January 02, 2014

Getting Them to Click: Information Foraging in the Wild

In spite of traditional marketers’ best efforts over the years to influence human behavior, mind control is still thankfully beyond our reach. But getting people to do what they ought to do in the wild doesn’t require mind control any more than getting a lion to chase a gazelle does. All you need to know is what they’re looking for and provide a clear trail to their prey. The lion provides the appetite.

That’s the basis of a theory developed by a couple of researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center in the early 90s. They postulated that people’s information-seeking behaviors are analogous to the food-seeking behaviors of animals. Put simply, we subconsciously perform a cost-benefit analysis when we are seeking information with the goal of expending as little energy as necessary to get it.

People are ruthless when they’re on the hunt for information. Depending on the goodwill they have stored up with you, they might not stick around long to find out whether they can find it with you.

This demonstrated lack of patience forces us to look at visits from a different perspective. An undisciplined obsession with clickstream analytics has given many companies the wrong idea. More pageviews and time on site are good things, right? Well, maybe, maybe not, and there lies the rub. We don’t know. If your visiting informavores are jumping from page to page because they lost the scent of their prey, then more time on site or more pageviews are undesirable. However, if they are confidently creeping closer and closer to their hunt, then a higher pageview count may be, in fact, desirable.

In reality, the real brand goal—for any brand—is not typically to keep visitors on your site longer, it’s to increase the audience’s storage of goodwill, which will give them the sort of confidence that you want them to have in your brand: that you can provide them what they’re looking for, even if their immediate experience tells them otherwise. 

So how do you make your website appealing to these starving information hunters? The core principles are pretty simple:

  1. Make something they want to consume.
  2. Make sure it is easy to catch.

This brings us to two key aspects to finding information, which are information scent and mental models.

Information Scent

Information scent in user experience design is the extent to which a given thing accurately communicates its function and the information the author intended to communicate. That sounds pretty academic, but think of your web visitor as a predator who is sniffing for clues that might lead it to its desired target. If the scent gets stronger, they will keep pursuing. If it gets weaker, they either change course or abandon the pursuit altogether.

Information scent has applications beyond the digital realm. Think of the last time you were at a door and you pulled when it was push only. The “Push” sign was right in front of you, yet you still pulled. Why? The door’s interface (handles) communicated “pull” more strongly than the word communicated “push.” Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, put it this way: 

“When a device as simple as a door has to come with an instruction manual—even an one-word manual—then it is a failure, poorly designed.”

The same is true of digital interfaces. Your average visitor in a mass-consumer market won’t stick around long enough to learn a simple interface, much less a complicated one. Your audience shouldn’t have to learn it at all. It should just work the way they expect it to work. A strong information scent will help your visitors get from Point A to Point B with little effort.

Mental Models

Where do people get their expectations about how something should work? It’s a complicated question, especially when we’re discussing complicated tasks and human needs.  For now let’s focus on the micro-interactions that help users complete complex tasks. People come to your website with all sorts of baggage that they’ve accumulated through years of activities in their analog and digital universes. Much of that baggage, as it turns out, is sensory, or more specifically, visual.

“The visual part of the brain takes up half of the brain processing power.”
 – Susan M Weinschenk, Ph.D., Neuro Web Design 

In human factors design, we call this baggage “mental models.” The informavore’s sense of smell depends on their mental models, which is why our design decisions must take account of them. 


ButtonWhen designing things that should be clicked, think about what people perceive to be clickable. The button metaphor has worked so well for so long because the mimicked three-dimensional button icon invites users to press on it. This is called a “skeuomorph,” which has been falling out of favor with designers in recent years, most notably with the Windows 8 redesign, and culminating in the iOS 7 launch, which eschewed the traditional skeuomorph with what has been called “flat design.”



