Develop Products Right! Design for Supportability

During new product development, R&D engineers need to consider a wide range of often-conflicting requirements, including product features, cost, quality and manufactureability. Therefore, it is not surprising that support requirements are often neglected. However, support is an essential factor for achieving customer satisfaction in many industries, and so ensuring that products are easy and economical to support is a priority. Customer support managers know this but often have problems in convincing their R&D colleagues. This article looks at the issues involved in achieving Design for Supportability – the full evaluation of support requirements at the design stage.

Complaint Identification: World Class CRM Surveys

The most important part of a customer satisfaction survey, arguably, is not even part of the survey. It’s what you do with the survey data that creates — or destroys — the value of the survey program. Don’t misconstrue my message. Good questionnaire design and unbiased survey administration are vital, and doing a mediocre job with those survey project elements will lead to poor or misleading data, but will they lead to customer dissatisfaction? Doubtful.

However, ignoring the message inherent in the survey feedback can fuel the fires of an already displeased customer. And sometimes that message isn’t buried subtly in a bunch of number but screams in plain black-and-white text. My recent experience with a Sears customer service and the subsequent IVR survey of theirs I took illustrates this gross mistake.

Survey programs should not be treated as an island in the sea of customer relationship management. If I may torture the metaphor a bit more, land bridges are needed tying all the elements of a CRM strategy together. A customer satisfaction survey is part of this network, but too often they are done in isolation.

Consider the typical goals of a customer survey program.

  1. Learn where you’ve performed badly so that you can correct those mistakes. (Hopefully, also you want to know where you’ve performed exceptionally well so that you can replicate those strong points.)
  2. Linked to the above, you want to measure individual performance to identify training needs and also likely to reward the good performers — and punish the bad.
  3. Identify shortcomings in operational processes and designs that aggravate customers.
  4. Develop trend lines of performance so that the impact of new operational initiatives can be measured.
  5. Identify specific customers with issues to allow engaging in service recovery assuming it’s not an anonymous survey.

For some bizarre reason the last goal is frequently missed.  If not recognized, then your survey program has a huge downside risk. In a transactional survey program which are almost never anonymous, this risk is magnified since the customer just had the experience with you and the displeasure — or anger — is quite high.

Imagine this scenario. A customer completes a transactional survey with low scores and highly critical comments in the open-ended text fields. As the owner of the survey program, what should you do? Home Depot’s approach in its transactional store visit survey is to tell customers you can enter comments here, but if you really want someone to read them, then call this number. In the customer service world, we call this a “cold transfer.”


Here’s a better idea: ignore them! And that’s what many companies do. Read about my Sears customer survey experience for the best of the bad practice in this area.

What should you do? Recognize the interconnected nature of all elements of a CRM strategy, and that a survey program is one element in that strategy. Any customer survey, but particularly a transactional survey, should include a “hot sheet” function where surveys with negative scores and/or comments are routed immediately to a manager for response. In a telephone survey environment, the interviewers should provide a “hot transfer” of the customer, that is, transfer the customer to a customer service agent introducing the customer to the agent with a brief explanation, or with a “warm transfer” where the agent dials the number but does no introduction.

Hot sheets and warm or hot transfers still aren’t enough. You need to have a service recovery program implemented concurrently with the survey program. Many companies launch a survey  and then find themselves in crisis mode reacting to customer issues presented in the surveys. Or worse, the companies just ignore the cries for help evoked in its surveys — as Sears does.

The goal of a survey program is to increase customer satisfaction, right? Isn’t it only logical to put all the tools in placed needed to positively effect customer service? Then why isn’t it done universally? Only two reasons exist: 1) ignorance, or 2) a total disregard for the customer.

A Sweet Service Recovery Turned Sour

Then Sweet Again & Then Extra Sweet

The essence of service recovery is fairness. A customer has an issue with a company’s products or services and is looking for the company to treat him fairly. An intelligent company recognizes that treating customers fairly has long term benefits. Customers who know a company will handle legitimate complaints with fairness will be more loyal to the company than if they had no problem in the first place. These loyal, long-term customers are the most profitable.

On the other hand, poor complaint handling and service recovery add fuel to the fire. A company can turn a positive into a negative by not fully understanding all aspects of fairness. My recent interaction with Subaru of America demonstrates a good service recovery turned sour, as I’ll explain. My addendum at the end shows how they turned the service recovery sweet again.

But what is “fairness”? Stephen Tax and Stephen Brown in their 1998 Sloan Management Review article, “Recovering and Learning from Service Failure,” present three dimensions to fairness:

  • Fair Outcomes: Distributive Justice. The adequacy of any compensation offered for the problem the customer experienced.
  • Fair Processes: Procedural Justice. The policies applied and speed with which the issue was handled.
  • Fair Interactions: Interactional Justice. How you were treated during the process to resolve the problem.

Amy Smith, Ruth Bolton, and Janet Wagner (Marketing Science Institute, Report No. 98-100, “A Model of Customer Satisfaction with Service Encounters Involving Failure and Recovery”) make the point that the nature of the original problem dictates the most appropriate type of response. If the problem was service related, then the Interactional dimension — and possibly Procedural also — to the recovery is most important since the original problem likely related to how the customer was treated. If a customer didn’t get what they paid for, then the Distributive justice dimension becomes paramount. The customer expects fair compensation. Offering compensation for poor service may be unnecessary. An apology — offered quickly and initiated by the company — may suffice.

However, all three elements of fairness may well be in play during the recovery process. Lack of fairness in one dimension can destroy all the benefits gained from appropriate action on the other two. Let me illustrate with a personal example of my service recovery experience with Subaru of America and Subaru of New England.

I belong to the Subaru “cult.” I’ve owned no other car for 30 years. I live in New England, and they’re proven to be good, reliable winter cars. However, my 2000 Legacy wagon had a host of problems occur — you guessed it — just after the 60,000-mile warranty expired. The final problem at 72,000 miles was the differential seizing, a repair costing well over $3000. Ouch!  Plus, I was in Portland, Maine, 2 hours from home, but fortunately within 1/2 mile of the Maine Mall Motors Subaru dealership.

I contacted Subaru Customer Care in Cherry Hill, NJ, and the service recovery experience was pretty good. It did take them a week to make a decision on what compensation they would offer, but they did offer to cover effectively half the repair cost. The slowness was because Subaru of New England had to be involved in the decision-making. I’ll add that I had to call them to get status updates. Updates and the speed of decision were important because the repair shop could not initiate any repairs until Subaru of American made its determination. Why? Because the parts and labor would be billed differently. (Now isn’t that silly?) These accounting practices seriously impacted the delivery speed of the repair service.

My Customer Care agent also offered me an “Owner Loyalty Incentive” of $750 toward the purchase of a new Subaru bought within a year. (I put that in quotes for a reason explained below.)

