IT Policies

Your customers are your canaries

Coal miners, in the old days, took caged canaries with them when they went to work.  The canaries served as an early warning system.  If the miners saw the canaries were dead or dying, they would know the air in the mines was becoming poisoned and would leave immediately.

Your customers, when they complain about your systems, are a similar type of warning system.  Their comments might be more than just isolated frustration.  They could indicate a more pervasive issue, which, if left unchecked, could unnecessarily burden a help desk.  Recognizing and handling this situation promptly is therefore critical.

Last week, I called an ex co-worker, who now works at a major pharmaceutical company.  Their phone system has a voice activated employee directory, but when I said the name, the system was unable to recognize it.  No matter what name I said, all the system would do was tell me that I was communicating with a voice activated system.

Eventually, I was successful in getting the system to recognize the name I spoke by calling a different telephone number for the company.  Though I was tempted to call the company to tell them about the problem, I instead let the matter drop.  I sometimes wonder, though, what they would have done if I had been able to reach a live operator and told him or her about the problem.  Most likely, that operator would have simply put me through manually.

Customers, when they have problems with your systems and complain about them to you, are like canaries.  Sure, it's good that you apologize and handle the problem.  However, did you ever stop to think that their complaint could be symptomatic of a larger issue?  If that one caller has trouble doing something with the system, chances are others will, too.  Multiply that one caller and problem by a thousand or more, and you have an overloaded help desk.  

So, if you can, listen to the customer issue.  Do more than just solve the immediate issue.  Ask yourself, and your supervisor, if there's a larger issue that has to be addressed.  Finding that larger issue may save you and your customers considerable trouble and time.


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

Wayne M.
Wayne M.

I am in total agreement on listening to the users, but I feel the Canaries in the Mine analogy misrepresents priorities. IT is in business to support the users, not to keep the systems running. User complaints are not an early indication that there might be problems with a computer; they are a late indication that the technology is interfering with the users' ability to do their jobs. My general rule is that anyone who implements a technology should be forced to use it. For voicemail, I think the deciding executive should be forced to go through the voicemail system for all of his internal and external calls. I would guess that within one day all voicemail systems would disappear if this happened. I hope I did not go overboard on the terminology used by the article's writer. It is just the staff prioritizing technology over people is a pet peeve of mine.


Sure, that's easy to say. My experience, though, is that they (the company) "shoots the messenger." One time, I ran into one of those phone systems that just keeps looping if you don't press a button. It was annoying, so I called them and told someone about it. A few days later they called back and said they weren't interested in my suggestions. So much for them.

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