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The Bewilderment Brew – how technology, privatisation and outsourcing combined can make life hard for customers

Sad as it may sound, some of the funniest conversations I’ve had recently have been about car parking at our local station in Suffolk ‘Have you found a way of paying yet ?’ we ask each other.  One man has sent a ‘see-you-in court’ letter to National Car Parks (NCP) saying it was impossible to pay. The local hairdresser was about to miss her train when she was helped by a fellow traveller. I was defeated by all three options NCP’s notice offered me. First I could pay at the ticket machine. I scoured the car park. No ticket machine. Secondly I could ring up: I did, and an automated message asked me for a PIN number I didn’t have. Third, I could download their App. I tried, but no combination of mobile number and password worked. I tried ringing NCP. The Philippines-based call centre suggested I contact Greater Anglia, the train operator. I tried the ‘chat’ service. To me ‘chat’ suggests dialogue but this was no dialogue. It was no more than a list of frequently asked questions none of which were relevant to me. Before my next trip I set up a pre-payment account with NCP, only to discover that my local station car park wasn’t on their list. My (uncomplimentary) review on Trustpilot finally unlocked an answer. I was called by a concerned  NCP operations manager. I learned that in spite of the NCP logo on the signs ours is a ‘Greater Anglia car park operated by NCP’. And the ticket machine wasn’t  in the car park. It was the station ticket machine. Musician Pete Paphides tweeted  about his 84 year-old father Chris. Arriving for a memorial service, Chris discovered that he could now only park if he paid by app or used an automated payment line. Neither option worked for him. Rather than miss the service, he left his car and asked Pete to contact the car park operator. He got no answer. A fine arrived in Chris’s post. Soon afterwards Chris died. Pete was then left to navigate the complex administration involved in trying to have the penalty annulled. His exasperated tweets went viral and caught a national nerve. . Writing about this in the Daily Mail former Pensions Minister Baroness Altman pointed out that three million people were ‘offline’ — meaning they did not access the internet — more than two million of them aged 70-plus. ‘Even among mobile phone users, ten per cent don’t own a smartphone, denying them the capacity to download the ‘apps’ with which so many companies seem to be entirely obsessed…A large section of society is left feeling at best marginalised, at worst completely forgotten — not my words, but those of the writer of one of the many letters I receive each month as a result of my work championing the rights of older people’. Here is an opportunity for businesses to  contribute to a fairer society. And it goes wider than digital exclusion. The bewilderment brew seems to have three key ingredients. Technology As customers we are finding that technology – that has the potential to make businesses more accessible – has been used to cut costs and hide from customers. For all its faults, I see Amazon as a rare exception: it is always possible for an Amazon customer to talk to a human being .  Privatisation  I have lived through the privatisation decades. I remember the early positives of privatisation: BA  went through a massive ‘Putting Customers First’ programme initiated by CEO Colin Marshall. Yet privatisation can swiftly lead to cost-cutting and worsening quality. On a recent trip to Asia I flew (state-owned) Finnair and changed at (state-owned) Helsinki airport. Finnair customer service was in a different league to privatised BA’s. Privatised Heathrow functions adequately but its most visible priority is not so much satisfying customers as  helping retailers sell to them. Helsinki offers a traveller’s  welcome. Heathrow radiates the hard sell. Outsourcing  As a judge on Unipart’ s internal customer service awards I witness seamless outsourcing where the partners work together to delight the client. By contrast the car parking horror stories involve lazy outsourcing where little or no thought is given to designing a seamless experience for customers. Instead customers encounter separate, compartmentalised operations. There seems to have been little effort made to think the experience through from the perspective of the user. A neighbour in Suffolk,  whose health prevents her from driving,  regularly takes her bike on the train. When the train company withdraws its service because of engineering works, it outsources the route to bus companies which accept no responsibility for carrying bikes! On a recent occasion she was abandoned on the road 50 miles from home after a train-replacement bus driver refused to take her bike. One positive exception to this pattern is the service offered by the combined rail companies. The information, booking and refund service is outsourced to India and is staffed by people who know the UK rail network and its timetables and give a prompt and excellent service. It can be done! Here are my questions for boards: 1). Do you believe,  as I do,  that businesses exist to serve human purposes and owe a duty to make themselves accessible to all their users, rather than disadvantaging the less sophisticated? 2)  If you do, have you reviewed your current interaction with customers in that light? 3) Do you as board members get out and engage with the reality of the customer experience; to report back on what that experience made them feel; and to define what, ideally, you would like them to feel?


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