Windows 8The early results from usability tests on interfaces with flat design have been mixed. One of the most prominent usability experts, Jakob Nielsen, has called for some sort of “golden middle ground between skeuomorphism and a dearth of distinguishing signifiers for UI elements.”  In an early review of Windows 8, Nielsen stated, “The Windows 8 UI is completely flat… There’s no pseudo-3D or lighting model to cast subtle shadows that indicate what’s clickable… Icons are supposed to (a) help users interpret the system and (b) attract clicks. Not the Win8 icons.”

Skeuomorphs are not the only way to tap into the mental models of a digital audience, but it is certainly worthwhile to consider why they are helpful and what purpose they serve before abandoning them altogether simply to chase after something because it seems more modern.


KindleAnother example where the digital realm borrows from the real-world models is the popular eBook reader. Whether the manufacturer of this reader is Amazon, Sony, or Apple, they wisely continued the page-turn metaphor for advancing to the next page that people have nearly a thousand years experience using.

Mental models evolve over time just as real-world experiences evolve. Children growing up in an automated, digital, touch-screen world will have different mental models than their parents. Children can be seen waving their hands in front of a lever-operated towel dispenser waiting for a towel to come out. Their mental model is shaped by automation, not simple machines.

The Google Imperative

The dominance and sophistication of search have made the situation more severe than ever. As people become more confident in the search engines than they are in any given landing page, rather than spend time trying to figure out the interface, they’ll go back to search and pick a different result. This learned behavior occurs more frequently as search engines improve their algorithms.

What’s more, the search engines are always adjusting their algorithms to make sure the most relevant results bubble to the top. Their brand depends on it. So if an interface itself doesn’t help solve the problem, chances are that the page will be so obsolete that it will rarely be seen by people searching for whatever the page was supposed to provide. The best strategy to get good search engine optimization from Google is to align your ideals with theirs: 

“Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
—from the Google Company Philosophy

Tapping into the Mainframe

The brain is a complex labyrinth of memories and relationships. Designing an interface to get and keep its attention amidst that complexity means simplifying the experiences that people have by borrowing from the real world and providing obvious cues to aid people in the discovery of how the interface works. Tapping into the existing, relevant mental models of the target audience creates the information scent that will lead informavores to their prey.   - Cam Beck

Helpful Links

The Usable Planet” 

Windows 8 – Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users

Google Company Philosophy 

November 05, 2013

But what if they leave my site?!

Small- to mid-sized companies may have a heck of a time getting attention. Because of their size, they likely don't have the resources to afford integrated, enterprise-level solutions, and therefore rely on third parties to fulfill certain functions in a potential customer's web experience. These third party solutions may, in the short term, take users to a different domain or subdomain. They may or may not include:

  • eCommerce storefront
  • Loyalty programs
  • Application process

And small- to mid-sized companies aren't alone. Even larger companies looking to be efficient with their budgets may run a trial program and hope to curtail some of the up-front development costs by leaning on the companies that specialize in these sorts of things. 

So the question inevitably arises -- When people try to access these services, should we open a new window/tab, or should we direct them to the service in the same window/tab?

Marketing professionals tend to think that they lose something if the user navigates away from their site. Over the years, they've learned to focus on the wrong things.

Let's go ahead and put that baby to rest. People will leave your site. They will always leave your site. In fact, they'll probably spend most of their time on sites other than yours. Now relax. And focus instead on delighting your customer. 

If you really think there is an opportunity to delight your users by increasing their pageviews and time on site (and there may be), give them something that delights them. Don't annoy them by making it difficult to manage their windows and tabs.

How annoying is it? In my years of observing and moderating usability studies, I've met people who have expressed...

  • ...satisfaction that a link opened in the same window
  • ...satisfaction that a link opened in a new window
  • ...disappointment that a link opened in a new window

What I've never once seen is someone who has expressed disappointment that a link opened in the same window. 

