Designing for customer service

by Elizabeth Meehan of coffeenosugar

Back in late January I visited the hairdresser, not something I particularly enjoy, due to my own shyness and an empathy for the hairdresser who faces client after client, engaging in the same small discussions. My stylist, that day, a young women in her late twenties greeted me by extending her arm for my coat to hang it up. That detail sorted, she leads me to the chair to discuss my needs. The girl tells me I am her first appointment and wished she could have stayed at home and settled in with some videos. Perhaps not the most appropriate thing to say in delivering optimum customer service, but I completely appreciate how it might feel to want to stay at home in what was that day, a downpour. She asks if I want a tea or coffee, but I say no, I don’t want to put her to the bother. Do I want a magazine? I shake my head but she piles them up in front of me, a barrier between her and any possible chit-chat.

But I have long since stepped into her shoes, adapting to the signals I have received. I get that by not engaging she can delay reality and the impending tedium of those conversations. I understand too that as individuals each of us arrive from our own places; an argument, bad news, great news, on top of which are our own personal journeys that make us who we are; shy or buoyant and all the variations of temperament in between. She cuts the hair silently and I mirror her tone, trying to minimise my presence and not intrude upon her. As we approach the final cutting, I pluck up the courage to ask a detail, but she shrugs in reply without answering and picks up the hairdryer confirming we are at the end. Afterwards I stand at the counter to pay and for once I don’t add a tip to the fee. This is difficult for me and makes me feel rubbish, but somehow I can’t validate the customer service that I haven’t received. Or I am confusing the concept of customer service for something else. Courtesy or kindness perhaps? Or simply how it made me feel? After all my hair is cut. She wasn't rude (I think). 

Customer service, I find out after a little research, is defined (in one of many examples) as the provision of service to customers before, during and after a purchase. The success (or perception thereof) of such interactions it seems often rests upon employees who can adjust themselves to the needs of the customer, which may account for the variety in expectation and delivery. So what did I expect? At a basic level, beyond the haircut, to be treated as a human being. At the most evolved level, I anticipated an awareness of how the client is received and an effort to make him / her feel welcome and acknowledged. I suspect all customers need to feel valued to want to return, or at least to enjoy returning. Will I return? Yes, but probably only until a friend recommends elsewhere, because loyalty is no given these days. If I left feeling like a valued customer, well… that  would be a different story. People of course have down days, which I completely understand and my natural reaction is to empathise, to ask less of the sales person, often to ask nothing at all, but what I see on the high street isn’t an epidemic of down days, it’s an apathy owing to a lack of awareness of the customer experience. I watched as staff were irritated to be bothered, while customers apologised profusely for interrupting, ending up baffled and over-thanking for the service they didn’t receive. 

This is bizarre in an era in which internet shopping is a serious contender to the high street store (especially the small store that doesn’t have any Internet sales function). Surely the customer experience is the greatest differentiating factor, especially as online returns become easier and easier. I cant help but feel that there’s something here about customer service not having a language or framework that could spell out to retailers what it is exactly and how to deliver it, which would also help customers understand what to expect. Competition may be increasing but this is not always being matched in customer service, experience economy or no. As a Service Designer those interactions are a key part of the service being delivered, and they carry a weight beyond what we can imagine, because we are all human beings and our nature is such that we will always not just value, but need, to be treated well, acknowledged and respected. And it is these very aspects that help form the building blocks of customer loyalty in return.