Jan 3, 2014

Posted by in Ramblings, Science

The Basic Mathematics of Customer Service

The Basic Mathematics of Customer Service

The following is based on a true story and involves some very basic and probably equally wrong algebra.

It seems to me that there are some companies that put so much energy into making customers leave them alone it’s not only counter productive to their brand, but it also makes bad mathematical sense.

Let us assume that you have a faulty product.  And that faulty product is within it’s warranty.  At this point let’s the same the cost to the company in dealing with your problem is just simply X.  You have paid them for the product and at this point they have no reason to believe there’s anything wrong with it.  Likewise your satisfaction with the company is simply Y.  Y is not complete satisfaction as presumably you are not happy your product has stopped working as it should, it is just your satisfaction level just after the product has broken.  In my case this may be after you’ve hit it a few times, used some colourful language and maybe even punched a wall, cushion, chair, puppy, whatever’s nearby.

So you do a little research online and you email their support.  Just 36 hours later you get an email back that says they are sorry you are having problems and they want a little more info off you.  They even sign the email with a real human name like Joe to show you’re dealing with a real person not an automated response.  So now I’m at, say Y +2 and they’re still at X.  They’re doing what they have to do.

A few more pleasant emails back and forth and it seems progress is being made.  Joe seems a nice guy.  You thank them for the help so far.  Y + 3.  They’ve had to invest a bit of time dealing with you so their cost of the product fault might be at X – 1 although they’ve probably factored this sort of thing into the retail price.  And then, out of nowhere, you have a voicemail from the company.  They’ve actually called me!  They say they have a solution!  The nice man on the phone says they’ve worked out what went wrong with my, sorry, your product.  It’s not even their fault.  It’s a specific part of the product that’s faulty that they don’t manufacture and the manufacturer is aware of this problem so just give them a call and they’ll sort.  They even read the number to call twice.  Wow! 2(Y + 3).  And they’ve solved the problem as much as they can, their end.  Problem solved at a cost of X – 1.  Excellent news all round!

So I (I’m dropping the pretence) call this other company’s call centre on the number provided.  Let’s call my satisfaction with them B and their cost to me A to keep it simple.  Firstly, I’m on hold for 40 minutes so I give up and will just try early tomorrow when maybe there’s less of a queue.  B – 1.  This morning, I get through pretty quickly after an acceptable five minute hold.  I relay the story to the man.  I give him serial numbers and so on.  This isn’t our product, he says.  Oh I know, I say, the casing isn’t yours but the actual ‘stuff’ inside is.  And that’s what’s broken.  How do we know it’s ours, he says.  Because you sold the internal components to the other company, I say.  Well we need those serial numbers or I can’t help you, he says.  But that voids the warranty if I open the casing, I say.  Fuck your mother, I don’t care, he says (I’m paraphrasing here).  B – 3.

Ok, so what, I say.  You know it’s your product but reckon I can’t prove it so what?  Call the other company back.  Your warranty is with them, he says.  Sure, I did that, they said it’s your bit that’s broken, it’s very obviously your bit that’s broken, a less than well educated bonobo could see as much, so why would I call them back?  Because you didn’t buy it from us.  No, no, but I bought it from a shop, not them directly either.  If I buy a car and I get a deflated tyre I don’t go back to Fiat or the used car yard, I go to Bridgestone, who make the tyre part.  The part that’s wrong.  It’d make more sense if Fiat used Pirelli surely.  Less import tax for starters.

So back and forth we go until he just flat out says he isn’t going to help me because he doesn’t have to and then even points me to some fine print he’s found on their website that says he doesn’t have to help me so won’t.  He’s a very unpleasant man.  So a ten minute phone call later and his company’s around A – 1 and me, who didn’t even know this fault had anything to do with them, is at -2 (B – 1)

I call back company X.  They apologise for the bad service of company A.  2(Y + 3) + 1.  They tell me that guy over at A is an idiot.  They actually point me to a press release on A’s site that basically says, ‘We know this is a problem.  We fucked up.  Sorry.  Call us and we’ll fix it’.  I like Joe.  Joe hangs up, still at any easy X – 1.  I call back A.  I am twice on hold for twenty minutes then get cut off.  The third time, after a thirty minute wait, I get though.  -2(B-1) – 4.  I get a new guy.  Same story.  Same refusal to admit their faulty product is their fault despite a press release on their site that says they have a faulty product and it’s there fault.

