Monday, June 09, 2008

The American service paradox

America is a wonderful place that revels in its leading edge technologies and superior service culture. Much of that is, much of the time, perfectly valid. But it seems there are various blackholes into which the latest techno wizardry and service with a smile disappears with a poof. Healthcare, finance and telecomms industry are three not insignificant industries where my recent experience as a fresh off the boat new yorker suggests much could be done to improve the situation with a dose of scandinavian efficiency.

My darling fiancee (more to come in future installments) has been witnessing first hand the need to improve the service experience in healthcare. Not only is the quality of the advice for her badly mashed up foot particularly patchy and inconsistent, but the process reeks of inefficiency. Having had a number of surgeries in the hospital, last week she had to fill out a whole bunch of
additional paper forms about some other procedure, all requiring the same mind numbing and time consuming repitition of standard info such as address, insurance providers etc. This is not only inefficient it can also affect the service experience - one of the times she noticed that the basic dates for the operations had been entered wrongly on a bit of paper, potentially resulting in all sorts of trauma.

My own experience of US finance is poor. Coming from First Direct in the UK, am staggered to find myself swimming in paper and a morass of expensive and impenetrable fees that are applied to you by banks for most of the functions associated with merely being alive. Getting my salary paid direct debit rather than by cheque is harder than it should be (can't remember when i last saw a cheque before arriving to the US).

And perennial favourite telco rounds out the list for my triple waaaaammy. As the nation crowded round their sets trying to watch Big Brown cheat history on Saturday we were frustrated as the local monopoly provider Time Warner had blackouts over the whole of the upper west side. We ventured out to a local bar which mysteriously seemed unaffected. On both the broadband and mobile side (Apple's singlehanded efforts notwithstanding) the US is a lumbering giant - an embarassment to this nation of nation builders.

Whenever I can I interact with these guys via their website, as to dial an 800 number is to consign yourself to a desperate game of eternal loops, bereft of logic, feedback and feeling, where the winning prize is a date with a bored and surly operator with interest in nothing except churning your call. Lots of room for these companies to start decentralizing the service experience back out to the edges and figure out how to let us better help ourselves, and each other.

1 comment:

Timo said...

I totally agree and find this both amusing (now that I haven't lived there for years) and worrying (every time I visit). There are some really smooth things that I envy:

Dining out - efficient (no chasing of waitresses or the check).

Getting car serviced - efficient.

Ordering stuff from the Internet and getting it shipped - efficient (and cheap!)

Renting a car at the airport - efficient!

But our findings were exactly the same relating to health care (though things were pretty professional at the treatment time, higher quality often than in Finland) - insurance companies always fight it. Paperwork is endless. You're never sure if giving birth is going to hit your family with $15 k bill or not. Our latest experience is from this spring when I had to pair the insurer on the phone with the health care provider to treat a sudden flu my wife caught.

And then the telco side - oh boy. In three years I had to get the cable guy to fix our 'Internet' six times or so. Lost count. And transferring landline was so hard I finally gave up and switched to cell phones only. But cellular may be hard to get without credit history.. and network cell sizes have been MBA-optimized towards an acceptable level of customer churn, unlike Finland's engineer-optimized least call-drop networks. That's a part of service experience as well.

All the customer service is delivered through an endless IVR maze and the living persons you may finally reach always make you follow a script ("reboot", "start-run-command prompt-ipconfig" and so on.. I had done all that but telling it doesn't really help.)

But I think the natives deal with all that - and the cheques - so maybe there's a way to just adapt, learn the positives and take it as an experience!