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Streamlining Customer Effort is Worth the Effort

Why and how are we putting the customer to work?

There are some types of process and customer interaction that need to strike a delicate balance between customer and organisational needs. This “needs balancing act” occurs where the organisation wants the interaction and information, but the customer probably doesn’t want to go through the process and therefore wants to minimise their effort. That “divergence in needs” creates a design challenge to get what the company wants with minimal impact on the customer. Therefore, the design philosophy of the organisation should be about streamlining these processes for the customer. This streamlining includes both reducing their effort in the process and minimising how often these situations occur.

This paper looks at the different scenarios that produce this “clash of needs” and the strategies that can be used to address them. The risk for a company is that they become so fixated with their own needs (e.g. capture of the information they want) that they lose sight of the customer’s contradictory need not to be in the process at all. For example, one company put customers through a fifteen-minute feedback survey that was both time-consuming and frustrating for customers. The “group think” was clear in the survey design as customers were forced to navigate every section of the survey and given no opportunity for free format feedback. In that scenario the clash of needs was not recognised. This impacted business outcomes because many customers abandoned the survey.

These “clash of needs “ scenarios are different to situations where customers want to interact with a business e.g. when they want to complete a transaction or to find out about products and services. They are also different to situations where both the company and customer don’t want the interaction at all and therefore, where the company should be seeking to eliminate the interaction altogether. (We’ve covered some of these strategies in our papers called “Fixing supply with demand” and “Five forms of Friction Fighting”). These “clash of needs” situations are distinct because interests are misaligned and therefore represent a risk to the relationship with the customer.

There are four different scenarios where needs may clash:

  • Problem notifications about a fault or service outage that is emerging

  • Situations like complaints that represent an escalation of a problem that has already been notified, hasn't been handled well and could escalate further

  • Information that the organisation wants for its purposes such as service or process improvement (e.g. customer feedback)

  • Stop gap scenarios where the organisation does need the contact in the short term but only because it is taking time to eliminate a problem or create a digital solution.

This paper looks at the possible tactics for those scenarios.

1. First Problem Notification

There are many scenarios where Organisations need to hear that something is going wrong that may impact one or many customers. For example, organisations need to hear that a product is defective. The customer doesn’t know whether this defect applies to just their product or all products of that type. The list of these kind of issues is growing and includes:

  • Outages in utilities

  • Bugs in software

  • Frauds, scams or data breaches

  • Defects in mass produced products e.g Cars

We call this category “first problem notification” for a reason. These types of issues have the potential to impact large numbers of customers. They are different from one-off issues like a single late delivery or a mishandled sale. If a utility network goes down or software release has a bug, then potentially all customers may be impacted. Many organisations have put in place great processes to manage the risk of “an avalanche” of problems and contact.

The company needs the first “notification” of these issues but in theory every subsequent notification may not be needed. This leads to a five-part streamline strategy:

  1. Capture the “early notification” information quickly and thoroughly (because it is needed to understand the scope and breadth of the problem)

  2. Analyse quickly how broad the problem is

  3. Warn customers proactively of this problem so that more customers don’t have to make contact

  4. Mobilise resources to fix the problem

  5. Manage customer expectations on the duration and solution to this problem

Many of the electricity network businesses in Australia follow this process for an outage. They publish and communicate known outages using multiple mediums like mass texts, email and “on line problem maps” and communicate likely repair times. These companies have refined and perfected these techniques and although their customers dislike the outages, the companies receive feedback that they are managed well.

Unfortunately, other types of business have been less willing to admit issues or problems. Both car and airline manufacturers have had instances of product faults that weren’t communicated to other customers. This “circle the wagons and deny fault” mentality has often led to severe reputational damage, regulatory fines and in some cases class actions.

