, September 28, 2021

Customer – the 'has been' king


  •   4 min reads
Customer – the 'has been' king

The pandemic has put pressure on enterprises to deal with the surge in demand for web-based services. Not all have risen to the challenge, leaving customers feeling like anything but king, and some with real financial problems.

King or an inconvenience?

A lifetime ago, I led a programme to implement smart cards for various local government services and attended a university talk in the south of England that had very successfully introduced student smart cards for electronic ticketing for its bus services. Initially, it only wanted to trial smart cards in partnership with the local bus companies, but they had shown no interest in the proposed scheme and were aiming to continue with paper tickets. The attitude of some bus company managers at the time had led to a joke that passengers were an inconvenience to them who interfered with the smooth running of their buses! So, the university set up its own transport services. Benefitting from pre-paid electronic ticketing, the service went on to become so successful that the local citizens started to use it in preference to other bus services.

The question one needs to ask is whether the customer has ever really been king? Answer: Clearly not in the minds of those bus company managers but with other businesses too, anything but king. I believe customers and their journeys in the virtual world are often secondary to cost-cutting corporate objectives.

As an analyst, I have followed and written about technologies that help companies deliver better customer services, but some services still leave much to be desired.

Design thinking to make the customer journey better

Given how patchy the customer journey can be in the digital world, I believe design thinking is an idea that is still to make an impact. My hunch is that it is either rarely taken up, or its practitioners need some serious retraining. From online supermarkets that don’t let you see your basket's content at one glance to those retailers that do not provide adequate information about the products on offer, many websites are in dire need of enhancements. Poor design costs money; when customers return duplicated products to the supermarket because they couldn’t see they had already ordered it 100 rows down the page or wrongly purchased something because of its poor description. These are just a couple of examples of how time and money is wasted due to poor design.

Core customer services:

While digital has improved some services, the quality of others has declined. One sector that has done well is retail; In many cases, as highlighted above, the customer journeys need improving, but as a whole, the sector has risen well to the pandemic’s challenges. In contrast, the financial services retail sector seems to have gone backwards by decades. People have to wait months to get answers to emails and messages sent via the companies’ secure messaging channels, if at all. They have to spend hours on the phone to get through, and even then, the follow-ups take weeks and weeks to come through.  Big messages on their websites alert us to the issue of the pandemic but fail to mention that they have had a year to respond to it with technology-enabled measures that could help them create capacity and increase process efficiency.

How can the pandemic still be an excuse when other sectors have so successfully mobilized in the same timeframe and responded with new solutions? The government, not known for its agility when it comes to software, has suffered its fair share of setbacks, but it has implemented a nationwide test and trace system as well as the vaccination booking systems that has resulted in over 30 million people getting their jabs so far. In the same period, HMRC has used technology to rapidly build capabilities to pay out loads of money to people and businesses at short notice as part of the government’s emergency measures to keep the economy going.

You might say the government has a lot of money, but then it offers services on a massive scale. There are good examples of private sector enterprises adapting rapidly, e.g. the supermarkets that have doubled their online capacity and grown the business significantly over the past year.

The fiasco of the quality of service by retail financial services companies leads to serious issues with huge consequences for people dealing with the loss of loved ones or those who are seriously ill and wanting to put their financial affairs in order. After all, it is a pandemic that is killing people and leaving many with lasting health problems.

Disjointed platform services:

So much talk of disrupters and new technology-enabled services, but many are badly designed and start with inbuilt app silos. We have all appreciated the availability of platform-based services such as fast food delivery that bring a broad range of products within our reach from the comfort of our homes. They work great when everything goes right, but the cracks in the platforms begin to show when an order goes wrong, and those involved in the supply chain pass on the responsibility for a refund to each other with no consideration for the customer. This is good service for one type of customer journey but hell for the other.  

I believe what we are seeing is a result of many problems, including

  • our lack of readiness for an emergency of this scale
  • ongoing issues with the failure to modernize and optimize services in normal times
  • inadequate or poorly executed investment in technology
  • and in some cases greed to cut costs of services so much that no slack is left to deal with an emergency.

Somehow I don’t think we will learn from the lessons of the pandemic, but hope springs eternal.

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