It’s all About the System Stupid

I work for a large multi-national corporation.  Like most large multi-national corporations we have wisely outsourced our IT.  Part of it to a “technology provider” and part of it to a “service provider”.  On paper this gives us a very cheap and flexible solution but the reality is that the overall experience is a little, let me say, disjointed.

The threat of no e-mail

A couple of months ago I got an e-mail informing me that my e-mail account would be “de-registered” (shut down) if I didn’t update my details.  Something to do with IT security.

There was a link on the e-mail that I had to click.  I clicked the link, the link didn’t work.

There was a phone number on the e-mail.  I rang the phone number and a helpful recorded voice told me that the telephone line was dead.

So I replied to the e-mail explaining that I couldn’t update my details because neither the link, nor the phone line worked.


Impending doom

A week later I got a rather more threatening e-mail telling me that if I didn’t update my e-mail account immediately it would be “de-registered”.  I clicked the link and phoned the number.  Oddly neither worked.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. ~ Albert Einstein

So I rang the IT help desk, our “service provider”.  Unfortunately they couldn’t help me, apparently the “technology provider “ provides the e-mail account, but they would send them a task.

Still Nothing

My last ever e-mail

A week later I received an e-mail informing me that this was the last e-mail I would ever get.  My account had been “de-registered”.

I wouldn’t complain, but I get a lot of e-mails.

It took 2 weeks of twice daily calls for the “service provider” and the “technology provider” to get their act together and switch my account back on.

Payback time

Eventually the service was restored and I was asked if I would do a customer survey and give some feedback.

Now I was ready to give some customer feedback, some king sized customer feedback, “yes please” I said.

An electronic voice started to ask me some questions:

  • Q.  On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being very good…  how polite was the customer service representative?
  • A.  5.  Very polite, I would go as far as to say she was charming.
  • Q.  Out of 5… how well did the customer service representative understand your problem?
  • A.  5.  I spoke to her daily for a fortnight, she knew exactly what the issue was and was most apologetic.
  • Q.  Out of 5… how well did the customer service representative keep you informed?
  • A.  5.  She always told me exactly what stage my request was at with the “technology provider”.

Then came the kicker

After I had provided my scores the electronic voice uttered the words:

Thank you so much for your feedback.  We are glad you were delighted by our service

As Captain Haddock would have said:  ##@†♠†!!  

People aren’t the issue

There is a management belief that customer service is all about people; it is all down to the calibre of the customer service rep, their attitude and helpfulness.

Measure how good the rep is then you will improve performance.

But at their root, most service failures are due to the system, not the people.  So measuring the people doesn’t help, not one bit.

A better set of questions

If the questions had been:

  • Q1.  Did you want to contact our customer service help line today?
  • Q2.  How well did our policies and procedures support the resolution of your issue?
  • Q3.  Have we done anything to prevent your issue from reoccurring in the future?

Maybe then the survey would have driven a little more performance improvement.

Your customer service representatives can have the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and all the charm of the Devil, but without the processes and systems to support them they are on a hiding to nothing.

It’s the system stupid ~ John Seddon

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It's the system stupid

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  1. Hello James

    Fantastic, I love the way that you have made the subject come alive. The contrast between the questions that the survey asked you and what they should have asked you. It touched in this very issue, the issue of empathy, putting yourself in the shoes of the other, in this post:

    One of my key points, at least to me, was that until you walk in the other’s shoes you do not know what matters to him. And as such you do not know what questions to ask.

    Your bigger point, I totally agree with. There was a recent post, that summed this up well through pie charts:

    Thanks for writing this post. I enjoyed reading it. And it is a message that can make a great impact if the right people get it and act on it

  2. Hi James,

    The problem with the initial set of questions is that they make an assumption that whatever you tried to do or whatever problem you had got fixed.

    That’s the problem and it is a system problem….the customer service feedback system.

    Rather, than the 3 questions you suggest why not start with just one: Did we solve you problem? Yes/No?


    • James Lawther says:

      So I like the question a lot Adrian, but for some reason (and call me a cynic) they only pointed me at their survey after they had solved the problem.

      Maybe they weren’t interested in what I thought before then


  3. Great post, James. I like Maz’s and Adrian’s comments, as well. I would go back even further on the first question… something along the line of… ease of contacting us. And, how many times did you try to contact our help desk before you successfully reach a qualified representative?

    What a mess. That’s what happens when people who have no idea how to collect feedback think they can design a survey because they read about it in a magazine or in a book.

    Annette :-)

  4. Incisive observations, as ever, and enhanced by some wise comments.

    I’m not sure that I’d be so quick to rule out “measuring the people” when it’s apparently a systems issue. As you rightly point out – the satisfaction measure was poorly and narrowly targeted on only one person, with the danger that we ‘shoot the messenger’ if the score is low. But I usually find that applying your ‘5 whys’ approach to systems issues ultimately leads back to a person.

    I’d like to applaud them for measuring satisfaction but then gently encourage them to widen the scope of the systems, processes and people under scrutiny.

    • James Lawther says:

      Guy, you are of course right, the 5 whys invariably point at a person, usually a fairly senior one who isn’t subject to the rigours of the survey

      Thanks for your comment


      • haha! again!
        Yes, if 5-whys arrive at a person who isn’t a senior leader, youve not why-ed enough.
        MORE WHYS! always more whys.
        may I steal that? I may just do that, referenced though.

        • James Lawther says:

          Be my guest. I suppose it could be the latest thing in management levels, are you a junior “1 why” manager or an executive “6 why” manager?


  5. Hi James,

    John Seddon of the ‘Its the system stupid’ concept is presenting on the very subject for the Lean Management Journal next month. Understanding the customer, and what they value is at the heart of an effective system, i hope your outsourced IT improves on understanding what its customers value!

    Doubt you are in the UK in March, should you be then let me know and I’ll send you a ticket to the event

    Kind regards

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks very much for the offer of a ticket, I’d love to go, but will be stuck in a call centre in Sunderland that day.

      Hope the event goes well, and thanks for your comment


  6. haha! serves you right for having the temerity to work for a company that outsources it’s important functions to another organisation who only do it for the cash.

    I however work for an organisation that has only 2 months ago outsourced its ICT, HR, finance, payroll….oh dear.
    In that short few months my pay has been mucked up, my ICT helpdesk calls aren’t being answered properly, and I am eagerly awaiting them cutting my email off and possibly the oxygen supply to the building.

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