If you care about your customers

This is just a little thing. It’s not even a digital thing.

It’s a real-life thing.

You want your customer to send you something. Payment maybe? Or a returned product? Or a nice, complimentary letter about how customer-focused you are?

And you give them an address that looks like this:

Kingston Technology Europe Limited
Kingston Court
Brooklands Close
Sunbury on Thames
Middlesex, TW16 7EP
United Kingdom

Now, we may know in the rational bit of our heads that there is a ton of redundant information here. Stuff that whether included or omitted will have absolutely no bearing on whether the damn thing arrives where it should. (I just love that “Limited”.)

But being the dutiful, well-trained creatures that we are, we write it all out, don’t we? (I confess, I do.) Cramping letters into the available space, with teacher’s voice in our head telling us that if the package goes astray, and we hadn’t put hyphens in the right place (or worse, omitted them as in the Sunbury example above) then we had only ourselves to blame?

But if you know (or could establish with a little bit of effort) that stuff sent to:

Brooklands Close
TW16 7EP

would get there just as effectively, then why wouldn’t you? Really?

That’s 10 of 16 character strings removed. 63%.

OK, you can keep the UK if you’re really not sure where something will be sent from. But you probably know, don’t you?

A little more thought. It’s the small things. Remember that stuff about “unstructured conversations”? The closer you can get to an easy vernacular, the more people are going to like you. And that’s going to make you more profitable.

Update: later the same day…

Different issue, different company.

“Hi, thanks for calling. Can I have your membership number?”

–erm, sorry, I haven’t got it anywhere to hand.

“Ooh, that’s ok, just give me your postcode, date of birth and first line of your address”

–ok. (and I do)

“Right you are: your membership number is AB123456789. Please can you use that next time you call us?”

–why? it seemed much more straightforward for me just to tell you things I always know, like my date of birth and address.

“Ah well you see, it’s easier for us you see if you tell us your membership number [SHE ACTUALLY SAID THIS] that way we don’t have to go looking up addresses and dates of birth and so on, you see. It’s…quicker.”

–is it? is it really? what you did seemed pretty fast.

“Thank you Mr Clarke. Now, why did you call us?”

–hang on just a moment though. imagine I had called you and given you my membership number, which I’d either had to memorise, write down somewhere, or look up in a big pile of papers under my desk while on the call to you. imagine I’d done that.


–would you need to ask me anything else? I mean, ask me any other information about me? you know, to make sure you were talking to the right person and all that.

“Erm, yes”

–what would you need to ask me?

“Can we just get on with-”

–no, I’m sorry, we can’t. What else would you ask me?

[tetchy voice] “Do you want me to help you or not?”

–c’mon, get it over with

[tiny voice] “Address and date of birth”

–thank you

“You’re welcome”

Preaching to the unconverted

I’ve been getting this blogging thing all wrong. Three years of grinding out thoughts about public services and technology, generally pointed towards an audience already versed in the issues, have all been for nothing.

I’ve been missing the real audience. The one that truly needs to understand more about this stuff.

A spirited discussion on Tuesday with a doughty advocate for public transparency convinced me that I need a change of approach.

Our debate arose from his astonishment that it wasn’t possible for “government” to say at any one time how many people it employed. Despite this being an “obvious” factual issue in his eyes, no amount of requests seemed to be able to produce a meaningful answer.

My response “well, it’s not really a meaningful question” – didn’t go down too well. Even having navigated the complexities of what “being employed” might mean, with all its colour and texture of vacant posts, secondments, part-funded posts, long-term absentees and part-timers, I felt there were still problems with the concept of such a broad question.

If asked by an economist with a specialism in operational research or organisational productivity, I could possibly, possibly see some sort of tangible purpose to a question, but more likely a version targeted at a more specific organisation or sector than just “all of government”. Possibly.

I know this is heresy: information should be free, yadayadayada, and the motivation of the questioner unimportant. But open your mind just for a moment to the possibility that context may have some value, in light of what came next in our debate.

The moment when I realised I’d got all my public service technology blogging pointing in completely the wrong direction was when my interlocutor said “you technical guys – you can sort all this out – surely the systems know how many people are on each payroll? Just add them up every night. You could if you wanted to.”

Here was an acclaimed expert in transparency of information, someone who’d spent much of his professional life pursuing the dark corners of government’s secrecy and intransigence. And he thought that a few lines of code and a dictat to “just f-ing report it daily” would meet this requirement.

(A spurious requirement, I’d say, as the journalist asking the question would be likely to write the same story whatever the actual number they got in response to their question. Any Big Number would do the job – and hey, if no meaningful answer came forth, that would be an even better story. “How stupid are they! They don’t even know…” Win, whichever way you look at it.)

I blame the Daily Mail, of course (shorthand for any form of lazy, populist, press). As with most difficult public policy issues, from asylum seekers to disability claimants to identity, there’s always an easy, quick answer that will get heads nodding in the pub and taxi.

But which is almost always utterly, hopelessly, WRONG. Who wouldn’t like an easy answer to a hard question? To avoid any deeper thinking about the subject. Or acknowledgement of history, personal responsibility or sense of others? To gloss past the difficulties that arise when something that looks (from a huge distance) a tiny bit like a simple, familiar, backyard activity is attempted on a scale of tens of millions of people and transactions.

So here’s the plan: a post, or small series of posts, called “The Daily Mail Reader’s Guide to Public Services Technology”.

Taking some of the favourite old chestnuts (Why can’t they count X? Surely if everyone just had one ID number? Why so many different systems essentially doing the same job?) and really, anything else that begins with: “I don’t see why they can’t just…”

And writing them up in language that DM folk may identify with. Analogies from golf clubs, caravan parks, tea shops. You get the drift.

I’ll make a start, but do please add your suggestions here for topics that you’d like to see given the treatment.