Idiots, Drama Queens and Scammers: Improving Customer Service with UX

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User experience design isn’t just about building wireframes and Photoshop mock-ups. It extends to areas that you wouldn’t necessarily think are part of the discipline.

For example, your customer service department can have a huge impact on your website’s overall user experience. Similarly, the design of your user experience could have an awfully big effect on your customer service department. Of course, not all of your users will interact with the customer service department, but for those who do, their experience can improve or destroy the customer relationship.

Improving Customer Behavior

Consider the difference in customer perception between Zappos51 and Comcast2. Customers routinely rave about one, while the other was attacked with a hammer3. Clearly, there’s a difference in the way they deal with their users.

Zappos4
An excellent customer experience is a core value for Zappos51

One of the biggest differences between the two is that Zappos appears to go out of its way to deliver great customer service long before a user ever has to deal with a representative. The differences aren’t just in the way they treat unhappy customers. Zappos makes a concerted effort to prevent customers from ever being unhappy in the first place. And that’s a good policy, because unhappy customers are expensive.

I spend a lot of time talking to customers, customer support reps and community managers. I’ve learned that there are three types of users who take up an inordinate amount of time and energy for customer service departments and cost far more money than they should. The great thing is that the behavior of many of these users can be improved or corrected with the right set of features and a proactive interaction design.

Let’s look at some of the folks who are costing you money and time. I’ll call them idiots, drama queens and scammers.

The Idiots

Customer service representatives spend a lot of time explaining obvious things to users.

Recently, I spoke with a community manager for a web-based marketplace where users can sell things to other users. The community manager was annoyed because he routinely had to explain to the sellers, “If you ship something to an overseas army base, it will take longer than it does to ship within the country.” He couldn’t believe that people didn’t know this. He thought they were idiots.

Idiots Button6
(Image: JD Hancock7)

But are these sellers really idiots? Of course not! They might be geniuses who just don’t ship things on a regular basis, so they don’t know that an APO address indicates an army base that might be overseas. As far as the seller is concerned, they’re shipping to a regular domestic address and now have to wait almost a month to get paid.

In fact, a huge proportion of the time, the “stupid questions” that customer service representatives get over and over aren’t stupid at all. They’re opportunities to improve the user experience design.

If you’re getting the same question, it probably means you’ve made an incorrect assumption about information that a typical user is likely to have. In our example, the company was mistakenly assuming that everyone knows what an APO address is and that delivering a product to one could take up to a month.

How to Turn Idiots Into Geniuses

Spend some time with your customer service people, and find out what questions are being asked repeatedly. Figure out a way to answer those questions within the interface so that someone doesn’t get to the point of having to contact support.

In our example, the company could add a small note to all APO addresses, pointing out to sellers before they ship that the address is for an army base and warning that delivery could be significantly delayed. It probably won’t stop every inquiry they get about this problem, but it should help just by letting people know what to expect.

The Drama Queens

Too often, interactions with certain customers blow up far more quickly than service reps expect. As soon as their special requests are denied, some users will rant and rave and threaten legal action, while others calmly accept the fact that rules apply to everyone equally.

Drama Queen8
(Image: F. C. Photography9)

If you talk to customer service reps or community managers, they could probably name a dozen drama queens off the top of their heads. And they won’t look happy doing it either. You’ll see eye rolling and head shaking.

One client complained that every time they released a new feature or a significant change, their power users would blow up and start screaming and yelling about how the company was trying to ruin their lives. It got to the point that the product manager was terrified of releasing anything new for fear of angering customers.

The saddest part of all of this is that the people who cared the most about the product were the ones who were complaining the loudest when things didn’t go their way.

How to Turn Drama Queens Into Advocates

You might think that you couldn’t do much as a user experience designer to calm drama queens, but you’d be wrong.

One of the main reasons why people escalate to that point is that they feel they’re being ignored. In fact, one of the most common reasons that customers leave is that they believe the company doesn’t care about them10. Your job is to make them feel that their opinions are important and that they’re being heard.

One way to do this is to provide a good venue for them to express their opinions. Unmoderated or lightly moderated forums where they will talk to other people who are also unhappy are not good venues. One-on-one conversations with staff are the best, but talking to every unhappy customer is obviously not always possible.

A client of mine had a great way to deal with this problem. The company needed to recruit people for user research. Meanwhile, a number of people were writing in with complaints. So, the company frequently asked those people to participate in user research sessions. Two birds!

