Archive for July, 2015

Rules and Tenets

All of us who reach out to any customer support almost always reach a point in the conversation where the person at the other end of the phone goes – “I am sorry sir, this is (not) our policy”! This is usually the cue for us to hang-up but some of us keep trying and the rest of us lose it & start yelling. Neither approach helps resolve the issue at hand, but in my experience the second option gets the angst of your chest (at the cost of giving everyone around you a headache!).

What is this mysterious ‘policy’ everyone is referring to? It’s essentially a list of rules and the agent can help you only if your situation is part of the script. However, every now and then, there is someone who goes beyond it, understands your problem, applies their intelligence and talks to you like a human being instead of a bot. And that usually makes your day. Note that I never said this person solves your problem – very often you hang up happy even when your problem is not solved – it’s sufficient just to hear some sense on the other side.

Why are customer service interactions so painful? I think it comes down to the ‘rules’. If an agent is instructed to follow ‘rules’ in an inherently ambiguous situation, then he is not going to know what to do when the conversation doesn’t follow script. Since he is not empowered to think, there can be only one outcome – frustration. That’s why I think tenets work better. How are tenets different? They do not prescribe how a person should act, but only provide a framework of desired outcomes. For example, ‘Accept product returns ONLY if they meet all these criteria’ is a rule; ‘Accept product returns in genuine cases’ is a tenet. The key difference is that tenets expect you to apply your intelligence and act wisely in a way that meets the goal whereas rules are prescriptive on how to act to meet the goal.

In this ted talk, Barry Schwartz makes a case for using practical wisdom to overcome challenges posed by rules. In one example, he talks about a dad who mistakenly gets ‘Mike’s Hard lemonade’ (which contains alcohol) for his son when he intended to get him lemonade. The son drank it, the security guard noticed it, the cops were called, the kid was rushed to the hospital and luckily all was well with the kid. But that was just the beginning of the nightmare. Then the child welfare protections agency decided to send the kid to a foster home, a judge refused to let the kid go home and it took two weeks for the family to be reunited. And everyone involved said they couldn’t avoid it as they were following rules. This is definitely an extreme example, but it makes a strong point – rules were created to ensure the key principle of safeguarding kids but following them without applying wisdom leads to the opposite result. We can think of many situations in our lives, from religion to work where we see rules trump wisdom.

I know what many of you are thinking – letting everyone apply their wisdom will lead to extremely inconsistent results for the same action. After all everyone reacts differently to the same situation and this will lead to chaos. But does it? We already allow (and encourage) this behavior in a very important aspect of our lives – education. We constantly encourage our teachers to tailor their message and method based on the feedback they receive from the students. The process is certainly not uniform, but it isn’t chaos either. Indeed, the freedom allows teachers to experiment and provide the best way to reach the ultimate goal – educate the kid. The same is true in healthcare – no two operations are the same but we trust the doctor to use judgment to ensure the best outcome for the patient.

I am not naïve enough to think this will work for every situation – I do think we need traffic rules and not just tenets (even with rules Indian roads are chaos). But very often we find ourselves in ambiguous situations where rules inherently cannot cover all cases and fail basic common sense. Defining tenets and hiring people who can use their judgment to do the right thing to meet the stated objective would be a much better approach.

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July 7, 2015 at 8:18 am Leave a comment

Using your network – is there a line you should not cross?

Have you been approached by a friend/acquaintance to join their ‘entrepreneurial organization’ which helps people earn ‘royalty’ on the network they build much like McDonalds makes money by just franchising their brand? After all, who doesn’t like the idea of getting rich through the commissions made from other people’s sales? If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you must have at least heard of it from other friends. There are different names for this, but ‘direct selling’ or ‘pyramid marketing’ continues to thrive and evolve to now include virtual goods as well.

Irrespective of what is being sold, I have always been irritated and annoyed when I have been approached by friends under the pretext of discussing an ‘exciting business idea’. I wonder why. Surely I cannot be against friends asking me if I am interested in something they are doing. Friends do that all the time, why I do that all the time – whether it is going together on a weekend trip or trying out a new restaurant. What’s more, friends get together very often to start a business – and that seems quite natural to me. It can’t be that I am against friends seeking advice – I seek advice from friends all the time and derive great satisfaction about helping friends when they seek advice. It also can’t be that I don’t appreciate that friends lean on each other – that is a fairly normal social expectation. So what is it about this ‘chain marketing’ business that upsets me?

I feel this kind of ‘leveraging’ of your friends network is actually an abuse of trust and an attempt to profit from the relationship. However, doesn’t a friend profit if I refer her to a job in my workplace? Sure, she might, but that isn’t an abuse of trust and here’s why I think it’s different. Asking a friend for a favor even if you gain from it, is still a favor. The key difference is the motive – if it is to profit then it is an abuse of trust, if it is to seek help then it is isn’t.

Starting a company with friends can get tricky too but the explicit difference in contexts helps set boundaries and the ones who navigate this road are those who stay within lanes. When you start a business with a friend, you are telling him/her “I think we share the values on which we can work together”. When you build your marketing pyramid with your friends, you are essentially telling them “I would like to monetize this relationship”. And that is where I draw the line.

July 2, 2015 at 6:42 am Leave a comment


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