Modern Human: Project Phoenix - Service Design for Tesco Bank

A leading UK bank asked our design practice to partner with them to design a complaints experience that would turn customers who have had their complaint resolved into advocates; empower customer service representatives to do their jobs more efficiently, and identify opportunities for long-term service improvement.

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A leading UK bank asked our design practice to partner with them to design a complaints experience that would turn customers who have had their complaint resolved into advocates; empower customer service representatives to do their jobs more efficiently, and identify opportunities for long-term service improvement. The result was a strategic service redesign that has addressed the root causes of complaints, reduced the time taken to resolve a complaint by 63%.

The bank has over 5.6 million customers in the UK and is wholly owned by one of Britain's biggest supermarket retailers. It offers a full range of personal banking and insurance products. Customer Service Representatives in their UK contact centres provide service 24 hours, 7 days a week.

The client recognised that a complaint is a moment of truth in the customer experience. Handled poorly, a complaint is a source of worry that turns to frustration: it sours the relationship with a customer. The Bank is committed to delivering outstanding customer service so they asked us to work with them to improve their complaint service to align with their organisation’s values. They wanted to put customers at the heart of a service based on a framework that focused on taking ownership, making a human connection and building long-lasting customer relationships.


We established a pop-up design studio in the contact centre in Glasgow bringing together a multi- disciplinary team from across the bank. Successfully resolving complaints takes a knowledgeable and empowered team of customer service representatives, backed up by complaint resolution experts and supported by experienced managers. Recognising this we bought together the customer service representatives (CSRs) who take customer calls; customer relations officers (CROs) who specialise in handling complaints; UX designers from the bank’s internal design team; the bank’s Head of Customer Care; their Customer Services Director and their Head of Digital and Marketing Strategy.

We utilised an ethnographic research approach and applied multiple methods to explore the everyday experiences of customers and complaints handlers. The research was carried out to understand the nuances and drivers of complaint experiences. We were focused on the familiar; the routines and practices that people have developed for difficult conversations, whether it was customers complaining or colleagues handling complaints. We sought to understand how people’s relationships and routines embody the beliefs and values that drive their behaviour, attitudes, and opinions. The research used 8 approaches:

Check: The bank’s team listened to over 400 customer complaints calls, identifying the root cause of each complaint and understanding the context and origin of the customer’s complaint. They analysed the Bank’s processes for handling complaints, using complaint data to measure the effort taken in each step and the variance between outcomes. This process fed into the current state service blueprint.

Current-state service blueprint: We wanted to take a thorough and detailed look at the current service. We built on the Check process to create a working service blueprint of the current complaint experience. The process was fast: working from the existing process maps meant that we could create a service blueprint in a matter of days.

Complaint Deep Dive: In order to gain even more insight, we took a deep dive into a series of specific complaints. We listened to every call and read every correspondence related to each of these complaints. We wanted to understand the perspectives of everyone involved, so - setting our preconceptions aside - we interviewed every customer service representative and complaint resolution expert that had been involved in the complaints in some way. We then interviewed the customer who had made each complaint.

Internal Interviews: We interviewed the 30 customer service representatives and customer relations officers involved. We wanted to see complaints from both sides, and to understand how their approach, perceptions and expectations shaped the discussion and eventual outcome. We were keen to learn from customer service representatives experiences and provided a clear picture of their day-to-day jobs. It gave us a deep understanding of their values, frustrations, motivations and personal objectives in relation to their roles.

Customer interviews: We conducted 20 x 60-minute depth interviews with the customers in order to hear about each complaint from their own perspective. This enabled us to understand their relationship with and perception of the Bank’s brand, how they felt their complaint was dealt with and their expectations of complaints processes in general.

Colleague workshops: Call handlers were invited to a series of codesign workshops looking at a variety of elements in the complaints experience. These activities were well received as they helped colleagues feel involved in the process of creating outcomes rather than just being told the outcomes at the end (what they said they would have expected from previous experience). In total over 122 colleagues were involved in these workshops.

Service Pilots: Pilots enabled us to test concepts whilst identifying any issues or barriers within the organisation which may impact future initiatives.

We used our human-centred service design method to set out a new way to handle complaints. Our service design identified and addressed four areas: the customer experience; systems and processes within the Bank; the culture of the Bank and the physical working environment of the contact centre. It improved the way complaints are triaged; reduced the number of people handling each complaint; used all of the channels available to the Bank in the most appropriate way. The process also proposed new training to encourage call handlers to independently apply emotional intelligence to the way they handle complaints.The whole process took 15-weeks from initial briefing meeting to final handover.

