I recently had a piece of luggage lost for 5 days. It was not lost for 5 days according to their system as every day the airline indicted it had made its way to the landing city and was on its way to my hotel. After 2 days, an enthusiastic employee called to share that he had found my luggage in the takeoff city and was sending it to the landing city. (Their system had indicated it was already there.) Every couple hours, I would call the airline to have a human tell me that my bag was in the landing city and scheduled to be delivered within an hour. Click click click went their fingers on their keyboard, then a pause as they followed their instructions and called the delivery service. No answer was the response every time (7-8 Calls) but they have "escalated the issue" via email. I eventually left the hotel without my bag 5 days later and flew home, on another airline.

The lesson in this story is not about my lucky underwear/shirts/electric razor hardship - there are much bigger issues we all should worry about. The lesson here was a team of dedicated workers believing that they were serving their customer by rigidly following the script with no ability or permission to stop the process.

Every business has built in a set of processes that were adopted to serve our customers. You remember those pesky faceless humanoids that take money out of their pocket and give it to us in return for something that is important to them.

There are a couple motivations we have to automate an important process our business:

  1. We want to make this repeatable action more efficient to save cost
  2. We want to standardize this action so that every customer is treated the same
  3. We want to be able to present the action to the customer so that they can serve themselves
  4. We need to meet some regulatory requirement.

There are probably a few more reasons that motivate a business to automate a given process but the motivation is not the point of this article. The point of this article is to bring awareness to a subtle but critical unintended outcome of automation.

The fallacy of the automated process is the mistaken comfort executives gain with the thought that you are handling every customer situation to the desired level because it is automated.

I was involved as COO of a business process management company for a number of years and our software was used in every imaginable situation. As a process geek myself, I too have left the office with a sense that my business was in good hands because we had a machine handling an important process. This is emblematic of our engineered life we lead today.

The key to any customer-facing automated process is the ability to jump out of the machine and get to a human. We are all aware of the press 0 to talk to an operator. But beware of the next hiccup in the system - that you are in safe hands when assigning over-trained staff that are following a rigid human-automated process themselves.

This is no better than the machine process if you don't give humans the ability to problem solve. The risk you take in the double-whammy of over-automation are customers that fall between the cracks of your business.

Can you afford losing those customers?

Go back and review your processes and your support staff, take an honest appraisal and decide if you have provided a problem-solving human parachute to your customer.