What video games taught me about lousy customer service

What video games taught me about lousy customer service

Next level - angry gamer - iStockphoto“Not yet, Dad! I have to get to the next level!” That’s the response I got every time I told my then 12-year-old son, Matthew, it was time to stop playing video games and go to bed.

It’s hard for a parent who grew up on Space Invaders and Pacman to understand. Those games were simple in comparison to today’s games. Once you finished off a grid of invading space ships or gobbled up all the dots, an identical set appeared in their place. You could stop playing anytime and start again the next day and not miss any fun.

But games today are highly complex, with multiple levels, each with a unique and elaborate plot played out in three-dimensional space. A game is never really over. Each time you complete one level, you start a new one. You can play for months and never repeat the same experience.

The trade-off for this added complexity, however, is this. The games aren’t programmed to remember every unique move you make in a given level. When you turn off the game for the night, you lose any progress since the last checkpoint and have to start that level over again the next day. Hence, the response from my son. And it’s hard to blame him. He’s invested maybe 20 minutes of effort already.

The result is a maddening battle of will, pitting parent against child. I would think any decent game marketer would pounce on this opportunity. A huge selling point to the parents—who actually pay for these games—would be a “save” button! With a single click, they could save all their progress, thus removing any excuses the child has to disobey the parent. I keep waiting, but I still haven’t seen it.

I was pondering this dilemma on a recent vacation while trying to rent a car. When I walked into the car rental place, I saw three employees in the standard shirt and tie uniform, each sitting behind a desk working at a computer. In unison, all three looked up at me, then looked at each other, apparently determining whose turn it was to get up. Then one of them said to me, “I’ll be with you in a minute, sir.”

Really? I looked around the office. I was the only customer in the building. Three employees and one customer, and I had to wait on them. My wait only lasted about 2 minutes. But the lonely irony of the situation made it seem like 10. It was long enough, however, for me to wonder what would cause this misguided set of priorities. There was a competing car rental lot just down the street and they were ignoring the only customer in the room!

Driving around in that rental car that day I formed my hypothesis. When I returned it the next day, there was a different set of employees on duty. Checking me in, the agent asked me all the requisite questions, and concluded with this one: “How was your customer service on this rental?”

Out of habit, I almost responded, “Fine, thanks.” But I caught myself. I looked up at her and said, “Well, since you asked, actually I was a bit surprised.” I told her the story of my check-in. As trained, she politely asked me if there was anything she could do to make it up to me. I thanked her and said that wasn’t necessary. It was only a couple of minutes. “But I have been wondering why it happened,” I said, “and I have a hypothesis.”

She seemed curious, so I told her of the nightly struggles with my son and his video games. “I wonder,” I asked her, “if something similar is preventing your agents from responding to customers in a timely manner. If they’re in the middle of completing the last transaction, or closing the books for the day, is it difficult for them to save what they’re doing and take care of a customer?”

“Would you like to see for yourself?” she asked. Then she invited me around the counter to see the computer screen. “I’m in the middle of checking you in on this screen. If I stopped and rented a car to another customer right now, all your information on this screen would be lost, and I’d have to start over.” I asked her if it was possible to save the information first. She said yes, and showed me how. I watched as she clicked a button to go to a different screen, then another, and then another. Three clicks to three different screens, and with each one we had to wait several seconds for the new screen to appear. On the third screen there was a save button, which she clicked. But before the save would complete, she had to enter her user name and password again. Having done that, she was now free to navigate three screens to begin the other transaction. Once that was complete, she could navigate three screens back to my transaction to complete it. In all, it would take a little over a minute of extra time.

My hypothesis was confirmed. The agent who checked me in was making a judgment call. He could stop and take care of me immediately and lose perhaps several minutes of work. Or he could make me wait a minute while he saved his current transaction. Or he could finish his current transaction and make me wait two minutes. The first option was understandably unacceptable for him. Of the remaining options, in his judgment, making the customer wait one extra minute and being completely done with the transaction was the best option. Either way, the customer was going to have to wait. What’s one extra minute?

So why is it this way? Why is it so difficult to save a transaction and come back to it later? The answer is that computer systems are designed to be efficient for the user, which in this case is the employee. But what if in addition, they were designed with the customer in mind? What if the impact the program has on customer service was a design requirement? I know the answer to that question. It would have a “save” button at the top of every screen!

The lesson has broader implications than rental car check-in. Every modern company uses computer systems and standard work processes, and every one of them has customers. Are your systems and processes designed with the sole intent of employee efficiency, regardless of the impact on customer satisfaction? If so, you have an opportunity. Make customer service a key consideration in every system and process. You’ll be amazed at the impact on customer satisfaction when customers no longer have to wait for your employees to “get to the next level.”

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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