Fix Everything Three Ways

Three years ago Joel Spolsky wrote an article on customer service. His first point he called “Fix everything two ways” and it revolved around the idea that when a customer complains you should not only fix their immediate problem but you should also look at how that problem arose and what you can change to stop, or at least reduce the chances of, other people being affected by that type of problem in the future.

I would actually go one step further and say that if a customer complains and you fix their problem, and you then find the underlying cause and fix it for the future, then you should also consider whether that problem has already affected any other customers and whether there is anything you can do to proactively fix it for those customers. Call it “Fixing everything three ways” if you like.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that my recent dispute with BT is finally starting to reach some sort of conclusion (though only after I wrote to the CEO and the executive complaints people got on the case) and, most unusually in my experience, they have taken some steps towards following the kind of process described above.

All too often a complaint to an organisation leads to the immediate problem being solved, and maybe some sort of token compensation, which is fine as far as it goes. What really makes my day however is when a companies response really shows that they’ve thought more deeply about the problem and taken steps to deal with it long term.

Maybe more companies do in fact do this sort of thing but just don’t communicate it to the original complainant - even Joel’s article doesn’t really suggest that you should do so. I think that telling people what you’ve done produces a lot of goodwill however - it is much nicer, and inspires more confidence for the future, to receive a reply which says “It seems the problem was caused by … and we’ve corrected your account and are working to resolve this” than the more normal “I’ve corrected your account” type response.

To go back to the recent example with BT the current status is that they have explained that the second call (after I was supposed to have been added to their internal opt out list) happened because of a failure to transfer information properly when migrating customer accounts to a new system. That’s great - they’ve explained the problem, plus they say they are working on fixing it and in the meantime they have made sure I am opted out on the new system. They even volunteered the fact (which I didn’t know) that the adviser who handled my initial complaint about the second call had failed to fully opt me out on the new system.

Of course there are still issues around the fact that both calls were made while I was registered with the Telephone Preference Service and that two letters over the course of two months to their “Complaints Management” team went unanswered, and I am pursuing those with the executive complaints people.

Perhaps the best response I ever received to a complaint I made however was from AA Insurance. In 2007 when I was looking to renew the buildings and contents insurance for my house I wound up going with the AA after a bit of shopping around. I completed all the details online and everything seemed to go smoothly. After a few days the buildings insurance details turned up in the post (the AA acts as a broker and had placed the two polices separately) but when the renewal date was reached the contents insurance details had still not arrived.

On phoning them to ask what was happening I got a fairly disinterested customer service person who said they had no record of my application for the contents policy and all he could do was to setup a new one which (due to the kind of dynamic pricing insurance companies tend to operate now) worked out to be slightly more than the original price. I eventually paid under protest and went off and wrote a letter to their complaints department.

Within a few days I had a call from somebody who not only admitted that it was all their fault but explained that he had spoken to the people running the web site and they had dug through the logs and worked out exactly what had happened and how one policy had gone through and not the other - essentially what he was describing (though he probably didn’t know it) was some sort of race condition in the software. He further said that they had identified a small number (four I think) of other people it had affected. Obviously he then arranged to refund the extra I had paid, plus a few pounds to cover my expenses.

And that remains the single best example of how to manage a complaint that I have ever come across - obviously they missed the ball slightly by not empowering the original phone operator to deal with the matter better but at least eventually somebody took the problem firmly in hand and really dealt with it properly.

All we have to do now is persuade more organisations to behave like that, and have it become the norm instead of the exception…

Tom Hughes

Tom Hughes
Software Engineer, Developer and system administrator for OpenStreetMap

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