Think Like a Customer

Brian Cantor

For more than a month, NBA fans—and young adult television viewers in general—have been subject to the painfully unfunny advertising for new film adaptation "Think Like a Man," starring the ever-unlikable Kevin "I Haven’t Said Anything Funny Since ‘40 Year Old Virgin’" Hart.

Tragic is the fact that the hideous-looking movie will very likely perform decently at the box office this weekend. Devastating is the fact that enough brands have not been subject to an urging to "think like a customer."

A year after suffering the consequences of trying to mail my tax returns from a thoroughly unprepared, excessively-crowded, blisteringly-hot New York City post office, I returned and found that the branch of the US Postal Service was again unready for what even the hackiest of "customer experience designers" could confirm would be a mob scene.

Unlike those found at supermarkets and drug stores, the self-service machines at USPS are actually very intuitive and efficient. Unfortunately, when trying to manage the load of hundreds of tax procrastinators, even the most efficient systems can slow to a crawl. The two self-service lines, which in theory are the "preferred" option for tax filers, were jammed with people…and barely moving.

And yet, the Post Office didn’t seem to "get" the importance of facilitating a smoother process. No employee was regularly manning the machines, and while that makes sense on normal days (it is, after all, "self-service"), it is downright absurd on one of the most crazy mail days of the year. The Post Office, by not thinking like a customer, had not prepared itself for the obvious reality that technologically-inept people unfit for using a self-service machine would get on line anyway, believing it to represent their most convenient option.

As a result, certain individuals would spend ten minutes each fumbling through the machine, creating a brutal inefficiency that damaged the customer experience—and likely got those forced to wait in line chastised by bosses who wondered why employee lunch and cigarette breaks seemed to take three hours on April 17.

Worse, one of the office’s self-service kiosks was broken and not a single employee seemed at all interested in trying to fix it. Again, machine mishaps are unavoidable, but on tax day, they cannot be tolerated. An organization that thought like a customer would have flown in computer experts from around the world to fix the ridiculous, unacceptable inefficiency.

Even with the self-service lines jammed, the regular counter lines were also mobbed and stagnate. Though I cannot speak to that specific experience in 2012, I did the "normal line" last year, and fear that this year’s situation likely repeated last year’s disaster. With slow, unconcerned counter representatives bottlenecking the checkout process at the front-end and unhelpful, unconcerned representatives ruining the preparation process at the back-end (I remember an employee made me get in line on three separate occasions before he finally gave me the correct instructions for certifying my mailing), there is simply no way the line can move the way it should.

Had the organization been thinking like a customer, it would have assured all staff understood the urgency and significance of filing taxes. It would have trained all staff to realize that most customers, especially in the ever-paperless 2012, do not have significant experience with Express and Certified Mail. It would have assured the staff was ready to ease customers of all demographics through the process.

Instead, it operated with obliviousness to the customer perspective, staffing and preparing almost like any other day without realizing that Tuesday, April 17, 2012 was most certainly not like every other day. Virtually no mind was paid to the particular importance the customer placed on a secure, efficient tax return process, and no effort was made to minimize the customer-uncentric impact of the massive crowd.

I use words like "almost" and "virtually" because, as it turns out, the post office kind of did prepare. After moving through the hour-long self-service process and finally preparing my return for mailing, I learned from a fellow-frustrated mailer that there was a "tax table" in the back corner of the post office specifically designed to ease the process for tax payers. In theory, the Post Office’s strategy should make my entire rant moot.

But alas, the organization did not think like a customer. As such, it had no obvious direction, signage or staff assistance pointing out the "tax section" of the post office. Not a single employee thought to himself, "Hmm…maybe the counter line and self-service lines are so long because there is an excess of tax payers waiting to process their mailing." Not a single employee thought to himself, "If customers see these long lines—on Tax Day—they’re naturally going to assume these are there only options for mailing tax returns and get in those lines, thus making the situation even worse." How could no one question why the normal lines were jammed but the special tax table was all by its lonesome?

Post office-ineptness aside, this failure to think like a customer is all too common in service organizations. They deliberately mislead with price promotions and coupons, and then wonder—with shock and awe—why customers leave pouty-faced and angry when they do not get the discount for which they felt entitled. They develop IVR and self-service systems designed with their own objectives in mind and no sense of how customers perceive inquiries, and then wonder—with shock and awe—why customers frustratingly hit "0" to be transferred to a live operator.

If a commercial organization is designed to attract and satisfy customers (and, newsflash, it is—anyone who tells you otherwise should embark on a bus trip far away from the business world), its success hinges on its ability to think like a customer. When a customer is angry, it needs to empathize with the perspective and think about how the customer really wants the situation to be rectified. When a customer enters a physical store or visits a website, it needs to identify with a customer and assure the navigation is logical and intuitive. When a customer checks out, it needs to recognize the desire for urgency and assure the process is seamless.

When we talk about great customer service cultures like those found at Zappos and the Ritz-Carlton, we often focus on the attitudinal elements of the experience, things that cannot always be replicated in an efficient, time-crunched environment. As such, customer management professionals commonly believe efficiency and customer-centricity to be rivals; I can either make the process seamless and risk limited engagement, or I can slow things down and be buddy-buddy with all my customers.

While there is indeed a careful balance to walk, there is no reason the two cannot coexist. Many customers do consider efficiency a valuable part of the customer experience and would not feel "offended" if an organization delivered on that efficiency.

The caveat, however, being that that efficiency must be designed from the customer’s perspective. Businesses should not be asking questions like, "What will allow my reps to feel like they can answer more calls within a given hour?" or, "How can I get away with cutting my retail staff in half?"

Instead, they should be thinking about what experiential factors matter to customers and determining what strategies and processes facilitate the best delivery of those factors.

It’s okay to act like a business. But if you want to succeed, you better think like a customer.

Image credit: Sony Entertainment