Here is my initial evaluation along the three fairness dimensions using a 5-star scale:

Fair Outcomes: Distributive Justice. Pretty good compensation all included. However, as I reflected on the underlying cause of the problem, I actually felt more was justified. ***
Fair Processes: Procedural Justice. The procedures were in place and clear (to them). However, the decision-making process was slow. The slowness compounded the original problem since I was without a car for a longer period of time. ***
Fair Interactions: Interactional Justice. I was treated respectfully as a long term, loyal customer. However, I did not get updates in the promised timeframe, and I had to call to get the updates. ****

I called this a “soured” service recovery, yet a score of 3 out of 5 stars isn’t terrible. The bittersweet element came at the very conclusion of the process.

I decided I would buy a new 2007 Subaru Legacy Wagon, since Subaru will no longer be building this model. Here’s the power of good service: I bought the car at Maine Mall Motors, despite the 2-hour drive, in large part because that dealership had treated me so well when my car broke down. (Let me add that I love the car. I can’t believe how many small improvements they made in the design from my 2000 Legacy with little to no change in price.)

With new car in hand, I had to send in my bill of sale to get my “Owners Loyalty Incentive.” I enclosed a letter, thanking them but also explaining in writing the full history of my service experiences and why I now felt that the differential problem caused likely by uneven tire wear was truly the result of misleading information in the owners manual, poor advice and lack of advice by Subaru service people. At the end I gently nudged for a roof rack and corner moldings, a few hundred bucks more in compensation.

A week later I got the check with a cover letter.  It was a form letter that never referenced my letter. I found that odd.  Then I turned over the check. Above the signature line was this stamped statement:


The “Owner Loyalty Incentive” was not an owner loyalty incentive. It was a legal settlement. The misrepresentation — or lack of proper representation — is what truly bothered me. The agent never positioned the “incentive” as a legal settlement, and the form cover letter even refers to it as a “goodwill gesture.” In that moment they turned this from a decent, personal interaction that engendered deeper loyalty to a negative, arms-length legal transaction. The manner of doing this, this sleight of hand, I found truly offensive. (I’ll liken it to Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H slipping papers in front of Colonel Blake for his signature.)

I had revise my above evaluation on the 5-star scale for one dimension:

Fair Outcomes: Distributive Justice. I was treated respectfully as a long term, loyal customer. However, I did not get updates in the promised timeframe, and I had to call to get the updates. And they misrepresented the nature of the “Owner Loyalty Incentive.” *

Concurrent with this article I wrote to the senior management of Subaru of American and Subaru of New England. (See my note below on their response.) The critical message to them related this misrepresentation (likely promulgated by their lawyers):

Every bit of goodwill that you earned by treating me right was lost in that instant.

The positive Outcome and Procedural aspects of the service recovery were overwhelmed by that last Procedural action.  When my 2007 Legacy needs to be retired, will I look at Subarus? Yes. Will I look at other cars? Yes. Service Recovery turned sour.  How sad that we let lawyers mess up good business practices.

But then, Subaru righted the wrong…

September 2007.  An update…

Subaru Customer Care took my letter to heart in a fashion that I have never seen with any other company to which I have written.  Rather than just utter some hollow words — what I call “hollow empathy” — they acknowledged my point of view and have revised their procedures regarding the owners loyalty incentives.  How often have you ever heard of a company doing that? My faith in the company has been reaffirmed. They also extended an offer to me that helped right the wrong. Based upon my latest interaction, I have to change my ratings to 5 or 4 stars in all three phases of Service Recovery.

And I still love my new Legacy Wagon. I can only hope when this one needs to be retired, they have reinstituted this model.

February 2010.  A Further Update…

When my wife Audi A4 got to be too much of a headache, we bought a 2009 Subaru Legacy for her. I wrote back to the Subaru of America to give them a concrete example of the value of good service recovery practices. I expected maybe a short thank you note, but I got in addition to the note, a Subaru-logo travel cooler pack. That gesture bought loads of goodwill with me.

Hazards of Lean Service: Jet Blue’s Valentine’s Day Massacre

The February 2007 debacle at Jet Blue, which could lead to a Passengers Bill of Rights, raises a serious question. When service organizations strive for efficiency goals, do they risk catastrophic results for their effectiveness? Is Lean Service a bad idea for some service industries? If Jet Blue’s experience was an isolated one, we could say it’s an anomaly, but both United and American have had similar problems in the  winter of 2006-2007.

For the past decade we’ve seen manufacturing plants implementing lean principles, based on the Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS has made inroads into all facets of the economy, including hospitals — and goodness knows, we need efficiency gains in health care delivery! Concurrently, Six Sigma philosophies have also made inroads.  In fact, many companies implement a hybrid, “lean six sigma” program. Xerox and Thermo Electron have followed this route. Service organizations, including airlines, have implemented aspects of these programs to reduce cost, whether under the named programs or not. Yet, I’ll argue that a blind adherence to the efficiency side of the argument can lead to the disastrous effectiveness outcomes, which in this case could actually sink Jet Blue.

So what are lean principles?  The heart of lean is the elimination of waste. Seven types of waste — or “muda” as the Japanese call it — exist.

  • Overproduction beyond the customers immediate needs
  • Unneeded transportation of product — think about a poorly designed kitchen
  • Wasted motion
  • Waiting for parts etc. that leads to worker idle time
  • Processing that is unnecessary to the finish product (think of health care billing)
  • Inventory to buffer the system, but which can go bad
  • Defects in outcome, which leads to rework or scrap. has a very nice summary table.

Basically, waste can be found is any activities that do not add value to the end product or service. By eliminating waste, material velocity is increased. That is, a product goes from raw material to the customer’s hands very quickly. This delivers huge strategic advantages beyond the cost savings. Bad quality cannot be tolerated, and customers lead times are shortened.

Six sigma gets to the same end through a different path. Six sigma focuses on reducing variability, which is the enemy of efficiency, through various project work focused on specific steps where opportunities have been identified. A six sigma process has variability reduced to the point where there are fewer than 4 failures per million opportunities. Less variability means more predictability, and thus waste can be eliminated.

In both lean and six sigma, the result is a dramatic reduction in “buffers.” We buffer operations with longer lead times to address the uncertainty of production times, and we buffer with inventories to address the uncertainty of demand peaks and spikes. As we reduce uncertainty through more predictable processes, the need for buffers goes away. When you hear the improvement numbers from lean six sigma stories, you’ll think they were made up. They are real.

