Photograph: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images
It has become a truism of market economics that the happy customer is a returning customer and that those companies that treat their customers well are more likely to survive and flourish. Politicians might complain as their ideologies dictate, raging and raving about small or big government and the reach of the market. Yet nothing they say or do negates the powerful truth about competition. The quality of a service speaks directly to us and no doubt this owes some debt to Darwinian mechanics; those companies that adapt to the demands of their environment are the companies that survive the longest.
It seems obvious when stated so boldly, but this really has been one of the most underappreciated trends of the past thirty years. We often talk about great technological innovations – shrinking hardware, data connectivity, smart devices – as central features of customer experiences, but have lost sight of the customers themselves.
Indeed, one of the noticeable quirks in recent years is how the customer-centric approach has started to produce some very odd, ‘customer hostile’ results.
Take, for example, customer services. There was a time when being able to speak to somebody on the phone was considered the pinnacle of customer engagement. Many companies wanting to drive business through this ‘personal touch’ opened call centres to deal with inquires. It was fine and innovative at first but this was happening at a time when communications technology was undergoing a revolution of its own, making it cheap and easy to route calls around the globe.
Once companies realised the call-centre staff could be employed at lower costs in other countries, they rapidly outsourced work to those countries. The result was a degrading performance, as customers in one country started to struggle to understand the attitudes of call centre employees in another. What was meant to make life easier became a staple of customer dissatisfaction and a broader societal attitude towards global economics. (The trend has recently been the other way, with a few companies making much about their having domestic call centres.)
The same degradation has started to happen in banking. Banks embraced technology with an enthusiasm like few other industries. Online banking changed everything about the way we handle our money. Yet technology designed to give the customer more control has come at a price. Online banking makes life easier for you up to the moment when your local bank closes down — then life gets a little more complicated. Even if you can find a bank in another town, they are rarely friendly places with real human beings sitting behind counters. Customers must now navigate machine-based banks, making sense of a myriad of slots, scanners, touch screens and menus. (The banks will eventually realise this, of course, so look for the next great “innovation” in banking, in a few years, when they start to open local branches staffed by real people.)
The perverse effect of this rush to technology is everywhere you look. Travelling by train in many parts of the UK is no longer as easy as it was – precisely because companies have strived to make it easier. The ease with which tickets can be bought really has never been greater. There are self-service ticket machines on most platforms and if you have a phone you can buy tickets online. The only problem is if you want to buy a ticket with the money in your pocket from a conductor on the train. Then you’re lucky if you get away without a custodial sentence. Gone are the days when you could simply hop on a train at the last moment. Here in the North West, stations now proudly boast that they are ‘penalty stations’ and if you dare board a train without a ticket, you will be fined £20. So much for ‘ease of use.’
This is the odd, perverse and sometimes worrying trend when technology promises to offer us an easier service but ends up pushing us towards a world where we have ever more penalties and punishments. This is partly because companies refuse to conceive of a time or place when their system isn’t perfect. They instead take a draconian approach to outliers. When the system cannot parse the input, the answer is to punish you for being different. Which, of course, is a problem when the input is human; a problem when technology is digital and life remains stubbornly analogue.
(Note that this dynamic is always one way. There’s no opportunity for the customer to punish the shop that has wrongly slandered you when your artificial hip/library book/nostril ring has set off the shop’s alarms. There’s little chance of imposing a fine of the train company that has left you eight hours late for work. What chance of a fine when your bank cocks things up?)
These problems are myriad. From the phone menus that never have the option you want, to the voice recognition systems that don’t know how to parse your problem, these are systems designed to match some ideal life – but not yours. They assume you have a Facebook account, own a passport, or speak with a certain accent. (Amazon’s Alexa hates my northern accent; I’d said ‘Ryvita’, and a ‘vibrator’ turns up on my shopping list. Honestly.)
There are an infinite number of reasons why you might not do something and they’re the kind of reasons that humans are capable of accepting or dismissing based on their experience of the world. What if you overslept because you’re looking after your Aunt Marjorie’s dog, Felix, who climbed on your bed the previous night, knocking off the alarm, meaning you got up late, ran to the station, had only seconds to board the train, only to discover the phone you thought you picked up turned out to be a rubber bone? A machine cannot make that determination – it doesn’t understand the concept of dogs, bones, or your Aunt Marjorie. The customer is increasingly defined as an errant input by machines incapable of understanding.
Not only this, reality now comes with a minimum-spec. To run this software called “Life” you must be aged 19-35, with a credit card, passport, identity card/chip, and have a Wi-Fi or mobile data connection at all times. If you’re a customer who doesn’t come up to that spec, don’t expect Life to run smooth.