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.

9 thoughts on “Four kinds of failure (for Richard Branson)

  1. Nooo, don’t say that – we just switched from BT to Virgin for our broadband and phone. They’ve been pretty good so far, but seeing your Twitter updates I’m crossing my fingers that they don’t screw up the actual switch-over when it happens.

  2. think really seriously before you sign a contract with VirginMedia

    Well that’s easier said done if your initial contract is with NTL and then they just become VirginMedia overnight. Not that NTL were a paragon of customer service. In fact VirginMedia are NTL which explains your problems.

  3. I use VirginMedia at home and when it works it works OK – best tip of the moment following the withdrawal of sky’s free to air channels pop over to Sky and identify the best package you can compared to what you have at the moment. Add the BT line rental – about a tenner and then armed with this ring up VM and ask for cancellations, quote the figures and you should get some money off – or better services. we got 10Mbits cable for the price of 2Mbits and a tenner off as Sky could offer 16Mbits and more channels for this price.

  4. ooooh luckily (or not?) I’m with BT…
    now seriously, having moved to a new place recently I had to deal with roughly 50 different functions and services and on average, customer service in the UK is appalling.
    That’s why I enjoyed seeing this site which I hope will be huge:



  5. @ Matthew: My experience with VirginMedia was beautiful to begin with. They didn’t want any extra money to give me a phoneline on top of my existing TV/Broadband package, they organised a installation date that was on the very day we were moving in… it was all too good to be true. And, of course, it was. Starting with the installation guy not turning up on the day he was supposed to (he called through out the day up to about 8pm, then switched his phone off).

    @Richard: yes… the buyout. Well, depending on who you talk to at their call centre, NTL either still exists or it doesn’t. Whilst they try to assure me that it’s all one company now, at least twice I’ve been told I have to speak to an NTL person because something or other hasn’t been switched over yet… and their systems are certainly not integrated. If I get a VirginMedia person on the phone and they look me up in their system, they can’t even see that my phone number is one of theirs.

    Eitherway – I still hold VirginMedia completely responsible for managing the customer experience during the changeover, and by all accounts they’ve done a pretty shoddy job.

    @ alasdair – sounds like a good tip. Although, I have to admit, I’m paying Virgin practically nothing a month for broadband/tv/phone… assuming they all begin to work properly at some stage.

    @ asi – thanks for that link! I see that VirginMedia are featuring on that site already… suspect I may need to add to it in the v near future! :)

  6. There is a similar article in Auto Express at the moment, focussed on the car industry, obviously.

    Everything breaks, at some point. It’s how the company deals with you from that point that defines your relationship with, and feelings towards, the company.

    Swinging back to Virgin, I was with Telewest so am now a Virgin customer. I only have them for phone and broadband and as my connection hasn’t failed (touches wood!) I’m hoping I don’t have to deal with them anytime soon.

  7. Leisa, I used to be with NTL (now swallowed up by Virgin) and they were absolutely clueless when it came to customer service.
    Haven’t tested Virgin yet but I am not hopeful from your comments. When will a media company set up a service centre that will answer all calls within 3 minutes whatever the volume of calls? I am sure that they would get many customers from other companies just for that promise alone.

  8. Disappointed as well with Richard Branson and his Virgin MObile company. You wonder how people like Richard get to be billionaires by telling lies and taking money for services not rendered.

  9. God help me, my phone hasn’t worked for 6 weeks and I have had 3 engineers appointments the last one today. Unsurprisingly they haven’t turned up. I have open 3 hours tonight on the phone and an no further forward, in fact the last person i spoke to said there were no notes on the account (despite someone repeating the previous conversation and confirming the £10 credit agreed by the last person) I asked in jest whether that person was psychic and the so called supervisor agreed that yes she must have been physchic!!! there really is no where to go based on that other than back to BT and Sky!|!! If you are thinking f awitcing all I can say is don’t all is well until there is a problem and then they really couldn’t care less.

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