At some point in our lives, we all go through the challenge of moving, and it isn’t a whole lot of fun, even when it should be. You have to find a place to move, make offers, secure loans and income verification… all that fun stuff that you swear to yourself you’ll never go through again because it’s such a hassle.  For me, it’s not the boxes, the upheaval of routine, or even the challenge of dealing with all the administrivia that seems to pop up just when you think all the paperwork is in order. No. What I dislike most is changing my address for subscriptions, financial accounts, and other services.

At some point we all have to go through the basic task of updating our personal information with a company. It’s simple self-service task, right? You log in to your account, click on a link that says “change mailing address,” input your new information, and move on. You may even get a reassuring email confirming that your information has been changed.  It seems so simple — and in this day and age it should be. But why, then, do companies make it so hard to change your address online?

In the past week I must have gone through the process at least 20 times and found a range of problems including:

  • Username/password recovery problems. It’s hard for users to remember passwords for accounts they don’t log in to regularly (a life insurance policy, for example), especially when the password requires a combination of capital letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Compounding the problem are password recovery questions that are opinion based, such as “What’s your favorite sports team?” Depending on the season, the answer to this question might be very different. For one of my own accounts, complex character requirements and the inability to use any of the last 5 password choices I had pretty much guarantee that I’ll have to request a password reset every time I try to use the site. At another account with my phone company, I needed both my email address and my account number to reset my password. Funny thing was, I was logging in specifically to find my account number so I could transfer my phone number to my new provider.
  • Buried and poorly performing functionality for updating personal information. At some magazine sites I was baffled by how complex it was to find an account log-in. It must have taken me 2 full minutes to find the link on the Sports Illustrated site. And at one site when I entered my new street name, it automatically removed information on my city, state, and ZIP code, which I didn’t realize until I got a message telling me there were fields left blank. (We’re moving within the same town.) Add to that the myriad errors I got at sites when I submitted my information, and I’ll be shocked if I actually get half the mail that’s intended for me. The irony is that I do most of my account management online, which is why the poor performance of the online tools was so frustrating.
  • Inadequate feedback. While a couple of my financial institutions like Chase and Bank of America sent me confirmation emails to make certain I had requested the change and wasn’t a victim of fraud, others sent no verification at all. Worse, several sites themselves gave poor confirmation messages like “your form has been submitted.” Ok, but has my address been changed in the system? That’s what I really want to know.

It’s pretty simple to model losses from having these problems with such a simple task as changing an address. What is essentially a no cost transaction online can cost several dollars for each time it’s done over the phone — not to mention the damage done to reputation when customers get so frustrated that they’re cursing at their screens (guilty!) and the convoluted IVR prompts they get on the phone (see “cursing”) when they call to make a simple address change. In a world where companies are chasing ideas like “surprise and delight” they have to remember to get the basics right. How can you surprise and delight someone with a free product sample if you can’t keep track of where they live?

So what should firms do?

  1. Adopt password requirements commensurate with risk. Financial accounts should have strict requirements and more challenges for reset than a subscription site that doesn’t store financial information.
  2. Provide clear and prominent links to self-service functionality. On a magazine site, this might mean a link to “subscription services” or “manage your subscription” on the home page. For a bank, a clear link to “change mailing address” inside a section called “account information,” “profile,” or some similar section will do.
  3. Confirm the change. Don’t just say that a form was submitted. Let users know that they have changed their information, what information they have changed, and when it will take effect. Do that on the site, and send an email so your customers have a record of it.