Well, perhaps “ruined” is too strong of a word. But then what would be a good word to describe a world where all of us are a little less free than we once were to transact business in the ways we might want to rather than in the way our systems and processes demand?
Not long before Covid slammed the door on such transactions, I stopped at a Drive-Thru for some breakfast items. How quaint that now sounds. Anyway, I had a BOGO coupon. Which the guy in the window screwed up when he applied it to my order. So I went back inside to get my change back.
And then it began – the game of figuring out how to fix a customer’s problem – within the constraints of their computer systems. It was a simple problem: Take the price of the expensive sandwich I should have gotten for free, subtract $1 for the erroneous discount already given, and there is the amount you hand your customer. And lest you think my only reason for writing this involves a sub-$3 coupon dispute, there is more. Which, of course, you know.
I had a case fairly recently where I took over for another attorney who left my firm. He had sued a company for a client who was injured on the company’s premises. Later, I discovered a second company who should have also been sued, and faced a decision. To add that additional party to our existing suit, the rules would have required me to file a motion requesting permission to do so. Which would result in a wait of unknown length for a ruling which 1) the judge could deny and 2) which might not come before a looming statute of limitations expired. So I went with Plan B – I filed a separate suit and moved to consolidate it with the first suit because it involved the same accident and the same injuries.
This was a longtime practice in my area, and something commonly done. Until now, apparently, when the clerk explained to me how the current electronic docket management system did not allow consolidations. It was not a change in the substantive law or in the procedural rules which forced these two almost identical cases to proceed independently of one another, but a change in the court’s electronic docket management system.
In another example, Marianne and I went to open a bank account at the place we already bank. “You can do it online” was the advice from the branch manager when I called. Except that we could not (after spending about ninety minutes trying). When we went in (with an appointment due to Covid restrictions), he had trouble too. It had been so long since Marianne had opened an account that their system did not recognize her as a U.S. citizen – despite the fact that she is the same natural born citizen she was when she last went in (before 2002) to open an account. Understand, the system did not show that she wasn’t a citizen, only that there was no proof that she actually was one. The result? The simple opening of a bank account at our own bank took about four hours, all together – because their system would not tell any of us up front (including the bank manager) what the problem actually was.
Don’t get me wrong, much good has come from computerized systems. Things can be done more efficiency and with more consistent quality than ever. But these advances come at a cost, almost always incurred when something unusual comes along.
Once upon a time, when a customer and a business had a problem to sort out, there were two people who worked out a reasonable solution. Like the time I bought a gasoline can at a small hardware store. There was something wrong with the can and I took it back. “Just go get another one” said the hardware guy. The result – a problem solved and a happy, satisfied customer. The hardware store could deal with the defective can, probably by just giving it back to his salesman, who would, in turn, take it back to the company where he got it.
But today there are systems and processes that are carved in stone. I get that they make the store more money (and yes, that old store is long out of business) and help deliver a better experience – most of the time. But here is the thing – in order for a store manager to deal with an issue, a series of people involved in design and coding of a system had to anticipate the issue. They do a good job doing this many times, but we who have the lived experience as humans know that no programmer will ever figure out in advance every possible situation that must be accommodated.
Two things have resulted – the first is a growing workforce of people who lack training to think about how to do their jobs. There is also an ever-tightening zone of authority before having to call for a manager to solve an unexpected problem. “How can we make this work for you” is something we hear less and less. “My system won’t let me do that” is heard all the time.
Right before Thanksgiving last year my microwave oven quit. I did some quick research online and found a good deal on a particular model. I went to the store. There it was on display. I searched the shelves but one was not there. When I finally got some help I was told that I would have to order it and have it installed, something that could be done late the following week. Ordering it and having it shipped to the store for pickup (because I planned to install it myself) was not allowed, apparently. “Oh, they don’t have to install it” was the not very helpful reply. Waiting on the installers’ schedule (and paying for the delivery) was not what I wanted. What I wanted, however, did not matter. If I wanted that microwave I would have to do it their way. I went to another store that had my choice in stock. I carried it home right then and I successfully installed it within the next couple of days.
And these are just systems that deal with one company in one industry. The old Econ major down deep inside of me wonders how anyone can expect a centrally planned economy to work when the home store has trouble selling me a microwave?
I am sure that some of you will tell me that my issues are more the result of bad software (often caused by poor input from the business implementing the software). But isn’t that the problem in itself? Somebody, somewhere, has to anticipate and accommodate every possible situation that will occur during the life of the electronic system. Which cannot be done.
Perhaps I am old fashioned (don’t answer that) but I prefer to live in a world where the machines are there to serve me rather than the other way around.