Monday, 4 October 2010

The most expensive journey

When I run a program on my computer and the computer hangs I get a sign that the programme I have run is corrupt in some manner and can choose to not run it. I have proven the programme is unfit to be run. Why can’t life be like computers?
In September I was returning from Newcastle on a train when the conductor, who is no longer called a conductor but a fair checker, checked my ticket and found that I had inadvertently boarded the train without a ticket using my seat reservation (which is the same colour and shape and size as a standard ticket). Floundering in my pockets and bags failed to produce the required ticket stub but did produce a wealth of tickets but none for the actual journey.

So I showed the person my email confirmation of the ticket sale and even showed it online, as I was online on the train. I produced proof of who I was and as the conductor/fair checker agreed there was no doubt I had paid for my ticket. So he gave me another ticket for an unpaid fair, as I did not have the physical ticket. He told me not to worry as long as I showed the people in the unpaid fair ticket that I had paid I would not need to pay anything else.

I did as he instructed and received a penalty notice for the journey of £87.50 through my door last week. On the phone the care line for the East Coast train company told me that I had to pay and he could not guarantee that I would get my money back. Flummoxed, I contacted the ombudsman about this and was instructed to pay and there would be no guarantee of me getting my money back as the law states that I was travelling without a ticket and therefore should be fined.

So innocence does not matter anymore. We have a program of management that means that as long as you do certain things you must pay whether or whether not you are guilty. I admit guilt for not having my ticket on me at the time, as it possibly failed to drop from the machine I retrieved it at. But I am not guilty of fair dodging as I did pay my fair and to this day can prove I paid for my seat on the train that I was sitting in.

To me this management style and policies are akin to a virus on a computer. No matter what you do the blue screen of death makes your life a misery. You cannot win.

I feel sad for my children entering into a world we have created in which all values seem to be lost. A world in which the bleeding obvious is not accepted as Mr Jobsworth has to fill out the form or he will get in to trouble.

The funny thing about this is that on the Underground a similar thing happened to me and nothing transpired apart from a short frank discussion with a person at the gate, who possibly will not be there is Boris Johnson et al get their way, but I was allowed through without a fine for £30000.

So what can be learned from this, apart from always ensure you have the physical ticket before travelling on the East Coast rail lines, I can see many parallels to the stupid and over blown managerial systems that larger companies are deploying. I can also see a link between Microsoft and Apple and viruses. Clearly if a system fails it should be rewritten and the coding modified. Why cannot business learn from the computer industry?

Monday, 27 September 2010

Another example of the disenfranchisement of information

I recently changed ISP as I moved house from London up into the sticks. The ISP I wanted could not provide me with an internet connection from the moment I moved in as they were reliant on the major company to do work which they could not start until I was actually in the house. This would have meant two weeks with no internet. This would be unthinkable for me as I now work predominantly from home.
So I was faced with a dilemma which was solved by the fact that the only people who could provide broadband to me in time for my move so it was up and running when I walked through the door was this major provider who now have my contract for the next few years it would seem. I will reframe from naming them but will refer to them from now on as CU as they have two letters in their name.

All went swimmingly, I have had internet for at least most of the time I have been here, with the router only needing to be restarted on a dozen or so occasions, which is a dozen or so more than with my previous provider. All was fine and dandy until this weekend when I came back from the shops on Saturday to find I had no internet.

So I phone up the help line and get a very helpful message saying there are reported problems that will cause outages at time in your area. I worry no further thinking this is a small blip and cannot be helped. Next day, still no internet and concern starts to creep in. I rephone the number and am told the same thing from the recorded message but this time I take advantage of the other free phone number to check on these problem areas and find from another recorded voice that my phone number is not included in the areas under investigation, so the first message was incorrect.

I phone the ISP and get through to a person from another continent, by which time I have already investigated things from the router perspective and ascertained that the router is failing with a couple of critical errors picked up in the logs. I attempt to explain to the woman on the other end of the phone that the router is dead or dying with read out the log entries from the router which I had on the computer in front of me. The woman failed to understand or even pay the slightest heed to this and started to go through a series of tests that they have to do such as, is your computer switched on etc. This took at least one hour throughout I persisted to tell the woman that the tests were useless as I have five separate devices trying to connect, none of which could make a successful connection to the broadband although all the lights we illuminated on the router. To the woman the fact all the lights were alight meant I had broadband. No matter how long I explained thing to the woman I still had to go through the ritual humiliation of doing silly things to my computer to make them happy and still have no internet. Finally she concluded that the router was broken. She suggested I change it.
This I did and installed an old Netgear router I had from the previous ISP. After an hour I had it up and running apart from no internet. So I assumed I had possibly missed a critical configuration setting and thought I should double check with my ISP. So I phone CU again and this time speak to a very nice man from anther continent and explain the issue. He listens and is very apologetic, and starts by running the same tests that I have had to endure previously plus a couple of new ones. Each time, there is no broadband available on any device, be they Microsoft, Symbian or Apple based. After a further hour, and I have not mentioned the fact that it took over two hours to connect to this person as the line at CU had a redirection call on it that went to a number unrecognised for a few hours, the man said he had exhausted his tests and it must be a line problem so would put me through to them. The man from the line place was very nice and local and he tested the line and said it was fine but if I want a call out it was £125 so he advised against it.

So I went to bed trying to fathom things out, but first decided to reinstall the old router. When I did there was no connection but low and behold in the morning the thing it firing on all cylinders. So now I have broadband again from the malfunctioning router.

