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Saturday, July 14, 2012

When slower is better

I once noticed something peculiar about the way customers would respond to tickets. This was back in the day when various managerial types were having me run reports of "ticket crunchers" and they were cross-referencing them with "kudos" from customers. Basically, if a customer said something nice about you in a ticket or out of band, it might get forwarded to one of the secretaries who would then paste it into a big file.

At the end of a quarter, the top 10 ticket crunchers would get these acrylic plaques, and there were also awards for the "fan club" -- those techs with the most kudos from customers. One quarter, I got a bunch of ticket cruncher awards, but never got any fan club awards. I figured that doing more tickets would naturally increase the odds of getting something like that, but it didn't seem to work that way.

I brought this up with one of my coworkers, and he had something interesting to say about it. As far as he could tell, customers tended to dump lots of praise on you after you did something which sounded really difficult. In effect, it was a task which seemed like it would require a lot of effort, but you did it for them anyway.

I realized this could be gamed. You could make a task sound like it will be a lot of work for you, and then you would go ahead and do it anyway because "you really like them". They'd think it was some kind of special treatment just for them, and a lot of times, the tech would be complimented for it. Some actually received gifts in the mail. I'm talking about Christmas cards, boxes of cigars and things like this.

This made me pause and reflect on exactly what we were doing with tickets. Could it be that some tickets need to actually be handled in something other than the shortest path from A to B? Instead of just doing whatever, comment that it'll be mildly tricky, then come back later and say "oh, I figured it out, enjoy!" after that?

Many, if not most, of my tickets were of the form "oh, you needed A B and C, and I did A and B since it's right here on the box, so just do C in your stuff and you'll be good". The customers didn't seem to be overjoyed with that, but they were at least satisfied.

After thinking about this some more later that night, I sent some mail to my friend. In it, I basically said that customers may think that a given issue is tricky for them, and therefore it should be tricky for us. When we overcome the obstacle for them, they feel relieved and the kudos comments follow when they mark a ticket "solved".

I continued by saying this was really odd, since it basically means that someone who is not quite at the top of their game, or someone who pretends not to be will actually succeed whereas others will not.

I also added that there are customers who play hardball and don't want to hear (or get) anything less than the best, but those guys never send kudos anyway.

Last, I proposed "an experiment into the realm of human nature": we should try to get everyone to lower themselves by a notch or two on the "I know more than the customer" scale for a couple of days. Then we should just pay attention and see what happens.

The next day at work, I brought up this hypothesis with some other people on my team, and none of them agreed with it. All I wanted was some cooperation to try something a little different for a few days as an experiment, but nobody wanted a piece of it.

I was thoroughly disappointed. Here, we had an interesting bit of human behavior and the opportunity to twiddle some variables to possibly deliver a better experience (at the expense of authentic behavior), but nobody wanted to even try measuring it.

Anyway, that was many years ago. So, imagine my surprise when I was trolling through the new section of Hacker News the other day and came across a post from 2010 about purposely adding delays to things to increase perceived value.

To me, this seems to be the fourth-dimension equivalent of putting bulk metal weights in consumer electronics (like telephones) just to make them seem heavier than they otherwise would. It can overcome the belief that "light = cheap" by putting itself in the realm of "heavy = reliable".

If there is any truth to this, then it seems likely that people and/or systems which are too good, too reliable, or too responsive may actually fail in the presence of others which deliver the expected lag or limitations.

This blows my mind.