Customer Call Centers: A UXer’s Secret Weapon
Get in touch with the folks on the frontlines of product support for meaningful user insights
By Jen Schaefer
As a Content Designer (aka UX Writer, Content Strategist) on Netflix’s Experience Design team, I spend a lot of time putting myself in the shoes of users to understand their pain points and moments of joy. How I do this on any given day ranges from informally surveying a few friends to using tools like UserTesting.com, to partnering with researchers to fly 8,000 miles across the world to conduct a consumer study in Thailand.
At Netflix, writing and designing with empathy means imagining what it’s like to watch all different types of TV shows and movies, on multiple platforms, in nearly 200 countries around the world.
Not so much. But recently, I discovered a new (to me) secret weapon in my quest to meet users where they are and help them achieve their goals.
Two words: call center.
At Netflix, providing high-quality support to customers when and where they need it is a major undertaking: We have more than a dozen call centers around the world, staffed by thousands of agents who speak more than 20 languages. Collectively, they handle tens of millions of contacts annually.
If you’re having trouble signing up or finding your favorite show, these friendly voices on the other end of the line are there to help solve the issue as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Doesn’t getting these agents on the frontlines of customer support together with the Experience Design team sound like a match made in heaven?
I thought so. And so I got in touch with Allen Williams, one of Netflix’s Product Support Operations Managers. His team is dedicated to understanding the specific problems customers get in touch with Netflix about and bringing that information back to the product team.
With Allen’s help, we scheduled time for five Content Designers to visit a nearby Netflix call center. Even though it was just for a day, our visit delivered valuable insights that surprised us.
When our team arrived at the low-lying brick building on a recent Wednesday morning, we encountered a cheerful environment outfitted with several hundred desks and adorned with colorful posters of Netflix characters, many proclaiming: “We’re here, we’ll fix it. Stream on!” A wall featured Netflix-enabled devices playing various shows and movies on the service so agents could get familiar with using different platforms.
Agents were casually dressed, most in jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers. While many were in their 20s, others looked to be in their 60s. Some were brand-new, while others were OGs from the first class of customer-support agents trained in 2014. Everyone I chatted with seemed to genuinely love Netflix and care about helping people get the most out of the product.
As Allen Williams told us, “Our goal is to be as human as possible. We want to help people have better utility and less friction.”
It sounds a lot like the goals of the Experience Design team.
After a brief orientation, each visiting Content Designer was outfitted with a headset and paired with an agent for a “side-by-side,” or shadowing session. My partner was Chase, an affable, 20-something guy with a mop of black hair and a goatee he’d stroke thoughtfully when listening to customers. He answered each of the eight calls I sat in on with a friendly, “Thank you for calling Netflix. This is Chase. It’s a pleasure speaking with you today.” Followed by: “How can I help?”
In the 45 minutes I spent with Chase, he skillfully helped one member navigate a payment failure, another upgrade their subscription to accommodate more devices, and a third solve a connectivity issue.
Even as I focused on Chase, I was aware of the murmur of voices all around saying things like, “Can you describe what you’re seeing on your screen?” or “Are there any numbers or letters like an error code?” And, best of all: “So happy I was able to help.”
As a Content Designer living in the privileged bubble of Silicon Valley, with the latest devices and lightning-fast internet connections readily available, I’m so grateful I was able to tap into this rich source of feedback from actual customers dealing with actual problems in actual locations outside of the Bay Area. I was surprised by the variety of devices and situations. These were real, live users of the product I spend much of my waking days thinking about — and I found it extremely meaningful to spend a day interacting with them, even as a silent participant.
After my session with Chase — who was unfailingly cheerful and solution-oriented — the Content Design team had an opportunity to spend time with five or six agents in a fast-paced Q&A session where we could ask about the most common issues customers face and anything else that came to mind. I learned that the most frequent challenge is accomplishing specific tasks, like making account changes — something that’s directly within the realm of a Content Designer to influence through more targeted microcopy and instructional text. I also learned that people call looking for recommendations for what to watch more often than you might think, and that a heck of a lot of people don’t know where their backspace key is. (“A house on its side with an x in the middle” is one of many creative descriptions I heard.)
This cycle repeated twice more during the day — we shadowed agents for the better part of an hour, followed by participating in small-group focus sessions — and I remained fascinated throughout. The day of our visit was considered an “AHOD” (“All Hands on Deck”) due to increased call volume, not uncommon during the summer months and holiday season, which tend to be peak viewing times. The calls flowed through without pause, but I never witnessed an agent being anything other than polite and helpful, no matter what kind of trouble they were shooting. Our day at the call center made me proud to work at Netflix.
I left not only thoroughly impressed by the professionalism and friendliness of the agents, but with a fresh understanding of the Netflix customer experience for both existing and potential members.
I also came away with a lot of product insights. My brain was bursting with ideas based on customer issues and feedback — things like making the sign-in button more visible and including more tooltips to explain the value of features like thumbs-up and thumbs-down (rating titles will improve your recommendations, if you didn’t know). Other possibilities were even more ambitious: What if we let people sign in with a fingerprint? Or provided audio-assisted onboarding to new members? My notebook was bursting with chicken-scratch notes, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the office to brainstorm.
Perhaps most valuable of all, I returned home with a renewed sense of empathy for our users, which makes me better equipped to advocate for their interests. To me, the best part of being a UXer is the opportunity to make products better (faster to use, easier to navigate, more delightful) for people. Keeping real-world challenges top of mind lets me think more creatively and effectively about real-world solutions.
While my team of Content Designers (only about a year old) is new to working with Customer Support, the CS team has an established history of partnering with product designers to create better customer experiences. As a parting gift, Allen Williams shared some info about a new program called CS Voices in the works that will keep customer-support agents in even more regular touch with the product team through offerings like remote focus groups. I’m hopeful that the knowledge sharing will stay intact, even as our visit fades.
Plan Your Own Visit
If your company has customer-support agents, get to know them! If you can’t visit in person, see if you can set up time to connect on the phone or via video conference. They’ll likely enjoy telling you about what they’ve learned as much as you value hearing about it.
Here’s a list of questions to get you started:
- What are the biggest issues customers reach out about?
- How is this data collected and cataloged? Is it accessible by the product team?
- Are any demographics experiencing issues more than others? How might we better serve those customers?
- Are any features in particular causing friction?
- Are any UI elements (nav labels, icons, etc.) causing confusion?
- How do people describe certain features and tasks? What are the most common words they use?
- What do people like best?
- If you could change anything about the product, what would it be and why?
At the end of the day, Product Design and Customer Support are both about meeting user needs. Taking the initiative to forge a relationship between these two teams is a win-win situation, with the customer being the biggest winner of all. As User Experience professionals, we can’t ask for a better outcome than that.
Jen Schaefer leads the Content Design team at Netflix.