Poor User Experiences WILL Kill Your Customer Service App

There’s a  huge graveyard of failed customer service software implementations, and still others are on life support due to the basic fact that they are not usable.  Think of the world we live in, with products and services from Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and the like:

  • Intuitive user interfaces that don’t require training to be able to use them
  • Touchscreens
  • One-click processes
  • Predictive type-ahead where suggested topics are displayed in a dropdown menu to help users autocomplete their search terms
  • Aggregation of content from different sources, all linked together so that it adds value to the user

Consumer expectations for  user experiences is are at an all-time high. We all demand accurate, easy, contextual, personalized, graphically pleasing  user experiences that are available on all the devices that we use.

Now, think about what your customer service agents use to deliver that company-mandated exceptional experience to their customers. They are probably using a tabbed, two-color UI on a PC, with each tab dedicated to a specific  task.  To a new agent, a tabbed structure is overwhelming, as he may not know where to start or what sequence of steps to follow to help his customers.

More than that, agents use tens, sometimes hundreds, of disconnected tools during their workday that all contain different bits of information about things like customers, products, policies, and corporate knowledge. There tends to be a limited ability to search across all information; you can search for account information, or closed customer records, or products that the customer owns, but it is almost impossible to search across all these fields at once and get back a full view of what your customer has purchased, what interactions he has had with you in the past, what cases are open, and what knowledge makes sense for him to read.   

These tools make it almost impossible to deliver personalized service that matches customer expectations.  The tools are rigid, hard to use, and ugly. Agents are just getting by trying to locate the information they need while meeting service levels; they don’t want to enter more data than they need to, because it’s just plain hard to do. And this problem will only get worse as Millennials who are used to good user experiences in their private lives bring these expectations to the tools they use on the job.

One easy step to move the needle on the quality of service delivery is to focus on the agent’s experience with the toolset used. To do this, there is no need to reinvent the wheel — we know what a good user experience is! Start by thinking through the service process that agents need to follow and map screens to this process. Make your screens visually pleasing, interactive, and fun. Make sure that all the elements that an agent needs at a particular point in the process are displayed, such as the customer’s account information or purchase history. Push notifications, alerts, even cross-sells to the agent to help him personalize the interaction. Use modern UI design elements. Test the usability of your apps with your agents and gather their feedback.



Important and difficult

This is a great post, but I think it can be challenging for companies that do not feature customer-facing interfaces as their primary source of revenue.

The difference between most of these companies and Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook is that those companies use their interfaces as a selling point. Companies selling complex products that require an agent to explain or support can often expect that the agent's interface is never seen by a customer.

It takes a huge investment (can you name a small company that does what those big guys do?) and a lot of expertise to create great interfaces. As you stated the agent's needs often demand tens (or hundreds) of integrations with other systems, without which the information needed to perform a sale would not be available. Apple, Google and Facebook have millions of customers (or more), and so the investment in interface design vs. a new integration seems more easily justified. When an organization much smaller than those has a field force in the thousands, with higher business need for new integrations than user experience, how do you justify the increased cost?

For many companies with an agent sales force it seems like buying is their best bet. It's hard to do good interfaces and user experience. What chance does a financial investment firm, bank or insurance company have against a more "pure" software development company that has good user experience as a key business driver?

A problem you cannot ignore

I dont think you can ignore usability at any level. Customer service vendors are undertanding this, and new products released in 2011 are much more usable than previously. Case in point is Microsoft Dynamics 2011 which includes major UI and user experience improvements from prior versions.

There are also value-added vendors that "reskin" and extend customer service apps to make them more usable for agents. Companies must weigh the cost of a poor agent experience which translates in suboptimal customer service with the cost of upgrading to software that is usable.

Good comments, Kate. I don't

Good comments, Kate. I don't think anybody really ignores usability, it is inherent in software. If you ignore it, you probably just aren't very good at it.

I was not suggesting anyone ignore it, I was just trying to highlight the tough choices that many organizations face when there is not an easily visible connection between an investment in interface and their bottom line. I understand your comments are intended to connect those dots.

Agent experience is a critical success factor

Great post Kate. Customer service agents are often the unsuing heroes, trying to offer good service despite the tools they are given rather than because of them.

I find a number of things add together to bring a great interface to a service agent:
- context, making the interface dynamic to what is going on, who the customer is, what is in play
- scenario/goal driven interface, moving beyond editing records to empowering the agent to meet the customer's goal and intent. This make it easier to learn and use.
- involving designers early in the process, not one size fits all.
- involving agents in the implementation programme, prototyping and storyboarding

I also believe there is a strong payback in delivering a great system for the agents, as it will clean up many processes, either speed a call or make it more effective and improve first contact resolution. Reductions in training time (not only first time but as change is introduced) and improvements in agent loyalty also add significantly to the return.

I think there is also something subliminal and cultural in thinking the tools for an agent are 'not important enough' that perhaps points to a wider lack of customer-centred thinking. Experiences are key and not in the 'too hard' basket, given the principles outlined above. It is not trivial, but more than worth the effort.