Choice Architects I: Little Red Book

Iain Carruthers of ICM Unlimited, talks to Tim Green, Deputy Director Customer Experience and Insight of HM Passport Office (HMPO), about offering the right choice to British citizens

Like many other government departments, the work of the Passport Office flies under the radar of most British citizens.  But it’s a vital national service:  when you need a passport, you really need one. It’s either urgent, important, or both. So delivering this service in a way that’s efficient , citizen-friendly and secure is vital.  It’s a familiar issue to Tim Green, deputy director Customer Experience and Insight of HM Passport Office: ‘Applying for, or renewing their passport is something that is out of sight and out of mind for most people for about nine and three quarters years and then suddenly it becomes critical, and we need to be ready to offer a consistent and speedy service at that point’


“People want more choice. That doesn’t mean unlimited choice. They want choice that they can cope with. And the real science and art of that is… the confidence to pre-package those choices in the best possible way.” 


Every year HMPO issues around 6 million passports to British citizens. Since we’ve come out of the 2008 recession people are travelling more, and the UK population has also been growing so underlying demand has also been on the rise.


Now, then, here, there

One of Green’s goals is to give the right choice to people with very different needs. There are two principal elements here: product and channel. Product choice is straightforward: you can get a standard passport or a large one (for people who are frequent international travellers).

But the bigger issue around choice is the changing expectations of an instant gratification digital  culture. Customers want their passports to be delivered quickly and on their terms. ‘We’re having to recognise that people will say “Well I want it now, I want it then, I want it here, I want it there.” That sounds easy but if your organisation is built around delivering a product in a fairly systematic way, suddenly a whole new choice dynamic comes along,’ says Green.

Indeed, many traditional commercial brands have discovered to their peril that the speed and convenience offered by online retailers including Amazon has raised expectations of what good customer service looks like. Is HMPO facing similar challenges? The answer, according to Green, is yes and no. HMPO is a government agency which has to follow certain security processes, and therefore customer expectation is different. ‘People don’t tend to judge government services in quite the same way that they might in the private sector,’ he says. ‘Expectations are definitely rising though, as people become used to 24/7 operations, online self-serve tools, and fast turnaround services, and so government services like HMPO are definitely changing to meet these new demands’.


Nudging online

There is a key area where HMPO does have to manage consumer choice: the way in which a customer applies for a passport. The agency is encouraging application renewals and appointment setting online:  it’s easier for customers to use and easier for HMPO to work from: there are fewer mistakes and the information is cleaner, so passport turnaround time is quicker.

But how easy is it to persuade them to choose online as a channel? A third of customers will go online as soon as they know the service exists. Another third need to be ‘nudged’ in that direction, because they’re used to doing it by post. But about 15 to 25 per cent of the population, Green estimates, are resistant. ‘That’s the hardest group to move’ he says, ‘so we still have to provide a paper-based service.’ HMPO is encouraging people to move online as robust and user friendly services become available. Eventually, the majority of the population will use the internet for all transactions, but in the meantime, it’s a ‘much more complicated and interesting challenge to get the customer to make the choice to go online.’


The shipping forecast

At the UK Hydrographic Office, which produces navigational charts for ships and other nautical information (and where Green worked before HMPO) understanding the customer journey in order to influence customer decisions was crucial: ‘You could make the best charts in the world, but people were busy thinking about multimillion-pound shipping questions, not whether this chart was better than that one. So how do you make sure they notice your small but critical product? It was very unusual for a government agency to be thinking about users in that way, but that’s what we did.’

Green brought this learning to HMPO – and for the first time the passport office is analysing customer journeys for every type of applicant in a structured and systematic way. ‘It’s generally straight-forward to renew a passport if you’re a 45-year-old third-time passport owner, Green explains ‘because we will have undertaken all of the original proof of identity and eligibility checks, whereas for a first time applicant the checking process inevitably takes longer’. There are a surprising number of different customer journeys encompassing on and offline channels, UK and overseas applications, first time applications versus renewals and child versus adult applications. Each journey is different, sometimes significantly so, making for a significant number of permutations. The programme of end to end journey mapping is enabling HMPO to understand each customer need and then present the right choices.

What is the most important lesson Green has learned about consumer choice? ‘A lot of suppliers think people want a lot more choice – but actually they don’t. What they want is manageable choice.’ It’s up to the service provider to make the initial choices and pre-package them in the best possible way for the customer. And when it comes to passports, that is exactly what Tim Green and his team are doing.


What three things should all marketers know about choice?
  1. Think like a grumpy old man. Analyse every experience as a customer. Whenever I go to a restaurant, or on a train, a plane, a holiday or on any experience, I analyse it as a customer. Be the person who gives a damn about serving customers. Be critical.
  2. Think commercially. A lot of people, particularly people starting out in marketing, think the solution to any marketing or customer service issue is to spend money, to give customers whatever they want. You can’t do that. It doesn’t matter if you’re offering a government service or a profit-making one, you can’t be out of pocket. That for me is the challenge, that’s what makes the whole thing exciting.
  3. If you can reconcile those two things – if you can give the customer fantastic service and do it in a way that is cost-justifiable, then that’s the perfect outcome. It’s not good enough to say, ‘I can’t do that because…’ You have to. That’s the job.