During our design research we were struck by the psychology at play. For the customer making a complaint is often stressful. Equally for the person taking the call, the situation is stressful too. Stress invokes an autonomic physiological response: the body releases adrenaline and cortisol. This creates a fight or flight response in which problem-solving capability and lateral thinking are restricted. This is the complex human context in which any complaint takes place: two people whose logical reasoning is potentially impaired by stress and who are under significant cognitive load.

Armed with this information, we made reducing the cognitive load of customer service representatives one of the priorities of our service design. We created a concept for a new colleague desktop that would minimise cognitive friction and provide additional support to front-line call handlers and complaints resolution experts. Simplifying processes and systems and providing additional support, we enabled customer service representatives to have more effective conversations with customers.

A deep analysis of our design research, coupled with multiple other datasets, also helped us to understand the factors that shape a customer’s expectations. This model included the optimum way to approach the complaint, as well as how the customer’s expectations of their bank change at moments of crisis.

We followed an iterative design process, piloting a number of new ideas, interventions and improvements, measuring their impact and influence, and iterating them. These pilots enabled us to test concepts whilst identifying any issues or barriers within the organisation which may impact future initiatives. We ran a total of 8 pilots during the design process. These included piloting new QA metrics for customer service representatives; sending a handwritten apology to customers in a greetings card; and removing guidelines for levels of customer compensation.

The pilots were designed to be as quick and easy to implement as possible to maximise the time we spent learning about the possible solution. For example, in the case of the handwritten apology: we walked down to our local supermarket and bought a selection of ‘I’m Sorry’ greetings cards. We asked a selection of CROs to send them when they felt it was appropriate with a handwritten apology.

This simple pilot proved several things. First given a greetings card and free reign the CROs wrote carefully considered, genuine, heartfelt apologies to customers and felt better for doing so. Second, receiving a greetings card and apology changed how the customer thought about their complaint and remembered the Bank’s response. NPS was significantly higher for those who received a card.

In every pilot, we formed a hypothesis about the effect the pilot would have and specified accurate metrics for how we would measure the change to the behaviour and outcomes for both customers and colleagues. The objective from every pilot was to learn about its effect in order to iterate the design of the service. Some pilots succeeded and provided evidence that we could show the business, some failed but provided vital learning about what we needed to do to succeed.


This project delivered: a strategic framework; a set of service principles; a series of experience maps; a service blueprint and service specification for the new service; a concept for a new Colleague Desktop; a new operating model and a 90-day roadmap to deliver the new service.

The strategic framework provides a brief to guide the design and delivery of the complaints experience. It is a North Star; a set of guiding statements that describe how the service should be delivered. In addition we provided a set of 6 Service Principles to guide the action of customer service representatives and customer relations officers. Each principle was supported by an explanation for how that principle should guide an individual’s actions.

Experience Maps allowed us to create a high-level description of the target experience that we wanted the service to deliver. The service blueprint added detail of how this experience would actually be delivered by the Bank. It became an operational tool to describe the flow of the new service. It was split into seven service elements, covering: how complaints should be handled by customer service representatives; who receives the initial complaint request; how the complaint should be transferred to a dedicated complaint handling expert; how complaints should be investigated and resolved with customers; communicating with customers; staff performance management in relation to complaints; and how the Bank should use complaints as a source of feedback for improving services and propositions.

The service blueprint was accompanied by a service specification that describes exactly how the service is delivered, and has sections which detail every aspect of the complaint process. The new complaint experience was underpinned by a new operating model which described the complaints triage model, new team structure, tactics for handling spikes in demand, and an efficient escalation process. We worked with the management team to plan an implementation roadmap for the new complaints process within 90 days.


The benefit of this project for our client and their customers has already been significant. More complaints are being resolved to the customer’s satisfaction and they are being resolved faster. 41% more complaints are being resolved to the customers satisfaction and the time taken to resolve a complaint has been reduced by 63%. This elevates the good existing customer service of the bank to being great.

One of the Customer Relations Team Leaders from the Bank describes the impact of the redesigned service on Customers: “The positive impact the project has had on customers is fantastic. Their complaints are being investigated and responded to much quicker, reducing the negative emotion we used to see. There are fewer touch points, faster resolutions and increased customer satisfaction. Using the triaging model is allowing us to get back to customers who require a quicker response which is helping with the negative emotion and their relationship with us. Customers are more satisfied with our response times and outcome.”

The new service design for complaints minimised the number of people who touch a complaint. Wherever possible complaints should be solved during the first call with a customer. From a customer perspective, having fewer people involved in their complaint means faster resolution. Having multiple contacts can erode confidence, increases the likelihood that customer has to repeat an explanation of the issue and increases the chance of inconsistency or poor communication between individual call handlers. Reducing the number of people who handle an individual complaint improves the speed with which complaints can be dealt with and provides a better customer experience.

