I can road rage with the best of them. I don’t know why I seem to be having a shorter fuse lately I just know that the older more experienced I get the more certain things just bug the heck out of me when something so obvious is met with people who are oblivious to the difference between what is expected verses what is the right thing to do.

It is as if people are just on auto pilot and that the only way to get them out of that mode is to do something aggressive in order to snap them back to reality.

At the top of the heap in terms of things that absolutely burn my butt is the way first line technical support for any company worth over 300M is handled.

Case in point.

VIA Rail has this wonder promotion going on right now for 50% on business travel between Ottawa and Toronto. Sweet! However (why is there always a however …) because I have so many passwords to remember sometimes I have to get a password reset done in order to log into a site if I haven’t used it for a while.

Now VIA has this neat little mobile app with a link that says “forgot your password, click here” … blah blah blah – we’ve all seen these types of link resets. A new link is sent to my mobile via email to change my password – I click the link and ……… What the … It doesn’t work.

Annoyed – yes. It is the end of the world? Depends on who you ask – VIA just lost an impulse sale right then because I couldn’t get logged into my account. If it is important thou – I’ll come back to it.

So I write to VIA to tell them they have a bug in their application. That the mobile site isn’t recognizing the link and is redirecting me to a page that it shouldn’t be. Fair enough – quality assurance – this is not something I’ve done wrong – they could lose customers or sales if people can’t log in – blah blah blah. You would think that a person that was – I dunno – breathing – would get the relationship between “I can’t log in” and “VIA isn’t making money if people can’t log in” and would then subsequently do something about it.

Instead I get the following reply – 3 days after I sent the original email – from someone whose primary concern appears to be following a process rather than actually thinking about what it is she is doing:

“The reason you are being brought to our mobile site is because the system is recognizing that you are using a mobile device. Do you still require assistance resetting your password?”


Social Construction of Reality

Rise of Conformity

If you want a clear indication of exactly how far along the path to a declining civilization we are, all you have to do is look no farther than the way in which people are working and conducting their daily lives. Especially in anything to do with the service industry.  The problem is that as society tends to congregate more and more into cities rather than rural areas, there is a broad need for conformity in order to maintain a level of common understanding and expectation. The larger the group the more conformity is required. This ensures fairness and equal opportunity for everyone plugged into that system.

In manufacturing terms it is called total quality assurance (TQA) and it applies as much to social systems as it does to automated manufacturing and design. At issue is the fact that, unlike a manufacturing process, TQA when applied to social systems requires a broader set of parameters in order to account for the broader range of variance and chaos that naturally exist within a social context.

Fons Trompenaars has this neat little book called “Managing Change Across Corporate Cultures” which describes nine difference dimensions to social culture which influence the way in which groups tend to conform to their surroundings and the implications thereof. I’ll write more about this in a future article but for the moment it is important to note that a healthy functioning society needs a diversity of culture existing within the ranks in order to manage social chaos effectively. When organizations consistently line up behind one consistent set of social principles to the exclusion of all else, then they are missing opportunities in order to improve and increase their competitiveness.

The essences of these dimensions are the expression of problems and how people respond to them based on the following cultural dimensions

  • Pragmatism vs. Consistency
  • Individualism vs. Communitarianism
  • Competing vs. Partnership
  • People vs. Result Orientation
  • Inspirational vs. Rational
  • Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical
  • Responsiveness vs. Internal Drive
  • Dynamic Change vs. Stable Continuity
  • Short Term vs. Long Term Time Orientation

Opportunities to be able to respond to crises are severely hampered due to an inflexibility in large corporations to be able to easily flow between one extreme of each dimension to the other. Like people, no organization is static. Organizations which do not embrace the ability for their staff to work organically eventually find themselves out of business.

Unless of course you are like VIA Rail where you have a monopoly in which case you just become a leech on society until some other compelling event forces change.

Looking at these dimensions however it becomes clear that in the area of service and technical support for large organizations – the deck is being stacked more towards those elements on the right of the cultural dimension spectrum rather than towards the left. To some extent this shouldn’t be surprising as small and medium sized businesses need more of those elements on the left which make them more agile and capable to respond to change.

In large cities however bigger is better. Hence the reason why we tend to visit the likes of Wal-Mart, Loblaws, Apple, Home Depot, and Amazon, rather than visiting the countless number of smaller retailers whose products and services may in some cases be far superior to those of the mega-corps.

