Whatever Happened to Accountability In Customer Service?

By Haje Jan Kamps on at

It is with agonising introspection that I realise that this post makes me sound like one of the grumpy-old-man get-off-my-lawn brigade, but, as they said so eloquently in an ancient Monty Python sketch -- I wish to register a complaint.

The past few months, I appear to have done a rather lot of grouchy letter-writing. I appear to have ongoing feuds with the Home Office, PayPal, Virgin Media, and half a dozen other organisations. Part of it, perhaps, is that I've started a blog on customer service, and that instead of doing my typical thing of stewing away in anger, I'll walk the extra mile, and it's possible that I'm picking more fights than I normally would in the name of research.

One of the things I've realised is that when you're facing a lot of customer service organisations, there's no expectation of accountability at any step along the way. Whenever we call British Telecom, Three, British Gas, or, indeed, any number of other big organisations, we've grown to accept that the drones we speak to are dispensable call-centre operatives who know how to look up things in a script, and who subsequently will rattle through their script, in an attempt to get you off the phone as quickly as possible.

My father-in-law has taken an extreme response. Whenever he speaks to a customer support fellow, his immediate first question is "Steve? Is that really your name, Steve? You sound like you may be a Mandeep or a Sanjeev". Racist? Perhaps a little bit, but more often than not, he'll learn that the gentleman with the remarkably Indian-sounding accent has, indeed, been stripped of his personality to the point that they've taken his name away, in the hope that a customer will be fooled into thinking that [English-sounding name], who can see from your customer information that you are based in [city in England], can slyly inform you that he's a big fan of [city in England's biggest football team], and that he really hopes that [player on that team who was recently injured] will have a rapid recovery, so he can play in [upcoming game against arch-rival].

Are we fooled? Of course not.

In film-making, there's a term called the 'uncanny valley'. The idea is that as human features become more and more lifelike, they eventually become 'very close but not quite right', which causes a lot more discomfort to the viewer than a perfectly human character, or a completely unrealistic character. Take Toy Story, for example: Woody is 'humanoid', in that he has human skin colour, walks on two legs, and speaks. When he comes to life, we don't for a moment doubt that he is a doll who has come to life. The problem occurs more the closer we get to 'realistic'.

I think that's the dangerous point we've reached with a lot of customer support, too -- it seems as if the only reason we're still speaking to humans is that the speech recognition robot humans they'd wish they could replace their operators with aren't up to scratch yet. In the meantime, it appears, if our phone operators cannot have robots (or, god forbid, actually good customer service), they can do the second best thing: Turn humans into robots by giving them new names, fake interests, and consistency.

Is that what we want from our support? I don't know about you, but I certainly don't. If they can't treat me like a 'valued customer' (ha!), at least they can try to treat me as a human being.

In my recent interactions with various customer service operatives, I often realise that I'm likely to complain about this person at some point. Is it because I'm a jerk? Okay, perhaps maybe a little, but more importantly, I believe that customer support and customer service shouldn't be so damn hard.

If you walk into a local shop and have an issue, you talk to the shopkeeper. Will they listen? Of course they will; they recognise you, they know you're a good customer, and they want to keep you. You also have a live line directly into the CEO of the company, and they're going to listen up. In a way, it's irrelevant that the CEO is also the only employee of the company: They are Important Enough To Make A Difference. Or, put differently: They are empowered to fix a problem, and they're accountable for anything that happens in their businesses.

Empowerment (i.e. having the power to actually resolve an issue, rather than having to kick a customer around from department to department until someone can finally be arsed to deal with them) is an important element of customer support. Accountability is, too.

If you think about it, in our society, police officers are a good example of this: They are empowered (they may very well choose to arrest you), and they are in theory held accountable for their actions: If a copper goes for someone with their truncheon, you can write down their name and number, and complain, and hopefully something happens. In order for this accountability bit to be possible, police have to be identifiable. They wear their names on their sleeve, and they have a reference number on their chest. PC Plod, emblazoned with the number 123, is rather easy to track down in case something goes wrong.

Perhaps it isn't fair to compare customer service representatives with people who have the power to bereave you of your freedom, but the core principle is the same: Accountability.

