Putting the customer’s hat on

I was trying to buy cinema tickets the other day. I had been well educated by numerous advertising campaigns that it was easy, fast and convenient to buy my tickets online. I would avoid standing in painful queues. In a time-poor world, I could take control back over half an hour of precious time by heading to the cinema’s website and buying tickets from home. I would be able to walk straight into the cinema (or hopefully straight to the popcorn counter), find a seat and start watching the movie.

What the ad campaign didn’t tell me was that the new streamlined website would chew up 45 minutes of my time that I’ll never get back. And I would end up more frustrated that I wanted to be and started my movie experience in the cinema not with a Mini Skip sized box of popcorn and a smile but silently fuming.

Here was the problem … when I was using the website to book tickets, I was carefully following the prompts and putting in information that was requested. I hit submit and sat back basking in the glow of online commerce, the voice-over from the ad campaign ringing in my ears about how easy this particular process was.

I sat there for a few seconds while the website was thinking about my transaction (or at least that is what was telling me on screen).

Obviously the website  didn’t like what it was thinking about. I received a message saying ‘please return to the booking screen’ as the transaction had not gone through. So I did. I checked my information a second time, this time ensuring that I had filled out every field and that all information was correct. They were. I again hit submit and was confronted with the same problem. There was an error.

At this point, as a prospective customer, I was thinking ‘what error?’ I had checked all my information – I had filled everything they wanted me to do but apparently there was a generic non-specific error. I checked my bank balance.  I had money in my account.  But my only direction in terms of the problem was to go back to the booking screen.

I thought perhaps that I had somehow booked the wrong session time or even the wrong movie. So I went back to the homepage and checked all details went through the process again entering the information doublechecking this time and then again hitting submit. Same response.

The only reason I was still going through this process and not closing my browser window and heading to iTunes to download a movie is that I work on the web and had a feeling there was a blog post in it. In my experience most prospective customers don’t give you a second or third chance. They ring, very frustrated and often take it out on the customer service person or they shop elsewhere.

I pressed on and decided to ring the cinema. I had to hunt on their website to find the phone number is obviously their strategy is to drive people to online transactions instead of talking to a real person. My call was answered by an automated promotional message which thanked me for calling the cinema and then directed me to their website to buy my tickets online because it would save me an enormous amount of time. The cinema now owes me a new phone and probably a plasterer to fix the hole in the wall.

Now proceeding only as a web professional and as someone looking for a new analogy for the Writing for the Web workshop, I tried again, determined to see the process through. This time it magically worked. Why? The information I have provided was exactly the same but some reason I managed to sneak past the guards and get my transaction through.

What was the problem? From a technical point of view I will never know. But from a usability and customer perspective, the problem was that doesn’t look like anybody  from the cinema has ever used that side as if they were a customer themselves.

They would know that it’s frustrating to receive error messages that don’t tell you what the problem is. They would know that when you do experience problems (and technical problems are okay, I’m not suggesting the web should exist without technical problems) you need someone to talk to or some line of information that enables people to find assistance.

They would also know that producing glossy advertising campaigns that sell online services need to be backed up by an online product that delivers. And by deliver I mean the service works with the customer from start to finish – I’m not suggesting that the web should be bullet-proof and that there should never be technical issues, but when there are they need to be managed from a customer service perspective not an IT one.

So how was the movie?  The second half was good. I spent most of the first half restraining myself after the very first ad that appeared when I sat down in the cinema was promoting the website and how easy it was to buy tickets.

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