You’d think that the users’ responses would be skewed because they were already unhappy, but this could be easily controlled in the sessions. The complainers were much easier to book as research participants because they had initiated the contact, and they always ended the sessions much happier for having been asked their opinions.

Another important way to minimize drama is to involve important customers early on in design changes. Sure, power users often push back when you make a major design change, but that push is significantly softer when the change is an obvious improvement and people know what to expect and feel that their opinions have been taken into account.

You can keep the community on your side by getting their feedback during the design process and keeping them in the loop on the progress of changes. Allowing them to opt into changes and to give early feedback can really improve your relationship.

Even more importantly, involving your most important users early on will significantly improve the design of the feature, since you’ll be able to anticipate any complaints and edge cases.

The Scammers

Scammers are both the hardest and the easiest group for customer service reps to deal with.

They’re tough, because determining whether someone is a scammer or just an idiot or drama queen is not always easy. They’re easy, because once you know for sure that someone is a scammer, the correct thing to do is ban them immediately and never let them come back.

The biggest problem is that misidentifying legitimate users as scammers can have an incredibly negative impact on your business. No one likes being accused of something they didn’t do.

Also, in a social environment, the behavior of scammers can have a negative effect on other users. Think of fraudulent buyers and sellers on eBay or the highly publicized assaults by people who advertise on Craigslist.

How to Turn Scammers Into Good Citizens

Sorry, you can’t! What you can do is quickly identify the bad actors and get them off your website as quickly as possible before they negatively affect your good customers.

Enlisting the help of the community in policing can make this process much faster and more effective. Give users tools, such as flagging and comments, to report and protect themselves from scammers. Enlist community moderators to interact regularly with other members and alert you early on when someone seems to be doing something sketchy.

Also, give customer service reps tools to track the behavior of individual users so that they can resolve disputes quickly and appropriately, without a lot of “He said/She said.”

Other Problem Customers

Obviously, these three aren’t the only types of users that your customer service people will deal with. There will be the normal folks who have a genuine problem with your service or who find bugs. There will be people who want to cancel a subscription or ask a question about a policy.

But idiots, drama queens and scammers are the ones who will take up a disproportionate amount of your time and energy. They are the ones who can sap the spirit from your customer service reps and make them less able to deal with other problems.

Luckily, they also have the kinds of problems that you can address in your user interface. By providing the right information at the right time and enabling customers to report bad behavior, you can dramatically lower the amount of time you spend dealing with problem users.

And that means you’ll have a lot more time to deliver fabulous service to your best customers!

(al)(fi)

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  1. 1

    Thanks for that interesting read, you have focused on a very important point in UX design that many designers don’t notice in their design.

    3
  2. 3

    Good article I highly recommend engaging with the customer care portion of your business. We can learn so much from the calls they take and use that knowledge to facilitate a better user experience.

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  3. 4

    Early on I worked in a call center, and gradually transitioned into the web department. I learned early-on that probably 75% of the time, we were the idiots, not the customer. It’s very dangerous (and idiotic) to assume your customers know anything that you don’t explicitly tell them.

    In our case, it was a bit beyond, “user-centric design” for fixing the problem. No matter how hard you try, you’re still projecting your institutional knowledge into the design, and making assumptions about your user. It’s more like, “user-driven design”; it’s assuming you’re the idiot and the user is telling *you* what *you* did wrong.

    So with 75% of our idiot-problem solved by admitting, “it’s not you, it’s me”, we were able to focus our call center on the 25% that couldn’t be helped with improved content, IA, and design.

    There are true “idiots” out there – they don’t know how to download a file, they print out your website and mail the print-outs to friends, they think your products are suppositories. Those are the people you want your call center to focus on – not the issues your website could solve.

    5
    • 5

      Thanks for the comment!

      You are totally right about how hard it is to let go of your institutional knowledge and see the product with new eyes. After all, this is the thing that you spend the majority of your day thinking about! It’s why constantly observing real users is so important.

      And remember, those people may seem like idiots because they can’t download a file, but they’re probably great at something you can’t do. I was talking to a builder once who explained that he didn’t know how to attach something in email, but he could use a skillsaw without losing a hand, which is not something that I think I would be capable of doing.

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  4. 6

    This article is hilarious, and I’ve only read the first few paragraphs so far. The one company I had the WORST customer service with is Comcast. From my family’s own experience, it’s the most HORRIBLE company for customer service. Their commercials set me ablaze too, because they say how great they are with customer service and how the customer is always #1 and how great they treat customers… Fact is, they don’t care about their customers.

