Good service needs smart tech and basic maintenance

Companies that adopt automation and other advanced technologies can reap significant rewards — higher profits, reputation-building positive PR and more — if they succeed at improving services for customers. But such solutions only work over the long run if businesses also keep a focus on more fundamental “boring” infrastructure as well.

As the American writer Kurt Vonnegut noted in his 1990 novel “Hocus Pocus,” “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

In recent weeks, two U.S. based airlines appear to have effectively illustrated that flaw after failures to maintain basic equipment — a switch gear in the case of Delta, routers in the case of Southwest Airlines — led to major flight disruptions and cancellations for thousands upon thousand of passengers.

“In both cases, the airlines blamed equipment that is neither particularly complex nor costly, and outside experts discarded the possibility that computer hackers might have caused the outage,” The Charlotte Observer noted in an article about those disruptions. “Instead, several said the failures at Delta and Southwest underscore a lack of spending on redundant systems that can absorb shocks and switch to back-ups, even as the airlines are racking up record profits.”

The long-maligned cable industry — a consistent leader in customer complaints — has shown a tendency to take similar detours in service-focused technologies. Comcast, for instance, has rolled out an app to allow customers waiting for service to check on their technicians’ location. However, that same company is also now being sued for charging customers at least $73 million over the past five years for a service plan the state of Washington says was near-worthless.

For one industry consultant interviewed by The Washington Post, things like tech-tracking apps don’t compensate when customers have much bigger, pervasive complaints about a company.

“It’s not surprising to me that these companies would focus not on the big frustrations,” said management consulting firm cg42’s Steve Beck, “but on the little frustrations that don’t necessarily do anything to affect how they make their profits.”

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