Does your clever customer service system negate your hard-won talent?

4 01 2011

31st December started for me with a dead motherboard. The new box I bought wouldn’t boot from my old hard drive, so I have spent a lot of time re-building my software installations. And even longer interacting with a range of software company customer support systems, on account of needing to reactivate software without having been able to deactivate the old installation first.

First, big hand for Microsoft. Fully automated system, yes I had to type in and then copy an awful lot of code groups, but they knew what I needed, their system worked and they didn’t make me hate them. (Which is a big change from a few years back; well done Redmond)

Now for the rest of you: what is the point in hiring capable people and then making them appear stupid because of the way your system works? For example, if you ask me to state the problem in a box before the chat starts, and if I actually take the time to give your agent all the details I know they will need, why on earth do you structure your system such that they then have to act as if none of that information has been given and go step by step through a scripted programme which is apparently based on the assumption that neither of us could tie our own shoe-laces unaided?

There are other gripes – the worst company (remaining nameless on this occasion) simply has agents identifying what needs to happen and promising that  they will; but has no system to keep them accountable for actioning things. Each time the live chat ended my support ticket was an orphan again. And even though I gave the ticket identifier each time I went back to them, each agent seemed unable to abandon the script and simply access what had gone before, so we had to start from first principles.

After 5 days I am more or less back in business, just slightly more deranged than I had planned to be at this point in the year. Big deal; except that this is not just about software support. It is entirely consistent with my every interaction with all of my banks, credit card processors, most government agencies etc etc. There is a long-running crisis in customer service, and it is based on a misunderstanding of how problems get solved. More and more effort is poured into systems projects which attempt to do what systems (as such) can never do – namely, deal with complex reality by trying to make it conform to a simplified template – and which (no surprise) run years over time and then only succeed in annoying customers and staff alike. (Read The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist if you want some serious insight into why this might be happen so consistently). Microsoft, in my example above, only succeeded because the system was designed to deal with one and only one very specific, well-defined problem.

So in 2011, if you want to make a difference to the world: hire great people and equip them with the tools they need to apply their intelligence to solving customer problems. Don’t think you can build a system to make them smarter; you will only drive us all further towards distraction.

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