Customer Experience Design — Do our designs bring out the best or the worst in our customers?

Summary: Good Customer Experience Design requires that we show respect for our customers. Lean Six Sigma systems bring out the best in their employees by applying a sociotechnical systems thinking perspective. When applied to service operations we must remember that customers are part of the production system. Incidents like the encounter between Steven Slater, Jet Blue flight attendant, and the passenger beg the question whether our service systems bring out the best or the worst in our customers.

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The incident with the Steven Slater, the likely soon-to-be-ex Jet Blue flight attendant who blew a gasket and slid to a new life, has brought up the topic of workplace rage, but this time with a twist. Normally, the rage is between an employee and the company or between a customer and the company. The service management literature emphasizes the need to manage the interactions in all three dyads of the Service Management Triangle of company, employee, and customer, along with the critical fourth component of customer-to-customer interactions. Here we see, in dramatic fashion, rage between an employee and a customer. The details certainly aren’t clear yet, but we don’t often see a service employee flip off a customer like that.

While the media will focus on the dramatic, much of the intelligent discussion that flows from this incident will focus on the work design that led a long-term employee to lose his composure — to say the least — but I want to take a different tact. What about the “work design” that led the customer to “lose it?” Don’t we who design service systems have a responsibility to design the systems to bring out the best in our customers — or at least, to not bring out the worst?

“Customer Experience Management” (CEM) is hugely hyped these days, but the emphasis is all wrong in my estimation. It’s putting the cart before the horse. Before we can manage a customer experience, we first must design it. “Customer Experience Design” (CED) should draw primary attention. We can then manage, refine, and fine tune it by capturing feedback from customers. But how much of our CED is done with little consideration of the customer, that is, with an inside-out perspective as opposed to an outside-in perspective?

Let me propose that a good perspective for Customer Experience Design can be found in Lean Six Sigma concepts. Applying Lean Six Sigma systems to service operations is a new rage in the service industry; it’s on every conference docket. Most people think the key objective of lean systems is the elimination of waste, such as inventory buffers or overproduction, which can be achieved by performing the work as close as possible to Just in Time. That’s true, but an equally important lesson from the Toyota Production System (TPS), which is a father of lean systems thinking, is its application of sociotechnical systems thinking.

The sociotechnical school emphasizes that both social and technical factors must be considered in work design. The technical events in a system exist within a social context that affects how employees act. The Toyota Way emphasizes respect for people and developing teamwork. Workers are not just flexible machines who can perform myriad assembly tasks but are also critical contributors to identifying quality problems, correcting them, and designing better production systems. This whole person concept maximizes the productive output of the workforce and a team focus.

Well designed systems reduce muri (overburdening) of employees and mura (inconsistency) in operational flow and output. These results support the reduction of muda (waste). TPS talks about seven types of waste to reduce or eliminate. A key one is the waste of inventories, which are used to buffer against the uncertainties of demand, process times, and quality. The result of a lean system is the need for less inventory.

Now let’s turn to service production systems. Customer interfaces must be designed for efficiency in resource utilization, but we should remember that customers are part of the production system. Their efficiency should matter too. Customers at minimum must provide information to service agents to execute tasks, but customers may also have tangible tasks to perform as part of the service process flow. However, many “advancements” in service delivery design offload work onto the customer and inconvenience the customer all in the name of increasing operational efficiency. But whose efficiency? Certainly not the customer’s.

In services we don’t have inventories of parts to be processed, but rather queues of customers to be processed. Having queues in service operations is viewed as a vital way to increase efficiency by eliminating the waste of having productive resources sitting idle while waiting for customers. But just as inventories are wasteful in manufacturing so are queues wasteful in services — but the waste is encountered by our customers.

As we increase the burdens — muri in TPS lingo — on our customers, is it any wonder that customers get frustrated and angry and take it out on front-line employees? Personally, I like many self-service operations. I prefer to pump my own gas and to select my own groceries. But many times the customer is forced to perform mundane tasks and endure poorly designed systems that show disrespect for the customer to the point of bordering on being inhumane. We treat customers so badly that by the time the customer-employee encounter actually begins, customers are at a fever pitch.

Consider the flying experience. Customers are herded like cattle, searched like criminals, crammed into tight, uncomfortable seats, breathe unhealthy air, and must endure the idiosyncrasies of their neighbors. Customers fight for overhead storage space because a checked bag may get lost or damaged, and the customer will be forced to wait 30 to 60 minutes to claim the bag. I am not excusing loutish behavior by customers. Anyone who travels a lot has encountered inconsiderate, self-centered, brutish morons. But does the systems design ameliorate those effects or amplify them?

Consider mile-deep and mile-wide phone menus that can send you in circles. I basically yelled at a Metropolitan call center agent recently. I was calling about house insurance on a rental home I own in Maine, though I live in Massachusetts. I spent close to a half hour negotiating the multitude of 800 numbers, obtuse phone menus, and frustrating voice recognition systems that simply wasted my time. When I finally got an agent on the phone and said she would connect me to the right queue, I yelled, “Please don’t! Please first tell me the correct number I should be calling!” I then explained to her my issues and apologized for my quick outburst. By the way, every Metropolitan agent I speak with says they know how bad the phone menus are. Why doesn’t management? (Maybe they do and don’t care since it saves them money — at the expense of the customer.)

Last night my wife called Bank of America to cancel a credit card that they sent us unrequested. (Yes, I know that’s against the law, but it happened.) 10 minutes of her time were wasted going through phone menus to be greeted by an agent with, “How may I deliver world class service to you today?” Well, for starters, kill the phone menus. I was thrilled to see that Citi now has a “2” option “to” get connected directly to a service agent.  I may have trouble with the accent, but I’ll take that over time-wasting phone menus.

What other service systems offload work onto you, the customer, in a disrespectful way?

A lean systems design brings out the best in employees. When we apply lean systems thinking to services, we must remember that customers are part of the production system — and part of the team. We must consider all the costs in the system, including those costs incurred by the customer. Further, the sociotechnical analysis would examine the social context of the interaction between employees and customers. I don’t want a customer bill of rights. I want the respect due a valued part — arguably the most valuable part — of the production system.

We should practice Customer Experience Design to bring out the best in our employees and our customers. Does your design do that? Do your systems show respect for your customers? Please tell me if you’ve applied Lean Six Sigma to a service operation treating the customer as part of the system.