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The System Made Me Do It

It was about 9:30 at night, and the refrigerator was behaving very, very badly. One clue was the fact that water was constantly dripping out of the back. Another clue was that things inside were getting less cold inside instead of staying as crisp as they're supposed to. A quick call to the friendly family handyman wasn't much help, and so we called a major appliance repair service.

The woman I talked to on the phone was delightful. She understood exactly what I wanted, asked me a few questions, and then offered me a couple of options. Option #1 was that a technician could be out there that night. That would cost me a pretty high minimum charge. If I selected that, she'd tell me about when the technician would be there. The other option was to get service the next day, and that would cost a bit less.

My decision logic was pretty simple, "What time will someone be here tomorrow if we choose that option?" The answer was, "Sometime between 7:30 a.m. and noon." That seemed like a sensible choice to me, since things weren't going bad all that fast. I chose the less expensive option.

When I was done with that, I re-confirmed with the woman what time the technician would be here. Yep, it was between 7:30 a.m. and noon. We made a couple of calls to rearrange our day so that someone would be here through that time, and went off to bed.

In the morning, I was there waiting for the technician at 7:30. I was still waiting at noon. At that point I called back the service and got an automated system that told me that the time my service call was scheduled for was between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m.

That time was so different than what I'd been told before that I called back and got an actual human operator. She confirmed that it was 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. Stunned, I asked why I had been told 7:30 a.m. to noon. "Oh," she said, "On emergency calls we have to work you in and we don't guarantee times."

That set us off on a short discussion of since times couldn't be guaranteed, why the operator the night before had, in fact, given me a time window. What I was upset about there was not so much that things would be late, though I would have made a different decision if I'd known that, but more that I'd been given a piece of bad information.

If the folks on the phone had told me they couldn't guarantee times, or that I needed to call back in the morning to check on when folks might be there, I wouldn't have liked it, but I would have known what I was dealing with. And I would probably have made a different decision.

I conveyed that to the young woman. She told me that they had a new scheduling system, and that she had no choice. She didn't understand why that made me angry. I asked for a supervisor.

When I got the supervisor, I basically got the same dance. They were willing to do all sorts of things like call the technician and see if he could move me up, but no one was willing to say, "Hey, look, we gave you bad information and we shouldn't have done that."

They told me how the system didn't work quite right that it was new. They told me that they didn't have any responsibility for the operators. This was true even though I worked up the chain two more levels of supervision. Apparently no one at this company supervises their operators or is responsible for their performance.

What I was getting was something that is increasingly common these days. People have no responsibility, because they can blame everything on a system. It's like the old line about "the dog ate my homework," except it's not a dog, it's a "system" of some kind that's doing the evil.

Well, OK, let's work through some of the options. First, the system could have been bad. In that case, the operator I spoke to the night before should have known that, and should have been able to convey to me what reasonable expectations were. She didn't do that. Instead, she gave me a specific time.

If she gave me that time -- knowing that the system couldn't deliver it -- then she was lying. If she gave me that time unaware that the system couldn't guarantee it, then she was poorly trained. It really doesn't matter which option there was, the result was that I had wasted a morning, and we had re-arranged several schedules for the day.

And no one was willing to apologize. It wasn't their fault, after all. The system made them do it.

Let's compare that with some service I'd gotten just the day before from Dell Computer. The display on my laptop had suddenly quit displaying. You could look at it and see little faint images on there, but it really wasn't doing the job it was supposed to do.

I could get my work done if I plugged in an external monitor to my laptop, but I generally don't carry spare monitors around with me. And turning my laptop into a desktop computer wasn't the best thing for my productivity.

So, I called Dell. I'd purchased a service agreement that provided for parts and labor and twenty-four hour service, with some conditions. I found out that the display issue would be covered by my agreement. Dell would ship the necessary part to a local technician that they had a contract with. The technician would then come by and heal my computer. At least, that's what should happen, they told me, if the part was in stock.

