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Wisdom about human nature provides the digital edge

I pressed SUBMIT. And then my heart sank.

I was trying to pay an overseas credit-card bill. My local bank has a useful online banking system that means I can do this sort of thing in my own bedroom. Back in the bad old days, I used to leg it to my bank branch once a month, in person, simply to complete this transaction. 

At least modern banking has given me back the time lost idling in traffic, searching for parking, greeting random people, etc.

And yet. After pressing ‘submit’ and looking at the transaction summary shown on the screen, I realised I had forgotten to add my credit card number as a transaction reference. Which meant that my funds would now wing their way to New York – and not end up where they were supposed to. The card company would have no way of knowing why the funds had been sent.

I searched desperately for a way of undoing the transaction. Nothing doing. But wait: the message on the screen simply said: ‘Transaction submitted for processing.’ My eyes fell upon a number for a helpline provided by my bank. I rang it hurriedly. It was answered quickly, and I explained what I had done, and that I hoped that the transaction could still be reversed as it had not yet been processed.

Nope, I was told. But why? I asked in horror. Normally you guys take days to do even the simplest thing. How can this one take seconds? It’s a self-initiated online transaction, they said. Can’t be reversed by humans. The system won’t allow it, etc, etc. The best we can do is request a recall after the funds have been received. Welcome to the digital world.

I knew my payment deadline was looming, so I had to do something different. I hung up and called the card company in a faraway land. I got through to a friendly human being. I explained my idiocy to her. She told me: don’t worry at all – people do this all the time! It’s perfectly understandable. Just give me the sending bank details and the amount, and I’ll do the rest. And I’ll call you myself once the funds are here. Please relax.

In these parts we don’t relax, though, because we know ain’t no one calling us back. And we know that money will stay lost for a long time, possibly forever. Anyway, it was my own fault. I resigned myself to whatever would happen and tried to focus on other things.

My phone rang two days later. Foreign number. It was the same helpful lady. She had seen the funds, done the needful and put the account in credit. I could check it immediately on their new mobile app if I wished.

Mimi of American Express, applause.

Long story short: that kind of service experience makes all the difference. As everything gets automated and self-help becomes the norm, organizations will gain untold efficiencies. But self-help also leads to many more ‘civilian’ errors. The new world needs fewer employees involved in customer service – but it needs them to be really good. The card company employee never once made me feel it was my fault. She was at pains to reassure me. And that there is the difference. It’s the extra wisdom about human nature that provides the edge.

My bank also offers a similar card, for a much lower fee than American Express. I have it and use it. So why don’t I throw the Amex card away? Because when you travel around the world as often as I do, you want to have an always-on, high-touch service organization backing you. That’s why.

Amex actually faces a more grave existential crisis than banks do. And yet it knows the path to survival is to ramp up its service, not cut it back. To give my bank the credit it deserves, it is also undergoing a service makeover, even as it becomes more digital by the day. It is deploying excellent human beings to help the customer along the journey to more and more self-service. It will also get there.

Will you, though? Do you find customers who make dumb mistakes and create more work for you annoying? Do you make sure they know it’s their own fault? Do you help only as much the system can help, and no further? Do you feel no need to be friendly and obliging?

Then you won’t be working for the organizations who make it to the other side.

(Sunday Nation, 26 January 2020)

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