Electronic Service Instead of Electronic Crutches

Crowded stores seem to have fallen off the Christmas complaint list entirely, since virtually anything can be ordered from the privacy of your own computer.

But therein lies a weakness.  Fighting the mobs at the mall may be a chore, but when the dust settles, your purchases are safely stashed in the trunk of your car and arrive home about the same time you do.  With Internet orders, you are subject to the vagaries of the shipping gods; and they are decidedly fickle.

Last week I encountered not one, but two such situations.  A relative had shipped a present to my house; and another relative had sent a box to the place where I was spending the holidays.

The first parcel arrived while I was out of town.  In days of yore, the deliveryman would have rung the bell to get a signature.  If nobody was at home, they would try again a few times on succeeding days, before returning the package to the sender.  This would have worked fine, since my trip was short.

These days, it would seem that's too much trouble - the box was unceremoniously dumped on my front step, whence it languished until my return.  Unfortunately. it was disturbed by Mother Nature, and she did her worst. When I came home, the box and its contents was completely soaked through and through.  The cardboard container fell apart like soup in my hands.

My other gift didn't fare so well.  Sent the week before Christmas, it apparently didn't leave its state of origin for a week.  Then, the FedEx online tracking log showed a failed delivery attempt - a blatant lie; people were at the house all day, and nobody showed.  The log showed the package going on a delivery truck on Saturday - wrong again, it wasn't a Saturday-delivery package, and again, no delivery.

They didn't even bother to try on Monday; Tuesday was New Year's Day; nothing again the day after New Years.  Finally it arrived the following day.  My host forwarded it to me, but not by FedEx.

This situation is not exactly new.  On occasion, I've had to call UPS about a missing package, and found that there is nobody on the phone on holidays.  Nobody.  At all.  Just a recording.

I realize that call center folks like to spend Christmas with their families too.  But considering the prevalence of offshore call-centers, surely a group of Hindus could be found somewhere for whom December 25, January 1, and the fourth Thursday in November are days like any other.  American consumers always get odd accents on the support hot-line anyway - why not during a holiday or weekend?

People have been complaining about the U.S. Postal Service since the Revolution.  But it wasn't that long ago that FedEx, and to a lesser extent UPS, could be depended on in a far greater way.  When a package was scheduled to arrive, it would - or on those very rare occasions when it didn't, you'd be told, and your money refunded.

When I was younger and living in a rural area, FedEx refused to deliver there at all, because they said they did not have the infrastructure in place to keep their promises.  OK, that was a bit inconvenient at the time, but you have to respect their honesty.

When they finally did begin to deliver there, we felt we'd rejoined civilization because they were properly prepared, and the deliveries were as reliable as in Manhattan.  But today, at the very least, the communication and visibility about what is actually going on has disappeared.

The interesting thing is that this collapse of service has come as plausible excuses have vanished.  If your checked baggage went astray when traveling on the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1900, that would be somewhat understandable, because the bags were manually schlepped from train, to baggage room, to train, and so on, with marginally-literate stevedores reading a handwritten routing tag tied to your trunk with twine.  All sorts of room for error there.

But nowadays, a package can hardly move through a system - whether it be a parcel delivery system, or an airline luggage handler - without its barcode being read by a scanner.

Does that data not go anywhere?  Is the system mis-designed?  Apparently so.

Last year, I moved to a different town while a package was en-route to me.  You'd think it shouldn't be too hard to call up UPS, say where the package was coming from and going to (as the recipient, I didn't have the tracking number), and have them change the delivery address.

Not so!  They claimed that without the tracking number, it was not possible to find the package in the system - and even if they could, they could not change the delivery address.  Are you kidding?

Now, it's true that some computer systems are mis-designed, most notoriously government computer systems.  But it is inconceivable that UPS cannot find a package in mid-transit without a tracking number.

Suppose Jack Bauer's waterboarding of a terrorist reveals that he shipped a UPS package containing a ticking atom bomb, but no amount of torture can get him to remember the complete 75-digit tracking number.  When Mr. Bauer telephones UPS, is the response going to be, "Sorry, without that tracking number, you're just going to have to wait until it goes Bang"?

In some ways, we have become captives of our computer systems.  In 1950, if Pan Am lost your baggage, the baggage agent would telephone out to the bag room for them to look for it - or to your originating airport, or to points in between.  A human being would go look, or say, "Yeah, I remember the big leather valise with half the routing tag torn off; I stashed it here, figuring someone would call for it.  It'll be on the next flight."

Human beings, using a little common sense and just the slightest smidgen of imagination, were able to accomplish what needed to be done.  Now, we get such preposterous situations as this one:

She insisted that I wasn't on the flight. When I showed her the printout, she simply shrugged and said, for the first of three times that day, "Sorry, not my problem." Excuse me?? I was so stunned that I didn't have a comeback for that. She just looked at me, mute and smiling, like that answered all the problems in the world. When I tried to reason with her and show her that I did in fact have a printout with today's date on it, she again said "sorry, not my problem, you're not on the manifest for today's flight. It says here that you were on yesterday's flight." And left it at that. This perplexed me, as I pointed out to her that this would be quite impossible, as the flight back from Columbus was about 90 minutes out, and yet I was STANDING RIGHT HERE.

So this nameless "customer service" representative was so wedded to her computer terminal, that what it had to say was more important than the clear reality standing before her?  Something's wrong here, and not just with the computers.  A computer can only do what it's told, or programmed, to do - it can't force people to do anything, unless they allow it to do so.

The real problem is that people got used to blaming early computers for complexities that they were too lazy to figure out.  Anyone out there remember the DOS command-line computers?  It was perfectly possible to make them do useful things, but you had to know the commands.  Those who were motivated to learn, did so; those who weren't looked at the blinking cursor with a blank stare, shrugged, and said, "The computer's down."

As computers got easier to use and this excuse got even less valid, the habit remained, and now a new one is added: Executives realized that customers have gotten used to "The computer won't let me" as a legitimate excuse, and began using it in other ways.

Want a refund for the bogus charge?  "Sorry, the computer won't let me do that."

Trying to get rebooked from a canceled flight?  "I'm sorry, the computer has blocked all the available seats for next week.  See you next month."

When a person has an injury and needs to spend time in bed, one of the more important problems is to make sure that, while the broken part is healing, the other parts of the body are kept in good order.  Stay in bed for a month with a broken leg, and when you try to get up, your unbroken leg won't work either - because it hasn't been used in a long time.  This seems to apply to our collective common sense and imagination - it's been so long since anybody did any thinking that we've forgotten how.

The heck with what the computer says - have somebody go use their eyes and look in the back room for my missing suitcase.  Or go ask the mechanic what's wrong with the plane, and how long it will likely take to fix.  And so on.

Now, this is not to say that we need to return to the all-manual systems of days gone by.  Modern computer networks, in theory, allow tremendously more control, information, and communications than our grandfathers would have dreamed.

The problem arises when we allow modern conveniences to confine us, rather than help us.  It reminds me of a group of office workers who were trapped in an office in the World Trade Center on 9-11 because the doorway had collapsed and they couldn't get out - until someone out in the hall heard them shouting for help, and simply kicked a hole in the wall, which was only a half-inch thick.

Would you do that normally?  Of course not.  But when things go wrong, it's time to use your imagination to do what needs to be done - and that applies in situations less extreme than a terrorist event.

Our electronic crutches are useful servants, but fearful masters.  As workers, managers, regulators, and most of all consumers, we need to keep them where they belong - doing what we want done, not the other way 'round, and placing both the blame and the responsibility squarely where it should be: on the living, breathing human being in charge.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...