Stop Blaming the Systems

The next time a customer service rep says, “The computer won’t let me do that” or “The system tells me what to do,” remember this: Behind every such phrase is a set of processes designed, or at least endorsed, not by computers but by human beings somewhere in the corporate hierarchy. The system may tell the reps what to do, but someone told the system what to do. (I borrowed this paragraph from this post:

And when people say “it’s the systems we use”, what they mean to say is “this is what our culture says is okay”.

And that’s why I believe that how customer service happens at a company says everything about the company.

Recent personal examples:

Staying at the AlderBrook Resort outside of Seattle on 4th of July weekend, the fire alarm in the building kept going off. It was the first day of a much-needed vacation and so at first I asked the staff at lunch and then again on the grounds, who shrugged their shoulders. I then went on their facebook page (cause I was being lazy enough to not walk to the front desk) and asked ‘what was going on?’. 5 minutes later, no joke, that post was removed. So they were paying enough attention to delete the post, but not enough to solve the problem cause the fire alarm went off shortly thereafter. Were they interested in fixing the problem, or keeping a client? By their response, I think they were more focused and worried about making themselves look good. All the marketing promise of a “relaxing, pampering” resort goes out the window when you realize they’ll cover up a mistake. Makes a customer start to wonder, what else they are covering up? I started to do research to see if there was a problem at the hotel, and quickly found an embezzlement story. I wouldn’t have done that if they had answered my question, or sent someone to the room, or maybe even sent me a 15 minute massage appt to decompress from the fire alarms. My family and I have gone there for 6 years. We’re talking about new plans. And we talked about the experience of the hotel to all our Bainbridge friends when they asked how our Alderbrook time was. They became the villain of the story not because of the initial problem, but because of their subsequent approach.

HootSuite still used an old email address from years ago when I had piloted the application. I wanted to use my newer email address so I didn’t have a problem as I finally obsolete the Rubicon email address. It took 7 escalations, and 46 hours of people apparently not reading what I actually wrote down… to get it resolved. I kept repeating the same data until they read it. The issue? Their database wasn’t synching correctly, and I was the one to tell them that. How happy was I that it solved? Decent, but I would have been much happier if it didn’t require an intervention online. It shouldn’t require me to have 8000 followers, friends in high places, a Klout score of 73, to get a decent customer service response. (nonetheless, thanks, Ray. I’m pretty sure it would never have gotten solved without you). Yes, I still use them, but I am wary of them now.

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I recently wanted to shut off our television / cable service from Comcast. To join the service, you can get 24×7 support. To edit the account, you need to call during business hours. To join the service, you can do it online. To edit the service (and remain a customer), you need to talk to a person. After 4 different attempts to do it, I finally tweeted something about it. I hate it when I do this online disparaging cause it’s just stupid to spend my energy or anyone’s energy to point out the flaw in customer service. Within seconds, though, I got connected with a #comcastcares representative whose main goal it seemed was to get me to shut up. They promised to resolve it but they couldn’t just do it by just doing it. No, after many efforts, they made me sit on a phone while they tried to convince me for 8 minutes straight (yes, I am anal enough to time this stuff) that I needed cable. 8 minutes of pure selling. It not seem like a lot but here’s the deal: they spent so much money trying to keep me as a customer by holding on tight, rather than letting me have an experience as I (the customer) needed it. This is to put it mildly, backassward. Why they couldn’t let me just shift off my service? Well, you know the answer: #comcastcares.

My sister writes me an email in this same window to learn how to shut off home phone service (since I tweeted about it) and I sent her detailed notes to navigate the process of shutting off Vonage. Which is cumbersome, to put it lightly. And if a friend asked if I would recommend Vonage, I would tell them that they ought to have a plan with a proctologist to figure out how to get out of their arrangement. And I almost want to throw myself in front of people who keep using Posterous because they are building community on a site that won’t let you take “your” content or subscribers with you. (Yes, I’m talking to you, TEDChris, Nancy Duarte, and Brene Brown.) Posterous has a “you can check yourself in, but you can not check yourself out” strategy. Aka, the Hotel California. These businesses operate on a notion of lock-in, which is predicated on customer acquisition but not about satisfaction. Their interest wins out over consumer interests, every time.

In the same email my sister asks about my insurance policy — who do I use? I spend 3 paragraphs telling her how amazing my State Farm agent, Dennis Whittaker is. I tell her that I wouldn’t leave him even though I pay a premium because I basically know Dennis would take a bullet for me if I needed his support. I tell her the story of losing a bracelet in London and having him personally write a check for me the week I come back. He dealt with the claim forms and paperwork. He just knew I wanted the sentimental bracelet replaced quickly because of something my husband had inscribed on the inside; an exact replica was on my hand within a week. I talk with the same enthusiasm of Todd Lohenry of Elevation who is one of the best web people with a strong expertise in SEO/SEM work, but what I mostly talk about is how he is always there to help his customers be awesome in a way that is above, and beyond any transaction. Not only do I know I get great insurance coverage or website work, I know I have people who will stand by me, their customer. And so I can freely recommend them because I know they will take care of my friends, colleagues, and family. How people behave after they have the proverbial check shows me who they really are.