Note the magic word, "should." The rep I talked to at Dell gave me the situation as it was. He told me that while the computer showed that the part was in inventory, that occasionally that screwed up. If the computer inventory figure was wrong, then I might not be able to have the part in Wilmington for the technician to use. He told me when I could call to check and see if the part had been shipped. Okay, I understood.

Because I was armed with information, I was able to call back the next day and find out the status of my repair. I found out the part had been shipped to Wilmington. We confirmed that it had been delivered at about nine o'clock. I was told to expect a service call within the next two hours.

Now things started to go bad. Two hours came and two hours went. So did three hours. So did four hours. I was starting to get nervous. And, to make my blood pressure move up just a bit more, it was Friday afternoon. If the tech didn't get here soon, it would be time for the weekend and I'd be without display until next week.

When I finally called Dell back, I was able to get the cell phone number for the technician who was supposed to do my repair. I called the number and he called me back very promptly. "What time do you need service," he inquired?

I told him I needed it today -- that it was on a twenty-four hour service contract. He then told me about all the appointments he had. I told him I didn't care. He said he'd have to call me back. He also told me that he'd only just gotten the call.

He called back in a couple of minutes and we scheduled a time for later in the day. He kept it. He came to where I had the computer. He fixed it. And he left. It wasn't the greatest experience in the world, but it was far better than the experience with the refrigerator.

In both instances, people I spoke with on the phone took the position that they were not responsible for whether my problem got solved. The difference was that the people at Dell clearly defined what they were responsible for, and what they were not. They gave me information that let me connect with the people who were responsible. And, because their information system worked well, I had information about what to expect and other information to use to deal with those responsible.

While the tech was fixing my computer, I asked them when he'd actually gotten the call. He said, "Right when I told you." My next step was to bring up the fact that the airborne delivery was at nine in the morning and that we talked to the dispatcher at about one o'clock.

He just looked at me. "I'm not kidding," he said, "I got the call from dispatch right before I got your call. The dispatched call was to swing by and pick up the part so I could do your service. There wasn't any mention of priority."

Was he telling the truth? I don't know. It doesn't really matter. Because I knew information and had some reasonable expectations, I could put pressure where it needed to be to get the service that was promised.

The guy who fixed my computer and the guy who fixed the refrigerator were a lot alike. They were both competent and personable. They both gave me a way to contact them directly if their repair failed for some reason. They took responsibility for their work.

That's a good ending, but it's not the whole story, and it's not the big problem. The big problem is that we've come to a point where people blame computers for bad information. We've come to a point where people often will tell you that they're sorry, but don't move on to the next step of making things right. We've come to a point where people can freely admit responsibility and expect that there will be no consequences. That's not good, and it's not healthy.

So what does that mean to you? Well, it means different things if you're a consumer or if you're running a business that serves people.

If you're a consumer, it means that you have to be resolute and diligent in pursuing follow up of just about any promise that anyone makes to you. That's a sad but true state of affairs. If I had not made several callbacks on my computer and the refrigerator, neither one of them would have been fixed in anything like the time they were supposed to be. It means that you have to be, in the words of my friend, Daphne Markham, "politely persistent."

What about if you're a business? Then you need to make honesty and responsibility things that you value. Most people will understand realities if you present them. There's the occasional jerk who will go off and yell and scream and threaten to write letters to the World Health Organization or something like that, but most people understand pretty well if you give them the straight scoop.

They need to know what to expect. And they need to know what to do if what they expect doesn't happen. What's the follow up course? What's Plan B?

This has very little to do with computer systems and a whole lot to do with the way you handle supervision. People have to be held accountable for what they say. If they're giving out bad information, creating false hopes, setting up unrealistic expectations because they have bad information from the system, the system needs to be fixed. If they don't know how to use the system properly, they need to be trained. If neither of those is true and they're giving out bad information because they simply don't care or think it matters, or because it's easier they need to be disciplined.

A great advertising executive, David Ogilvy, used to say that, "in reputable businesses, promises are always kept." I wish David were here today and running the company that scheduled my refrigerator repair.


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