In doing so – we are plugged-in, we are hip, and we are tuned-out. Like Dora we see the shiny and just follow along willingly because we don’t have to think. By the same token – front line staff don’t have to think either because that is all done for them by some nebulous headquarters somewhere in Dallas, or Toronto, or San Francisco, or New York or wherever.

Critical Thinking

While this may work for a functioning society in 80% of the cases, as I indicated we little peons at the bottom of the food chain are not consistent 100% of time. Life happens somewhere in the middle and now suddenly we have to respond to a pressure to do something different from the norm. Sometimes that is driven by personal circumstances. Sometimes that is an external influence we have no control over. Sometimes that is brought about through the operations of the organization themselves.

The ability to triage a situation and apply critical thinking skills is important to the vitality of a society. If a society loses its ability to think critically it loses its ability to adapt to a crisis and eventually becomes stagnant. As in the case above with regards to VIA rail – it is obvious that the person responding to the inquiry doesn’t have the necessary critical thinking skills in order to connect the dots between a core piece of the organization’s business not working, VIA’s ongoing revenue potential, and customer responsiveness.

The problem isn’t just with VIA. While first line technical support is an entry level position into most organizations it is also the place where you want to train your staff in order to develop appropriate critical reasoning skills and to provide the tools to address a wide variety of issues. Microsoft, Rogers, Bell, any of the major banks, they all have the same problem in not providing their staff the right tools, nor encouragement, to think outside-the-box when faced with a problem for which there is no “script” to be followed.

Problem Solving

What is worse is when people in these positions treat you as if you are stupid as part of the triage process. I don’t know about you but after 30 years in the IT industry, I think I know my way around computer systems and systems architecture enough to have accounted for 80%-90% of the most common issues before calling for help. Usually my issues fall into a couple of very broad categories

  • Quality Assurance (i.e. I found a bug in your software, product, service);
  • Quality of Service (i.e. standard features that should be available for a company of size x but aren’t);
  • General Advice (i.e. I’ve already googled it and I still can’t find the any key);
  • 3rd Level Technical Support Question (i.e. you aren’t going to have a script to cover this question)

Quality Assurance: In 90% plus of the cases I’ve found that most organizations don’t train their staff how to appropriately triage a quality assurance issue. Nor do they provide the appropriate tools in order to route these types of issues to the correct liaison within the organization that can address the concern correctly. Rather customer service representatives (CSRs) have a standard “that’s nice” reply and the customer is left in the dark as to if their concern will or won’t be addressed.

Customers that take the time to write, call, or email about a quality assurance issue are one of an organization’s greatest assets as they represent a demographic that cares enough about the service to want to improve it rather than look at alternatives and substitutes. Unfortunately most organizations don’t leverage these assets appropriately. Customers who are engaged represent a large part of an organization’s knowledge assets and corporate history which is needed to manage the business effectively.

Quality of Service: I think most people have hit this problem from time to time. There is no aspect to any business were someone high enough up on the corporate ladder can’t say “yes” to a specific request. Unless there is a specific physical or legal constraint on a specific proposition, everything else is a matter of policy. Quite often organizations will change their policies, not always for the better, towards a specific quality of service issue that is designed to align 95% of the organization’s business activities in a particular direction. There will always be exceptions. In most CSRs aren’t given the training to recognize the difference between a customer who is stressed because of a policy change and those customers who actually need an exception to the policy.

General Advice: I admit it. While I do know a lot, I don’t know everything and sometimes you just need 3-5 minutes of someone’s time to be explained that there is no “any” key, or if there is, where to find it (or in Apple’s case the command, shift, backslash, mouse click key combination).  Ever tried to find something simple on Microsoft’s web site? Leveraging your stakeholder community is important but when those resources are not properly aligned to provide for appropriate critical reasoning, it becomes extremely frustrating when faced with a $150 charge for something that should be encouraging critical thinking rather than trying to subvert it.

Complex Problems: This one frustrates me the most. If you have already exhausted all other options and you are now at the stage where you need to get expert advice (the type worth paying $150 a call for). Nothing is more frustrating than dealing with someone who is obviously following a script and really doesn’t know what they are doing. For example the number of times I’ve hit a problem where the “expert” answer was to “reinstall windows” or to “delete all your cookies” essentially should tell anyone that they are dealing with something that really should be automated as a troubleshooting tool rather than pretending that the person on the other end of the phone actually has any real experience.

