The Black Hole

© 2003 Naomi Karten,

A black hole is a place in the cosmos where things get swallowed up, never again to emerge. Although I love to travel, it’s not the sort of destination I’m eager to visit. This is not just because it seems like such a dark, dank, distant place, or even because it’s a point of no return, but because it’s overflowing with problems.

How do I know it’s overflowing with problems? I know because of the comments I’ve heard from so many customers. When I ask them about the service they’re getting from their suppliers, vendors and providers, they tell me that when they ask a question or submit a problem, it goes into the Black Hole. These are their exact words.

When I ask customers what they mean, they say they submit problems or requests and never hear back. No response, no follow-up, no clue as to the status of the situation — or even when they’ll be advised of the status. Who knows, maybe after a hundred thousand years or so, the Black Hole will eject its contents and customers will finally get the responses they’ve been waiting for. But most customers aren’t that patient.

Not for customers only

It’s not just customers whose problems make the Black Hole such a congested place. I also hear complaints from service providers who depend on support from colleagues and co-workers in order to do their job. In one situation, I asked a Help Desk group about their experience with the technical problems they transfer to a Level 2 support group. “Often, they just disappear into the Black Hole,” one woman told me. And what about the customer who’s awaiting a resolution to the problem?

Same thing from another group for which I was reviewing the findings of a customer survey. For the most part, customers were pleased with the service they were receiving, but interspersed with the high ratings was a noticeable subset of low ratings. What are these? I asked. Oh, those, said the service manager. (“Oh, those” is usually a signal that bad news is about to follow). Those ratings, he told me, were associated with problems sufficiently complex that they couldn’t be resolved within the timeframe set by the front line staff, so they’d been passed to the R&D group for investigation. A group, he explained, that had actually been dubbed The Black Hole because problems submitted to them seemed to never again emerge.

Are you guilty of making the Black Hole such a crowded, congested place? Do you provide status information to those who submit problems to you or who can’t go about their business until you resolve a malfunction, outage or delay? Are you aware that not knowing the status is one of the most singularly frustrating experiences for customers everywhere? Sometimes, in fact, not knowing the status of the problem is even worse than not having a resolution to it. Not knowing, and not knowing when they’ll know, makes people angry. It doesn’t matter if you’re actually working on the problem. If customers don’t know you’re working on it, their perception is that you’re not. After all, they have no information to suggest otherwise.

Adding to the Black Hole

This frustration can emerge in any type of relationship where one party is awaiting status information from another. I was once invited to give a keynote presentation at an event for which the date had not yet been finalized; it was to be one of two days. I told my client I’d reserve both dates, and she could let me know when the final date was set. Time passed. No follow-up. More time passed. Nothing. Then I was invited to speak at another event scheduled for one of the two dates I had reserved. Now I needed to know.

I called my client. She wasn’t there. I left a message with a co-worker. My client didn’t call me back. I called again. This time I left a voice mail message. She didn’t call me back. I sent a fax and an email, and left a few more phone messages. She didn’t call me back. The Black Hole filleth.

Now here’s the thing. When you’re waiting for information that isn’t forthcoming and you don’t know what the situation is, you start imagining things. They forgot about me. They lost my problem. They’re angry with me. In my case, I wondered if my client wasn’t getting my messages. Or if she was avoiding me, though I couldn’t imagine why. Or if . . .if . . . if. . .

I finally called her one day at a time that must have been too early for her to have been elsewhere. She answered. I identified myself. She sounded friendly as could be. I told her I didn’t know if she knew I’d been trying to reach her. “Oh yes,” she said, “I’ve received your messages, but I didn’t have the information you wanted so I didn’t call you back.” I was flabbergasted.

Was she being malicious in not calling me back? I don’t think so. Nor do I believe that she was being deliberately rude or thoughtless or inconsiderate. More likely, it just didn’t occur to her that any response would have been better than none at all. She wasn’t in charge of selecting the date, and was dependent on others who didn’t yet have the information. But it never occurred to her that if she had told me she didn’t know and would contact me when she did, she would have given me something to know rather than something to wonder about. It was getting no response whatsoever that was annoying.

I don’t know when I’ll stop not knowing

It’s hard to call another party and say, I don’t know and I don’t know when I will know. But most customers would rather know that than nothing at all. Savvy professionals don’t let their customers feel ignored or forgotten, and that’s true whether or not they’re actually working on the problem, and whether or not they know the status of the problem. They regularly give customers updates, even if those updates consist of stating that there’s been no change since the last update.

If customer satisfaction is important to you, get in the habit of asking yourself, Who is expecting a follow-up call from me? Who is awaiting a status update? Who has submitted a problem and wants to know what’s happening? Then contact those people. Don’t contribute to the Black Hole. It’s crowded enough there without your help.

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