The executive in charge of Comcast's support organization is having an interesting week.
As you know by now, two well-connected (media) people tried to disconnect from Comcast. The support representative made this an incredibly difficult task. In exchange, the customers taped part of the conversation. It went viral, and probably even made its way to the Comcast CEO and board of directors, particularly now that The Washington Post is using the incident as a powerful argument for blocking the troubled Comcast-Time Warner merger.
This is clearly a job-ending event for the support rep. It could be for several of the rep's managers and executives, too. And it could have been prevented with analytics focused on preventing a "viral event" and on improving internal practices.
The Customer Is Always Right, Overzealous Employees Usually Aren't
There are always folks within any organization who can become overzealous. This can be particularly problematic when firms face layoffs or other financial pressures. Employees can feel a need to do something. That "something" can be well-intentioned – or it can be an absolute disaster.
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I first experienced this in the IBM ROLM unit that made telephone systems. Every employee faced substantial pressure to improve financial performance. One very large customer, believing its phone system to be reliable, refused to sign what it thought was an unnecessary maintenance contract. To prove that customer wrong, one overzealous support engineer changed the permissions for inbound and outbound calls, effectively turning off the entire company's phone service. This was before the Internet and cell phones; in terms of real time communications, the firm effectively shut down. The head of our division was on the board for this company. The term "crap flows downhill" exemplifies what happened next.
Later, on the purchasing side, I found myself in the middle of a similar, well-intentioned problem. We studied our payroll system and found our current supplier wasn't competitive. We changed firms, only to find out that the supplier had been our biggest customer. Again, I observed the crap flowing downhill – right onto my desk.
In both cases, a list of companies with which our executives engaged, couple with a list of our largest customers, might have avoided both problems. In this age of social media and the Web, though, we have better tools.
Tying analytics to outward-facing systems to identify potential problems before they occur could go a long way toward preventing these kinds of problems. For example, Comcast could create a database of celebrities, people active on the Web or in media, or those connected intimately with corporate executives (such as family members, business partners and friends). It could then flag all associated customer and vendor accounts for special handling and oversight. At the very least, Comcast could tell the person interfacing with these people or companies that extra care will pay dividends, while bad treatment will make the crap flow downhill. As most of us know, that's not any fun at all.
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The fact that one little mistake can put an entire reporting line at risk should also justify the cost of putting in place a protective process to, say, identify investigative reporters drilling for a story – particularly ones who didn't know they were drilling when they struck oil and torpedoed your career in the process. To protect your rear end, and your company's, use analytics to scan social media, to look at customer, employee and investor databases, and to interface with sales, customer, and buyer systems.
Monitor Employees to Nip Problems in the Bud
In addition to looking at ways to use analytics to avoid that next viral event, I'll suggest some process changes, since I was in the middle of a couple of these things myself.
Outward-facing employees need to be constantly reminded not to misuse the power of the firm. You'd think this would come naturally, but low-level employees often feel powerless in their own jobs and make up for the related inferiority complex when they are granted power to by overusing it to reassert their status.
When this gets out, it's more than just a potential viral event. It will get the employee fired and make its way up to management, too. Monitoring employee-customer interactions and using role-playing exercises to reinforce proper behavior can go a long way toward assuring that the next viral event doesn't turn you into the crap catcher.
I should add that employees who act like this should be managed out of the company or, at the very least, into jobs that don't require much interaction either inside or outside the firm. If abuse of power isn't corrected early – and now I speak as a former internal auditor – it often turns into an even bigger problem if the employee becomes an executive with real power.