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Warranty decisions are one reason iRobot’s outsourced call center doesn’t work as well as it should


I have been an iRobot customer since Christmas. Much as I like their products, their customer service decision making leaves a lot to be desired. This particular post was prompted by their inconsistent warranty decision management. iRobot has outsourced its call center, as many companies have, and sound like they want to deliver excellent customer service. Certainly the folks from the Jay Group (their outsourcing partner) do. Yet the complete inability of iRobot to deliver consistent warranty decisions or to put their business experts in control of critical customer service decisions makes this impossible. As a result my customer experience has gone steadily downhill – for want of a decision the customer was lost. I would point out that some time ago I posted on iRobot’s silly return process and the contrast of this with its apparently award-winning CRM (here’s another post that picked up mine and that has a comment proving I was not an isolated instance). That time, as now, the problem is one of decision making. Clearly customer service and warranty decision making is not their strong point.

So here I am, once again, engaged in dealing with iRobot’s customer service. This time my Dirt Dog has gone wrong. This robot was always my favorite – the one that had the clearest ROI – but some days ago it started misbehaving. After some intelligent back and forth debugging it by email, I got this from the customer service folks:

Based on the information you have provided us, we have determined that your robot needs to be replaced. We have all the pertinent information, so at this time all we need from you is permission to set up the exchange and we can process the exchange through email.

Because we are not requiring you to return your current unit to us, we ask that you dispose of the robot. This Dirt Dog has been permanently deactivated in our records

Very nice customer service – rapid debugging, clearly a problem with the unit, don’t worry about sending it back we’ll replace it. Lovely. The new unit arrives but, sadly, never works right. Back to customer service.

This time the debugging interaction is not so good. The first couple of responses have pretty clearly not bothered to actually read what I wrote in the problem statement and suggest trying things that I have already tried and that, anyway, don’t match the symptoms I am describing. Clearly this decision making is not really under iRobot’s control.Eventually I get a response as follows:

Please place your Dirt Dog in a plain cardboard box. …
In the box, please include a note with the following information …
Please ship the box to the address below. We recommend that you ship this parcel via UPS or FedEx, because they provide you with tracking and insurance…

So the first time my Dirt Dog went wrong it is replaced at no cost to me. The replacement never works but now I have to pay to send it back? When I ask the customer service folks this question they tell me:

We do not offer to reimburse shipping charges for the return of items to us to be replaced

But surely they do not always require things to be returned? I can’t imagine the policy has changed in the few weeks since I last interacted with them. Clearly iRobot has a consistency problem – the customer service folks are not able to make consistent warranty decisions.

After a little research I discover that iRobot uses RightNow’s SaaS CRM offering to run their call center which they outsource to The Jay Group. I even found a podcast from the Voices of CRM series in which iRobot and the Jay Group describe their relationship. In the podcast the iRobot and Jay Group representatives make some interesting points:

  • They stress the need for dynamic troubleshooting of robots – the outsourced reps must know how
    Yet my experience is that the quality of debugging varies significantly between reps.
  • Engineers need access to these conversations to see what can be fixed and they talk of documentation about problems stored in the CRM application
    Yet the engineers don’t seem to be able to change the interaction directly, only indirectly through the documentation they provide
  • They outsource because the call center is not their core competency
    Which is fair enough but isn’t determining what’s wrong with a robot a core competency? How about defining the warranty policy and returns criteria? Surely those ARE core competencies?
  • The idea is to allow users to choose a channel and then interact consistently
    Well I have only used one channel but so far they are not managing consistency even within the channel
  • Finally they talk about automating returns at some point in the future to reduce wait times and improve efficiency
    But the conversation is about the process of generating return ids and managing the process, not about consistently correct returns decisions which seem likely to remain dependent on training of reps.

It would be easy to blame the outsourcing for the inconsistent customer service but frankly I don’t think that’s the problem. It is clear to me that iRobot has not thought about how it wants to handle some critical decisions:

  • Deciding what is wrong with a robot
  • Deciding if a robot should be replaced
  • Deciding if a broken robot should be returned before it can be replaced
  • Calculating the refund due for a return (previous post)

If it had then I would be getting consistent, and consistently accurate, responses from the Jay Group reps and I am not. Replacing an outsourced service with an in house one would not address the problem – the decisions would still be up to individual reps based on their understanding of what’s wrong and what the return policy is.

The moral of the story is that, if you want consistently excellent customer service, make sure you retain control of and effectively automate the critical decisions that affect your customers – debugging, refund and warranty decisions, for example. My process experience would have been quite different if these decisions were being managed explicitly, especially if they were being managed in a way that allowed the domain experts (engineers for the debugging, business owners for refunds and return policies) to control the rules and policies in the decisions directly. Then the decisions would be driven by the actual policies and actual experiences, not through the reps interpretation of those policies and experiences.

iRobot, automate these decisions!