And my final story is an interesting one because it shows a platform I would invest in now based on my first experience …

Zemanta, the content recommendation engine I use on WordPress was first deployed by Todd Lohenry. For whatever reason I couldn’t log out and create a new account so that it had my preferences (not Todd’s) to utilize it better. I was pretty sure it was 50% user error, so I was even a bit embarrassed in this case to ask for help. However, it turned out that Zemanta uses GetSatisfaction. And while it took them a day to get back to me, a very smart person gave me a follow-able set of directions to get it solved for me, the novice. I have to admit I wasnt sure how this would turn out… and an acquaintance, Wendy Lea is their CEO so I was hoping it wasn’t a disaster. Better than that, it turned out that Get Satisfaction service was amazing. The platform is seamless in letting the user track what was going on, and I got the sense that companies that use GS take service seriously. Meaning, they actually care. Imagine that.

The Bottom Line:

We consumers can see what kind of company you are by how you treat us when things are tough. Do you delete comments or come back to fix the core situation? Do you make it hard for customers to get a refund or do you buy goodwill? Do you make people go through hoops or do you make it easy for your customers?  The greatest story ever told about your business will be about this:  how did you handle things when choosing between your interests or ours, and how you ended up realizing you can do both at the same time. That is what a culture of innovation is about. Ultimately how we take care of customers, ala service, can be a real source of market power.

11 Replies

  1. Love this post, Nilofer. It’s time that more businesses see that service and sales are part of a whole.

  2. Great post – and this bit is the pull-quote” “…how did you handle things when choosing between your interests or ours, and how you ended up realizing you can do both at the same time.”

    Applies to business – and to so much else.

  3. Thanks for the post, Nilofer. This is right on the money. As a customer experience and design specialist, I see the kinds of bad experiences you describe increasingly more often. It’s baffling for the reason you mention: we consumers ultimately will think less of your company and brand if we’re treated wrongly.

    It can’t be intentional, though, can it? Instead, it seems like companies just don’t realize what they put customers through. I’ve been working on a concrete antidote companies can use called “alignment diagrams.” These aren’t new, but can help companies see themselves from the outside in. (see for example:

    But there are also some really good customer service stories out there, too. Just returned a defective Kindle to Amazon in minutes with no hassle.

    I’m thinking of writing an article on this broader issue. Hows this for a title: “It’s the customer experience, stupid!” 🙂


    1. Perfect title. All of this “stupid” stuff we do is when we are being role-fillers rather than value-creators. I’ll take a look at the PDF (downloaded) but swamped for a bit. Thanks for including it as a resource.

  4. Beyond customer service what you are describing is based on consciousness of an organization. Many of the bad experiences described are based on overly process based companies which sacrifice employee empowerment for repeatable process. Repeat the problem as many times as you like, if it falls outside the bounds of the process or script, your concern is falling on deaf ears.

    The good experiences, especially the example of your amazing insurance agent, are based on evolved organizations with a high degree of consciousness. These businesses are consciousness of their organization, their market, and the needs of their individual customer.

    It all boils down to a balancing act when building a company – mechanical vs. mindful behavior.

    1. Yes, yes yes. My friend Jean Russell would love to hear this (she works to facilitate sessions in non-profits and now companies interested in bringing more mindfulness to bear…) She’s on twitter as @nurturegirl.

      I love the phrase of mechanical vs. mindful behavior and I would agree that all cultures of innovation are the ones where people make choices from a place of choice, creativity and engagement rather than “someone told me”.

  5. Thanks Nilofer – I followed your friend on Twitter as this is a topic in which I am definitely interested. Always good to meet new people with similar interests. I primarily use my company Twitter – @Analytikainc. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Concerning the “mechanical vs. mindful” phrase I wish I could take credit for it. It’s actually a line I borrowed from Arthur Koestler in “The Ghost In The Machine”. I highly recommend this book as well as Ken Wilber’s “A Brief History Of Everything” and “Quantum Organizations” by Ralph Kilmann if you have additional interest in consciousness and how it applies to organizations.

  6. Fabulous point John. And thank you Nilofer. The mechanical behavior (appreciate this term) comes from a sense of distrust. If we can’t trust people to behave according to our corporate cultural values, then we have to tell them what to do very precisely. If instead we can trust people to respond to whatever arises with some faith that they will act in alignment with our core principles, then we need fewer rules.

    Examples of this more “conscious” and mindful behavior in customer services spaces include: giving service employees small budgets for handling customer challenges, asking service professionals to align with a few core principles and be judged on behavior with principles instead of numerous and perhaps even conflicting rules.

    1. Thanks Jean – You make a great point about mistrust being linked to mechanical behavior. I also like the idea of linking process to a budget and empowering/trusting employees through the budget.

      One could say that a company could increase customer service and satisfaction by continually driving home the company’s core values, increasing the consciousness of employees, and creating budgetary processes that empower employees.

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