Are You Measuring Customer Unhappiness?

CX Decoded catches up with Tomas Haffenden, who discusses his customer unhappiness model.


View all the CX Decoded podcast episodes.

Avoiding unhappy customers is what everyone wants to do, right? But listening to our most vociferous critics is not always easy because they’re not going to pussyfoot around with you. According to this episode’s guest, it’s our angry, enraged customers who are our Golden Tickets to success.

Shaking down happy customers about why they like you won’t help you understand areas you need to improve, says Tomas Haffenden, head of service design at Torrens University. You want to cozy up to the grumps, the crazy mad and the fire-breathing fit-throwers instead — cause boy-howdy — will they ever tell you what the !!*@%&*! is wrong. 

And that’s what you need to know. 

We caught up with Haffenden for our latest CX Decoded Podcast.

Note: This transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Hello and welcome to CX Decoded. This podcast is brought to you by CMSWire. CMSWire is the world’s leading community of customer experience practitioners reaching over 5 million digital professionals.

Michelle Hawley: Hello and welcome to our latest edition of CX Decoded. I’m Michele Hawley, senior editor for CMSWire, and I’m joined by my co-host, Dom Nicastro, managing editor of CMSWire. What’s going on, Dom? 

Dom Nicastro: Not much, Michelle, good to be here. Hope you are well and ready to talk customer experience, actually, more specifically, customer unhappiness. And that’s why our guest is on this podcast because I’m intrigued by it. We hear a lot about customer happiness, customer retention, customer success, but I want to get right to the negative, baby. I’m ready for this. How about you? 

Michelle: I’m ready, and who is our guest today? 

Dom: All right, we got Tomas Haffenden. And he’s the head of service design at Torrens University, and we woke him out of a dead sleep because he’s in Australia for this recording. He’s also the head of innovation at Electric Sheep, a little company he has himself. Tomas, what’s going on, buddy? 

Tomas Haffenden: Hey, guys, how you doing? 

Dom: Good. So you’re gonna bring it today? Because I know it’s like, some ungodly time down there. It’s like 4 a.m. the kids. 

Tomas: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s like 6 a.m. But, Dom, I made the mistake of having two children. So getting up earlier is something I’ve had to live with for a while now. But yeah, so it’s all good.

First Job Was Hardest Marketing Challenge

Dom: Before we get into the topic, I’d love to hear a little bit more about you. Tell us about your role in your current company, kind of how you got there. And, hey, we’re not letting you off the hook without one fun fact not related to anything work or customer experience.

Tomas: I would say I’ve been in marketing my entire life. In fact, I would say probably my first job is the hardest marketing challenge that anyone can ever have. Where I was trying to, I guess market, a highly disliked challenger brand to an adversarial client base. Because I started life as a mathematics teacher, where every day I’d go into the room and people be like, I don’t like what you’re selling. And I don’t want to do it. And I think that allowed me to kind of cut my teeth and learn kind of the skills and the importance of engagement. So I think I didn’t know it at the time. But that’s been pivotal in, I guess my approach to building things and creating amazing CX longer term. 

So in terms of what I do now, I’m head of service design for a company called Torrens University, which are part of the SEI global university network. We’ve got five campuses across Australia. And essentially, my job as head of service design is to kind of poke around and look for problems. And once I’ve found those problems, do some pretty deep analysis, apply kind of service design and design thinking, and unpick them and hopefully make everything better, which is pretty challenging. Because you know, higher education is one of those places, I think, that still struggles an awful lot with keeping up with the digital world and the changing expectations of customers, which obviously, are students in this case. 

The role of education has wildly changed. And I think universities in particular are really still at that point that maybe medicine was three-or-four years ago, pre-pandemic, of kind of scratching their heads thinking, we haven’t really managed to take advantage of this incredible technology. And so it’s a really amazing space to be in at the moment because I just think there’s such huge potential to activate change and to enhance the experience that customers are expecting. 

Related Article: Beware! 3 Tactics to Avoid Spooking Your Customer 

How the Pandemic Changed the Educational CX World

Dom: Yeah, what did that do, Thomas, for you know, when COVID hit. COVID came down in Australia, right?

