Customer First? Yeah, right.

I see, via the excellent Robert Brook mail-out (do please subscribe), that there’s another site out there trying to cut the biggest Gordian knot of all in the field of customer services. Of course customers want cheapness. Of course customers want quality. But the two are in tension against each other.

Unlike the cruder saynoto0870 about which I’ve written before, Get Human attempts a subtler combination of crowd-sourced wisdom not only on what channels prove to be the best for getting through to Customer Services, but also offering handy hints on how to navigate them more easily once you’re connected.

Sample: “dial 08xx… and keep pressing 0, ignoring all prompts, until you get to an operator.” Well, indeed. And it’s hardly a new discovery that banging away on the zero or the hash button can get you that elusive human voice.

But it’s still a hack. It’s still “defecting” in the vernacular of game theory – trying to find a way around the system rather than devising something that actually works, and doing it in a way that doesn’t involve subterfuge.

What’s missing – what’s always been missing – for me in all of this Customer First rhetoric is any real appreciation of why things are the way they are. It’s not all perverse behaviour on the part of organisations. Nor is it all blatant cost-cutting or profit-grabbing. It’s a trade-off.

“We put the customer first” is one of the most weaselly phrases imaginable, whether in public or private sector. It’s probably Shareholder (or Taxpayer) First, in reality. And is that so very wrong? What’s much worse is the masking of true intent behind these bizarre slogans.

The system may be optimised for a lower price. It may be optimised for speedy and free-flowing service. But it won’t be optimised for both.

When you have to indulge in odd behaviour in an attempt to change this optimisation (like that banging away at the 0 key) you know there’s some reality masking going on.

Here’s a little case study to make the point: Ever hired a car abroad? You go through a ton of online data entry to ensure your personal and driver details, and payment, are handed over as requested. In advance. All you have to do when you get to the airport desk is establish your identity and take your key – everything else has been done? Right?


Spend a few minutes listening to what’s going on in a queue like this. It’s fascinating. No transaction takes less than five minutes – many take at least ten. The queue always builds quickly. Always.

And what is going on? Well, transactions are being optimised for revenue, not speed.

Take the additional paper-filling that appears at this stage. It might be a “local police form”, or an additional statement of insurance liability. There’s absolutely nothing on these forms that hasn’t been already provided online (or could have been).

But the act of filling it in starts to work in other ways on the hapless victim. It’s a foreign country. See? Foreign form in front of you. Thoughts fly fast: they drive badly here – or do they? Shit. Best check. And what about the police? Mirrored shades, being pulled over on a dusty road, accused of goodness knows what. Gold teeth. Lip-smacking. Cash fines. Smelly cells. The images are set in train.

The swift passage from carousel to exit gate has been interrupted, and certainly not for your benefit.

And then the killer words come across the desk. A script that never fails to elicit a visceral response. “You agree you have taken the minimum insurance cover permissable. The excess will be a thousand euros. But you can wipe this out with a simple payment of just twenty a day…” And inevitably, beads of sweat now falling down, a judgement has to be made. Invariably on the side of cautiousness. The picture has been painted.

You had all this information back in your office a week ago. You made a rational judgement of the likelihood of you stacking the car, and made your choice. But now? Now it looks different. And the tapping and shuffling in the queue behind means you have to make a decision. Now. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Oh, and a good bit of time is often spent with customer saying “but I thought I’d already done all this…” Tick. Tick. Tick.

So. That’s what optimised for revenue looks like. Not customer comfort.

Let’s be honest, though. This is all fine. It is what it is: business.

The increase in revenue keeps the hire business afloat. Keeps it competitive in other ways. Allows for headline hire rates to be very low. Gets customers to the desk in the first place. And round it goes… Etc. etc. etc. Hardly the stuff of a management science PhD.

You just have to hack the bullshit process like this. For yourself. Every time.


My plea? Please just give me a signpost at the top of, well, any transaction really: “Give me convenience, or give me cheap.” At least let me decide what’s optimised.

