Four kinds of failure (for Richard Branson)

I’ve been experiencing some pretty average customer service lately but it really all came to a head when I moved house recently. As I spent hours and hours repeatly calling VirginMedia, who were supposed to supply us with an internet connection, cable TV and a phone line, I had plenty of time to contemplate the ways that companies fail us. By my calculation there are about four types of failure. And, perhaps surprisingly, they’re not all bad.

  1. Might as well set a trap. This is the worst kind of failure (and the one I experienced – continue to experience – repeatedly from VirginMedia. You know this kind of failure, because you can feel the blatant disregard for your experience as a customer. These companies seem to go out of their way to avoid or ignore customer feedback. THis is clear in both their service design and any UI design you come across. It’s typified by long waits on hold, little and/or contradictory information provided, a strong sense that you (the customer) are being a pain in the butt and causing the company and it’s representatives unending trouble, user interfaces that are so poorly designed that it is inevitable you will not get to the end successfully, a sense of loneliness and hopelessness as a customer. Mistakes happen often. The company couldn’t care less.
  2. Could try harder. Obviously some effort is being made. Most of the information you need is available and reasonable (sometimes good) design is in evidence, but there are still major customer experience failures and no obvious feedback channels. Often the solutions to these experience failures are quite simple. Frequently they’re as simple as building in more feedback or simple error prevention. But often… these easy fixes don’t happen. Contextual research is required to identify the pain points to enable these simple fixes to be designed and applied. There is a lot of potential for improvement here.
  3. Thoughtful and Responsive.  Things still go wrong from time to time but you don’t mind so much because it doesn’t happen often and when it does, it is clear that an effort is being made to be responsive and supportive and to take responsibility for the failure. Failure is still frustrating, but it is no longer necessarily a negative exchange between the company and the customer.
  4. Surprise and Delight. For some, failure is actually an opportunity to make contact with a customer and learn from them - and having the chance to surprise and delight them. Kathy Sierra wrote of screaming users:

    “As Henry Petroski writes in To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, we learn more from our failures than our successes.  But only if we pay attention to the failures and figure out what to do right the next time.” 

    Every now and then I fire off an email in annoyance, and every now and then, an actual human emails me back much more quickly than I expected and resolved my failure. Jeff Turner of Blogbeat (now Feedburner) did this all the time. Even when the server was down and I annoyingly couldn’t get access to the data I wanted, his quick and helpful response would always make me smile and think well of his company.

So, what’s the moral?

Failure happens, but through contextual research and good service and interface design you can minimise the negative impact of these failures and actually turn them into positive points of contacts with your customers.

Oh, and think really seriously before you sign a contract with VirginMedia.