Be careful what you ask for

Too much of a good thing?

A few days ago I had to make a couple flight reservations. I had two canceled trips credits, one on United and one on American, that could be applied to the oncoming trips. Unfortunately, I could not do it online and had to navigate through the phone menus to get to customer service reps. BTW, I don’t like that voice recognition software, it often chocks on my accent and it takes me much longer to go through it than traditional “press zero to talk to a representative”. Anyway, I got to talk to the reps. With United the reps’ name was Chris what is probably, judging by the background call center noise and strong Indian accent, was short for Krishnamurthy. For American the reps’ name was Linda who judging by her southern drawl and jokes she cracked was very much local.

Chris was exquisitely polite calling me Dear Mr. Krym, asking for my permission to put me on hold, thanking me profusely for staying on hold while he was doing some research (most likely asking for permission for every tiny change I needed to make to my itinerary). Linda cut to the chase and while cordial was not particularly overwhelming. Anyway, less than an hour later I had both of my trips setup. There was a slight difference though. The transaction on American took roughly 5 minutes. Ticket change on United took about 45 minutes, and when I received confirmation I discovered that instead of returning on Wed night I was set for Tue morning and instead of non-stop I was on a ridiculous route with two hour layover.I am fairly certain that script Chris was using and his MO were driven by several forces – habit or tradition of communications from his motherland, processes requirements enforced by micro-managing bosses from United, and methodology of the India based call center. The intention was probably to create “superior customer service”. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. This service cost me at least 3 hours of lost time and whole a lot of irritation. As a matter of fact United is loosing customers left and right to that excessively polite and overly micromanaged customer service. Well, there is some silver lining to the call, it got me thinking about some offshore managing mistakes I made, one of them, is worth a discussion – asking a vendor to do more than absolutely needed. Vendor will do what you ask them for and a bit more and like in the ticket exchange case with United – polite becomes excessively polite. I’ve written about cost you pay for vendor exceeding your expectations, asking for more than needed is certain to cost you even more.  There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. [Peter Drucker]

A few weeks ago I was comparing results of estimates by local team and offshore team. The estimates from offshore were roughly 3 times higher. The difference did not come solely from diversity of skill level, to a large degree it came from difference in SDLC and extra quality control steps that offshore team put in to cater to my demand for quality. Thee times higher than what I absolutely needed! We had to go with affine tooth comb trying weed out unnecessary and unjustified steps to bring the estimate to somewhat acceptable level (~50% higher than internal). The interesting part is that those “parasite” elements of SDLC were results of our own requests for higher quality. Who knows, it is quite possible that excessive politeness of Chris came from some request by an exec at United – “We must improve our customer service!!!”

Quality is commonly defined as meeting the expectation. However, expectations could be very difficult to measure, understand, etc.; they could quite intangible, and that can create a huge disconnect. Even if you can setup metrics and control them you still can not guarantee that you achieving a bigger goal. Like in case with United – I can’t complain about the quality of service, but my satisfaction with it is very low. You need to establish metrics, control them but never lose the bigger picture. In metrics terms that could be for example a Total Cost of Outsourcing. Properly analyzed TCO will drive you to understand the level of quality you receive with understating of how the quality is achieved.

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