I am not a number, I am a free man – with choice

Companies are obsessed with technologically driven customer efficiencies, but they dehumanise brand-to-consumer relations, and breed disloyalty. By Sean Brierley

Americans have much to think about this month. Last week they had a chance to reflect on National Taco Day, Fly a Kite Day and A Friend In Need Is A Friend Indeed Day. This Friday is Take Your Dog to Work Day and next week is both National Cheese Week and Carpenter Ant Awareness Week. June has also been appropriated to celebrate National Iced Tea Month, National Accordion Awareness Month and that annual American favourite, Rebuild Your Life Month.

A cynic might suggest that these days, weeks and months have been invented to get cheap publicity from lazy columnists – National Columnists Day is June 24, by the way – but I prefer to see them more as a reflection of America’s contemporary cultural mores.

My two June favourites are Family Awareness Day – families aren’t just for Christmas – and International People Skills Month. “People skills” is one of the most significant additions to the lexicon of bullshitophilia. The fact that something which is in our very nature has acquired a skill status that has to be learned, tested and accredited, is bizarre.

But when we invent a phrase for something we do naturally, it indicates that we are concerned that we don’t do it properly anymore. The fact that we feel the need to use a phrase like “people skills” reflects the fact that modern organisations don’t have any. They have become increasingly dehumanised. It indicates a major anxiety of our age: our fear of the dehumanising consequences of technology.

The growth in technology has also led to the rise of a new phenomenon: organisational autism. This is where logistics and efficiency takes precedence over relationships, and brands are unable to socially interact with customers. They merely process information and data and treat people as if they are simply behavioural automata that respond to stimuli.

The most troubling brands are to be found in the service sector, where the drive for cost efficiency is dehumanising organisations. From British Gas to BT (one of the worst culprits), consumers are treated as if they are simply end-users, rather than customers.

The banks, along with the utilities, telecoms, government agencies and retailers have embraced technology as a panacea to talk one-to-one to their customers in a cheap and effective way.

However, this is not the case. Technology is used in an impersonal way with the pretence that it enables a dialogue with customers at a relatively low cost.

The main cause of this is the misuse of e-mails and touch-tone phones by major organisations. Part of the problem is that companies use e-mail as a broadcast medium that depersonalises and dehumanises their relations with consumers, and negates the benefits of the technology. How many times have you had to ring a major organisation and been guided through a clawingly painful touch-tone elimination process while being told by a recorded message that, “you are important to us”?

Sensible customer retention strategies have been sacrificed in pursuit of the technologically efficient management of businesses. But organisational autism infects the culture of the company too. Not only do the technologies themselves become impersonal, but so do the staff who deal with the public.

Last month a friend bought a faulty product from PC World. While on holiday, the unit stopped working. On his return, he took it back to the shop. The assistant tested it and confirmed it was faulty. However, because he did not have the box, the staff refused to give a refund suggesting instead that he took the matter up with Sony.

He e-mailed Dixons “customer services”, which took four days to give a standard automated reply, asking for numerous details relating to the purchase. The e-mail ended with the dalek-like sentence: “Once in receipt of this we will do our utmost to assist.” Needless to say my friend responded in a very human way.

Even the “pinnacle of e-customer service”, Amazon, which apparently is, “A Real Company in a Virtual World” is not immune. Last month I received an e-mail informing me that an order I placed in February for a book – The Steppe and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (don’t ask) – would take another four to six weeks to arrive. I wanted to tell somebody at the e-tailer that I had seen the same edition at a cheaper price. I also wanted to tell somebody that it would have been easier to walk to the Steppe, learn Russian, buy a Russian edition, and read the book cover to cover than to buy it from Amazon. But, I found the only way to “talk” to somebody was via e-mail.

I e-mailed my comments and received a standard reply thanking me for my complaint, cancelling my order and informing me that in future I should use the official cancellation form. Which I suppose is Vulcan for “fuck off”.

The result of this wholesale embracing of technology at the expense of real people is an increase in disloyalty. A recent Datamonitor report on banking across Europe detected a shift in attitudes to customer loyalty in the UK, where 41 per cent said they shop around for financial products, compared with 27 per cent for the whole of Europe. A large factor of this decrease in loyalty can be attributed to a lack of personal contact, especially with banks, which have systematically decimated their branch networks and embraced technology in the pursuit of cost efficiency.

Maybe we need a designated month to reflect on the problem, National Customers Are Human Too Month? It may catch on.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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