It’s 8:30 am. You reach the office and turn on the computer. To your horror, the machine refuses to start. You take a deep breath, recollect yourself, and put in a call to your company’s IT HelpDesk. When the line finally connects, an agent tells you in a businesslike voice: “We regret the inconvenience of your computer problem. All our technicians are busy. We can only send a technician to your place this evening, after 5:00 pm.”
How would that make you feel? Furious, I suppose.
Now, imagine instead that the agent says: “We regret the inconvenience of your computer problem. All our technicians are already out on their assignments. I know I can get a technician to your place tomorrow morning, but let me see if I can send one to help you out by today.” After a short instant, the customer service agent returns. “Good news!” she says. “I managed to book a technician for you, but he’s only able to arrive at your office after 5:00 pm. I know it’s rather late, but at least you’ll get your computer fixed today.”
Although both scenarios led to the same outcome, I bet the second response felt a lot better. The reason is simple. The second response is a carefully-crafted script that is designed to influence how a customer interprets what he is being told. It’s experience engineering at its finest1. Experience engineering can be easily achieved with three specific techniques; they are Advocacy, Positive Language and Anchoring.
Service interactions are often moments of truth for both the customer and the organisation. Although most customer service training promotes the value of threading service interactions with empathy, it is seldom enough. In experience engineering, customer service agents practice advocacy to win the trust of their customers, as well as influence the way customers perceive the level of service they have received.
Ikea has a generous return policy that is founded on the endearing but bold principle of It’s okay to change your mind. Just last week, I took advantage of this policy by returning some chairs that were simply too small for my dining table. Lugging all eight disassembled chairs to the service counter at the Tampines branch of Ikea, I was told by a retail assistant: “I’m sorry, sir, but your wife made the original purchase, so we can only refund the charges to her credit card. For that, we’ll need her signature.”
“But she’s working,” I countered. “She can only come here in the evening. Now, in the meantime, what am I going to do with these chairs?”
“I understand your frustration, sir. I have an idea that might help, but I’d need to check with my supervisor first. Please wait a moment,” the retail assistant said, and went into a back office to confer with her supervisor. A moment later, she returned with a big smile. “Thank you for waiting, sir. I am glad to tell you that we can refund the charges back into your personal credit card instead of your wife’s. With one condition, though. You need to inform your wife that the money is now in your account.”
“Gladly!” I exclaimed in relief.
Ikea could well have maintained their original decision to disallow the refund, but it did not. In its quest to make every transaction effortless, Ikea was perfectly willing to bend the rules a little and process the refund into my personal credit card instead. Of course, I realised that Ikea probably offers this type of unusual refunds everyday, as a standard operating procedure against clueless and disgruntled husbands like me.
The bottom line is this. Ikea’s admirable effort at experience engineering empowered the retail assistant to demonstrate, in a very practical way, that she was fully on my side. I was made to feel special. Before I left the store, I wrote a glowing feedback for the retail assistant who had served me. Smart experience engineering tends to inspire high customers satisfaction scores.
Although difficult, customer service agents must diligently resist the temptation to use words or phrases like no, not, cannot or never. Negative Language conveys defensiveness that is easy for customers to detect and get impatient with.
Say you recently bought a smart television, and for some reason, it’s not streaming the complete suite of internet channels. You call the product support line, and an agent tells you: “I’m sorry, but we do not have your TV’s serial number on record. You cannot receive premium support until you first register your product online.”
An agent who practices experience engineering, on the other hand, might say: “I understand the problem. It looks like I need to escalate this to a network engineer. I see that you have yet to register your product online. This should only take a few moments, and I will guide you through the registration process. Are you in front of your computer now?”
Positive Language conveys respect and a genuine desire to reach a beneficial outcome for the customer.
It’s no secret that customer service interactions, if handled through the lens of experience engineering, requires a keen understanding of human psychology. Customer service agents must be on a constant lookout for opportunities to frame a given solution as more positive and superior by comparing it to another inferior one.
My friend, Anson, recently bought a ticket for a coach that goes from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. He reached the coach station at 7:00 am, only to be told by the service agent: “Apologies, but I’m afraid we’ve cancelled the coach transfer because of an accident that’s happened at the Causeway. Traffic is very jammed. We can only rebook you for tonight’s leg, at 9:00 pm.”
Anson was naturally upset, especially since he knew that the bus company had several earlier coach transfers throughout the day. He angrily accepted the offer, at the same time vowing never to use the services of the same bus company.
But what if the service agent had practiced experience engineering? She might have told Anson instead: “I apologise for the last minute cancellation. I know I can rebook you for tomorrow morning’s coach, at the same timing. But let me see if I can get you a coach seat today.” After a brief check, the agent might then proceed to inform: “Good news, sir. I got you a seat for a coach that’s going out tonight. I know it’s inconvenient, but at least you’ll be able to start your trip today.”
Anchoring is a strong technique for eliciting support from the customer, because he or she is given some control over the outcome. The customer sees that the business is genuinely going out of its way to provide as much of a hassle-free experience as possible.
Now, if you were in Anson’s shoes in both situations, how would you have felt?