Ultimately, how you handle outside links depends on a number of factors that I won't go into here, but don't automatically assume that linking them off is going to harm your brand. - Cam Beck @cambeck

 

October 03, 2013

Hobby Lobby: The Intersection of Belief and Business

Hobby_lobby

Hobby Lobby finds itself amidst controversy again this year when, allegedly, some frontline workers expressed some sort of rejection of or indifference towards the business of Jews. 

I've never looked into it, but I can imagine that Hobby Lobby probably attracts people who identify as Christian, just by reputation of the company. However, I wonder if there is a corporate culture that endeavors to teach how Christian principles meet everyday management and interaction with non-Christians. The Bible tells Christians to spread the Good News to all nations, but even as a company that (probably) attracts Christians, what mechanisms do they put in place to provide spiritual guidance to their workers to do that? How does that intersect with what they lawfully can do?

(As far as I know, Hobby Lobby does not discriminate against people for unlawful reasons. The above is conjecture concerning who they probably attract.)

The failure of Hobby Lobby in this case isn't about selling things for Hanukkah -- lots of companies don't sell Hanukkah stuff -- it's about teaching its people how to interact with honest, hardworking people, willing to spend money, who have a simple, unassuming question -- or even those who set out to trap or embarrass them.

The corporate office seems to "get" that the original interaction was flawed. Now we get to see what they do about it.

Photo credit: Fan of Retail 

September 27, 2013

The Google Encryption Dilemma

If you've been only moderately interested in looking at your search reports in Omniture, Google Analytics, or whatever tracking software you're using for your website, you've probably noticed an alarming growth in the number of referring search keywords that are (not provided) for you to see. If you're in this space heavily, you're probably well aware of it, and you may be  a bit miffed at Google for taking away these insights from you.

I've also come to enjoy the sorts of insights made available by this data, but take some comfort knowing that the sky is not falling. Your jobs just got a little more interesting.

Why did Google do it? Folks are saying it is a response to being dinged in the public arena for cooperating with NSA's prism program to track what people are doing online. 

If you understand how we actually get our data in Google Analytics, you know this explanation is curious. Excepting third-party CRM applications, we can't actually see who is searching. In Google Analytics, we can only see what they are doing in the aggregate, once they get to our site. Why can't Google send the aggregate data as they have been, so we can see which keywords are having the greatest success, so that we can optimize our site for the better-performing keywords?

Happily for us, there is a solution, which unfortunately means more specialization and attention than before, with fewer actionable insights. But it isn't nothing.

Note for beginners: Always have a Google Analytics profile with no filters applied. If you don't know what this means, I recommend picking up the excellent Avinash Kaushik's Web Analytics 2.0. I may address this at a later date, but he's your man, if you want to learn how to do this stuff.

Essentially, you have to "trick" Google Analytics to tell you what landing pages people are arriving at, when you're examining keywords from Organic Search. This doesn't tell you the keyword, but you see where they're going. Here's an excellent tutorial by Kiss Metrics that explains how this is done.

Also, install Google Webmaster Tools. From there, you can see which keywords are bringing people to your site. Even the "encrypted" ones (See? Was that so hard, Google?). What you can't see is what they did when they arrived at your site.

Examine your paid search performance to use as a proxy for organic search. In this case, Google isn't really telling you what people did, they're telling you what you're paying them for.

Continue your keyword research using whatever you've been using to try to identify opportunities for content development and writing. 

Rinse and repeat.

So what's coming? I have no idea. It's crossed my mind, however, that either Google is leveraging this unnecessary move in the name of a specious allegience to "privacy" to sell more stuff -- either more AdWords, its DoubleClick advertising platform, or access to Google Analytics premium -- meaning free access to Google Analytics basic gravy train would be on the way out (Hopefully a lower-cost option than GA Premium or Omniture, or else smaller companies just wouldn't be able to afford it).

Until that happens, the sky is not falling. And if it does, it will be time for smaller companies to look at other solutions. It's always good to be prepared.

