The curse of the automaton

Imagine you set up a courier company.  The sole mission of your company is to collect and deliver parcels.  You want to provide a competitive service, so you don’t promise to get it there the next day, but it will arrive within one working week.

You’re ahead of the game, you have slick website where orders are made and can be tracked.  You provide useful information such as: awaiting collection, arrived at local depot, with local courier, delivered – left with neighbour.  The sender has access to this information, but the recipient doesn’t.  But that’s ok, your courier will try to deliver three times before returning at the sender’s expense.

Something goes wrong, the site is saying that the courier has attempted delivery three times, the customer swears they only attempted delivery once.  The courier doesn’t collect the parcel and the tracking service is stuck on ‘awaiting collection’.  You offer an online help and support service.  The first of the FAQs is “How do I contact you?”  I wonder why?  You offer no address nor telephone service.  But your customer can send you an email or can use your online messaging system.  It is very good, it goes like this:

Your customer fills in a form stating the nature of the query.  They are then put in a queue, and asked to wait about 10 minutes before they get a response.

Hello Jane,  how can I help you today?

The information that is already on the form is repeated.

I am very sorry about this Jane.

Let me quickly check the status of the parcel.

The messaging system disconnects due to lack of activity.

You are back in the queue again.

I’m sure you’ll all know how that goes.  You’ve telephoned a company, you have to go through their automated answering service, all you want is to talk to someone.  When you finally get talking to someone, they might as well be a machine.  They can’t really help you, they have a script to follow and have to get you off the phone in 3 minutes.  They are as automated as the talking machine that makes you enter numbers and follow responses with hashes.

How did it come to be that not looking after your customers is considered good business practice?

Supermarkets seem to have figured it out that customers would like a bit of a chat at the till.  Checkout staff now say hello, and ask you if you are doing anything nice today or this weekend.  But that’s it.  They carry on the mindless scanning task, they hmmm, they nod, they don’t hear, so you carry on packing your bag, all the while trying to gain eye-contact and share a smile.  Machines on automatic.


Going out of the way to buy local changes the experience.

Small business owners tend to care more about their customers as they are invested in having that customer return.

I buy fish from a local fishmonger, we’re lucky enough to still have one.  I have his phone number, can ring the day before, order what I want, and if I don’t know how to cook something, he’ll give me a few suggestions and we always have a chat next time about how I did cook it.  I’m sure some of my recipes are passed on to other customers, as mine aren’t so typically English.

It’s an enjoyable experience and I don’t mind paying a bit more for fresh fish served with a smile.  I actually feel guilty if I skip a week and don’t visit.  I really can’t buy fish from anywhere but there.  I know how fast his fish goes – he closes up early every day – he’s got a loyal customer base.  Isn’t that a great business model?  Even a bit of leisure time thrown in.

face-110104_1280But I’m in a bad mood today.  And a business has lost a reasonably regular customer it didn’t give a damn about.

myHermes offers a courier service which is cheaper than others.  I placed an order last Wednesday for the parcel to be collected from my home on Thursday.  There is an additional charge for this collection facility.  I stayed home all day Thursday and the courier never arrived.  Friday, I used the messaging facility and was told to be patient it would be collected within 24-48 hours later.  I asked if someone could ring me to let me know approximate collection time (they did ask for my telephone number).  They couldn’t possibly do that, but they would send me an email.

Saturday, I have the same conversation, but learn that the courier isn’t answering his phone.

Monday, I request a cancelling of the order and full refund.  But customer service is obliged to follow the script.

“Thank you for your patience.”

I am a very patient person, but something about the nature of this communication makes me fiercely angry.  I want to talk to a person, I want you to care about your customer and do all that you can to resolve the issue.

I dig a bit deeper.

The couriers are self-employed and they are not given any means of radio or phone contact.  They are not required to use their own phones as that compromises the courier and they will not be reimbursed for any use.   Delivery/collection instructions are limited to 15 characters, so there is no way to explain that your house is situated on a carpark for someone else’s business.  And what you do write doesn’t seem to be conveyed to the courier.  Couriers are meant to return the next day to collect, try three days in a row, and leave you a note, but there’s no strict obligation on them to leave that note.

It’s not difficult to understand why couriers might not be invested in providing a good service.

These kinds of practices form the core of business models in contemporary society.  It’s not good for business, it’s not customer friendly, it’s dehumanising to staff.  We have one life, yet all that potential is channelled into creating automatons, making money for someone they will probably never get to meet.  The business is getting very poor reviews almost every social media space you look.  Will it last?

Let’s see how courier number two performs?



3 thoughts on “The curse of the automaton

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