Why does our service economy offer such bad service?

How do you get a call centre to do anything for you that involves change, or taking responsibility? Robert Skidelsky and Nan Craig on the downsides of our overdependence on a service economy.

Britain is a service economy with a lot of lousy services. The paradox is easily explainable. Service and cost-cutting are contradictions in terms. Good services are intrinsically expensive because they require a high ratio of labour to product; hence the old view that services could not be automated. Yet the main aim of those who run our service economy is to cut the costs represented by human labour as much and as fast as they can.
 
The view that services are automationproof has been disproved. Think of the labour-saving devices in the home – vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dishwashers – that have reduced the burden of domestic drudgery and created leisure time that in the past only the rich enjoyed. Think of cash dispensers, of online shopping. In all these cases, machines provide the services that people once did – and usually more conveniently.
 
On the other hand, think of call centres, which offer services according to automated formulae. In this case, it is not that people are being replaced by machines but that they are being programmed to act like machines. This enables them to process a greater number of calls per unit of time.
 
Recently, NHS Direct announced that it will pull out of contracts to deliver the new NHS 111 helpline. The details are complicated but the gist is that contracts to run the helpline have been awarded by competitive tender, with bidders offering the service at the lowest cost. Cost reduction is secured by reducing the number of doctors and nurses per operator, with operators relying on callcentre scripts and algorithms to process calls: exactly the opposite of what most people think of as a good service. Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has spoken of nurses being replaced by computers and of an urgent need “to get more clinicians back in the front line handling calls”. He is right.
 
Try changing your mobile telephone provider, reporting a lost credit card or making almost any attempt to contact your bank, and you are likely to enter a Kafkaesque world of customer frustration. The recent attempt by our office to upgrade a phone package is a case in point. We were moved back and forth between the old supplier, the new supplier and the delivery service, none of which seemed to have the faintest idea what the others were doing.
 
What distinguishes services that can be automated successfully from those that can’t? The answer is the nature of the need: the less complicated the need, the more efficiently it can be satisfied without human intervention. The economist William Baumol identified services that resisted commodification, for whichthe human touch was essential and quality was correlated with the amount of human labour dedicated to their production. He gave the performing arts as an example, but the analysis can be extended to such services as teaching and medical care.
 
Amazon, for instance, works well when it allows people to order, quickly and conveniently, an item that they already want. Its recommendation system, however, is based on algorithms rather than the knowledge and intuition of a good bookseller. That is why bestsellers sell more and everything else sells less. Automated services fit and thereby create products that can be standardised, because an automated system can’t cope with anything else.
 
In the rich countries of the west – in some more than others – personal service has fallen victim to a kind of Fordism or its successor, scientific management, which dissects tasks into tiny individual units. Scientific management, developed by the American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor in the late 19th century, is the foundation of modern techniques such as the use of strict call-centre scripts, which aim to create algorithms that automate the human element of work as much as possible.
 
Adam Smith foresaw this development in manufacturing 250 years ago.He gave the example of the pin factory, in which “the important business of making a pin is . . . divided into about 18 distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands”. The result of this “division of labour” was a tremendous increase in the productivity of the factory.
 
Cost-cutting in services proceeds by a false analogy with the pin factory. In all services that can be automated, part of every process is delegated to a team that inhabits a separate silo. No team is able to carry out more than its tiny element of the process; as a result, from the first moment you contact a company, you have to choose which team to talk to (“Press one if you are a business customer; press two if you are a personal customer; press three if you wish you were dead”).
 
Then, if you have a query that is even slightly complicated, at least the first three people you speak to will probably not be able to help. No one has an overview of how the whole thing works and no one has any power to cut through the undergrowth, because each person is in control of only a tiny patch of the service. As no one person or team knows what anyone else does or who any of the customers is, all information has to be stored centrally; if something is “not in the system” or if the system has broken down, it’s a dead end.
 
As the call-centre worker has never met you before, he or she will have little sympathy and no relationship to draw on; because they will almost certainly never speak to you again, there is no incentive for them to be helpful if your problem can’t be fixed within the formula. From their perspective, they are having to deal with customers who are irate because of events that the service provider has no control over and no responsibility for.
 
As ever, there are people with a sense of service, but whose hands are tied by the architecture of the system that they inhabit. There are also, inevitably, a few people who hate customers and are terrible at their job. They suit the system well because they are never required to be innovatively helpful and, if something goes beyond their remit, they can happily transfer you to someone else or simply tell you that what you want is impossible and ring off.
 
Eventually, someone at one of the call centres we contacted in our efforts to upgrade our telephone agreed that the system does not work very well. He sounded unhappy about it but said, “That’s the way the world works.” He is almost right. That is now how much of the world works. It hasn’t worked this way for long but it is no longer possible to imagine a world in which contacting any large company by telephone would not involve speaking to a different person every time you called.
 
No one is made happier by the system except, perhaps, the owners of the cost-cutting companies, who can pay for properly personal services for themselves out of hugely enhanced profits. As the cost of idiosyncracy rises, what used to be thought of as personal services can be afforded only by the rich. The so-called concierge services make a great play of being adapted to individual requirements. Yet, like the “bespoke” tailors of old, they mainly serve the rich. If you have £100,000 on deposit, your bank gives you a “premium account manager”; if you don’t, you go through the call-centre system.
 
Beyond the nightmare for the consumer is the nightmare for the producer. Smith rightly understood that the division of labour, though good for productivity, was degrading for the worker. The effect on the “hands” of knowing nothing about the manufacture of pins except what was required for their specific tasks was, he said, to make them “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”.
 
The same deskilling effect operates in the service economy. It has been suggested that part of the problem with call centres is that the people who staff them are uneducated and badly trained. However, the problem is that the system in which they work prevents them from taking responsibility for their products. Taking away the ability of a callcentre worker to help people doesn’t just frustrate the caller but destroys the satisfaction that comes from solving someone’s problem. It’s the deprivation of this satisfaction that makes the work of the operator both boring and emotionally stressful, rather than something that has an intrinsic motivation. The call-centre operator is a contemporary example of the artisan deprived of the pleasure of workmanship.
 
There is an even more dire implication. If profit maximisation requires human beings with machine-like qualities, why not get rid of the people altogether? Machines don’t need wages. Call centres, like factories, will soon be staffed entirely by machines; all checkout services at supermarkets will also be done by machines; the specialist knowledge of taxi drivers will be replaced by satnav; there will eventually be driverless cars. Machines will “talk” to each other. Except for a few specialists to make and fine-tune the machines and others to meet the continued demand of the wealthy for personal services, the human race will no longer be required for work. It will have to find something else to do.
 
Robert Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and emeritus professor of political economy at the University of Warwick Nan Craig is the publications director of the Centre for Global Studies.
Artwork by Nick Hayes.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.