What this shows me is a number of important lessons:

1) As a consumer we need to prove a fault repeatedly even though the provider will not recognise your expertise in this area.
2) As a consumer your time is not an issue and companies can feel that as long as they are pretending to help you then you will believe them.
3) Companies that have fragmented services which rely on many different places to determine a correct fault are paying for poor service, and we as consumers are supporting this.
4) I cannot fathom the logic of having a series of prescribed tests when they bear little or no relevance to the problem and further are infinitely repeatable every time you call.
5) It cannot pay to have people who do not listen or cannot understand what a customer says. When a customer says that all his computers cannot connect, suggesting it is a settings issue with one counter makes no sense. Similarly a firewall would affect one computer not all unless the firewall was triggered in the router itself, which it was not as I had checked this, but no one ever asked.
6) Train people on what they need to know not what you think they need to know. If I want configuration details on a router give them do not subject people to a battery of tests which waste time and money.
7) Remember the adage that is long forgotten: the customer is always right.

Fragmenting services wastes money, provides poor service, annoys customers, wastes everybody's time.

The same ideas can be generalised to all help desks and customer services.

It is a false economy to assume that saving money is achieved through spreading services and employing cheaper labour.

Forgetting the customer will result in losses in the future.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Computers, management and systems – rationalising the irrational

In the UK there is a new management system that is being deployed through call centres and I would envisage is also extending into traditional work environments.
The Problem
Call centres are expensive and trained people more expensive.
New solution (1)
Split up the services and farm out to remote call centres where call centre staff do not need to trained in any more than one thing. This means if you have one query the call centre should be able to answer it based on the options the original called has taken in the call options (Press one for this two for that three for self destruction etc).
New Problem which we are all faced with today
So by dividing the workload there is a successfully undertrained cheap labour force, what can be the problem?
What if you have more than one problem? This is where the whole system dissolves into absolute chaos. Because no one person can see or has control over the whole system it must implode and customer service must drop through the bottom of the call centre.
You must have experienced it yourself; I have been on the receiving end of it many times recently as I have had to move house on a number of occasions. So I will take this as an illustration:
Whereas once upon a time I could phone up a service provider and let them know I was moving and ensure all services were available when the move happened so there would be a seamless transition between services even when I had changed provider. So Let’s say I was using one internet provider and moved to another house and decided this would be a good time to change providers this would be no problem, I could phone them up cancel one and let the other know when I would be in the new house and sure enough on the day of the move the internet connection, router and accompanying services would be ready to go, all I would need to do is configure the router and plug it in to the computer and off I went.
How was this achieved? Simple I would speak to one operative over the phone and explain my own personal circumstances, explain the uniqueness of my situation and the telephone operative would ensure that all the things happened seamlessly in the background.
So why can this not happen any more in the UK?
Because we have fragmented the services and the customer support teams. Each team has knowledge of their own section (accounts, broadband, TV, whatever) but no one has the ability to access all these at any one time. The most constant thing I have been told recently is that we cannot do this because it they have no access to that database. So going back to the illustration previously outlined; instead of telling one call operative the situation and having it dealt with, I as a new caller must now seek to navigate the strange world of the disembodied call centre service where I speak to one person, whom I have to go through a number of security questions with and then proceed to explain the issues such as I am moving and need to get broadband so it is up and ready for when I move into my new house. This operative will undoubtedly explain that I need to speak to another department called new business, or something of that ilk. “fine” I am happy to talk to them, and when I get to new business I have to repeat the security stuff and re-explain my specific needs only to be told that this is not a problem as everything will be set up in time, as long as I am in the property now.
Now? “No sorry I am moving to the property, have a new number already installed and line up and running, I just want the broadband to be ready to go when I get in to the house”
“Sorry we cannot do that; you need to be living in the house before we can complete your order”
“why is that?”
“Because it will take ten days after that for us to send you the router and activate the line”
“Well… send the router now and activate the line now please”
“Sorry can’t do that, you will need to speak to new business for that”
“Okay put me through…”
“New business… can I have your name…..”
And so it goes on in an never ending cycle of people who do not have the authority to do what you need them to do or do not know they do not have the authority as they have not been told that yet as they are too low in the hierarchy.
So what?
Well this might seem a little strange but apart from the appalling customer service that everyone in the UK is now receiving as a result of this method of management It also has a number of implications for management in general and computing.
For management it is a false economy as I, like many others will not tolerate this incompetence and switch providers, I agree eventually they might all hit the nadir but I hope common sense prevails. There is also a false economy as I am not taking up the time of three or four people on, often successive, occasions with one simple issue which no one can resolve; this means that the call centres are spending 3-4 times the amount on not training their staff which is a clear false economy. It also deskills the experts, who have worked at the call centre for years and know all the tricks but can no longer use them as they have restricted access to the different databases.
For computer systems and engineers the problem is a human factors one. It is down to the Human factors people to ensure that this never happens, that we do not fragment services that should be connected. It also means that processes and procedures that are in the real world should not mirror a computer programme which seems to be what is happening.
I fully agree with systems thinking, by which I mean thinking about the interaction of the whole system as well as the independent parts. In computers there are few independent parts, perhaps software is relatively independent as long as the basic infrastructure such as Windows or IOS are in place you can run what you like on your own computer.
What is clear from the management school of customer care is that someone somewhere has separated out interdependent processes and labelled them independent. By doing this they have lessened the dependability of the whole dependability of the call centre structure and made the service to customers fail at the first hurdle.
The sad thing is this is relatively easy to remedy but the short term gain seems to outweigh the long term imminent implosion.