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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.