The Inconvenience of our Convenience Society
By Carl Pritchard

We are now living in the era of convenience, and it’s damned inconvenient.  Instant responses, instant messages, rapid service, and quick turnaround are the hallmarks of our information age society.  The challenge with this era is that for all of the steps, processes and devices that have been created, as soon as there is any anomaly whatsoever, the processes grind to a screeching halt, and there’s no way to get around them.

I’ve lived through multiple examples in the past 24 hours.  Verizon sent me a flyer to upgrade my Internet service.  The flyer didn’t detail how much it would cost against my existing bundled plan.  To find out?  Eight phone calls, four attendants and one supervisor.  Inconvenient.  A public institution where I teach cancelled a class for lack of enrollment.  In a test, I decided to check how to register on-line.  I couldn’t.  I was told fax or phone only for continuing education.  Inconvenient.  I called my pharmacy to get a refill on a (non-narcotic) prescription.  Two weeks, four phone calls, no resolution, and no prescription.  Inconvenient.

When we’re asking the normal questions in the normal way and don’t have any anomalies, the systems we’ve created are a godsend.  Normally, when I order a prescription, it’s a phone call to a robo-voice and the prescription is ready by morning.  Normally, when a client is trying to muster attendees, they have the infrastructure to handle it.  But here at the dawn of the era of convenience, it doesn’t take much to throw a wrench into the works.  One out-of-the-ordinary question, and the system collapses.

Does this have ANYTHING to do with project management or management in general?  Yes!!  We fail to recognize our roles as pioneers in this society, and as a result, we are expecting superhighways as we traverse the Oregon Trail.  In order to overcome this, we need to keep a supply of old-time support on hand the moment the system breaks.  Organizations that hope to come across as customer-focused and high-tech need to recognize that individual responsiveness is going to be a hallmark when the era of convenience truly kicks into high gear.  And there are four steps organizations can take today to start coming across as truly convenient, as well as cutting edge.

1)    Limit the number of “touches” required to achieve a meaningful result.  Whether it’s a web-click or a “push 3” response, set a maximum within an interface.  On the web, three clicks to a destination from the home page is convenient.  Four is tolerable.  Five begins to wear.  Six is a sign of inconvenient web design.  The same philosophy (and number of touches) should apply with phone service (whether automated or human).  If a customer is calling in and can’t get a meaningful answer to a question on the third transfer, there should be a default “guru” to support them.  For me, it was Ms. Campbell at Verizon.  If I had reached her after 10 minutes instead of 90, it could have been a great customer service experience.  She refused to hand me off to anyone else and shepherded me through an upgrade.  The problem was that it took 90 minutes to find her.
2)    If you don’t have customer service, don’t lay claim to it.  My repair shop promised me noon delivery on my car.  When I asked if they could guarantee that it would be totally ready to go, with everything complete by 2 PM, the tech reassured me that noon was their target, so 2PM was more than adequate.  At 2PM, they had 20 minutes left to go.  Had they promised 3PM, it would have been OK, but as a result, they disappointed a customer and made the experience inconvenient.
3)    Be honest.  The receptionist at my doctor’s office told me bluntly that she had “no idea how something like [what I wanted] would be set up, and only the doctor or his nurse could handle it.”  When I pressed her, she stressed that I was talking to the wrong person.  GREAT!!  That’s actually more convenient than stringing me along trying to placate me with platitudes.  And in our management and our projects, we need to remember the power of those three simple words: I DON’T KNOW (but here’s who does know and how I can put you in touch with them).
4)    Create the failsafe.  I know there’s a fear that everyone will default to the human being rather than the automation, but the reality is that many of the human beings at the long end of a phone queue are putting up with the grief of a badly structured system.  Angry customers didn’t start the call as angry customers.  If they had known that “If you’re on the system for more than 10 minutes, press *99 to speak to a supervisory agent”, they’d have had at least some sense that the waiting would have a payoff.  Tragically, most phone queues have no payoff, and the frustration they generate costs us customers.

The breakneck speed of technology is creating expectations that everything and everyone will respond at Internet speed.  The tragedy is that for the anomalies in our world, we’re still moving at a dial-up pace.  As long as the technology has not evolved to cope with the challenges that anomalies create, we need to factor in the failsafes to ensure that customers don’t fall through the cracks.  Every failure to do so widens those cracks, eventually creating gaps large enough for entire businesses to fall through.

Copyright 2010, Pritchard Management Associates, All Rights Reserved