Improving Customer Service by 'un-learning'

Like it or not, most of us are creatures of habit. And a lot of that has to do with the comfort (in the evolutionary past, read survival) of learned familiarity. By this, I mean ways we've actively chosen to design, use and learn for ourselves. Take a moment to consider how you read a newspaper. Most likely the last one you bought was the one you always buy, and you probably read the same sections you always do, typically in the same order.In our work, we've seen the same pattern of learned familiarity observing customers ordering food and wine at restaurants and parking their cars in the same spots at the supermarket.

This phenomenon drives our activity at work too. We develop a pattern; a process of working that becomes familiar. Its structure and repetition can offer (or just imply) improved efficiency, in that we can perform the familiar process more quickly, almost on 'auto-pilot', and build IT systems to increase its productivity even further, enabling more and more completions of a task to conform to the norm. And by standardising the process, this makes training others to conform to it easier too, as there is an established method to focus on. By doing so, we create a whole new generation who are familiar with our ways, and so a culture is born.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with any of this, as long as we retain both awareness of it, and the capability to break out when required. However, we've found that learned familiarity can cause problems in customer service design. In particular, employee teams (with the best of intentions) work so hard to engage with the process that they effectively disengage with individual customer emotions in doing so. Even though the service process was never specifically designed to strip out 'listening' or 'connecting', the individual nature of customer circumstances can make such information seem irrelevant and even distracting.

Solution? One way to handle the problem is to design 'listening windows' into the process. Here's a simple but effective example:

Call centre agents scheduling home deliveries for customers - instead of offering the next available date for next week (system driven), agents can ask the question "what would be the best day and time for you to receive the delivery next week?" This phrases the question as a personally driven arrangement, and compels the agent to listen rather than dictate. Even if the initial customer request is not possible, the solution will be built from finding a match from the customer's starting point, rather than the business. This might be a little less efficient, but our research has shown that, for a high percentage of customers, convenience is their primary reason for choosing home delivery in the first place. By seeking to extend this benefit into the delivery window, repeat purchase rates and positive referrals are improved.

Try applying your own capacity for re-engineering learned familiarity. Next time you buy that newspaper, set yourself a goal of finding a story that you feel will be interesting for a friend or colleague, rather than yourself. Cut it out and send it to them, not by email but the old-fashioned way. There are heaps of benefits here, both for you and the recipient, and it's the changed perspective of learning that is driving them.

Now think how you could use the same trick, at scale, for your business.......