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CAMBRIDGE LETTER

Blaming it on the system

BILL KIRKMAN

While communication and information systems have advanced beyond recognition, they are still no substitute for common sense and judgement in certain contexts.


The people in charge of these corporations have allowed systems to be established which remove from staff the need to make decisions… and take responsibility.


Fifty years ago, for the first time, people were able to telephone other parts of the United Kingdom by the so-called trunk call, without going through an operator. To mark this major innovation, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh telephoned the Queen, and a somewhat stilted conversation was recorded for posterity.

For younger people, communicating instantly by mobile phone and by email, the huge change which the introduction of trunk calls brought about is scarcely credible. Yet, it undoubtedly transformed communication, and transformed it for the better.

To be more precise, what it changed for the better was the means of communication, and during the past half century there have been many more developments which have totally transformed the way in which we are able to communicate, and provide connections between different pieces of information. What has not always improved is the way in which people use these new technologies. Many organisations have allowed technology to displace judgment, to the point where communication with customers has actually got much worse than it used to be.

Service redefined

I have recently been battling against three examples of this. The first battle was with one of the UK’s major telephone service providers. I changed my arrangement with them and received a confirmatory letter which was confusing about the details. As, bizarrely for a telephone service provider, this firm does not give telephone numbers on its letters, I wrote asking for an explanation in writing. There ensued three months of frustration, ended only when I emailed the chief executive, pointing out, in exasperation, that the title “Customer Service Director” held by the person who had failed to answer my query was clearly an oxymoron.

The other two examples were with — different — major banks, in each case when charities with which I am associated needed to change signatories to cheques on long established accounts. One bank claimed that the honorary secretary’s name was not in the system. When I pointed out that the person concerned had been a signatory for several years, that I had actually seen her name on the bank’s computer when I called in to arrange the change of mandate, and that the bank had been regularly accepting cheques bearing her signature, I was met with a flat assertion that nothing could be done. The other bank informed the charity that my name was not on their system although, similarly, I have been a signatory for five years. A telephone call to the appropriate department produced, once again, an assertion that my name was not in the system — and a question, repeated twice, whether I was Mr. Kirkman. My reply, with heavy sarcasm, that I had not changed my identity since the call began produced not a glimmer of reaction. A chuckle would at least have made me think that, just possibly, the person to whom I was speaking was a sentient human being.

In all these cases, of course, the problem is human. “The system says” is a nonsensical position to take. Computers do not make mistakes; the people who use them frequently do.

Root cause

The root cause of corporate behaviour of this kind — and as soon as one mentions this kind of experience, pretty well everyone one speaks to proves to have suffered in a similar way — is that the people in charge of these corporations have allowed systems to be established which remove from staff the need to make decisions, use their common sense and intelligence, and take responsibility. It is extraordinary that the people at the top do not realise that staff should be taught to recognise that when a customer points out that the information coming up on “the system” is wrong, it is sensible to check the claim rather than assuming that “the system” cannot be wrong, but the customer must be.

The technological advances of the past half century have made it possible to handle information in ways that previously were out of the question. Some organisations — my local district council, to take one example — use this possibility well, and employ staff who deal intelligently with questions and requests for information.

It cannot be the case that the people in charge of the large corporations which make such a mess of their relations with customers are all lacking in intelligence. What is clearly the case is that too many of them have allowed themselves to become obsessed with the belief that systems are a substitute for thought and judgment rather than a means of applying them more effectively.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

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