Customer Elimination Management … CEM … is CRM’s evil twin.

We all have memories of companies doing their utmost to drive us away. If you’re like me, my family offers its sympathies to your family.

No, wait, that wasn’t it. If you’re like me you might have wondered just when the first instance of CEM took place.

Wonder no more. While it might not have been first, science has pushed the date of the earliest known gripe back to 1782 BCE. That’s the approximate date of a clay tablet found in the ruins of the Sumerian city-state of UR …

In the clay tablet, a man named Nanni whined to merchant Ea-nasir about how he was delivered the wrong grade of copper ore. “How have you treated me for that copper?” he wrote. “You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore [my money] to me in full.” (“World’s Oldest Customer Complaint Goes Viral,” Christina Zhao, Newsweek, 8/24/2018.)

Even with the best efforts of digital technology, I doubt your calls to customer service, recorded as they are for training and improvement purposes, will be discovered for translation by even the most diligent of 5918’s archeologists.

In the meantime we’re left to wonder if Nanni received a response that began, “Your clay tablet is important to us …”

We’re also left to wonder, with a bit more relevance to the world of modern commerce, if Digital technologies and practices (no no no no no, not “best practices!”) can, as promised, transform customer service.

But we aren’t left to wonder very long, because the answer is obvious. For companies already dedicated to providing outstanding customer service, Digital technologies won’t transform it, but they will undoubtedly improve it.

For companies that didn’t give an infinitestimal damn before Digital strategies and technologies became the Next Big Thing, Digitization will make their already awful customer service even worse.

In theory, business intelligence technologies, applied to masses of data gleaned from social media, might make a persuasive executive suite case that current service is putrid and customers are defecting in droves because of it while blackening the offending company’s reputation among those who, without the benefit of Yelp, might have given it a shot.

In theory, these same technologies, combined with the near-future capability to interpret telephone conversations for both substance and emotional content, might give that same company’s decision-makers, who couldn’t enter the Clue Store with a plutonium American Express card and leave with any merchandise, the clues they need to figure out why their cost of sales is so much higher than that of their competitors while their customer retention and walletshare continue to plummet.

But in the wise words of 1882 Yale University student Benjamin Brewster, in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is.

The service a company provides its customers is an inextricable component of the overall value they receive when they buy its products and services. Digitize a business whose leaders don’t personally and intrinsically care about it … who care only about the impact bad customer service has on their annual bonuses and options awards … and the result will be the same bad service, available through more channels.

We’re entering a post-Turing world of chat ‘bots, email autoresponders, and, very soon, AIs with synthetic voices, all poised to correctly interpret what we’re saying or writing so as to accurately diagnose their product’s defects and scour our databases of successful resolutions so as to find the one that precisely fits our situation.

More often than not, though, what these capabilities will give customers are the same useless non-solutions to the problems they contacted the service channel to complain about, delivered a wider variety of more convenient channels but not providing more useful information.

Only now, the IT organization’s name will be on whatever complaints do filter through to top management. Which in turn suggests it isn’t too early to think about the brave new world of software quality assurance. Because in addition to the litany of tests IT already applies to its software … unit, integration, regression, stress, and end-user acceptance being the most prominent … we’ll need to add another.

Call it AIIQ testing. Its purpose will be to determine if the artificial intelligences we’re deploying to support buyers of the company’s products and services are just too stupid to expose to the outside world.

Maybe we can figure out how to use artificial intelligence technology to automate the testing.

It was a busy week and busier weekend, so it’s re-run time again. This is one of my all-time favorites: The Desk o’ Death and why it’s a manager’s dream assignment. It first appeared, in InfoWorld, 12/11/2000.

– Bob

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As every programmer knows, God was able to make the world in only six days because he didn’t have an installed base. Programmers rarely have that luxury.

New managers have a different kind of installed base to worry about. While the difficulties they face are not as technically daunting as creating a backward-compatible operating system upgrade, the social engineering issues faced by a manager taking over an existing organization present their own set of significant challenges.

When you take over a department, whether it’s through a promotion or a job change, you don’t get the luxury of designing your operation from scratch. You’re inheriting an installed base — an existing team, well-worn processes and ways of doing things, and an entrenched culture. But where programmers usually have a test environment in which they can safely find and fix mistakes, managers have to do their testing in the production environment of an ongoing operation. Missteps are very public, and hard to unmake.

The social engineering starts before you take the job. If at all possible, find out whether you’re walking into a problem area or not. If it isn’t a problem area, try to get a mandate for change from the reporting manager to create a problem where none existed before. Failing that, let some other victim take this no-win job.

Coming into a smoothly running organization is much harder than taking over a disaster area. How are you to succeed? Your chances of further improving the situation and having the team look to you for leadership are low. If your charter is to maintain the status quo, your predecessor will get the credit if you succeed; you’ll get the blame for any deterioration.

Compare this to the desk o’ death. The department is in shambles. The team is demoralized, productivity is low, waste is high, service levels aren’t. Whenever possible, choose the desk of death, especially if you’re the third or fourth manager to get the job — expectations will be so low that your success is virtually guaranteed.

So long as you follow a few simple rules.

The first is to keep your yap shut. Beyond the usual pleasantries of how delighted you are to have the opportunity, say as little as you can. Listen to everyone, in group settings and one-on-one. Neither agree nor disagree with anything beyond broad philosophical concepts, and above all, don’t choose sides or make any commitments. Offer no ideas of your own. Listen and make note of who says what.

In a desk o’ death, everyone has a private agenda and is trying to recruit you. Assume everything you’re told is biased. You have to piece together an accurate assessment jigsaw puzzle fashion out of bits and pieces. The moment you accept any individual as a preferred or unquestioned source of information, you lose your ability to lead — your preferred source will have established his perspective as your own.

So the first rule is to take time to size up the situation. Then you can decide what needs to be changed — processes, technology, reporting relationships, team members (chances are, if it’s the desk o’ death not everyone is a great employee), attitudes, or what have you. And, you can choose your priorities.

That’s the first rule. The second will have to wait until next week.

Until then, trust nobody.

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Since this is a re-run it’s only fair to provide the link to the follow-up column. Here it is.