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Ideas. Insights. Inspiration.

Retail Lessons from Service Ontario

Service Ontario offers a few valuable lessons for retailers.

Yes, you read that correctly... and I was as surprised to write it as you likely were to read it.

But stick with me for a few moments and you'll see what I mean.

On Saturday morning I received a call from an unknown number. I thought it was a spam call, mostly because it's very rare for anybody other than my parents to call me; everyone else who knows me well enough to call also knows I hate speaking on the phone so they text or email instead knowing that will get a faster and friendlier response. I didn't answer the call, I let Google screen it for me; it's one of a Pixel phone's very best features, in my opinion.

Surprisingly, the call was legitimate: it was Service Ontario calling to remind me my Health Card was due for renewal in 60 days.

Ah, that's right! I signed up for a phone call (and email and text) reminder when they first sent me a communication to let me know the free reminder service was available... I had completely forgotten about that.

Fortunately for me, Service Ontario didn't.

I didn't bother listening to the automated message. Instead, I Googled "renew health card" and the very first link returned was exactly what I needed.

Interestingly, it was a sponsored link: this means the Ontario Government paid Google to ensure they were at the very top of the search results even though Service Ontario is the only place an Ontarian can renew a Health Card online and the correct website appeared in four of the top five organic results.

Visiting the site, "Renew your health card online" was clearly visible right at the top of the screen; it would be difficult to miss the large blue button.

Screenshot of the Service Ontario website.

Clicking that blue button presented you with two ways to renew: using your Driver's License or your Ontario Photo Card.

I clicked the "Driver's Licence" option, which took me to something extremely unusual: a clear and concise "Terms of Agreement". It consisted of four subheadings containing a total of 15 bullet points, and everything was presented in easy-to-understand English instead of the typical legal jargon that fills most Terms of Agreement documents.

Once you clicked "I agree" using the large blue box at the bottom of the page, you had to answer a few basic questions ("Have you moved or changed your address in the last 90 days?") and provide your renewal and contact information. Without a hint of exaggeration, it took me longer to decide if I should renew my Health Card online ("So convenient!") or visit a Service Ontario location ("My photo is five years old... time for an update?") and then fetch my wallet after deciding to go the online route than it did to complete the online form.*

That's when I realized I could also renew my Driver's Licence at the same time. Not "after I was done renewing my Health Card", but simultaneously, given the exact same information was needed for both renewals. Coincidentally, that's about the exact moment I received a second phone call from an unknown number: it was Service Ontario again, this time reminding me that my Driver's Licence also had to be renewed within the next 60 days.

The Driver's Licence renewal cost $90, but that's no more (or less) than what an in-person renewal would cost, so renewing this document was an easy decision.

And then... I was done.

The website gave me an option to download a receipt (for the Driver's Licence renewal) and the documents I'd need until my new cards arrived.

You don't typically expect such efficiency from a government organization, but let's recap the lessons Service Ontario can offer any retailer looking to enhance a customer's experience:

1. Leverage Technology to Help Customers Be Successful (not just for their own benefit)

Service Ontario implemented a technology solution that let me sign up for reminders they figured I'd probably need. Does it benefit them to ensure Ontarians have up-to-date documents? Sure... but if you're caught with an expired Driver's Licence, it will cost you a fine ranging anywhere from $200 to $1,000 and requiring medical services without an up-to-date Health Card could result in a refusal of service, so it's safe to say the benefit is much more clearly enjoyed by the recipient than the provider.

2. Help Customers Find What They Need When They Go Looking For It

Byron Sharp, Professor of Marketing Science and Director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, suggests paid search is a lot like shelf space at a physical store: if executed properly, both help consumers find and acquire what they need.

When you go to the grocery store looking to buy a box of Frosted Flakes and the cereal shelf is empty, you either leave the store empty-handed or you're forced to spend time looking for something else that might meet your needs. Both options are less than ideal.

In the same way, when a consumer is searching for you online, you want to be easily found. That happens both by optimizing your website so that you rank well organically in search engine algorithms and by investing in paid search when you want to ensure you appear right at the top of the page.

Now, we can debate whether the paid search was necessary in this case given Service Ontario has zero competition when it comes to providers able to renew your Ontario Health Card and Driver's Licence. But I'd suggest the willingness to use paid search underscores a desire to ensure I found what I needed... that's not a good thing, it's a great thing.

3. Be Clear and Transparent

It's not uncommon for a business to use some form of Terms and Conditions; they're usually the paragraphs of barely legible fine-print hidden at the bottom of a document or website that are desperately hoping to go unread.

That's why it's so refreshing to see an organization making an effort not only to put the customer's rights and obligations front-and-center, but also to do so in a way that's concise and easy to understand. Satisfy both the legal team AND those who care about a great customer experience. Yes, it's possible!

4. Anticipate Customer Needs

When most businesses think about anticipating customer needs, they do so in the hopes that this will lead to additional revenue. That's perfectly acceptable, of course... but what about anticipating customer needs with the primary goal of making customer lives easier?

In Ontario, both your Health Card and your Driver's Licence need to be renewed every five years. So when I went to renew one, the website helpfully suggested I also renew the other, and then made it really easy for me to do that. Which brings me to the final lesson...

5. Be Efficient

This entire renewal process took far less time than I expected it to take, the almost inevitable result of clearly-communicated instructions and an optimized process flow: no unnecessary information requested or fields to complete, and no more clicks than were absolutely required. It was evident that some strong design-thinking was used in the development of the process and the website... and it isn't always clear this is the case with other retailers.

Simple lessons? Absolutely!

Which really makes you wonder why so many retailers clearly haven't learned them yet.


* In the end, I decided the old photo was better because my face today is only slightly thinner than it was five years ago but my hairline is significantly more receded.


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