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.

Short-term decision-making dominates modern executive decision-making.

It’s a common and frequent criticism. But as the success of Agile application development methodologies in IT has demonstrated, short-term decision-making, in and of itself, isn’t always a problem.

Assuming long-term outcomes, on the other hand … now that’s something that can cause immeasurable grief.

Take, for example, the popular pastime of reorganizing for success.

Before we get started, though, let’s clear out some common confusions, namely, the difference between reorganizations and restructurings, and between both of these and the increasingly popular notion of redefining an organization’s operating model.

Properly used (KJRSpeak for “the way I use these terms”), reorganizations are the legendary RMS Titanic deck chair rearrangements. Reorganizations keep existing workgroups and their responsibilities intact but change the organizational hierarchy they fit into.

The best that can be said for reorganizations is that they can remove or reduce the size of barriers to collaboration among workgroups. What’s usually left unsaid is that for every barrier a reorganization removes, it introduces other barriers that weren’t there before: Reorganizations fix what’s broken by breaking what’s fixed.

On top of which come the hidden costs of everyone keeping their heads down until they figure out the new collection of hidden rules that come with new management to replace the hidden rules imposed by the old management regime.

Even worse: Reorganizations can distress or outright kill the pursuit of important business opportunities, because a new organizational hierarchy often means the business sponsor for a given initiative, who cared deeply and profoundly about its success, has new responsibilities for which the initiative is utterly irrelevant.

Likewise, the newly logical sponsor for the initiative in question is likely to have very different ideas about what’s worth investing in and what isn’t.

Restructurings are more profound than reorganizations. At a minimum, in addition to changing the organizational hierarchy and the position of workgroups in it, they also reassign some responsibilities among the existing workgroups.

Restructurings can also eliminate some workgroups while introducing others, and in general try to change how work gets done, with the new workgroups and hierarchy designed to facilitate the process changes that are the point of the exercise.

But along the way to achieving the hoped for improvements to organizational effectiveness come all the short-term losses associated with reorganizations, along with the additional short-term losses that come from changing how work gets done: Everyone involved has to unlearn what they knew in order to learn how they’re supposed to do things now.

Operating model changes are even more thoroughgoing. They recognize that process changes take more than process and organizational designs. They include the entire internal business architecture — people, processes, technology, structure, and culture.

That’s a good thing, because all of these need to be consistent with each other for a new way of getting things done to work.

It’s a bad thing because the more that has to change, the more likely it is that, beyond the cumulative effectiveness losses that accompany restructurings, operating model changes include two major additional concerns: (1) we didn’t think of everything the new operating model has to address; and (2) one or more managers or employee groups involved in the change might get some of it wrong.

Understand, some situations do call for reorganizations, restructurings, or new operating models.

But … (you knew “but” was about to happen, didn’t you?)

In The Cognitive Enterprise, Scott Lee and I introduced the “Stay-the-same / change” ratio — a metric that compares how long an organization takes to make a change to the length of time the change will remain relevant, and the organization can accumulate its benefits.

The ratio matters whenever the time needed to achieve a change is incompressible, while the time available for harvesting their results, is shrinking. Reorganizations, restructurings, and new operating models fall into this category.

Now metrics have their limits, and that includes any and all attempts to quantify the overall costs and the business benefits to be had from any organizational change.

That doesn’t exempt managers from thinking in these terms. In the absence of quantification the management team planning the change should discuss these questions:

  • How disruptive will the change be to our current level of effectiveness?
  • How long will the organization need to recover from the change?
  • Will our long-term gain in overall effectiveness be an order or magnitude or more, or an increment?

And then there’s the most important question: Given our history, how long do we expect the change to last before we reorganize again?