Keep that separation right the way along the line: forms, queues, phone lines. Really. Because one day we’ll grow up about the psychology of customer service and wonder why we ever fell for games like this. Ever.

(I hope.)


Postscript: Stefan C has pointed me in the direction of this neat little service, allowing you to buy your own excess reduction insurance. Nicely disruptive. More of these, please.

Petitions, targets and deadlines

What is it that really makes you sign a petition?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this question today. Triggered by one particular petition that has seen an 11th hour surge of promotion through social networks. And I can’t help concluding that the nature of “deadlines” and “targets” does itself modify behaviour in these circumstances.

There’s a big difference between the phrasing: “sign this petition, it’s an incredibly good cause and by far the most appropriate way to address it”


“Person X has worked really hard to get this important issue heard. It’s only Y thousand signatures from success, with Z minutes to go.”

especially when you can get real-time updates of how Y and Z are racing each other to the wire. It’s a bit addictive like that, all this instant feedback.

NB. I am intentionally not referencing that precise petition here. To do so will take the argument into different territory than I am addressing: which is about mechanics and behaviours of mass, public, direct representation. You can obviously search it out if you choose, but I will give short shrift to comments that focus on it specifically.

So what is it that persuades someone to add their name to a petition? I can see a massive range of factors. It could be because: they believe it will make a difference, they’re angry, someone has asked them to, someone has told them to, everyone else is doing it, or maybe that they just want to see it “be a winner”. There are no absolute “good” and “bad” reasons. This is just how things are. That’s the nature of mass participation.

But it’s that last one that’s playing on my mind. The combination of target and deadline changes the dynamic. We start seeing “edge effects” at work. I’d say that something achieving 90% of its goal with 24 hours to spare can much more easily attract attention that something at 50% with three months to go. We like “the cause of the day”. (Indeed Twitter in particular now seems to be one long stream of them.)

And if that is true, then that target effectively shrinks slightly, as a result of this last-minute acceleration effect.

Is that a good thing? Has it been fully accounted for in the design of the system? What would happen if the “score” were kept masked (other than to say it exceeded a minimum threshold for consideration)? I’d be really interested to know.

The dark side of citizen empowerment (Part 2) – a cautionary tale

Johnny was a rebel. A real maverick of a man. Show him a system, and he’d find a way round it. All the little get-outs, he got out through. He opted out of all opt-in mailings, he had his number put on the list to avoid junk calls, he made sure as hell he wasn’t on that electoral roll that’s for sale. His email address was a miracle of concealment to fool the bots, and you’d be bloody lucky to get it. And almost nobody got anywhere near his ‘real’ online identity.

If he was a bit naughty in his car, he’d make a real song and dance about ’fessing up to who was actually driving. There had to be pictures. Of his face. If not, he’d write long letters inevitably quoting the Human Rights Act. Stopped by the coppers in Waterloo? Same thing, knowing all the right responses to give to stay just the right side of the law, and exactly what would press the frustration button of the guy in the yellow jacket.

Junk calls? He loved those – playing right into the hands of his call centre victim – baiting them further and further into revealing who they worked for, and where, while tapping away merrily on his 192.com account and his Google Maps (and other, darker sources). Until he could surprise them by telling them the name of their wife. And if really pissed off, that he was watching their house from across-Church-Street-right-at-this-minute-pal.

Always pushing things to the very edge to protect his data, and his rights. Because information was Johnny’s lifeblood. His belonged securely locked away. But others’? Especially ‘public’ information? Ah, that was a bit different. Everything had to be open. Without compromise. If the government had it (or he thought they had it) he wanted at it. If there was something out there about a corporation, he wanted it mashed-up, unpacked, aggregated, chopped every which way.

Consumer rights were a passion. He joined every pressure group he could. It was his duty to share with others, not about himself of course, but about his purchases, how he claimed his benefits, what he did to swing the right school place for his kids, and so on…

He delighted in sharing the things The Man didn’t really want you to find out. The uglier stories of corporate hell. The product reviews that told tales from inside the factory. The quicker routes to claiming from the state. Where the councillor lived, and what they got up to on the internet that they thought nobody could find out about…

He bloody loved saynoto0870.com.

