Thursday, January 01, 2009

I'm a Customer - Meet Me Where I Am

Today, I had an issue with a software product that I've been evaluating over the past week. I made a mention of it on Twitter, and in fine contemporary form, the vendor was alerted to a mention of the product name in Twitter stream and got in touch with me. The Twitter contact turned into an email conversation conversation and we dug further into the issue I was having from there.

This kind of customer service interaction is increasingly common with the growing ubiquity of lifestream services like Twitter. It's a form of interaction that is much more human-centric than the technology-centric interactions we've been getting from web self-service silos in the past ten years.

Initiating customer service on Twitter doesn't require me to go to a vendor's customer service silo and hunt and peck for that vendor's particular way that they expect me to contact them. Instead, I just stand right where I am and do the lifestream equivalent of saying, "Acme Co's product is giving me fits," and someone from Acme Co gets in touch with me. It makes traditional web self-service seem quite primitive, and compared to the kinds of customer interactions that are being initiated in Twitter, traditional web self-service is indeed primitive.

Unfortunately, the quality of the interaction with the vendor degraded and became more frustrating (to me) as we got further into the exchange.

The software product in question is a text editor. There is a bug in the copy and paste feature of the editor. Text can be copied to the clipboard easily enough, but after positioning the cursor to where I want the text pasted, the text would actually paste in another location in the document, usually some distance beneath the cursor, or even beneath a subsequent paragraph.

It's quite frustrating to work with a text editor that doesn't get this basic interaction pattern down. Upon further explanation it turned out that the feature was coded this way on purpose to enable some other novel form of copy and paste interaction that was unlike anything that I had seen or used in the myriad text editors that I've used over the paste twenty years.

So, I was a bit irate at this point. It seemed to me like the vendor was trying to prove the point of a new interaction pattern for an interaction that is so well-established that it's not only a well-understood standard, but a standard that is an enabler for end users. But what got my customer experience hackles up came next.

The vendor asked me to post my thoughts on this to the online customer service application, Get Satisfaction so that interest from other customers on this issue could be gauged which would indicate to the vendor whether they should change the behavior. There are two mistakes here - a customer service mistake and a product management mistake.

First, the customer service mistake:

I had already provided the feedback to the vendor. In my customer experience, I had taken the time to describe the problem in an email, and now the knowledge is in the hands of the vendor. Because the vendor's customer service channels had not been integrated, the vendor asked me to do the double entry on the problem report. This is not an example of meeting me where I am, it's an example of lack luster customer experience. It's not my responsibility as a customer who is already contending with ill-conceived aspect of the vendor's product to also contend with ill-conceived aspects of the vendor's customer service systems.

Secondly, the vote:

I appreciate the new democratization of just about everything on the web, but if you're a product maker and you're making product decisions by referendum carried out on electronic media then are typically attractive to only a subset of your user population then your shooting yourself in both feet.

As a product designer, you should already know what it is you're building. You should have a strong vision for the product and already have a visceral sense of the customer's expectations, needs, and desired customer experience. If you don't have these, then by all means fall back to voting systems, but if you don't know what it is that you're building, and you're not clear on who you're building it for, then you might consider not building it!

Customer input is vital input to product design, but it's only one form of input. It should be a clarifying input to a solid product design vision and ability to execute. There's nothing wrong with taking customer input but if it's the primary means of making product design decisions, then it's possible that the strong sense of design that should be within the product team is missing.

Meeting me where I am means meeting me where I am in all stages of customer experience, from my flow through customer service information systems, services, and communication infrastructure to the representation of my expectations in product design through the product designer's visceral sense of me as a customer, and of the things that I value.