close up of an older woman's hands
PHOTO: Cristian Newman

Five years ago, a widely quoted Gartner article predicted that “by 2016, 89 percent of companies expect to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience, versus 36 percent four years ago.” 

So how are we doing?

Customer Experience Is Currently Built for One-Size-Fits-Young

I’ve written before about some of the customer experience challenges that arise when organizations fail to think through the connections between systems, information and people.

But one neglected aspect of customer experience is set to grow into a massive problem over the next 10 years as boomers age: What happens when active technology users age beyond their ability to effectively use the customer support systems that are designed for those in their 20s and 30s? Despite all of the marketing hype about “personalizing” customer experiences, most CX initiatives are frankly more like one-size-fits-all. And that “size” is 20 to 40-year-olds.

My Curious Red Bag case study was focused on my 20-something daughter. This case study focuses on the other end of the age spectrum, my 87-ish mother (who is a pretty savvy iPad user), and the weekend I spent trying to cancel her mobile contract. Some background: she’s moving and needed to cancel a landline, mifi and cell contract she (actually, her now deceased husband) had set up with a leading phone provider (who will remain nameless ... for now).

Related Article: Which of the 3 Personalization Types Are You?

Once More Unto the Customer Service Breach

Mom did not get off to a good start. She called the 1-800 number and immediately descended into voice response hell (the 4.5 circle of Dante’s Inferno, between Greed and Anger). After a few tries she got connected to a real person, who promptly asked her for her phone number (which was, it goes without saying, the number she was calling on and the number she had already entered). He then asked for her 8-digit PIN (Eight digits? I thought the point of a PIN was to be easy to remember).

Uh-oh. Of course, she had no idea what the PIN was. She was surprised with the somewhat incongruous response. “Well, then, can you tell me the model of your first car?”

Assuming this was some sort of cognition test, she immediately responded, “A 1953 Pontiac Chieftain.” The agent asked her to repeat this, because he had never heard of this car. Not the Chieftain part (me too) but the Pontiac part. Alas, this was not the correct answer, because her now-deceased husband had set up the account and he evidently did not favor Pontiacs, not to mention Chieftains.

After a number of rounds on this, she asked to speak to customer service supervisor, and was told that there was none, perhaps exhibiting the flattest organizational structure ever recorded. At which point she hung up.

Fast forward a week. “Ma, did you cancel that account?”

“Well, I did tell them I wanted to cancel and then hung up on them.”


Given that I am a savvy technology pontificator, I took upon myself the challenge of cancelling this account.

I thought given the circumstances, this might be easier to do in person, so armed with my Power of Attorney (POA), marched off to the local store. Except that wasn't a “real” store, but a franchisee. Back in the car I go, off to a “real” store. Sorry, we can’t do this here, but let me connect you with customer "service." No, I don’t know the PIN. Yes, please do text it to my Mom’s phone. Sorry, our system doesn’t seem to be working, do you know what your Mom’s first car was?

We repeated the whole rigamarole again by phone and also online after a cranky tweet by yours truly. The valiant Twitter emergency support team for the phone company tried to help me end-run the damnable Pontiac by asking me for my Mom’s deceased husband’s social security number, which I managed to dig up. They promised a return call within 48 hours. It never came.

Related Article: The Demographic Your Digital Practices Can't Ignore

Time to Take a Good Hard Look at Your Personas

These kinds of scenarios are about to get much worse. There are 35 million people in the US who are 65 or older. Per the Pew Research Center, more than 90 percent of them have cell phones, 67 percent say they go online, a third say they use social media and over 40 percent have an iPad or other tablet.

Will new “customer experience” initiatives include this segment of the population? Will they include easy ways to cancel accounts once the time has past? Password bingo means the credentials and details for these accounts are scattered far and wide. Heightened awareness of hackers makes companies ever-more security conscious.

More broadly, how many customer experience initiatives seriously include a variety of personas beyond the usual — and most lucrative — suspects? How many recognize that there are at least four generations of technology users out there now, each with unique levels of comfort with automated systems? How many are sensitive to those with different cultural and language backgrounds? How many customer experience initiatives include those who are differently able? How many are Section 508 compliant?

A lot of organizations have a lot of work to do.