Jeff Veen  

emPowering the User

January 21st, 2005 by Jeffrey Veen :: see related comic

Don’t remodel your home. Or, at least, do what you can to make sure you
know what you’re getting into when you start. When my wife and I
remodeled our kitchen a year ago, the initial excitement of change and
newness quickly turned into a 9-month ordeal of living in a
construction zone, a refrigerator and microwave in the living room.

But let’s go back to that initial excitement: the kitchen of our
dreams. Buying new stuff is exciting, especially when a dark old
kitchen has become a blank slate.

Like most shoppers these days, I started by learning all I could about
my purchases online. As I did my research for refrigerators, I noticed
that virtually all manufacturers included information like cubic feet,
features, and energy consumption. That last one was particularly
important to me as I live in California, and have seen our utility
rates almost triple recently due to various Enron scandals and the

So it was frustrating to arrive at the Maytag web site and find the
refrigerator specifications lacking any reference to electrical usage.
All of the competing vendors did, why didn’t they? As the illustration
above points out, my interaction with Maytag was not exactly pleasing.
Three emails, three customer service reps, no resolution to my desire
for a simple piece of information. What a terrible design issue.

Design issue? Sure, I could explain this as a failing of whatever
Customer Relationship Management process Maytag uses, but what does
their inept correspondence with me have to do with that?

It’s an issue of anticipation. All of Maytag’s competitors were able to
accurately foresee my need for energy ratings, but Maytag did not. This
may have been an explicit choice by someone on the web team, or an
implicit oversight. It doesn’t matter. The reps who wrote to me had the
information (”Please include your model number…”) But I did not.

I was a potential customer, I based my entire perception of their brand
on the interaction I had with their Web site. It was all part of the
user experience — as much as browser compatibility, the use
of Flash, or the effectiveness of the navigation for information
discovery. In essence, Maytag designed their site with an incomplete
understanding of their users. And they paid for it.

The problem could have been avoided through user research or — even
easier — by a simple yet thorough competitive analysis. Designing on
top of a foundation of research need not be expensive or complicated.
It just needs to be part of your culture.

10 Responses to “emPowering the User”
usabilist wrote:

I’m convinced that support services are generally not motivated helping the customer. Support is usually simply another department of a company, which should show effectiveness of its work to a higher management. I believe they have something like “calls per day” value, which they try to maximize. Therefore the best strategy is to spend as little time as possible for one call. If the question happens to be unusual, they can give an useless answer first: all subsequent calls will be counted separately!

Mary Branscombe wrote:

Another possibility; Maytag isn’t happy with its energy consumption ratings and doesn’t want them too easily accessible. The eBay and Amazon customer service robots can be just as bad at dealing with any enquiry that isn’t in their script. That’s a failure to see the end goal - happy, loyal customers - over just dealing with the inbox; it’s also possibly a failure in the design of the support system - sometimes they can’t see the history of your emails and interactions.

christina wrote:

‘dat you veen? no author credit is showing… but I think I recognize your Mr. Incredible style, even comicified, and that is definately one of your anecdotes…

Tom Chi wrote:

Yep, that is Veen… I’m having some trouble getting the anti-spam email encoding thing to work so his name will be properly displayed… hm.

carologic wrote:

I recently had a very similar exchange of emails with Walgreens. I had gotten a new prescription and wanted to put it in the queue to start when the old prescription ended. Ive been getting my prescriptions filled online for 2 years and this is something that I would expect Walgreens to anticipate. But, they still have not added this feature and my repeated attempts to get help with the issue were returned with evasive responses.

Having worked in consumer product customer service departments, I can tell you that CSRs are considered cost centers by U.S. corporations due to hourly wages, health insurance, etc. Previously they did have daily quotas of calls to answer, but reducing their size is now of greater interest. Replacement by technology (ie websites with info, automated customer service, etc.) or by overseas customer service is the current trend. Unfortunately this is to the detriment of the consumer and usability.

Tom Chi wrote:

I actually did some consulting work for a couple call centers. There was an initiative to try to transform these cost centers into profit centers by adding up/cross-selling capabilities as well as more personalized service into the mix. Now, if the call center is there to field complaints, then this approach is a bust, but if the call center is there to take orders (i.e. a catalog company, or similar), then this can be a powerful way to drive additional sales while providing better overall service.

Still, we are most accustomed to the call centers which really *are* cost centers. The ones that deal with customer question, complaints and returns. To be honest, these are not fun jobs, and they are expensive (I won’t get into the details). Consequently, companies have been dealing with these call centers with automated voice systems (which still need a lot of HCI work), offshoring, and moving content onto the web. So getting back to Veen’s point, my overall brand and user experience can be very negatively altered by having to deal with these systems. To the organization it feels like different silos (the web team doesn’t really talk to the call center team, who doesn’t talk to the returns and shipping logistics people), but to the customer it feels like one broken task from one broken company.

Bob Salmon wrote:

Warning: Long customer service anecdote. Apologies if I’ve posted this before (I don’t think I have).

My father-in-law lives in very rural south Wales. (Up a hill so steep you need a Land Rover to climb it, no electricity unless he runs the generator, no running water apart from what comes down a pipe from a spring elsewhere on his land, etc. I really do mean rural.)

