David Cliff
David Cliff

Member Article

That’s just the way it is

Bruce Hornsby and The Range produced a rather memorable tune, which told us “that’s just the way it is”, in the late 90s.

It is almost a watch word for modern industry these days and perhaps would be a more appropriate choice of hold music than Queen’s ubiquitous “Don’t Stop Me Now”, which reflects the feelings as one is put on hold for the fifth time in an hour. One contacts an array of call centres looking for decent customer services and one is sent through a Hampton Court maze of computer generated options, many of which do not conform to the particular cause one is calling about.

When one remonstrates with members of the organisation, one realises instantly that you are about to “shoot the messenger” and so the discussion takes place with growing suppressed exasperation and a sense of powerlessness and futility. Make a helpful suggestion and this is somehow channelled through some sort of consumers’ feedback mechanism or one is simply advised, as I was recently, “that’s just the way it is”, meaning that my needs as a consumer must adapt to the system that delivers, rather than me being seen in any way as a unique individual in my own right.

The phone goes down. I have made three phone calls, lost an hour and 45 minutes, as the problem is unresolved to my satisfaction and I am left questioning my intelligence, ability and, for the last 30 minutes, the will to live as the desire to chew my own foot off at the ankle takes over any original angst that resulted in my initial call. This is the outward face of many modern call centres, where the staff are at an interface between the shareholders and the customers, administering huge inflexible systems that cater for the masses whilst at the same time paring down capacity planning and responsiveness so that the shareholders benefit from the reduced capacity.

Meanwhile, the customer remains hanging on the line at nil cost to the company whilst their own sense of consumer freedom and personal identity is eroded. Is this the modern “better” world? Something where customer service is a rhetorical position, where the organisation defines just how it is you are to be satisfied?

A decent human transaction is subordinate to what is fed up the management line in terms of how long it took and lacks a tick box for the homicidal ideation of the customer at the end of the call. Amazingly, so many of these organisations are British companies. But then so many of them outsource to the rest of the world for the further depression of costs against profits. It is a bit like politics really, we can attribute some of this phenomenon to the the consumer in much the same way as we can blame the electorate for not voting.

All too long we have been passive consumers, buying what we are sold and not militating against this. The individual does not appear to have any identity against the might of a large, often multinational organisation and the sense of individuals taking their custom elsewhere seems petty, pointless and will not affect change. Wrong. It is the consumer that is as much a part of this transaction as the organisation. Whatever its sense of corporate social responsibility and its valuing of customers, the organisation typically is incapable of human emotions, passion, reason, however much it frames these through the language of authentic leadership, “metaphysical” approaches to management or transformational leadership.

The fact is, individual consumers are like drops of water that can create a huge pool and if they could simply get out of the apathy and empower themselves and start to move around, this would make a huge difference. Moving around should come about to achieve a better overall service, not because of just cheapness or else we fall foul of yet another marketing ploy that grooms you into the clutches of a large organisation with early concessions then price hikes that trade on your conservatism and general distaste of movement. All of this brings us down to notions of citizenship, be it political, consumerist or in terms of our contribution to society.

Mr Cameron’s notions of “Big Society” needed “Big Citizens” to make it work and for a myriad set of reasons these are lacking while some companies make good from the inertia. Stay silent, comply, do not participate in processes and you will get just what you expect as a customer, organisational rhetoric that masquerades as service at the loss of your personal identity. How I crave the concept of the single point of contact company that offers a customer services or similar advisor who will effectively case work your issues and develop a relationship with you. Something akin to the bank manager or family GP of old. There are some amazing and shining examples of this, but they are all too few.

Usually, the typical first line of customer services and technical staff in these organisations is supported by a welter of managers completely disconnected from the real world. We have seen this with organisations that are “institutions”, implicitly trusted by the population, the BBC, for example. The majority of telecoms and utilities companies also fall into this mind frame so easily.

Each minute the public waits on an inadequate helpline with poor customer service results in a better bottom line for the shareholders and a fatter pay off for the Chief Executive Officer once he or she decides to move on. All this achieved with the incredible collusion of politicians who simply trumpet on with the hackneyed litany of “jobs and growth” at any price as the only criteria for sanctioning development. Meantime, citizen empowerment takes a back seat when the economy is the key focus.

Welcome to modern Britain, press 1 if you agree, 2 if you disagree, 3 and we will cut you off automatically anyway, whatever your options, and 4 if you want to complain, in which case your call will be shorter than all of the rest, we will see to that. We are of course committed to the finest customer services and we want to hear what you have to say. Sound familiar?

David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Vice Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ County Durham and Sunderland Committee.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by David Cliff .

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