Complex Systems The Source of Majority of Customer Service Failures - Part I by Robert Bacal

Why IS customer service so poor. Survey data, for what that's worth, shows customers feel that it's getting worse. Who should we blame?


Lots of people doesn't mean lots of power in the market

Here's the customer service team for a well known electronics retailer, and WOW, they are all keen to help. Except for that guy in the back row who's responsible for keeping the registers running properly. He's a slacker.

Guess what. There goes the system!

If you tune into the mavens on the #custserv chat on Twitter, apparently, everyone and anyone is to blame. It's the CEO. It's the HR department for hiring the wrong people. It's a "generational thing". It's attitude. It's a lack of love (Urp).

When you see people blaming everyone, or suggesting a multitude of sources/causes for problems, it is a good bet that they are looking for simple solutions to complex problems, and that in fact, the root cause of the problem lies in the "system" by which work and tasks are assigned, organized and completed.

This isn't a lightweight concept, so we've broken this article up into parts. In Part I, we'll explain what a system is, and why "system thinking" is a necessity if one's goal is to improve something in the real world.

The Concept of A System

A system is a set of inter-related parts that are both influenced and influence/affect other parts in the system so that the whole can often NOT be understood simply by looking at each part in isolation. A system can be thought of as having a goal or set of goals, and is evaluated on the degree to which it creates desired results.

Systems can be physical entities, such as the automobile, or your physical body, or the computer in front of you. Your brain is a system, which exists embedded in the larger neurological system, which is, in turn embedded in your even larger physical body. Systems "live" within other systems, and the boundaries of one system vs. another are often arbitrary. You can often draw them anywhere, but ideally you "bound" the system by its goals and purpose.

A system is generally defined by the goals it is to achieve, and the goals determine its "boundaries". However, the boundaries that separate what belongs to the system of interest and what do not are arbitrary, at least to a great extent.

Systems don't need to be physical, per se. For example, an "accounting system" isn't really a physical entity, though it might contain objects within it. It's a system that exists to account for money, and contains physical objects and human objects (people) within it.

The system that we're interested in: the customer service system, contains people arranged in a human system, computers, policies and procedures and so on, all organized, at least theoretically, to service customers needs (up to a point). The customer service system interfaces with other systems. For example, inventory control, supply chain management, personnel, etc would be different systems, but highly inter-related to customer service.

If a customer needs to know when something will be delivered, the system that tracks shipping and stock inventory, although not created as part of the customer service system, would be crucial to serving the customer's needs.

What You Need To Understand About Systems

Here's a few things you will need to understand as we later delve into why customer service is so terrible. Then we'll stop for a bit, and you can post comments.

  • It is not possible to understand a system by looking at each part. For example, you cannot understand how the brain works by looking at each part in turn. You MUST look at how all the parts interact and affect each other in a process of bidirectional influence that goes on all the time. (As an aside, that's why most of the pop stuff about brains, left and right and so on are grossly wrong. You cannot talk about "left brain" or "right brain" as doing something because its the entire SYSTEM we call the brain that "does things". Clearly remove one half or the other, and you don't have a functioning brain any more (a bit of an oversimplification).
  • When you alter a part of a system to achieve a positive effect, you will almost always end up causing dysfunction somewhere else in the system unless you consider all the inter-relationships. That's why fixing something within a system environment is so difficult. We call these negative outcomes unwanted or unanticipated consequences.
  • Since a system involves inter-related and inter-dependent parts, the effectiveness of even the best designed system can be no better than the reliability and effectiveness of its weakest component(s). For example, your automobile is a complex system with thousands of parts, but it takes only a small nail in your tire, or a broken rubber gasket costing less than a dollar to render the vehicle useless. Likewise for you computer. It's all high tech, but if your cooling fan fails, your entire machine may cease to work, or actually end up permanently destroyed. Likewise for a failing power supply, which can wipe out all of your hardware.
  • The more complex a system is, the more likely that it will break. For example, let's take a very simple system -- something with ten  "parts". Each part fails about 10% of the time within a year. What is the probability that the system will fail?
    If you are the maker of this system, get ready, because it's a virtual certainty that all units will fail within a year. Even though each part only fails in one of ten cases, remember that if ANY parts fail, the system breaks. (Ever wonder why laptops never work well?)
  • The more complex a system, the less likely any ONE human being understands it well enough to fix it if it breaks. In very complex systems, not only is there no single person able to understand it, but even the team of builders may not understand it well enough to predict what it will do if one part of it is changed.
    An example? Google's search engine. It's so complex that it is impossible to know in advance what any one simple small tweak will do. You can guess, but ultimately, you simulate the change using fallible models in advance of putting the change into production, but because the models are flawed, the only way to actually find out is to make the change, and see what happens.

Your Homework on Systems and Customer Service

Here are your "thinking questions", and I'd ask that you put forth your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. It would be much appreciated.

  1. What are the components or parts of a typical "customer service system"?
  2. How do these parts interact and affect each other?
  3. How does customer service depend on other systems outside of the system designed to provide customer service?
  4. Does any of this make any sense to you in understanding why customer service is so poor? And getting worse? Speak up.
  5. If you are charged with improving customer service in your company, and you are a systems thinker, what do you do? Where do you start? And, how do you accomplish it all?

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