This is why I'm so angry whenever I deal with someone who won't give me their last name.

In my dealings with the Home Office (as was outlined in an earlier article here on Giz UK), I don't have a name at all (EO2 LNC21, if you're reading this, I do hope you'll have a lovely week-end), but I've run into similar issues on the phone with PayPal (hi, Tony in Account Limitations) and Andrew the ticket-seller at the First Great Western office at Paddington.

In all three instances, I feel like I have grounds to complain, because I've had mind-bogglingly sub-standard treatment from all of these people. But, if you want to make a complaint (it's all part of the accountability part of this, after all), you need to know who you are complaining about.

In the case of Andrew, it was a particularly unpleasant interaction. In summary: the ticket machine at Paddington didn't work; I wasn't able to pick up my ticket in time, and I missed my train to Bristol one lovely Thursday. So, I went to the ticket office and asked to have the tickets replaced, but he said I was out of luck. Whether I was in the wrong or not (I believe I wasn't; he thinks I was), is by the by, but I decided that I would make a complaint.

I read his name-badge, and asked him what his last name was. "We don't do last names." he said. Hmm. "May I have your employee number, then?" I said. "We don't do those either", he said. I asked him how I could complain without knowing his name. Of course, Andrew did have a distinguishing feature (the poor man is grossly, if not morbidly, obese), but I didn't particularly want to send a letter to his manager referring to him as "Fat Andrew" -- that, really, isn't a great way to ingratiate yourself with someone who you are trying to make a complaint to.

So, freshly out of options, I fished my iPhone out of my pocket, and tried to take a photograph of him. "NO PICTURES", he shouted, and tried to cover his face, much in the style of a convicted criminal outside a courtroom. I took another picture. "You can't do that! I'll have you arrested!" he shouted. "SECURITY!!". Then he pulled down the blind in front of his ticket sales booth, and that was the end of the interaction.

Let's be gracious and ignore the complete ludicracy of suggesting I could be arrested for taking a photograph -- as an avid hobby photographer, I'm quite aware of the laws and regulations surrounding photography. At the very worst, First Great Western's private security firm could have me escorted out of the ticket office for taking photos on private land, but even then they'd be on rocky ground.

Legal shenanigans aside, the real reason I was upset is the complete lack of accountability: If someone is not accountable, what is their incentive to do a half-decent job? If you are Drone with Serial Number EO2 LNC21, how do you expect me to treat you as a human being? Human beings have empathy, names, and emotions -- not serial numbers and layers of obscurity.

Of course, I completely understand why some people take their privacy seriously. The Home Office, to take an example, probably have made a lot of enemies over the years, and I wouldn't want any of their staff to be assaulted on or off duty; if having a policy of obscuring the names of the case workers or customer service representatives means that you keep your staff safe, then perhaps I can see the motivation. Nonetheless, I'd hazard a guess that most police officers make a lot more enemies over the course of their careers, and somehow they are held fully accountable with name, rank, and serial number.

One potential solution would be that everybody operates with a fake last name. If Andrew at Paddington had said "Oh, if you want to make a complaint, here's the complaint procedure flyer, and my last name is Smith", I would have been perfectly happy. Andrew Smith -- at least now I have a way of identifying him. I don't even particularly care if that's his real last name or not -- as long as the manager I write my letter to knows who I mean when I mention Andrew Smith, I'm happy.

Perhaps having a nom de plume -- a pseudonym used at work -- is a workable solution, where everybody wins. I get my last name when I'm complaining about Tony at PayPal. Tony 'Johnson' gets to keep his anonymity. We get the accountability the system needs, without compromising anybody's security. Everybody is happy, right?

Perhaps that is true at a practical level.

On a philosophical level, I'll leave you with this thought: What the hell are we doing, living in a society where giving out a false name seems, for even a moment, like an acceptable solution?

Haje Jan Kamps is a prolific photography blogger who has written a small stack of books about photography. He also launched the Triggertrap camera trigger and has been known to travel the world a bit. If you’re of the tweeting kind, try him on @Photocritic!

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Image Credit: Customer service from Shutterstock