August 15, 2013

Guest Post: Why Mobile First is the New Present and Future

Fun Facts:  New mobile device purchase/usage is growing 4x as fast as new people

Every Day:

371,000 Babies are born
500,000 iOS devices are sold
700,000 Android devices are activated
200,000 Nokia devices are used for the first time
143,000 Blackberry smartphones are purchased
_______________________________________________________________________
1.45M devices vs. 371,000 babies per day

About 25% of websites are viewed exclusively on mobile devices

The Mobile First approach to concepting, designing, and developing responsive websites is a relatively new concept that has received a lot of attention and support lately as the primary approach to handling responsive websites.  Since being first introduced by Luke Wroblewski more than four years ago, then radically adopted by Google in 2010, Mobile First has lately been making a strong case for becoming the new norm moving forward. It was one of the main focuses at this years Adobe MAX conference and still gaining momentum as mobile internet usage rapidly increases. 

Benefits, Opportunities, and Hurdles

From a design and UX perspective, a Mobile First approach forces us to to focus on what's really important.  Graceful degradation, browser to mobile, has us think of these larger-scale, oftentimes much more robust experiences, as a starting point - leaving us with the afterthought, "Okay, so how does this scale down for the mobile users." Many times there are problems with browser functionality that just don't translate well to touch screen devices.  With Mobile First, "Smaller screen size force designers to eliminate the irrelevant and unhelpful aspects of their design." It can really even been seen as a creative exercise to order content and graphic elements by importance and relevance before expanding creativity to larger, more robust screens - strategically streamlining only essential content.

From a development perspective, more and more frameworks are coming out or releasing new versions that are embracing the Mobile First approach - emphasizing how 'lightweight' they are starting at the base mobile screen. A problem with Graceful Degradation is that the elements are hidden for smaller screens but often loaded anyways - increasing HTTP requests and load times. Progressive enhancement, Mobile First, loads only the most basic elements and styles first and adds to those as the browser size increases - making mobile sites much more lightweight and letting users 'often have load times reduced by 30% - 40%.' Not the mention that the CSS styling from this approach results in smaller, more maintainable and easier-to-read code.

This approach would also make it easier to incorporate specific assets and styles for high resolution retina-ready screens and devices as well by detecting browsers by whether their pixel aspect ratio is above 1.5 or not. . It would not further weigh down smaller resolutions and at the same time provide retina users a better experience.

While this all sounds well and good on paper, it does come with a few hurdles. It can be a little weird to think of laying out an entire website starting on a 360px wide canvas. Creativity may seem very constrained, especially when having to consider, 'Wait, how do you even do that on a phone.' It's certainly the reverse way we're accustomed to approaching responsive websites, but it's a concept that probably isn't going away any time soon and has potential benefits that seem to outweigh the initial awkwardness of starting small. 

If our users are continuing to get their internet content from mobile first, shouldn't that be where we start too? - Damon Carlstrom

Damon Carlstrom has background in Interactive Design, Motion Graphics, and Front-End Development, lately focused on UX/UI Design and RWD (Responsive Web Design).

April 05, 2013

This Outsourced Life

According to Quartz, experts predict that 40% of America's workforce will be freelancers by 2020.

Of course, this is barring the government doing anything to compensate for this trend by -- for instance -- barring companies from hiring contract workers instead of part-time employees, or by forcing them to hire a greater percentage of their worforce as full-time. This would be a collossal mistake. In fact, the current trend toward freelancing is largely representative of the market's adjustment to government mandates on employers. 

How? Let's take a look.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act (A.K.A. "Obamacare"), when in full effect, every person will be required to have "health insurance." How they are mandated to pay for that insurance is quite a tangled web, but the end result is that it becomes more expensive to keep a full-time staff onhand. Companies under 50 employees have to think long and hard about the implications of growing beyond 50 employees in a manner commensurate with the risk they're willing to take, simply because they're opening themselves up to higher expenses in penalties or fees.

So what do they do? They have a few options available.

