Friends have been e-mailing me, “are you all right, we’ve been calling and can’t get through”. Truth is, I’m fine; but with the phone down, I’m also unable to reset the pin number to retrieve my home voicemail— which must be accessed through the now incapacitated phone. Another minor example of customer dissatisfaction. But as my colleague, Jim Oher, commented yesterday, the broken-ness of an organizational system is a matter of perspective.

It is entirely possible that customer discomfort is handled neatly within the system: it never appears as a distress signal that the organization may be in trouble. How? Well, several of the people I spoke with about the problem— customer service personnel all– verbally sympathized with my situation ( I can’t imagine the emotional residue at day’s end on that job, fielding frustrated complaints all day…..) and then asked me if THEIR performance was correct. They asked me to award them a “5″ on a 5-point scale, should I be contacted by the organization, assessing their performance.

The brilliance of this move is that the organization has neatly compartmentalized the relation between customer and itself— locating all difficulty in the performance of the customer service personnel, who are graded by unsatisfied customers. Graded for what? Adequacy of performance in a limited range of behaviors that do not achieve genuine adequacy of service delivery. Here is the brilliance: each of the people I spoke to DESERVED their 5′s!!!! Each functioned within the bounded range of their authority to full capacity. The customer service people were able to call, but not to influence the dispatchers. They were also able to report to me, as did the dispatchers, that no one was able to contact the field technician: and the almost comical assumption on their part (and so my own hope) was that he would certainly be arriving late. But perhaps he took the day off and never told anyone. Didn’t matter. The system contained this information within its separate parts. It never had to flow upwards.

If anyone felt distress beyond the customer, it was the customer service telephone operator: and she was at the bottom of the corporate food chain, containing distress and channeling it however she might. So, the organization was regulating its own dysfunctional emotional life (remember: it could not locate its field technician!) by 1) outsourcing anxiety to the customer; and 2) limiting internal anxiety to low-grade personnel, whose job description is to placate angry customers (the “why” of their annoyance, systemically irrelevant). One can almost hear an executive, higher up, say, “let them suck it up.”

As with Jim’s example of the power company, my phone company example concerned a monopoly. The customer has only one possibility for service: so the power rests entirely with the organization. There is no demand to listen. When and how does the monopoly begin to hear? As in the current case with BP, when consumer outrage becomes so loud that Obama announces that BP must cut its dividend and the stock value plummets 15%, something gets through. But unfortunately, its amplification generally obscures the message: the customer is always right.

From the organization’s perspective, the answer is sure, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Here’s an example of what I was talking about a few posts back in “Thinking Out Loud”: the considerations within the scope of the organizational manager tasked to handle a problem (in the present case, telephone service disruption) are too limited to do anything effective about the problem. She is constrained to placating the customer and passing the word to dispatch. Limitation of her role and fragmentation of service delivery maintain the organizational fiction that all is well. The problems seem to disappear within the confines of organizational boundaries.

WHAT IS MISSING IS REFLECTION: AN INDIVIDUAL OR INTERNAL GROUP, TASKED WITH LOOKING AT THE KNOWLEDGE CONTAINED WITHIN THE SYSTEM (all conversations with customer service were recorded!) THAT SOMETHING IS WRONG.

Of course, until that information is recognized as potentially meaningful systemic knowledge, nothing will happen.

The customer’s service disruption mirrors the organization’s disinterest or incapability in recognizing systemic knowledge linking its internal functioning with the external world of the end user: the telephone company’s line is dead.

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