Posts Tagged ‘customer service’

The technology experience finally comes of age

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

I was recently at the Technology Services World (TSW) Conference in Las Vegas, organized by the Technology Services Industry Association. For the first time, there may be help on the way for people who, like me, experience technology as a giant frustration.

Every big technology firm seemed to be at the conference, except Apple. Apple may be afraid that competitors will figure out their secrets if they show up, but it seems to me they follow a pretty simple recipe that goes something like this: Let customers choose how they establish contact with Apple people, either physically through stores, or through any other means of their choosing (Internet, community, call center). Either way, encourage them to come. If you help customers figure out how to use the stuff they’ve bought from you, they’ll become better at it. As they learn, they’ll buy new software and new hardware. They’ll upgrade their machines faster. They’ll become loyal to your brand. They’ll sell other people on the merits of your machine. And you’ll get very wealthy.

All other companies have historically been on the opposite track, following a logic that goes something like: We hope you won’t contact us because you cost us money every time you do. So we’ll set up an obstacle course that protects our people through fragmented Internet sites, semantic moats, and tech-speak land mines. If you survive this, our Customer Service will be waiting to convince you that you’re no longer under warranty and get you to agree to pay for a service you’re not yet sure you need, or cross-sell you a more advanced version of the application you don’t understand, which is why you called in the first place. Along the way, you may get to visit with Henry in Hyderabad, Martin in Manila, or Lenny in Lesotho. As the experience becomes worse, customers buy less and less, managers cut more and more cost, and the company turns into a bleaching carcass in the desert of technology.

The Apple system starts with experience – the customer’s and the Apple employee’s experience. It then allows them to develop their own interaction in the store, through the phone, or on the website. Each interaction is co-created; the customer brings her problem, and the employee figures out with the customer how to weave a unique interaction between them to solve the issue. The issue is not even characterized as training, support, warranty management, or anything else until the conversation starts. There is no typology of issue, no segmentation of customers, no preordained process or metric constraining them.

For all other companies, everything starts with the process and the operational scorecard associated with that process. The conversation is about First Call Resolution – where resolution is defined as “If you haven’t called back to complain, we must somehow have solved your problem” – Average Handle Time – how long it took for the agent to get rid of you without hurting your feelings too openly – and Customer Satisfaction – where you are deemed to be happy if you reluctantly whisper “yes” to the agent’s throwaway question at the end inquiring whether your call was better than a root canal.

But things may be changing. At the TSW conference, I saw some senior executives begin to take responsibility for the customer experience produced by technology companies. Denise Rundle, who is Microsoft’s Vice President in charge of the Consumer Service and Support experience, went as far as to say she’s come to realize that having all her indicators be green on her operational scorecard fell quite short of offering a good customer experience. (Full disclosure: I am a consultant to Microsoft through my relationship with PRTM and shared a keynote presentation with Denise at TSW.) She even challenged other members of the PC ecosystem to come and join her in jointly constructing the future PC experience as an ecosystem. For the first time, I saw a high-level technology executive talk about the issue from the perspective of her own experience: wanting to be proud of what she does. And people responded. When she came down from the stage, many people were waiting for her, wanting to sign up in her ecosystem army.

It is a bit early to figure out this will go and whether the PC experience will one day be as much fun as Apple’s. But at least someone cares enough to get going. That, in itself, is the beginning of redemption.

Learning the Art of War at British Airways

Saturday, December 12th, 2009


I flew from London back to Boston last night in the business class section of British Airways (BA). We battled all night, but in the dawn’s early light, I realized the brilliance of the company’s war strategy. For those of you at military colleges, here’s what I learned about myself in the process.

My first battle involved a brief and unsuccessful raid in enemy territory, in the business-class checking area of Terminal 5 at Heathrow, to be specific. I promptly assessed that the enemy’s business-class troops are well concealed at the end of the giant terminal –no maps or signs will lead you there – but some friendly Pashtun natives pointed me in the right direction. As I started scouting for enemy positions, I noticed a wall of automated machine guns – er, automated machines – with prominent flags floating over them, erected as the first line of defense for the BA foot ground troops neatly organized behind a second line of tellers. With my special operations training, I managed to infiltrate this first line of automated positions and tried to engage the real warriors behind their desk directly. I naively thought having a business-class ticket would grant me safe passage to those people. I was immediately reminded that in the BA code of war, one has to defeat the automation army before being allowed to engage with real people, business-class ticket notwithstanding. To straighten me out, a female guard laconically pointed to the sign above her – which stipulated “bag drop only” – followed with a second pointing toward the automatic checking machines, and punctuated with a sardonic “see you in a while.”

Having been soundly defeated, I engaged in battle #2 with the Check-In Machine. Beating the machine requires deciphering a secret code involving a number, a card, or a passport. I scratched my head wondering what number I could provide. I tried the locator number, the e-ticket number, and the travel agent’s number. When the machine started producing a hissing noise, I began to fear it was booby-trapped. With panic rising, I tried to scan my electronic passport, but the machine declared it unreadable and started shaking. I then reached for my BA frequent flier card, but I unfortunately have about 15 of those airline cards, plus another 10 for hotels and 3 or 4 for car rental, and the machine is so smartly designed that it offers no usable flat surface to lay out documents, forcing you to juggle them in the air while it keeps electronically firing at you.

