404: Customer not found - why other people's mistakes are your fault

Creating a great customer experience is about eliminating the potential for error - because if people can do it wrong, they will, says John Sills

by John Sills
Last Updated: 20 Apr 2017

In a desperate effort to maintain my new year’s fitness resolution into the spring and summer months, I recently bought myself a turbo trainer to turn my road bike into a garage-based exercise bike. To use it properly, I had to fix on a new tyre, something which I had little experience in. But surely, I thought, it couldn’t be that difficult.

Three hours, two sore thumbs, one ripped inner tube and multiple swear words later, I had changed my mind. I stormed out of the house and into Halfords, happily handing over a few pounds to get an expert to fix this troublesome tyre & wheel combination.

He was very polite as he explained one of the issues (that I needed a smaller inner tube). And he was equally polite, and impressively straight-faced, when he explained the other issue - that I’d been trying to put the tyre on the wrong way around.

If there’s the potential for a customer to make a mistake, then you can be sure that customers will make that mistake. Examples of this can be seen everywhere, every day.

When you think of buying a train ticket, what springs to mind? Endless options, complicated ticket combinations, and the near certainty that you’re going to be overcharged. Self-checkout machines? Finding the right bagging area, weighing the carrots correctly, and looking over 21. Tax returns? Long endless forms asking for minute details to be dragged from the back of your brain, with the risk of a huge fine should anything be slightly out of place.  More often than not, these mistakes will lead to frustration, wasted time, and perhaps a feeling of incompetence. But the consequences could be even more serious.

In his brilliant ‘Revisionist History’ podcast, Malcolm Gladwell explores the story of the ‘uncontrollable acceleration’ scandal that Toyota faced in the summer of 2009. With the consensus being that mechanical failure was to blame, Toyota recalled 10 million vehicles, paid a fine of more than $1Bn, and settled countless lawsuits. So far, so corporate. However, according to the final US Department of Transport report in 2011, the issue wasn’t mechanical at all, but caused by drivers panicking when their floor mat slightly hooked onto the pedal. Rather than lifting off and stepping on the brake, drivers would slam down harder on the accelerator, trying to ‘loosen’ the pedal, and in doing so, increasing the speed of the car. ‘Pedal misapplication’, was the delicate term for this phenomenon.

These kind of experience designs are a symptom of organisations who have lost touch with their customers, being too close to their business and colleagues, and unable or unwilling to seek an outside-in view of their design. As knowledge increases, it can be hard to remember what it’s like to not know some of the things you now know, presuming that everyone has the same ‘base level’ knowledge that you have. Evidence of this can be heard at dinner tables up and down the country every night, with one person sharing the highlights of their day in full acronym glory, whilst the other person gently glazes over unable to understand this new language being used.

To combat this, companies must design experiences presuming people will get things wrong, understanding the potential for error at every step. And to do this effectively, ‘outside’ views must be brought in, through co-creation with customers, direct testing, or simply watching how people experience the product or service. By doing this, simple, easy, and often low-cost solutions can be found.

Like printing ‘This Way Up’ on a bicycle tyre.

John Sills is a Director at The Foundation. If you enjoyed this article, you can sign up to his personal blog for more of the same.

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