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MyNewsCenterNavigator,SRU Network,Along with IoT and the cloud, “big data” is a hot topic these days.


When big data crashes against small problems

-August 17, 2015


Along with IoT and the cloud, “big data” is a hot topic these days. By applying sophisticated algorithms and computing power to large sets of accumulated data, the idea is that useful patterns will emerge and be recognized, so that companies can take appropriate or even anticipatory action.

Maybe this will amount to something or maybe it’s mostly hype and hope; I don’t know how the big-data scenario will unfold. I do know that in order for all this data to be acquired in a usable way, it has to fit into a standardized template and format so that it can be analyzed with consistency. As I found out recently, this may mean that direct, common-sense action may have to be sacrificed to the large big-data imperative of “make it fit our form.” While this type of bureaucratic dictate is not new, I think it’s getting worse.

Here’s what happened, in brief: a replacement ink cartridge in my Hewlett-Packard printer failed after a few weeks of light use. I know it was the cartridge since the printer resumed working just fine with a second spare cartridge. I thought getting the bad cartridge replaced would be easy: contact HP, explain the problem, have them send a cartridge to replace the defective one (still under warranty), I’d send them the bad one if they wanted it, and we’d move on.

But I was naive. Instead, I spent two hours on the phone with an H-P “customer service” person who needed to know everything about me, the printer itself, the cartridge, and much more (just about the only thing we didn’t cover was my work history and schools attended). Yet after all this interrogation, she said could not send me a replacement because the printer was old, and their data-collection template required that a viable printer model be associated with a defective cartridge -- and my printer was not on the “viable” list due to its age.

In short, I had a new but clearly defective ink cartridge within warranty, but it was used in a too-old printer. The issue got kicked up to a customer service supervisor, who called me back and acknowledged this issue had gotten out of control and assured me she would send me a new cartridge (which she did).

My tally on this: over two hours of my time, two hours with first-level customer service, and 30 minutes with the supervisor -- all for a $30 item that was clearly defective. If common sense rather than big data’s mandates had been defining the interaction, we could have saved a lot of time.

Though it is 10+ years old, my H-P all-in-one printer uses standard available cartridges; yet warranty replacement of a defective cartridge was rejected because the customer service template could not acknowledge this printer's viability.

You may wonder why I wasted so much of my time for such a modest return. There were several reasons: I was curious about how “customer service” is structured in the era of big data; I was interested in seeing how one company (among the many who claim that providing a good customer experience is a top priority) actually walk their talk; I was wondering how much of their own time and effort they were willing to waste on this small issue; maybe I had a little bit of a masochistic streak going that day, and maybe I was being a little irrational myself. After all, personal logic would have dictated that I would say “enough of this” after about 20 minutes, and get myself back to doing some real work.

My concern is that in order to realize the potential benefits of big data, minor issues will increasingly have to fit its data-collection model. We’re already seeing this in medicine, where doctors now spend more of their time typing than they do actually talking to their patients. I saw a doctor a few months ago and was very impressed: She could type at least 50 words per minute as she verbally sprinted through the many questions of the standardized patient form, and didn't need to make any eye contact with me!

As for Hewlett-Packard, I don’t mean to single the company out. They are probably no better and no worse than many other big companies. Ironically, H-P is splitting itself into two separate, independent companies at a cost of several billion dollars (now that’s real money: one company will focus on PCs and peripherals such as printers, while the other will provide software and IT services).

The stated goal is the usual corporate-speak, along the lines of becoming “a more responsive and nimble company as serve our customer needs,” or something like that (be sure to check back in few years to see how that worked out). Maybe the new H-P will send emplacement cartridges without such lengthy and frustrating customer interaction?

Bureaucratic requirements and mandates which are contrary to common sense are not new, of course, but I fear the demands of big data will make them worse. What has been your experience with customer service, especially for routine, non-highly technical issues? Do you see “big data” helping, or will it eliminate common-sense approaches and make them no longer an option?
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