Dark patterns

The dark side of CX: Three dark patterns you must tackle to improve customer experiences


In this extract from Michael G Bartlett's new book "The Dark Side of CX",  he identifies some of the most frequently occurring CX 'dark patterns'  that ultimately turn happy customers into angry detractors.

7th Mar 2022

I have long been an advocate of using principles to abstract and manage complex ideas. 

The Russians have a very specific word for these kinds of patterns: Priyomes (“pree-YOHMS”). Priyomes are strategic positions that recur frequently. A priyome has two key elements. Firstly, a characteristic - or pattern - that allows it to be recognised and, secondly, an associated maneuver or plan which will result in an advantage.

In my book - The Dark Side of CX: The costly patterns that turn loyal customers into brand haters - I have documented the most frequently recurring customer experience priyomes. These are based on customer experience Dark Patterns that crop up again and again and ultimately turn happy customers into angry detractors.

The term was coined by user experience (UX) designer Harry Brignull in 2010 when he created the website darkpatterns.org, which uses a pattern language to catalog the most common dark patterns.

Dark Patterns are well-known in the world of user experience (UX) as an intentional way in which designers will try to mislead or trick users. Whilst some of these patterns bleed over into the world of CX, our industry is plagued predominantly by customer experiences that suffer from unintended consequences and design-by-omission.

Sometimes not designing an experience can be just as disastrous as designing a bad one on purpose. On the other hand, designing a wonderful experience without much thought may also result in a bad experience.

Let's look at three individual priyomes. 

Priyome 1: The memory game

Have you ever called up a business to get a bill paid or problem solved, only to be asked for some ridiculous piece of information that you could never remember?

This is a classic lack of human-centered design that I call The Memory Game.

In this increasing age of cyber terrorism, there will always be tension between security and customer experience. The more you move in one direction, the more you weaken the other.

There are several ways of solving this:

  1. Put key information that may be required for identification on billing statements and make it prominent (for example: a different font color) so it is easy to find when requested.
  2. Have a tiered system of questions to help identify the customer. So, if an account number is not immediately available, other questions can be asked that the customer will know. For example, when I call my bank, one of the questions they ask is what branch I first set my account up at. Two factor authentication should also be considered.
  3. Regularly review your customer’s journey (with real life customers!) to understand what works and where any potential security vulnerabilities might exist.
  4. If there are unavoidable areas of the customer journey where extra effort/friction will be required, convey to the customer why these measures are necessary in keeping them safe.

Priyome 2: Pass the parcel

We’ve all been there - you call a business to get a problem resolved and they pass you from one person to another, put you on hold, and ask you to repeat the same information over and over.

It is infuriating. Welcome to Pass the Parcel.

There are several root causes to Pass the Parcel, but it can ultimately be boiled down to a simple disconnect: The customer has not reached someone who has the ability or authority to help them with their Job-to-be-Done.

Here is how to fix this:

  1. If a call genuinely ends up in the wrong place (A service call ending up with the accounting department, for example), train your staff to engage in warm transfers rather than cold transfers. This means staying on the line and connecting the customer to the right person via a proper introduction and with all the necessary background information. Do not transfer people into a black hole! The goal is not to get rid of the customer; it is to help solve their problem.
  2. If the service agent is genuinely unable or does not have the authority to grant a solution, they should take ownership of the issue. They should find the right person to resolve the problem, update the customer, and act as a primary point of contact should the customer need to call back. This will remain the case unless another employee officially takes over this role.
  3. Employ some sort of customer relations or intelligence system so that notes can be entered during a call while the information is fresh and in context. This will eliminate the possibility of miscommunications or vague memories further exacerbating the problem.

It amazes me that Pass the Parcel is still a widespread issue. Recently I went through this exact experience. In the end I called back and specifically told the service rep: “Solve the problem without transferring me!”

Priyome 3: Heavy-handed response

The heavy-handed response is when an employee takes an aggressive or unprofessional approach towards a customer.  I see this one a lot in the airline industry.

Workers yell at and talk down to customers while herding them around like cattle. Another great example was when a couple named Tom and Tina Olszewski asked for a refund after a 15-minute wait at a McDonald’s drive-through in Wisconsin and the manager came out to verbally abuse them.

Diagnosing the root causes of this priyome is more difficult as there are hundreds of reasons why employees lose their temper. The team could be understaffed and stressed, the workers might have personal problems and some people are just not cut out for customer service.

I have three recommendations to address this issue.

  1. Hire people who are naturally customer centric. Human-centric might be a better word. People who care and love serving others, even under considerable stress.
  2. Establish a code of conduct to explicitly list all the behaviours that employees must exhibit to honor customers, and those they mustn’t exercise because they dishonor customers.
  3. Build slack into your business. Slack means that the staff are not running at full throttle every day. It has the added benefit of giving employees a chance to get out of the weeds and assess where the customer experience could be better.

Michael G Bartlett's The Dark Side of CX: The costly patterns that turn loyal customers into brand haters is available now. 




Replies (1)

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Michelle Spaul Customer Experience Consultant
By Michelle Spaul
10th Mar 2022 09:57

Great article Michael, much food for thought.

Thanks (1)