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Just Solve The Damn Problem!

by David Brock on April 4th, 2014

I was oddly amused and somewhat saddened observing a situation from the sidelines recently.  I wish it were an isolated situation, but it’s far too familiar — I think you’ll recognize it.

A customer has a problem.  It’s not one of those hairy big problems that we darken the sky with airplanes, sending experts, corporate execs, possibly lawyers to solve.  It’s just an every day problem, thousands and millions of them occur every business day.

But it’s a problem and it’s important to the customer.  This problem has an added dimension, it has to be solved by a certain time, or this customer fails to meet commitments they’ve made to their own customers (who are paying dearly for a service).

The normal problem resolution methods aren’t working.  The customer has sent email after email to the “place” that’s supposed to solve problems.  You know what it is, it’s one of those obscure email addresses–it’s not an individual–it’s something like problem_solving_god_who_you_should_never_piss_off_if_you_want_

The customer receives no response or acknowledgement.  The customer is starting to worry as the deadline is approaching (it’s still a day or two away).  The customer finds a sales person, it’s someone the customer has never met, because the customer is an end user, and the sales person sold the solution to someone else.  But in any case the customer finds the sales person, emailing them, “Please Help Me…….”

The sales person responds, politely, “You have to send your problems to “problem_solving_god_who_you_should.……..”  (I’ll just refer to this person as “problem-solver.”)

You know the story, a few email exchanges go on, the customer getting more frustrated as hours pass.  The sales person is well intended, but is just giving the standard answer, until he understands the customer has done everything they should have done.

So the sales person escalates it, not really knowing who the problem-solver is, but trying to get the customer’s problem solved.  As any good sales person does, he sends half a dozen emails to different people asking for help.  Then he went off to other things, assuming someone would get back to the customer.

Fast forward to an all too familiar story.  Pretty soon all sorts of people are involved—including a huge number who shouldn’t be, but who have decided they have an opinion they want to express about an issue.  The original emails the sales person send, are criss-crosssing through the organization.  The email stream of each message gets longer and longer.  I’m somehow copied on some of them, it takes me five minutes to scroll through the email to find the problem–and it doesn’t have the information needed to solve the problem, it’s just a sales person saying, “my customer has a problem, please help them.”

The email message stream is the normal one.  It focuses on “what’s our process; who has responsibility; why is our process broken; we should have a better process; why are we selling that product anyway; shouldn’t the customer have already upgraded; are they paying for support;  where’s the problem solver; where should we go for drinks after work (OK, I made that one up.)”

The issue bounces back and forth, the email streams get longer, people start talking about forming a problem solving task force, the issue snow balls.  People all across the organization are spending lots of time on the problem.  Fingers start pointing, some start saying “not my job.”  You know the drill.  The people in the organization are engaged in the “important talk” that too many people in corporations spend too much time doing.

There’s just one problem.

It’s the poor customer.  The customer has heard nothing.  The deadline for solving the problem is approaching (we know that if the customer doesn’t get the problem solved, the same conversations will start within their company).

Through all this important talk, everyone forgot about the customer and getting the customer’s problem solved.

At this point, I get involved almost by accident, this is where I actually started seeing the email streams and was able to piece together the story.  It turns out, for this particular problem, we’re the people the “problem_solver” go to when they can’t solve the problem.  The problem took less than 2 minutes to solve.  Someone got back to the customer–disaster diverted.  The customer while thankful, went through a lot that he never should have gone through, and was very frustrated.

So what went wrong?  Is this isolated?

Answering the second question first, unfortunately, it’s too common.  Each of us experience the same thing too frequently–as customers.  We, unfortunately, see too much of this in our own companies and what we inflict on our customers.

In fairness to my client, everyone was very well intended with this issue.  They genuinely wanted to solve the customer’s problem, except corporate inertia took over and they lost track of solving the problem, getting diverted into all sorts of other discussions around the problem, the process, and who’s job it is anyway.  They lost sight of the customer!

Despite everything, we have to solve the damn problem!

We have to focus on the customer, we have to communicate to the customer, we have to own “solving” the problem–not talking about the process, pointing fingers, doing everything but addressing the issue at hand.

My friend, Vala Afshar, has established this mantra and culture at Extreme Networks:  “Your problem is our problem until it is no longer a problem.”

There’s a lot I can go on about in terms of developing and testing your problem solving processes, communicating them throughout the organization, communicating them to customers, and so forth.  You all know this stuff.

The real issue is the customer.  We can never lose sight of the customer in this process.  Sometimes, despite everything, we just have to solve the damn problem!  As sales people, the customer’s problem is always our problem until it’s no longer a problem.  If we don’t make sure their problems are solved, if we don’t communicate with them, keep them updated, and assure their problem is solved; they will find someone who will make sure their problems are solved.

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  1. I loved this description of how a simple request becomes a “social graph” nightmare -with too many people not answering the right question.

    • Thank Michael. It’s amazing how easy it is for us to get distracted from solving the problem, instead spending a lot of time talking about solving the problem. Thanks so much!

      • David, you got any ideas about how the group gets distracted & so easily?

        • Mike: That’s the $64k question ($69 K Cdn 😉 Some speculation, having seen it so often, and particularly afflicting very large organizations.

          1. Generally there is no absence of good intent. The flurry and level of “work/activity” is very high, it’s just misdirected.
          2. It’s often caused by people “doing their jobs,” but too often customer problems fall “in between” or “in the overlaps.” So they don’t know who/how to solve the problems.
          3. The absence of a problem owner. Someone has to own the problem, and it can’t be the customer.
          4. Bad problem management processes, tracking, and systems.
          5. No metrics or accountability on customer problem management (add customer experience, customer satisfaction).
          6. The customer is too abstract. It is a name at and enterprise, not a poor frustrated human being. Sometimes, I think we should collect the customer’s picture with the problem report so whenever we look at it, we see a customer staring back to us.
          7. We focus on the problem and ignore the impact of the problem. Consequently we don’t know the pain the customer is experiencing.

          What are your thoughts—I’d love to turn this into a blog post.

          Separately, thanks for your very kind and generous comment on LinkedIn today. I really appreciate it!

          • David;

            Here is my working hypothesis.

            I see this problem as the group equivalent to the constraints on an individual’s working memory. Miller’s The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.

            After 6 or 7 emails, enough people stop looking through to the end of the thread to see if the problem has been solved.

            Each layer on the email thread brings up “important talk” because enough people are acting as if the problems has been solved.

            The process is self-reinforcing after 7 or more responses.

            Would have to see the entire email thread, though.

            (And you are welcome for the well deserved compliment.)

  2. Mike, I think there’s real merit to what you have to say. It’s kind of a “scroll factor.” The problem changes as the amount you scroll increases.

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