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How a 5-stage design thinking framework helps our small team solve customer problems

July 12, 2019

Remember the Great Comcast Scandal of 2014? I’ll sum it up to spare you an unpleasant trip through the news archives: customer calls Comcast to cancel, and ends up on the phone for 30+ minutes with a representative who essentially refuses to accommodate their request.

Followup reporting revealed that most Comcast customer service reps don’t even have the ability to cancel accounts. Those who do are given scripted objections to almost every possible reason a customer could have for cancelling, and are rewarded for offering plenty of pushback. Obviously not a recipe for great customer service.

But enough with the bad examples — let’s contrast Comcast’s approach with guidelines published by Zappos, a company known for exceptional customer service. Zappos customer service reps are never given scripts, and they all have the authority to “accept special-case returns, offer partial or full refunds, pay for damages, and provide solutions in any other manner they deem appropriate”. In short, Zappos solves customer problems by giving extraordinary agency and decision-making power to their customer service team.

This is how we approach customer service at Olark — and it’s even more important for us as a small business. If the seven members of our customer service team didn’t have the freedom to come up with creative, efficient solutions on their own — if their managers spent hours composing scripts and approving edge case exceptions — we wouldn’t just be in hot water with our customers. We’d be under water, period.

Does this mean we don’t have guidelines for our customer service team? Of course not. But rather than telling team members what to do and say in every situation, we coach them on how to approach customer problems, find solutions, and learn about customers in a way that can inform every other area of our business.

To do this, we’ve adapted a framework from another field — product design, and specifically, design thinking. Our approach mirrors key stages of design thinking like discovery, ideation, and prototyping. It’s especially awesome for small teams, but we’d recommend it for Comcast, too ;-) Let’s dig into it!

What is a design thinking framework?

Design thinking is a creative problem-solving and product development approach that focuses on understanding the user experience (i.e., customer experience) and building outside-the-box solutions to meet their needs. Sounds a lot like what you’d expect from a good customer service interaction, right?

A typical design thinking framework includes 5 steps:

  1. Empathize with the end user
  2. Discover and define user needs
  3. Brainstorm a wide range of solutions
  4. Implement one of more solutions as a simple prototype
  5. Test the prototyped solution(s), and iterate based on user responses

It’s not critical that every design process follow these steps exactly. The key is the balance of “expansive” and “definitive” thinking — taking time to thoroughly explore the problem before pinpointing a root cause, and then taking time to thoroughly explore all possible solutions (even those that seem difficult or silly) before selecting one or a few solutions to test.

For example, say we have a customer who wants to buy a pair of shoes. The particular model they’re looking for is out of stock, so they contact customer service to ask when it’ll be available. The most obvious response is simply to provide an estimated shipping date — but we could do more to help the customer if we had a better understanding of their problem. Where are they planning to wear these shoes, and why are they interested buying them now? Maybe they need them for an event this weekend — in which case shipping them out when they’re back in stock won’t help at all, and we should instead suggest some similar products that can ship right away.

If we address only the surface-level customer problem, we’ll likely lose the customer — they’ll think “well, I can’t get what I need in time,” and shop elsewhere. But with a design thinking approach, we can uncover the customer’s actual need and find a creative solution. This turns the interaction from a transactional exchange (the back-in-stock date could easily have been printed on the product description) into a dynamic problem-solving process that adds value for everyone involved. And although the payoff from a single interaction might seem small, conversations like this one can quickly add up to a big impact on business metrics like customer retention and total sales.

A design thinking framework for solving customer problems

Let’s translate the design thinking process above into the customer support or service context.

  • Empathize: Build rapport with the customer
  • Define: Ask questions to identify the root cause of the customer’s problem
  • Brainstorm: Explore solutions in collaboration with the customer
  • Implement and test: Apply the best solution, and check that it’s working as planned
  • Iterate: Document what you learned, and identify steps that could improve the solution or keep the problem from happening again
Psst! You can click here to download a copy of this graphic as a handy reference for your team.

This is the process that our customer service team follows in nearly every interaction. It consistently gets us to a solution that works for everyone, and just as important, it gives us the opportunity to learn about our customers — to truly understand them better — with each conversation.

Let’s explore each of these five stages of design thinking in a little more detail.

1. Empathize and establish rapport

  • Hi there, Susan! How’s your day so far?
  • Looks like you’re up in the Northwest. Did you get hit by that last snowstorm?
  • Apologies in advance if I sneeze, I’ve been fighting a little bit of a head cold.

Kicking off a conversation with one these questions or comments might feel like a waste of time — but it’ll pay dividends later on. By building trust in this first stage, you’ll make communication easier if the discussion gets tense or technical. You’ll get a sense of the customer’s mood — cheerful, frustrated, angry, etc. — so that you can step into their shoes and adjust your tone and messaging accordingly, and you might also glean something that changes the way you handle the rest of the interaction (e.g., it’s the end of the customer’s workday and they’re in a rush to resolve an issue before heading home).

