Help your customers to give you the information you need

A few weeks ago, before she was to leave for college, we discovered that our older daughter, Elise, needed a medical insurance card. I logged onto the Web site for Independence Blue Cross (IBC), and it prompted me to enter information about my daughter. One particular piece of information involved our membership number. When I looked at my own card for the membership number (which is the same as Elise's because we're covered by my wife's plan), I found, below my name, a character string of three letters followed by several numerals. When I looked at the web site field that asked for membership number, I saw the following:

  • an image of a medical insurance card
  • an indication of the member number
  • instructions to enter only numbers for the membership number, and to ignore any letters.

Using that specific instruction, I entered her membership number and successfully printed a temporary card.

In an article download I wrote, about avoiding e-mail blunders, I told how Professor Woodward, who taught me contracts, always said that an attorney should make it easy for the judge to rule in that attorney's favor. The IBC site followed that advice. It anticipated issues that customers might have, in this case that they would enter both letters and numbers. The site addressed this issue via a message telling customers to enter only the latter. The message reduced the chances of incorrect input, delays and customer frustration.

When you deal with callers over the telephone, or are preparing documentation, think about this IBC web site interaction. Make it easy for the customer to give you the information you need. Are you looking for an error message code? If you know where it is on the screen, tell the customer. Does the code have a specific syntax, for example one letter followed by six numbers? Tell the customer, because there may be a number of codes on the screen.

When prompting the customer to enter information in a field, say how you want the information formatted. Do you want the dashes in a Social Security number, telephone number or date? If it's the latter, do you want slashes instead? How many characters in the year: two or four? I realize that the well-designed application will edit the input fields, and flag errors. However, it's better for everyone to avoid those errors in the first place, and to be clear with your customers on the formatting. Besides, even if the error is caught by the edit process, the resulting error message might not be clear enough for the customer.

By helping your customers give you the information you need more quickly, you make things easier both for them and for you.