September 11, 2017

DESIIGNER | Understanding Customer Service through Design Thinking

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A few weeks ago, I received the best haircut of my life. What were my benchmarks? Customer service. It made all the difference.

Walking into Richard Jeha, a local hair salon in Vancouver, I was feeling frustrated and impatient. I had just visited 2 other shops that both told me I was too early & should come back later. Another didn’t even bother opening the door and simply chose to ignore me while I stood outside waiting.

Quick thought exercise: Regardless of what your business model is, if you want my business, you should care about customer service right? Unless you don’t? Then it’s completely fine to have poor service! But that just begs the question, “are you in it to win it?” And if you’re not, then “do you just want to be an average business?” Because that’s what poor customer service screams.


But at Richard Jenha, it was different. I was told right away that I was early, and welcomed in to have a seat. As a customer, it was communicated to me that I had to wait and couldn’t get the service right away. Choosing to stay was my choice and I was not in the least bit mad at the store for accommodating my lack of scheduling.

After 10 minutes, the store owner came in and greeted me personally. It was 9:50AM. They weren’t even officially opened. Yet, I was able to quickly get a seat with Harry, a barber who I later learned had just graduated from stylist school 3 days ago with a concentration in hair.

From beginning to end, what made my experience so great was Harry’s attitude. Granted, there were times when I noticed flaws in his craft. And I would be over-sensationalizing if I’d said everything was perfect. But Harry was always forthcoming, honest, and attentive to my needs.

That’s the difference.

Many businesses don’t consider how their customers feel. They don’t communicate or inquire about what you want. They just give something to you. At every step of my experience, Harry made sure that I was getting what I wanted from the best of what he could offer.

And I loved that.

This particular haircut encounter got me thinking about the different components that make up a good or bad customer service experience, as well as how much impact customer service can have on the overall experience of businesses, products, and actual services.

Still curious, I wanted to take this idea further and learn about my peers’ experiences with good or bad customer service and how they perceive service as part of a business.

Welcome to the series:

Understanding Surroundings Through Design Thinking


“Where have you encountered good customer service?”

Cameron, Class of 2019, Econ

Often times when I go to the Taco Bell in Ithaca, I usually enjoy having a couple of laughs with the person taking my order. That’s all it takes. If we can have a genuine 20 second conversation, joking about whatever and making a short connection, it makes my entire experience better.

Another would be the chef in our fraternity. We pay him to make 10 meals a week & restock the fridge. But beyond that, he always asks for our preferences and offers to let us try dishes. I think when you do that, you allow the customer to have a more hands on experience by giving them greater say in what their end product is.

Sabrina, Class of 2020, SHA

One time I went to this restaurant for a specific noodle dish. Being super excited, I think the chef noticed the expression on my face and went out of his way to explain his process. He didn’t do that for the other tables so it felt like a unique experience.

Brandon, Class of 2019, Bio-Engineering

Normally, you would expect all Subways to be the same. But I remember going to this one in Maryland that had really good customer service.

The first thing the employee said to me was “your eyes are pretty.” Compliments would make anyone happy. The good start was followed by great service throughout the entire experience. Walking out of the Subway, I was so happy.

Chelsea, Class of 2019, ISST

Cafe Pacific has the best customer service I’ve experienced in Ithaca. I think what makes it stand out is the owner who makes an effort to get to know me. It’s always more personal that way and it makes me want to go back. This perhaps doesn’t happen in many other restaurants because they are chain. And for me, it seems that because it’s her own restaurant, she truly cares. It’s not just a part time job for her.

Gimme Coffee in Gates would be another. The other day, I was going for a cold brew, but they’d ran out. Instead, they recommended a few other options that were similar (ice americano & flash chilled coffee). They didn’t seem worried so I did not feel like they were losing control.

Mind, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

Over the summer, I wanted to cancel one of my Airbnb bookings in Tokyo. My cancellation message was sent, received, and responded to immediately and helped me explain to my host. This was great service because they took out the inconveniences of personal confrontation.


“Where have you encountered poor customer service?”

Cameron, Class of 2019, Econ

To be honest, the customer service of most businesses I’ve encountered in Ithaca have been rather poor.

A lot of the work I do for my frat house includes interacting with outside companies such as contract work on our house and tree trimming. And because they have a monopoly over us, these businesses tend to charge high fees while doing a sh*t job.

One time, a waste service we ordered was supposed to deliver a dumpster to our house. A day prior to the delivery, they called to ask if they could come earlier. Everyone had to move their cars because we were anticipating their arrival. But they never showed up and caused great inconvenience for us.

I think in a place so small like Ithaca, where there’s only room 1 or 2 niche businesses (like Collegetown Cab), the lack of competition would naturally worsen the overall user experience for customers overtime.