  • They can just not hire that 50th employee and have everyone else work longer hours
  • They can reduce the number of full-time employees and rely on a number of part-time employees (I've heard fast food restaurants already do this)
  • They can farm out much of their work to contractors instead of employees
  • They can hire the extra employees and assume the associated costs

There is nothing "ideal" about any of these scenarios. Each one has an associated benefit and a cost. And here's another newsflash for people who want to tell the companies which one of them they have to pick: You don't know all of their businesses, and therefore you don't know which one they can afford to do and which one they can't. 

When economists talk about the cost of labor, it tends to make workers seem like a commodity. And in economic terms, they may be, but we risk desensitizing ourselves to the very uniquely human needs, hopes and dreams that go along with the people who are affected by these policies. However, this applies both to the workers as well as the people who own and manage the companies that this affects. 

Attempts to demonize companies for doing the best they can under the macroeconomic climate they probably had no hand in creating may win votes for certain politicians, but it is counterproductive to the goals of reaching full employment and increasing prosperity for the whole of the people. 

Postscript:
It's also important to consider the other effects of the increased cost of living such mandates require. This started long ago, but the new law now requires younger people to subsidize the cost of insuring older people, and healthier people to subsidize the care for less healthy people, average families can ill-afford to have only one working parent, which means two-parent families also have to outsource the raising and caring for their children, irrespective of what they would otherwise be capable of doing if only these requirements were never handed down from the rulers on Mount Washington.

February 18, 2013

Analytics: Indispensable Ammunition in the UX Practitioner's Arsenal

At last year's Big (D)esign Conference, Russ Unger, the co-author of The Project Guide to UX Design, suggested that UX practitioners should start to learn programming, or they risk becomming dinosaurs. I like Russ. He's an extremely talented hack (in the best of ways), and I recently began to brush up on my coding skills, which were formed when we were still coding with hammer and chisel. There is another discipline that is underutilized in the UX field, however, and those of us who do not adopt some rudimentary skills in that area also risk becoming dinosaurs. The discipline they need is analytics.

Even though a recent survey show that "CMOs are overwhelmingly underprepared for the data explosion and recognize [the] need to invest in and integrate technology and analytics," a vast majority of my clients come in underutilizing or completely ignoring their clickstream analytics.

Most of them have Google Analytics installed already. It's free and most development or design firms will install it without even being asked. The simplest and most direct way of identifying poor usage is to look at the conversion reports. If there are no goals set up, that means they don't know how to use it properly.

GA-Wrong copy

What does this likely mean?

  • They're not getting any insights from how people are really using their site
  • They're not able to act on the information they're getting
  • Any action they take is likely to be grossly misinformed and based on the wrong information
  • Helping them here is a concrete way to demonstrate wins that will resonate with everyone in their organization and yours

This is a wonderful opportunity to start helping your clients get genuine insights into how their website affects their business. But only if you're prepared to dive in and learn something that may be a departure from your (perhaps) primary function as a designer. As a UX person who is responsible for solving user needs, you cannot ignore this rich source of direct user data. 

I'll have more to say on this in the coming months, but in the meantime, I would encourage you to read up on Avinash Kaushik at his blog, or read his flagship book, "Web Analytics 2.0."

- Cam Beck

 

 

 

January 22, 2013

Our Fickle Grief

What does how we mourn tell us about what we value?

According to an article I read this morning, published Jan 18, this season, 29 children in the United States have died from influenza. That is 9 more than were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre. Yet there were no flags flying at half-staff. There were no media hoards covering the heads-of-state making tearful speeches about this tragic loss of life. To the parents who lost their children, one tragedy is no worse than the other. The end result is a lost innocent life. 

It got me thinking about how and why we react the way we do to tragic events.

In 2009, a single gunman murdered 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, and wounded 29 more. Again, flags were flown at half-staff. Leaders gave moving speeches about the way they lived useful lives. Halfway around the world, there have been nearly 1,800 casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq between then and now. There were no special national days of rememberance for these who gave their lives willingly.