Tomas: Yes, the the global pandemic, clue in the word “global.” Australia, yeah, we managed it. I think we managed to not get it for a bit. So I think we glibly looked on and thought, being a massive island in the middle of nowhere is quite useful. But yeah, obviously eventually came down and everyone was hit in the same way. And I think, education, I think it’s still kind of reeling from that OK-let’s-move-everything-online kind of approach. 

And I think traditional execution of education, essentially, an expert stands at the front of the room and tells a small group of people something for three hours. And I don’t think that translates well because the moment you go online, the expectation from a user, if I’m sitting down to watch three hours, I’m probably looking at a Schneider cup, right? And I’m expecting all the snazzy visuals and the CGI and some pretty top-flight stars and names and incredibly attractive people. And that’s not what you’re getting in a three-hour lecture necessarily. 

I think the best analogy as anyone who’s been subjected to Friday night drinks on Zoom knows, you know, very acutely that you can’t just translate one event from a physical event online by adding a video. It doesn’t work. So I think that’s the thing that education globally is kind of playing around with — is trying to work out how do we utilize the strengths of the digital environment to provide a brand new way of learning, and what does that do to our very traditional — when you think about the UK and Europe three-, four-, five-hundred-year educational history — which it hasn’t really changed — you go, you sit in a room, someone talks to you, you remember that stuff. And then they ask you to prove that you remember that stuff through a series of hoops you have to jump through, and then you get a bit of paper at the end. Ultimately, the topics may have changed, but kind of the approach is pretty similar. 

But where else in the world whatever category could you look at and recognize that same, I mean, stagnant, maybe it is maybe a bit of a reach, I’m sure there’ll be lecturers who are like, I hate this guy. But I think it’s just interesting to look at, when you look at things that haven’t changed. I think it’s interesting to try and analyze why, and we’re changing our devices every six months. So the idea of having the structure of a course or the delivery of the course, changing in periods of three years, four years, five years, is very alien, I think, particularly to a lot of younger people coming into higher education, marketing, in particular, I think it’s a fascinating one. Like, what sort of cadence would you have to create to keep a course up to date for marketing? I reckon you’d be talking months rather than years. The speed at which things change? You know, automation trends? It’s a really interesting challenge, I think.

Related Article: A Decade of Dramatic Change in Digital Customer Experience

Doing the Pandemic 180 for Better Customer Experience

Dom: Yeah, Thomas. I mean, we have UX professionals, design professionals that, you know, read our site and stuff. And they went through a lot of change when COVID came, but I’m wondering like, was your change? Would you call it accelerating things that were already kind of in place? Or was it literally like a 180 in terms of how you design experiences for your customers slash students? 

Tomas: I would say it was like a 720. Because I think that sort of does a better visual job of how people are still spinning round and round in circles, not really sure which direction to point in. So yeah, I think there’s changing expectations, not least, I think when you look to the workplace, which is obviously kind of the next step after education, that the majority of big companies, Apple, like big, big companies who are struggling with, we want you all to come back to the office, and people are like, no, I don’t want to because I’m more effective at home, I can get more done, I can do the washing up in between a meeting. You know, it’s a better work-life balance. 

And I think the same goes for education. Students are looking around going, well, you’ve given us a little taste during the pandemic of doing things online. So no, we don’t just want to step back into the classroom, we want to be given the choice. And I think that’s thrown a lot of things on its head. Because like I said, I don’t think people were in the same way as I think big business, wasn’t really interested in engaging with the idea of working from home in any meaningful sense, but was forced to do so. I think education is in a very similar place. Where I think a lot of institutions have empty campuses, where students, when given the choice are saying, well, no, I’d prefer to do this online. But you know, not everyone’s set up to cope.

The Haffenden Unhappiness Index

Michelle: So Tomas, I have to ask you, because we’re kind of tiptoeing around this idea of unhappiness, you know, kids that are unhappy about learning math — or unhappy about not being on campus. So I want to ask you about this phrase that you’ve coined the “Haffenden Unhappiness Index,” can you tell us a little bit about it? 

Dom: HUHI, baby.

