is About to Happen
It was with great excitement, in her body and voice, that our team director told me about a new project. Call center agents will be able to see important information about the customer on the line before the start of the call. They’ll be able to greet the caller by her name and be ready with alternative hotels to offer because they’ll know in advance which itinerary she’s calling about and the reason for her call.
We believed exposing information about the caller before the conversation started would be a tremendous relief for agents. They’d no longer have to struggle with complicated American customer names, they’d be able to make calls shorter and take more calls in less time, customers wouldn't have to read aloud long itinerary numbers, and wouldn't have to wait for agents to switch systems once they know what the call is about. This would be a win-win situation for everyone - agents, callers, Expedia as a business. We were highly motivated, not yet aware of the many challenges we’d encounter along the way.
I was proud to be the lead designer for such greatness.
Every Great Project Starts With Research
I needed to figure out how agents greet callers today. I visited two big call centers in the Philippines, and spent the days interviewing agents and listening to agent-customer conversations. I learned some fascinating things. While I always thought we need to help customers find the best hotel in their destined location, 95% of callers have done research prior to calling, and when they call they already have a hotel in mind. This kind of information can have a big impact on how an agent starts the call.
Agents Can't Identify With Callers
When I later interviewed agents one on one, I learned another really important thing - I was designing tools for people who can’t relate with the people they were servicing.
These agents are young, mostly tech savvy. When I asked them to tell me about a time they had a need to call support, not just for travel, for anything - they looked at me and laughed. None of them ever did. Personally, I also don’t like to call support and avoid it if I can. But this was really important to understand, and one of my biggest design challenges. I was designing tools for customer support agents, a role I was struggling to understand, and they were servicing Expedia customers, people they couldn’t fully understand.
Back in Seattle we worked in weekly sprints, experimenting with different design directions. I needed to figure out where in the UI to place this new information we now had about the caller, so that the agent can comprehend it quickly, before the start of the call.
With each iteration I would get on a call with agents in different levels of seniority for usability sessions.
We kept this process going for a few months, gradually refining the experience as we went.
All the placements I tried above did not work, either because they required another click, were in areas that take longer to load, or were dependant on information we didn't always get. After several iterations it became clear that the information about the caller should be displayed in the left column - it is the quickest element to load on the page, it’s the first thing agents are used to checking as they prepare for a new call, it’s where they see where the call is coming from and where they have access to quick links the customer might be asking about.
The project could of ended here. But agents are just one side of the equation.
My AHA Moment
While working on this project, I attended the UIE conference organized by Jared Spool, and participated in Kim Goodwin’s workshop about scenarios. Suddenly I realized, we’ll never have a good design unless we test a full scenario, including what the caller feels about how the agent greets her. What if callers think it’s creepy the agent knows so much about them before starting the conversation? What if they feel Expedia is acting like a big brother?
Coming back from the conference I set myself a goal to change the way my team works. From now on, it won’t be enough to just test our designs with agents, we need to test how customers respond to that conversation.
What about the callers?
We never thought about them
A quick look at Twitter reveals what customers think about customer service at Expedia.
My team is in charge of the company’s customer support. We always raved that user research is easy for us, we have access to every single one of our users (=the agents), and can personalize our design up to the very last pixel. We don’t need to give them any compensation for their time, so it’s also very cheap. That’s how we’ve been operating for years. Until this project.
My biggest challenge was not even part
of the project’s scope
Coming back from the conference, I now faced a huge challenge: getting upper management to spend time and money on research our group has never done before: with end customers. We’d need to hire a recruiting agency, design a research plan, invest in new research software, and use a lab.
Enlarging the budget was not something any executive wanted to hear about, especially as they thought things were working well as they were. So I started inviting them to presentations, where I took Kim Goodwin’s framework and told stories using scenarios an Expedia customer would encounter. I also built prototypes that simulated my stakeholders as the callers and invited them to silent meeting sessions to gather feedback. Eventually, I managed to convince the head of our division to allocate resources and give it a try.
I recruited the whole UX team for this study and gave each person a role. I wanted them to also realize the importance of true end to end research and get them to be ambassadors of this plan for future projects. This experience and the findings that followed gave me credibility within my group (and broader) as the go-to person for any data related to agent - customer relationships.
Designing the conversation
For the first time ever in the Global Customer Operations team at Expedia, we tested our designs not only with agents, but also with the people who call our agents. We used an external recruiting agency to recruit people who have contacted customer support at least once in the last 6 months. We never told any of the participants to call support. We chose scenarios in which eventually they’d have to call, but we let them figure that out on their own.
We discovered customers felt weird when the agent went right into the conversation knowing everything about them. But on the other hand, they loved the fact that the call was so quick. Would we have to make a tradeoff between having a quick call or a weird call?
What we learned
► Customers, just like agents, want to be in control. They get confused and anxious when things get too “automated” without warning.
► Some people felt insecure about the agent knowing all their information right away. They assumed it was based on the number they were calling from and feared anyone can just pick up their phone and change their itinerary.
► Although people felt weird, it was clear the call was fast and painless when the agent knew ahead of time what it was about, and people loved that.
Translating these findings into a design principle, we knew we want our design to allow a sense of control for both the agent and the customer, and, we want the call to be as short as possibly needed.
Giving customers control
For the next usability session, we changed one single thing which proved to be a winning decision. Instead of the agent going straight into the conversation, they started with a simple question - ‘Is it OK for me to access your account?’ This question removed the feeling that the conversation starts like a big brother that knows what you’ve been doing. We were surprised at how much of a difference those few words made. Even though this question adds a bit more length to the call, it creates confidence for callers and freedom for agents.
Giving agents control
Following this research we also learned that the best design is giving agents just enough information about the call so that they can compose a nice opening themselves, without giving them exact word-by-word script, as that made them feel constrained. That balance of just the right amount of information let them feel empowered and in control of the conversation.
A new look to Expedia Agent Tools
This end to end research led to other design changes as well. Since we discovered 95% of callers already have a hotel in mind, we redesigned search results so that instead of showing a long list of hotels, we now show the ONE hotel a customer was viewing online, and present it in a way that allows agents to easily offer alternatives.
The new design offers an easy way for an agent to value one result over another based on a customer’s preferences, and easily compose a sentence: ‘compared to the hotel you were thinking about, here is a cheaper / closer / fancier one with similar amenities’.