Waste elimination is a laudable goal in service operations as well as manufacturing operations. But there is a difference, and that lies in the source of the variation that causes the waste. Manufacturing operations, compared to service operations, are far more controllable; it’s almost a laboratory setting in comparison. Uncertainty does result from material and labor inputs, but those can be anticipated and controlled to a great extent. (In the days after 9/11 when the US closed its borders, we did see the uncertainty of raw material inputs dramatically after the car industry, but these types of experiences are rare.) The workers, the design of the product, and the production tools are all under the control of the operations to a very large extent. If sales and marketing are part of the process, the demand uncertainty can also be reduced.

In contrast, services operate in a sea of uncertainty and variability that are much harder to control. Let’s look at these sources.

Uncertainty in task times. The nature of service products is that the execution of each service delivery has some uniqueness. This variability typically leads to a negative exponential distribution of task times. Simply put, this means that while most task executions will fall within some tight range, some executions will take a long time. Consider airplane boarding. There’s uncertainty here, yet Southwest found a way to reduce the uncertainty and achieve faster turnaround times at airports, increasing effective capacity.

Uncertainty in demand. While service demand can be forecasted, no forecast is 100% perfect. Manufacturers can buffer this forecast uncertainty with some finished goods inventory. The simultaneity of production and consumption in services precludes this tactic. The capacity must be available when the demand arises.

Customers’ production roles. Both of the above uncertainties have much to do with customers. We introduce uncertainty. And because customers typically have some role to play in the production of a service, we introduce variability based on how well we perform our roles. Customers almost always have to provide information to service agents to initiate service, and we typically also have tangible tasks to perform.

Lean & six sigma work best in repeatable, standardized operations. While many services are repeatable, how well can they be truly standardized given the above? Let’s look at Jet Blue’s experiences.

Jet Blue has a very efficient operation, and they have achieved very high ratings in customer satisfaction — until Valentine’s Day. The disaster all stemmed from the horrible storm that struck the eastern third of the US. Weather is one of those uncertainties that airline service simply can not control. Flights will be cancelled, and passengers will need to be rebooked. This is an extreme example of demand uncertainty that leads to huge demand spikes. But to eliminate the muda (waste) of inventory going bad, airlines have cut capacity. I seldom fly on a plane that isn’t 90 to 100% booked.  With little bandwidth, it can take days to rebook all passengers on canceled flights. (Consider what happened to United after the Denver blizzards in December 2006.)

Airlines’ bandwidth to handle surges is further strained by other external factors. Government regulations restrict a pilot’s on-duty time. Time sitting in delays on tarmacs counts against this time window. Thus, even if they have the planes and the crew in the right place, the crew may not be able to fly, necessitating bringing in a new crew — but from where? How?

Jet Blue exacerbated the problem by having too lean an infrastructure in its central operations. Apparently, crews couldn’t contact central operations to get flight orders. 99.99% of the time that infrastructure was just muda. Not now.

In manufacturing, waste elimination in one category tends to reinforce other waste elimination. For example, wasted motion or transportation helps reduce defects. In services, the wastes more correctly can be trade-offs. To avoid the defects of poor customer service, some buffers are inevitably needed for those sources of uncertainty that cannot be controlled or contained.

So what’s the answer? (If I knew it in full, I’d be a rich man.) The airline service industry needs buffers against uncertainties caused by Acts of God. Jet Blue, being a young airline, had never experienced a need for an extensive contingency plan. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t get a gentle wake up call to this fact. The legacy carriers — for all that we hate them — do have these contingency plans. But contingency planning doesn’t eliminate the need for buffers; it just uses the available buffer more effectively. Passengers can still be affected terribly, like the folks United abandoned in Cheyenne, but part of the dissatisfaction results from lack of explanations. (But that staff is just muda, right?)

However, the financial structure of the airline industry is such that they can not afford extensive buffers. While the fault lies in many corners — the government-structured bankruptcy system that hasn’t let the industry rationalize, management mistakes in labor contracts, etc. — a big part of the blame lies with us, the consumer. We have become so price conscious in our airfare purchase behavior that we are blind to a better value.

Imagine an airline said, “We are going to deliver a higher level of service to you. Bags will be handled better. Cabin comfort will be improved. We’ll serve food. Waiting lines will be reduced. And in the event of weather disruptions, we are 90% certain we will rebook you within 24 hours of the end of the weather disruption.” Would that appeal to you?  Of course it would. But would you pay $100 a ticket for that extra level of service? $50? $25? I doubt many of us would opt to patronize this airline. (Airlines that have tried a value approach have failed.)

Much of the blame for our price consciousness goes to the airlines. Their yield management systems mean that prices seem capricious and bear no relationship to value. But even if pricing were more transparent, understandable, and value related, would consumers pay for the value? The government used to dictate airline fares. This meant that airlines competed on service. It also meant much higher fares. While we grouse — with the aid of the media — about airlines, air travel is a bargain these days. But wouldn’t it be nice to have real options in a value framework?

The disaster at Jet Blue is particularly surprising given the company’s background and guiding principles. When the founders were outlining their service design in 1999, they didn’t start with some operating model, e.g., hub-and-spoke versus direct connections or type of airplane. Rather, they started with a values statement: Safety, Caring, Integrity, Fun, and Passion. Yes, a cultural foundation lies at the heart of the company. Their operational design has reflected the values of the company — until now. But if they are true to their values and become a little less lean where expenditures are justified, they have a chance. (Can they sell the value of the “insurance policy” of contingency planning to customers? Talk about a tough sell!) If any airline could come back from a disaster of this magnitude, I’d bet on Jet Blue.

Tech Support as Training Ground: How MathWorks Finds Strategic Value in Customer Support

What are the events that a support manager most dreads?

  • An irate phone call from a member of the owner’s family looking for support?
  • Being told to locate any new support office in a low-wage area?
  • Release of a new product with known and serious defects?
  • Having a 50% annual attrition rate, including losing many seasoned, key staff members to another department in the company?

Okay, they’re all pretty dreadful, but that last one is a particular headache since the ramp up time for new hires is long and knowledge transfer is a challenge. So, would you believe there’s a software company that has that level of attrition from technical support as a goal — more specifically, as an explicit program? It’s a unique view of a strategic role that technical or customer support can play for a company — that of a development group for entry-level employees to teach them about a company’s products and, perhaps more importantly, to develop a customer sensitivity.

The MathWorks in Natick, Mass., a publisher of MATLAB, SIMULINK, and other scientific simulation software, has a rather unique charter for its tech support department, called Engineering Development Group (EDG). EDG is explicitly used as an entry level position for about 25% of the company’s open positions. How did this happen and what are the benefits to MathWorks?

Allison Babb, senior manager in EDG, notes that “The technical support industry has lots of ideas on how to keep people, but little about how to help them move on — and stay in the company. No one has looked at how to make that turnover a benefit to the company and not a loss.” She said the first step in the transformation in thinking that unfurled at MathWorks was to “embrace the reality of the situation. Lifers in tech support are rare.”  Support people were transferring to other groups, and it became noticed by senior management that these people were “solid successes” in their new positions, typically performing better than people hired directly to their positions with little to no ramp-up time. The company’s top management asked for some program to be developed that would leverage this value that EDG informally had brought to the company.

