Retail tech: Shops have got dozens of ways to tell you to talk to the hand

Nick Booth
shopping getty 300x225 Retail tech: Shops have got dozens of ways to tell you to talk to the hand

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There was a time, not so long ago, when shop staff lived in fear of a complaint letter to the manager. These days it’s impossible to have such an impact. Technology hasn’t improved relations between customers and the bosses. In fact, it’s made it a lot harder to communicate your dissatisfaction. Deliberately so, in many cases, I would argue. And yes, I do have evidence to back this statement up.

The culture of customer complaint has changed enormously over the last two decades. I worked for one of the companies that started the rot, which ran a call centre for ‘customers’ when the Met Police started clamping and towing people’s cars for big sums of money.

Unaccustomed to this new low in police/public relations, most of the victims (AKA customers) probably wanted to murder the first bureaucrat they came into contact with. So the call centre was a great way to fob them off. It was a sort of automated version of telling shouty people to ‘talk to the hand’. The script for the call centre operators involved thanking callers for calling, as if they were making a life-style choice.

As well as being distant, we were told to be economical with the truth. Few people knew the rules of engagement, so it was rare that anyone asked for an adjudicator or knew how to apply for a refund. And nobody voluntarily told them. So the duty policeman rarely had to lift their head out of their newspaper to adjudicate over an unfair clamping.

Today the number of channels between a service provider and its customers is even more complex. You can call on the shop in person and bang on the counter. You can phone. Write a letter. Email. Fill in a feedback form on the web site. Or register your opinions on Twitter or Facebook or one of the hundreds of social media platforms that are multiplying like Japanese knotweed.

Most big retailers will cover at least a dozen of these bases. It’s known in the trade as an omni-channel approach to customer relations. To me it’s more like an automated class system, because your treatment depends on your status and the communication methods you use.

If you phone a big department store, for example, they can make an instant judgement about you before anyone’s heard your accent. The automated switchboard can look at your phone number and decide how your call should be handled. In a matter of milliseconds, the switch and the company database compare records. If you are rated as a high value customer (with a good spending record or evidence of wealth) your call may be assigned to a specially trained shopping consultant. If it looks like you may be less wealthy then you may well have your call routed to a cheaper resource, such as an off shore call centre. If your customer record indicates you live in a dodgy postcode, you might as well hang up for all the service you’ll get.

That sort of automated snobbery has been around for a decade. But there are ‘appropriate channels’ of communication now. A letter writer is wasting their time. Anyone emailing a complaint is easy to ignore too. Who is going to see their complaint? Phone callers are still easy to fob off as well. Filling out a complaint form on a company web site is equally pointless, I would argue, because these are all private means of communication.

But Facebook Twitter and all forms of social media are public. I’ve spent half a day listening to Virgin Media’s music on hold when my Internet service wasn’t working and got nowhere. But a Tweeted complaint brings an instant response.

“Companies are putting whole teams onto social media so they can listen to their customers,” says Gary Dolson, director of web experience products for the IBM Software Group, which helps retailers communicate better with customers and suppliers. The logic of the retailers’ use of social media is to help them gauge public opinion, invent new products to meet demand and get them to market quicker. Which, in my interpretation, is less about helping existing customers than it is about pitching for new business. But if you can hijack their social media channels, you’re onto a winner.

Big online retailers all have agencies and tools that can watch Twitter feeds all day. There are specialists skilled in sentiment analysis and web studies. They spot hashtags and trends and monitor them closely. They then need to identify the person and profile them: are they a genuine customer with a grievance, an habitual ranter or an influential customer?

Once market research was about getting a focus group into a room, showing them some products and letting them chat while the market analysts observed them from behind a glass screen. These days they’re still watching you from behind a screen, only they’re observing your behaviour online. They still classify you, and treat you differently, depending on your perceived status, but the discrimination is digital and it’s much more efficient these days.

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