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Could You Give Your Customer Experience the "Newsroom" Treatment?

Brian Cantor

Polarity is a given for an Aaron Sorkin project, and his new HBO series "The Newsroom" is predictably dividing viewers into extremes.

One particular point of contention concerns the show’s decision to retroactively deliver accounts of real-life events.

A twist in the series premiere revealed that the show’s journey actually begins in 2010. Then, show-within-a-show "News Night" began its commitment to legitimizing news by reporting on the real-life Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As the timeline has progressed, the show has also reimagined the reporting of events like the 2010 US elections, the Arizona immigration bill and the 2011 Tucson Shooting.

All indications are that every future episode will focus on how the "News Night" team approaches the real-life controversies, movements and tragedies that made waves these past few years.

Show supporters gush over the concept, noting that it leverages authentic, emotional sentiment from recent events to drive its narrative and character development.

Instead of spending time asking viewers to care about a fictional shooting, for instance, "The Newsroom" uses viewers’ honest memory and hostility over the false reporting of Gabrielle Giffords’ to drive an emotional recent scene in which the central characters—even one of the "bad guys"—hesitated to join in on declaring her death, a move which ultimately proved both humane and wise when the team learned it could report the truth of Giffords’ survival.

With a talented showrunner and cast, the "Newsroom" team certainly could have managed the task of inventing a fictional story to tell on the show, but the time needed to build the gravity of that fiction would have been time taken away from creating the characters and relationships that amplified the importance of the climactic scene.

On a more simplistic basis, those watching Aaron Sorkin’s take on a cable newsroom are almost certainly knowledgeable about current events and thus likely to be intrigued by a dramatic show that focuses on them. The "ripped from the headlines" angle was a favorite among "Law & Order" viewers, and shows like David E. Kelley’s "The Practice" and "Boston Legal" best resonated when their storylines and legal argumentations could be applied to recognizable, timely moral and political issues.

The reactions are not all positive, however. In addition to general concerns about the show’s political bias—much of the show’s "corrective journalism" has been targeted at statements and ideologies espoused by conservatives—many feel the show’s use of "hindsight 20/20" is a cheap handicap that dampens the efficacy of the show.

It is not that the criticisms "The Newsroom" wages against the cable media are without merit. The media was obviously premature in reporting Giffords’ death. The media did fail to capture the reality of the Tea Party movement’s rise to prominence. It did use powerful anchors and conservative personalities to mislead about President Barack Obama’s stance on issues like guns and personal spending. In all cases, "The Newsroom" is effective in showing how a news show not preoccupied with ratings, frivolity and deliberate partisanship (or, alternatively, deliberate refusal to accept that some issues are one-sided) would have been able to avoid the pitfalls made by existing cable news outlets and the politicians and viewers who guide them.

The problem—and the one with implications for customer management professionals—is that the availability of hindsight changes the game. If the "Monday Morning Quarterback" approach were only used to point out obvious flaws in the journalism process, then it would be fine. But "The Newsroom" instead uses its awareness of the truth to create circumstances that might not have existed in reality.

It was easy for "News Night" to focus on the environmental and accountability implications of Deepwater Horizon, rather than the "rescue mission," because Aaron Sorkin had the benefit of knowing how the story would shake out and thus armed his characters with all the tools needed to make the right decision. In the moment, though, would the "News Night" reporters have had both the inside sources and savvy to approach the story in that way?

The same goes for the Tea Party movement. The concerns espoused on the show were all legitimate ones that critics really did wage in 2010, but without having the benefit of time to crunch all the information and put the true implications of the Tea Party into perspective, would "News Night" have actually been so shrewd and pointed in tearing apart its supporters?

And though the entire premise of the legitimized "News Night" is that ratings no longer matter, "The Newsroom" manipulates the issue into a non-existent one by claiming that its show-within-a-show has only suffered minor viewership decreases. If the decline had been massive, and there is at least some reason to believe it would be if a show changed its format in this manner, would not the business higher-ups have been more aggressive in forcing "News Night" to revert back to a traditional cable news format? Thus far, the corporate pushback element of the show has been more bark than bite.

"News Night" gets to operate in a world with an unrealistically high level of information and an unrealistically low level of corporate pressure, and they combine to undermine the relevancy of the premise.

In customer management, however, that premise is far more meaningful.

Each failed interaction with a customer produces a wealth of data about the customer service process. Agents—and ultimately their supervisors—learn what kinds of issues are creating problems, what kinds of resolutions disgruntled customers desire and how the organization’s failure to appease these customers is hurting customer satisfaction. This "voice of the customer" feedback contains all the tools needed to correct organizational processes, product development, marketing and customer service and therefore assure the same mistakes are not made twice.

Aaron Sorkin might have been disappointed with how the media first covered the oil spill, but if a comparable issue were to again emerge in real life, it is hard to guarantee the media could do better. Would they have the all-knowing inside sources who the producer coincidentally knows from college? Would they only face minimal resistance to target a major corporation on the air? And would they be able to contextualize the real story—one that everyone else was overlooking—on a whim?

Customer management professionals, however, are capable of not only viewing an issue through retroactive lenses but actually stacking the deck to avoid that issue in the future. They are not reliant on "sources" which may or may not exist in real-life—if customers are unable to get refunds due to an internal policy, the business has the complete power to learn about the issue and change that system so that the flawed policy is eliminated.

Unlike a cable news show, which is part of a larger network that is likely part of a business unit owned by a major conglomerate, customer management leaders—or at least their C-levels—have full autonomy to correct the issues presented by customers. They live in Sorkin’s idealistic universe rather than one dictated by long-standing, unshakable politics and traditions.

The question for readers is, therefore, whether your organization would be able to convincingly apply the "Newsroom" treatment to past incidents. If traveling back in time to a period of customer frustration in 2010, would you, knowing what you know in 2012, be able to fix that issue and prevent the dissatisfaction? Have you implemented the tools, technologies, strategies and manpower to completely mitigate those customer service challenges?

Customer management leaders should always play "Monday Morning Quarterback" because each and every failure should be seen as an immediate pathway to betterment. Customer experience lapses are not unavoidable, and by relying on proven historical data and experiences, customer management leaders should be able to render them inconceivable.

A retroactive approach to news reporting will always be faulty not only on the grounds that no two situations are alike but also because the processes that create those issues cannot always be corrected.

Customer management teams certainly cannot prepare for every specific issue, but they certainly cannot avoid strategic decisions that inhibit an ability to drive swift resolution. Thanks to feedback from agents and customers, customer management leaders essentially have the power to create a "Newsroom" that exists without corporate pressure and has an inside source for accurate information on every topic imaginable.

Are you taking advantage?