Broken Systems in Customer Service & Life

I like to fix broken systems, I really do. Content strategy is about fixing broken systems. Editing is about improving broken systems. Conflict resolution makes complex systems less broken. And finally, improving the user experience of anything is fixing something that is systematically broken.

Fixing broken things makes this world a better place. You're welcome!

In an era that sees trusted relationships become more and more profitable (as opposed to top-down marketing messages), you'd better go and fix the broken customer service in your organisation. Because it will cost you, as (not only) the wonderful Paul Boag points out so succinctly: Concentrate on customer service.

This brokenness can take different shapes and forms; but, like pornography, we know it when we see it. In 2006, permission marketing visionary and author Seth Godin presented the tragicomedy of those broken experiences at the GEL conference. His uplifting presentation focuses on the everyday breakage we have to navigate:

Seth Godin at Gel 2006 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

He speaks of the 7 kinds of broken commonplace in everyday interactions:

  • Not-my-job-syndrome
  • Selfish jerks
  • The world changed between design & usage
  • I didn’t know
  • I’m not a fish
  • Contradictions
  • Broken on purpose

I suggest these breakage points are at the heart of user experience, user focus, customer service and the like. Larger organisations in particular suffer from these because they run into the paradox of shared responsibility: if so many people are responsible for a group effort, nobody feels responsible. The effect of people reducing efforts in group work environments is called social loafing.

Especially in situations where you have a confrontational Us vs. Them or David vs. Goliath dynamic (i.e., the customer / the public vs. the company) the conflict can escalate quickly into PR and communication disaster mode. Things can get stuck. Or worse, turn against the larger organisation because the public loves the underdog.

If you don’t believe in the power of social media, word-of-mouth information sharing and reputations in crisis, Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail may shed a light on the new kinds of customer relationships that reign business now and in the future. I invite you to google «Dell Hell» or «Maytag + Dooce»; or, to visit Sarah Parmenter’s personal blog which got me thinking about how I manage to avoid giving any of my hard earned pennies to Currys, ever again.

My personal list of companies to avoid is certainly growing. I very well know that my tiny boycott won't have an effect on the bottom line of big companies. However, consumers in the same situation boycotting a larger company might just help out the smaller ones. Remember the fleeing masses when an internal Yahoo! presentation slide went public and people didn’t know what would happen to Stunned by the information leak and Yahoo’s track record those panicky users were looking for future-proof alternatives. Enter Pinboard.

Also: Having the choice, I don’t like to actively support what I feel and know to be plain wrong. Companies who show disregard for their customers' experiences do wrong. And no, I think it is not hypocritical to not do this with every single product or service you purchase. Welcome to modern life where you have to choose what is important enough to care about and which defaults you can live with.

So it really doesn’t matter whether you sell commodities, run a service business or drop ship highly specialised stuff on demand. Start building relationships of trust with your following and customer base. Seize the opportunities you have to delight them. Be genuine and nice. Don’t be a jerk.

And when the time comes to face up to your shortcomings or failures, folks are more willing to be understanding and forgiving. Because that is how human relationships have been operating over the past 200,000 years; as incremental and perpetual improvements of broken systems.

Details & meta

Fri, 08/07/2011 - 13:44