Stupid Forms and Other Communications

By Terry Calhoun

You may guess from the title this week that I am annoyed with something. That would be correct. A few weeks ago, my wife received an invoice for $167.52 for a package that was shipped from Florida to some overseas company via her FedEx account.

Unfortunately for FedEx, she d'esn’t have a FedEx account. She never has.

We took the invoice and carefully wrote out in bold ink that this was not her account, that she had not opened an account with FedEx ever, and that we expected FedEx to take care of the situation without further bothering us. Then we mailed it back to FedEx.

Yesterday we received a “response” to our “query” that consisted of a single sheet of paper, with very tiny places to complete bits of information like “Invoice Number,” “Shipped To,” “Shipped From,” “Nature of Query,” and so forth.

I’m afraid that I went ballistic. Partly because it was about 100 degrees on the “realfeel” meter, but partly because I have a short trigger regarding (a) poorly designed forms and (b) large, complicated companies that do their best to ensure that a consumer spends far more time dealing with an issue than the company itself has to.

This was a classic example of both.

As a form to collect data to respond to (click here for PDF of form), it was terribly designed. Some of the information we were asked for could possibly fit into a single, single-spaced, underlined spot about 2 inches wide. (I recommend that you open the PDF of the form and have it for reference while you read.)

For example, I could have fit the “Invoice Number” into such a space. But since I had sent back the invoice with my query written on it, I no longer had the invoice for the non-existent FedEx account, and could not provide that information.

Which I guess was OK because that information – the “Invoice Number” – was printed on the form about 1.5 inches below the space where I was being asked to provide it to FedEx.

Really, it just gets worse.

What’s this got to do with higher education and IT? Well, higher education has its own wealth of poorly designed forms and communications, and those forms and communications weave in and around and beneath the data collection and massaging that IT folks design and maintain.

Two of the reasons behind poorly designed forms, as I am sure most readers know, are (a) forms and communications designed by the geeks who happened to write the software and (b) forms and communications designed by someone who d'esn’t understand the software and the data involved.

Writing this week’s column, I have begun to wonder about a different category of poorly designed forms and communications. This is, “forms and documents intentionally designed to seem to be poorly designed.”

That’s what I think this FedEx form was. The verbal communications between myself and the folks I talked to at FedEx were pretty interesting, too.

We’ve already addressed the tiny little spaces provided for information. Things like the “Account Number” could possibly fit in there, but certainly not “Nature of Your Query.” It would have been hard to write “Nature of Your Query” into the space provided, much less a narrative explanation.

Asking for it also disregards the fact that I had stated the nature of my query fairly well in my first communication, which this was a reply to.

So, of course, I had to call. How did my telephone query go?

Well, the first person I spoke to did not loose his cool, and I was impressed. I think the conversation went like this:

FedEx: “What is your account number, please.”

Me: “I don’t have an account. Neither d'es my wife. This is about getting invoiced for something on an account we do not have.”

[Followed by chaotic confusion as I tried to reveal as little personal information about my wife and myself to someone trained to get as much as they could.]

[FedEx then points out each bit of data it has that matches my wife’s. Each time calling it “your wife’s account.”]

FedEx: “According to your wife’s account information…”

Me: “She d'esn’t have an account.”

FedEx: “According to your wife’s account…”

Me: “She d'esn’t have an account.”

FedEx: “According to your wife’s account…”


(Ever wonder why we seem to use “identity theft” instead of “identity fraud” for things like this? Short answer: “Identity theft” assumes something was stolen from me as opposed to something having been stolen from FedEx, meaning “I” have to do something about it. So d'es “Your wife’s account” instead of “This account with your wife’s name on it.” Hmm.)

I gave up and asked for a supervisor. It took a while. Someone came on and off the phone a couple of times and finally a manager introduced himself:

FedEx Manager: “I have your wife’s account right here in front of me.”

I have to admit that at this point I swore. I pointed out to the manager that while the person I had previously spoken to might not be able to say “this account with your wife’s name on it,” that I expected a manager would be able to do so. Then, amazingly:

FedEx Manager: “I have your wife’s account right here in front of me.”

Not a good start to the conversation. Luckily, it seems to have ended okay. By the time it was over I knew that (a) the account had been closed – even prior to my call, and (b) the manager thinks we won’t be bothered again.

What I think happened is that when I mailed the invoice back with a query written on it, the fact that it was a query kicked out an automated form. (The one I object to so much.) Then, someone actually read what I wrote, determined that it was not my wife’s account and cancelled it. However, the query response form had been already sent.

You would think that there’d be a note for the customer service guy who I first spoke to somewhere in the system, but nope.

Your university or college would not design forms like that on purpose, surely. However, you may have some unintentional ones out there. I hope that when communications processes, data processes, and the sending to and fro of forms processing is designed on your campus, there is some integration involved in the planning. It’s always nice if someone g'es through the whole flow and knows what the invoice has on it, and that matches what the computer records say, and that customer service looks at the same data, and that you are not asking people for information you already have printed on the form you are using to ask them.

I’m sure that no one on your campus is guilty of what I suspect to be the case at FedEx. Maybe its intent is to reduce second-tier follow through on complaints. I wonder what percentage of “fall offs” of complaints FedEx gets when it sends out that query response form?

Maybe it was very well designed, after all?

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