Designing a Dysfunctional Service Part 2. The Sage Continues

Back in April I wrote a blog post outlining the frustration I’d experienced applying for a passport.  I outlined some of the poor customer service I’d experienced.  At that point I’d received a notification that my application had been withdrawn because I’d not replied to emails, I’d not received because they’d been sent to an incorrect email address.  Shortly afterwards I phoned the passport office again and was re-assured, I was told that once my PhD certificate was received my application would be reopened and I would have my new passport soon.  Unfortunately, this was not the case. 

This is an email I received from HMPO (Her Majesties Passport Office) a few days after I had posted my PhD certificate. They state that they would be in touch if they require further information. They didn’t and instead simply withdrew my application as someone in one part of the system had not been informed that the information they were waiting for had already been received,

Part of an HMPO email

One month after being told that I should have my passport soon I phoned the passport office again just to make sure that everything was proceeding smoothly.  Unfortunately after waiting in a telephone que for two hours, I was told that my application had not restarted, but they would make sure that happened  What I only discovered later was that, this meant, although I’d applied in mid-February the passport office now marked the official start date of my application as 20th April , almost ten weeks later.  This was particularly frustrating as not only had I sent the original copy of my PhD certificate as soon as I was told that this was required, and also (now that they had my correct email) – I’d replied by email informing HMPO of the situation, what had gone wrong and why. 

I received the message below on June the 8th. I’d applied on the 15th February not the 20th April. The 20th April was presumably the date my application was reopened. On the 8th June my application was still waiting to be checked. They state that applications for passport renewals are dealt with within 10 weeks. When I received this email I had already been waiting more than 16.

Towards the end of May I emailed and phoned again, just to make sure that my application was proceeding as it should.  I no longer trusted the application service to complete my application without further issues and decided from that point on I needed to maintain regular contact. I was told that once they had processed my documents my application would proceed. 

It was now early June and I had a holiday booked early July.  I’d made arrangements months earlier, thinking that having applied for my passport in February, even with a few hiccups it would be back in plenty of time for a holiday in July.  I spoke to someone who told me that it was possible to get my application fast tracked and given the length of time I’d already waited there would be no charge for this.  There was however one complication.  To qualify for the fast track service I needed to have a flight booked.  Although I’d made arrangements to visit a friend in Switzerland I’d not actually booked my flight yet.  My plan was to wait until I got my passport and then book my flights.  I also discovered that my passport had been booked in for a check on the 3rd July and this meant that without the fast track I would not get my passport back in time for the date I planned to go away (the 7th) so it seemed that the only thing to do was to book a flight and hope that they managed to process my application in time.  I was told that there was no guarantee, but decided to take the risk. 

So I booked a flight and then contacted HMPO again to ask if I could send them the evidence they had told me they needed and was told that I should wait and someone would contact me nearer the time.  Two weeks before the trip I contacted them again and was told it was still too soon and someone would contact me, ten days before, still too soon, 7 days before, again I was told to wait.  3 days before I was finally told to send evidence of my flight by this point, which I did. By this time however I’d already given up and assuming that it was now unlikely that I would get my passport in time rearranged my plans.  The friend I was planning on visiting had already booked another flight to visit me instead. 2 days before my flight I received a phone call informing me that I could drive over to the passport office in Liverpool the next day to pick up my passport if I wished. 

I live in Sheffield and getting to the passport office in Liverpool and back would be a 5 hour round trip, at least.  So knowing that I had some important work meetings the next day and had already rearranged my plans I asked for my passport to be posted to me instead.  I had another trip planned for around ten days later, but surely that would be plenty of time just to get a passport that had already been printed to me, or so I thought …

Part of what frustrates me about my experience is that, for over a decade, it has been generally accepted that good practice in call centre operations is what is referred to as first call resolution. (sometimes also referred to as first contract resolution).  This is essentially what is said on the tin.  It’s the principle that customer issues should be resolved, where possible on the first attempt, on the first call.  I recall a talk I went to a decade ago by John Seddon about the application of systems thinking to help this approach work.  His argument was that to enable a first call resolution approach it is necessary to empower the staff who take calls to resolve issues and to identify the issues in the system that prevent issues from getting addressed.

If you compare my experience with the idea of first call resolution, the difference could hardly be more different.  Not only did most of the staff I spoke to not have the authority to resolve issues, in most cases they didn’t even have the ability to access reliable information or to input information that was provided by customers (in this case me).  Imagine if at the beginning of my experience when I first informed HMPO staff that I was not receiving the emails they had been able to update the system with my correct email and inform me what had been in the emails.  In that scenario I would have been able to either send in my PhD certificate or tell the staff just to leave my title as Mr.  Either way the issue would have been addressed straight away, and save me a lot of time and stress.  This would also be a lot more efficient for HMPO.  If the issue had been addressed on my first contact with them a lot of staff time would have been saved as they would not have needed to deal with lots of phone calls and emails from a customer who was getting increasingly frustrated with their poor service and later also experiencing anxiety about the possibility of missing their flight.  All this could have been avoided if a first call resolution approach had been applied. 

I am interested in the idea of first call resolution as it crosses the area of customer / user research (my current work) and systems thinking (the methodology in my PhD).  In systems like the passport processing service I can see that I have a lot of expertise that I could offer to help systems and services work better.  Not only can I help improve customer experience but also improve organisationally efficiency.  Do feel free to contact me if you have similar customer service issues that need addressing.  I’m fully booked until the end of August but could be available for the right project after that. I would very much like to help ensure that other customers never receive the level of poor customer service I outline above.

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