Having recognized and embraced the opportunity, the second step in this process was to form “internal partnerships” with other groups at MathWorks. This was made easy by the fact that senior management asked for the formal program to be created. Since no other companies were doing a similar program, Babb was inventing as she proceeded. She held one-on-one meetings with department heads — such as engineering, quality assurance, training, documentation, and product management — to get their input on a level of collaboration with EDG that would work for their department.

The program evolved into a form of a “job bank” for new hires into EDG. The various functional groups put together short term projects they need performed with skill set profiles. Employees hired into EDG select from this project request list or network within the company to find projects on which to work. Effectively work about half of their work week on these projects. This project job bank model was an easy sell to the other functional group managers since they didn’t have to manage the people and no binding commitment was made. To date, though, not one EDG employee has been pulled off a project.

Obviously, a key internal partnership was between EDG and HR. This model complicates HR staff forecasting. No certainty exists for the number of EDG employees who will be hired permanently by other groups. Currently, EDG is filling about 35% of other groups’ positions, and — here’s a migraine headache for a support manager — EDG does have that 50% annual attrition rate. “If you had told me we’d be transferring half my people each year, I’d said you were crazy. It would break technical support.” Since timing of the internal hires is not readily predictable, EDG hires ahead of the need, in effect having a buffer of employees.

This type of program will only work if EDG hires the right people. So, “external partnerships” were also key to success. While led by HR, EDG employees go to career fairs at select colleges to help with the recruiting. MathWorks will host events on campuses where EDG employees will deliver technical presentations. MathWorks also hosts college days at the MathWorks campus every Friday from December to March. EDG hires masters-level people only. Yes, that’s right, this tech support organization hires only people with masters degrees in engineering since that’s the skill level its internal partners required.

MathWorks receives a huge volume of applicants since the jobs in EDG are highly attractive to candidates, belying the notion that tech support jobs would not be desirable to those with advanced degrees. Candidates used MATLAB in school, and the product reputation is a draw. More importantly, the project model presents opportunities to learn and explore before choosing a more narrow career path.

Hiring at MathWorks is highly competitive and a “well-oiled machine.” For every 100 resumes reviewed about 20 will lead to interviews, which will lead to one — yes, one — new hire.  Interviews last for the better part of a day involving the hiring manager and peers. Both soft skills and technical skills are evaluated. A debrief at the end of the end will determine whether the candidate fits the MathWorks culture. Several comprehensive references are required — and they are reviewed in detail.

The seriousness of the interview process is reflected in the new hire development. New hires have three to four months of training, delivering real support for customers under supervision. They rotate across the product teams in EDG to gain a breadth of product knowledge. Each employee has milestones they are expected to meet, and they are expected to develop technical skills as well as soft skills — teamwork, leadership, initiative, assertiveness, communication, and project management. They’re also trained on “how to work within the MathWorks culture.” Project work starts at about 10 months of tenure, although they have the option of starting projects right after being hired. While EDG currently has no required stay period in the group, it’s currently just over one year.

While the program certainly increases EDG’s stature in the company, it’s not without its drawbacks. Imagine Babb’s dilemma of having a “perpetually green staff” and few to no senior staff members to take on her group’s projects. Her job also takes on much more of a coaching role rather than supervising for which she is well suited.

But the program does provide one major benefit for EDG: bandwidth. With 50% of their work force effectively working for other groups, EDG can meet a short term demand surge, for example, from a new product release, by having the EDG employees focus on support. EDG can in effect double its work force almost in real time for short term issues.  Further, they had a large number of EDG alumni upon whom they could call in an emergency. Perhaps equally importantly, the tight relationship with engineering provides for rapid knowledge transfer as new products near release.

This model would not work for every company. The culture and the supporting environment have to be correct. Perhaps most importantly to ensure the collaboration, EDG is a cost center, not a revenue or profit center. If EDG management had P&L responsibilities, the shadow pricing and chargebacks to the other groups would have to be contorted beyond comprehension. While we may think that a P&L responsibility for customer support would be best for a company, it’s important to recognize the full complement of strategic value customer support can bring to a company. While customer support can generate revenue from external customers, we see here at MathWorks that customer support can generate incredible value for its internal customers with roles that are optimal for the company but would be hard to reconcile with a performance appraisal system for customer support geared toward profitability.

This model also works for MathWorks now in part because the company is growing and new opportunities open up in the functional groups on a large-scale basis. What happens if or when growth slows, and the opportunities for transfer become limited to backfills for attrition? That day may come and will certainly test the mettle of MathWorks management and culture. Hopefully, the value that support can provide in developing a “reserve of high caliber, well-trained engineers ready to transfer” embedded with customer sensitivity will remain in the strategic crosshairs.

Lessons Learned from Service Recovery (Or Should Have Been Learned)

I recently wrote about the value of service recovery programs in sports enterprises. Ironically, I was writing that article while in the midst of a customer service and service recovery incident. The process — or lack thereof — that occurred illustrates some key lessons for organizations:

  • The need for properly conceived feedback programs
  • The need for proper and consistent execution of the feedback programs, especially in their complaint handing processes.

Briefly, let me recount the sequence of events — and non-events. This will help demonstrate the value that customer feedback and service recovery can bring to an organization as well as the ramifications of poor design and execution.

Like most business travelers, I frequent one or two hotel chains to build up the benefits under the loyalty programs.  During June, conference engagements led me to stay in two of the top-line properties in one of these chains. The name of one of those brands, Ritz Carlton, evokes the very essence of the gold standard in customer service.

As with the higher priced hotel brands, broadband internet access at this Ritz hotel had to be purchased for $9.95 per day. (An aside… why is it free at the cheaper hotels?) I purchased the service from both hotels, and I had almost the identical problem in each place. Several emails got rejected by the mail server of the recipient of the email messages. The reject messages indicated that the outgoing email server was the problem. In one case the mail server was on a spam watch list and in the other case the mail server was flagged as one that has been compromised and could be spreading viruses.

Since email is a critical communication device for my business, I had this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. What happened to my ISP’s mail servers???

The good news is that the problem was not my ISP’s outgoing mail servers, but rather the servers of the ISP service the hotels had contracted. (The rejection messages had the ISPs’ IP addresses in it, so I could trace the problem.) My concern went beyond the messages for which I got a rejection notice. How many other messages got rejected but no notice was sent to me? I don’t feel it’s an overstatement to say that the hotels’ internet access service was defective. (Isn’t this equivalent to a hotel room TV that doesn’t work or a clogged sink drain?)

