How to turn facepalm moments into human-centered Innovation

Photo by  on  Unsplash

Photo by on Unsplash

Today I got new tires for my car — I can’t say that it was my favorite way to spend nearly a thousand dollars, but thanks to our tax refund and thanks to my husband for pre-purchasing the right tires for us, I showed up to our preferred tire shop planning to quickly take care of business.

I was eager to spend the downtime churning through some work related tasks, but it turned out that the tires my husband purchased were not actually in stock. The tire technician “Justin” apologized for not having them available, but was quick to offer a higher grade version of the same tire for the same price. After he used some internal tire-speak filled with incomprehensible acronyms and alpha-numeric codes, tire-tech Justin convinced me that the T&H 255–50–17’s were basically the same tire we were sold, only these have a slightly wider road-surface grip, and were therefore the superior deal.

I was pleased to get the upgrade for no additional fee, but when I proudly mentioned this to my husband, he had some follow up warranty-related questions that I didn’t think to ask before I got out of the customer service queue. With that line of new patrons growing quickly, it was as if I could physically see my work productivity start to disappear.

After a deep belly breath and a thoughtful exhale (“in with the good thoughts, out with the bad…”) I waited back in line to confirm the warranty specs for my family’s peace-of-mind. Questions were answered and I found out that although their company website offers our upgraded tires with a 90K warranty, the computer system only offered 80K. On top of that, the warranty shown online hadn’t been offered in that store for nearly a year, but because one of their 900 stores might still have one available, they keep it viewable online for the entire nation to see! [Insert facepalm emoji].

I mentioned to Justin, “Well that’s not very customer-centric, is it?” And his response: “No, it really isn’t… and you’re not the first person to feel that way about our website.”

This is totally the kind of thing that drives me bonkers because it’s a real problem with a totally simple solution… just take the outdated information off the website! Is it that hard?

On top of that, Justin actually has a such a strong understanding of business failures but with little to no opportunity to address them. I’ve seen this over and over again in large businesses — where the front line customer-facing associates are the ones to see and acknowledge company issues, but there is no system in place to share those issues with the colleagues that can actually make internal improvements.

Associates at the front-line could be sharing those compelling customer stories, but instead they are positioned more as a punching bag for customer complaints with very little that they can personally do about it.

Fortunately at ABC Tires, Justin was clearly empowered to manually amend the internal system failures and make it right for me, but I believe this only happened because I was able to articulate the feelings of a bait-and-switch warranty policy that was inconsistent with their website. My story ended with a silver lining -but what about other customers that don’t know what to ask and how to get their needs met?

Not all customers have the time or ability to ensure they get what they’re sold… but ALL customers have the ability to share positive/negative word of mouth, and they all have a choice of where they go in the future.

I know corporations are mighty comfy in the ivory tower, but it will crumble in a heap of rubble if the customers aren’t satisfied (dare I say, delighted) with each experience they have with your brand. Most businesses are nothing more than a commodity with competitors, and when things aren’t “right” before the customer leaves the interaction- they likely won’t be back.

While tire-tech Justin said he would have an opportunity to share this concern with his manager, I’m not confident that the telephone-game scenario won’t play out. His manager will probably hear it more as another customer complaint rather than an opportunity for company-wide improvement. And if he does eventually find a moment to escalate the complaint accordingly, the true inspiration will be lost — he’ll undoubtedly forget the context details and it just won’t feel as important as it did in the moment.

Let’s consider that manager’s role for a moment. Is his/her main priority to look for opportunities for company wide improvements by becoming more customer-centric? Prob’ly not. My hunch is that they were also once a tire tech that showed up consistently on time with loyal commitment to the job long enough to earn the promotion. Then, the focus shifted from only serving the customers to also serving the team- doing tasks like filling in for absent associates, answering more challenging questions, balancing associate needs with customer requests, managing customer complaints, being on calls with other stores regarding inventory, etc.

Moving up in the ranks like this certainly comes with respect from other associates, but it lacks external professional development… and I’ve seen it done this way dozens of times. If a manager was actually groomed to be a people leader, instead of only proving their abilities and rising in the ranks by being the longest-standing high performer, s/he would likely have come into the job with a completely different mindset. One that encourages professional growth. One that gives him/her the chance to learn from other industry leaders and how to apply those learnings to their management style. One that puts a process in place for identifying company wide improvements and how to share them so they are heard and considered.

Now, allow me to put on the table some of the improvements that would be made if this one small change took place (that change being- updating the company website to include what’s available in the store):

  • Customers wouldn’t expect to receive a product that’s not actually available;
  • Associates wouldn’t have to uncomfortably explain that their website inventory is inconsistent with actual in-store availability;
  • Customers wouldn’t feel like they have effectively done their research ahead of time only to find out that they can’t trust what’s advertised;
  • Associates wouldn’t have to spend 5 minutes writing an amendment on the customer profile to make things right before the customer leaves;
  • Customers wouldn’t have to think twice about choosing to transact with the company for their future business;
  • Associates wouldn’t have an awkward conversation with their manager trying to explain an opportunity for improvement, without expressing it as just another complaint;
  • Consider the time wasted! (For Justin, for myself, and for the lost opportunity to better serve the other customers who were also looking for efficient service.)
  • The company would be seen as having a clear focus on human-centered values than one with a focus on playing catch up with their technology gaps.

I’m sure there are others, but I’ll stop there.

I’ll bet that our tires weren’t the only ones with inconsistent in-store inventory, but poor tire tech Justin has no way of communicating those opportunities for improvement to the company’s ivory tower in another quadrant of the U.S.. He told me that the only way he knows is to share it with his [overloaded] manager.

Well, I believe there is a better way.

I believe that all companies should have an easy customer-improvement hotline/email address that allows & encourages all associates to quickly send company improvement ideas to a process-improvement team on the receiving end that cares.

I believe that there are people in the ABC Tires corporate office that do care, they just don’t know what the issues actually are. In other words, they don’t know how to connect the actual issues their company faces to the specific people that can fix them. All the while doing this efficiently. (*If you are in a position like this, I have a tip for you… a design Sprint would accomplish this in 4 days… see “Sprint” by Jake Knapp from Google Ventures and employ a Sprint facilitator if you don’t want to do it yourself). ;)

I must admit, what ABC Tire did right was ensure that I was taken care of at the people-level, pushing company issues aside, and committing to high levels of customer service… and that’s why I’ll be going back. If their associates keep taking care of their customers by focusing on human values (and not just the business bottom line), I believe they can overcome system issues, as long as that’s internally sustainable… but I don’t know if all of their tire technicians feel as empowered as Justin- (although I really hope so!). In the event they’re not, I think the corporate office has a big opportunity to fix issues like this so that the customer-centric Justins of this world aren’t having to do so much customer care clean up at the store level.

I’m curious to hear from anyone that believes they have a customer-centric solution to problems like this. What do you do? What process has your company put in place to ensure things like this get figured out? Let me know! Leave a comment or email me:

[Lots and lots of bonus points for anyone that has a winning solution to this kind of problem! I may even have a special prize for you. :) ]

I am on a mission to help people create better things using human-centered design [things like: products, services, processes, policies, company culture, team dynamics, business meetings, inventions, communities, and cures.].

I'm a creative partner at Design Thinking Nashville: www.designthinkingnashville.comand you can follow our progress on instagram: @designthinknash