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In Customer Service: "Trust, but Verify”

When I advise teams, I make a point of how design principles change based on market, complexity, product flexibility, and customer profile. There is not a magic one-size-fits-all approach to support models (or to much else in life). Even so, I think this “trust” principle merits global consideration.

While a goal of “taking the customer at his word in all things” is admirable, it can actually create problems for the customer, your company, and your reputation. This is particularly true in technical or financial service support.

This isn’t a cynical view. Instead, we are simply taking into account the reality: People often do as they are incented to do. As third parties, we don’t always have a good view of those incentives. We shouldn’t judge, but we do need to verify key things are as they should be, particularly before taking important actions. Take one example I have seen over the years where customers are disincented from being entirely truthful: software warranty.

In the world of enterprise software, customer administrators are told in our warranty and documentation not to activate certain settings in certain combinations on certain hardware. If they miss or ignore these caveats, administrators may damage the capacity or stability of the product. They put themselves in configurations technical support cannot diagnose or support. Nevertheless, some administrators will consciously deploy unsupported configurations and either forget or hide them later on. This can invalidate technicians’ diagnostic tools and routines when problems later arise. Worse, it can cause our troubleshooting to further damage the customer’s systems and data.

A more robust approach is, "Trust, but verify." This is not just a good idea. It is essential in some service disciplines to ensure you have the information you need to render good service. It also helps eliminate situations where the customers are trying to get you to help them do something that... perhaps... they shouldn't be doing.

Faction: The Dangerous Vice

Our two-faction US Debt Supercommittee has predictably failed even to decrease the rate of increase of our national debt. The words of a Founding Father ring out across the horizons of time:

“Beware the mischief of Faction. Faction [being] a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or interest adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” – James Madison

Forget the specifics of cuts and revenues. One thing is now clear to all except the partisans themselves: We are in a quicksand of destructive faction and partisanship.

I, for one, am tired of our current factions. I am ready for something else.

Congress’s persistently underwhelming 15% approval rating leads me to think I am not alone. I wonder what it will finally take to spur true change? I hope we do not come face to face with the horrors of the first Great Depression before we finally find the will to change all that must be changed.

Black Swans and Rogue Antelopes

(This video clip has spot of bad language. Watch your play-back volume).

News Flash: Just because something is implausible, that doesn't make it impossible.

Would you buy that out in the middle of a wide open savannah this lone antelope, bounding across hundreds of square miles of grass, decided to alter his pace and intentionally knock this man off his bike? While moving at full speed?

Most likely… no. You’re not going to believe it.

This extends to most of our systems, including business and the law. Our systems don’t like the implausible or the unexpected. In fact they are often designed to assume the expected has happened, even when it hasn’t.

This differs from a ‘Black Swan’ event. In Black Swan theory, it is assumed that something incredibly rare has happened. Exactly what has happened is fairly clear and believable... once it actually happens.

In our new case, there is a question of believability after-the-fact. So let’s give this a new name. Let’s call it a ‘Rogue Antelope’ event. ‘Rogue Antelopes’ are simply not planned for, not measured for, and are hotly disputed once they do happen.

Mature business efforts are in more of a ‘maintenance mode.’ In such projects, unusual things don’t often happen. If they do, there should be a well-developed set of metrics, measures and monitors that either capture a Rogue Antelope event or indirectly confirm it.

So. Why does this matter?

You need to believe a Rogue Antelope struck and have it relayed with enough fidelity that whatever you do to recover from it, you’re doing the RIGHT thing. More importantly, you need to understand this was a fluke, rather than suddenly diverting effort to protect against the repeat of a one-in-a-billion event.

You cannot spend all your time dreaming up every scenario and planning ahead for Rogue Antelopes. If you try, you’ll simply build an expensive, hopelessly complicated mess.

What you can do is: identify the environments or stages of a project where you might see a Rogue Antelope. Then, put a couple of your best people on those projects, at those times, in those environments. By ‘best people’, we mean people who:

  * Have a proven track record and have little motive to invent an antelope.
  * Are familiar enough with the context that when the antelope pops up, they will recognize it.
  * Can speak the language of your discipline well enough to accurately describe the antelope.
  * Are briefed that risk and inefficiency are ok to bake into some projects; this is such a project.

It isn’t important to predict the implausible during new ventures. However, it is important to put trustworthy people on point who can tell the difference between the implausible and a silly mistake.

My Brief Reflection on Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs of course passed away on October 5th. It is a day that will likely survive many decades or even centuries of edit passes in the history books.

I work at a company that espouses open standards somewhat antithetical to the Apple approach. I don't own a single Apple product. The only Apple service I've touched in the last 4 years is iTunes. (Sparingly, at that).

However, I recognize the genius that was Jobs and the fact that even if I wasn't using what he directly created via Apple, his work to put accessible, quality, pervasive, empowering consumer technology into the market moved the marketplace. Steve Jobs made that which I use better. Even though I'm not an 'Apple fanboi' by any stretch, it is folly not to recognize genius and reflect on its lessons.

I have used this time to quietly revisit some of the lessons of Steve Jobs' life. As authors now try to distill the essence of his success and watch it play out over the next decade, I look forward to perhaps learning as much from him in his death as we ever did during his life. That may be the ultimate compliment I can pay to any person.

RIP Steve Jobs.

Standing Up on the Board

Why write a blog? I’m sure the answers to this are about as varied as the people who write blogs. So why have I just now started to blog after 18+ years of working with collaborative software, the Internet and then the Web?

“I am standing up on the board.”

I casually surfed the Web for years. (At least, I’ve done what most define as Web surfing). I frequently come across ideas I might expand upon, or which I felt I should try to get on top of a bit more to see what they yield.  With the best of intentions I’d copy-paste a link locally here, or save a Web page to my hard drive there. Often I would type out a couple bullets to investigate or dwell on later. Then I’d end up racing to my next fire drill of the day.

A few weeks later when I stumble across my notes, I see the words. But I can’t get inside them anymore. I didn’t integrate them into my thinking.

It is as though I initially lounged on the beach or in the shallows, made note of a nice wave further out and thought, “Gee, that would probably be an awesome wave to catch.” I fancied what it is like but I didn’t paddle out with my board and get on top of it.

Now I can’t really say what that wave was like. I didn’t experience the wave. I just glanced at it, daydreamed, and moved on to the next daydream. And the wave isn’t just the static tweet or Web page. It is the content paired with whatever ‘clicked’ about it in my stream of consciousness at that time, in that context, along that current.

The wave isn’t a photograph of the wave you can look at later. It is the wave itself.

I’ve come to believe the metaphor of surfing the Web (and now, surfing Social Media) isn’t really correct unless I try to engage the wave. Just glancing from one wave to the next as they dissipate is somehow ‘less.’

Blogging is my attempt to paddle out to interesting waves and better experience them… to actively experience them.

I don’t expect any wave to last very long. I don’t even expect to find others out in the early morning trying to catch the same waves. But when I do come across a couple others who share a wave, hopefully we’ll be able to relay the experience with more power and eloquence than those daydreaming about it from afar.

Blogging is my attempt to stand up on the board.