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Fair Process, in an unfair World - Has the Web Lost its soul

by  David Dwyer on  01/09/2015

What can online helpdesks learn from a little known academic model?

The core principle of the Internet has always been about connecting people through shared networks. From enabling relatives in far-flung corners of the World to communicate with each other, to creating a movement behind a particular fundraising effort, the Internet brings people together. It's enabled individuals to compete with corporations and through the principle of crowdsourcing, has helped countless businesses launch, without having to go cap in hand to a bank.

The Internet, in my eyes at least, continues to be a positive influence on society. Recently, though, I've had a number of online experiences that have made me question the changing nature of the web and pose the question – “Has the Web lost its Soul?”

Some among you will question if the Internet had a soul in the first place. Others meanwhile will point to the negative impact that it's had on society; from Cyber Bullying to Cyber Crime to the real world social disconnect between those off line and those online (Ed: something my technophobe wife is oft to remind me). Some may even write this off as nothing more than a classic 'grumpy old man' style post.

I studied Economic History at University and after graduating, spent many years working for various, large corporations. During that time, I was very fortunate to come across a piece of research from Insead; a business school in France. Over a series of research papers, they introduced the concept of Fair Process. It’s a model that recognises that people care just as much about the process of reaching a decision, as they do about the decision itself. The core principle is to foster better relationships between individuals, through better, more transparent decision-making.

It's essentially a framework for taking personal opinion, preferences and individual bias, out of the decision-making process.

For example, if a manager wanted to go with 'Plan A' for a given project but an employee thought that 'Plan B' was the best approach; Fair Process would be applied to arrive at a logical and rational decision. Research has shown, that by doing so, social relationships within organisations are stronger as there is trust and faith in the openness of the process.

The lecture covered a great example of a woman who has been wrongly given a parking ticket and goes to court to prove her innocence for the judge to simply say found in favour of the plaintiff. Therefore all the built up frustration and time spent preparing her position is for naught as she is given no time to share this in open court. This being a classic example of poor explanation being afforded to the woman.



The Three Principles of Fair Process

Step 1 - Engagement

All those involved are fully engaged in the decision-making process.

Step 2 - Explanation

The final decision is justified and explained fully to everyone impacted.

Step 3 - Expectation Clarity

There is closure and clarity on how things move from the point of the decision being reached.

So what has this theory of a fair decision-making process have to do with the Internet losing its soul?

Do you think you’ve experienced Fair Process model in your online experiences? In my view it’s been abandoned by the online customer service community. The motive though isn't about being fair, or transparent; instead, it's driven by a relentless pursuit for efficiency. And by efficiency - we naturally mean, cost savings.


Hoop Jumping - Sound Familiar?

How often have you tried to get help online from an organisation you are a customer of? And how often has that experience left you frustrated and annoyed?

Here's a couple of recent, personal examples where the guiding principles of Fair Process, certainly haven't been followed.


BT Example

As part of our service offering we manage our clients domain names and when new clients come on board we suggest we can look after all their online assets including their domain names.

Some of those are registered with BT, a big blue chip company that values its customers, surely? Bearing in mind we handle this type of request regularly you’d think it wouldn’t be too difficult to follow BT’s standard procedure. Think again as we get passed from one agent to another to another to another, with no means of escalation.  It’s frustrating but ultimately we know we will be better placed to look after our clients needs once we are in control of their domain.

A client also relayed to me that he recently had to get in touch with BT regarding an issue with his broadband. All he wanted to do was send them an email. He visited their site and sure enough, they have a clearly labeled 'Help' link on their main navigation.  Rather than making it easy for you just to ask a simple, straightforward question, they instead force you to jump through many hoops.


Broadband help


They have created a system engineered to keep you away from connecting with another human (Ed: and even then it’s hard to get a straight answer). Now, of course, they will argue that this is for the benefit of everyone, that creating a dynamic, self-service help system is just a better way of solving the customer's problem. Try telling that to someone who just desperately needs help getting back online. Being technically minded I can navigate my way through the different levels of questions because I have a very good level of knowledge. For those that don't, the approach taken by BT is cold, impersonal and in my opinion lazy.



Facebook's Help Centre is an oxymoron, in that it provides no direct help (Ed: I’d go much further than that). The 'Ask a question' search box would be better entitled - 'interrogate our database for canned responses to common issues' or ‘go on, ask a question and we’ll do our best to loop you back to the original ask a question section’.

If your question is really simple then this approach might occasionally work, but for the vast majority of people, and for most support queries, their approach is anything but helpful.

Facebook compound the frustration by asking the question "Was this helpful" at the foot of the answer you provide. If you click 'No', it presents a list of options as to why the answer provided wasn't helpful. Once selected and sent, you get a 'Thanks for your feedback' response.

In this case, Facebook knows that you are unsatisfied. They know that they have left your issue unresolved. Instead of making the effort to reach out further and help, they simply thank you for the feedback and expect you to start searching again for the answer that doesn’t exist.

Maybe I’m cynical but I’ve got this vision of someone at the other end laughing at our frustration at their “Computer says no” attitude.

BT and Facebook are by no means alone in this. The vast majority of 'big business’ takes exactly the same approach to providing online customer support. The actual delivery mechanism may be different, but they all follow an unfair process that makes the Internet a much colder place to be.

Have you experienced stellar online customer service with more humanity? We'd love to hear one- so leave a comment or email and we'll write a follow-up piece where balance to the force is (hopefully) restored. Leave a comment or email david@inspirewebdevelopment.com


David Dwyer is Managing Director of Inspire Web Development. He has years of experience in a range of web and IT roles plus seven years in sales and marketing in a blue-chip FMCG company. David’s academic and professional qualifications include a BA (Hons) in Business Economics (Personnel & Ergonomics) from the University of Paisley, an MSc in Information Technology (Systems) from Heriot-Watt University and PRINCE2 Practitioner-level certification. He is also an active member of the British Computer Society, Entrepreneurial Exchange and Business for Scotland.


Follow Inspire on Twitter @inspireltd and @developersos

Customer Experience, Customer Service, Facebook, Facebook Management, Fair Process, The Evolving Web, Website Support
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