How to keep your head above water on the internet

Thames Water can stop leaks it seems, but is unable to keep its email system afloat

Thames Water can stop leaks it seems, but is unable to run email properly

Customers of Thames Water must be gasping at the stupidity of the company. They have admitted an “email error” which allowed 4,000 emails they were sent to go unnoticed for seven years…! The mind boggles. How did they go unnoticed anyway? How come no-one saw the email address getting full? Don’t they have some kind of alerting system? Talk about management failure – this is simply nonsense.

Here’s what happened. They have a customer service email address to help their customers presumably. It is “”. But some customers missed out the dot and merely sent an email to “customerfeedback@”. What is daft is that Thames Water says “this should have bounced”..! What? You are prepared to send an error message to customers simply because they make a typing error? What’s wrong with forwarding anything to “customerfeedback” to “”? Presumably, if someone mistyped and wrote to “custonerfeedback” (n is next to m on the keyboard), that would be bounced rather than delivered. In other words the starting point in the prevalent thinking at Thames Water appears to be “it is the customer’s fault”.

Rather than having a “catch all” address, instead they try and force people into using an email address which is long, has an unnecessary dot and is prone to potential errors. Who thought of that? The company has spent cash on having an easy to use, 24hr telephone line but then do not seem to use the same level of thinking when it comes to arranging email contact. It is as though the bosses at Thames Water think email and the Internet is unimportant. Indeed, their own press office fails to carry any comment on today’s story about the email disaster. People will be searching for reaction and information – Thames Water would probably give it if you phoned them…but put it on the Internet? Oh gosh that’s far too new-fangled.

Sadly, Thames Water is not alone. Big businesses – including multi-billion dollar web enterprises – make online contact with them difficult. I have a problem with my Amazon account. Have you tried contacting them? I’ve been round several email routes, had standard replies and a clear lack of human, thoughtful intervention.

Here’s the problem. Because the Internet and email can be automated people set up systems and think the system will do the job. It won’t. That would rather be like having a robot in a shop. You go up to it and ask where do you exchange your gift because it is too small for your increased girth since Auntie Flo last bought you something. The robot merely replies: “Gifts on third floor”. You go to the third floor, find the gifts section, but that’s nothing to do with the jumper you want to exchange. So you have to approach another robot who hears the word “exchange” and sends you off to the fourth floor where you can exchange your money for a different currency. Alternatively, a human being could have helped you immediately. Get the picture? When you structure your business around technology you are heading for failure. What you need to do is structure your business around people and then – and only then – use appropriate technology.

What Thames Water did was remove the human factor from its email system. It shoved in some technology and forget to consider what people want and how they behave. Result – egg on face and a massive compensation bill. That would have been avoided with only a little thought, rather than a little automation.

So, how can your business keep its head above water online? Focus on people. Think about what they do, how they do it, why they do it. Think about all the different ways they can make it all go wrong. Think about all the variety of words they will use. Think about how your granny might use your website and how your five-year-old would use it. Focus all your efforts on people. Only then should you think about the technology you might use.

The problem is, online most businesses focus on the technology and then blame people when it goes wrong – and usually those people are their customers. Now can you see any problems with that approach? You might expect a flood of complaints if your business worked that way. Oh goodness, we’re back to water again…!

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