The story doesn’t stop there. Since this was a difficult problem to describe in any specificity to those who don’t understand mail servers (which I really don’t!), I chose to raise the issue in writing to the hotel. On the first day in this Ritz hotel, I used the Contact Us form on their website to make the issue known, indicating I was a current guest with my name and room number. The message was supposed to be directed to the specific hotel with a promise of a response within 24 hours according to the web site.  Since I knew something about this hotel’s elaborate service recovery program — I use a business school teaching case on the hotel in my MBA classes — I was interested to see what would happen.

What happened? Nothing.

Later that month in the second hotel, a top-line Marriott in Plano Texas, I used the comment card in the hotel room to write down the issue, again with my name and room number. The card promises it will be reviewed that day by the manager or a key staff member. I dropped it at the front desk the first morning out of three I was there.

What happened? Again, nothing. Absolutely nothing.

(In this latter trip, I conversationally mentioned the problem to my client for whom I was conducting one of my Survey Design Workshops. The folks there told me to expect exactly the response that I got. The hotel had a reputation with that local business — and others — for not being responsive.  In fact, they usually steer visitors to another nearby hotel.

After these experiences most customers would have just defected to another hotel chain for future stays, but I am not the typical customer. I do not take “nothing” as a response. I did pay for the service after all. I also admit readily that I am tenacious in part to see how companies respond. I have a researcher’s mindset. Also, I preach the value of customer feedback, and it would be hypocritical of me not to practice what I preach. So, I pushed onward with my feedback!

The Ritz Carlton had a survey comment card. I typed up a half page description of my experiences and included it with my survey. The survey even had questions about whether I had experienced a problem and its resolution. I also sent this letter to the Ritz COO whose name was on the comment card. That got a response. I got a phone message from the hotel asking me to call back so they “could get my email back up and running.” Huh?  The barn door had closed weeks earlier. The person I did speak with offered me an upgrade the next time I am at that hotel, but the likelihood I’ll be in that area again is small. So the compensation offer is essentially meaningless.

I wasn’t sure to whom to write at the headquarters of Plano Marriott. (While the two hotel brands have common ownership, they have separate headquarters.) But by the happenstance of frequent travel, a few years back I sat next to a fairly senior person with this company. We had a delightful conversation — one of those rare flights that was actually too short — and stayed in touch. I wrote her asking to whom I should direct my comments. She took ownership for the problem and put me in touch with a senior person who has responsibility for the information technology (IT) at the hotels.

He and I had a good chat, and he quickly uncovered the root cause of the problems. In both cases the hotels were using ISP providers that were not on the approved corporate list. They had negotiated with these vendors on their own. This IT director thanked me for giving him the ammunition to make his case about the need for the hotels to adhere to standards.

While I like Marriotts, my confidence has been shaken. And previously I had had very positive service recovery experiences with the chain. I even wrote about that in my Customer Survey Guidebook. But in that case, it was a one-to-one interaction, and the employee offered compensation on the spot. Marriott’s company’s culture supports and promotes such empowerment. In the Ritz Carlton situation, the information system that supports complaint solicitation had apparently failed. In Plano Marriott, the company’s culture of responding to and addressing customer issues is apparently not well embedded at the top of that hotel’s hierarchy.

Most of us have stories like this, but stories have little value unless we learn from them.  What are the Lessons Learned from this anecdote?

  • Charging for defective products. Most obviously, if a company is going to charge for a premium service, it should not be defective.
  • Customer complaint solicitation systems. Having systems to solicit failure situations is critical. Both hotels had these solicitation mechanisms.
  • Act on the solicited information. Most critical is to be sure that solicited feedback from a customer complaint should not be ignored! Is there any better way to turn a customer into a lost customer than to ask for feedback, promise a response, and then ignore it?
  • Act promptly. After the fact offers to fix a problem are next to meaningless.
  • Compensate appropriately. If you are going to attempt service recovery by offering some form of compensation, it needs to be something that is truly of use to the customer. If you devise compensation schemes based on minimizing the direct cost of the compensation, you are bound to offer little of value to the customer. (I discussed Ralston’s Purina’s compensation matrix in another article.)
  • True programs that build customer loyalty. Customer loyalty is not secured with reward programs that provide rebates for frequent use. Customer loyalty is secured by 1) delivering true value in quality products and services, 2) cultivating customer relationships that demonstrate concern and empathy, then 3) providing rewards of value.

Tell me about your experiences with the customer complaint, service recovery, and rewards programs — or tell me how your company handles these customer feedback and loyalty processes.

Addendum. A reader asked if I was credited for the cost of the internet service. No, I was not. This surprised me. I did not ask, and it was not offered. All in the name of research…

A Sporting Service Recovery

Customer retention through increased customer loyalty is key to increased profitability since acquiring new customers is more expensive than keeping current ones. The obvious question is: how can this loyalty be attained. Customer loyalty is taxed most when a customer has a complaint. However, a problem is also an opportunity. Research (see references below) has shown that customers who have had a problem resolved effectively through a company’s service recovery actions are in fact more loyal than those who have not had a problem. So, a customer complaint is a bad news/good news situation. However, another caveat: poor handling of a customer issue will just further exacerbate customer dissatisfaction.

Service recovery is more than complaint handling. It is recovering a customer’s positive feelings about a company after a bad experience and taking action to resolve the root cause of the problem. Complaint handling connotes just addressing the negative. Service recovery means turning the issue into a positive — both for the customer and for the company through the learning opportunity.

I like to explore companies’ service recovery practices in my own economic transactions, and I’m always asking about others’ experiences. Awhile ago I received an inquiry about service recovery practices from Chris Gibbs, the Director of Client Services for the Toronto Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. “Service recovery in a sports franchise?” was the thought that hit me. My background — aside from my university teaching — is after-sales support services for technical products, and that industry has been my focus for customer satisfaction and loyalty work. However, web searches and keyword advertising has led to a broadened focus for my Survey Design Workshops, since the ads have garnered inquiries across industries and across organizational functions.

So, this opportunity to examine service recovery practices in another industry — particularly the sports industry —  piqued my interest. What service recovery lessons could a sports franchise provide? Intrigued, I took the opportunity presented by a trip to Toronto to visit with Chris. Earlier this year, I also the chance to hear Pete Winemiller, VP of Service Development for the Seattle SuperSonics and Seattle Storm speak at the Customer Care Institute’s conference. The two organizations share approaches, but with some difference in application.

Toronto Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment presents both hockey — the Maple Leafs — and basketball — the Raptors — as well as concerts and other events that use the Air Canada Centre, which it owns and operates. Gibbs’ focus is on the fan experience. His goal is to make the game or event an enjoyable experience (even if the home team loses).   The stadium should not be a distraction, but should be a positive part of the experience. They must meet the fans’ “basic expectations” — a clean building, fast food service, and friendly staff — but hopefully move beyond that to create “delighted” customers who will “spread the good word about our building and sports teams.” Equally importantly, they want to avoid “fan outrage” that may result when the fan feels he has been treated unfairly or have his personal security violated.

