Our System Is Experiencing Technical Difficulties … Please Try Again Later

Most companies brag about customer service; very few actually deliver. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people think customer service has declined over the past few years as more and more companies automate processes and shift customer service toward the web and away from humans. These days most businesses have a website. Many of them have some programmed logic for processing discounts, providing rebates, announcing special packages, etc. The idea is to tie real world interactions with people to trackable actions on a website.

Suppose you sell technology information services to small business owners and consumers. You have a booth at a trade show and offer everyone a free sandwich (from Subway, Arby’s or some other large chain — for example) if they come to your website within seventy-two hours, register, and enter a special code. You want to build up information on your customers through the registration process, promote goodwill by giving away a sandwich, and along the way show off your company’s products and services as visitors navigate their way through the sign-up process on your website. It sounds like a win-win. But the devil is in the details. Unless you are careful about the design of your website, and test the heck out of the system, problems can crop up at almost every stage. That can lead to customer frustration, which will hurt your business.

A Few Scenarios:

Bob Jones is excited about the offer and really wants to get his sandwich. So he goes to your website and follows the instructions. The first step is to enter the special code. He does this, and the website “hangs up.” Frustrated, he shuts down his browser, restarts it, and tries again. Same result. He quits in frustration, cursing your company under his breath.

What happened here? The trade show was a tremendous success. So many people came that they flooded your server with requests and it crashed. Too bad you didn’t test your system carefully before paying all that money for the trade show.

Mary Sethwamy-Smithson is also excited about the offer but she decides to wait a day before trying to get her sandwich. She enters her special code with no problem (since the initial rush of entries has died down). She then goes to the registration page. She completes her registration, but when she sees the confirmation page, she finds her name has been abbreviated to “Mary Sethwamy-Smi.” She hits the “back” button and re-enters her name. She gets the same result. She quits in disgust.

What happened? The programmer assumed last names would only need to be twelve characters long. Not a good assumption. Too bad you didn’t test this before you launched the system.

A few minutes later, Peter Pendergast decides to try his hand. He enters the special code with no problem. He registers with no problem. Then he gets his confirmation page, prints out his redemption coupon, and closes his browser assuming he is done. But his printer jams and the coupon he needs to redeem his sandwich does not print properly. So he goes back to the system. But now he has to start again, because he closed out his browser. He repeats the whole procedure, but the system says he has already received his sandwich and it will not let him register again. He tries calling customer service. He ends up waiting for twenty minutes without speaking to a human. Finally he gives up in disgust and vows he will never deal with your company again.

What happened? The programmer assumed the system would work perfectly so there was no provision for dealing with this situation. Customer service was overwhelmed by the volume of calls complaining about the system, so they could not respond to Peter.

Hypothetical Scenarios, Real Problems

This is completely hypothetical, but we have all experienced similar problems on other websites. Here are just a few of the “customer focused” companies where I have experienced problems: Chipotle (won ten free burritos but could not order them), AT&T (supposed to receive a $100 rebate, but their system “lost it”), Dex Knows (ordered a video, but video needed editing and system had no provision for requesting changes), Southwest Airlines (would not let me print boarding pass when first one jammed), United Airlines (told me no flights were available, when there was plenty of availability). I could go on and on. I experienced similar problems at smaller local businesses too, so it isn’t just giant companies that screw up. It’s ubiquitous.

The lesson here is that customer service has two components: systems that work as expected, and good people who know what they are doing. Systems require good design and lots of testing. People need training. They also need to be empowered to actually solve problems. Very few companies deliver on all of these. Do that, your firm will stand out from the crowd.