I recently changed energy providers. Not an especially interesting revelation I admit: why would anyone else care whose logo is at the top of my electricity and gas bills? But I'd say that the reason for changing provider is interesting, because this is the first time I can recall consciously having made a purchase decision based on the quality of user-experience on a website.
It isn't that long ago that the user-experience of a company's website was no more than incidental to the overall customer experience, and an optional part of the customer's relationship with the business. These days it clearly makes sound financial sense for almost any business to encourage its customers to self-manage online, and now regular contact with the website has become an absolute requirementof that relationship.
The upshot of this is that the experience you have performing essential activities on a company's website has, to varying degrees, replaced the experience you might have had in their shop, talking to their staff, or reading their literature. Which is where the title of this post comes in: the user-experience of your site is your customer service. A website that is difficult or confusing to use is no different to running a badly laid-out shop with rude staff. And whoever you pay for your electricity and gas, using their website to manage bills, meter readings, direct debits and so forth is almost unavoidable. And because of this necessity of usage, the experience of performing these tasks on the site must be a good one.
If you work in the web development industry, or run a successful website yourself, then you might find everything so far to be blindingly obvious. But rather surprisingly this state of affairs does not seem to be universally appreciated, my now ex-energy-provider being a case in point.
Like it or not, a customer's expectation is often already in place before they visit a website, a result of the fact that "do it online" is used as a byword by marketing departments worldwide for "it'll be easier and more convenient". And this applies doubly to the kind of task thatfeels like it should be simple. Finding some information, changing an address, or submitting a meter reading are all conceptually simple, and so the end user is bound to feel that those tasks should be straightforward, quick and obvious.
This is something thatall businesses need to appreciate - not just those of us designing and developing new sites, but the people paying the bills too. In the same way that successful service and retail businesses spend money to ensure that well-trained staff project the right image and give the best customer service, expenditure on equally good online customer service needs to be seen as a worthwhile investment.
So getting back to the original subject of this post, I switched my gas and electricity away from E.onas a direct result of the difficulty I had using their site. The somewhat haphazard and unfocussed nature of http://www.eon-uk.com/ should give a bit of a clue to the problems that lurk within, but it's not until you engage in trying to complete a task that the user experience really suffers. I won't turn this post into a full-scale dismantling of poor old E.on: for all I know they might have a fabulous new site launching tomorrow. However, it is worth detailing one small aspect of the user journey that aptly demonstrates how a few small failings can have a big impact in combination.
One of the most frequent ways in which I came unstuck while using the site was during the log-in process. The password rules for E.on meant that I couldn't use a password of the type or pattern I might normally choose, and as such I almost always failed to remember it.
This on its own might have been bearable, but the problem was compounded by the fact that the user is only allowed 2 errors before the account is locked for 15 minutes. Now it could be that I am a cretin of truly epic proportions, but personally I found it rather easy to get the password wrong twice. In fact, I imagine many users could easily make the same typo twice in a row. The fact that the forgotten-password link is also locked for 15 minutes is the icing on the cake.
So by combining password rules that differ, however subtly, from the norm, with an oversensitive account lockout, they inadvertently created the perfect conditions for absolute infuriation. My bank doesn't have a system as sensitive as that, and it's hard to see why the place where I look at my gas bill needs to be more secure than my bank. It all comes down to that all-important expectation on the part of the user that things will be easy and convenient - if I want to look at my gas bill, I want to look at it now, not in 15 minutes and after performing a password reset!
All of which means that when it came to the end of my contract with E.on, the experience I might have as a customer via a website seemed at least as important as the potential cost savings of switching supplier. Making my choice of new supplier based on how much effort seemed to have gone into their website was a new experience for me. Many times I've made purchases based on the perceived quality of the item or customer service of the supplier, but never before with a better website experience in mind.
It could be that I'm preaching to the converted here, but for me this was quite a watershed moment. If businesses are to continue making essential administrative functions 'self-service' via the web, then it is vital that they remember what this is replacing: real people, offering real customer service. And just like its human equivalent, if the online customer service experience is notably poor, customers will start to look elsewhere: I certainly did.