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In plain English: what is going wrong with the way we work with customers?

Here is a portrait of customer service, 2007 style. Say, for example, you decide to grab a pub lunch. To initiate any sort of interaction with the staff in the establishment you must provide the following kind of data: table number, where exactly are you sitting, whether it is a food, a drink or a food and drink order.

So far so good. The order is given, entered into a touchscreen computer but then you get the sub-menu qualifications: “Do you want chips or salad? Baked, torched or segmented vegetable matter?”

The follow up

Then halfway through, just as you are concentrating on chowing down or chatting to your dinner companion – usually in the midst of a particularly embarrassing confession to do with a recent addiction to internet sex dating – you become aware of a shadowy figure hovering next to you.

“Everything all right with your meal, sir?” the waiter chirrups. As your mouth is full or you are struck dumb with guilty shame, all you can do is helplessly nod – on a good day I sometimes manage a spluttered, “er hrmmf”. Satisfied, they trot off. The cycle is complete. On to the next happy customer.

What we see in this scenario is the application of an algorithm – a measured set of actions that is meant to cover all situations.

Remember when we had those things called systems analysts? Their job was to map the workings of the business in the way that computers needed.

Now the wheel has turned full circle. The needs of data entry and a sort of totally basic CRM dictate how serving staff interact with us. To get served you have to enter the order into the system in the accepted form.

That is not a disastrous scenario, though personally I often find the qualifications needed to order a pie and a pint in a city centre pub to be risibly complicated. But the thing that shows the whole process to be bogus is the visit from the waiter. It’s in the script; serve; wait six minutes; ask if all is satisfactory; this pathway for answer A, that for answer B. Note there is no case statement for ‘other’.

My slightly odd friend Mark, in his day a very successful management consultant, was prone to answer questions he found tiresome with a comment like, “Yes, wildebeest are magnificent creatures,” or some such.

The personal touch

My point is not to criticise those who staff the restaurant trade; they do a fine job handling their big calculators. My point rather is that this is a very inflexible approach to working with customers. While I can see sense in structured approaches to managing customers I worry that formalising a process can lead to the danger of ossification of the working of that process.

Possibly a better approach would be to always include the human touch. Yes, offer rules and procedures to interact with users and their issues. But include enough flexibility in the system so that intelligent human intervention is always possible. Sometimes people just want to speak to another person to sort out their problem.

How this is covered in ITIL, for example, is beyond my competence and I would be interested in the views of readers. In any case, what I do know is that as a customer I would now and again like to interact with someone who feels like a domain expert rather than someone fulfilling a role. As do customers in your organisations. Now, how do you want those eggs – boiled or fried?