    A lady from Comcast randomly showed up at our door one day and started talking to my wife about getting Comcast installed. She was VERY pushy, and convinced my wife to give her my wife’s basic info like name, address, phone number, etc. just so if we DID want to get Comcast, it would be a quicker process since they would already have our info (I later talked to my wife about how bad an idea it was to give this lady info). The Comcast lady then (without permission) signed us up for a cable install (my wife made sure the lady wasn’t going to do this, but the lady lied to us and did it anyways). We didn’t know this until a month or so later when we actually called them and had them come out to install Cable, they didn’t show up at the appointment time, so i called them and the guy said we never had an appointment, even though I called earlier that week and confirmed it, to make a long story shorter: they missed their appointment 4 times, then didn’t want to credit us anything because supposedly we never made an appointment?? even though I made 5 of them, and confirmed them within the week before. And then we found out that they did show up to the first appointment, the one that we never made but the lady made for us, but we weren’t home.. In the end, they charged me for an extra month of cable internet and tv, and we decided to get rid of Comcast.. The worst customer service experience of my life, and you hit the nail on the head in your first few paragraphs. If Comcast would have just been honest, and that lady not signed us up for an install, things might have gone better.. But i’ve heard the door to door Comcast sales people are paid with commission, which can turn some dishonest people into liars. We tried to make a complaint about the lady, but the guy didn’t ask us for much information and kind of seemed like “yeah i’ll write your complaint down on toilet paper and wipe with it”. Sorry for the rant.

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    • 7

      Are you saying that you didn’t like that they were pushy and signed you up without your permission then you went along with it anyway?

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      • 8

        oh the irony :P

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        • 9

          I would have said… are you serious?!! Not only am I NOT going to go with your service… I am also going to create YT videos demoting your service (like the AOL thing ages ago)

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        • 10

          why do you link to their weiebtss and not to their facebook pages? If we wanted to like them as a business page we are not able to do that the way you have it set up. Next time it would be better if you linked to their facebook page and not their weiebtss page. Just adds more clicks to get to FB.

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  5. 11

    There is another group as well which at the company I work for seems to take up most of the resources.

    We sell software and offer customer service support.

    Most of our calls come in relation to basic queries that are easily identifiable in documentation and using common sense. Now you may think you can put these people in the idiot box, but while some are idiots and genuinely don’t know, most are just lazy.

    It’s very easy to call us to find an answer or a way to do something than to just figure it out by themselves. I like to call this group lazy leeches.

    2
    • 12

      Thanks for the comment!

      That’s a very good example of what I was talking about in the post. We can be very quick to label people “lazy” when really what they are is “busy” or “not interested in spending their precious time learning how to use software that should probably be easier to use.”

      If people are constantly having to spend time learning to use your software, your software should be easier to use. I’ve said it before, but if you design a toaster oven and need to include instructions for how to make toast, you have failed at designing a toaster oven.

      In a perfect world, we could all be as lazy as we want to be and everything would just work without having to call support. :)

      3
  6. 13

    Wonderful post Laura! But it goes way past just “customer service”. The perspective on customer-as-genius-that-does-not-know-THIS (“this” being a thing that seems obvious to US, but not necessary to someone who has five thousand other things to be thinking about) is one of the best ways to improve product design and development. Period.

    And we can minimize “drama queens” in new releases by acknowledging that upgrades are asking people to become LESS competent than they were before the release. NOBODY likes that feeling, and a little advance assurance that you do care goes a long way. Letting them know that you understand what they will experience and that you will help them through the awkward/suck
    phase as quickly as possible can be the best drama-reduction tool.

    Thanks so much for this post. I hope those who need it the most will find it and take it to heart…

    1
    • 14

      Thanks for the comment!

      That’s an excellent point about upgrades. Often, a new version asks people to give up the way they’ve learned to use the product. The more work they had to put in initially, the worse it is for them. It’s a good argument for making things easy to use from the beginning.

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  7. 15

    Great article, I think that most of the customer behaver is a reflect of the company behaver, or lack of it.
    For instance, I’m the king of customer that likes to be answered, I think we all do, it’s a common sense.
    I can give a big example of a company that lost my trust and that their lack of interest for the client did make them lose clients and money.
    Sony, they just don’t care, did have one fat PS3 that did have problems and stop working, I used the warranty the 1st time (they substituted for a new one) and after some time it did blow up again (was a known problem with the early version of the console), they did not want to give the warranty.