There are lots of approaches to building rapport, and the one you use will depend largely on the situation and the information available. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Ask general, friendly questions. A quick “How’s your day going?” is almost always appropriate, and it’s an easy way to show the customer that you’re interested in them as a person. If you’re using a live chat tool like Olark, you could even save several of these questions as canned responses.
  • Ask for the customer’s name, and use it throughout the conversation. In a live chat interaction, you can do this with a tool like Olark’s pre-chat form. A simple “Could I have your first name, please?” also works just fine for email, chat, or phone.
  • Build on information you have about the customer. For example, if you know their location, you could ask for their opinion of a local attraction; if you know their job title, you could ask about how they got into their field. Features like Olark’s Visitor Insights PowerUps can give you a wealth of interesting info to get the conversation going.
  • Talk about yourself! Not too much, obviously, but if the mood seems right, offer up a few personal details to show the customer you’re human, too. For example — “I’m just finishing up my coffee” or “It’s sweltering here in California!”

No matter which approach you take, make sure you really engage in the discussion and listen to the customer’s responses. The rapport-building stage is also an opportunity to learn more about your customer’s motivation and point of view — and that’s invaluable data to feed back into your business.

2. Define the customer’s problem

As soon as you’ve established a bit of rapport, you can move to the second stage — understanding the customer’s reasons for contacting you.

Some customers will need a little prompting here, while others will give you lots of details upfront. Even in the latter case, though, remember to explore the issue thoroughly before jumping to conclusions. Ask questions like Why do you need to do X? and Have you already tried Y? Think of yourself and the customer as an investigative team; try to list out everything that could possibly account for the problem, and let the customer’s insight guide you toward the most important factors.

At the end of this stage, you should be able to clearly articulate the root cause of the problem. Usually, this will mean that you reframe and elaborating on something the customer initially presented. For example, they might have complained that they’re getting an error message, but your final problem statement will be “You’ve selected an out-of-stock product, and our system won’t let you check out.”

Part of getting to the root cause is understanding why this problem is, well, a problem for the customer. Sometimes, as in the case of an error message, the “why” will be obvious. But sometimes the customer will be trying to do something you’ve never seen before, and you’ll need to dig deeper to figure out what their true goal is and why they’re feeling blocked.

Identifying the root cause of customer complaints isn’t always straightforward. Don’t feel like you have to go it alone — take the time to read through support documentation, run tests, and talk with your teammates. If it’s taking a while, just remember to check in with the customer and keep them updated on your progress.

3. Ideate and explore potential solutions

With your problem statement in hand, it’s time to jump back into “expansive” thinking mode for the third stage of your interaction.

Most problems have more than one possible solution, and every customer will weigh the pros and cons of those solutions differently. Lay out all the options (including unusual or innovative solutions), ask the customer how they feel about each one, and give them a chance to suggest new ideas. Giving a customer a say in how you fix their problem is one of the most respectful gestures you can make; if the problem made them anxious or frustrated, empowering them to choose a solution will go a long way toward rebuilding positive associations with your brand. Plus, knowledge of how different types of customers respond to different solutions can be invaluable, whether you apply it to future interactions or pass it along as input for your product, sales, and marketing teams.

Make sure the customer understands why the problem occurred and how each solution fixes it. You want to leave them with a cohesive story — “here’s what happened, here’s why it happened, and here’s the best way to address it given your personal preferences and constraints.” If they can grasp that narrative, chances are good they’ll be able to fix the problem on their own if it comes up again.

One final note — sometimes you’ll have to tell a customer that their preferred solution isn’t available, or that there’s really no good solution at all. In those cases, you can still be clear and transparent about the facts of the situation, and proactively suggest a reasonable workaround. Even when you’re telling a customer something they don’t want to hear, explaining why — and listening to their concerns and frustrations — goes a long way.

4. Implement the best solution

You’ve built rapport, defined the problem, explored solutions, and decided on a preferred fix. Amazing work! Now comes the fun (and relatively simple) fourth stage — getting the customer up and running with the solution you chose together.

This last step might require work on your side, the customer’s side, or both. Regardless of who’s doing the actual fixing, make sure you keep following up with the customer to confirm completion of each step. When you’re all done, have them verify that the fix worked, and make sure they know how to follow up if the problem reoccurs.

5. Document, gather feedback, and iterate

The final stage of a customer service interaction happens after you’ve signed off with the customer. Close the loop by:

  • Documenting everything you learned — about your customers, product, competitors, etc. You can do this in a shared Google Doc, a ticket system, or any other central, accessible location. Olark’s Notes feature is great for documenting insights on the fly.
  • Sharing action items with your team, manager, or cross-functional colleagues. For example, customers are frustrated that a certain product is out of stock — can you get a commitment for when it’ll be available again, or a list of suggested alternatives? Or maybe high shipping prices are spooking international shoppers — is there a way to bring them down, at least for bigger orders?

Design thinking is an iterative process: lessons learned from one design cycle feed right into the next, allowing for continuous improvement. We think customer service should be that way, too — and we believe that empowering individual representatives to learn, act, and propose changes is the best way to make it happen.

Olark builds human-centered software that helps businesses listen, learn, and improve; learn more at

Olarker Sarah Betts contributed extensively to the words and thoughts above. Thanks, Sarah!