Image by Daniel Wilder via Flickr
I often speak at conferences, workshops and things and rarely miss the opportunity to laud Emirates Airline, typically using it as an example of advocacy (the fourth step in communication, wake up at the back). I advocate Emirates passionately - it has long been my airline of strong preference.
Perhaps interestingly, EK has my loyalty despite its customer loyalty scheme, Skywards, rather than because of it. For some reason Skywards always manages to make me feel like a beggar. I will never forget my first attempt to redeem airmiles, which resulted in me being thrown out of the business class queue at QAIA in Jordan and told to queue in economy (the upgrade they had confirmed to me wasn't on the system), turning to find one of my clients standing behind me and witness to my seeming pathetic attempt to scab an upgrade I wasn't entitled to. And I will never forgive them for the fact that we should have been checking into Emirates' rather lavish and wonderful Al Maha desert resort this afternoon for Sarah's birthday, but will be going out to dinner instead.
Skywards ticks all the right boxes - it's got a funky website, has lots of 'rewards' and is pleasingly automated - to the point where it's not really a hassle and can even provide the occasional pleasant surprise.Similarly, it can also let you down totally and really screw things up. The latter is a shame, but it's made even worse by the high levels of automation that Skywards employs. When the going gets tough, you get re-intermediated.
I have often wittered on about dis-intermediation, the phenomenon whereby technology removes the middle man and gives us direct access to the stuff we want. It's something I have come to think of as an empowering process - I can research and book my own holiday online, for instance, rather than depending on a travel agent. Similarly, you can buy music online rather than have to go to a shop and buy a CD.
Dis-intermediation is not only empowering for the end user, it also cuts out 'gatekeepers' - the people who sit in the middle and make choices for us - it's the threat hanging over the heads of record companies, publishers and newspaper proprietors. The democratisation of consumer choice, Internet advocates will queue up to tell you, is a positive benefit of technology.
But technology has introduced a new class of intermediary: the call centre. The thinking goes something like this: "Our staff are beings of pure energy who have jobs to do and can't be constantly interrupted by base, carbon based life-forms. Let's outsource talking to our customers and then our people can get on with doing useful things that make us money."
This is why you can't actually speak to anyone who works in your bank's branch anymore, why a call to your London telco routes you to Bangalore and why someone sitting in front of a terminal in Cairo is looking through your credit card statement 'to try and help you resolve this, sir'. These are the re-intermediators, the new middlemen.
So when Skywards fails to make the booking at its Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa despite the failure being clearly and wholly on their part, the people responsible for the booking suddenly fail to respond to emails. Your only recourse is to the call centre, which is staffed by people that can't actually do anything, they can only route requests over the system. They can tell you that they're sorry (how awful, to have to be constantly sorry for others' mistakes) but they can't actually let you talk to anyone responsible. They're the new front line troops, the poor saps that have to sit in a soulless room filled with other operators, being abused by irate people while the incompetent buffoons who are screwing things up never even hear the howls of agony from frustrated, unhappy customers and obviously feel completely free to totally ignore any other form of communication.
The technology that is empowering us is also disempowering us, taking away our choices and our right to expect people executing transactions on our behalf to respond to us and for them to take some sort of responsibility for their actions. And while automating customer service is no bad thing 98% of the time, there surely has to be a better way of dealing with the 2% of instances where rote, scripts and process will not do the job. It's one of the reasons why companies using Twitter as a customer service tool are finding they are met with an initial wave of frustrated customers and then a collective sigh of relief followed by cheering. We just need someone to take some sort of responsibility and fix the mess that's making us unhappy.
We're all missing a human to talk to.