Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Insulting the Victim?

Ina Fried has continued to track the Sidekick data-loss story for CNET News. However, as I tried to indicate on Sunday, this is a case where we need to go beyond the "facts of the story," so to speak, and interpret those facts in an effort to derive useful lessons-learned. Such interpretation is often facilitated by trying to align the evidence we have with models from the past (along the lines of the "thinking in time" strategy of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May); so we can then draw upon those models to draw inferences and make decisions. I proposed two such models on Sunday, the narrative of Robert Heinlein's 1940 story "Blowups Happen" and the Northeast Blackout of 1965. The former was a fictitious account of how to deal with the problem of a technology failure having catastrophic consequences for an unexpectedly large number of people. The second involved a failure that affected 25 million people but probably not on the catastrophic scale that Heinlein had considered. I neglected to mention 9/11 as a possible model, primarily because, from a narrative point of view, this is still very much a narrative-in-progress; so it would be hazardous to reason from a model that has not yet reached a point of closure.

Nevertheless, our experiences since 9/11 may help us focus on the sorts of questions we should be asking in planning our actions. Two questions stand out as worthy of consideration:

  1. How do we compensate for the physical damage to "get things working again?"
  2. How do we compensate for the personal damage to the victims of the physical damage?

Last night Fried ran a follow-up report, which indicates that these questions are being addressed by T-Mobile, if not by Microsoft. Regarding the first question:

T-Mobile said late on Monday that it may yet be able to recover Sidekick users' information that it had previously thought was lost as part of a massive server failure by Microsoft's Danger subsidiary.

"Recent efforts indicate the prospects of recovering some lost content may now be possible," it said.

As Fried observes, this "marks a significant change in tone." I would characterize that change as a shift from "What's done is done" to "We're working on it." From the point of view of recognizing that "customer relationship" is a social, rather than technical, matter, this is definitely a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of how the second question has been addressed:

Those who do suffer permanent data loss will get a $100 "customer appreciation card" good toward T-Mobile service or products, the carrier said in a statement.

"For those who fall into this category, details will be sent out in the next 14 days - there is no action needed on the part of these customers," T-Mobile said. "We however remain hopeful that for the majority of our customers, personal content can be recovered."

Granted that it is never easy to put a price on pain and suffering, $100 sounds like a pretty cheap way to deal with personal reactions to this problem; and providing that compensation through a "customer appreciation card" just rubs salt in a wound whose pain is highly subjective. One can imagine that there are going to be customers who would like nothing better that to sever entirely their connections to T-Mobile, and it is hard to imagine their opinion being changed by the prospect of doing another $100 worth of business with the carrier at that carrier's expense.

The intrusion of impersonal technology into making decisions about people has been the latest swing of the pendulum in business attitudes towards customers. We have seen the two extremes of "the customer is always right" and "the customer be damned;" and we know that the pendulum will continue to swing. These days the basic attitude it that dealing with customers is no longer a matter of skill, because training procedures now tend to presume that all relevant activities may now be facilitated, if not entirely assumed, by Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. This is not to suggest that CRM technology puts a price on buying back the favor of an offended customer, but the technology does encourage the mindset that any personal problem can be solved by writing a check. There are probably many irate customers out there who would like nothing more than to see T-Mobile crash and burn, not realizing (or not caring) that none of the alternatives are likely to be any better (or, for that matter, worse). The best we can hope is that this whole affair will kick the pendulum back in the direction of treating the customer as "subject, rather than object;" but this seems about as unlikely as the prospect of engineering practices that design for recovery as much as for functionality!

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