Heaping work on customers

The “self-service revolution” has been wonderful for companies. What better way to strip out costs than to replace supermarket cashiers with machines, or make passengers print out their boarding passes before setting out? In a new book, Shadow Work, Craig Lambert presents a “dystopian vision”. He argues that “the reason why so many people feel overworked these days is that they are constantly being asked to do ‘unseen’ jobs”, by everyone from Amazon to the taxman. The cumulative effect is to feel like “a slave to the machine”. Perhaps Lambert is too gloomy: many of these developments have in fact been driven by customer preference. But there is now a clear and worrying divide between “cattle class” and “business class” offerings: the service industries have eliminated “the personal touch” from their mass-market products, while “no amount of fawning is too much” for well-heeled customers. And if they abandon trying to differentiate themselves with good service, the effect is “to train customers to shop on price”, making them vulnerable to attack from discounters. Just ask Britain’s mainstream supermarkets. (Schumpeter, The Economist)

We encountered very charming man who, a year ago, had sold his technology company and was looking around for new opportunities. He absolutely agreed that the idea of customer service is dying or dead. One can never get past the young woman on the phone. She either can’t or won’t put you through to her supervisor, and often doesn’t know who he (or she)is. The management treat customers like herds of cattle, ignoring complaints and suggestions, offering limited training to the front line staff, and contenting themselves with sending out gormless opinion polls (we care!). And by the way, most of the websites one visits do not need elaborate “accounts” and log-ins, which are marketing ploys and have nothing to do with security.

Yesterday I was sent an opinion poll email, asking me how well the company concerned did in arranging an annual service visit to maintain our central heating boiler. Actual amount of time taken to choose date and time: one minute 23 seconds. Time it would take have taken to fill in the poll? About five minutes. Ridiculous!* Time for a revolt by the customer!

* I ignored it, of course, in the name of peace of mind.