Notebook

The computer is always right

Humans are being let down by impossibly complex IT systems (Richard Pohle/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

When did customer service in this country become so unspeakably bad? I only ask because we’ve recently moved house – out to the suburbs: I’m in denial about that, even if our wisteria makes it very clear – and we have had to deal with more companies, and their Byzantine departments, than ever before. They have all been atrocious. In fact, I think the experience has revealed something important about the culture of modern Britain. (I’m also aware that this column, like the wisteria, is proof that I’ve gone suburban.)

Without getting bogged down in detail, partly because some of these problems remain unfixed, here are three examples. First, the popular London company that we got to do the “end of tenancy” clean at our old flat. They did it shoddily, despite the £180 bill. I would have done a better job myself, and I’m not exactly Mary Poppins. Secondly, the respectable gas company that came to rescue us when we discovered on day one, in an awful first-home cliché, that our boiler was kaput. They visited three times, but left us without hot water for nine days, bathing with a kettle and a bucket.

Lastly, there was the pukka supermarket that was supposed to deliver a wardrobe and chest of drawers, so that we don’t have to go on living out of cardboard boxes. They turned up last Saturday afternoon for an appointment we had booked two weeks earlier. “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” said the van driver. “The bad news, please,” said my wife, who by then had given up on optimism. “There’s been a leak in the van,” he said. “All the furniture is water damaged and we’ll have to rearrange.” There wasn’t any good news.

Throughout all this, lots of the people that we talked to were perfectly nice: the cleaners, the call centre staff, the van driver, the garrulous but useless boiler men. More often than not, however, those human beings were let down by the complex IT systems they had to navigate. No matter what we asked for, or what they personally wanted to do to help us, it was “computer says no”, over and over again.

“No, I’m sorry but our next delivery date is now September 16. That’s all I’ve got on the screen in front of me.”

“No, there’s no engineer in your area until after the bank holiday weekend.”

“No, I’m afraid you have not filled in the complaint form correctly, and you have now missed the deadline.”

“No, I’m afraid I can’t help you with that, you’ll have to call our retail team on Monday.”

We were fighting a losing battle with Britain’s “computer says no” culture.The problem with that culture is that it completely absolves the individual of responsibility, even if they are a decent person and want to do the right thing. The company’s policy, on the screen in front of them, says they can only do X if the problem is Y. If the problem is Z, you are stuffed. It’s no single person’s fault that you have had an awful experience. It’s just the way the system works. I had no idea buying a chest of drawers could become so Kafkaesque.

Something deeper is going on here. The “computer says no” culture is defeating a culture of service. Companies and their employees don’t see themselves as serving us any more; their ways of working – no doubt informed by the latest thinking from management consultants and accountants – have dehumanised every interaction and decision. You see it in the public sector too: in the NHS, where nurses can see patients’ families, for instance, as an irritation; and in Whitehall, where the phrase “public servant” has become detached from its meaning.

………….

It doesn’t have to be this way. One of the things I love about working in journalism is the old-fashioned reverence for the customer – you, the reader. At the Telegraph, I remember, if a reader rang up, it didn’t matter if taking the call meant missing an important meeting. You answered whatever enquiry they had; it was your job to make sure it was seen to. The same goes at the Spectator.

There is something Christian, I think, in a real culture of service, which is why Catholic workers and managers should at least aim for it. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” Jesus told his disciples. These days, one suspects if he had wanted to wash their feet, he would have had to get a full medical history from each of them, complete a health and safety questionnaire online, and book three weeks in advance.

Will Heaven is managing editor of The Spectator