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Alien Nation

by Zettel 

Posted: 31 January 2005
Word Count: 1441

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The Americans call it 'Blood-Pressure Marketing'. We still call it Customer Service. Either way, it is bad for the physiological, psychological, even political life of the nation as the conflation of politics with business, continues apace. The Millennium marked the death of ideology in practical politics, and we are being led into the first principle-free, managerialist election in our history by largely principle-free, often unprincipled, politicians. With political debate now transmuted into party marketing, in May we will be offered three heavily marketed political 'brands', which are, as with their commercial counterparts, objectively almost indistinguishable. Perception is all. Political language with complete consistency, is now causal not conceptual. We have substituted the old: "understand this and if you believe in it, vote for it" for the new virtual politics of: "be persuaded of this and you will sell us your vote." Cheap. Society doesn't exist and by having your taxes cut you will, by some magical process, be both a good citizen and actually help the poor and disadvantaged. Newspeak.

Blood-Pressure Marketing: the name may be new to you, but what it describes is part of your daily life. Of course you know by now that you are the most important 'person' in corporate life; its raison d'etre, the object of its 24/7 dedicated attention. Not merely to satisfy, but to delight you, is their guru-driven aim in life. Like all salesmen, they have sacrificed their oxymoronic (OK fellow pedant, I know it isn't, but it should be) corporate soul, to believe the lie to sell it well. The trouble with marketing is that its genius in creating a demand, is disconnected from delivery. This age-old business problem is perfectly mirrored by the new market of politics. Ideology didn't deliver. Principles don't motivate. Let's get GB plc into profit by pandering to self interest, appealing to greed.

This is such bullshit, it is disturbing first that so many intelligent politicians have bought into it; and second, that they are well on the way to selling this tacky product to us.

Yes but 'Blood-Pressure-Marketing'! OK. BPM is the marketing assault composed of all your favourites: voice mail, often circular; letters with no address; web-sites whose idea of 'contact us' is to squeeze the foot of your unique personal problem into the ill-fitting shoe of 'Frequently Asked Questions'. In contrast, Cinderella had it easy; at least it was a real shoe and a real foot. Shoe and foot made contact. This is the world of how many times do I have to repeat my problem, to how many people who are too junior to do anything to solve it? The modern definition of a manager is someone who "doesn't talk to customers". He's obviously too busy persuading you that you are his raison d'etre.

Average scenario: 20 minutes and 2/3 calls to get through to a relevant human being (5 blood pressure points) after all, "our advisers" are always so busy 'delighting' other customers; 10 minutes to explain your problem to Sharon, whose answers don't connect to your questions (5 points); eventually you make her see the point, to which she doesn't have the answer or the authority, so she'll look into it (2 points). Call us back (2 points). Fuck you. OK, we'll call you. Unbearable tension (2 points); will she call back? Well no, because now she's off shift, and has given a half-arsed summary of the problem to her successor who works on the assumption that if it's important you'll get back to him. So you do: ask for Sharon, get Rajik. "Ah yes, my colleague left a note" you discover means "she's a wuss and didn't leave anything I can understand" so you go through it again. It is at this point that your love of 'Groundhog Day' begins to wane, along with the will to live. It helps to know that the longer you are on the 0800 number, the more the company makes from your call (2 points).

You feel your blood pressure scaling new heights. Now at this point, streetwise people do exactly what this system is designed to achieve - they give up and write it off to experience. But not you (or me), now you're really pissed off. You put off your planned holiday to the base camp of Everest; sorting this nonsense out is an even bigger challenge. Bad call. They can always out-wait you: there's more of them than you. The early stages of clinical paranoia now become observable (2 points). Your family and friends are begging you to give up (5 points). You feel the tension, feel a little foolish. Chill man, you're no paranoiac. Throughout this whole saga of course you are assailed by literature from competitors (no address or phone number, just the blessed website from which of course you can get no reply) telling you of course how important you are and that they can rescue you from the nightmare. A particularly sublime twist here is of course to receive literature from the company who has added about 25 points systolic and diastolic, to your sense of ill-being; telling you that they can solve all your problems, usually at half the price they are already charging you. Now I know what a hypertensive attack feels like.

It is said that one of the key steps of 'brainwashing' is that you constantly force the subject to accept as true, that which is contrary to his/her perception, reason, expectation and experience. Modern marketing is the art of lying while appearing to tell the truth. It fits the brainwashing criteria perfectly. It has become so accepted as part of the norm of our culture and an aspect of good citizenship, generating a 'healthy' (sic) economy that to object, even rail against it, is universally dismissed as paranoia, crankiness, or just plain bloody-mindedness. Which recalls the great 1960's definition of paranoia: "someone in possession of all the facts".

