Far From Home

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As life has returned to normal, I’ve been reminded me of the importance of companies focussing on customer outcomes, rather than functional tasks.

Going back into London means rekindling my relationship with train companies. It’s a little like being apart from someone where absence makes the heart grow fonder. Then, when you do meet again, you get reminded of all the little irritations and major annoyances that your brain had cleverly blanked out.

One evening my train home was delayed, delayed, delayed… until right at the last moment, it was cancelled. This had a big real-world impact on me. It was parent’s evening and I had to be at home, so I jumped in a taxi to just make it home in time.

As you’d expect of me, I wrote to give some ‘feedback’. I suggested that it would be better to announce the inevitable cancellation earlier, so I could have jumped into the cab with more time to spare.

The reply was interesting:

‘If you had arrived at your destination more than 15 minutes late via one of our trains, you could have applied for Delay Repay’ (a refund on my ticket).

I didn’t want my money back; I wanted to be home in time for my child’s parents evening. Whilst I had a human, emotional problem, they were giving me a robotic, functional solution. (It reminded me of my Swiss Rail experience, where a refund was never an option; their focus was entirely on fulfilling their commitment.)

Along the same lines was a letter my wife received out-of-the-blue from her bank a few weeks ago:

‘Dear Mrs Sills, We’re writing to let you know that we’ve recently reviewed the overdraft on your joint account, and have decided to reduce it’.

Nothing wholly unusual about that. Banks are well within their rights to change these things.

It was slightly confusing though, as she’d had this overdraft for fifteen years, and never once gone over the limit. 

Once again, I put pen (fingers) to paper (laptop) to find out why.

In the middle of a very polite letter back, one line stood out.

‘It’s because you don’t use it’.

This is another great example of focussing on the functional experience at the expense of the emotional; of focussing on the task itself, not the overall outcome the customer wants.

Functionally, we don’t use the overdraft. So from the bank’s perspective, it of course makes sense to reduce it and reduce their lending exposure (albeit ironically she did then receive an email offer of a low-rate personal loan a week later).

However, emotionally, we use the overdraft all the time. That account has our salary going into it and, more importantly, all our bills going out. Each month, the magical mystical Direct Debit machine whirs into life and seamlessly sends money flying all around the financial system to keep our lights on, our home insured, and our car on the road. 

If, one month, there was a delay on my salary, the whole thing would completely collapse. Payments would be missed, Direct Debits cancelled, and a whole sea of red-headered letters would arrive on my doorstep with cautions and charges to contend with.

But we don’t need to worry about this because we have that overdraft. Every month, we mentally use it to relax, to remove any potential stress or concern of something going wrong.

Removing an ‘unused’ overdraft because it’s in the T&Cs is functionally fine. But doing so without consideration for the real reason a customer might use it, and the emotional impact such a decision might have, removes the humanness from the relationship.

Similarly, whilst offering refunds for disrupted travel is useful and needed, too often it’s used as a get-out-of-jail card for companies who fail to deliver what they promised. 

It makes it acceptable to not deliver, with a satisfactory outcome being that no-one is out of pocket – rather than the customer having achieved the outcome they wanted.  

Although now we don’t have an overdraft, maybe that train ticket refund will come in handy after all…

Thanks for reading this article, I really hope you enjoyed it. You can subscribe to my monthly newsletter 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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