Why redesigning internal systems and services can improve customer service
Image credit: Bruce Mars
It’s no secret that every customer service-driven industry has been (or is currently being) radically altered and disrupted by technology. Be it a centuries-old insurance broker, a big-box retail store that’s a fixture in suburban shopping centres, or a specialist travel agency catering to adventure travellers, businesses that have traditionally relied on in-person, face-to-face customer interaction touch points are being challenged by new entrants that prioritise digital interactions and technology.
And within panic-stricken boardrooms and shareholder meetings, you’ll often hear variations of three key assumptions: that they need to go digital; that any new digital products should be aimed at the customer; and that customer-facing digital products and services should be rushed out the door first.
After all, digital is the future, the customer is the main user, and happy customers are good for the balance sheet, right?
Yes, user-centred digital products and services are the future - no surprise here! Understanding user needs and pain points and designing solutions that resolve these issues is absolutely critical for continued commercial success. It doesn’t matter if you’re building a mobile app that allows users to pre-order their morning coffee, a web portal that offers robo advice for first-time investors, or a smart meter that tracks energy usage, addressing and designing for the user of paramount importance.
As we’ve already seen time and time again, companies that fail to innovate and deliver user-centred products and services are destined to be consigned to the footnotes of history - maybe not right away, but eventually they will fade away.
Yet when it comes to understanding the main user of these products and prioritising the services that should be redesigned first, it’s a bit more of a grey area. It’s not always the customer that is the main user and it’s not always true that concentrating solely on customer-facing products is the best approach.
In some cases, the main users of these products and services are actually the company’s own staff that rely on them in their day-to-day job duties. And when this happens, it’s often better to start with a focus on and optimise the systems that support the primary service interaction points before introducing new interaction points and systems for customers.
Businesses that follow this approach often see more immediate results and increase their return on investment while minimising the risks of having new service touch points that are poorly understood, poorly designed, and poorly used.
For example, back in 2016, I completed a research and design project for one of the UK’s largest providers of student accommodation. They wanted to build a mobile app so that residents could submit maintenance requests for issues like a broken light bulb, no hot water, or heating issues.
In the course of my research activities, I uncovered two key insights:
Residents preferred to submit a maintenance request by phone because they wanted immediate acknowledgement of their issue. Very few residents knew that they could submit a request via email. In the previous year, less than 2% of all requests were submitted by email, as residents believed that it would result in slower service.
Behind the scenes, the company relied on a complex network of manual, paper-driven processes that would not be addressed with a mobile app. And in fact, service issues would be further exacerbated with the introduction of an app that couldn’t sync with existing systems.
Armed with these and other insights, I recommended that the company first focus on revamping their internal processes and optimising their existing call centre touch point. Introducing a new service touch point would likely increase frustration amongst residents while placing an even greater strain on the call centre touch point. If they could optimise their existing services, they would then be in a better position to look at rolling out a mobile app for residents.
Interestingly, when I audited their existing systems for optimisation opportunities, I found that there were readily available, easy-to-implement quick fixes with little to no additional cost. For example, the software used to store maintenance requests had the functionality to automatically send confirmation text messages to residents - both when an appointment was made and once the work had been completed. This would resolve a common pain point as residents were unsure when their issue would be addressed and they wanted to know the outcome of their request. Compared to the cost of designing, building, and deploying a bespoke mobile app, these fixes were a bargain!
Not surprisingly, I have found this same scenario with countless other clients - and even in my own daily interactions with companies. I appreciate having access to a mobile app, video call, or live chat features, but I’m more appreciative of well-optimised, responsive customer service. And sometimes that involves looking at internal systems first because those affect the touch points I’m most likely to use.
And so while companies can choose to focus on the customer-facing digital products and services, oftentimes in industries where customer service is paramount and separates the contenders from the pretenders, it is the internal systems that generate unintended customer pain points - but pain points that are quicker, easier, and cheaper to resolve.
Fix those pain points, and you’ll have happy customers and users - and a healthier balance sheet!