Why we need service design

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

Sometimes we all find ourselves in a customer service nightmare. You know the ones…

Where you go round and round but can’t find a solution. It defies logic. You phone different helplines, press buttons and hope each new person you speak to is the one who can help. You start to question everyone’s sanity, including your own. We’ve all been there.


My recent experience went like this. I am paying a fee for the maintenance of communal areas where I live (a service charge). I paid a bill for this which I received by post earlier in the year. All seemed well.

Then months later, out of the blue, I receive a letter from a debt collection company. It says a service charge is late and now I must pay an extra £600 in what it calls admin and client fees. This is stated in a confusing 9 page document which threatens me with legal action and requires me to respond in writing. But I never received any original request for payment that went unpaid. My mind is in detective mode now. Did I miss something? Has a letter gone unopened? How do I fix this?

I got straight on the phone to the helpline of the company who maintain the grounds. After waiting 20 minutes, Nathan answered the call. I told him the problem, he checked my account and said there are two payment requests per year. The second one had only been emailed to me and the email address was incorrect.

The company held my correct address and phone number, but had not bothered to contact me in either of these ways to check why I hadn’t paid. They had simply escalated my account to a debt collection company.

‘That’s good for you’, Nathan said cheerfully. ‘It wasn’t your fault and there is proof’. Um, great. So it’s all sorted then? Well, no.

Because Nathan wasn’t in the London branch and apparently couldn’t communicate with this part of his company. They did not open at weekends. So I had to phone the London office on Monday. I followed instructions, phoned and relayed the facts from Nathan.

So it’s all sorted then? Again, no. Because David in the London office said I would have to contact the debt collection company to ask them to email the maintenance company. I phoned them and Rosie told me they could only help if they received contact from the maintenance company directly. Confused yet? I made two more phone calls, speaking to different people who both told me their policy was that the other company had to initiate an enquiry. I was stuck in the middle.

Two companies were in a business relationship involving customers but both saw the customer as the other’s responsibility.

The debt company eventually said I should email them and they would investigate. I did and they replied to say I had to complete the paper form they had sent and return via post. I did that too. I also emailed a senior person at the maintenance company and explained the problem. They responded several days later. Through emails back and forth, they identified the same problem that Nathan had. Someone had typed my email address incorrectly, therefore I had never received the bill. No one apologised.

So is it all sorted then? I think so. I’ve paid the original bill amount but I still don’t have confirmation that the companies are closing the case. It took over two weeks of calls and emails, all with the fear of excessive charges hanging over me. It was hard to cope with, and I can only imagine more vulnerable people would have found it even harder.

This is not the kind of service provider you can choose so I can’t take my business elsewhere. It is clear that a number of internal processes need work. Enter service design.

The Nielsen Norman Group says ‘Service design improves the experiences of both the user and employee by designing, aligning, and optimizing an organization’s operations to better support customer journeys.’

In the above story, I showed how it feels to be on the receiving end of service shortfalls from a customer perspective. I couldn’t see all the processes going on inside the companies, but these are areas I’d like them to focus on:

  • The problem started with the incorrect data capture of an email address. Who is responsible for maintaining this? Could there be a request for customers to update their data by confirming details of what is held at least annually? More regular customer contact and control of their personal data would have headed off the need to involve the debt collection company.
  • Customer communication could be in order of their preference and different modes used as needed. First an email, then a text, phone call and a letter. There is a good chance they would respond to one of those and get in touch to pay. Again, reducing the need to involve debt collection.
  • Payment plans offer customers the chance to spread payment over the year rather than surprising them with large bills annually, or as it turned out, biannually. Monthly statements showing what the service charge is spent on provide clarity. An app could allow customers to track their payments.
  • The ethics of companies responding to a potential financial problem with further charges to the customer really needs examination. Does creating more debt encourage people to clear debt?
  • Internal process should allow customer support in one office to contact those in a different one about a customer query. Presumably they use software to manage customer accounts. Could it be utilised better?

Those are the starting points. Examining the internal processes would lead to a range of different improvements.

Let’s hope more companies invest in service design to reduce the frequency of these nightmares!