When he moved there (from urban Essex) he asked BT (the ex-monopoly phone company in the UK) how much a phone connection would be. They said it would cost 3,000 to bring a phone line to the bottom of his hill, so he declined. He bought a mobile phone, but it only works at the top of the hill above his house as the signal’s blocked by the hill.

One day he got a standard mailing from BT: “Have you ever considered the benefits of a BT phone line. In all but the most exceptional circumstances it costs just 99 + tax” He phoned them up (from a pay phone) and told them his circumstances.

BT CSR: “Certainly sir, that’s 99.”
F-i-l: “Can I check with your supervisor.”
BT CSR supervisor: “Certainly sir, that’s 99.”
F-i-l: “I’ll have one then, please.”
BT CSR supervisor: “An engineer will be with you on such-and-such date.”

F-i-l waited in for the engineer and she/he didn’t show. He phoned up again

BT CSR: “Sorry sir, the engineer couldn’t find your house. I’ll reschedule for new-date. As we broke our promise to you, you’ll get x compensation per day until you’re connected.”

I’ll skip over some of the detail here, but eventually a team of workers arrived to connect him. Normally if a new telegraph pole needs installing, a lorry turns up with the pole and a large drill, drills a 6 foot deep hole and drops the pole in it. The lorry wasn’t suitable, so they used a mini-digger.

Unfortunately the digger got stuck on the hill and to lever itself out with its own scoop. Finally, four telegraph poles were installed (in between very mature trees, up a steep hill that was largely rock).

Finally they got the line up to his house and an engineer asked
E: “Where would you like the line to come in?”
F-i-l: “Over there.”
E: “Where can I plug my drill in, so I can make a hole in your wall?” (The wall’s about a foot thick, and stone.)
F-i-l: “In the village at the bottom of the hill. Here, use my cordless drill.”

All this took so long, that the daily compensation built up so much that he got his first six months free. Talk about call centres as cost centres.

el nickster wrote:

Brilliant strip this week.

Ebay Customer Service is exactly this - I call them Cut and Paste Droids. There’s no real processing of your question, just a hasty scan for keywords and then a cut and paste answer. Repeatedly.

I feel your pain…the question is, what can be done about it?


Kris Leslie wrote:

Well being a , “Veen Advocate”, I will agree to a portion of the information I just got. Just to clear the hype I work for Call Center. To be honest this is brutal work. Yes, I sit at a chair all day and handle customer inquiries all day which for the most part isn’t so bad as it feels good to help people in need, however we are “FORCED” to make adjustments and be “FLEXIBLE” to any given issue that comes up the upper management oh so loves to make.

I agree that yes there could have been a website providing user information regaurding products you can see a slight ROI from that and maybe even a small # of reduced calls to the center. But also another problem that concerns me is these darn automated voice responders. I being intrested in them since the old days have spent quite some time researching them and seeing what systems work and what not. I gave that up along time ago when I started working for the company I am at now. By no means am I going against the company , cough , VERIZON.

However to lower cost the cust our in states support to half if not lower every quarter then send support over seas and customers get frustrated talking to Jon Won Fuey or Shendad Gegunda ( no real peoples name implied ). Which I can see as a problem to the customer but a benefit to business as they just lower a lot of cost doing that.

So to evaluate overall when your what I am, Technical Support, I for one am most of the time trainined by a team or individual that has either absolutely no formal training regaurding the item/service and they expect me to be a pro at it by the time I leave class/training.

Also If I don’t get not necessarily a certain # of calls but a certain time im handling these calls I could get wrote up, If I help you to much I get wrote up. Guess what I’m gonna get you off in a timely manner but times will drift and speed counts ( cough incentitives).

I believe that an effective business would have an effective plan and have teams from every department conduct gatherings and findings of any + or - to service and find ways to improve them not just cut corners and save money for themselves to end up screwing customer over.

If any company spent as much time doing a Web Standards web site ( cough not ) then that would platform them to have atleast somewhat a mind to not use crapcode from when the www was in its diapers.
They could then get more departments linked together.

I see every day that dept a doesnt see what dept b sees but dept c can. That crap iritates me more than anything. Take Verizon MILLION DOLLAR COMPANy. I may be going out on a limb but how really effective do you think and are as websites? Take that interpretation take it to their services/prodcuts? Better or Worse? I think if their site sucks I’d be intimidated for services or any products to a degree.

As being able to see the void between customers/ and reps I clearly see how foiled a webstrategy heck even a business strategy that these companies try to push is crap. For every 1 good executive there are 10 more that are stupid and probably don’t even need to be one and you can quote me on that!

For every 1 good rep there maybe even less. I may not be the best rep but I clearly see the lines and I know that my job matters to me but at the same time I’d hate to be a customer getting screwed.

As far as that rep was concerned he/she didn’t have to give you any further information ( sounds like a bot to me ) but if they are really concerned with you they could have atleast gave you maybe 1-3 examples of their fridges and then gave your more work to do on your own ( maybe go to a local shop and check it out yourself ) but they never presented the option reguardless of outcome. THAT SUCKS!

Kris Leslie wrote:

Side Note: Im a sick and have taken medicine so drowsiness is up so if you see defunct words/phrases/sentences then blame it on the drugs other than that have a good day all this really is a issue that needs to be handled but these idiots behind corporate doors don’t care otherwise Veen and other web and usability specialist would be well head over heels with work request ( which im sure he is now but even more! )

Oh well I say, “No usability, no functionality, no me!”

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?