Lessons from Jury Duty in white text of a background image of a gavel resting on a desk.

Alienating Customers, By Accident.

It’s easy to forget that your users may have never done this before.

This morning I reported for jury duty to my local small town courthouse. As I left the house I remarked to my wife that I was intrigued by the prospect of experiencing first-hand something I’d only seen in overly dramatized TV shows, and taking part in the process of the justice system.

That feeling quickly dissipated the moment I walked into the room I was told to report to, and the responsibility for squelching my budding enthusiasm falls squarely on a lady I’ll call “Peggy.”

Peggy sat at the front of a small courtroom, and a line had formed to speak to her. Not knowing with certainty that I was waiting in the correct line, I poked my head around the line to ask politely if this is a line for potential jurors. Peggy didn’t even look up from her current task and said “line’s over there.” It wasn’t outright grumpy, but there was more than a sliver of condescension packed behind her smile.

I sheepishly took my place at the end of the line.

Watching how others interacted with her, I readied myself for the questions: “Name? Juror Number? Daytime Phone Number?” No sweat: now that I knew how it was going to go, I could relax a bit.

When my time to talk to Peggy rolled up, she glanced me up and down and said (with a smile) “somebody didn’t read my note.”

Shoot. I was ready with my name, juror number and daytime phone number, yet here Peggy was throwing a wrench into the gears. I stammered “I… think I read everything that was sent to me…” and trailed off with sincere hope that she’d elaborate.

“No shorts in the courtroom” she said with a half-smile, making eye contact with my left kneecap.

Ma’am, my face is up here.

“Oh, my mistake. Do I need to go home and change?”

“You’ll never make it back in time. Just don’t do it again. Take this card and go sit with the others.”

Whew. First interaction was a little rough, but now I was safely seated in my pew, waiting on the next set of instructions. While sitting there, no fewer than 6 people repeated my “is this the right line” routine with Peggy (two of them were not, in fact, in the right line) and one other gentleman got the “shorts” talking to.

Three things became clear, the longer I watched Peggy:

  1. She seemed to actually enjoy her job. People who followed all instructions were treated kindly, and she cracked jokes with coworkers and was pleasant.
  2. She seemed very efficient, and good at what she does.
  3. She had completely forgotten what it felt like to walk into this room for the first time.

Even if this is the 10,000th time you’ve told a customer something, this is that customer’s first time hearing it.

Based on the reaction I got from her, if you asked Peggy what her least favorite part of her job is she’d say “people not reading the letter I send them and showing up unprepared.”

I get it, I really do: one of my least favorite parts of my job is folks who don’t read the documentation. I legit thought I had read everything, but apparently I missed the dress code.

First impressions matter, though. Walking in and being greeted with two separate moments of uncertainty (not to mention flippant and rote reactions) immediately mentally put me on defense. What had been some mild anticipation and even excitement about serving on a jury transitioned immediately to an almost fight-or-flight reaction. I felt neither welcomed nor informed, and that made me want to leave. Handy for Peggy: I was required by law to stay, and if I left she could literally send the sheriff after me.

Your customers are not required by law to stay. When they reach out with your least favorite question, the one you’ve gotten so many times you can only barely suppress an eye-roll, they are not actually trying to ruin your day. When they show up wearing metaphorical shorts despite your best efforts to tell them not to, lead with welcome. It’s not personal, they just didn’t read the docs.

It might feel good to make a flippant remark about the dress code, or their reading comprehension skills, or something. Just know you’re putting them on the defensive, instead of moving them toward whatever the goal is (resolved technical issue? purchase? becoming a positive review on the site?). You’re pushing them out the door, at the exact moment you could be welcoming them, and setting them up for success.

You've probably forgotten what your customer is feeling, and it's costing you. Don't be like Peggy. Share on Twitter

Also, (and this might have also been in the letter about my kneecaps, so no faulting Peggy completely) make as sure as possible that every step of your customer’s journey is documented in advance, as though they’ve never done it before. “You’ll hear back from us immediately with an auto-reply that confirms we got your message, followed by a 2-4 business hour first response from a technician” goes a lot farther than “Thanks, we’ll be in touch.”

Repeat yourself over and over, because sometimes folks don’t read. Make a video, do a screencast, take a screenshot. The more someone knows what’s coming, the better they will receive virtually any type of news. Set realistic expectations!

The more you can remove from “things my customer is actively thinking about” the better. For me, once I knew that I was about to be asked name, juror number, and phone number, did you see what immediately happened? I relaxed a bit.

I had just finished going through courthouse security, my belt buckle causing a beeping incident in the metal detector, not knowing what room I was supposed to be in, not knowing what line I was supposed to be in, and my mask repeatedly fogging up my glasses. When Peggy introduced the concept of “the note she sent me” she may as well have been speaking a different language.

I didn’t end up serving on a jury today, but I got a fresh reminder that it’s so very easy to forget what it was like to do something for the very first time.

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