Tomas: Ah, yes, everyone’s talking about it. I guess the irony there is that it was kind of my response to I consider the sleuth of vanity metrics. Now, I appreciate that that’s an irony because obviously, I’ve named it after myself, which is probably the vainest thing anyone can do about anything. So I think there’s sort of, there’s a bit of fun there. But to me, a lot of the monitoring, and a lot of the studying that I was seeing wasn’t meaningful, because it wasn’t actionable. And I think that was my biggest criticism with things like NPS and others, you know, when we’re talking about customer satisfaction. As a business, knowing that 100% of your customers are happy, is great, that’s a great thing to be able to put on a billboard and say, you know, my customers are happier than your customers, as an external facing statement. But ultimately, as with any business, you’re looking to improve. And I think the difficulty with happiness is that it doesn’t give you actionable insights to improve. If someone says, are you happy with my coffee? Yes, you know, it’s four out of five. That’s not really giving me very much information to do anything to make it five out of five. And so I think from a business point of view, you’re kind of like, what am I doing with that? I’ve got a long list of people who say, yeah, it’s OK. So what do we do? We’ve, you know, shut down the innovation department and go, OK, everyone thinks it’s fine.

Related Article: Are you Ghosting Your Customers? 

Do Customers Share Their Unhappiness or Just Leave? 

Michelle: Do you think that people are willing to share when they’re unhappy? Because one of the things I’ve heard is that when people are unhappy with a product or service or maybe students with a school, they’re not going to tell you they’re just going to leave and not come back?

Tomas: Yeah,I think that is the risk. But I wonder whether that’s, you know, part of, because that’s kind of the status quo, and it’s giving people the opportunity is because I think in most cases, people have been given the opportunities that yeah, can you wait after this call and tell us how amazing we were, and you’re like, but I asked, you know, I called up to get my bill and you gave me my bill. So I’m sort of indifferent. You’ve met my expectations, but I’m like, am I happy? I’m not probably happy.

Dom: Pumped to pay that electric bill. 

Tomas: Yeah, exactly. Thanks very much. Another giant bill to pay. I think that the other part for me, I think, is more of a maybe a sort of psychological one, a self-reflective one is that I don’t think we know what happiness is, not on an individual level, and certainly not on a I’m-going-to predict-your-happiness level. And I think that’s where I kind of, so my background is philosophy. That’s what I read at university. And I guess, when I’m thinking about the idea of happiness, it’s quite an ill-defined or certainly a very flexible concept. And so I think as an individual, if you say, right, if I asked any of you now to right, Dom, what makes you happy, other than speaking to me, obviously, like, what makes you happy? 

Dom: It’s yeah, it’d probably be everyone leave me alone in the house. Just let me sit there on the couch. 

Tomas: Yeah, exactly. But if I asked you that in like, 20 minutes’ time, we’re probably gonna get a different answer. 

Dom: No, no, I’d still like the couch.

Tomas: I can imagine it’s a very nice couch. But I think the difficulty is in terms of the articulation of that, it’s not always easy, really, to really, really describe that happiness. And I guess the point I was making with the idea of unhappiness is that unlike happiness, unhappiness is much, much easier to articulate. If you’re pissed off about something, you can normally find the words to explain why and what that thing is far more eloquently than, you know, happiness, you know, the notion of being alone, I’m like, OK, and sitting on your couch, great. But unhappiness you’re like, right, I love that couch. But that pillow is really scratchy, it’s too large, it’s too firm, it doesn’t support my back, suddenly, the negative sides are much easier for us to articulate, which kind of makes sense because obviously, evolutionary-wise, you know, as a species, we’re communicators and communicating what doesn’t work leads to making it work better. So there’s kind of an advantage to us developing language that allows us to explain what doesn’t work more than what does work. 

Why Digging in to Customer Unhappiness Reveals Insights

Dom: So how would you say like a customer experience professional, could put that into action, you know, and run away from things like NPS, those vanity metrics, where it looks great to the board, you know, look at our NPS, it’s been consistent through COVID look it never changed. Look at this. People are mostly happy here — 85% scored in the seven, eight range, whatever. So how, as a CX leader, do you put this into action and really get at what matters with customers? Is it reshaping the question? Is it abandoning the NPS or just using that as one of the metrics and not your beacon metric? How would you actually go about it? 

