Customer experience design

Imagine interacting simultaneously with utility/telecoms companies, realtors (estate agents), airlines, hotels, and cleaning companies. It's not a difficult thing to imagine if you've relocated across continents as I just have. In the last few weeks I've shut down accounts with Comcast (US telecoms), T-mobile US (ditto), Pepco (utilities), O2 (UK), and opened accounts with Spark Energy, and T-mobile UK. Simultaneously I've rented out one apartment (US) and rented another (UK) – with all the interactions with agents that entails, including the cleaning companies. I've crossed the Atlantic 3 times in one week and that same week stayed in 3 different hotels. I've also notified numerous organizations about a change of address, ordered stuff online for delivery, and (now) completed the first week at work in the new place –including getting equipped with swipe card, laptop, etc.

During this exercise I've run the gamut of communication channels from the organizations I've been interacting with: email, face-to-face, telephone without any live person just push button, telephone ultimately getting through to a live person, online, on-line chat box, text messages, and twitter.

When I'm not feeling frazzled about the whole thing I'm noting the 'customer journeys' I'm going through. Some of these are not exactly 'journeys' more like colossal on-going obstacle courses with absolutely no inkling of when/where the finish line is. The top designer of such a course is Comcast . If you take a look at their website you'll find that there is no way of closing an account with them on-line. You have to call a phone number.

It took me 3 days and 8 different agents – each promising they would put me through to the right department – to get the account closed. The department dealing with the account closing did not handle the return of the router box – which took another process to book a collection for it. The collector did not turn up and finally a kind neighbor took it to the local depot. This neighbor was the one who found out my account had in fact been closed as I'd got no confirmation of this. The reason for the three days was the length of time it took for getting through the phone system entering the same details each time and then being assured that 'an agent will be with you momentarily', one time I waited 34 minutes before hanging up – other times I hung up sooner.

T-mobile UK's journey started off very well. I went into one of their shops and was attended to instantly, talked through the various options, filled in the paperwork, and left with the immediate kit to get me interacting in the UK and a date for broadband connection – this is the bit that hasn't happened yet. However, I have had several text messages about it and a live agent ringing to explain the delay and give a 50% discount on the connection fee.

The router box for the broadband was delivered to my new address but as I hadn't arrived it was sent back but I have not heard from T-mobile that it will be redelivered. (I had to email the courier company to find out where the package was). I'm expecting that the engineer will arrive to hook everything up but because there's no router he/she won't be able to. I'm going to call tomorrow and attempt to find out the process for redelivering. The downside is I can't track order process on-line, and the whole thing is through EE which adds a layer of confusion.

John Lewis, a UK retailer, has given the best journey so far. And it will meet my expectations for customer experience if they turn up at the stated time next week as promised. They are quick off the mark on responding to queries and have multiple channels – face to face in shop, on-line, email, phone – to interact with fairly easily. They have a good reputation for customer service and I'd go along with that. I hope it works as well when Capita take over their contact centres.

Over the past few weeks on these literal (airline) and metaphorical (services and product acquiring) journeys my approach to keep sane is to repeat a wonderful Alice Walker phrase from a poem of hers 'Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise'. Some of the surprise is great – like a delightful and attentive flight attendant on United Airlines, and a similarly excellent receptionist at the Premier Inn, Heathrow. Other surprises are a little more disconcerting – like the Comcast router not being collected as scheduled, and the maze of screens to get through on the T-mobile website before finding out that I can't see where my order is. (As I said, I'll have to call tomorrow and find out progress).

Thinking about these experiences I'm in line with the points made in a McKinsey quarterly article The Truth About Customer Experience, by Alex Rawson, Ewan Duncan, and Conor Jones. They suggest that good customer service/experience means that organizations stop thinking in discrete 'touchpoints' but instead, design the end to end journey 'into their operating models in four ways: They must identify the journeys in which they need to excel, understand how they are currently performing in each, build cross-functional processes to redesign and support those journeys, and institute cultural change and continuous improvement to sustain the initiatives at scale.' They recommend a top down and bottom up approach to the design process that involves a lot of data and data analysis as well as qualitative and reflective consideration of what an ideal experience feels like for different types of customers. Additionally they advocate involving customers and front line staff in the design process.

Developing these ideas in a slightly different way an Accenture report Remaking customer markets: unlocking growth with digital is focused on the impact of digital technologies on business models and customer needs. They make the point that ' Successfully navigating this journey [of pursuit of digital innovation opportunities] requires new strategies and capabilities that, for many companies, represent a departure from the norm.'

All of the companies I have interacted with in the last couple of weeks have been what Accenture terms 'incumbents' – those well-established in the space. Those incumbents capable of rapidly redesigning their customer experiences by recognizing the power of digital may survive – those that are not able to will be displaced. (Look at how Airbnb is taking on the hotel industry). Comcast may be big but it's not invulnerable or invincible.

What customer journeys have you been part of recently? How did they measure up? Let me know.

See also my related blogs: Extraordinary customer service, Designing customer value, Designing for customer satisfaction, Customer service issues