The businesses that are best loved by customers tend to be ones that make them feel smart, competent, in control. This comes about thanks to thoughtful (read: easy to use) design choices, thoughtful hiring and training of employees, and other deployment of human effort, engagement, and judgment to make things easy for a customer-and difficult for a customer to make a mistake or suffer embarrassment.
Or the elevation of a customer's feeling of intelligence can be achieved through proper deployment of technology. Think of how a service like Gmail makes the user feel smart: warning the user if they've failed to include an attachment in spite of writing "attached is..."; helping the user to "remember" email addresses they may want to include in the cc field; intelligently suggesting which of several similar-sounding email addresses is likely the one to include in a particular context; and, even better, suggesting a correction when you are about to mistakenly cc Bob X instead of Bob Y, where Bob Y is more likely the one you intended to copy in this particular context.
Getting even more high-tech, the proper use of artificial intelligence (AI) can both make customers feel smart and, according to Ryan Lester, Director of Customer Engagement Technologies at LogMeIn, do the same for the (human) agents supporting those customers. "AI such as our Bold360ai solution," says Lester, "can make both the customer and the agent feel better-informed and closer to the solution; it can give customers the power to self-serve where they see fit, as well as, alternatively or in addition, provide agents with AI-powered insights to offer a seamless, efficient and customized experience when a human touch needed." [Disclosure: I have done professional work for LogMeIn.] And according to Raj Singh, CEO of GoMoment, an AI company deploying a specialized version of IBM Watson technology, "As I see it, the very idea of AI, in a customer experience context, is to make the customer feel empowered; while some companies may fool around with AI for AI's sake, that's the opposite of the customer-friendly approach that's called for."
To hammer home the importance of this, I want to spend a minute looking at the times when a customer experience is designed to make a customer feel stupid. Let me share a particularly mortifying example to bring the subject vividly in focus.
I once spent an agonized half hour on the beach at a Five Star resort, trying to figure out if the sliding doors in front of me actually led back into my hotel room.
Sounds dumb, right? Maybe it sounds like I'm dumb because I should have put out bread crumbs or stones to guide my pathway back.
But here's the thing: At the time I agreed with you (hypothetical you); the problem was due to my own stupidity, clumsiness, or failure to plan. But I don't anymore. What made me as the customer (guest) feel dumb was an unfortunate, even inhumane, design choice on the part of the hotel. The architect or outfitter thought it would look more sleek or homelike to omit room numbers above the sliding doors that faced the beach. Leading to five essentially identical options for me to pick from, meaning chances I'd pick the wrong one and happen upon my neighbors in a state, potentially, of romantic engagement and undress.
In many other ways, businesses make customers feel stupid. Continuing with less dramatic examples from hotels, there are light switches in unexpected places, impossible-to-find plug locations, inexplicably translucent doors between toilet and sleeping area, heating and cooling systems that are too complex to be managed (at least in the face of jetlag), minibars priced to make you feel like a sucker, and on and on.
Outside of the hotel environment, here are other ways businesses, perhaps including yours, do the same: they make customers feel stupid:
• Bad directional signage: a hassle for able-bodied customers, and a complete disaster for visitors with disabilities.
• Inscrutable jargon, like the use of the 19th-century term "placards" in the required FAA in-flight safety script.
• Stupid Stuff: requiring customers to contact you for the answers to questions that should be answered on a self-service basis, whether through your website's FAQs or other means (See my article here for more on this)
• Thoughtlessness: Asking an obviously-solo diner the ugly question, "only one?" or calling an obviously advanced-in-age woman "young lady."
If you're making any of these mistakes at your business, or if you're not sure whether you are or aren't, it's time to take stock, before you drive any more customers away.