The conflation of politics with business is what adds serious weight to these issues. We are no longer patients of the NHS; parents of a schoolchild; citizens protected by the police; or even passengers making an enforced daily journey to work. Lord be praised, we are all customers, possessed of the magic rune of choice. Any problems: ring up customer service. Good Golly Miss Molly….paradise. You'd have to be as ignorant of how the real world works, and of ordinary people's problems, as a bunch of 2nd rate lawyers, to believe this crap. Just so.

No business has ever had to pursue such ethically and humanly complex objectives as a school, a hospital, or even a police force. Failing companies go out of business. OK set up another one. Bankrupt schools, hospitals, police forces? Remember the blood-pressure-raising experience of dealing with existing businesses, then extrapolate: for a DVD player or double-glazing, substitute a hip or a cancer operation; for an insurance policy or an investment, substitute an orderly, aspirational, child-centred school; for 4 choices of how to get from Heathrow to Central London, substitute one reliable way to get to Beccles, Bideford, Broadstairs, Bridgnorth, or Bridlington.

Business as a paradigm of delivery is a joke. It is itself, systematically killing off the customer. At exactly the moment that politicians are desperately seeking to emulate it; it is de-constructing people into a set of functionally defined elements: units of illness demand matched with units of healing supply. The only 'downside' is the loss of the healing benefit of an ongoing doctor/patient relationship. The cross-party political received wisdom of privatisation and so-called business values, represents the abdication of political leadership and the brain-dead application of a failed system to a conceptually inappropriate context.

A Third Way? An organisational structure that recognises that people, human beings, are motivated by pride not profit. That helping fellow human beings, to learn, to get well, to feel safe on the street, or even just to get to work on time; is something to be respected and fully recognised, financially as well as ethically, as at least as important as flogging more double glazing, selling a new insurance policy, or filling seats on a half-empty plane. For those chief executives who apparently can't be motivated unless offered a risk-free extra £1m, no lose deal, that pays off whether they screw up or not, we should say - "bugger off, we'll manage". Better.

The customer is dead? Good. Welcome back the patient, the student, the citizen, even the eternally long-suffering passenger. A nation is a group of people with shared values, beliefs, priorities, and aspiration. Alienate them and whatever you want to call what's left it is not a nation.

Zettel 2004

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Comments by other Members

hsl at 00:13 on 01 February 2005  Report this post
Zettel - An interesting if sightly untidy piece of writing.I wasn't quite sure whether it was a rant, polemic or plea from the heart.Perhaps all three.

Please don't confuse customer service with customer support. The former is an invented term to explain a phenomenon that is apparently all around us but cannot actually be identified.A bit like God, by all accounts.The latter is a different matter altogether.The very word "support" is suggestive of care, consideration and a sense of ballast.Do you really want to be served? I think not.The use of language and its interpretation is in a permanent state of metamorphosis.Expectation and experience can be uncomfortable bedfellows on occasion.


Zettel at 00:48 on 01 February 2005  Report this post

Always interesting to hear from you. A bit of all three I guess.

Whether 'Support' or 'Service', both imply something related to human beings who happen to buy something and may need some post-purchase help if what they paid for is not what they got. (That's a 'quality' discussion, where of course 'quality' has been re-defined to mean not something to do with excellence but to do with consistency: the pardigm of 'quality' in a business sense is the McDonalds hamburger).

With occasional exceptions, neither support, nor service is forthcoming. It could be: disband the Customer Service Dept and re-locate the staff to a job in the company where they actually do something to add value, service or product; let at least 2 unfiltered
'customer' calls through every day, to every manager in the copmpany, including the MD; get rid of managers who 'don't talk to customers. Consequences: precious feedback, directly to the 'doers' in the company about what needs to be done to minimise complaints in the first place. Customer compaints are the perfect product/service development tools. This also surfaces departmental tensions inside the company and sorts them out instead of projecting them onto the silent customer (i.e the one who quietly leaves in total frustration). My recent experience with 2 major organisations demonstrates that they systematically confuse procedure with process and are required to follow slavishly the former at the expense of the latter. This is not rocket science, you'll find most of it popping up in the HBR.

BPM {i}will{/i} go, it just needs a fancy consultant to 'sell' it. Then the managerial sheep will follow. Expensively.

I don't really care too much until the present nonsense is extrapolated from business to public services and politics. There the BP part of it is just as bad and twice as harmful. It is unlikely that our government will keep up: after all they've only just (partly) realised that formulaic 'targets' don't work.

My point was really philosophical and political. Wish I'd written it better to make that clearer.



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