2. Handling complaints and problems

The second scenario where streamlining is needed is problem and complaint handling. This seems like an obvious area to invest in streamlined processes. After all the customer is already unhappy, if they have taken the time to complain, and in most instances have already raised the issue. Investing in these processes also has three other benefits:

a) cost avoidance as further escalation to external complaint bodies or legal action is avoided

b) this is an opportunity to “fix” the relationship and “win back” the customer

c) it may throw light on systematic issues and problems that are having broader impacts

There is a marked contrast between organisations who force customers to provide complex proof and information about their complaint or problem, compared to those who accept the customer’s version of events. For example, companies like Amazon and Zappos are well known for making product returns really easy where others insist on complex forms and justification.

Smart organisations put some of their best people in the complaints team and empower them to fix issues recognising that these are “moments of truth”. They make it easy to lodge a complaint and then work hard to streamline the process of addressing the complaint. In contrast bad complaints processes use novice staff and don’t give them access to the systems and authority to resolve complaints. These companies tend to have higher ratios of escalations to regulators and external complaint bodies.

The other “best practice” that smart organisations follow, is to invest in analysing “what the complaints” are telling them. After fixing a complaint, they invest time in analysing the root cause to assess if there is a broader problem to solve. They recognise that the complaint is great feedback and an opportunity to eliminate systemic issues that may be impacting many customers. It could be that many customers are “silent sufferers” and only some take the time to complain.

There is an overlap between first time notification streamlining and complaint handling. Both look to resolve this instance (the fault) as quickly as possible. In both cases, there needs to be analysis and development of solutions for the root cause. For an outage or bug, there could be a deeper seated problem in network design or testing that led to the fault. For a complaint there could be a problem with a product, system or process that needs fixing. Therefore, best practice in “first problem” handling and “complaint” notification is to analyse and attempt to fix the root cause.

3. Getting the information for a process the organisation needs

The third streamline scenario is one in which the organisation needs information from the customer for internal purposes like marketing, process improvement or compliance. Customer feedback surveys are an example, but many are complex and time consuming. The simplest feedback surveys are streamlined to one question: “Tell us what you think” showing respect for the customer’s time and perspectives. That does mean the organisation has to do some work to analyse responses but it’s a “polite” handshake with customers.

Another good practice is to use the information held about the customer for their benefit to streamline processes that the organisation needs. For example, organisations put effort into “pre-populating” any forms they present to customers with the information they already know. This is smart thinking as it saves effort and shows respect for the customer’s time. The common thread of these streamline approaches is that the company has to invest in its technology and process first, in order to reduce the customer’s effort. However, there is often a payback in the simplicity and ease of execution of these processes for the company and customer and the willingness of customers to provide the information required.

4. Streamline as a stop gap solution

There is a last streamline scenario, where an organisation is putting a customer through processes that it hasn’t been able to digitise or eliminate. In these situations, streamlining the process may be either a stop gap or a second best solution but it is better than nothing. A whole range of “streamline” tactics may then apply such as:

  • Only asking customers for the information really needed (not information already known)

  • Using “part automation” techniques such as smart forms or digital forms that part validate

  • Isolating exceptions early in a process so that the majority of customers experience a streamlined process and only the exceptions have to provide more information

  • Giving customers guidance and choice in a process to make it feel easier.

The South Australian Government followed this “stop gap” approach. They recognised that developing digital solutions to all their processes was a large and time-consuming exercise. In the short term they mobilised a team to roll out “smart digital forms” to replace all paper forms across government. This was a relatively quick and cheap exercise. It didn’t digitise the entire process, but it did make the start of each process easier for customers and captured more complete and machine-readable information. This was a great example of a “streamline stop gap” approach.

Another streamline “stop gap” example occurs in insurance. Many insurance companies offer a fast track “small claim” process that requires less information and “trusts” the customer’s version of events. These small claims have less formal assessment or burden of proof for the customer and are therefore streamlined. Some insurers use the same streamline thinking after major weather events to fast-track claims in the weather impacted area rather than requiring the normal detailed assessment.


In this paper, we’ve explained the different types of “streamlining’ and when they apply. These scenarios represent a balancing act between customer and company needs and therefore require a different kind of design as described. If you’d like more detail on these techniques please feel free to get in touch at if you would like to dioscuss further or call 03 9499 3550 or 0438 652 396.


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