A conversation with Paul English about customer service and human dignity

This week’s podcast features Paul English. He’s a software veteran who’s been VP of technology at Intuit and runs the Internet travel search engine at Kayak.com, but is best known for the IVR Cheat Sheet. Now available at gethuman.com, this popular database of voice-system shortcuts makes it easier for people to get the human assistance they crave when calling customer service centers.

The gethuman project isn’t just a list of IVR hacks anymore. It’s evolved into a consumer movement that publishes best practices for quality phone service and rates companies’ adherence to those best practices.

Although human-intensive customer service is usually regarded as costly and inefficient, operations like craigslist — where Craig Newmark’s title is, famously, customer service representative and founder — invite us to rethink that conventional wisdom. Kayak.com’s customer service was inspired by craigslist. Paul English says that making his engineers directly responsible for customer service has done wonders for the software development process. Because they’re on the front lines dealing with the fallout from poor usability, they’re highly motivated to improve it.

We also discussed web-based data management. The original IVR Cheat Sheet was done with Intuit QuickBase, an early and little-known entrant into a category that’s now heating up: web databases.

Finally, we talked about Partners in Health, the organization to which Paul English donates his consulting fees. The story of Partners in Health is told in Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer. At the end of the podcast I mention that I’d added that book to my Amazon wishlist. The other day, while looking for something to listen to on an afternoon run, I checked my RSS reader and saw that the book was available in my local library in audio format. Sweet! Two afternoon runs later, I’m halfway through. It’s both an inspirational tale about Paul Farmer’s mission and a case study in how holistic health care systems can operate far more cost-effectively than most do today.

15 Comments

  1. re: “Although human-intensive customer service is usually regarded as costly and inefficient, operations like craigslist — where Craig Newmark’s title is, famously, customer service representative and founder — invite us to rethink that conventional wisdom”

    well… I’d rethink again! (especially the *combination* of human-intensive customer service AND severely understaffed “customer service team” a la craigslist)

    Delia

  2. “Your RSS feed is messed up – the tag for the last two entries points to”

    Whoops, you’re right. The enclosure tags were wrong. Fixed now, I think, thanks for reporting the problem

  3. “I’d rethink again! (especially the *combination* of human-intensive customer service AND severely understaffed “customer service team” a la craigslist)”

    Hi Delia,

    Would you care to elaborate?

  4. Jon,

    I’m suggesting it doesn’t work… (users needs aren’t being met).

    re: the *combination* of human-intensive customer service AND severely understaffed “customer service team” a la craigslist

    Delia

  5. People do crave human contact. Both in service areas and customer related issues.
    I understand the automated systems and have no problem with them but my mother in law (82) is often in tears because she simply cannot understand and therefore, feels isolated from doing any kind of business transaction, getting a balance, or just the temperature outside.

    It’s been almost ten years since I worked as a customer service telephone person and I remember one gentleman who, in trying to resolve his cell phone issues, had begun to look forward to the exchange. When we finally got to the area of billing, and were saying our final goodbyes, he yelled at his wife in the background “No, no, it’s just Kate, and we’re sure gonna miss her!”

    You don’t remember what a machine tells you. But who forgets what a human being tells them, or more importantly, how they made them feel?

  6. I would like to read the complete interview, ,I have the mp3 interview but I dont understand lot of the content.
    Thanks a lot.

  7. One of my favorite customer service quotes is “The way to gain a good reputation, is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” -SOCRATES

  8. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on
    the video to make your point. You obviously know what youre talking about, why waste
    your intelligence on just posting videos to your site when you could be
    giving us something informative to read?

  9. Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Thank you
    so much, However I am encountering issues with your RSS.
    I don’t understand why I cannot join it. Is there anyone else having similar RSS issues? Anybody who knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanx!!

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