Business & Finance
Commentary
3/7/2007
06:03 PM
Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow
Commentary
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The Web Can Humiliate Dumb Companies. Can It Make Them Smarter?

Dysfunctional consumer companies know only two modes of customer service: abusive contempt or slobbering, cringing remorse. Cory Doctorow describes how broken companies can make good customer service the standard.

In these segments -- which prefigure blogs like The Consumerist and This is Broken -- Weinstein would take a camera crew to some business that had shafted a viewer and humiliate the highest-ranking authority he could find by setting out the facts of the case. The inevitable response was a fulsome outpouring of apologetic good will, gift certificates, refunds, and a vice presidents' mariachi band singing regretful love songs under the poor abused bastard's balcony.

It seems that dysfunctional corporations have only two modes of interacting with their customers: abusive contempt and slobbering, cringing remorse.

A dysfunctional company is like the drunken father in an after-school special: Either he's rousing himself from his La-Z-Boy stupor to beat us with his rodeo-buckle belt, or he's red-eyed, hung over, and leading a pony with a giant ribbon around it. And like the drinking dads of those morality plays, today's companies need an intervention.

Customer service catastrophes are par for the course in big institutions. Not every employee is great. Large institutions demand policies that can override local common sense. It can be hard to tell a rip-off artist from a customer with a legit beef.

But these normal problems are violently exacerbated by the new, fragmented nature of giant companies. The modern national or multinational giant has been splintered into separate divisions, further fragmented through mergers and acquisition, and has often had its most important components spun out into autonomous entities that complicate things even more through outsourcing.

Is it any wonder that most disputes with big companies end up unfolding like Lily Tomlin sketches? A frustrated customer shouts at a CSR whose hands are tied by badly thought-through systems, resulting in a slow-mo hemorrhage of money and goodwill.

These problems arise in all complex organizations, particularly governments and their agents: police departments and militaries. In these institutions, the answer is to appoint inspectors general, ombudsmen, and internal investigators -- people charged with examining those interstitial areas that fall under no one division's brief, places where the institution fails miserably because of how two components fail to work together.

A democracy without oversight is a totalitarian failure waiting to happen. A company without cross-cutting oversight is doomed to waste money and lose business through the failure of its human, policy and technical systems to mesh.

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