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Building a better customer experience

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Friday, May 09, 2014

050914 coxThe other day, a service business attempted to give me free money.

Halfway through the process, I decided I didn’t trust them. They lost me as a customer, probably forever.

Here is an analysis of what went wrong, and how we can all learn to construct better customer experiences.

Customer Experience As a Story

Whenever we try to create a customer experience, we are engaged in a partner dance with the customer. We know what we want the customer to experience, but we cannot control how the customer interprets their experience.

In other words, we don’t know what story the customer is telling himself about the experience he is having.

Most of us are extremely bad at identifying the difference between behavior and our conclusions about behavior. It’s much easier to say that a driver was “aggressive” than to say “he was following very closely, flashing his high beams and honking his horn.”

But “aggressive” is a conclusion about behavior. It’s not a description of behavior.

When a customer dislikes your customer service, they probably can’t tell you what you did wrong, only what conclusions they drew and how they felt about it.  In other words, they can only share the stories they’re creating out of their experiences.

Here is my story of attempting to accept free money from stamps.com.

Free Stamps

Yesterday I received yet another direct-mail piece from stamps.com, and this time I actually read it. They included a sheet of paper onto which I could print free postage stamps – almost five dollars’ worth. There was even a test sheet, so I could make sure my printer worked correctly.

At this point, the story I told myself was, “Hey, pretty smart, they’re getting me to try out their customer experience. Instead of spending all their marketing money on the direct-mail vendor, they’re going to give some to me. What a great way to build my confidence in them.”

The First Betrayal

At this point, I was all set to give them some information, and print out some postage. That seemed like a fair trade.

But they didn’t want just some information from me. They wanted my credit card number. In order to get the free postage, I had to sign up for a four week free trial.

Now the story starts to change in my head. “Hold on, why couldn’t they tell me that up front?”

I went ahead and put in my credit card number. This is a pretty big step for me, and not something I would do on the website of a brand I wasn’t at least familiar with. At this point, I’m starting to feel a little exposed, a little vulnerable.

The Second Betrayal

After navigating the credit card screen, I was ready to get my payoff. I wanted to print some damn postage.

But no.

After putting in my tracking code, I fully expected them to take me to a simple screen where I could click a button and say yes, I want those nine stamps from that mailing you sent me.

Instead, I got taken to some weird shipping screen asking for the weight of my package. “What package? Hello? Don’t you remember me? You’re the one who invited me in here. I even typed in the unique code you gave me. I’m new here, I expect to be treated like a welcome visitor, not like some power user who already knows how to order postage on this complex screen.”

Intrepid geek that I am, I managed (eventually) to ask for nine regular first class stamps, and was rewarded with what looked like the right print preview image to match the sheet they mailed me.

The Third Betrayal

I clicked on “Print Test Sheet.”

I expected that this would print a test sheet.

Oh, no.

I was prompted to download and install a piece of software.

Ah, hah hah hah. No.

“No, I’m not installing strange unknown software — that I should not NEED to install for printing — on the first date.”

So I decide to cancel everything.


They have my credit card number.

The Fourth Betrayal

There is no link to “cancel my account.”  Now my story is “This is like a Roach Motel and I’m the roach. I can check in but I can’t check out.”

I have to Google “stamps.com cancel account” to find the FAQ entry, which says I have to call an 800 number that’s only open certain hours.

My clock says I have 12 minutes left.

11 minutes later I’ve canceled my trial account, and I’ve absorbed a pointed lesson in setting and keeping customer expectations.

Better Customer Experiences

If I want to give my customers better experiences, I need to know what stories they are making up as they go through the experience I’m currently giving them.

And most customers will not complain to your face. They will quietly go away, and then tell all of their friends how awful you are, much as I’m doing right here.

if you want to consider experiences, you need to be aware of the stories in your customers heads. You can get that a couple of ways.

One, put test users through simulations and find other ways to watch new users interacting with your service.

Two, hold focus groups and ask current and former customers about their experiences.

Three, hire a reputation management company to alert you every time someone complains about your service.

In every one of these three cases, there is one additional step you have to take: you have to fix your service.

Set an expectation.

Fulfill that expectation.



0 #1 Marketing DirectorGuest 2014-05-14 20:40:06
Love this. Brilliant example. I find myself emailing companies constantly about awful website experiences. Eyefi is one example. The company has photo cards that can upload wirelessly to your online photo account. They have one product known as the x2 line which is the legacy product, and a new one that involves storing all your photos on the cloud. Its pretty neat. The problem? They sell their SD cards on the website, but NOWHERE on their site is any information AT ALL about what the annual subscription is. That left me afraid to buy the newer product. How can I decide I want to buy something that comes with "90 days free of the cloud service" without having any idea what the annual rate is? That was an #Eyefifail as far as I was concerned. When I emailed customer service, they didn't seem to care. They told me it was $49 a year, but didn't apologize about the omission. I can't imagine I'm the only person they have chased away by not providing any details.
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+1 #2 Stamps.com Sr. Director, Online MarketingGuest 2014-05-16 01:38:15
Hi Tom, I'm very sorry to hear about your experience with Stamps.com. Our intent with the direct mail piece is to show small business owners how easy it is to print postage online - keeping them out of the Post Office and focused on more productive, revenue generating activities. But from reading your article, that certainly is not what happened when you went to redeem your free postage - and I am very sorry for the experience you encountered.

Our goal is send a new customer to our "Postage Printing" page using our Stamps.com Online product - no download of any software is required. But in your example, not only did we send you to what sounds like our “Package Shipping Label” page, we also were pushing you to download our software product. Ughhh...neither option is correct for a new, first time user.

Somehow, our path got mixed up when you came to the site and you ended up on the wrong pages. We'll have our Development team research to find out what happened here, and get any errors fixed immediately. While I dont know the scope of the issue or what caused this path error, I am sure you are not the only person who had this experience.

Again, I'm very sorry for the poor experience you had at Stamps.com. We need and will do a better job in the future. Thanks for testing us out. Eric, Stamps.com
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0 #3 Similar, but differentGuest 2014-07-29 23:21:53
Tom - Very timely piece. It somewhat mirrors my recent experience, except with a different company. I recently needed to ship a number of small packages for a Kickstarter project and looked at both Stamps.com and Pitney Bowes.

I was a little confused on how to get First Class postage, with tracking, on Stamps.com, my first pick. I was in a hurry, so I decided to check out Pitney Bowes rather than digging further through Stamps.com for my answer (BTW, my problem was operator error). However, after my quick evaluation process, I decided to go back and give Stamps.com another go. I solved my problem, got some free postage, and a mostly free postage scale to boot.

Back to Pitney Bowes - I don't have any comments about the quality of service, because I didn't get to that point. What bothers me though, is that they (also) require a phone call to a hard to find phone number to cancel. Unfortunately, I didn't call right away and lost track of days, resulting in getting charged the monthly $15.95 fee for a service that I never used.

Again, I know nothing about the quality of their service, but I find it offensive that a company would make it difficult to turn off a credit card subscription. If a company is so insecure about their product or service that they feel the need to keep customers by making it difficult to leave, then I won't trust their service either.
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