Thursday, November 11, 2010

Some random musings

Just got into work and apart from my surprise that the office 2007 drop last night appears not to have trashed my PC, I was answering some angry e-mails when a thought struck me.
The e-mails were about some back of house staff being unable to get access to a certain system yesterday due to it being overloaded.  I knew it was an issue, I had been experiencing the same problem.  I also know what caused the problem; two years ago the business had a bright idea to give all the front of house staff access to the tool via a nice friendly Fisher-Price GUI.  They now use it all day every day, quite often without any knowledge of what it really does, what it can achieve, and whether it’s really necessary to use it.  As I type this at 8:27am I can see 180 users logged into it, up from 102 just 30 minutes ago.
The problem is that the tool in question only has a maximum capacity of 20 simultaneous users, which was more than adequate when it was built (in 1999!).  It was designed to service a limited number of technical back of house staff who needed it a couple of times a day, who knew what it could do and only used it when necessary, and were finished with it in minutes.  With potentially hundred of FoH users logged in (and I’ve seen 700+ before), the upshot is the legitimate users of the tool are effectively suffering a DDOS attack.  My reply to the e-mails was that I told the business this would happen, but that as usual short term expediency had triumphed over reality, and that I couldn’t see the situation changing until lack of access to the tool started either costing money (more money than it would take to upgrade the tool to increased capacity) or demonstrable negative customer impact.
Of course, the chances of the business removing access to that tool from the FoH staff is now zero, as it’s part of their process, and the staff will howl that they can’t do their jobs without it.  The business will cringe in horror at the idea of increased escalations to the ticket queue, someone in operations will demonstrate their advanced business management abilities by counting on the fingers of both hands at once, and that will be the end of it.  The BoH staff will be told to deal with it, the problem will continue as before, and the only possibility that categorically stands at zero chance of happening is someone putting their hand in their wallet to fund an actual fix for the problem.
Where I was going with this is that that sort of habituation to access to anything is basically a form of drug.  Once you’re hooked on it, you’re not going back.  The business structures its processes, expectations and staffing around access to a tool that they don’t provide, don’t support and won’t fund, and when it all falls over there’s no regression strategy available.
What struck me as I was deleting the work fuck out of the e-mail editing my reply for tone was how easy it is to arrive at this position of habituation in other circumstances, such as offshoring your customer contact call centres.
If you decide you’re going to try it for the first time, you’re pretty much doomed.  You can rationalise it all you like.  We’re just trying it as an experiment.  It’s just a possible initiative we’re evaluating.  It was in the program of work, it won’t go any longer than that.  We have a business responsibility to explore the potential.  Senior management has a drive on for possible savings.
Then all of a sudden the benefits start to become tangible and substantial.  Wow, look at the cost savings.  We don’t have to worry about hiring or training the staff.  No requirement for middle management, HR, payroll administration – more savings!  No concerns over fluctuating call volumes or manning, we’ve got a “flexible workforce”, and we just hold the outsourcer contractually responsible for any shortfall.  And after all, the service is exactly the same, right?
Now the first signs of problems begin to appear.  Negative customer comment in the media, the internet.  Competitors start making subtle jokes about it in their advertising, leveraging off the fact they’re still offering domestic support.  Staff begin to notice a deterioration in the quality of FoH troubleshooting, which makes their job take longer.  They listen to complaints from the customers about the poor quality of their FoH experience.  Workloads balloon, although the staff are temporarily happy about this as there’s overtime on offer.
Feedback begins to make its way to management, who automatically kick into a defensive rationalisation mode – after all, they’re either the ones that made the decision to outsource, or they’re repeating the company line defined by those who did, so they’re hardly going to be critical of the decision.  It’s not really a problem, more an acclimatisation and familiarisation thing.  The scope of the issue is being exaggerated – if you think otherwise, show us the data, which we know you can’t gather.  Look at the savings.  Everyone else in the industry is doing it – it’s the new world’s best practice!  We’ll provide feedback to the outsourcers, and additional coaching.  Here’s a  feedback mechanism we built, you can enter instances of deficiencies into it, although strangely they’ll never seem to account to anything.
It doesn’t take much longer until the decline becomes irreversible.  Staff and customers alike begin to accept (detest, but accept) the new reality that FoH is now a useless phone answering service where it’s pot luck whether you can even make yourself understood to the person you score.  Hang-up-and-try-again becomes a standard approach.  Incompetance becomes normal.  Queues blow out, service declines, costs and delays increase. 
Management (in an increasingly terse tone) now shift to pointing out that that the decision is irreversible.  The contract is a 5-year term, there are no staff left to onshore the role anyway (they’ve all been sacked), and that it’s time to deal with it.  Staff understand in their hearts the reality of this, but at the same time can’t stem the resentment at watching the decline and destruction of their workstream.  Management respond to declining morale and productivity by increasing the floggings until average handling times go down and the false smiles increase.
Customer complaints to the TIO increase.  The media and competitors have a field day pointing this out.  The TIO rubs its hands together at the thought of getting a whole new office fitout from the revenue.  Management panics, this must stop!  Brilliant idea – let’s set up a priority complaint line where you can purportedly complain directly to the CEO!  (Of course, in reality a complaints team – the closest the CEO would get to it would be a one line bullet point on a weekly high level briefing, and maybe a nice graph showing the decline in TIO complaints every quarter.)  The complaints team want every one of their complaints given the highest priority – it’s a CEO complaint! – with the result that legitimate work (ie the customers who went through the front door into the system as normal) get pushed back even further than the flood of incompetent FoH troubleshooting has already resulted in.  Fresh truckloads of Squeaky Wheel Grease are delivered every morning and applied liberally in a frantic attempt to plaster over the increasingly gaping cracks in the business while BoH staff spend most of their time explaining to people why they have no time to get anything done, as opposed to actually achieving anything.
Management proclaim the solution a success, because their quarterly graph shows TIO complaints have dropped!  The stony silence that descends when someone inquires if the total number of complaints has dropped, or have we just hidden them as CEO complaints, is a clear commentary to the rest of the staff that clarity and honesty are low on the agenda behind self congratulation and delusion. Here’s your mushroom hat, and here comes your shovelful.  Flat out denial that a problem even exists is now in full swing, as it’s the only rationalisation that can be borne in the face of all the evidence to the contrary.  Not only would it hurt far too much to admit to the disaster, but there would have to be a culture-of-blame scapegoat, and so the addict has now deluded themselves completely that there was ever an existence other than this one.
And it’s at this stage where the company is pretty much fucked.  The only way out of the hole is a five year, hugely expensive exercise involving the costs of ramping up domestic support again while continuing the pay the outsourcer to provide interim services.  All the depth of knowledge and experience has been lost, you’re starting with a newbie workforce who knows nothing.  The customer base has long since become embittered by the appalling service and will take years if ever to return from the competitors to which they have fled, and they’ve also become accustomed to the lower pricing that outsourcing permitted and won’t pay anything extra for better service – even if they are the first to complain that they want it.
After all, they’re now used to the drugs too.
Here we are at 9am, the tool now has 296 users logged into it, and is completely unusable.  As Renton said in Trainspotting, I don't feel the sickness yet, but it's in the post. That's for sure. I'm in the junkie limbo at the moment. Too ill to sleep. Too tired to stay awake, but the sickness is on its way. Sweat, chills, nausea. Pain and craving. A need like nothing else I've ever known will soon take hold of me. It's on its way.  I’m cooking up.
Or, as Renton also said – choose life.

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