More complaints are now handled at first point of contact. This means that customer complaints are handled by the first person that a customer speaks to: no getting transferred around; no waiting on hold. The Bank’s Customer Relations Manager describes the changes in the process: “When a customer makes a complaint, frontline staff are engaged and trying to resolve the complaint on that call to make for a better customer experience. Where this isn’t possible, their complaint is being triaged in order to respond to their complaint in the right timescale for the individual customer and their circumstance. We are resolving their complaint much quicker and within the timescale we set with the customer and we have progressed on to using SMS and email to deliver updates and outcomes to customers.”

Across all categories of complaint, the average time to resolve a complaint has reduced by 63%. Some complaints cannot be solved at the first point of contact. They are more complicated and need time to investigate. The new complaint experience is underpinned by an improved triage model. This prioritises complaints according to severity and urgency to the customer.

Even in these cases, the Bank sets realistic expectations with the customer and keeps them informed about the progress of the complaint. In the 6-months that the redesigned service has been in operation there have been 0 (zero) instances where a customer has asked to speak to a manager in order to get their complaint dealt with faster.

The Customer Relations Team are now organised into teams that address each severity. One of the Customer Relations Team Leaders from the Bank describes the impact of this: “We have been able to change how we serve our customers who have complained. We are triaging the severity of their situation and responding to them within timescales that are tailored to the customer and the average time to resolve their complaint has greatly reduced allowing the colleagues to focus more on the customer and their conversation rather than managing built up negative emotion.”

Customer Service Representatives feel that they can dedicate their time to the complaints they are experts in and know how to resolve. There is a comfort that more timely & complex investigations can be referred to the Customer Relations Team straight away. Customer Service Representatives have said: “The process is more aligned to meeting the time-sensitive needs of some customer complaints”; “I feel more confident handling complaints” and “The engagement from the redesign team was excellent and everyone felt knowledgeable and equipped to deal with complaints under the new process”

The complaints experience uses all of the channels available to the Bank in the most appropriate way. For example: if a call handler arranges to call a customer and they don’t answer, the call handler should leave a voicemail with a way of calling them back directly. If their call is not returned, they should try again. After they have retried a number of times, sending a text message asking the customer to call them would follow modern communication etiquette.

We designed new complaints training that focuses on skills that positively influence successful outcomes like principled negotiation, objection handling, providing clear explanations. The new training encourages call handlers to apply their emotional intelligence. They now actively listen out for clues as to how the customer is feeling, acknowledge the customer’s emotions and respond successfully to address those negative feelings. This human response to a customer who is upset, angry, frustrated, embarrassed or feeling stupid elevates the customer experience and prevents the complaint growing in significance in the customer’s mind. The emotion is dealt with and diffused as early as possible, especially if it will take time to resolve the issue to prevent the issue feeling worse over time.

Customer feedback on the new complaint process has already shown us that customers feel more valued, with one customer stating: “because of how you have handled this I want to withdraw my complaint...You have stopped me taking this further.” Another customer described their interaction with the Bank customer service representative as “very courteous and respectful...I am extremely satisfied at your swift action.”

Colleagues have felt the benefit of the new training, with CSRs reporting that they feel more confident and better equipped to deal with complaints under the new process. The negotiation and complaints handling training programme we designed has been positively received by front-line staff. One of the Customer Relations Team Leaders from the Bank describes the impact of this: “We have designed and are introducing new training to help with negotiation and influencing skills for colleagues to help with their conversations with customers alongside coaching modules that will be accessible to all colleagues who deal with customers complaints.”

The service redesign for complaints includes feedback mechanisms to other parts of the organisation and a better aligned measurement framework for complaints to address these issues recognising that a complaint was often a symptom of a broader problem. The project will have impacts into the future. The Bank also has a new complaints system based on the requirements set out in the service blueprint and service specification. At a senior level, the project has proved that service design could be applied successfully within the Bank and have tangible outcomes. Executive Leadership at the Bank are taking service design seriously as a way of achieving business objectives and are directly involved in future projects.


The project has had clear and quantifiable benefits to the bank. The service redesign has addressed the root causes of complaints, reduced the time taken to resolve a complaint by 63%. 

It has increased the number of complaints resolved at the first point of contact and improved the experience for those that cannot be through better internal processes, better communication with the customer and better training for customer service representatives and customer relations officers. They feel more confident and empowered.

The process has involved senior stakeholders in service design. They see this as a way to solve business problems in the future and have launched a number of new service design projects as a result. It has also demonstrated the importance of bringing front-line staff and their managers together with designers to solve these types of problems. It’s been a positive outcome for us, for the client, for their customers and their staff.

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