Your Customer Service Should Fail to Scale


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Do customers really care if you have great customer service? I don’t want to call a company to help me build a new desk I purchased. I don’t want to call a company to complain about a service problem, either. Do you? Designing a function that can scale to mounting external pressure from failures seems to be a capability that many value. This is especially true if that design incorporates opportunities to grow your customers by selling something to them at, or around, a point of failure. If your first service failed, will the average customer succumb to the pressure to purchase yet another service? Apparently they do.

Wouldn’t the overall experience for your customer be better if you eliminated these touch points altogether? To what degree are call centers, or social media teams, integrated into the process of designing a service? Engaging customers in the wrong activity at the wrong time should be obvious (this just happened to me, again). What doesn’t seem to be as obvious is tracing the problem back to its root cause – preferably this potential is dealt with back in the design of the service or product. It’s one thing to get the occasional call because things do just happen; those are special cases. But when they become common problems, should we rush to design a response mechanism?

A recent post by Dennis Howlett , prompted me to stash this topic aside and write about it. The frequency of failures he highlights is astonishing, and apparently the customer service fails just as often. But should we be focusing on the customer service at all? Is that what our customers want? Is it proper to design your company with the anticipation of a severe product failure, or is it more proper to design your offering that has a high probability of meeting your customers’ needs in the first place?

Is this what Clay Christensen means when he says disruptors create products and services that are good enough while targeting non-consumption? It appears to me that many products are created that are clearly trying to attract sophisticated early adopters; and not the non-consumer that Christensen talks about. If you’re going to do that, you’d better get it right the first time. A little more work up front understanding the job(s) that such a service supports, and the related portfolio of needs is critical. I’m sure everyone believes they are doing that.

Clearly, if you are trying to provide a new service to an existing industry, say fitness or healthcare, you had better make sure it performs well along the dimensions those customers expect. In this case, not good enough is clearly going to fail. Can a company like this afford to fail fast so publicly? While I don’t like that term, I’m sure those who created it were not talking about failing after they’ve invested this much capital and gone to market (at least I hope not).

Whether you are serving a sophisticated group who have paid good money for a service (and expect it to perform) or you are targeting non-consumers with an innovative new service and business model, should you invest vast amounts of time and effort into designing for failure? The former group has expectations you should have known up front. The latter group hasn’t invested enough in your new, cheap and convenient service to care (I know, that’s a broad stroke). Regardless of your market, or your entry point, I’m always going to argue that there are steps that should be taken to avoid designing the bulk of the customer experience around your customer service function. Call me unrealistic!

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. “I’m always going to argue that there are steps that should be taken to avoid designing the bulk of the customer experience around your customer service function. ”

    Obviously you want to minimize the amount of extra help a customer needs when using your product…preferably 0 times would be best. When something goes wrong you need people waiting and ready in the wings to deal with it, but you should have taken ever precaution possible to prevent any kind of product failure or mishap.

  2. “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” – Rahm Emanuel

    Instead of looking back, or seeing from the beginning, ways to reduce response teams to zero touches (of course, there are certain services must have them) folks are taking the opportunity to turn a bad situation into a revenue producer. This is company focused, not customer focused.

    But I digress, because the focus on my post was really to ask the question “Why do we expect great customer service when a product fails? Don’t we expect a great product (or service)?”


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