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Editorial: Beware IT disease

A creeping corporate mould from the black depths of Silicone Valley.

May 29, 2018  By Patrick Flannery

I feel I can get away with throwing some shade at an entire profession as I was once employed on the outskirts of it myself. Many years ago when I was between jobs I worked in a call centre for a big American telecommunications provider doing tech support for their web portal. Our explicit instructions were to get the customer off the phone as fast as possible. Indeed, our entire job performance metric depended on it.

We were told to look first and foremost for evidence that the customer’s problem was arising from something that wasn’t the contractor’s fault (for instance, a problem with Windows, or the hardware, or Internet Explorer) and to direct them to seek support from one of those providers. We were strongly discouraged from offering any help with these sorts of issues, even if we knew how to fix the problem and could do so fairly quickly.

Of course, not viewing my job there as a career option, I went ahead and gave each caller all the help I could. Which, ironically, led me to have one of the highest performance ratings in the company. It’s funny how just changing a few security settings takes less time than persuading a customer to go away and make another call after they’ve already been on hold for half an hour.

You see, I’m not a fan of the effect information technology has had on customer service. I still remember my shock in 1992 when, having bought my first PC and failed in my attempts to decipher the Bible-sized DOS manual that came with it, I found that there was simply no in-person help available. When I called the store I bought it from, I was told they only handle hardware issues and couldn’t help me with anything software-related. I was directed to a phone number.


We’ve gotten so used to this most of you won’t see the problem. But at the time it was a major paradigm shift. I’d just bought an expensive item from a local retailer. Up until that point, it was assumed that a retailer had to stand behind what they sold and make some attempt to ensure customer satisfaction. But instead, this company felt free to pawn me off on its supplier on the other side of the continent. For some reason I have never been able to discover, this was OK because the product was software. Since it was a new thing to buy, new rules applied.

Once other sectors saw what the software industry was getting away with, it didn’t take them long to seize the opportunity to withdraw their investments in customer service. It’s commonplace now to be unable to get service or support from a retailer on anything from power tools to TVs.

My curse is to look for root causes in everything and the cause I see here is something I’ll call IT disease. It comes from the dislike engineers have for dealing with humans and all their ignorance and messy unpredictability. This translates into a certain workplace culture where human problems are deflected or ignored, often with an attitude of arrogant impatience. As corporate diseases go, it’s one of the worst as it leads to resentment, backbiting and, ultimately, nothing getting done.

How do you prevent IT disease in your organization?

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