How can I say such things? Aren't foreigners flocking (SARS aside) to our shores? Yes, we're friendly alright, preternaturally so compared to most Western countries, but as soon as the interaction becomes a transaction, something odd happens.
Egalitarianism I would defend to, well, not quite the death but at least to the point of a serious headache; but why does service have to become begrudged servility? Do we still think of waiters as jobbing students or scriptwriters-in-waiting, and if so, why? The reality is, tourists come for our wilderness, not our willingness to serve them well. And my guess as to why owes something to our:
- misplaced pride
- she'll-be-right attitude to minor problems
- poor complaining skills when we're being served badly
- insecurity about tipping
- inability to take criticism well.
Combine a few of these and you've got the tourism marketing plan for a go-ahead south Pacific nation.
A few weeks back I wrote about a problem I had with a bank; a problem I solved by closing my account. It wasn't till I'd written that piece that I realised I'd kept an account with the firm for 22 years. (Caution: slow learner on board.) But in reality it's not just one bank; it's all of them, the odd branch full of happy paper-shufflers notwithstanding.
And banks aren't alone. If I attempted to list even a fraction of the retail service slights I have suffered over just the past few years I would have you turning the page at the next full stop. You know what I mean, though: promises to call about a part on one day and not hearing till a week later; banks that have a national 0800 number but where the call centre has no access to branches' notes on customers; emails to distributors about products responded to a week later or not at all. Note that the first is just bog-standard offline stuff, the second involves technology, and the third uses -- or rather doesn't use -- the internet.
Governments are an interesting case, being in the vanguard of online public service. I have no doubt that while some parts of government are genuinely interested in using the internet to improve access and response, others just use it as another barrier. A colleague who sent an email to an embassy found it was not returned any faster than a letter or fax. Clearly governments are in the business of limiting some services, like benefits and easy immigration, but the internet is proving ideal for entertaining our delusions of "net-time" fulfilment while exploiting our built-in expectations of disappointment. With online service we hope for fast but secretly expect slow. It's a permanent holding pattern, created by new technology and glimpses of instantaneous gratification but held back by a glacial change in service attitudes.
As for the private sector, online's about saving money as much as offering a new, swifter sales channel, web self service being the cheapest method of all. As long as you don't condemn users to the purgatory of the endless feedback loop.
I doubt we're alone in the world in watching poor service sinking into the wet cyber-quicksand, but I believe we are unique in our ambivalence to serving people well, with a smile and without looking for a handout. I have no easy answers. Those of you who have been to the US know the double-edged flick-knife that is tipping, and anybody who thinks cutting the wages of waiters here and encouraging gratuities will improve service is kidding themselves.
There are technological flickers of hope. Apart from the customer management and activity-monitoring suites, or building integration links and web services between your isolated data systems, there are ones that promise to understand your pain as a consumer. I got an email from a Virginia-based outfit called Cysive. This catchily-named company aims to create "a positive, unified front-end interface for customers that's accessible using any communication channel or device", say its publicists. Cysive says customer service reps will instantly know if you've tried to get information off the website or log on to the voice automation system. Sounds interesting, huh? Well, sure, if it was priced for this market and not at $US75,000 per CPU (minimum four CPUs).
Companies which vigorously promote their online service presence and don't deliver are, perhaps unwittingly, adding to the simmering anger out there. Or maybe it's just mine.
Broatch, Computerworld's deputy editor, would love to hear of alternative worlds in which online customers are treated well.