Currently we’re stuck in Barcelona, waiting to find out if we can dodge the volcanic cloud by sea. The whole situation has made me think about just how connected the world is, and how well information technologies have kept us informed – and how they have managed to keep us, if not where we want to be, at least alive.
Back in 1982 the first thing the crew of a Boeing 747 knew about a cloud of volcanic ash was when the aircraft was swathed in St Elmo’s Fire and the engines glowed eerily red – before shutting down. Just 28 years later, the ever-growing ring of earth-observing satellites has been tracking the flow of the ash through the atmosphere right from the moment of the eruption. The supercomputers running airflow models for western Europe were able to predict the path of the cloud of ash, and warn the appropriate air traffic control authorities – who were then able to shut things down in, at least, an orderly manner.
Of course the first most of us travelling knew about things was when we woke, pulled out our laptops or our smartphones to check email and logged on to a news web site to see that airports across northern Europe were closing down, one by one. That’s another win for information technology, as instead of staying glued to the screens of a rolling news channel, we could at least go to our meetings and keep updated by a rolling news blog - as well as feverishly refreshing the airline “manage my booking” pages to see if our flights had been cancelled yet.
We could use airline web sites (albeit fruitlessly) to try and rebook flights – and then use the rest of the web to try and find alternate routings. It’s hard to imagine being on hold to a travel agent now, as listening to them type into Galileo windows while being unable to check Eurostar or the Calais ferries. We take travel web sites for granted, but the booking services we use today are only a decade or so old – linking the traditional mainframe services used by airlines to newer database-powered reservation services, and then to our desktops with a user-friendly interface that bears no resemblance to the green screens full of coded information that they hide.
And we could at least stay in contact with families and colleagues, with interconnected mobile networks. Roaming is something we take for granted now (and we’ll carry on bitching about the prices) – but it’s a vital part of our information technology world. With it and the internet we can keep in touch and manage our personal and business lives, no matter how disrupted they are.
The volcanic eruption has removed one network we rely on, and clogged up others. But they’re purely physical – it’s the electronic ones that have persisted. There is still one problem, though. Where the electronic networks let us down is when the exception handling takes us to a human, a human who’s often poorly trained and poorly paid – and certainly not aware of the business process they’re part of. Call centres are the point of last resort in our electronic world – perhaps then they shouldn’t be outsourced and cheap, and instead should be full of people who realise just how valuable they are to their employers, and how much their service actually means to the end customer. They’re systems that also need to scale rapidly, and need to be flexible enough to handle exceptional circumstances with aplomb.
Back at Demo we saw a really powerful tool that could help with the redesign of call centres, a piece of software from eXaudios that could determine the emotional content of not just one call, but of the entire call centre experience – on both sides of the telephone line. It could mean much more dynamic experiences, systems that identify calls that are going nowhere and automatically move you to a supervisor, or that spot angry callers and find better ways of supporting them and helping solve their problems. There’s even a dashboard view that shows the overall emotional tone of a call centre. If everyone calling is upset or angry, then it’s time to find out just why and then put measures in place to solve the underlying problem – if not instantly for the first batch of callers, then certainly for everyone else who’s yet to notice, or yet to call.
A customer saved is worth ten new ones, according to an old AOL customer retention mantra. Perhaps, then, it’s time to learn again just how important a good customer experience is, and redesign and rebuild our call centres – after all, they’re the part of a company beyond the website we often come into contact with first…