Similarly, the SuperSonics CEO Howard Schultz says, “We want to the most fan-centric organization in professional sports.” Not first class or world class, but “world famous” according to Winemiller  Schultz stresses to his staff that they are not in the basketball business, but in the people business. “Companies don’t ‘make’ money; they get it from their customers.” Winemiller’s team focuses on the “driveway to driveway experience” and to give fans “magic moments [not] tragic moments.”

Service Recovery in a Sports Franchise

But how does service recovery come into play with a sports team? Fans can have problems, anything from a spilled drink to a noisy obnoxious neighbor, a bad view or a more involved problem. Gibbs has three rules for handling recover situations: “recover quickly, recover effectively, and improve the situation.” To accomplish this, he has three levels of handling customer issues at the Air Canada Centre.

  1. Front line employees. Employees, the ushers, are empowered to handle a problem in their area. In essence, they own customer satisfaction in their section of the stadium. You might think that if a fan spills a drink or a child drops her hot dog, tough luck. Make them buy another. More business! (That was my expectation based on childhood memories at Fenway Park.) Instead, the ushers will get a replacement food item for the patron and get the mess cleaned up. In Gibb’s mind, this is an inexpensive opportunity to buy considerable fan goodwill and create “fan delight.” An usher may also arrange for a father and son who have tickets in the nose-bleed sections to sit in the lower boxes during practice. It’s these “little things that make the difference.”When dealing with the irate fan, Gibbs wants his employees to be skillful in defusing the issue by a) explaining the rationale behind any policies, not just hiding behind the blanket statement, b) by being flexible in implementing policies where logical, such as allowing a parent to bring food and juice for an infant, c) showing concern and empathy.
  2. Customer Service. Some problems require the action of the Centre’s customer service department, for example, if someone has a bad sight line at a concert at the Centre or that rather effusive (and possibly abusive) neighbor. Customer Service will relocate the person as best as possible, sometimes using the wheelchair locations that create some seating buffer. Once, a customer accidentally ripped his pants, splitting a seam. They got the fan into a back room and mended the pants. (I’m sure there was a TV in the waiting room so no action was missed.)
  3. Senior Staff. Some problems require decisions at Gibbs’ level. For example, at a Julio Iglesias concert, they received a huge number of complaints from one section due to the sound quality. The whole section was granted complimentary tickets for the next Iglesias concert in Toronto. Then there were the three guys from Israel who traveled all the way to Toronto to see the Raptors, but missed the game because they miscalculated the time zone change. Gibbs’ group played travel agent for the fans, changing their airplane tickets, getting them a cheap hotel, and giving them tickets to the next Raptors home game.For the SuperSonics, there is a similar emphasis on the front line for problem resolution. Since “70% of customers will provide repeat business if a problem is resolved eventually, but 95% will do business again if the problem is resolved on the spot,” the employees “have the green light to make your guest experience gold… The front line is the bottom-line all the time.”In fact, the SuperSonics don’t refer to the fans as customers, but rather as “guests” because of the connotations that word brings to how they should be treated. Winemiller pointed out that the second definition of “customer” in the American Heritage dictionary is “An individual with whom one must deal: a tough customer.” In fact, the SuperSonics don’t have a Customer Service department; rather, they have a Guest Care department.

This all reminds me of an article written many years ago by Tom Petzinger for his The Front Lines column in the Wall Street Journal, The Beer Man at Camden Yards. This beer vendor was a cut above all others. (At Camden Yards beer is served in the stands by vendors.) He had devised equipment that allowed him to pour beer twice as a fast. He knew all the season ticket holders in his sections and would greet people who came on borrowed tickets. What particularly astonished Tom was that he even chatted with the fans who didn’t drink beer. Everyone was his customer since all the fans contributed to each others’ enjoyment of the game. Amazingly, he didn’t collect money when he served. Instead, he’s come back in the late innings after beer serving had ended and collected. He trusted his patrons — and they were probably looser with tips at that point. Talk about an empowered employee taking ownership of customer satisfaction!

The Critical Role of Employees

Following the lessons of the Service Profit Chain, Gibbs quite openly states that the key to his success lies in his people. His goal is to get employees to own the fan experience. Tactically, his goal is to grow the number of employees who think this way and to practice the 3 Fs: Find, Fix, and Follow-up. But employee behaviors and practices don’t turn on a dime. Old ways die hard, especially when in a union environment.

maple-leafs-employee-cardGibbs has approached this challenge by winning over employees one at a time by showing the impact that good practices can have. Employees have a website where their work schedule is posted. This provides a mechanism for putting the positive points before the employees’ eyes on a regular basis. They have plaques on the wall with thank you letters from fans. Chris focuses on so-called “teachable points of view” (TOVs). TOVs are particularly difficult to instill in part-time employees who don’t have a long-term bond to the organization. Teaching through example is the approach that has worked best.

Gibbs also employ “mystery shoppers” who report on their experiences as a customer. To keep the cost of this research reasonable, they recruit customers and have employees to do the reporting. Mystery shoppers use a 70-question feedback form with coverage in 10 critical measurement areas. Interestingly, they don’t use the results as a club against bad employees. Instead, they publicly reward those employees who got a 100% rating, and privately communicate with those employees who didn’t receive the full score. This keeps the cultural message positive. They want to “catch people doing things right, not just doing things wrong.” According to Gibbs, “Measure what you need. Reward what you want repeated.” They also use this and other feedback “to learn from our failures or successes.”

For the SuperSonics, their challenges are perhaps greater since almost all of the 500-person staff at Key Arena works for the Arena and not for the SuperSonics, which rents the Arena. Their goal is to change employees’ “attitude of indifference… [to an] attitude of invitation” since “business goes where it’s invited but stays where it’s appreciated.”  They have “Think Big” ideas that prompt “Act Small” actions for the employees. RAVE is their motto which is “Respect And Value Everyone.” Plus they want their employees to CLICK with their guests.

supersonics-click-cardCommunicate courteously.
Listen to learn — learn from every question a guest asks.
Initiate immediately — deliver fast, waits just make the situation worse.
Create connections — connect with your guests.
Know your stuff — product knowledge, e.g., cost of concessions and ATM locations

The goal is to become CLICK certified: Winemiller also cited a UCLA study on how we communicate. The actual words only represented 7% of the communicated message. The tone of voice and nonverbal expression delivered most of the message at 38% and 55%, respectively.

His point is that people do what they’re shown to do, not what they’re told, and they work on communicating a totally positive message. Winemiller tells his employees, “It’s not doing one thing 100% better. It’s doing 100 things 1% better.” He asks everyone on this staff what 1 idea would they commit to improving 1% for the next year and to write it on a card with the CLICK logo worn hung from a lanyard. He wears one himself.

