Unintended consequences

I’m facinated by unintended consequences.

Tiny, or apparently unrelated acts, can hugely impact people’s lives.

The introduction of rabbits in Austalia is a good example. One expatriate British landowner wanted a little of his home country and so brought out 24 rabbits for hunting to Australia. Within ten years, millions of rabbits plagued Austalia, destroyed the top soil and led to widespread desertification.

Password complexity is another great example of a process which gets so lost in implementation that the original goal is lost. By insisting that passwords are changed monthly, aren’t re-used within 7 months, contain various sorts of characters etc, you are pretty much guaranteeing that users will write them down. They are unlikely, conversely to make them any more secure, chosing instead, a less memorable version of what they were going to have in the first place, i.e. ‘Password1234‘.

Or take the example of Russian car crime quoted in the Register. Concerned by increases in car thefts, Russians took to installing car alarms. The result was that thieves would lie in wait until the owner arrived, shoot them and take the keys.

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in what must surely be an example of ‘unintended consequence’ closer to home. And I think this is something with which probably an increasing number of people can identify.

Having had a pretty sketchy experience with both BT and Paypal, with different levels of unsatisfactory customer service, I mentioned my puzzlement on Twitter.

Now I’d never done this before, so I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest I didn’t really expect very much at all, perhaps a few of my pitifully small band of followers would say ‘yep, I’ve had problems with Paypal too’ or ‘BT are shit’ or whatever. Perhaps they’d even pick up on it themselves and offer to resolve it, but both organisations seemed unlikely to be this switched on.

BT customer service on twitter

So, imagine my suprise, when within the hour, both sevices were basically mugging me on Twitter. Ostensibly they were trying to help. Although, of course, help they did not.

Paypal were the calmer of the two, trying to switch almost immediately to a non twitter public channel and find out what had happened. Within a day I was escalated to ‘executive escalations’, who gave me a piece of advice I’d be very suprised to hear on Twitter – that I should charge goods back to Paypal, because their own policy didn’t cover the eventuality of the product I had bought with them not working. Very polite throughout, and frankly wise enough not to battle it out in public, although I continue to believe they mis-sell their buyer protection abilities substantially.

BT on the other hand were like a group of mad relatives. And mad relatives that don’t talk to each other.  I’d already had different advice from two different customer service reps about the issue (which was that I failed their credit check, despite being an existing customer and having passed it numerous times – this is something BT can do ‘nothing’ about!). They just kept firing @messages at me, as well as a few directs. They asked me to email them, to phone them (all of these done already) and seemed quite narky about the whole thing. It did nothing to resolve my issue and certainly nothing to make me think more highly of BT customer services.

This raises a couple of questions. Why pay people to sit and watch Twitter unless they stand a chance in hell of helping people. If they’re just there to say ‘phone customer services’ then what, frankly, is the point; except for an unwanted invasion into social media.

Secondly, and more importantly, is it possible that we are teaching customers that the best way to complain about a product or service is loudly and publicly. If I get screwed over again by either of these companies then I know that on Twitter I’ll get a faster response, a generally brighter respondent, and it also feels like – while it remains public – I’ve got a bit more chance of getting a result.

The moral here is – as often – beware oversimple advice from social media gurus. An excellent definition of unintended consequences is the failure of an attempt to model a complex problem with a simple solution.

If your consultants are telling you to be on Twitter to answer customer queries, then remember the prerequisites: am I providing the best possible customer service elsewhere?, and will the poor twits I’m hiring to track the conversation acutally be able to do anything other than produce hot twitter-flavoured air. If not, you’re likely to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. And, what you get for your ‘customer service’ investment may be a lot more flack you couldn’t deal with in the first place, but this time it’s there for ever and out in the open for customers to see your problems.