Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Intelligent Design

Nope, not what you were thinking I might be writing about.

Some of you know I was the telecommunications manager for a large company in Fairbanks. While we had many departments, we went from needing 3-4 operators to an automated attendant system incorporated into the phone system. With over 700 extensions

Any system has to have a goal of getting people through their system to where they need to go as quickly as possible as often, it is through an 800 number and more importantly, because it is good for the customer. Yet many systems seem designed to wear out the caller until they give up.

The University of Alaska Anchorage Computer Support Department auto-attendant, which gets funding to provide students, staff, and faculty with support, manages to violate several of the common rules. First, it takes one over a minute before they give you the choices. Even in November, they tell you in advance about their summer hours. Secondly, once they get to the options, you have to wait until all the options are listed before hearing the option to speak to a representative. Once you select that option, you then go into a queue that tell you which caller in line you are. When I called, I started out as caller #6 and eventually ended up as THE caller. The final coup was to then send me to voice mail to leave a message.

When I mentioned this poor design to the Chief Information Officer, he cc'd an email to the manager in charge, saying I had a bad experience and told him to get in touch with me. Not exactly what I'd call a single bad experience, just poor design. Of course, I never heard from that manager, despite his boss' direction.

I also submitted a customer service report through their website, but never heard back. The whole reason I called them was to get a contact in their networking group, because there was no directory listing for that individual that worked. Interesting when the department responsible for creating that directory doesn't even have a functional directory for its own staff.

Another example might be hiding behind FAQ's and not allowing even direct emails to request customer assistance. I was investigating Google Checkout, their competitive effort to eBay. Google, one of the richest companies on the internet, practices this customer obfucation pretty thoroughly. They won't reply to direct emails to support@google.com or customersupport@google.com (or any variety of these). They send you a reply to go to their "contact us" on their website. Nothing one can easily find allows you to get anything other than a canned answer to your problem. If you can find a way to submit a problem to them, the reply tells you how much they value your opinion, but because they get so much correspondence, they probably won't reply. They say they design their system or make changes based upon customer input. Who are they talking to? Any customer who would trust their credit card and bank account number to a company with whom one has absolutely no ability to contact in case of a problem would be nuts. I'm not the only one to notice this as in this
Infoworld article or in this blog. There is an irony in rightfully slagging Google Checkout, when they are now the owners of my blog hosting site AND I used google.com to find sources for this section of my blog.

Amazon merely hides behind email, though does have a toll free number for customer support that is advertised by common folks on non-Amazon sites.

In a voice mail system, the first rule is to always allow a 0 to get to a live human being. Keep your message short. It is a waste of everyone's time to say "please listen carefully as our options have changed to improve service". And, as UAA violates, don't put your troubleshooting tips in the body of the main greeting. Also, don't bury your options more than 3 deep.

There are more obvious design rules, but this is for starters.

It seems as companies use technology to hide behind when dealing with customers. Some probably figure if they can wear a customer down, the customer will give up. That may appear to be a less costly option, but keep it up and that company will lose its customers. Dell found that out when outsourcing the help desk to India. While they might speak perfect English, I could only understand every 5th word and I consider myself very sensitive to accents. The Indian call centers also had a way of very courteously telling you only their canned responses, not actually in solving the particular problem. As a result of lots of negative attention to crappy customer service, some of their call centers were brought back to the U.S.

Of course, if there are so many problems with a company's service that they can't afford to hire enough live operators, they probably are doing something wrong in the quality of their product or core service they are marketing.

Sometimes what it takes to get attention of a company is to search the web for the corporate officers, try to figure out their emails if not obvious and email them. I've been successful with Fedex, Alaska Communications Systems, and Earthlink doing this. Dell was a total waste of my time, though I got a call from a corporate flack who refused to put anything in writing or get back to me on a problem. Even his recommendation for a certified letter to their legal office resulted in no response.

I'm sure others have had experienced similar experiences, but when the CEO actually notices, then it might make some difference. Are there any companies that DO a good job at customer service with technology? I'd like to hear.


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