Managing the Customer’s Role in the Service Experience

In the classes I teach on service management, we stress that to deliver quality service, a service provider must manage all the different sources of variability, such as the variable arrival pattern of customers, the variable length of service delivery, and the variability that uncertain and unpredictable customers bring to the operation. These are the challenges that set service managers apart from their manufacturing peers.

Perhaps the most difficult variability to manage is the customer-to-customer interaction. Ever been at the movies when someone talks throughout the movie — on a cell phone! — or on a plane where the person in the row in back of you constantly kicks your seat back? Think of the fan-to-fan interactions possible at a sporting event. Fan relocation is common, and the Gibbs’ group at the Air Canada Centre has gotten good at handling this. Why? They’ve learned from their history. Plus, there’s repetition. The same fans — season ticket holders — return again and again.

The real challenge lies with concerts held at the Centre. Each concert is unique to some extent. Sound systems are arranged differently, and you don’t have the same fans seated next to each other repeatedly. So, even with lots of experience, unpredictable problems with seating will demand resolution on an individual basis. They will relocate fans with obstructed view seats on the spot where possible.

The customer’s role in the service experience poses an interesting question for service managers who must handle service recovery. Is the customer always right? Gibbs feels that for tangible products, the customer is always right assuming they did their due diligence to learn what they bought. But with services, the customer’s role in the service experience has to be added to the calculus. The customer is not always right. So they have a debate about when the customer is owed an apology and when he is not.

Service Recovery Outcomes

What’s the result of their service recovery practices? The Maple Leafs have a 97% season ticket renewal rate. The Maple Leafs are a Toronto — a Canadian – institution, so the fan loyalty would be high. But loyalty can change quickly. In my home town, Boston, the Bruins were perennial sell outs even when the Celtics had championship teams. Lately, though, attendance has fallen precipitously — and with the strike resolved who knows were attendance will go. A better team would certainly have helped, but would better service recovery practices also have helped? In Toronto the Maple Leafs have the Blue Jays’ experience from which to learn. In the early 1990s, the Blue Jays sold out regularly, but when the team on the field weakened, so did attendance. Did the Blue Jays take their fans for granted? Maybe that’s part of why they recently bought their ball park to better control the fan experience.

The Maple Leafs want to be sure their fans don’t feel taken for granted. Each year tickets for seasons ticket holders are delivered in some handsome gift set, e.g., in a beautiful wooden box with other Maple Leaf mementos to demonstrate an appreciation for the fans.

Lessons from the Sports World

What lessons can be drawn from these examples of service recovery in a sports environment?

  • Positive customer satisfaction is more than the lack of customer dissatisfaction.
  • Meeting the basic expectations does not bond customers to an enterprise.
  • Service recovery promotes a proactive attitude toward improving customer satisfaction.
  • The key tenets of service recovery: Listen, Resolve, Compensate, and Learn.
  • Empowered employees — who want to use their empowerment — are key to a service recovery program.
  • The culture must be ready for service recovery since employees must own it and drive it.
  • Leadership – and leading by example — is critical to establishing the proper culture.

Service recovery, while typically funded from an operational budget, is really a marketing program. This type of program can deliver a very high ROI through its effects on customer retention.

Articles on Service Recovery

Here are useful articles and links on service recovery:

  • “The Profitable Art of Service Recovery,” Christopher W.L. Hart, James L. Heskett, W. Earl Sasser, Jr., Harvard Business Review, 1990, Reprint #90407.  (also available from Amazon)
  • “Recovering and Learning from Service Behavior,” Stephen S. Tax & Stephen W. Brown, MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 1998, pp 75-88, Reprint 4016.
  • “Putting the Service Chain to Work,” James Heskett & Thomas O. Jones, Harvard Business Review, March/April 1994, vol 72.
  • The Service Profit Chain, James L. Heskett, W. Earl Sasser, Leonard A. Schlesinger, Free Press, 1997.
  • The Value Profit Chain, James L. Heskett, W. Earl Sasser, Leonard A. Schlesinger, Free Press, 2003.
  • “Understanding Customer Delight and Outrage,” Benjamin Schneider, David E. Bowen, MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 1999, pp 75-88.
  • Knock Your Socks Off Service Recovery, Ron Zemke, Chip R. Bell, AMA
  • Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service, Kristin Anderson, Ron Zemke, AMA, 1998.

Also, a couple of vendors have software applications that help manage the complaint handling process to effect positive service recovery.

The Support Bullpen

I am a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. Only with the Sox triumph in 2004 has that statement lost its sense of being the confession of a masochist. It’s also a strange way to open an article on customer support, but there is a connection.

In the mid ’60s when the Red Sox were a perennial 9th place finisher in a ten-team division, their one bright spot was Dick Radatz, the Monster (pronounced “Monstah” in Bostonian). He was one of the premier relief pitchers of his day, a pitcher who could bring a fast ball to the plate at 95+ miles per hour and intimidate batters the way Randy Johnson does today. Mr. Radatz’ current career is as a sports talk commentator on a local Boston radio station. In that banal medium, he’s a joy to hear because he brings as much intelligence to his insights as he did speed to his fast ball.

Frequently, he talks about how the role of the relief pitcher has changed in baseball. In his day, pitchers were starting pitchers — period — unless they weren’t good enough. Then they were “relegated” to the bullpen. The best relievers then were used far differently from today. Relievers were brought into games in the 7th or 8th inning with runners on 1st and 3rd, one out and with the heart of the opponent’s lineup coming to bat. If they got through that jam, they’d be expected to finish the game.

Dick Radatz was one not-good-enough-to-start pitcher who prospered in the bullpen. Perhaps his most storied appearance came in a Friday night game at Fenway Park in 1963, when the Sox were leading the ever-dominant Yankees by 1-0 late in the game. Radatz relieved Earl Wilson, inheriting the bases loaded, and proceeded to strike out Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard — on a total of 10 pitches. Now that’s a firefighter!

And that’s what relievers were back then: firefighters. Today, the best relief pitcher on a staff only pitches when there’s a lead to protect, and he pitches only one inning: the 9th. He starts the inning, only facing jams of his own making — or his fielders’. He’s a closer, not a firefighter.

Mr. Radatz bemoans the highly specialized nature of baseball today. The best relievers don’t pitch when their mettle would be most tested. Radatz thrived in the pressure situations, and he most respects the pitchers who want the ball in the crunch. As a baseball fan, I share his feelings, but when it comes to support service organizations, I’ll opt for the closer role.

