5 Customer Service Lessons from the Runaway Norad Blimp

In case you missed it, a $182 million airship known as JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missle Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System) detached from its home (along with its mile-long tether) at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland and began a journey that would end roughly 140  miles north of there in Montour County, PA.  When news of the escape first came out, I was intrigued and captivated as the first sightings occurred, stories of scrambled fighter jets arose, and parody twitter accounts and memes flooded the internet.   At that time, I found the story to be a bit of novelty that broke up my day and went back to doing my regular work.  Around 1:30pm ET, my interest in this story became much more personal as we lost power and a loud thunder (which turned out to be two F-16s) shook my neighborhood.  As fate would have it, JLENS had not only found its way to my hometown but in its descent had trashed a few power lines which resulted in the loss of power to over 30,000 homes.  As I sat there without electricity, wondering if I should go blimp chasing, my mind went to questioning how something like this could happen and I began to consider what it could teach all of us.  After giving it some consideration, I came away with five customer service lessons.

Technology matters, but so do people and process

Each JLENS airship came with a $182 million price tag and featured some incredibly sophisticated technologies.  None of that mattered once it came loose and began its trek across the northeast.  A significant investment was made in this technology, but what happened with the people responsible for monitoring these airships and the established processes for containing one when it escaped? This parallels in many ways with how organizations often think of the contact center.  We invest in particular technologies (or desire to gain new technologies) all with the hopes of improving the customer experience.  The challenge, however, is that without also investing in the people supporting that experience (agents, supervisors, etc.) we miss out on opportunities to maximize the technology we do have or may receive in the future.  In addition, technology can’t fix broken processes and we need to be prepared for how we’d handle a given situation if and when our technology falters.  If you don’t have the right people on the job, and your processes don’t enable you to be successful, your technology does you little to no good. The real lesson to be learned here is that regardless of our technology (but particularly if we’re making a significant investment in it) we have to invest in hiring and training the right employees to ensure that they confident and capable to handle any situation they may encounter, we need to create processes that are easy to follow and can be adapted for exceptional situations.

We only have limited control over any situation

Despite significant precautions and safety measures that were designed to keep JLENS tethered to the ground, it managed to get away.  As customer service leaders, it is important to remember that even when we think we’ve done everything to prevent something from going wrong it is inevitably going to happen.  Historically, some contact centers have tried to control interactions as much as possible with strict scripting, canned responses, or automated processes.  Somewhere along the way we’ve lost sight of the fact that we’re dealing with other human beings – the most volatile resource on the planet.  If we don’t expect to lose control of them at some point, we’re only kidding ourselves.  The key to effectively navigating customer situations that are getting out of control is by empowering frontline agents, in particular, with the authority, discretion, and resources to be nimble in adapting their service to each customer’s unique needs.  To be most effective, we need to recognize that the customer has some control and that we should respect that in our processes and approach to providing service.

Bad incidents can spread like wildfire

By and large, we are a sensationalist society.  While stories of great service are out there, nothing grabs the headlines like when something goes wrong.  Prior to today's incident, few people really knew (or cared) about JLENS but as soon as it escaped both JLENS and NORAD were propelled into the spotlight.  People went from having minimal to zero knowledge of JLENS to having strong opinions about the program and what should have been done differently.  While I’d like to say that we should provide great service just because our customers deserve it, the other reality is that with every bad customer experience we run the risk of being catapulted into the media.  As if the thought of a customer leaving you for another organization was bad, just imagine if your brand was tarnished all over the media!  While I realize that this isn’t a new lesson for any of us, it’s an important reminder of the importance of mitigating bad customer experiences.

Issue recovery is a redemption opportunity

Whether it was faulty technology, people, processes, or something completely out of their control, there is no doubt that a few people are upset with NORAD today. Many people, both affected and unaffected, will now watch their next move.  What will they do following this big “whoopsie”? While we don’t want bad situations to happen in our own customer service teams, they are inevitable and are certain to do us harm at some level.  For many of us, it should hopefully never be at the scale of warranting a mass media feeding frenzy, but we need to expect to “get it wrong” sometimes.  It’s important for us to look at the issues that we experience as gifts and opportunities to make it right for our customers.  Some research actually indicates that customers who experienced an issue and then had it resolved are actually more loyal than customers who had no issues at all.  Look, mistakes will happen, but what will you do to make it right for that customer and prevent it from happening in the future?

Clean up is still more difficult than prevention

If I were NORAD, the first question I’d be asking myself is, “how did this happen?” and the second question would be, “how do we prevent this in the future?”  In addition to having a very expensive blimp get trashed upon its landing, JLENS caused property damage, power outages, and inconveniences to thousands of people in my county. I have a suspicion that the clean-up from this “incident” is going to last for some time and result in more time, money, and resources being used up.  All of this could have been avoided (and still can be in the future) if the right people and processes are in place.  As a contact center leader, do you know the primary contact driver of negative customer contacts? What is that one thing that they don’t like, is giving them problems, or causing concern?  Imagine the impact to contact volume, customer satisfaction, and potentially profits if you were able to effectively prevent this negative issue from happening in the future!  We’re often so caught up in managing the “day to day” fires that we neglect opportunities to be strategic and improve our future.  Great contact center leaders don’t get overwhelmed in the urgencies of today - they remember to take time in their day to focus on preventing future problems, as well.

While I never want you to have the media nightmare of a national security incident, I hope that you could learn from and be reminded of a few important customer service principles through this most recent headline. You can spend all of the money in the world on technology, but if you’re not intentional about the people, processes, and strategy behind it you can quickly find yourself on the losing end of things.


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