Sabrina, Class of 2020, SHA

Trying to get my student health plan card was a really frustrating process. They would transfer me from person to person. But beyond the bad system, I felt the people answering the phones weren’t very helpful as well. When I explained my situation as an international student, it felt like they couldn’t or didn’t try to understand. In the end, I got what I wanted but had wasted so much time.

Brandon, Class of 2019, Bio-Engineering

Over the summer, we ordered maintenance to come fix our air conditioner. The person was scheduled to come from 1:00PM to 3:00PM but showed up at 5:00PM. Being in 90 degrees heat, we were kinda ticked off but understood that he’d probably been occupied with other work.

What made it worse was that after working on it for a whole hour, he came out and said “I can’t fix it.” This dragged all the way until 9:00PM when another guy finally came and fixed our air conditioner. Looking back, I’m not sure if there was anything he could have done to make the service better, except for showing up on time and perhaps being more open about his competency. He probably knew much earlier on that he wasn’t able fix it and could have called for help sooner.

Mind, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

Examples of simply neglecting your customer’s experience & feelings:

There was a TCAT driver who said he wasn’t going to a destination and told us to get off without any explanation. Everyone was super confused because it had been the bus number we’ve always taken to get to West Campus.

In my freshmen year, I was trying to inquire about why my Bank of America deposit did not show up in my account. I waited on call for 1 hour on the phone and didn’t hear a response until 3 days later. In the end, they were so unresponsive that the only option I was left with was to DM them on Twitter.

Chelsea, Class of 2019, ISST

This wasn’t necessarily a terrible experience, but it was definitely weird. One time I went to Aladdins, the server came over more than 5 times to ask us “if it was good.” Like, if you keep coming back asking the same question, I might change my mind.


“What are some components that make for a great customer service experience?”

Cameron, Class of 2019, Econ

Communication: If I call, you should pick up and tell me what’s going on and if you can’t stick to what we agreed on, keep me in the loop.

Transparency: Especially for pricing and fees, what I get on the bill at the end of the day should not be shockingly different than what we had originally agreed on.

Sabrina, Class of 2020, SHA

I think putting yourself in the place of the customer is definitely a big one.

One time my transition flight was delayed and we were escorted to this tiny room to wait. The attendants brought us sandwiches and water to make sure we weren’t going to feel hungry on top of the already poor experience we were having. It made it just a little better.

And referencing back to my earlier example, the chef who saw my enthusiasm was able to played off of that and make my experience that much better.

Brandon, Class of 2019, Bio-Engineering

I think the most important aspect is to give attention to the customer and learning about their needs.

The second would be presentation. How you look as a professional and also the attitude you portray.

Third would be timing. Saying & asking the right things at the right time and not making conversations or experiences awkward.

On the larger scale and trying to tie everything together, I think it’s really about societal awareness. There are social norms that different customers will expect but there are also individual traits that everyone carries. So the question becomes how to balance the two.

Chelsea, Class of 2019, ISST

I think the most important thing is making sure that the customer feels comfortable. For instance, making me believe that you enjoy what you do, which in this case is serving me.

Sometimes I’ll go to a place and the person looks like they are having a really bad day and I just think to myself, “omg please don’t spit in my drink.”

Mind, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

Anticipate a customer’s needs through careful observation of them. It’s not just a list of to-do’s. For example, if you see a customer who is in a rush, you should prepare & adapt by speeding up the process for them. Being observant will lead you to notice a lot of small details. And if you can turn those insights into action, that makes a big difference.

I remember going to a talk in Thailand where the speaker, a user experience designer who recently visited a hotel in Japan, talked about his unique experience. In his first encounter with the staff, he had corrected them when they called him by his first name. And surely, after that encounter, every staff member greeted him with the name he preferred.

No matter what kind of “needs” a customer may have, careful listening will always be a delightful surprise.


“What are the NEEDS of customers?”

Cameron, Class of 2019, Econ

I think anticipating a customer’s struggles or what they might be going through is a big part. For example, if you’ve been in the field for long enough, you should know about some of the challenges people might be facing prior to coming to your business. And if you can accommodate & empathize with those challenges, that would be tremendous.

Sabrina, Class of 2020, SHA

I think consistency is key. When I go engage with restaurants or products, I expect a level of professionalism and quality. Not only is this the case with businesses I frequent engage with, it also applies to ones I’ve never encountered before. First impressions are everything.

Brandon, Class of 2019, Bio-Engineering

Attitude is always important. It’s really the minimum that affects everything. If I go to a restaurant and the food is sh*t but the waiters & waitresses were super nice, I might still have an OK experience.

Chelsea, Class of 2019, ISST

As a customer, I expect there to be a common understanding between me and the people who are providing the service. Being on time would be the best example. And while restaurants tend to take longer than cafes, there are still timing benchmarks for both that if I were to wait too long, I would get impatient.

