The balancing act between business and customer

Anybody in business would have come across those companies whose internal procedures make buying from or selling to them a daunting undertaking.  Quotes have to be formatted just so, invoices laid out exactly thus, purchase orders routed through these channels and not those.  These procedures have the positive effect of enabling the company to control its finances and spending better. They have the negative effect of reducing its ability to do business.

At every contact point between a business and the outside world, the same polychotomy exists. The easier you make it, the more business you will be able to do.  At the same time, this ease can create problems with quality, security, privacy and other aspects of commerce.

Whereas the customer would like frictionless communication possibilities with companies, this is impractical when the information exchanged is so poor as to be unusable, or where security, privacy and legal obligations are compromised.  Though usability experts will always want no onus at all placed on a customer, a balance will almost always need to be found to fit the demands of the business and the legal framework involved.

I was reminded of this when viewing this post from usability expert Gerry Gaffney, who decided that the ANZ Bank were either lazy or incompetent when making these demands in one of their web forms:


Remove the barriers

From the point of view of the customer, it’s an unnecessary hindrance. The general rule is that no barriers should be placed between a person and their ability to become your customer. From the bank’s side, though, I see the point. ‘St’ in an address can be an abbreviation of Street or Saint, or part of an ordinal number (1 st). ‘Rd’, equally, can be part of an ordinal number (3 rd) or an abbreviation for Road. It is never fail safe to process abbreviations and contractions when trying to automatically parse and identify addresses. In this case, whilst the bank could have resolved the issue better by employing on-the-fly address validation software, it is an attempt to improve the quality and usability of the information being gathered, at the risk of losing customers by putting barriers in their way. It’s certainly an inelegant solution by the bank, but it does also have an identifiable purpose.

Whilst seamless interaction is always regarded positively by the customer, it often involves extra work, costs and dangers for the business.  Make the interaction too seamless (for example, by failing to collect and validate credit card security information) and you may create security or privacy breaches with major financial consequences.  Start adding checks and balances to improve the process for the company, and you will reduce customer interaction and increase click-away rates.

This balancing act between doing business and providing an open face for customers will always be there, as will the barriers between a business and the public.  When it comes to communications interfaces between the two, the more data processing and validation tasks that a business takes on to itself, putting the least possible onus on the customer, the more frictionless and efficient that communication will be, leading to happier customers and better customer capture and retention.