Walking through the ticket barrier at Didcot Parkway a few months ago, I was witness to a most middle class kerfuffle. A young polite guy was being stopped from exiting and treated like a fare-dodger, his tweed-clad father was going quickly puce: which no-doubt made it all the more embarrassing for the lad. His crime? Getting off a station early on a ticket that had been bought, paid for and presented gladly. A victimless crime, one that might even have saved the train company a little bit of fuel: but the station staff were having none of it, their hands were tied.
It was something to do with the tickets having been pre-bought from a pot of special fares. It was something to so with how, these days getting off a stop early costs more. I couldn’t understand it, none of the gathering crowd could, but the staff suggested that a read of the Terms and Conditions on the company website would explain all.
That same week I spent hours on a support line to O2 who, because I’d had it looked at in an Apple store, decided that the iPhone I’d bought from them was not their responsibility. Virgin Media then charged us £50 for not being in for a engineers visit we hadn’t booked with them, and my Oyster-style bus pass just stopped working. Luckily this isn’t a week when I’ve arrived home to find a ‘Sorry you were out’ card from Yodel, an item on the doormat that makes my heart sink like no other that the cat hasn’t personally left.
Each and every transaction took longer than it should have, each ended with me feeling fraught and ripped off. And with each I was very aware that the choice presented by the market would only lead me to other suppliers with similar processes and frustrated customers: you only have to look at the stream of Twitter support accounts to see that. In terms of the buses and trains I had no choice at all, except to give up using them. With courier firms it’s not even your choice, but that of your supplier.
We’ve had the crash and the recession, and now supposedly a recovery: those companies that are still making huge profits have done so due to being more efficient. They certainly haven’t, they say, maintained those figures by cutting corners. So why is every little transaction, from getting a parcel delivered to buying a train ticket awkward, confusing, and ultimately a bit shit?
I have a theory that it’s all about responsibility and the cost of transactions. It’s not in the interests of profit to have the customer understand or be in control. Even where it’s not deliberate, the removal of decision making from frontline staff—placing it in the hands of algorithms has lead to a whole new level of Kafka-esque process mazes, with the added bugs and dead ends that only software can provide.
Nick, a call centre veteran, told me, there’s just no freedom to deviate from ‘the script’. “Many times you know how to solve a problem but can’t do anything due to restrictions, it [is] all about making money.”
“everyone is under pressure to complete calls within a certain time…callers had just had their cars either clamped or removed. They were pretty angry. So they were not in the mood to be fobbed off. This led the call centre staff to make up anything to get them off the phone. They’d lie. Sometimes they’d hang up on the excuse that the caller bad become abusive.”
Under pressure from bosses, dealing with increasingly frustrated callers. It’s no fun at either end of these calls. Nick: “It was the most miserable environment I’ve ever seen. People were always going off sick.” Another worker from a different centre told me “the fact you had no real power or responsibility amplifies the most stressful scenarios in the job.”
It’s that lack of an ability to take responsibility that causes problems. For example I moved house, I phoned my bank and changed my address, they didn’t change the address for my credit card; because despite all of the cards having the words NatWest on the front, they are really run by different entities. One size really doesn’t fit all.
One company I see getting awful feedback online is delivery firm Yodel, who claim to handle 135 million parcels every year. Call to complain about a missing delivery and it seems you’ll be told that you need to speak to not the deliverers (who might know something about it) but the people who sent it to you (who definitely don’t have it). A Yodel worker on a web forum explains “your contract is with [the sender] and not yodel. Basically its down to [them] to sort this out and they can then bring it up with Yodel if they wish.” You can’t often speak to anyone about a delivery as the ‘we missed you’ cards don’t have a call centre number on them: they have scribbled mobile numbers, which very often ring out.
This is because the Yodel model is to engage, rather than employ, delivery people: who must supply their own cars and phones. They target this work at those who are “newly retired yet still wanting to contribute to an active role, or [who] would like to earn some extra money whilst the children are at school”—these are people not working regular hours that are contactable through ‘normal’ systems.
The job isn’t easy, and isn’t—according to posters on moneysupermaket.com forums—well paid:
“You HAVE to be in 5 mornings a week Mon-Fri to get the parcels in, which can be from anytime from 7am-2pm. You get paid 65p per parcel delivered (even if you have to go back to try and catch the customer in you only get paid for a signature)”
“You are expected to attempt delivery twice and then return undelivered parcels —you do not get paid if it is not delivered no matter how many times you have tried (and each attempt costs you in petrol). The price of petrol means that this is simply not viable.”
“Every fortnight I was getting paid about £70, minus the petrol expenses that you have to cover yourself. So realistically for two weeks work I was earning £30.”
Worse, it seems that the reliance on computer systems, perhaps the most ‘cost effective’ ones available means that the data in those systems is often wrong. “The Yodel scanner is the pits, and there’s sometimes no way out other than to sign off the job.” Poorly paid, battling the system from their side—it’s not a surprise that the satisfaction with the firm seems to be low.
From automation to outsourcing, to the obfuscation of self employment—money drives the cutting of corners and abdication of responsibility, and it seems digital technology makes that possible.
No wonder that every time we try to do anything it seems that little bit shit.