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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.
Imagine if the next time some CSR said, "I'm sorry, Mr Tuttle, the computer definitely says that you're dead, and that means that we can't give you access to your account until we hear from the probate court," that you could say, "I'd like to contact your ombudsman's office," and be quickly transferred to a group whose job it was to listen carefully and take action. If it turned out that you really weren't dead, it would be their job to figure out why the machine thought you were and fix that problem, saving your sanity and making the company a better firm.

This is the role of the ombudsman, to discover the failings at the organization's jurisdictional seams. The next rev of Sony's Web site could feature a prominent link on the front page -- "Got a problem with Sony? Click here to tell us about it."

A 21st century ombudsman can take advantage of technology -- for example, an ombudsman could agitate to add an "opt-out permanently" option to the obnoxious "invite a friend" links on modern social apps.

That's why I don't use Evite. It doesn't put event details in the body of the message; it wants to make me click through to its site, so it can turn me into a monetized eyeball. If Evite used an opt-out-permanently link in its e-mail, people who sent me Evites would get an automated reply telling them why I don't use the service and asking them to send me a real e-mail instead.

The beauty of this scheme is that the company ombudsman can monitor the invitees whose opt-out messages are most often invoked and use their input to refine the service so that it works for the people the company's users are most interested in bringing in. (Evite, if you're listening, I'll disable my killfile rule if you'll put the critical info in the message body.)

Failures at the seams benefit no one, and they're nearly impossible to find, precisely because they exist at the seams where no one is in charge. For every Alice who gets a personal phone call from five execs, there are a hundred others who just walk away, fuming, and tell everyone who'll lend an ear what a rotten experience they had.

The Web has shown its power to humiliate dumb companies. Now let's see if it can make them smarter.

Cory Doctorow is co-editor of the Boing Boing blog, as well as a journalist, Internet activist, and science fiction writer.