I've seen it all now. Having had the privilege to see many incredible things, good and bad, in hundreds of international trips to more than 40 countries, I think I have just witnessed the dumbest thing on earth.

It happened - perhaps not surprisingly - at the airport.

This is where I paid a visit to news vendor WHSmith to buy a newspaper. At this particular location, there is no sales staff. Instead, WHSmith uses an automated payment system, with one poor lady assigned to help customers negotiate the system.

To buy my newspaper I had to join a line of more than 25 incredibly angry people. When I finally arrived at the machine, the system's barcode reader wouldn't read the paper's barcode. It then asked - and I'm not making this up - to scan my boarding pass.

The clerk was close to tears. She could not take cash. Apparently the queue that I was in - 25 and growing - was short. People were swearing, laughing and, ultimately, abandoning the queue. But there was nothing the clerk could do. I asked her how many of her colleagues had been fired. Her response: "Don't ask."

WHSmith, a company with whom I have appreciated many happy years of professional service, had succumbed to one of the world's most serious commercial diseases.

The curse of customer automation.

Throw the phone

How often have you thrown your phone across the room because you wait for hours on end, trying to speak to someone, and your only solution is to press endless buttons and listen to mind-boggling music? Clearly nobody in customer service ever phones her own service. Talk about anti-branding.

I recently counted that it took me 14 interventions, and 20 minutes, to get through to my telecom provider from a foreign country. That probably cost me more than $25. My mobile phone operator asked me to rekey my phone number three times before I could get through to a human. Here's a company, with something like 200 million customers worldwide, and it can't be bothered to get its databases to link up because it is easier to waste my time.

So I did some math regarding the WHSmith scenario, examining the cost of replacing humans with a machine versus the cost of customer inconvenience.

I won't bore you here with my arithmetic, but my reckoning is that the money in staff time is around 4 percent of the cost that their customers' time is worth. Now apply this to banking, airlines, supermarkets and dare I mention it, the news media.

Paying it forward

We're all paying for companies' strategic objectives to cut costs by cutting employees.

You remember humans, right?

They were a fascinating example of the advancement of nature. NASA has just sent a rocket to Mars to try and find life. I suspect it is being funded by Wal-Mart, which is seeking a low-cost alien life form to replace their unnecessary humans.

Most companies seem determined to remove life at all costs.

But humans - and their creativity and empathy - are in reality the news media's most critical asset.

Ever try finding a newspaper company's contact details on its website? Do me a favor. Try finding your own contact details - both on Google and on your company website. I'll bet you aren't there. Type "newspaper consultant" into Google and my website (which I confess is embarrassingly poor) and my email, phone number and Skype address are at the top of the page (at least they were when I logged in from Scotland, two minutes ago.)

Navigating paths

Even though the number is growing, still too few newspapers publish writers' e-mail addresses at the end of their stories. Fewer newspapers demand that they must. They should. The New York Times has a commendable system where you can contact their writers (many of whom of course are celebrities who can't be expected to cope with volumes of mail from punters like myself).

It would be unreasonable for Maureen Dowd or Paul Krugman to have to personally field emails, but at a local level, the ability for a reader to contact a writer should be mandatory.

I can only assume that you share my frustration with the notion of customer automation. But in our news industry, customer interaction is more important than in any other. Automated switchboards and transactions are bad enough. But the fact that our readers are denied the right to easily communicate with writers and editors is just about the dumbest thing I've ever encountered - except for what happened to me at that airport.

 

France-based newspaper and media industry consultant Jim Chisholm can be reached at jimchisholm.net.

 

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