The system won’t let me.

I called a large company today and had a mostly positive customer service experience. I felt the representative I spoke to wanted to help me and that the company was doing what it could to make me happy. All was fine until I asked them to step out of the box a little bit and extend something from the normal 30 days to the obviously abnormal 40 days. The response? “The system won’t let us do that.”

“The system won’t let us do that” and any variation thereof is probably one of the worst things that any customer service department can ever say. Hearing the phrase that is in mind, so closely related to and representative of corporate bureaucracy and inflexibility, definitely reminded me that I was talking to a Fortune 100 company with over 200,000 employees. Systems should be designed to help customers and employees, not restrict them. Systems obviously need restrictions and there are plenty of ways to design systems to prevent abuse and misuse, but there should always be someone entrusted and empowered to go beyond what the system says can be done and make things happen. There are abnormal situations and systems that don’t keep that in mind are destined to fail.

With that in mind, there should always be someone (who is customer-facing) that can override the system. That person doesn’t have to work 24/7, but needs to be available to customers on a regular, daily basis. I’m sure some senior technical manager at the company I spoke to can override the system at some level, but my guess is that person doesn’t get on the phone or talk to customers very often. If the company had some sort of manager that spent his or her day working with customers (and returning phone calls or emails of people needing the system overridden), it’d be a different story.

What was worst about my situation is that I felt the company genuinely wanted to help, but was obviously not able to do so. All of the money that companies invest in hiring and training friendly customer service representatives (and getting them to go the extra 50 feet) is wasted if the “system” doesn’t let them do their jobs and work with customers.

7 Responses to “The system won’t let me.”

  1. Wander, IF said:

    Aug 08, 08 at 2:46 am

    I’m glad you didn’t take it out on the people there, which is what most people do.

  2. » Bad Excuses - The System Won’t Let Me Management, Human Resources, and Life in a Customer Focused World: Philippe Mesritz’ Customer Focused Musings said:

    Aug 09, 08 at 12:05 am

    […] Service Untitled » The system won’t let me. – customer service and customer service experience bl… […]

  3. Brenda Bell said:

    Aug 10, 08 at 1:04 am

    Very often the issue is not the authority to make the changes, but the design of the underlying software, which does not allow for pro-ration, incremental changes, etc. This seems to me typical of billing systems, whose structure makes it very difficult (if not impossible) to change a warranty period or to move a billing date forward or back for the customer’s convenience. These systems are often purchased off-the-shelf, or outsourced for development, so in-house alteration may not be possible.

    In some cases, it is possible to “think outside the box” by adding credit to an account or noting a verbally-agreed change in status (which may require additional credit or other manual processing later on), but in others, there is no way — short of replacing the entire accounting system — that the customer’s very simple wish (often “change my billing date”) can be realistically accommodated.

  4. jn said:

    Aug 10, 08 at 8:05 pm

    keep in mind that some companies are subject to newer sarbanes-oxley regulations in the US. It is possible some auditor deemed any devation beyond the 30 days to be a material control weakness.

    Usually, the auditors will require some absurd process to go outside the limit like CEO physical sign off or something very onerous. While I’m not sure that this is the case in your situation, it is something that comes up alot nowadays and there is nothing the company can do even when they want to accommodate this when designing their systems. Alot of these regulations are very loosely defined and applied inconsistently depending on the auditors and other issues at the particular company.

  5. Service Untitled said:

    Aug 11, 08 at 6:00 pm

    @ Brenda: I agree with you – it isn’t always possible, but finding work arounds and making use of what system you do have is critical. There is usually something that can be done – it just requires an extra effort.

    @ JN: Good point! I appreciate that perspective. Sometimes there are restrictions beyond a company’s control and if that is the case, it needs to be explained.

  6. Management, Human Resources, and Life in a Customer Focused World » Bad Excuse - The System Won’t Let Me! said:

    Feb 12, 09 at 1:54 pm

    […] Service Untitled » The system won’t let me. – customer service and customer service experience bl… […]

  7. Service Untitled» Blog Archive » Make your systems work for you. said:

    Jul 22, 09 at 7:28 pm

    […] buy or build expensive software that ends up causing a number of problems for customers. “The system won’t let me do that” is probably one of the worst excuses any customer service representative can give to a […]