Opinion: Business-process insanity

A colleague who we'll call Mr. X ordered a computer from Dell. A few days later he noticed a Dell ad in PC World offering a nearly identical machine for $300 less.

Not a man to hold back, Mr. X called Dell and spoke to a customer service representative and explained that he'd like the reduced price for the machine that had shipped but had not yet arrived. The rep put him on hold and when he came back said he could offer a $50 refund.

When Mr. X asked why he would settle for that, the rep upped the offer to $75, then sweetened it further by offering to throw in a digital camera. "No thanks," said Mr. X, "I have one." "How about a printer?" asked the rep. "Nope," said Mr. X, "I've got one of those too."

Mr. X was by now half-expecting to be offered a ham, but the rep put him on hold again before coming back with his best offer . . . wait for it . . . $125! "AHHHHHHHHH," said Mr. X.

So the rep said Mr. X could refuse delivery at no cost and simply reorder the machine at the lower price. The stupidity of this might have been evident to the rep, but he said his hands were tied.

Finally a supervisor got involved and said the maximum she could offer was $263 and conceded that, in fact, the best choice for Mr. X was to cancel and reorder, which he did.

So Dell pissed off a customer, spent untold dollars in customer support time and swallowed the shipping costs (both deals included free shipping) to send out and back the first computer and then ship out the new machine. Oh, and the company made $300 less in the process. I would guess that profit on this sale is now a distant memory.

What is sad about this story is that it is not unusual. Similar tales of business-process insanity can be found at any number of vendors and service companies (you probably have one or two of your own).

Six months ago I was trying to sort out why for three months my ISP had managed to charge me for three different calling plans, none of which I had ordered.

It became obvious that the ISP's customer rep was severely limited by the billing system, and when I asked whether she had regular meetings with management to discuss how well the system worked and how it could be improved she told me they never had a chance to give feedback. I was amazed! How can you improve business-process efficiency without talking to the people at the pointy end of the operation?

Over the past few months whenever I have to grapple with customer service for any large organization I have asked the same question about management feedback and received exactly the same answer: Management does not talk to customer reps!

And these are the same organizations that spend millions of dollars on CRM solutions, workflow support systems and groupware. What it points out is that all of these technologies are being applied as bandages that are far too small for the scores of gaping wounds in the organization's business processes.

And the problem for IT groups is the inability of the technology solutions to fix the larger business problems making it look like these are your problems. "We spent how much on IT and still have these kinds of nightmares?" the CEO shrieks.

Of course you do, Sparky. Because no matter how good the technology is it will be limited by the people who are negligent in providing the link from the customer-facing side of the operation back to the planning and management side. And you can't expect IT to fix fundamental problems caused by managers simply not communicating with their staff.

So Mr. X will get his computer a few days later than planned for $300 less, Dell will be out perhaps $500, and my money is on Dell learning nothing from the whole fiasco.

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