How many hours a week do you spend on hold to various corporations? The promise of advanced systems design was claimed to bring us such benefits as reduced waiting times, effortless shopping and fluid interactions with large groups - but has this been the lived experience?
As with so many 'theories' produced through academic observation, the reality, once these ideas reach into our daily lives is quite different to the visions proposed in their early days. What may seem to be a great leap forward for humanity so often turns out to be warped into just another annoyance - how can this be?
In the case of advanced system design and computerisation of processes in business & government, what has actually happened in the majority of cases is that the short sighted drive for more 'efficiency' (which we could easily see as simply 'greed' or even 'stupidity') has often led the computerisation of processes to result in less humans being employed/involved and therefore an actual decrease in the quality of the experience of end users, rather than an increase. It's all very well having an automated system to handle the easy flow of phone calls coming in to a shop, but when the company then decides to route all calls through a centralised call center where the people involved have little local knowledge for specific regions and who then may even route the calls to the wrong destinations - the result can be painful!
Why Does Next's Phone System Suck?
Today, for example, I called the 'Next' chain of clothing/home stores to try to contact a specific shop in a city near me. They don't advertise the direct number for the shop itself, only a national call center number - so I called that. I was then put in a queue and after about 10 minutes I decided to opt for them calling me back. I hung up the phone and about a minute later the phone rang, only for an operator to then put me on hold again straight away as he allegedly routed me to the shop I'd asked for. This was fail #2 (the first being that I had to wait for 10 minutes at all), since they had promised that the whole point of them calling me back was to end my waiting, but in reality this isn't what happened. I was next greeted by a female who really sounded like she had no clue what her job even involved and after about 3 rounds of explaining what I needed, she eventually realised and allegedly put me through to the right shop. A few minutes later and a third person answered the phone! This time I was told that I had come through to the wrong shop and that I needed to speak to the specific shop that I had known all along that I needed to speak to!
After asking for the direct number of the shop I needed, I called them directly and went through to THEIR OWN automated telephony system that eventually (after about 5-10 minutes of waiting) put me through to the right person who then also put me on hold again while she went to the area of the shop I was interested in.
All in all I spent probably close to an hour and spoke to 5 different people just to answer a simple question about what they had on display for testing in their shop. As it turned out, they had only 6 mattresses on display, despite the shop being large and their website listing many mattresses!
As a teenager I worked in a shop and part of my job was taking calls - we had a direct number and I was easily able to help most people - we never had these problems. This example with 'Next' appears to be a classic example of attempting to make shop workers more productive by freeing them up from phone calls, but instead just annoying potential customers, resulting in less sales instead of more.
Who Is Responsible for Poor System Design?
When such systems are designed and installed, there is usually a combined effort involved between members of the company's own team and members of a specialised technology company. The analysts are meant to gather information and perform structured, formal analysis and design to determine the optimal system from that balances the end-user's experience and the needs of the business. Often though, while quality analysts and architects may do this, the system is then redirected by those at the 'top' of the hierarchy of the company involved in order to attempt to make more money (from their perspective) - or it may just be that from the beginning, the project's aims were skewed away from the real needs of the situation (i.e. keeping customers happy enough that they actually buy things).
What Motivates Greedy System Design?
Just as with so many other aspects of life, we appear to be seeing the result of the psychological domination of society by fear and the fight/flight mechanism. Rather than neutrally assessing the needs of all involved, including that customers often need to speak with more experienced team members, the voice of fear says "we don't have enough money to train enough high quality team members, so let's just palm off customers to lesser skilled/paid people and hope for the best". This is not a holistic approach and is not sustainable, since inevitably, in the longer term people will collectively be 'put off' from using the company and will seek instead to find those among us who are willing to offer a more human and complete touch/service.
The main fear is 'fear of lack' and it stems from never having fully understood how to fully optimise systems and social interactions such that everyone involved feels good. Without the cohesive experience of a good feeling commercial environment (and perhaps a personal life that also feels safe/secure), the temptation is to act to take shortcuts that 'look good' or 'sound good' (particularly on paper or in board room meetings) but that in reality result in degradation. We might compare this to similar short term, poor choices, such as drug addicts getting 'just one more' hit or binge eaters falling off the wagon!
Lessons From The Internet, Applied To Customer Services
Developments in internet technology have shown us that decentralisation is a powerful tool when improving systems and my suggestion here is to apply that to businesses too. Instead of having centralised call centers that allegedly make business processes 'more efficient', designers should consider whether they are losing something important in this process. Decentralisation offers individuals to take on more responsibility and to provide end users with their own unique experience, rather than everything hinging on the performance of a core team who may or may not be close enough to the 'action' of daily trading to be able to know the best options to choose.
In the case of 'Next' all of my stress and wasted time could have been avoided by simply publishing the direct phone number for the store I wanted to contact on the company's website - I would have only needed 5 minutes to make the call, just like in 'the old days' and I wouldn't have been put off from using the company and wouldn't have written this blog putting the company down and analysing the psychology involved!
What do you think?
I've probably spent 3 hours on hold to different groups today alone (including Ebay) - which is supposed to be on a 'Saturday' which is supposed to be a 'day off' for many people. How about you? What's the longest you have been on hold recently?
Wishing you well,
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