I say something along the lines of, ‘Look sonny Jim, the other guy said you lot would continually try to weasel out of it so either you fix it or get your supervisor or I’m going to start playing Nickelback to you.  Why Nickelback?  Because that’s the bulk of YOUR FUCKING HOLD MUSIC I’VE BEEN LISTENING TO FOR HOURS YOU SOCIOPATHS’. -5(B – 1) – 4.  I mean, really, Nickelback.

So he says, Whatever, if you don’t crack open those cases, voiding your warranty, I won’t help you.  He failed to realise the paradox he was conveying.  He says, ‘Yeah, I’ll get you a supervisor to call back if you want and they’ll tell you the same thing‘.  Then he yells at me.  He actually yells at me.  So for all this faffing about they’ve got to be at  2(A-1) by now.  My satisfaction is approaching -∞(B – 1) -4 which may or may not even be possible because I don’t really know how Hilbert’s Hotel works when you get into negative numbers.  They’ll call back in 20 minutes they say.

I call back company X.  They again apologise for A.  They tell me they can’t actually email me the links to the press releases and so on by the other company because that would be wrong but they could tell them some random things I might like to search Google for.  3(Y + 3) + 1.  If I still get no joy this time round they will escalate it for me.  He tells me in explicit detail what the problem is with the other company’s product, how it is broken and how they can fix it.  He basically says, Look, I’d do it for you but they have to do it because it’s an £800 bit of a kit and well, you know.  I thank him again and hang up.

Company A call back.  It’s the same guy.  He’s very chirpy.  He’s happy to tell me he spoke to his supervisor and they’ve agreed to take the case.  His exact words.  Like he’s fucking Veronica Mars’ dad.  Because you have to, I say.  He doesn’t acknowledge that.  I tell him everything the man at Company X says.  At which point he basically says, Oh I know.  I totally know but we have to try really hard to get you to fuck off first.  And then if you’re really persistent we’ll look into it.  I stop short of eating the phone.

So he takes all my details, emails me some stuff and says the tech team will get back to me in a day or two with either a couple of questions or some steps towards fixing the problem.  That bit took a minute.  Rather than being delighted I may be approaching a solution instead I am now at around -∞(-∞(B – 1) -4) – 1 billion which I’m pretty sure is impossible unless you’re in a black hole.  And I only say that because many people smarter than me say lots of maths and physics doesn’t work in a black hole so it’s a good blanket of ‘I dunno’.

So Company A has wasted a heap of phone calls, brand satisfaction, worker time and now still have to fix it anyway.  Something they knew at the off.  So their cost to this would be something like 2(A – 1) – 3 before they’ve even agreed to fix it which they knew they would from the start.  So one has to ask what is the percentage drop off of people that give up after one or two calls.  Or kill themselves because of all the Nickelback.  Have they worked out that if only 50% of people get as far as I got, it’s more cost effective than just saying, Sure, let’s help the dude at A when I’m simply at B?  And even if that is more cost effective, doesn’t that really hurt their brand?  I’ve not said the company names here but it’s not too hard to find out who I’m talking about if you want to.

So here’s the thing.  The basic mathematics of customer service, from their point of view, would suggest that it is better to end up with a negative infinity value of the customer’s satisfaction than have a simple whole number for cost of repair in the hope enough people simply go out and buy another one.  But given their experience wouldn’t they just choose a different brand next time?  Is this company’s policies these days? Have they really calculated algorithms to prove this the most profitable outcome?  Or did I just luck out and get two consecutive wankers on the phone.

Either way, this whole run the customer around till they give up philosophy seems mental to me.  Inside or outside of a black hole.

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