Mind, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

Accommodation is everything. If a customer appears to be indecisive, you can ask “what are you feeling today?” As a service provider, you have to be an expert. And even when you mess up, you need to take responsibility for it. For instance, whenever Starbucks makes a wrong drink, they will make you another one for free.


What are big no-no’s when it comes to customer service?”

Cameron, Class of 2019, Econ

Especially for businesses transactions that involve a salesperson of some sort, as a customer, it’s never good to feel like they are working against you. This includes trying to force something down your throat, pressure you to buy something you don’t want, or just cheat you in anyway.

Sabrina, Class of 2020, SHA

Although I disagree with the statement that the customer is always right, as a business, it is so important to treat the customer with respect. And lack of understanding for the customer is a big no-no for me.

Brandon, Class of 2019, Bio-Engineering

Poor attitude. In reasonable amounts, I’d rather pay a bit more for good attitude than a bit less for poor attitude. Especially when we think about service at restaurants, attitude is everything. A better attitude leads to better conversations as well as being more attentive to details.

Chelsea, Class of 2019, ISST

When I go shopping and ask for a certain size, they shouldn’t tell me that “everything is here.” It’s obviously not their fault if they’ve ran out in stock. But if you tell me what I already know, then why are you here?

Another would be neglect. There was a time when I was at Gimme Coffee in Gates and they ended up taking really long to give me my drink. It got to the point where everyone behind me had already gotten what they ordered but I still didn’t. Some businesses think that their service ends after they take your order, but the truth is that keeping your customer in the loop until they receive your product is just as important.

Mind, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

As a service provider, you can’t afford to mix personal life or issues with work. While everyone is human, you can’t show that. Think about this in the context of friends. When your friend has a bad day (not because of you) and suddenly gets frustrated at you, it’s not fair right? So as a service provider, that’s an even bigger no-no.

Another would be when you ask service providers to not do something, and they do that exact thing. It shows that you’re not listening. There’ve been times when I ordered my poke to not have avocado and wasabi in it but that’s exactly what they put.


“How much does the service affect the end-product?”

Cameron, Class of 2019, Econ

Objectively speaking, it doesn’t.

For example, at taco bell, if the person making the food hates their job, then it’s going to affect my product. But the cashier who I talk to doesn’t actually make the food.

On the other hand, if contractors are not paying attention to my needs and schedules at times when I’m not available, then it does affect my end-product.

In the end, most services can’t be completely separated from its business because poor experience will impact brand in a negative way.

Sabrina, Class of 2020, SHA

Perhaps, it doesn’t affect the product, but it affects loyalty and word of mouth. If your service is really bad, it might cause customers to wonder if “your product is worth it?” And with online reviews on practically everything nowadays, credibility is more important than ever.

Brandon, Class of 2019, Bio-Engineering

I think it depends on the market. For barbers and stylists, the service becomes the product.

The reason why most people tend to stick to one place and person to get their haircuts is not only because they know it’s difficult to get a good cut that fits them, but also because they tend to form personal bonds with the people cutting their hair.

Chelsea, Class of 2019, ISST

On the topic of food and drinks, I think it depends on how much the customer is craving something. If you order something that you really want to eat and the service is great, then it obviously makes the experience that much better. But if the customer service is meh but you still get what you came for, then it doesn’t really make that big of a difference. However, if you’re just there to get your daily cup of coffee, then good or bad service makes a huge difference.

Mind, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

Travelling to Japan only strengthened my belief in the importance of customer service to an end-product. During my trip, I talked to a shopkeeper of Monocle, a London based magazine, and felt as if I was reading the actual magazine. He was an amazing ambassador for the brand. And even though these shops weren’t at the core of the product (which consisted of web & magazine content), Monocle still chose to do it so well.

I think online or offline, service is such a large part of a brand. And a businesses’ brand is just as important, if not much more, than its actual product.

Throughout these interviews,

a common thread that stuck with me was how relevant and effective customer service-centered thinking was to designing and improving a business:

  1. Present your product, service, or business in the best way possible
  2. Listen to and observe all feedbacks and critiques
  3. Filter and turn observations into insights that will inform specific decisions or changes in approach, strategy, and personnel
  4. Repeat

When businesses truly focused on customer service, they were always more likely to succeed, attract more customers, and improve their brand image—thus improving their overall product. This wasn’t just fluff. It was a tangible, quantifiable, and empathetic design process.

Moving forward,

I hope to continue learning about the diverse stories of all students, staff, and users of designed experiences both on and off campus. If you have any feedback, suggestions, or insights you would like to provide for my current & future series, feel free to reach out!

While we’re all different because we’re different, we’re also the same because we’re different. It’s our personal backgrounds and interactions with other experiences that make us who we are. And it fascinates me that these slight or large differences have the ability to impact how we feel in ways that are still often unpredictable to me.

That’s what I’ve come to appreciate with design thinking. All of that.