He whiled away boring afternoons phoning companies to pester them into giving up geographical alternatives to those noxious money-making numbers. They hated it, he really knew they did, but he knew how to beat the scripts – where to find the weak spots. And when he struck gold, up on the site it went.

Johnny was liberating the system for the downtrodden: the people who actually lived in the same town as their bank and shouldn’t be paying national rate numbers. The bundled-mobile-minutes crowd, who were buggered if they were going to pay twice for the same call.

And so it went. Until the day the crushing pain gripped his chest. Late nights, junk food, way too much coffee – his heart was giving out. He reached for the phone. The local health practice’s 0870 number… nah, he had the ‘real’ one. – Sure, get here asap, they said. The ambulance came. On the trolley now, doctors coming and going. A bit blurry. Fading, fading. A machine – wires… something, something wrong. Shaking heads. Dark, dark, dark.

The back-up defibrillator had failed. Wouldn’t normally have been used, but the real one had gone away for repair. In the old days, when the budget allowed, they’d have got the engineer on site. But things were pared to the bone now, and there was a 24-hour turnaround contract.

Of course, the budget shortfall hadn’t been helped by the drop in all the little sources of income for the health centre. Those guys who’d found an inconsistency in the boundary records for the car park, and had clawed back all those parking charges. Oh, and the strange drop in the margin on the 08— numbers. Some clever arses had found out the local numbers and put them on the internet.

At the edge of every system, it’s the tiniest differences that swing things. Johnny had just slipped, irretrievably, over the edge. 

The dark side of citizen empowerment (Part 1)

Game Theory fascinates me. How one’s own choices interact with those of others – sometimes with quite perverse results. This isn’t the place to give an entire take on the theory; but let’s just work with one of the core concepts: cooperation and defection.

Cooperators work the way the system says they should work. Defectors don’t play by the rules. Cooperators follow conventions, patterns, structures. Defectors deliberately ride roughshod through them. Typically, the Defector’s short-term gain from ‘cheating’ can be shown – at least in theory – to be completely unsustainable. Very often it’s possible to create a sort of morality message which shows why the rules are the way they are. And yet Defectors very often do very well…

An example: heading east on the M40, about two miles before the M25 junction you notice something strange. The nearside (~slow) lane is a queue of very slow-moving cars. The other three lanes are moving rapidly. You want to join the M25. If you Cooperate, you pull over to the far left, join the queue and just take your turn. If you Defect, you listen to a dark voice in your ear… “Go on my son, just hang in there in Lane 2, or even 3. There’s always a gap, easily enough to slip in to. And if there isn’t a gap, just force yerself in, a flash of the lights, pick on a nervous-looking lady, away you go…”

And from years of experience of this route, you know that the gap is always there. So you Defect: you wait until the last minute and carry out what is known in traffic-management-land as a ‘swoop’. And you always do better than if you’d sat in the two mile queue.

Highways designers think up all sorts of crafty schemes to try and stop this (seen those strange ‘diamond’ lane dividers?) but no more detail needed on this example: the lesson here is, cheat and prosper.

The crowd usually cry out at this point “Ah, but if everybody did that, there would be total chaos and everybody would be held up even more. There’d be crashes, and rude gestures, and… erm… it’s just not… right!”

So there’s clearly more to Defecting than just having a whole load of empirical evidence that there’s always big gaps between 400 and 100 yards from the point of no return before the M25 turn-off. You have to be a bit of a git as well.

Aww, I’m kidding. It’s not always called gittishness. Sometimes it’s called “being a free spirit”, sometimes “playing your own game” and sometimes “righteous warrior against systems set up to subjugate the individual”.

Now go and have a look at saynoto0870.com. Have a think about Cooperation and Defection in the light of its wonderful, enlightened, citizen-centric proposition. And we’ll be back here shortly with a fable to drum home the point…