What is worse is that it is the job of these people in many cases to ensure that you don’t get to 2nd or 3rd level technical support, or in the case of a service problem to talk to a Manager or Director, who might actually a) know what they are talking about, and b) be able to help come to a rational solution to the problem. There is no encouragement to work through an issue with a customer as in most cases an employee’s effectiveness is determined based on how many calls they can process in a day rather than how much they are contributing to an organization’s knowledge base.

Social Destruction of Reality

An essential problem in all of this that mitigates to some extent the reason why organizations act this way has to do with two things: Triage and Knowledge Management.


The challenge in triaging an issue or concern is that there are two aspects to any given problem that is raised. The first is whether you are dealing with a people issue, or whether you are dealing with a knowledge issue.

People are highly susceptible to stress. Any type of change or non- conformance to a person’s expectation of the future can manifest itself in a number of ways including some very real, and in some cases dangerous, physical symptoms.

“Stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations — whether they’re real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction is known as “fight-or-flight,” or the stress response. During stress response, your heart begins to race, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises.” (link)

Part of this fight or flight mechanism is a simple matter of wanting to reach out to a community that understands what it is that they are going through. They want to be lead through their concerns by someone that “shares their pain”. This is part of why people have taken to social networking as much as they have – to reach out to people who understands where they are coming from.

This is an issue for both the customer and the CSR that needs to deal with the customer.  While it is no one’s intention to “shoot the messenger”, when CSRs do not process proper critical reasoning skills and are then in turn not given the tools they need to address potential solutions even if they do understand, stress ends up causing as many in-house problems with staff as it does with customers who feel their concerns are not being taken seriously.

Knowledge Management

The second part of triage is the ability to identify where knowledge gaps exist both within the organization and how that information is reflected as part of public engagement with the organization. Again this is a skill that is neither trained nor taught in most large organization but yet is the most critical part of an organization’s competitive advantage.

Over the past 10 years there has been an invalid assumption that, due to the proliferation of social networking websites, organizations do not have to take responsibility for their corporate knowledge and history because their customers will do it for them.  While in the late 1990s and early 2000s this might have been true, the nature of how people access information has changed so radically that organizations can no longer afford to assume their stakeholder community will continue to manage this task.

Today’s college student is more likely to have a tablet and a mobile phone as compared to a desktop / laptop for school. Working environments that need anywhere, anytime information are just in the last 3-4 years embracing the benefits of tablets making the desktop computer more of a luxury item rather than necessity. Applications including word processing, spreadsheets, and graphics are moving away from being locally resident to existing in “the cloud” and loaded into memory on demand. If you include the fact that people are now communicating using micro transactions (al la Twitter, Facebook), the broad reaching power sites like Experts Exchange are becoming less relevant to the way in which our culture exchanges knowledge and information.

This also implies that the way in which society uses information to develop critical reasoning skills and solutions are also going to change from the way in which people did over the past 12-15 years. Organizations need to develop a deeper understanding of their organizational knowledge and provide the tools, not only to their front line CSRs, but also to their customer base in order to stay relevant.

That means more transparency and a closer relationships with customers to the point of actually blurring the lines between who is considered to be staff and who is a customer.

The Future

So where is all this headed? Crowded societies which are built on conformity represent both a challenge and an opportunity for organizations to develop new forms of competitive advantage at the expense of those same conformist rules. People need to be trained in critical reasoning skills in order to develop better knowledge of a product or service throughout the organization. This includes everything from technical products and services, legal, financial, marketing, and distribution channels. The clients of the future are going to need more structured environments and to be an integrated part of an organization’s knowledge assets.

My fear however is that the stress of these types of changes will be more than sufficient in order to perpetuate the status quo. We as a society will tend to try to force fit the way people are interacting with data to fit a transitional model based on an information age that is still barely out of diapers. No matter how much we like to think otherwise, from a historical point of view, the last 30 years which represent the information age up to this point is still only a blip compared to where we are eventually headed over the next several centuries that it will take us to reach some form of maturity.

The entire process could start simply enough by training people for critical thinking and reasoning skills rather than teaching them how to point out the obvious.


— Kevin Feenan

Leave a Reply