Anyone who knows me or follows this blog will know that I am all for using technology to improve our quality of life, and to make our increasingly complicated lives more manageable. But technology should be used for our benefit. I have a major problem with the way customers of all ages are being treated by the businesses we give our money to. And this normally applies to the ones we have to give our money to, either because they’re the only ones providing the service we need, or because all the companies offering this product or service are the bloody same, so taking our business elsewhere makes no difference.
You’re warned, this post is going to be a bit of a rant . . . More than a bit, actually.
No business should be allowed to sacrifice good service by shoving a technological interface between itself and its customers in a way that inconveniences the customer. On the contrary, they should be punished for it.
These days, it seems that instead of training staff to provide a service, many businesses prefer to train their customer to service themselves, and then charge them for the pleasure. Let’s pick an example that’s particularly relevant to teenagers first.
Ticketmaster have become infamous in Ireland for their online booking charges. Put simply, if you save them or their agents the hassle of having to deal with you in person, or on the phone, you are hit with ‘a per ticket convenience charge and a non-refundable per order processing fee’. By convenience, they presumably mean their convenience. So even if you’re booking several tickets for a gig in one go, requiring their computer to deal with you only once, you pay an extra charge PER TICKET.
But the other day, my wife went into a music shop which was a Ticketmaster agent, to buy a ticket for a football match for her nephew. She had the option of buying it online, but that would have taken more time than going to the shop. If you buy the match ticket online, you don’t actually get a ticket to print out. You have to queue up at the ticket office at the football ground, on the day of the match (assuming it isn’t convenient to travel there on an earlier date) to collect your ticket. And you pay an extra euro for that service.
Supermarkets stopped packing your shopping for you some time ago. Tesco’s have gone one further; they now have you scanning your own shopping and paying a machine. This seems like a good idea, until you think about it. I’d rather they just opened another of the many closed tills with a human being who can work a cash register, and then I wouldn’t have to wait for the people who don’t know how to use the system (which sometimes includes me), or can’t get some troublesome item to scan. But opening up another till would require another member of staff. The company reduces its costs by training its customers.
Next up: Tech support. You need it to fix your computer, your MP3 player, your mobile phone, or any other handy piece of technology you count as an essential part of your lifestyle. Maybe you’ve got a parent or sibling or friend who handles this stuff for you, but chances are you deal with it yourself. The more technology you use (and you’ll be using more all the time), the more tech support you’re likely to deal with.
For a start, a lot of the time, you have to pay an extra charge for the calls. So you pay to call them so they can tell you how to fix a problem on your gear. If the gear has more problems, you pay more to have it fixed. If they get money from the calls, they earn money by creating a crap product. They get you to waste your time and spend your money so they can tell you how you can fix something that they didn’t make properly.
That’s assuming you can even get them on the phone. First, they’ll try and get you to use the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ page on their website, sites I’ve frequently found to be bugger all use. Next, you’ll call up and be met by a call routing message, which will try to a) send you back to the website, and then b) make you waste more of your premium rate call listening to options regarding your inquiry, while you’re pleading for help or snarling expletives down the phone (For quality purposes, this call may be recorded . . . Good! Record this: SHOVE YOUR ****ING CALL ROUTER UP YOUR ****!).
But sending a customer to a website or bombarding you with pre-recorded messages doesn’t cost anything; having someone to answer a phone – particularly anyone with the kind of expertise and experience you’ll need to solve anything out of the ordinary – that costs money.
If you get frustrated enough with an ongoing problem, you’ll probably buy a whole new piece of kit. They’ll no doubt hope you buy another one of theirs.