    According with the customer low in my country (Portugal), If a product is substituted by another it gets back the warranty, well In my case, they didn’t want to give me that warranty.
    Did post on their forums, no answer was given, did talk with the customer support and they refuse to acknowledge the law, they did say “we are not here to talk about lows”. Send e-mails and no answer was given.
    Did want to make a complain, and could not, because the only way to do that is to send an e-mail (that is going directly to the trash) or doing 400km to their large building.

    At the ending and after some problems with the owner of the store where I bought the product they did give me a new PS3 slim console, my last option was to do to court with them witch would be expensive for me.

    The result? Did sold the PS3, lost allot of items that I purchased on the on-line store and did buy a Xbox, and I don’t want ever to see a product from Sony at my home. And if someone asks me what product they should by I assure you that’s not a Sony product.

    A word of advise, if your company as online forums watch for complains and answer them, and if the problem is critical, talk directly with that person and try to see where is the problem, if your customer support doesn’t know how to give the right answer to the client, inform them.

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  8. 16

    This was a great article for the purpose of customer service though I thought it seemed like it may have been a stretch to relate it strictly to UX. However, I can see the relationship between the two. New media (social channels, location based marketing, white hat SEO and UX) are all about the consumers, making everything easier, more relevant and more accessible to those who love us and ultimately, pay our bills. To me this article was perfect from that new media stand point – encompassing all those routes – rather than solely UX. If a company can master all of these touch points I believe they’d be successful (e.g., Zappos).

    Very nice, Laura!

    Kadee
    @produxs

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    • 17

      Thanks!

      I agree that customer service can be improved through lots of things other than UX. For example, Twitter has done tremendous things for some companies in responding quickly to public complaints.

      Since I’m a UX person, I tend to focus on how we can use design to improve the entire customer experience, but I certainly don’t want to shortchange the incredibly important contributions other disciplines make toward that same end.

      We should be using every possible avenue to deliver a great customer experience, or the customers are likely to get their experiences elsewhere.

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  9. 18

    Thanks for this article. If you are think your customers are idiots, look into the mirror! You’ll see the biggest idiot on Earth!

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  10. 19

    I play online games, and World of Warcraft players fall into the drama queen category so well. The really silly thing is that Blizzard *do* interact with the community and ask for them to suggest improvements, but the conclave of hard-core, old gamers would rather that no progression were made at all. Each and every change, they wail and whine, and say that the changes will ruin the game, and they are never coming back. But each week, there they are, logging on again. Stupid thing is, if the game stayed the same, Blizzard would lose customers and they would get bored. I sometimes feel sorry for Blizzard, they can’t win whatever they do, but with 15m players, people keep coming back, despite all their whining.

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  11. 20

    I have a UX question…

    I’m the webmaster for a site that has been in existence for 3 years with very little changing about it. One of the public facing workers just told me that people are confused because we give users three different things to use as their login: Username, email address, barcode (and then enter their password, of course). The worker told me that we should eliminate it to be just one login. I tried to explain to her that our website is open for commentary for people outside of our local area who’ll never get one of our cards with a barcode, hence why forcing only barcodes is a bad idea (that and trying to remember your barcode or getting up to go dig out your card is a pain!).

    She demanded if I really thought it was the responsibility of people to remember their own username or which email address they used to sign up for the website. I told her, yes. That’s pretty much expected that you have some system to help you remember or just use the same login name.

    Any thoughts?

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    • 21

      In my opinion you should keep only one login, preferential e-mail, so people remember what login they have, as well it’s easy to recover password if they forget about it. That barcode that you talk could be associated to the user, if that barcode have some meaning whatsoever to the company/user.

      People now a days do have many registries in so many pages that is hard to remember each user they have, to me happens all the time, and so I need to use the e-mail to recover the password as well as the username most of the times.
      Sometimes your nickname is already in use in some sites and you need to register another one and usually people tend to forget about that new one, as I do :).

      It’s advisable to send on the recover password the login as well if you use a different kind of login.

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      • 22

        Kadee August 15th, 2011 12:54 pm I love that you want to look bnoeyd the broad-stroke discussions and really deliver content that are more than just generic in their information. Looking forward to this section and hope to contribute to the community :)

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