Tomas: I think NPS is an interesting one, right? It’s the prevailing one that everyone wants to have a look at, because it allows me to compare myself with any other company also doing NPS. I can compare myself with Nike or Apple or British Airways or whatever, which is fine. But those services are so wildly different. I’m not sure whether creating a standard to allow that kind of comparison is necessarily useful. I think NPS to me, is largely underpinned by the idea of “Do you love my thing enough to recommend it to somebody else” is essentially, you know, the kind of the underlying principle there. But I think what’s interesting is that there doesn’t seem to be any effort to calibrate that by saying to new customers, was this recommended to you, which to me would be a way to kind of maybe explore validating any NPS claims? Because it seems to be based on the notion that I’m asking you, would you recommend it? And you’re like, yeah, maybe? And then we’re like, cool. That’s good enough bye? 

Dom: Yeah, we don’t know. Right? We don’t know if there was follow-up.

Tomas: Which seems like an interesting one. Because to me, I wonder whether that would be relatively straightforward to check, right? In terms of new customers to say, “Oh, we just got a simple question.” Has anyone recommended this product to you? And if they’re like, “No,” you’re like, OK cool, then that probably starts to give a clearer insight. 

Dom: Yeah. What if we rephrase the question and just said, Have you ever made a positive status on social media about our product? That would be a good question to ask. If they said yes. Then you’d be like, oh, wow, OK, that will get in some concrete information. We can even search that. 

Tomas: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And there’s definitely monitoring stuff that you know, sentiment analysis stuff that you can even further validate that right to start to have a look at those kind of lookalike audiences and stuff like that to say, is there that positive sentiment and to me, that’s far more meaningful than the suggestion that I made. I mean, we lie. Everyone lies all the time. It’s another very key human trait. You know, we can call it all sorts of other things, but it is lying. It’s like, do I look good in this and you’re like, you’re my boss. Yeah. Yeah, you look amazing.

Right. You know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with I think kind of calling that out. And I think there’s the awareness of manipulation, I think the word manipulation is always seen as a negative word to kind of be avoided. But that is essentially what marketing is. I’m trying to twist people towards the thing that I want them to do. And they’re trying to twist the world to the things that they want to do. And you know, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but it’s all manipulation. And I think people are aware of that. So as soon as you go into those survey scenarios, you drop straight immediately into that, oh, OK, got it. I know what I need to do. Put my performing monkey hat on, is the quickest way for me to get through this just do five notes, which makes it really difficult. 

And I think, to some degree kind of invalidates, I think there’s a couple of other things in terms of what I was thinking with the unhappiness metrics, which I think make it slightly different is, I was keen to kind of move away from surveying, where people are like, “Oh, it’s amazing, we got, you know, a 30% response rate.” And I’m like, “Well, hang on, hang on,that means 70% of your audience didn’t reply.” And that people are like, “yeah, that’s kind of normal.” And I’m like, “just hang on, just think about that, that’s massive,” yet, you’re still gonna post all of these things about your findings up, surely, there needs to be more of an effort to push towards something closer to 100%. So you at least feel like you can have more validity in terms of not just the numbers, but just the span of your different customers. 

And so what I was thinking in terms of the unhappiness thing was the idea that you could sort of place the customer service agent in a far more controlling role. Because I think one of the other elements is, when you’re asked to do the survey, at the end of the call, you’re often rating the person rather than the thing. And I think that can be quite stressful for the person. So there’s agents who are like, I’m sure, you know, sitting there worrying that that person calls up and ask for their bill, if we use that analogy. And I’m like, yes, a billion dollars, because gas prices have gotten mad. And they’re like, well, I’m really unhappy about that. And so their rating is like zero. And then that call center agent gets a flag saying, well, they’re not very happy. And they’re like, oh, yeah, I’ve just given them a billion-dollar gas bill, but it’s not me. And so the other thing I was trying to do was to try and remove the rating of the agent. Not to say that that’s not important. But I think you can probably automate that through monitoring in other ways. And place the agent, therefore, in a sort of a position of authority, perhaps, because I think the interesting thing about unhappiness is because people are so willing to talk about it, I think it’s far easier for us to extrapolate somebody else’s unhappiness, rather than their happiness. 

So I think after I’ve had a conversation with someone, I feel relatively confident that I as the customer service agent, I could give you a list of the things that make them unhappy. 

Dom: Sure can. Yeah. 

Tomas: But I certainly wouldn’t have that confidence if I would say, you know, what makes Dom happy beyond your couch? I’m like, I don’t know him well enough to dive into his psyche to be like, oh, you know. 

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