The barrier toll plaza on the M50 (the Dublin orbital road, for all you non-Irish) was removed because it was causing massive traffic jams. You were paying to get caught in traffic. Now, the barriers are gone and cars are being photographed as they drive past. You have to pay in certain shops, though I’ve never seen any signs in shops. So you go online to pay your toll. This takes up your time, but doesn’t cost them anything. They make millions every year on fines that are charged for people paying later than the time allowed. The cost escalates very quickly. I pay on a one-off basis. You have to go online and volunteer the number of tolls you want to pay; they don’t show you how many are owed. If you get it wrong and underpay, they don’t tell you until you get the letter informing you that you’re being fined for late payment. If you get it wrong, and overpay, they keep the money. Instead of telling you you’ve overpaid, they put you in credit. If you never use the M50 toll road again (or maybe just ‘again that financial year’), you don’t see that money again. Their system has got my charges wrong on more than one occasion. And there is no way to prove you haven’t used the toll road.
I didn’t sign up for an account for the M50, but my wife did. Her credit card was charged over a dozen times for using the M50, when she hadn’t driven past the cameras once. All you can do is call up and argue your case; you may or may not get off. Their system doesn’t work properly, so they make more money.
Banks are probably the worst culprits though, because of how they treat us when their entire business relies on the lumps of money we store in their vaults. A few years ago, most of the banks started introducing this policy where you couldn’t phone your local branch any more. You had to phone a central number and go through a menu of options (****ing CALL ROUTERS!) before dealing with someone who didn’t know you from Adam. They’d much rather you did all your banking online, even if you sometimes need a human being to respond because the things you can do online are limited (especially the access you have to recent details of your account going back more than a month or two) or the service you need doesn’t appear under the available automatic options on the phone.
Having to deal with normal customers like you and me is a real drag for a bank. People have resisted the central phone line thing, because it’s the kind of move that really pisses off customers who want to keep tabs on, and control of, their money. But the banks don’t really worry about pissing off people, because all the banks do it, so there’s nowhere else you can go.
My local branch have decided to strengthen their defences against their customers by installing an airlock system on the entrance to the bank. This means you have to press a button to open one door, step into a sealed room, press another button and enter by a second door. The second door will only unlock once the first door is locked. Apparently, no bank with this system has been successfully raided by armed robbers. They say this new control over the front door is as much for customer safety as it is for keeping the money safe. Never mind the fact that this futuristic new entrance is incredibly difficult to get through if you have a baby in a buggy, or if you’re disabled – especially if you’re in a wheelchair. If you are one of these people, it’s an inconvenience you’ll just have to bear. Newly-installed technology that makes it harder for customers to get into the building.
To take their logic to its ultimate conclusion, if their bank has no doors at all, and the customers have no way of getting in, the money will be completely safe. In fact, they should bury it in the ground in a vault in a secret location, and surround it with nuclear waste, just to be sure.
Still I’m sure that all this poor service will change, now the banks have realized how their poor judgement has plunged the country into disastrous debt and billions of euros of our tax money has been used to haul their asses out of the fire. They’re bound to treat people decently now . . . right?
Well, no. The airlock thing was bad, but National Irish Bank have gone a step further in their branches. They’ve just decided to stop dealing with cash altogether. If you want to lodge cash, or withdraw it over the counter, you’ll have to go to the post office. I pity anybody who has their accounts with that company. Service? What service? Vote with your feet, people. Close your accounts.
This is a business culture that we are being forced to accept. But I don’t want to. I’m more than willing to serve myself to speed things up, and fix things myself when I can, or find things myself if the means are there. But these should be options, not standard operating procedures. This process of training the customer to pay to obey is an insidious one, and needs to be defied in any way we can. It adds more demands, complications and paperwork to our everyday lives. It often makes things less efficient, instead of more so, by standardizing systems across different markets with a single process that doesn’t work for everything, but suits the companies who buy into it. Most call centres work on contracts from a range of different clients. They could be doing tech support for an mp3 player on one call, while on the next call they’re talking about washing machines. A piece of software is really dealing with the enquiry, resulting in a less-than-supportive tech support.
We are learning to pay for services that lack quality, expertise and reliability, because we are growing ever more distant from the people who provide them. It’s not good enough. In fact it’s a disgrace.
Let’s make them work much, much harder for our money. Buy something else, somewhere else, until they get the message.