Checking out

Posted by on Aug 11, 2009 in Customer Experience

When it comes to creating great customer experiences, the devil is in the details. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that the details are tricky. It does mean that flawed details in the overall experience can make life momentarily—well, maybe “hellish” is too strong.

Take Safeway’s checkout process. I like Safeway; I go there a lot. Works perfectly well for me from the standpoint of convenience, quality, price, selection, service. And as far as I can see they’re good citizens too. For quite a while they’ve been raising money to help fight breast cancer, MS, and other diseases. But how you do that in the store environment where people are typically busy, and just eager to get finished and get on their way, can be tricky.

I think the last thing you’d want to do is change a customer’s willingness to donate into resentment. So here’s what’s happened to me several times, and to at least one other customer a few days ago who ended up snarling angrily at the cashier during checkout. As you swipe your payment card through the Safeway payment terminal, a message appears onscreen asking, “Do you want to donate to help fight Muscular Dystrophy?” Tap here for yes, tap here for no. It’s relatively seamless and unobtrusive, and as a way to handle the request it has the advantage of being discreet. Which means if I tap the “No” button on the interface, no one knows but me, and maybe the cashier. Problem is that after my bill has been sub-totaled, the cashier asks me again, very audibly, “Would you like to donate to Muscular Dystrophy today?”

OK, it’s redundant and clumsy, but from an experience standpoint it goes deeper than that.

First, the customer has been unexpectedly forced to deal with an issue that has the potential to evoke guilt, and she has to do it at a point in the process where she just wants to pay the grocery bill and get home. Secondly, the cashier has just made a private choice into something public. If I have to answer audibly “No”, it may leave an impression with others in line that I’m selfish or heartless. Which probably overstates it, but you get the point. Thirdly, and simplistically, any customer is going to wonder why the hell Safeway bothers to ask the question electronically if it is just going to turn around and ask it “manually” a few minutes later. And on that point, why can’t the cashier tell as he’s looking at his own screen that I’ve already answered the question? Was that so hard to design into the software? Or is the cashier just not paying attention? As I mentioned, I recently watched another customer ahead of me simply yell at the cashier, “No! I don’t want to donate! You asked me onscreen, now you’re asking me again! It’s unbelievably rude. Stop. I’ve already said No!” The cashier rolled with the punch, but I couldn’t help wonder whether the irate customer would ever be returning to shop there.

There are other aspects of this seemingly mundane moment that are interesting in the day and age of smart, hyper-targeted marketing. For instance, if you live close enough to Safeway to use it as a virtual convenience store (like moi), you could be asked several times a week to donate money. Even if you just do your regular weekly shopping at Safeway, you’re continually being hit for spare change—and that’s inside the store. Doesn’t this have to start aggravating regular customers after awhile?

Of course all this isn’t going to prevent me from returning to Safeway, but it is annoying, and clearly it pushes some people over the edge. And at least the redundant question isn’t a detail that anyone would find devilishly hard to fix.

Footnote: the other day I had to pick up some meds from CVS Pharmacy, which used to be Long’s. Practically right next door to the Safeway. I walked up to the counter, paid, the assistant handed me my pill containers, and then said, “Would you like to talk to the pharmacist about this medication?” Trivial, right? Here’s the context: the old Long’s assistant would ritually say, “The pharmacist would like to talk to you about this medication. Please wait at the next window, she’ll be right there.” Simply no awareness that I’d been taking this prescription for nearly 20 years, or that I’d been getting it from this same Long’s for several years. I had no need to talk to the pharmacist, and I had no need to tell the pharmacist for the nth time that I didn’t need to talk to her, much less wait for her.

Thoughtfulness vs. autopilot. I can’t imagine a tinier, more ephemeral moment during a day—but simply by asking me, CVS had made me very happy.