talk with the installer and the answer is “Well that is how they come – It is to give the effect of real marble.” Well, I did not want two tone tiles, I wanted them all the same color. Who is right here, and who is wrong? The store, and the installer, are both perfectly right – the tiles are manufactured that way and I’m sure that for most installations it would have made lots of sense, but that was not what I was purchasing! I was purchasing my bathroom tiled in a particular shade!

Interestingly, I was was in a locally owned and operated store a little while later and happened to look at their tiles. Their display was actually setup so that for tiles of the type I was looking at, all the shades of the same batch of tile were shown together as a single piece rather than just an individual tile. This removed the “different shade shock” that I had experienced when I had bought tiles for my bathroom.

Other than showing my bad taste in tiles, what does this experience tell us? It tells us that it is very difficult to forget information or view things as if we don’t know about that information. Chip and Dan Heath, in their book “Switch – How to Change things when change is hard,” have an excellent exercise that you can use with staff – or even just friends – that shows this in action. Give a volunteer a piece of paper with the name of a very common tune written on it and get them to ‘knock’ out the rhythm of the tune on a table and see if the others in the room can guess what tune it is. Try it with a number of different tunes and people. Those knocking the tune out will find it really hard to understand why everyone else in the room can’t guess correctly. The reason for this is that they are hearing the tune in their own heads along with the knocking. They have knowledge which everyone else in the room does not. Not only are they unable to communicate that knowledge, but they don’t understand how or why everyone else in room does not have that knowledge – it is an alien perspective to them.

This is just like my tile sales man and installer who could not understand why I did not know what they knew about tiles. It is also the same phenomenon that has you hesitant and unsure in the lobby of a restaurant you’ve never been to before – the big sign saying “please wait to be seated” can be a huge relief. I’d also argue that this is one of the reasons why chains are so successful. Familiarity is easy!

So what does this all tell us?

Well perhaps we need to start really listening to our clients and thinking about their experience and how it is not our experience. It might sound trite but customer service is about serving the customer. If we have a lot of education deliver to a client, perhaps the problem is that we have not made things simple enough. Of course, if the client wants more information they need to have it, and we need to have the resources to hand to help deliver. But we also know, from numerous studies, that very little information is actually retained when we deliver large amounts of it in person. We also know that lots of choices actually result is less decisions being made.

Clients are not stupid, but they don’t have, and shouldn’t need, a manual to use our businesses or get the services we are trying to deliver to them. One of the reasons why Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad are so successful is that anyone can use them from day one with the minimum of instruction. Our businesses and services should be the same way.

Being a customer can suck – but it is our job to ensure that it doesn’t!


A check list for removing suckyness from the customer experience

  • If we have have to explain things over and over how can we stop the need for explaining?

  • Do we get frustrated with our clients lack of knowledge – perhaps they are not the problem?

  • What do our clients complain about?

  • How successful are we with our recommendations?

  • Do we have compliance issues?

  • When issues arise, how could they have been avoided?

If you have any additions to this list, or have any customer service stories to share, please let me know in the comments!