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Ability to Handle the Unexpected Can Set Businesses Apart

Software such as Groove offers solutions for handling non-routine activities and problems.

November 27, 2000|ESTHER DYSON

Not long ago, I was on a flight that had been delayed. The purser assured all the passengers who would miss connecting flights that they would be re-booked, by computer, and that a gate agent would meet us when we arrived with new itineraries and boarding passes.

All except me, as it happened. I was a special guest of this airline (no, I won't embarrass them with their name; it could happen to anyone). For me, they made special arrangements: A person re-booked me, and they sent the new information by telex directly to the cockpit while we were still flying.

Only one problem: The booking was wrong, and it would have gotten me only partway to my final destination.

This little anecdote illustrates two fundamental principles: one about data-processing, and one about business (as well as of customer service).

Data-processing consists mostly of defining real-world processes and objects, representing them in a computer and figuring out how to handle them routinely; then you can automate them.

Modern business, with its vast scale and complexity, depends on such automation. Businesses gain a competitive advantage when they can handle things routinely--accurately and efficiently--while the competition still handles them as time-consuming, costly exceptions. Want a special meal? No problem. Lost your baggage? No problem; there are routines for handling that too, including apologies, reimbursements and special overnight kits.

In short, customers want to be treated as individuals, with individual needs and characteristics: People want to know that you know how to handle their problems.

In the real world, of course, routine problems and exceptions happen all the time. Flights are delayed or canceled, packages are lost, suppliers miss their deadlines, order-takers make mistakes, customers supply the wrong addresses for shipments or change their minds about what they wanted.

The good companies have systems for handling such predictable problems. The systems are expensive, but they are cheaper than handling each exception as an individual case. And they allow these companies routinely to provide good customer service and set things right.

Once companies have figured out how to handle a new problem routinely and have software and methods to do so, they devote some resources to it. The expenditures go to developing those procedures--and to handling problems that are still relatively rare--and tremendously resource-consuming. Doing anything out of the ordinary takes management time and attention--last-minute pricing, rush deliveries, special compensation to unhappy customers. But doing it routinely becomes less expensive--and less error-prone.

That routine extra care is what distinguishes, for example, FedEx or or Nordstrom or The Four Seasons from their lesser-known competitors. Customers remember the problems and how they were solved; they don't remember the routine of everyday deliveries.

But of course, there are occasionally real exceptions--non-routine problems--the kind the U.S. has been having with its presidential election. There are some procedures for handling some of this, but overall the country is in uncharted territory. People are checking history books, canceling vacations, conferring with colleagues and competitors. Nothing like this has ever happened before, and it is causing huge amounts of non-routine activity--to put something momentous in trivial terms.

Although no one was expecting problems with this election (that's the point), the computer world is beginning to pay attention to this issue of "exception-handling"--which is becoming the best way for a company to differentiate itself in a world where everything that can be automated has been, and where good ideas can be copied overnight.

In short, in the business world, we've handled most of the routine stuff, with databases, order-entry systems, customer-tracking systems, logistics systems--now let's get busy handling the real problems, the ones where you can't define the procedures in advance.

There's a new software product that is designed to handle non-routine activities, developed by Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes. It's called Groove, and it lets small teams of people work together over computer networks. It creates a virtual work space where they can share the data and applications they are already using, and communicate about them by e-mail, voice, file-sharing--whatever comes naturally.

It's an interesting product, but it's also interesting for the way it represents the world--a place where human judgment and interaction is supreme, where you rely on people and creativity rather than on processes and procedures.

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