A common and tragic pattern exists across all relationships - minor issues, left unfixed for long enough, have an outsized impact on the relationship. Let’s explore an example.
The Lingering Ticket
A customer support team at a B2B company gets 1000 tickets a day. They work on the tickets with focus and poise. However, about one out of every 1000 tickets ends up in a bad spot. Let’s call one of those ticket X.
Ticket X is not that big of a deal. It’s a low priority request from a customer who is having an issue on a non-essential part of the product. The team can’t reproduce it and they enter into a chain of back-and-forth with the client that goes on for several weeks trying to reproduce. The customer gets a very slightly frustrated and asks the support team to escalate, which they do.
The engineering team sees a low priority escalation with no reproduction and sends it back to support. “We’ve gotten no other reports of this, we can’t reproduce, we can’t transact”. The support team sends the ticket back to the customer and asks for more information. The customer has moved on - they stopped trying to do what they were doing.
The ticket sits for a month before auto-closing.
Three months later the customer tries to do the thing again, runs into the issue, then reports it to their account executive. “This is absolutely ridiculous! I had a ticket open for two months, then they closed it. And now it’s still broken!”. The AE escalates to engineering who gets on a call with the customer and realizes almost immediately that they have a settings configuration that is introducing the problem. A fix is shipped within the hour.
The customer perceives the long duration of the issue was a major lapse in customer service. Forget the 215 other tickets they had that were solved promptly - this interaction will lead them to consider other vendors and eventually cost the company 5% on the renewal price as a concession for the way this impacted sentiment.
What went wrong?
An important detail is that this issue started as a low priority ticket. As a result, it got deprioritized again and again - by the support team, by the engineering team, and eventually even by the customer.
However, the problem is that with enough time, failure to handle and fix low priority issues is seen just as egregious as not fixing major issues, if not more so. Major issues that linger are usually a result of a really hard problem - it’s a big deal, people are trying to fix it. Low priority issues often easy to fix, but nobody has given them a serious effort. Left long enough, that situation can be perceived as a value judgement of the person who reported the issue. “This was so easy to fix, you must just not respect me at all”
On top of all of this, negativity bias compounds the issue.
Lingering low priority issues happen regularly and can have nearly irrecoverable impact. You can’t say you had a bad day - you actively ignored this for a long time.
- “I’ve been asking you for 6 months to throw out that cardboard and you STILL haven’t done it.”
- “I asked you LAST YEAR if I could get introduced to a board member to ask about venture capital, and you still haven’t done it.”
- “Look at this pull request that has been sitting in review for 5 months, getting one comment every 2 weeks.”
From there, things can get even worse. People don’t like to be in the wrong for a long period of time, so it’s not uncommon to see the person being asked to do something start to reframe the asker as the problem:
- “Why does this cardboard even need to be thrown out, you have no chill!”
- “I have 1000x things to do and you’re hassling me about a board intro you asked about twice 6 months ago!?!?”
- “This pull request isn’t even meeting any of our style guidelines, you should go fix that first.”
How can you solve this?
If you’re in a work environment with a formal artifact for the issue, the fix is simple: low priority items need to become high priority if enough time has gone by. For example:
- If a pull request has been commented on for longer than 2 weeks it has to have a meeting to figure out next steps
- If a support ticket has been open for longer than a month it has to be escalated and worked on with priority
If it’s a less formal request your best option is to create a TODO list and have a method of clearing that list regularly. This is basically the Getting Things Done method.
If you have the discipline to not let little issues fester, you’ll have the luxury of not having little issues explode.