Showing the Plumbing

Mario should be an easy game to complete.

You start with a straightforward aim of getting to the other side and raising a flag. All you have to do is walk over some hills and you’re there.

Except, it’s not that simple.

Every few steps something gets in your way, making you jump a bit higher, run a bit faster, or pound the ground in desperation. Often, the only way to complete the level is to go down some pipes, finding a route around these problems that makes the whole thing take twice as long.

Of course, you don’t mind when it’s Mario. It’s a game, it’s meant to be challenging, meant to test your patience and take several attempts to give that well-earned sense of satisfaction at the end.

Being a customer, whilst hopefully enjoyable, isn’t meant to be a challenge. Yet like Mario, some organisations make going into the depths of their plumbing the only route available for customers to reach their goal.

Take, for example, the conversation I had with my broadband provider when my internet crashed hours before a big Zoom presentation:

     ‘Hello, my Broadband has stopped working, could you help me please?’

            ‘Sure! We’ll check the line for you. What’s your landline number?’

            ‘Oh, I don’t have a landline, I just use my mobile’

            ‘Ah, everyone still has a landline number, even if you don’t have the phone’

            ‘Right. I don’t know it.’

            ‘Ok. We’ll need your landline number’’

            ‘But I don’t know… (etc etc)’


This is a great example of ‘showing the plumbing’: The way that organisations force onto customers their inner processes, their legacy systems and language whose origins are long-since forgotten. In this case, it’s an archaic attachment to a landline number as the secret to broadband success, despite not having used a landline for several years.

The Boss Level of this – if I’m going to try and stretch the Mario analogy further than I should – is the banking industry.

This is a text message I received from my bank one morning:

ACT****8767 20NOV 08:31
‘You are using your arranged overdraft but have not been charged arranged interest as your arranged borrowing is within the interest free amount’


Most people consider that they have money, they spend money, and they save money. Some money they spend now, some they save to spend later, and some they spend now knowing they’ll pay for it a bit later.

In the banking world, this means at least three ‘accounts’. Three lots of sixteen-digit numbers to remember. Three bits of plastic to carry around and not get confused between, each of which does a slightly different job with different rates and benefits.

There may be joint accounts, household accounts, and a range of savings accounts for DIY days, holidays, and rainy days.

All of these will have a mixture of Direct Debits and Standing Orders, Overdrafts, APRs, and ISAs. These are words and phrases that only exist within the boundaries of banking, far removed from a real person’s real life.  

(For that matter, does anyone really know why a Current Account is called a Current Account? It’s because ‘goods and services are generally consumed in the current period’ according to Wikipedia. So like an ‘everyday spending’ account, then?)

At school, many of us learn French and German. Yet to break into the banking world a whole new lexicon is required. Even the proposed solution to this problem – ‘Financial Education’ – is horribly inside-out. Who wants to be ‘financially educated’?

Similarly, in an overly long saga with my insurance company, the language used in their emails was unintelligibly un-human:

‘We have updated the schedule following our contractors visit. We will be involved in any reinstatement on a like for like basis through our Network contractor or a cash settlement to you. Our Network contractor has delegated authority in this regard.’

‘Schedule’; ‘Network Contractor’, ‘Delegated Authority’.

These are phrases that make sense inside the business, but that real people don’t use day to day, so simply add a layer of confusion as to what’s going on.

Something like ‘We’ve updated the plan. The company we’re working with to replace your floor have the authority to make the repairs or give you the money’ would probably suffice.

These internal ways of workings are reinforced by the way organisations choose to monitor the efficiency of their processes.

In weekly management meetings around the world, you’ll hear discussions on average waiting time, acquisition rates, retention, dormancy, and complaints performance.

Why not measure ‘Human Lives Wasted’ instead of ‘Average Waiting Time’? ‘Relationships Started’ rather than Accounts Opened? ‘Customer Holidays’ instead of ‘Savings Balances Held’?

Some of these may seem (deliberately) far-fetched, but it’s an accepted truth – at least by the 30 million people who’ve bought Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ book – that to achieve the outcome you want, you should begin with the end in mind.

The end, for most customers, is to have an easy and enjoyable experience, to help achieve a happy and fulfilled life. Organisations are facilitators in this, their role to make their part of this life possible with the minimum of customer effort required.

I’m not saving for a big holiday because I enjoy saving. I’m saving for a big holiday because I enjoy big holidays.

So companies would do well to keep their plumbing hidden and let customers have a straightforward run to the end of the level – and maybe collect a few gold coins on the way.

Thanks for reading this article, I really hope you enjoyed it. You can subscribe to my monthly update below, and find me in tweet form @johnjsills, in picture form on Instagram @CX_Stories, or in work mode at The Foundation

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