Sensing I was about to die shamefully in the throes of this second battle, I decided to change strategy. I started swearing in a variety of languages, including some I do not even speak – albondigas is not really a Spanish profanity, is it? I seemed to initiate a chorus of similar global profanities from fellow travelers at neighboring check-in machines. Sensing an insurgency was in the works, a very nice BA customer service employee broke ranks and tried to pacify the pesky hordes. His first priority was my neighbor, a bearded man who’d expressed his displeasure in Urdu. French profanities got me the runner-up position. The old BA gentleman knew the secret code for each of us, and got us past the machines. As I triumphantly started heading back toward the human shadows behind the tellers, he even whispered that “If you’re persistent, the people at the counter will generally end up helping you.” I hope they do not behead him when they find out he’s collaborating with the enemy.

BA seats

Battle #3 is the Flying Backward one. This may be a little personal, but I simply cannot fly seated backwards. I have an inner ear disorder that makes me sick when I do, and BA is the only airline I know that makes half of its business customers travel facing back. When the French retired their last Caravelle in the early ’70s, I thought I was finally safe, but the smart cabin designers at BA revived this quaint tradition some 10 or 15 years ago. I avoid flying BA for this specific reason, but every now and then, scheduling convenience or cost forces me back to BA. Of course, the seat allocation system senses my weakness and only allocates backward-flying seats to me.

When I was offered such a seat last night, I explained to the BA front-line gunner that I turn into Linda Blair of The Exorcist when forced to fly backwards. I rotated my head back as far as I could to prove the point and asked her to imagine the unsuitability of green slime for the business-class cabin at 30,000 feet. She first pointed out that most warriors tolerate the backward flight in their chopper quite comfortably, but then proceeded to treat me with the deference my new suicide bomber status warranted. I was instructed to go to the airline lounge and throw myself at the mercy of the commanding officer there. Should my request not be granted, I could also attempt to exchange seats with another warrior in the plane itself. If that failed, it was suggested I could walk to a passenger in economy and offer to swap seats with him/her. “Of course, this is an expensive way to do it,” the exquisitely polite lady told me, “but this way, you won’t get sick.” Already soothed by such compassionate behavior, I was reassured when some general back at headquarters apparently switched my seat, allowing me to fly feet forward all the way to Boston.

Once in the plane, it was time to wage battle #4, the one involving the Drawer. Most airlines have a pouch or a pocket where you can put your travel documents, your mobile phone and perhaps a couple of magazines. BA business has a very big drawer … on the floor. If you’re young and athletic, you can squat or bend from a standing position. If you’re Michael Jordan and have a long torso and arms, you can probably stretch and reach the drawer from your seat. When all else fails, you get on your arms and knees and crawl on the floor like the Marines. As I got down to the ground, I got an encouraging look from a flight attendant who looked like an older version of the Ice Queen in the film Chronicles of Narnia.  I also caught her disappointed look when I made it back up. I had won battle #4.

Battle #5 involved withstanding the Floor Sweep. BA wants nothing on the floor around you as the plane takes off. People have clearly been smashed to death by flying pillows, suffocated by twirling blankets, or knocked unconscious by errant sneakers, so regulations require that these dangerous weapons be placed in sealed compartments before take-off. To my knowledge, BA is the only airline with this requirement, which surely dates back to medieval battles involving Scottish or Welsh fighters who used blankets, pillows and sneakers as torture instruments. A very elegant flight attendant ripped my shoes from my feet before departure because I had imprudently taken them half-off after two days of teaching on my feet with a group of executives at a large European bank. I was told that shoes had to be either on or off, and if they were off, they had to be up in the compartment above my head. I let myself be separated from my shoes. I also tried to cling on to my blanket, but was told my grip was too loose to be safe. I surrendered my second weapon and decided to wait for more auspicious conditions for a counter-offensive.

The sixth and final battle involved the Return of the Coat. Shortly before landing, the flight attendants returned all coats to the passengers, except mine. I tried not to grow anxious, until it became clear that my coat and jacket had become a hostage. I pushed the flight attendant button to alert them to this fact, but only drew an annoyed circular look from the Ice Queen to check who’d had the audacity. After landing, as I was seated toward the back of the business cabin, I could not signal to the flight attendants that I was still looking for my outerwear because of all the other warriors standing ahead of me in the line. Because the jetway was malfunctioning, I spent close to 30 minutes standing in the aisle, trying to attract the attention of flight attendants who were too busy talking to each other to pay attention to me.

When I finally made it to the door after the line started moving, I was told the search process would now be initiated, provided I could provide a detailed visual description of the coat and jacket. The topic was prosecuted with the zeal of members of the Moscow Politburo being told an enemy of the regime is missing in Siberia. I was invited to shiver quietly in short sleeves in the door and wait for further information. My mind alternated between designing a proper epitaph and analytical puzzlement over how many ways there can be of losing a coat and jacket in a plane. When the last economy passenger walked by me, I was given the coat back in what appeared to be a large BA ceremony where apologies were plentiful and exquisitely articulated in Elizabethan English, but explanations sparse.

This morning, as I was doing my after-action-review, I had an epiphany. I realized that what I had perceived as bad service is actually an in-depth training program to teach me how to become a better customer. I still have occasional bouts of indiscipline where I crave some form of comfort or service, even some appetite for some form of service co-creation with my airline. But I am close to seeing the light. A new discipline has set in. I look forward to engaging with the next enemy BA throws at me, and getting further field training. Send me back to London. I’m close to battle-ready.