angry phone customerI saw an interesting article in the NY Times this morning, called Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike.

It’s about why an increasing base of knowledge tends to results in less functional products and services. The concept is this: “it’s nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself”

This has been a pet peeve of mine for the longest time. As consumers…sometimes we don’t notice it, sometimes it’s irritating, sometimes we’re enraged by it, and for me, I frequently find myself taking my business elsewhere (having concluded that…if a company wants my business, they’ll find a way to allow me to get what I need without killing myself). Here are recent examples from my own experience:

  • I bought a camera the other day. I bought it online because I got a killer deal, and was waiting for it to be delivered on the day it was due to arrive. It was 3:30 and UPS hadn’t yet arrived, and I needed to get some money to the bank before 4pm…so I decided to call and see if I could leave a signed note on the door to ensure delivery (so that I didn’t have to wait a day, drive to the UPS hub to pick it up, or be emprisoned for another day waiting for a delivery at home when I had other things to do). I called the UPS help line on their site. This should have been a 30-second phone call, but after going thru several levels of voice menus…being given no option to speak to a human being, I finally had to pound “0” over and over until I got someone live. Then, I was told that a signed note wouldn’t help, if the package required a signature. “Well, can you tell me if it requires a signature if I give you the tracking number?” No…they don’t have that information. Because…this information is hard to come by??
  • Every time I go to pick up my smartphone, I try a new angle to pick it up from its dock (which requires a bit of lifting, as its a nice snug fit). Why the angles? Because there are so many buttons in strategic locations on the outside of the frame that I’m always activating the voice recorder, or the camera, or something else I never use. Whose idea was it to put them on the part of the phone where your fingers have to go?
  • When I go to KFC for some fried chicken, I am first asked to listen to an 8-10 second recording trying to sell me something…then I am consistently asked to repeat my order 3-4 times, yet I am NEVER given a total amount due until I reach the pickup window. Thus, I can’t scruitinize whether or not they got the order right, and if I’m paying in cash, there’s no way for me to prepare exact change without holding up traffic while I sit at the window. Since this is all the time and not just an isolated incident, I contacted KFC about this recently through their web site…and received an assurance in the mail that they hold customer service as their “highest priority”. Oh, and here’s a 5-dollar gift certificate to keep you quiet. Ri-i-i-ght.
  • When calling anywhere for tech support, I am repeatedly asked for identifying information (such as an account number) at every level of service…including the first level, even though I’m required to provide it well before speaking to a live person for the first time. It’s already in the system. Did you think I handed the phone off to an evil twin who is seeking to destroy my life?
  • I was recently screwed over by a web hosting company (LunarPages) who took it upon themselves to police copyright law in such a cavalier manner that they disabled some of my web sites…simply took them offline…with no notice whatsoever. No delay for further investigation, no “get your stuff off our servers in the next 48 hours”, no nothing. The sites were just gone. For days. Without so much as an email. At first, I thought it was an accident…but after I saw it repeated multiple times (resulting in hundreds of dollars being sucked from my wallet in lost ad revenue), I confronted them about it. The service was restored…they decided that there really hadn’t been a problem with any of my content in the first place, etc. And I wrote an extensive email to the head of the company. Nada. No “thanks for letting me know”, no “sorry we screwed you over”, no “gee, we feel really bad and we’d like to extend your hosting contract to help compensate you for your loss”, etc. The losses exceeded the amount I paid for two years of hosting in the first place.
  • The article cites the example of a DVD remote control with 52 buttons, and suggests that “every one of them is there because some engineer along the line knew how to use that button and believed I would want to use it, too”. I can relate. My cable remote has at least that many…and I only ever use 20 of them…and 10 of those are the keypad numbers. The rest simply serve as something to throw my devices into techno-hell when they are accidentally bumped. Why couldn’t there be two remote control options?: One for the average Joe, and one for those who want all the bells and whistles?

Now, tell me this: Assuming that the head of most companies ever used his own services or products…do you think such ridiculous, self-serving business practices would survive for long? Of course not.

Again, quoting the article: “When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems.”

I think this is the solution. To bring in people unfamiliar with your process/product/service on a regular basis…and watch them flailing to figure out how to navigate the maze to reach the cheese.

Because we all know that the heads of those companies aren’t going to do it themselves. And engineers…well, they think like engineers. We love that when we need something developed. But when engineers and programmers drive the development of a product or service all the way to its conclusion, things will probably not end well.

What do your customers experience when they come to your web site…when they purchase your services…when they call your phone number? Are you set up to leave them with a satisfactory experience nearly every time?