Why slack is precious

As we industrialized and automated, we attempted to eliminate waste from the system. All forms of slack – time, material and personnel was minimized. A fully automated setup can run without any slack. Robots do not need breaks or unplanned vacations. Moreover, they are phenomenal at bringing down costs.

And yet, how good are they at services that touch humans? Every human being wants connection – to be noticed, acknowledged and treated with dignity and respect. Running a hotel or a school like a factory can be counterproductive. When a guest needs salt delivered to him to gargle his sore throat, there must be enough slack to attend to him immediately. When a student asks an intelligent question, the teacher must have enough slack to address it and encourage further questions of the sort.

And yet, it is unfortunate how frequently that does not happen. The industrial age has swung us too far in the direction of efficiency. With too much automation and efficiency comes the risk of throwing out the human baby with the bath water. Customer service in nearly every service industry is bursting at its seams.

“Your call is important to us…”

Ergo, you must key in your 12 digit credit card number, enter the right combination of buttons and tolerate 15 minutes of monophonic Für Elise before you can speak to a human.

Not all businesses think this way. Zappos is famous for having call centers that attend to several wacky requests from their customers. Zappos is a shoe store, but you could call a Zappos for a pizza or even stay on the phone with them for 10 hours. Zappos is a billion dollar business due to the goodwill they earned from treating humans like humans.

To require slack is to be human. No matter how much automation comes our way, we ourselves would (hopefully) continue to remain human. And when we decide to serve humans, our employees need the slack to look up from their desk, smile and pay attention to a human in need.

Recommended reading: Your customer service strategy – Seth Godin’s blog

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