Drop the Dead Donkey

Are we deceiving ourselves over technology? Does what it promise actually work all the time rather than some of the time? By this I mean 99.999% rather than 95% of the time.

I’m in danger of becoming a secret Luddite. I’m starting to envy the few societies that remain firmly off-line; whose notion of advanced telecommunications is ownership of a hollowed-out coconut, a piece of string and two tin cans.

Last week, you may recall my taking a shot at BT for wasting my time and that of anyone else by not publishing their new dial-up Internet number on their website. The number is of course 0808 9933163 but BT executives clearly don’t read CW360 because as I write this the access number on their website is clearly 0808 993 3024, which is equally clearly wrong and they have been told. Perhaps they just don’t care and certainly, the mailbag is flooded by other readers sharing their own special ‘BT Moments’.

Then there’s Barclays Bank, my own and an on-line service I rely on. After forty-five minutes this morning attempting to access my bank account, which in turn continued to hang and drop out, I called Barclays Helpline. The very pleasant young lady on the phone told me that the system, which has “Four Legs”, has been” up and down” all week and is only working on two legs (Servers?) at the moment. This rather explains why the system keeps timing out but doesn’t explain why Barclays hasn’t bothered to put up a simple “We are experiencing difficulties with the service” message on the Home Page?

Incidentally Barclays, why do you always deny the problem first and then finally concede to Computer Weekly that there is one and I'm the only person who has noticed it?

I’ve commented before that my experience of IT in both the public and private sector is broadly reflective of a mass ‘plate-spinning’ exercise. Responsibility appears to exist vaguely with “The System” and one plate wobbles, unless the fix is almost instantaneous, the other start to crash to the ground in a slow and almost predictable ripple effect.

TV advertising constantly offers us the message that ‘e’ solves everything. It’s a magic dot. that takes a BT or a Barclays Bank or a government and transforms it into a slick and efficient virtual business, managed by quietly humming racks of machines instead of people. When however, things go wrong, the efficiencies of the system, which invariably involve running with a skeleton staff, mean that all the effort is focused on attempting to fix the problem and little if any effort is directed towards the end-user or customer. Because the Internet serves as a wall between the customer and the service provider, there’s a strong temptation to hide behind it when things go wrong, rather than confront the urgency of a customer service problem directly, as you have to do in the real world.

Far too much attention and effort is being directed towards the system(s) and far too little thought is being given towards the customer relationship element of an increasingly on-line society. Some business do of course have this problem solved but many more do not and show no real evidence of thinking about the customer element or experience when things go wrong. It’s a question of responsibility and where a company will have a nominated “First Aider”; it’s highly unlikely that it will have tasked anyone with any responsibility for dealing with the customer side of the equation when critical systems fail.

An eBusiness is much more than machines and expensive software, it’s a completely different commercial philosophy, which should, in theory, put the customer experience at the front of any strategy and not relegate him to the status of an expensive and under-resourced inconvenience. In the constant drive towards profitability, there’s a real danger of society embracing a “lose a person buy a cheap box” approach to business and when you lose people, you lose the useful features of initiative and responsibility with go with them.

Big companies will frequently talk a great deal about on-line customer relationship management and experience but talk is cheap and the evidence suggests that talking about the challenge is one way of avoiding doing little or anything about it when systems or procedures fail.

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