October 17, 2014

How not to solve systemic problems

Organizations generally try to find the nicest, most empathetic people for their customer service department. It’s way, I think, of placating customers without really fixing the problem.
The people at the front desk at Charter (our local cable company), Comcast (in spite of their occasional cement headedness), Social Security, Metlife, and other are very nice. It’s hard to get mad at them, even when they’re explaining something that clearly went kablooie.
My iPad app for our local paper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, stopped working the other morning. I was unable to sign in, even though my account was good on their website. Among other things, when I was trying to figure out what was going on, I received this vexing message.

I sent an email to their customer service address and received no response. Twenty-four hours later, I called and talked with a very nice woman who explained that a) my account number was linked to an old address that was no longer valid after we moved in June and b) everything was all set now, except that I’d have to wait another 24 hours before I could use the iPad app.
A day before I can use an app?! That’s frickin’ nuts. The person on the line was very nice.
We had a similar incident with Metlife, where an important document was sent to our old address and returned (presumably because the envelope said not to forward it). No one at Metlife thought to contact our agent or to call us on the phone numbers we had listed with our account. The transaction just dropped into a bureaucratic black hole from which neither light nor reason could escape. The person on the customer line was very nice in explaining what had happened.
Seth Godin writes that the lowliest employee in an organization is an ambassador. Theirs is a hard job. “They apologize. Not for things they did wrong, but for things that others did wrong.” Ambassadors can only be successful if the messages that they receive from customers are moved back up the chain of command, such that the originating problems are fixed. If you hire nice and empathetic people whose job it is to mollify the irate customer time and time again and have no mechanism to learn from those people, you will burn out those employees and lose customers. Unless, of course, you’re so big that you don’t have care.