After all, Support groups are the relief pitchers of their organizations. Their job is to make sure the company wins the game in crunch time, keeping the customer. Product marketing and design engineering are the starters, pitching the early innings of product development. Quality assurance takes over before the 7th inning stretch and, if everyone does the job correctly, there’s no need for relief at all. If relief by Support is needed, hopefully it’s as a closer, coming in to answer questions about using the product in a unique environment.

When the starters and middle relievers don’t do their jobs and the customer gets a flawed product, then Support comes in as a firefighter. The Support firefighters compensate for the poor quality of the delivered product, responding after a quick warm-up, always pitching from the stretch. Many in Support bemoan the firefighter role but I suspect many also cherish it, getting a thrill over meeting the challenge and saving the day.

Support in a closer role is evidence of a mature company. There’s cross-functional collaboration with starters sharing information with the relief corps, and the relievers sharing information in turn and helping plan the pitching strategy for the next game. In a mature company, those not good enough to open a game aren’t relegated to the Support bullpen. The Support closer position is now a positive career move.

As I watch the Red Sox tease me into thinking they might do something in the post season — besides proclaiming “wait ’till next year” — I may be nostalgic for the less specialized use of a team’s roster from years gone by, but in business let’s strive to avoid facing Maris, Mantle and Howard with the bases loaded.

~ ~ ~

On March 16, 2005, Dick Radatz passed away from a fall in his home in Easton, Mass. But those of us who saw him pitch will always remember him fondly.

True Customer Care

At the start of another year, many of us make resolutions for the forthcoming year. For me, the time has led me to reflect back on 2003 and self-assess. Personally, 2003 has been a tough year, having become an orphan with the passing of both of my elderly parents. (We also lost a cherished feline friend in the fall.) The passing of a loved one opens up emotional wounds, but it’s also a time when those wounds are healed by family, colleagues, and friends who reach out. Until one walks in those shoes, the meaning of that caring cannot be understood or appreciated.  It lends new perspectives even for our business lives.

When my mother passed away in March, I was touched by some in a way that holds lessons for our world of customer service. My mother was 86, living in a nursing home with my dad, suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her passing while sad was in part a blessing. My sister and I were with her when she passed at about 7 in the evening.  Being there with her lent a sense of closure that is hard to describe.

It was known in the home that my mother was under hospice care, and her passing quietly became known to the staff on the floor. After she passed, my sister and I went into the hallway to tell our father. He understood, and we sat there for some time sharing our grief as a family in silence. Then something simple, yet powerfully beautiful happened. The three primary care workers on the floor that evening came over to us, hugged my dad, and expressed their condolences.

No one told them to do that.

They did it on their own — because they genuinely cared about the people in their charge. Both my sister and I were sincerely moved.

Consider this basic, humane act for a moment. These three workers have a job that few of us would want. It pays barely above being a hamburger flipper, and it is truly a job that must try one’s patience. The positions are typically filled by immigrants, in this case predominantly from Haiti, people who have come to this country with a strong work ethic and a desire for a better life for them and their family — much as my grandparents did over a century ago.

Yet, they genuinely cared about their charges.

The next day, one of the aides, Sanna, who typically cared for my dad spent considerable time with my dad. That may not seem special at first glance — except that it was his day off.

Many of you reading this article work in organizations called “Customer Care.” Is it merely a slogan meant to try to instill a feeling of empathy into your employees’ interactions with your customers? Or do your employees truly care? My experience related above shows that it is possible for front-line workers to truly care, and I wish I could bottle the elixir used at the Devreux House where my parents lived their final days. Is it hiring practices, training, the culture practiced by leadership — or a combination of all?

Lacking that elixir, I do know that for 2004 I’m going to show the people in my life how much I care for them.

Computer Owners’ Bill of Rights

Spring never arrived here in the Northeast in 2003, Summer is here, a vacation is on the near horizon, and I should be happy — no more getting stuck behind school buses. But I thought I’d start the summer off with a good rant.

Do we need a Bill of Rights for computer owners?

No this isn’t a rhetorical question. Senator Mark Dayton from Minnesota is inquiring into this idea. His official website is soliciting input from anyone on this topic. (Note: the link is now dead.)  Below is an excerpt from that website.

Have you ever had a problem with your computer, called for help, and thought you’d be on hold for the rest of your life? Or finally get connected to a tech rep who was uninterested, incomprehensible, and wrong?

Ever buy a new or upgraded computer, parts, or programs, which didn’t work, and find that no one else cared? That no one would take responsibility? And that there was nowhere to report rip-offs, fraudulent advertising, or failed assurances?

That is why I am putting together legislation to establish a “Computer Owners’ Bill of Rights.” But first, I would like to hear about your experiences with computer manufacturers and retailers, hardware or software companies; how they did right, or how they did wrong; and what you think should be done — and not be done — to bring better reliability and accountability to this always changing industry?

Now, do I believe that companies should provide good support? Of course I do. And as someone from the support industry nothing ticks me off more than lousy support (except the Yankees always winning). But do we want the government to muck around in the computer industry — and I think Senator Dayton means any IT products? Sure there have been bumps in the industry in the past few years, but has the IT industry been the engine of growth because of the government?

Governments have some legitimate roles in promoting commerce and the economy.  They should provide the infrastructure — legal, financial, and informational — but is there such a gross market failure in the computer industry that there is a compelling need for the government to intercede? There have been recent moves to amend the Uniform Commercial Code in regards to software, which would virtually absolve software publishers from any responsibility for the quality of their products. (For detailed information click here.) But the legislation that the senator appears to be contemplating would go toward regulating on a detailed, process level. Will it do more harm or good? The most troubled industries in our economy are typically the ones most regulated by the government. Is the government regulation an effect or the cause?

I’m not saying there aren’t flaws in the way we comport ourselves as an industry. In fact, this type of legislative solution to bad marketplace practice should be a wake up call for the industry. But what do we need? In my opinion we need education and more complete disclosure of information to aid rational decision-making. Most of you reading this are in the support industry. When you bought your last home electronics item, did you check out the support the company offered on the product? Did you even bother to find out what support they offered? I doubt it. If we in the support industry don’t do this, then who else would?

I’m “writing” this on a spanking new laptop, and I did check out the warranty that Fujitsu offers. (My business is on this PC, after all.) I even bought 2 extra years of warranty for $100. But did I check out the support offered by Eisenworld on its $70 Alohabob product that moves applications, settings, and data from one PC to another? No, I didn’t, and I wish I had — but that’s a topic for another good rant.

Perhaps the best indication of the general lack of knowledge about the importance of support lies in product marketing. How many companies market the support they provide on their products as a key feature consumers should consider? We constantly hear the statistics that acquisition costs represent a small portion of a product’s life time costs, so why isn’t this a compelling area for competitive advantage and effective marketing? Got me.

What are your thoughts? Don’t tell just me. Tell Senator Dayton. (Well, you can’t anymore…)