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Monday, August 1, 2011

Learn the actual business or perish

I've done the BOFH thing and I've done the friendly and helpful person who picks up the phone thing. It was a wee bit unusual to have a call go straight to me, but in times of extreme incoming call load, it would happen. Customers loved it when I would take care of them without putting them on hold or transferring them. I'd even take care of trivial Windows issues if it was just something dumb they needed that I could do. The one-call-and-it's-done thing was important.

Even though that sort of role was seen as a relatively low caste within that company, it was foolish for anyone to think that. That company sold "service, not servers", as a few people had in their .sig. It didn't matter how smart or capable you were. If you were in Support, you couldn't have been that good to some of these haters.

This lack of respect for the actual product also had other ramifications. People were being hired into that company without any idea of how actual customer interactions worked. When I wound up on a "meta" support team (supporting the internal support teams, if that makes any sense), I ran into far too many of these people. They'd have their magic pie in the sky ideas, like how to sort tickets so you could see what was taking up most of your support time.

Here they were, having never talked to a real customer, and they were supposed to be the ones to improve those situations. How is that even possible? I came up with an idea: everyone should work front-line support for some nontrivial amount of time when they join the company. I really did mean everyone. Also, anyone who was hired before that point would be expected to make it happen, so everyone would be on the same footing.

It never happened, naturally. It was seen as just another crackpot idea from people who don't matter.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this CBS show called "Undercover Boss". I wept with joy to see that even in a screwy reality-show way, some small part of my idea was seeing the light. Incidentally, full disclosure here: it's not really my idea. I got it from watching Michael Moore ask a bunch of auto maker CEOs if they could change the oil in their cars. One actually invited him to a garage and they did exactly that. There's a car company which is not likely to invent a horrible oil drain plug, since it'll annoy their CEO.

I started watching the show, and while I saw some bits of interest where various executive types would finally hear about what was going on, I also realized they were not seeing the bigger picture. You'd see them go back to their boards and say "we need to fix X, Y and Z". That's great and all, but that will only fix X, Y, and Z. In six months, there will be several more things which broke the same way that will need yet another undercover mission to figure out.

Why is this? Simple. Instead of fixing the communications problem which is keeping them from knowing what's actually going on and having them be squared away, or somehow empowering their underlings to fix things, they just patched over a few rough spots they happened to find.

To be crystal clear: the fact they didn't know they had a problem is the actual problem. Everything else is a secondary result of that.