Hostile service experiences

I once had a London theatre client who discovered that their ushers, who’d been working in the role for years, had gradually taken it upon themselves to hunt down people who were trying to sneak in at the interval. The number of people doing this was tiny, perhaps under 1%, but the ushers saw their job increasingly as a policing role.

The implication of this on the 99% of other customers was palpable, my client told me. She was a new leader trying to bring about a customer centred change in the organisation, so it was in her interests to work out what was going on.

Customers felt that the ushers were being overly domineering and pushy. Rather than looking to them for assistance, customers tended to avoid them, finding them a bit scowly and unhelpful.

No survey had told her this, because who would write a survey question about the usher experience being weird. Instead she’d gleaned it from her own conversations with customers and colleagues during her first few weeks.

Is this a customer experience problem? Superficially, yes. But underneath the surface something deeper is at work: The ushers were now more in service of the business and less in service of the customer. This had created an inadvertently hostile experience. Something that was making the service experience of going to the theatre worse for customers.

I’ve seen this pattern throughout my career. Where a service finds itself focusing on the 1% at the expense of the 99%.

Here’s another example. Many large service organisations have very real problems with fraud. A minority of customers are intentionally trying to defraud the system. So, understandably, service providers work hard to identify and stop these activities. The downside is that the whole service can become biased to this intent, with the other 99% of customers feeling like they’re treated as potentially fraudulent customers.

Take insurance. My own work with customers in this sector reveals time and again, across providers, that they feel the claims process puts them on the back foot. As a guilty party having to justify their innocence. There’s a strong sense of a hostile experience here. Even though the customer may have bought the insurance product in the context of a friendly experience, they very often describe the claims process as becoming adversarial and distinctly unfriendly. It doesn’t matter that the industry pays out on over 90% of claims made, what customers remember is how they felt during the claim process.

Let’s look at another, bigger example of a hostile experience. The story of the ongoing British Windrush scandal is described in good detail here. Essentially a policy aimed at reducing immigration created a “hostile environment” and, as is well accounted by the detailed reporting of Amelia Gentleman, a very hostile experience for those at the receiving end.

What’s interesting is that this brought about a similar effect of ‘experience leakage’, whereby the intent of the service (aimed at removing a small number of immigrants who shouldn’t be there) eventually impacted a wider group of people who had the right to be there. With Brexit looming large, there’s a very real risk is of more of ‘hostile experience leakage’.

If just 1 per cent of the total [EU Nationals] end up being incorrectly processed or not processed at all, that would equate to a huge number of people—over 30,000—who could suddenly become “illegal” aliens.

Clearly ushers in a theatre acting tough in the auditorium have very different consequences to an immigration system acting tough nationwide. One was arguably unintentional and the other arguably intentional (the Windrush lessons learnt report has yet to be published), however the service logic at work here is the same.

Service organisations need to be continually alert to their intent, asking themselves who’s interests they serve. Is it the 99% of customers who’re hoping to have an enjoyable night at the theatre, or the revenue they need to protect from the 1% of people sneaking in at the interval?

This goes right to the heart of being more customer- or human-centred, and why it’s so easy to say “we put the customer at the heart of what we do” than it is to actually to deliver on it.

Every service serves more than one purpose – the policy or business targets of the day live in constant tension with the rhetoric of customer and human-centredness. To fail to admit this creates an awful schizophrenia in our organisations. Yet that’s where we are.

As a human-centred service designer, who’s worked in both the public and private sectors, and seen service design move to the forefront of both policy and business, these moments and patterns of service schizophrenia are becoming more and more evident. If you employ researchers and designers to improve your service, don’t be surprised when they uncover these deeper, darker system conditions that drive the “customer experience” for better of worst.

So what’s the result of this?

Unhappy customers and citizens: Clearly the distress of being treated as one of the bad 1%, when you’re actually one of the passively good 99% is, at best, disappointing and frustrating for customers, and fundamentally catastrophic for citizens. Sadly, not much else to say.

Unhappy service staff: For a bunch of reasons, I never got to do direct research with the ushers at the theatre, but one wonders whether they were enjoying their work as much. 20 years of working with frontline service staff has taught me one thing: people want to serve people with integrity and respect. They want to serve others as they themselves want to be served. It’s human to bring empathy for others into a service role. Yet those same humans often find themselves as service providers in hostile environments that have been “dehumanised”. The service pits humans adversarially on either side of the service exchange at odds with other.

When organisations say they want to be more customer-centred, when they’re actually still systematically being outcome/self-cented, they’ve become schizophrenic.  There’s nothing employees hate more than such purpose-wash and hypocrisy.

What to do about it

Avoid an inadvertent culture of hostility: Make sure everyone in the organisation knows that the 1% of “bad customers” are just that, 1% of a larger population of good customers. Don’t slip into the mistake of designing your whole service around that 1% at the expense of the 99%.

Avoid a biased culture of policing, by actively designing a culture of servicing. Gather regular qualitative feedback from customers to explore what’s missing for them, not just dry surveys to explore what already exists. This would have helped the ushers see the unintended consequences of their actions. The Home Office is now training staff in British colonial history, one assumes to mitigate the risk of future bias.

Use data and automated decisioning with care: organisations are rushing to develop an integrated attitudinal and behavioural segmentation of all their customers, so they can act up on it in targeted ways. The goal is to provide more personalised, targeted servicing. But these strategies follow the trade wind of the wider culture – if it’s one of service hostility, then don’t be surprised if the data gets used for hostile purposes. It appears the Home Office had two problems – they didn’t have good enough data to correctly identify who was allowed to be in the country and who wasn’t, yet they still used that data to pursue people in a service culture of hostility. The poor data was poorly weaponised, and now compensation is due to those impacted.

Similarly, if customers are making an insurance claim, they don’t expect to suddenly face a hostile experience, especially when the whole brand experience of marketing, sales and sign up was one of loveliness and joy.  I

Be honest about intent: recognise that your organisation serves different needs. Avoid all-out commitments to ‘customer-centredness’ unless you’re really going to give up on your other outcomes. Your staff and customers will call you out on such purpose-wash the moment they smell hypocrisy.

Better to promote balanced goals. My preference is “service-centered”. It recognises that we, and our frontline colleagues, want to do a great job of serving customers and citizens, but it’s honest that we also have to serve shareholders and ministers.

When you understand the service pattern, hostile experiences are unfortunately all around us. But they aren’t organic. They’re the result of human decisions, whether intentional in the context of the Home Office and its ‘hostile environment’ policy, or unintentional, as with the ushers who slipped into inadvertent policing mode to do what they think is right. As service designers and leaders we have a duty to distinguish between them and act accordingly.

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