Kindly cogs in unpleasant machines

Some of the most villified companies are poorly regarded because of the way they treat their own customers. Think about people complaining about AT&T’s service in New York City or people put on hold for hours by their electric company during a power disruption. Instead of treating these problems as real, telephone and electrical companies treat them as items in a queue to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

And thus, systems are set up that put a premium on throughput. Rewards are given to those who prevent customers from taking the time of the real experts who might fix a problem. Glib voice menus serve as a layer of indirection before you even reach a human. Service disruptions often bear a message tantamount to saying “we know we are not giving you the service we promised, buzz off and wait until we manage to fix it.”

Despite all this, sometimes you come upon a real jewel. Someone who really helps you, who cares about what’s going on. That special person who doesn’t care so much about their average call time, but who takes the time to get _you_ to a happy place.

These are good actors working within a rotten system; kindly cogs in a vicious machine. I could call up AT&T and talk to any number of nice, well-meaning and empathetic people. Sometimes they are empowered and can fix the problem I face. Just as frequently, they want to help but the system they operate in prevents them from doing so, either because it would take too much time or because it is deemed too expensive to put the decision in the hands of those answering the phones.

When I describe them as cogs, it’s almost literal. Though manufacturing in the US is in serious decline, manufacturing-style management is not. Managers routinely and without irony describe people they might hire as “resources” that they can “utilize”. If there were a machine that could pop out customers whose problems had been resolved, managers would “utilize” those “resources” in the same way. Indeed, the majority of information systems attempt to do just this.

My point is that we regard a company like AT&T, Microsoft, Walmart, or Coca-Cola as a homogenous thing with its own will, priorities, and personality. But companies aren’t homogenous, because people aren’t.

Here’s to those kindly cogs. Thanks for making our interactions with these unpleasant behemoths just a little less daunting.

4 thoughts on “Kindly cogs in unpleasant machines

  1. Isn’t the real problem the design of the machine, rather than the technique? The Salvation Army, for example, organizes the process of directing charitable resources to those in need with ruthless efficiency. The failure is a moral one, in the decision making processes of those who purposefully designed the system to provide less than it reasonably could just to pocket the difference. Seeking to build a durable, repeatable and predictable process to govern the actions of a group is not, in itself, wrong. Law is not inherently evil.

  2. Absolutely, the crux of the problem for the customer is that some executive has decided that customer service is important enough to put people to work, but not important enough to put the money towards helping them do a good job.

  3. And indeed, law is not inherently evil. But, building processes and rules is very tricky business. I think I could spend a few years heads-down in macroeconomics and still come away pessimistic that one can construct a system that benefits most parties in the long-term without allowing exploitation by those interested in the short-term.

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