Paul Graham has famously said that business is simply selling what people want. The problem is that a lot of people in business (and most people who work are "in business") do not understand how that simple statement pans out.

Selling - how well do we do that? How do we market products to our target audience? How do we increase potential market?

What people want - Obviously this means the products are a suitable balance of quality and cost but there is much more to this than simply product and each time a business gets this wrong, they remove another reason for someone to stay loyal.

I was using my online banking the other day. I went to overpay my mortgage and when I clicked on the link, the page was blank. Now most people would immediately call for help or simply quit the bank, especially if this is not their first disappointment. I did a bit more, I tried disabling cache, I tried other browsers and I looked for console errors (there were some that might have been relevant). I then did something else that most people wouldn't do, I sent a message to the bank on Twitter with a screenshot of the errors, details of what I had tried and the fact that as a software developer I know what I am talking about.

What should have happened?

  • Acknowledge the message and clarify anything that is not clear
  • Immediately contact the web development team/helpdesk
  • Tell me it has been passed on
  • Treat this as a critical bug that needs fixing asap
  • Fix it
  • Optionally tell me it is fixed and please try again

What actually happened? 

  • Had a slightly long-winded discussion with the person on Twitter
  • They asked to try other browsers (I know you have tried Chrome and Firefox but what about Safari and Edge).
  • They told me they had a known issue with Chrome and I should try clearing my cookies and cache. This is a terrible suggestion. It would be much easier to tell people to disable the cache in dev tools and not lose everything they have spent ages logging into.
  • Told me to try logging in through the home page (not sure where they thought I was logging in from)
  • Told me to call the Online Banking Helpdesk and it starts to get so annoying!
  • Why don't organisations have some direct dial numbers for specific departments? If they know I have an issue with online banking, why not give me the online banking direct line? Nope, we have all been there. 5 minutes of automated messages, broken "enter your account number" systems and then another 10 minutes in a queue.
  • A call handler answers and I explain the issue, he asks me for some security details so he can access my account. Why does he need to access my account? The problem is a broken page on the web application. He tells me he can't get in and I need to be transferred to the online banking team. Wait, isn't that who I am already talking to?
  • Another 10 minutes on hold. By this point, I eventually get to 30 minutes on this call and have still not had the call answered so I hung up.
  • I decided to create a 1-star review on Trust Pilot and was already considering how I might leave a bank that can't get the basics right

Why is this all a problem for a large company? Losing a customer should be a tragedy that people should take personally, if it was avoidable. If I deploy software and it is broken, I take that personally even if another developer did it. Why? Because it shows that the system I manage has holes in it. Either I am not managing my developers and they are being sloppy or the system has gaps which let problems through.

But secondly, this slap dash management is costing an enormous amount of money. How much would it cost for the person on Twitter to look on an issues board and say either, "Sorry Mr Briner, there is a known issue about this that is being worked on" or "This doesn't appear to be a known issue, I will immediately report it"? Not very much at all. How much does it cost to employ these vast call centres of people who don't really understand what they are doing or whose systems they don't know how to use? Eating up a total of probably 10 or 20 minutes of time and achieving nothing?

How much would you save if you paid more money to have people of a higher level of training who could answer a phone without any automated systems and could solve your problem straight away. You want to update your credit card? Sure thing, 20 seconds, done. You want to report a problem? Let me take the details, thanks for calling.

This really comes down to a number of issues, all solvable but for one reason or another just linger on.

1) People who are simply not very good at their job. It makes me slightly ill when I meet people who don't actually have much skill in senior positions. People who enjoy the title but don't ever get things done, they blame previous office holders for problems and then leave before anything else bad happens. They have lots of meetings, talk about plans, targets and whatever but never meet any of them.

2) People lack the ability to resolve issues. If I was head of customer services and the IT system didn't work properly, I would damn well insist that the system is fixed as a priority. If it was flaky, I would want a number that my staff would call to make sure that changes are actually being made to data - my sister once took about 10 calls to the same provider just to update an address!

3) People don't understand how to use agility in both business as well as purchasing. Making many small changes in a managable and measureable way instead of large expensive projects that take too long and end up creating more problems than they solve. Also, ensuring that systems or services you buy in are treated in the same way. I don't want a system delivered in two years time, I want something I can get value of sooner rather than later even if it doesn't do everything.

4) Staff who don't make it their business to get into the detail. If I was losing 30% of my call centre calls from people hanging up, I would be listening into calls and seeing what was taking so long and I would be pushing back on other departments, making things simpler, having effective training resources. What I would not be doing is looking at weekly reports with graphs showing that we are not doing great and then make up some BS about targets to make it better

5) People who don't interact with their customers. I had a run-in with an HSBC call centre operative who told me to do something weird just to change a Direct Debit date. It didn't sound right and I complained and received a call from a senior service delivery manager apologising for my experience and offering some financial apology. It was the difference between "Idiots" and "These people actually care about getting things right".

I'm not sure that there is an easy solution to the corporate mess but it 100% has to start with the culture and ability of the CEO. If the CEO doesn't have all of these skills there is 0% chance that the company will operate well. The reason why certain brands like Apple and Amazon are famous for high performance is that their CEOs are high performers. Not perfect, not always 100% transferrable skills but completely committed to their company performing well. Because they are, they can insist on it for their sub-ordinates right down the hierarchy to each individual member of staff. If you don't like the culture, don't work here. If you can't meet the requirements, get a lower paid job somewhere that doesn't care.

I'll leave it here...