What makes one life more worthy of being remembered? Or 20 lives more worthy to be remembered than 29? Or 13 more than 1,800?

Why do we express outrage at mass shootings like Sandy Hook or Fort Hood, while we conveniently disengage when it comes to the everyday loss caused by acts no less evil, against victims no less innocent, and for deaths no less tragic?

Could it be that our speeches, our chest-thumping, our grandstanding is more about ourselves than the victims? About building for ourselves a better brand by capitalizing on concentrated tragedies rather than the everyday?

Maybe it gives us a greater sense of control over the narrative of the human experience... that if we can give meaning to the deaths, we think we can exert some sort of control the evil that lies in the human heart. 

I wish I had a clearer picture to paint. - Cam Beck

December 17, 2012

Newtown Tragedy: A Search for Answers

Newtown-ribbonLast week, I called for marketers to be more responsible in their efforts to move goods and services, by appealing to their better natures rather than their narcissistic or hedonistic tendencies. In light of Friday's massacre of 20 people, mostly children, it seems like a very prescient admonition.

It's difficult to wait for all the facts to come out before we decide on a direction. As we grieve, we want answers. We want solutions. We want a justice that is impossible to achieve here on earth, and we submit it to God to deal with in His way, trusting that He is wiser than we are. 

In such situations, perhaps a little perspective is warranted.

Stalin, Mao, and Hitler remind us that sometimes -- more often than we care to admit to ourselves -- evil people gain power and commit such grotesque acts of savagery that it makes Newtown look like a Sunday family picnic. Sometimes they get away with it, and sometimes they don't.

The difference between them is that sometimes good people of character, conscience and will, at great personal risk, steel and equip themselves to stand against them and for good.

No doubt, there were dozens of conditions that led up to the massacre on Friday. We will learn about them, albeit slowly, in the coming weeks. Everything from guns to mental health awareness to violent video games to "kicking God out of schools" will take its turn in the spotlight as the "real reason" we had to witness another event like this.

But when we abstract the principles involved, we know that evil happens in this world for two reasons: 1) We live in a fallen and rebellious world where people with selfish hearts tend to do evil things, both big and small, and 2) Not enough people are prepared to wage war against them (both figuratively before the fact and literally during it) in the precise moment of need. 

I have no desire to scapegoat marketing for the evils perpetuated in this world. I don't believe it's to blame, and I wouldn't suggest it is. However, what I would ask all of us to do is look deep inside ourselves and ask a tough question: In our personal and professional lives, are we conducting ourselves in a way that would discourage bad behavior and encourage good?

December 07, 2012

How to Ruin Your Reputation ... And (Partially) Redeem It

A few months back, I had a very negative experience with my energy company that cost me $1500 in unexpected electric bills. I was so frustrated and so sure of the righteousness of my cause that I nearly came out of my self-imposed exile from blogging to publically rip the company in violation rules 1-3 of my "10 Somewhat-Flexible Laws of Blogging About Companies."

  1. Never talk ill of a client or potential client.
  2. Almost everyone is a potential client.
  3. If you must violate rule #1, don't mention the company name.

I'm glad I didn't. Even though they never reimbursed those excessive fees, they eventually implemented a program to make sure my situation never happens again.

A Series of Unfortunate Electric Bills

In July, I received a bill that was about 4.5 times the normal amount (for activity in the month of June). Convinced this was a mistake, I called my electric company about it, and they advised me to have my meter re-read, and that it would take about 10 business days for this to take place, but that they would contact me when the read was done.

I did not hear from them again until I got my next bill, which was also 850% more than it was over the same period the previous year. At that point, I wrote them again on August 7 and asked why they hadn't let me know what the results of the re-read were so that I could look at different options. When they responded (2 weeks later after promising a 24-hour response), they said they never put in a request for a re-read.

