Are you "easy to do business with"?

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You know those "life events" that cause your arteries to fur up, and make your hair go thin, grey and limp? I had one the week before last. I moved house. Buyers not signing contracts until the 11th hour, sellers wanting to change moving date at the stroke of midnight as their new home hadn't quite been built yet (your problem mate, not mine). My stress level was off the scale:

Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...
Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?
Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.
Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?
Nigel Tufnel: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?
Marty DiBergi: I don't know.
Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.
Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
Marty DiBergi: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?
Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.
-- Spoof rock documentary Spinal Tap

I'll leave you to turn 11/10 into a blood pressure reading, but it's not a healthy one. Anyhow, in the midst of all this, there's one essential utility you need to seamlessly transfer as you switch properties. Forget stuff like gas and water. I can buy bottled water to drink, skip a shower, eat cold food, and wear an extra pullover. An Internet addict needs broadband.

A while back I experienced a non-functioning sign-up form on a BT website. In the comments and some subsequent email exchanges, BT's CIO left me with the challenge of how companies like BT can be "easy to do business with", and I agreed to post my thoughts some day.

I think you can guess where my inspiration might now come from to complete the quest. I'm going to use a little vignette from my own experience to make the point about how a customer-centric organisation thinks and acts.

Moving home, the BT way

Now, if you're expecting some comical customer service disaster from BT, you're going to be disappointed. OK, my initial attempt at a change of address on the self-service website met with an internal error, but the real story is that they're trying really hard but still haven't really got under the skin of a customer in the midst of moving home.

The telephone process was slick and easy. An IVR option for moving home, no queue, give your account number, new address and moving date, and done. Here's your new phone number (will they still make you change once 21CN comes onstream?), is there anything else I can help you with, Sir? Oh, and by the way, can we have your mobile number in case we need to get in touch.

A follow-up call to my ISP, and both services are scheduled to move over together. The retail and wholesale sides of BT march in sync.

The big day arrives, we get the key to our new home, and go in. The old occupants are just picking up the last of their belongings on the way out, shedding a few tearful goodbyes. Once we have the place to ourselves, I plug in my landline phone, and call my mobile to check it works.

But that wasn't on our business process flowchart!

Whoops! That's not my number. I'm guessing it's the number of those departing, so I decide to call up BT customer service to see if and when the swap is scheduled to happen.

First problem. Four burly men are hefting all our worldly belongings up from a huge truck to our new apartment. Including, somewhere among the many boxes, some box files with my folder labelled "Phone stuff". What number do I dial?

I have a vague idea the 150 was the number for customer services. So I dial away, and get a rather strange announcement saying that they're open from noon til 6pm (I can't remember the exact details) on Sunday afternoon, and that would be a great time to call. Without listening on, I press the red button. Must have got through to the wrong department. This is Friday afternoon, by Sunday I'll be in need of anti-anxiety drugs without getting Internet access up and running.

No matter, I do a quick google on my phone for "BT customer service" and after a few dead ends manage to find the "doing business" equivalent of the front door. (Most businesses seem to follow a Brutalist architectural approach and decline to make their entrance obvious.)

Hmmm. Same message, but this time I hold on -- "Welcome to BT!". So they're busy trying to deflect calls. Onwards we go into the IVR.

Doing business does not equal "buying"

Now, the next bit is so painfully close to being an amazing customer experience, it's sad to see the gap between ambition and reality.

"We note that this line is scheduled for a house move today. If you would like to speak to someone about this, press press one."

Wow! Blown away. A few more keypresses, and...

I'm through to BT Retail's broadband sales unit. Not the people who deal with phone line sales and activations. I explain my situation, get an apology, and am transferred to a queue for a different support department. I've already got an ISP, don't need another one.

Beep!

What's that noise? Oops. My cordless phone's battery is dying. It's been packed away for a couple of days. I'm in the queue, waiting, waiting, dead.

But they do love me, really

So I give up, as there are too many other things to deal with. Yet just a short while later, my phone vibrates with an incoming SMS:

BT update on [my new number]. Service has now been provided. Please ring 0800 028 1317 between 07.30-22.00 Mon-Sat or 09.00-18.00 Sun if your line is not working.

That mobile number I gave them way back? Seems like they've made good use of it. (OK, we won't laugh at the irony of the message content.) I pick up my (now charged) phone, call my mobile, and get the right caller ID. Plug in DSL modem, and all the right lights come on. I'm in business!

So, what could have been the experience?

From BT's point of view, the above was a perfectly executed change of address process, with one spurious time-wasting customer call call that probably got allocated to the "other" bucket of reason codes.

From my point of view, it was a worry and frustration I could have done without, simply because of a mis-timed SMS and a dead phone battery.

Now, we're only looking here at part of the customer experience -- the "doing business with BT" part, not "using the service". And within that, we're only dissecting one business process -- "staying a customer whilst moving house". So we can't possibly say how to fix the thousands of business processes a company like BT must maintain.

To fix the customer experience of moving home, they should:

  • Text me early on the day of the move, assuring me it's all in hand, give me the scheduled switchover time, and here's their customer service number in case of problems.
  • Also text me with my new number, both in the caller ID and message, making it really easy to add to my mobile address book.
  • Make their IVR understand that there are two parties involved. That means one menu for the person moving in, and another for the person moving out.
  • Ensure zero queue time for callers moving house.
  • Assume callers will use a mobile to call for help, and treat a pre-registered mobile number as equally authentic as one from the landline in question.
  • Work with Google or whoever to make sure search results on PC and mobile Web lead customers to the "way in".
  • (In my dreams) Replace the dialtone on move day with goodbye and welcome messages, and the former would offer a menu option to either place a call or terminate service so the new occupant can't call Timbuktu on your account.

The bigger picture: service-oriented organisation, not service-oriented architecture

We've written before on how telecom management often insulate themselves from real customers via quantitative surveys and operations metrics. The real way of seeing if an operator like BT is easy to do business with, is to view it from the customer's perspective. Shockingly, this means contact with real customers, which appears to be a terrible distraction from important emails and meetings.

In over three years at a telco, I spent zero minutes listening in at the call centre, zero minutes working in a retail store, and zero minutes partaking in focus group and usability studies. This is probably typical -- indeed, so common it's the theme of a TV series on how out of touch those are at the top from the shop floor. You only become "easy to do business with" when most middle and upper management have to be exposed to the harmful radiation of the real world outside of the shielded corporate contol capsule. Shouldn't everybody be out there for a week a year listening to the pain of the customer?

I was really impressed last year when an office-based contact at Tesco said she couldn't have a meeting in the run-up to Christmas, because they were all busy helping out in stores during the peak period. It's that kind of top-to-bottom culture of customer contact that's led them to capture 1/7 of all UK retail sales. You aren't going to discover that cordless phone battery life is a problem for customers moving house by sitting in a brainstorming session. You have to live their experience, over and over to find out. (And that freephone number? Won't be part of the user's standard mobile minute bucket, either.)

There are also organisational and structural changes needed. In this case, a first tier of support for people moving house, whose sole function is optimisation of that process. No internal structural boundaries should be exposed to a customer. Having a dedicated IVR to take you to exactly the wrong person is a nice thought, but I'd have been better off pretending I wasn't interested in "moving house" (which meant to BT Retail "broadband ISP sales opportunity".)

Finally, you have to aim high. Not merely to complete the business process, but to provide a truly exceptional experience, and one that tends as much to the customer's emotional needs as practical business process execution.