While this was happening, I contacted my apartments to have them check my air conditioning to make sure everything was working right. They said it was, but that they cleaned the appliance regardless.

Whenever I called the electric company, instead of helping me figure out why my bills were so high, kept trying to sell me a fixed-rate contract. Sure, doing so would have saved me some money, but the scope of their "fix" would have saved me $10-$12 per month, not $500-$600, which is what I really needed. They had their script, and they were sticking to it. It took escalating the issue two levels before I got someone at the company to admit that something seemed "off" about my bill situation. 

In the middle of a brutal Texas summer, with my dog staying there and while the bill was in dispute, the electric company shut off power to my apartment to force me to pay at least part of the disputed bill (I later found out this was in violation of the Utility Customer Bill of Rights). 

How Energy is Delivered and Billed in Texas

Getting to the bottom of this, I got quite the education on how electricity is delivered and billed in Texas.

Essentially, the company that delivers electricity has nothing to do with how electricity gets billed, and the billing company (which can be one of several) is ready to lose you quickly, because customers are easily replaceable. It can be TXU, Reliant, Green Mountain or any other electric company. All they do is service the billing. Which you choose as a consumer is based on the rates and service you expect to get. 

Thanks to the help of a knowledgable friend, I finally found the real cause of the issue, I called the electric company and asked if they would help with the part of the bill due to their lack of responsiveness. They refused. Eventually I protested through regulatory channels, and a very small portion was refunded. 

Customer Service: It Is Your Job

I finally spoke with a representative of the office of the president in response to this official complaint, and suggested that they need to be more responsive and help people between bills realize if something is happening between billing periods. Not only did she disagree that their lack of responsiveness imparted on them any responsibility for three months of outrageous bills, but she directly told me that, regarding my suggestion that they notify people when their usage seems to spike 850%, "That's not what we do."

Then I took to Twitter, hoping to find someone higher in authority than the last person I spoke with.

The person who monitors their Twitter channel is a marketer, not a customer service person. She had no authority to help resolve the issues of customers, which only further frusterated me, because though she asked me to tell my story, she could not help. To her credit, she seemed sincere in her concern for my frustration (If she wasn't being authentic, she at least faked it well).

This interaction convinced me of the truth of what Oliver Blanchard wrote in Social Media ROI:

"Remember, it is easier to train a good customer support representative to use social media than to train an experienced social media user to be a good customer support professional."

As for the representative within the office of the president, she was just intent on getting me to pay three months of outrageously high bills, not helping me solve my issue or even making me feel heard. She took a very "That's not my job" approach, not only for herself, but also for their entire organization. Had she met me halfway, had she hinted that she understood why I was upset and her company's role in that frustration, my tone in this article would be much different.

So, normally I would have cut off ties with the company regardless. End of story. Although I'm better equipped now -- having learned an awful lot about how electricity works in Texas -- I had no faith that this is the company I wanted to do business with should I ever have any difficulty again.  Then the organization did something that suprised me.

They implemented my recommendation.

Now, I receive a weekly email between bills that tells me my usage for that week. And I am able to spot if something is amiss and don't have to wait an entire billing period -- while the meter is still running -- to discover it. 

Now, I don't presume that I was the first to provide that recommendation, or that they went through with it because of my issue. Something like that takes more time to develop and execute than they had from the time of my first complaint and suggestion.

So someone besides me had to have thought it was a good idea. But the value of that idea did not trickle down to the customer service reps or to the office of the president, or at least they had no interest at all in acknowledging it, or admitting I had a valid point.

Though if they had, I'd not only be naming the company, but praising them to my friends about how well the company treated me, how awesome this service is, and how they should use this company for electricity as well.

How much better could companies do if they only trained and empowered their customer service reps to treat people as people and not means to and end? If they trained them to listen instead of follow a script?

Update: See how a Virginia woman was charged (and is fighting) a $15,000 utility bill